On This Subjective Idea of Beauty

Continuing my recent theme of objects of beauty, I’m thinking on a word that could describe such things collectively. That is, whilst absolutely acknowledging that the idea of beauty is entirely subjective, how can I describe how certain objects are for me? Is it their ‘feel’, their ‘texture’, their ‘weight’? By these words, I don’t mean the physical properties of dimensions, roughness/smoothness, heaviness/lightness, size, density, etc., necessarily. These properties do come into it, of course, but I want a word to describe objects of beauty in the abstract manner.

I don’t know if there are any more appropriate words: the feel of this book, the texture of the writing, the weight of the whole, for example. For reasons that link to all of this, I’ve decided to reset the release date of my next (micro fiction) ebook collection. This isn’t the main reason for this post (as I say, I’m in a themed thinking mode at the moment regarding art and creativity). I have been watching the counter tick down in the box to the right (regarding the release of Four Kinds of Wreckage). I set this a few weeks back precisely to focus my writing and editing energies. Everything’s written, but it just needs a little time in settling. I won’t put anything out there unless I can see it as, potentially, an object of beauty. FKoW is being given another month.

Now, all this thinking on beauty (subjective though it is), leads me to needing to ‘show and tell’ on objects I’ve found. I want to ‘show’ you five things, but I’m a writer so I want to write them to you. They’re not all books, but they do all affect me in some way.
 
Sa Femme (Emmanuèle Bernheim)

I have a small 1994 copy of this beautiful little book, translated from the original French and published by Viking, sat at the end of one of my bookshelves. It fits in the palm: a gold and black simple dustcover to its hardback. It’s slim, elegant, and was found somewhere, once, perhaps, in some old bookshop nobody really knew about. It must have been this way because this is the way with all the books I have that fall into this category. Somehow, generally, the books bought from the big bookshop chains don’t seem to have a similar ‘feel’.
 
Leave Your Sleep (Natalie Merchant)

In 2010, one of my favourite recording artists — Natalie Merchant — released this absolutely exquisite collection of songs on double CD on the Nonesuch label. The songs are all poems about- for- or by children, and they’re collected from various sources and spanning centuries. What makes this collection special is the craft and love that seems to have gone into the detail: the collection comes with its own book; Natalie spent several years building up to the project, working with over a hundred musicians across a range of styles. I keep this collection very safe.
 
Blank Notebooks

Hand made paper, smooth or textured; a leather hard casing; empty pristine space that part of me doesn’t want to blemish. I think for a long, long time on what to put in pages like these. Words or drawings there have to do the notebook justice. I have some notebooks that have stayed empty for many years.
 
Collected Poems, 1967-1985 (Adrian Henri)

I hadn’t heard of Adrian Henri before finding him, or rather this collection, in a bookshop something like fifteen years ago. We need to rummage in bookshops (the proper ones with creaking floors and several stories winding up narrow staircases to quiet, unmanned little rooms somewhere up and up). We need to rummage because we never know what we’ll find. I found a collection of love in many forms here. I found the way that Adrian used and fused words in new and odd ways, and the way that he made poetry out of lists of Nivea cream and other discarded cosmetics. There are snippets and prints and photos and longer pieces and it all builds up to a significant body of work.
 
Heaven and Other Poems (Jack Kerouac) and Letters to a Young Poet (Rainer María Rilke)

These two books I relate as one here. They’re both slim (there’s something about ‘slim’ that seems to translate to some form of beauty in books); they’re both odd but in different ways, though ‘odd’ here is perhaps more to do with being ‘not contemporary’; most importantly though, they were both sent to me, out of the blue, by an artist friend in Kansas. It is this that imbues more of a sense of ‘special’ in them. One person has taken the time to think, find, and send a book, twice.

Objects of beauty are beautiful in many ways, though I don’t know what could describe them all.
 
 

Writing Processes: Ways of Seeing

‘What process do you follow?’ I was recently asked by tyroper. I took this to mean, specifically, ‘how are you writing currently?’ (Processes of projects shift, I find, with each of these). So, I replied:

Write (and be aware that some pieces won’t make a final cut); look for themes and threads through the whole; tweak these pieces out; look for a running order; edit all the while; fill in the gaps, as necessary; offer out to peer review as I go; some fine tuning (like bonsai!); craft into the object of beauty; think on other writing all the while; produce and promote; write all the while . . .

This is, of course, a project process about a collection. Last night I finished the first draft of the final piece for this collection (the first of which was written in 2009). That, in itself, may say something about this process. It is love. However, my reason for writing here is because that prompter question has given me cause to think on writing processes, personal and persistent.

Some days on from the original question, I now interpret it this way: ‘In which ways do you write?’

I write with time. Years ago, somewhere, maybe from a tutor at University, I was offered the suggestion that we can place a ‘problem’ into cold store, let it be; the ineffable matter of our subconscious pliability would work it all through. It would deliver when it was ready to deliver. These are not the exact words given to me. This is the sentiment given to me. It’s the same now with writing. One day, when the idea is placed, the day continues; some day, when the idea becomes, it is delivered.

I write as I walk. I don’t use ink but air. I don’t use air but space. I don’t always think it all through. I let the walking take the words along. I don’t write the words in exact orders as I do this. I don’t really think about the words at all: it’s just a process of letting things seep. Or perhaps it’s a steeping, a brewing.

I write, physically, in notebooks, when words insist themselves — no matter how inconveniently — and when the writing time is now. This isn’t a way of suggesting there’s a time to sit down and write and a time to go wash up the dishes: this is a way of saying that when words insist, the ‘writing time’ is all that the present is.

I write, slightly removed, by keyboard, but I pause first. I wait. Sometimes this might take half an hour. I sit, lean back, think, but I try not to push that thinking. Words don’t come when pushed. If I’m at my keyboard it’s because writing time is possible.

I write slowly because each word might have weight. If I’ve written only two hundred words, one hour, then I have written two hundred words and that’s fine. The process of every one of those two hundred words is the same: the feel of it, the placement, the texture, the rhythm, the poetry (though this is not poetry I’m writing about here), the flow, the possibility. Some writers advocate the process of ‘write, don’t edit as you go’. I find, if I’m deep enough in, I write, I check, I write, I edit, I think, shift, re-read, all on the go. It doesn’t stop my flow, though it enhances it. I write slowly: perhaps we now know why.

I write immersed. I can’t write skimpily, throw away, without thought or at least without the possibility of layers: I can’t do this because I don’t want to do this. The stories and pieces that take place might be the simplest, slimmest slivers, but they need subtle weights too. I write whilst looking out for these.

I write in acknowledgment that some pieces will be beautiful, possibly, and some will fall short. I write in acceptance that some pieces will not flow the way I thought they might: they will take me elsewhere, darkly, strangely, or with grace I couldn’t hope to muster in my waking conscious thoughts. I write with an open hand, trusting that I’ll be led to a fruitful place.

I write in other ways. These ways here are just the beginnings of seeing. What other ways are there, will there be?
 
 

Scatterlings and Short Thoughts: Abundance Seen to Unseen

You can survive as a writer on hustle: you get paid very little for each piece, but you write a lot of pieces. Christ, I did book reviews — I did anything. It was $85 here, $110 there — I was like Molly Bloom: ‘Yes I will, yes I will, yes.’ Whatever anybody wanted done, I did it.

— Kurt Vonnegut

I’m thinking about writers of the past: those with talent and initiative — what would they have made of today’s publishing opportunities? Here’s Vonnegut, secretly offering up praise because he thinks he doesn’t have to poke around any more. Unfortunately for him there are also all the other writers piling in like ghosts. A lot have plenty to say. Some should never have been published at all and are found out. Would they then run away and hide?

~

Medicine is my lawful wife. Literature is my mistress.

— Anton Chekhov

I will run away with you, printed on my skin, because you’re rare. I have looked for you for so long. Perhaps you’re not perfect, this you, this time, this incarnation; perhaps you’re perfect enough for now. Does everyone have such mistresses? If I abandoned you, and if all of us who have you and your kind here with us do likewise, where would that leave the state of the nation, without consideration and wonder in words?

~

A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavours and odours like butter in a refrigerator.

— John Steinbeck

How will the stories you’ve written transform when translated into a different language? Languages are curious. There are some languages that have words that can’t be translated into English, some whose certain words sparkle in their combinations in a way that English words might not; there are some languages that just strip a beautiful English phrase to its bare bones and bleach it with a simple inelegant wash; there are languages that look quite identical on the page but, when examined closely, show up scratch marks to the reading eye of the writer of the original piece. I read, somewhere, how an American reader disliked the way an English or British writer might write ‘whilst’ instead of ‘while’, or ‘learnt’ instead of ‘learned’; this English writer is often similarly set off-kilter by the American ‘oftentimes’ and by the use of ‘likely’ instead of ‘probably’ or ‘probable’.

I write English, by the way, because I’m not British, as such, in much the same way as my Scottish and Welsh friends may well view themselves as such before British.

I wonder how my words might transform when written in different languages. If I consider a line to be beautiful, will it stay that way? If I consider a line inadequate, just lacking in some degree, can it be improved in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese? It is all dark to me.

~

I put a piece of paper under my pillow, and when I could not sleep I wrote in the dark.

— Henry David Thoreau

Writers always write in the dark.
 
 

A Brief Eulogy: Folklore

We tell stories because we’re compelled to. I’m not writing here, in particular, about us as individuals: we tell stories because the human race needs these, thrives on these, has these set deep inside us — myths and legends, folklore, sea stories, fairy tales and nursery rhymes, the oral histories of our ancestors passed down and down, the epic poems of the early writers and before these, before the written word, the epic tales that flowed between the generations.

We’re so rich in all of this in our various cultures: our cultures that overlap. We have the same or similar characters and stories appearing in our religious books, which some might call holy, and in our holy books of other secular depths. We have the same or similar characters and stories in our verbal tales in all their various meanings. These stories circulate and gather, repeat and evolve, form and disband and deepen. It would be a shame not to involve ourselves, as writers, in this rich tradition we’re all embedded in.

Many people just don’t realise how embedded they are. Many writers may well forget. We should embrace the tales told and soak them up — not repeating them for want of our own imaginations, but letting their essences fill us. If we reject our traditions and cultures, our stories, then we reject who we are.

Writing is not a sudden revolution (out with all of the old guard, in with everything new). We should strive for originality, of course, but we should bear in mind that we ourselves, carbon us, are made of stardust, and the revolution of words is happening as we write and speak.
 
 

A Short Analysis: a Story and its Idea

A strange thing happened on the way to the end of the story: it wanted to be something else. Do you know this odd experience? Of course you do if you write. I document it here though because I’m just thinking/typing out loud: is it best to have loved and lost an idea (which became something else), or never to have had the idea at all?

Or, should I have just meekly gone along with the flow that the story wanted to be? Should I have been more forthright, trying to batter the thing into the shape I thought and expected it should take?

On the one hand, of course we should go with the flow: amazing things can happen, though a story less crystal-cut than the one imagined might be the end result. On the other hand, maybe we should beat and push and pull and sculpt the idea into the shape it is ‘supposed’ to take, inside our heads.

Today I have written, but I don’t know what the taste of what I’ve written is: is it something previously unknown and so to be mulled over, or is it something disagreeable by comparison to what it could have been? Does that imply that what has been written is lacking? Perhaps what has been written is just a different beast altogether.

I’m still thinking/typing out loud. Should I just now leave today’s written piece (notwithstanding all necessary tweaks and edits)? That is, should I even try to take the kernel of the idea that spawned this piece and use it again? Sure, ideas overlap in time, come back again and again, evolve and shift and morph; or is an idea used, an idea used, for now?

If I use an idea again so soon after its first telling in some form, does that then make the — subsequently — less elegant story of the two poor? Yes, there will be stories that are better than others, but stories too close as cousins may not sit easily together in comparison. Perhaps that’s why I don’t want to use the kernel of the idea of today’s writing again so soon.

In the end, today’s story is written. It is good because it breathes, though it will be better in a short time. That it insisted on being written one way instead of the other is, perhaps, important only for itself: the idea, poor thing, shifted out of original shape, might well be the thing that needs the looking after (bully as the story itself has been).
 
 

When Reading Too Much is Not Good for the Reason for Being

Today I’ve read too much. I can barely think a straight line through. I want to lay down what this blog is for, what its full state is, in its current stage of evolution; I can’t do it here and now because I’ve read too much. I’m overloaded with words. So I need to approach that intention of writing from a slightly different angle, until I can think a little more clearly another day or three from here.

Reading around plenty of other writers’ blogs, I’m naively surprised by how often certain subject matters manifest themselves in articles. One such recurring theme is in the area of ‘to write well we must also read more’. I’m guilty of writing one of these myself, but at the time of its writing I hadn’t read as many blogs as I have now. How ironic! So, as a quick suggestion to those who are passing by here and who are in the early evolutions of their own ‘blog of a writer’ site, that subject area’s been covered too many times. We want original content to bring readers in, right?

I don’t know if what I’m about to write is an original notion: I haven’t seen it around on my travels, at least. It doesn’t matter because this is part of my current thinking on what this blog is evolving into: write it how you feel it, as it is, in the moment. Write about writing, as the writing about the writing comes: the writing life.

Today I’ve read too much. This is in opposition to the well-worn early-blog articles that are ‘to write well we must also read more’. Too much reading, in one go, can damage your own flow of ideas. Perhaps those ideas will come out later and as a direct result of the brain being stimulated today; or perhaps those ideas will be suppressed by the ideas of the writers I have read. It’s not straight-forward stuff I’ve been immersed in: Plato, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. I can’t get out of my head anything but nascent interpretations of justice, good and bad, capital, and the abolition of private property.

I don’t understand everything I’ve read today. I want to write some stories, short pieces, that have been building in me for days. Plato’s characterisation of Socrates is annoying me though; Marx and Engels’ tub-thumping is echoing around and disturbing the peace of my usual internal writing chamber.

I’ve read too much today, but at least something starts to form in amongst the echoes: this blog’s current point of evolution has some focus in this writing way of life.
 
 

Hidden Stories

Last night I was at the theatre watching stories unfold. OK, so I was actually watching a pantomime, but there were stories there. The actual show was predictable enough, of course, but this story is not the one I found myself focusing on. I’ve always suspected that there are stories everywhere, in the smallest of places. They can pass you by, like neutrinos, if — momentarily — you take your eye off the possibility of them taking place.

So, in between the outrageous over-acting and necessarily exaggerated body postures, whole stories began to play themselves out. The actors were really close to us in the small auditorium, on the narrow stage as they were, and I imagined Vaudeville scenes. I started thinking of the audience and other plays unfolding inside my head.

In the wings, just out of view, I thought of how the backstage crew were readying the next scene’s props; how the actors swung off-stage with painted smiles or evil frowns, and how those expressions might be changing in their flouncing just beyond the stage lights. I thought of costume changes and twisted fabrics, frustrated dressers, and lost props and minor panics.

The actors on-stage contorted their bodies and stood in unnatural positions. I thought of the director and his or her agitations, and of their cajoling, lecturing and dismay at the actors’ inabilities at understanding how to stand, or stand this way, or stand here, or say this like that and with this fling of the hand.

When the audience heckled and the actors lost their place in the script, ad-libbing furiously till they found their way back — as if by following along a string of thoughts — I thought of those actors as characters themselves: aspiring or delusional, board-weary, angry, secretly self-loathing.

The set painters had their stories, so too did the stage-hands and the make-up artists and the light rig crew. Every ‘flat’ created as backdrop had its story; every end-of-season-weary prop; every tiny mistimed curtain drop or blackout of lights before the actor had fully delivered their line, or their exaggerated face-pull, or wiggle of a backside in a ridiculously over-sized skirt. I imagined scoldings for overzealous, itchily-fingered backstage crew by artistes, in costume, who harboured pretensions and delusions of their own grandeur.

I watched the faces of the audience members around me: the way they lit up at dance routines, stared when beautiful genies and princesses came on stage, lost themselves in parts of the performance. There were stories forming here too.

I didn’t really follow the story of the show. I didn’t need to, but I couldn’t anyway: there were too many other small stories starting to show themselves in all the tiny dark places of the theatre.

Stories hide behind the shows we think we’re seeing.
 
 

Letter to an Unnamed Writer

Dear Unnamed Writer

I recently downloaded some fiction. One of the pieces was something that you had written. I was attracted to it because it was a work of short fiction, and short stories are what I’m currently reading. Every so often I like to experiment with reading the work of writers I have yet to ‘meet’. I feel this is important to do: writers need unknown readers in order for their stories and abilities to be spread around. I’m afraid that I won’t be returning to your work though.

Your story was acceptable enough: I’m still thinking about it. I will admit though that, as a fellow writer, I wondered how I could write that story better. I won’t do that. That story is yours. If an indicator of a story’s worth could be said to be the way it lingers after the reading, and your story does linger a little, then that indicator has been met.

Your characters weren’t disagreeable (though I do have concerns when I read names I can’t easily pronounce). I sometimes give my own characters unusual names, but I will have to make sure that they’re agreeable in the light of what I’ve just written. Reading other writers’ awkwardly named characters only distracts me: it makes me want to keep checking that the vowels and consonants are in the same order every time the name comes up.

Your concept, written in your synopsis, drew me in. It played itself out well enough, though the ending was a little weak. You did repeat yourself in places, and I think you took a few liberties with points of view here and there — writers do sometimes need to be granted space to experiment from time to time though.

Despite all of this, however, I won’t be coming back to your words. You offered me a teaser chapter, for your novel, at the end of your story: I read this diligently but I won’t be buying your longer work. What can cause me to say all of this? Sometimes only minor things can trouble me in my reading. I can forgive experiments in writing here and there (I do it myself in my own writing from time to time), but it all breaks down when I lose faith in a writer. You see, if I’m lead to believe that you don’t know how to form a full sentence properly, in this case, I don’t want to read any more.

I won’t reproduce in public what it was I read of yours; I will create some examples instead:

The wind blew across the moor. Sideways into my face. With a long moan. In the dark. A wolf. Howling.

This bears no resemblance to your story, but can you feel this reader’s anxiety? It even troubles me to write such examples of malformed sentences as those ‘sentences’ above.

I fully accept that I may accidentally have written some malformed sentences in this letter here myself. In our defence — yours and mine — we are human and sometimes we can get tired; however, your errors lead me to lose faith. That’s a shame. I am sorry: I had hoped we could be friends. Your other readers may well disagree with me, but I bear you or them no malice.

Sincerely yours,

A reader (departed).
 
 

The Feel of New Year’s Day Writing

There is a story I have always wanted to write. Actually, truth be told, I don’t know what that story is, but I do know the ‘feel’ of it. I know the texture and the pace of it. I know how it might linger. The first day of January, every year, tends to bring about the general feel of this story. I’ve written it in several ways, though it’s never the same story. You see, I’m just exploring the ‘feel’ of it, not the story itself. Today, this first day of January, is no different.

It is beautiful when words come together. When I drive and I think of the story that has been playing itself through me for years (the story I don’t yet know, the characters I haven’t yet met), I don’t approach that story in the usual way. I don’t think of a character’s name or a scene or a possible ending or a beginning: I think of the ‘fabric’ of the piece. That ‘fabric’ is snow and ice. That’s the only way to describe it.

The snow and ice of this place, this space, this story that runs through me, is not the physical snow and ice of a scene (although there is likely to be snow and ice there eventually). The snow and ice is what runs through it all. If this is sounding too pretentious, I apologise! This is the way it needs to be described right now.

So, as it’s January 1st, and as it’s that time when this story finds me, every year, I write: I wrote The Ice House because it’s part of a greater whole. As with my other current writing, if it sinks into something to be loved, in the shortness of time, it will be included in the next collection. I have high hopes for it because it’s part of the ‘feel’ of something bigger, something that’s been here a long time. If it slips away, not included (which I suspect it won’t), it will embed itself in the continuing magnum that forms the greater whole that is ‘New Year’s Day writing’.

If you’re writing, do you have similar bodies of work developing? The way that others write is a story in itself.
 
 

Further to the Art of Writing Micro-Fiction

Yesterday’s post, on reflection, didn’t have the clarity and brevity that it needed (despite a reblogging — thank you for that Yas). The words weren’t left to settle long enough. So, in the spirit of trying to aim better, I now aim to make amends in the edit.

Brevity and succinctness are often misunderstood. A very short story may well receive the feedback that ‘it feels like it could be developed into something longer.’ This entirely misses the point.

Holly Howitt-Dring’s essay uses the heading ‘micro-fiction’ as an umbrella term which includes ‘flash fiction’ as well as the ‘short short’. However, I would suggest that flash fiction is more inclined towards quick, timed writing rather than the studied brevity of ‘micro’, as I read it.

‘Micro-fiction’ in this article, therefore, is a form of writing that the author has given plenty of consideration to. There is historical precedent for micro-fiction. This reader considers some works as micro-fiction, even if the author didn’t originally label them as such.

I offer up three examples of historical micro-fiction. These examples are chosen because (i) they appear to have been considered, despite being short, in the writing; (ii) they appear either as parts of a greater whole — a ‘novel’ — or as part of a collection of stories, or as linked pieces; (iii) they can be read as individual pieces in their own right.

Brautigan’s The God of the Martians (1955/56) — six hundred words, divided into twenty ‘chapters’ — is an example that might seem to contradict my earlier statement: that developing a short piece into a longer one misses the point. I use Brautigan’s novel as an example of turning that thought around though: a ‘longer’ piece (albeit only six hundred words) can be viewed by way of its short separate entities — in this case, a series of averaged thirty-word, stand alone stories in themselves.

Kafka’s Meditations (1906-1912) and A Country Doctor: Little Tales (1914-1917) are individual pieces/stories that have been collected into a greater whole. They each stand alone.

Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974, 1979) are linked, yet they’re stand alone pieces.

Micro-fiction is misunderstood. It is something to aspire to (and there is a body of work to act as precedent). Writing with brevity and succinctness takes some great skill. It need not be the start of something longer (although it can, of course, be a part of something wider): micro-fiction is a beauty in its own right.