Smitten By The Art
By Robert Alan Jamieson
My experience of writing has been so various that it seems difficult to abstract generalities about the process which may then apply across all genres – from the attempt at snapshot poetic insight, say, to the aim of chronicling centuries. But here follow a few sketchy observations on the making of a text, as viewed from the writer’s side – not so much about craft, maybe, as the emotional experience.
BEFORE THE BEGINNING – All seems possible, unfixed, the project is infinite, mysterious and ineffable. We may feel we are gods at this moment, that we have our powers and themes, and so may call to life our creations whole … but in reality, we spend hours, weeks, months, years in the laboratory, intermittently gaining and losing heart or patience, stepping back to review, to consult and consider, then engaging again… so that any work is a pattern of thinking/writing/thinking and so on … a gradual revelation.
THE PHYSICAL ACT IS NOT UNLIKE BREATHING – At times it is slow and hardly perceptible, at others we feel about to burst with the race of it … a polarity – like inhalation/expiration: firstly, mental absorption in composition when the mind is fluid and thought fluent, followed by times of committing fixed text … walking can be healthy in the thinking phases.
BORN IN LANGUAGE – The true birth of a work as writing is not unlike acquisition of a new language, and begins with a kind of listening, as if we are learning about the world (small or large) that will be made. In these early stages, as with the young child, there is playfulness and experimentation that in time becomes an agitation, and ideally an imperative … some speak of the beginning as the arrival of an irritant, like the grit that gives birth the pearl.
COMING INTO FLUENCY – The work seems to develop (inner) voice or register, resulting in a desire to be heard, and the need to record, to confide – impressions, thoughts, ideas: a presence in the world, interpreting. Though, paradoxically, to record that presence, we generally retreat into solitude. This is not a time to employ the internal critic. We must forgive our first drafts for being first, and however vague, at this point, it is necessary to have faith that sense will be made of it all, finally.
THOUGHT COAGULATES – This mental energy of language use crystallizes ever more words and phrases of text, clusters encoding a perspective, a mood, perhaps an action or scene … a mapping of micro-structures, clause-by-clause, a line-by-line orientation that begins to reflect a macro-structure not written, but which shapes in the mind like a constellation – an arrangement of definite yet indistinct elements, a complexity of notional bits, signifying more than themselves, creating an embryonic structure, a pattern … form … ‘architectonics’.
MAP THE TERRITORY – At this point, though the road is as yet not taken (and may never be), we can see where it may take us, and guess at whether the end is a place we want to go. We can sketch a course, though if we commit, if we decide to travel, our rudimentary map will rapidly reveal its limits. Yet having once embarked, we learn as we go, referring all the while to the half-visible constellation … we watch and adjust our course accordingly, enter the subliminal.
BITS AND OTHER BITS – All writing is made up of many little pieces, and we try to string them together to make some kind of sense. The arrangement of these elements is vital, yet is often one of the last things to be done, as deciding their ideal order depends on having made them all first. But even after that, we must examine the juxtapositions carefully, for transitions too can be elegant or not, and meaningful or not.
AUGMENTATION – In most of the gaps between bits lie growth points where still more writing could be added – another adjective, a further sub-clause, places where we might leave the path and explore the scenery or the history behind the scenery, describe yet again the joy of those madeleines. This is not always advisable. Sometimes these gaps are genuinely places where more is required, for purposes of linkage or useful elaboration, but it is also possible to get lost in these, even waylaid, and buried at the roadside of our own invention.
TRAVELLING CAN BE DANGEROUS AND TIRING – While we can hold a certain size of map in our head at once, with say 100,000 distinct words this is impossible. In writing as in reading, we get lost, footstep by footstep, syllable by syllable, in order (we hope) to find our way. While lost, we are excluded from the real world and may lose things we love, as we live imaginatively … dinners may be ruined, partners may leave us, homes may be repossessed – we may even lose ourselves.
AVOID UNNECESSARY RETREADS – Page by page, a big work is exhausting at the deepest level. We don’t want to have to repeat parts endlessly and repeated redrafting can become a rut, as if trailing backwards and forwards over the same ground in the hope of hitting rock for the reader’s wheel to grip on – though that is, sometimes, what we must do. Most times we end up somewhere, but sometimes we don’t get there at all … we die on the road, stuck … so avoid redrafts unless they are necessary. Deletion is often preferable. Even with short forms, we can damage the cohesion of the whole by constantly rewriting a single part. Where possible, try to write decisively – practise the deft stroke: prepare properly, perform one action … rest.
SMALL CHANGES MAKE BIG DIFFERENCES – Much good work can be undone by small errors of judgement or carelessness, just as a single degree of deviation in course can carry us far elsewhere. Similarly, a good and grand dramatic scene can be punctured by a single ill-judged line, a poem spoiled by a solitary word, even a syllable in the wrong place. Finding these spoilers and eradicating them is the greater part of finishing, along with perfecting transitions … this may take years, with even the smallest work … these little creatures can be very good at concealing themselves.
THE TEXT IS THE CORPSE OF THE IDEA – Sometimes the end comes upon us suddenly, appearing around a bend, sometimes the road meanders on forever and never reaches the peak in the distance where we’ve set on to arrive. Even in the best case, when a satisfactory conclusion is achieved, that glorious unbounded potential of beginning will have become dead black marks on paper, unless a reader’s mind brings it back from silence. Is it possible we’ve left the spark of life within, for them to find? Whatever, we must forgive the corpse for dying, and accept that listening for news of resuscitation is a waste of time … (and who would really want to be surrounded by undead creatures of their own making anyway?)
HOPE IS ALWAYS FOR THE BEST – So we make more, new living ones … take a deep breath, and enter a fresh world of language, a new discourse … journey on, for the journeying is joyous, and each trip different. Once smitten by the art, the true devotee will write, whatever the weather, whatever the terrain, and whether anyone reads it or not.
About the author:
Robert Alan Jamieson is an Edinburgh-based writer, tutor and editor. He was born in Lerwick, Shetland and grew up in the crofting community of Sandness. He held the William Soutar Fellowship in Perth and was a co-editor of Edinburgh Review and writer in residence at the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. He is the author of three novels, two collections of poetry and two plays, and has edited a number of anthologies. Through his work with Literature Across Frontiers, his poetry in Shetlandic Scots has been translated into over a dozen languages, and he has translated over 20 contemporary European poets into Shetlandic Scots. He collaborated with painter Graeme Todd on Mount Hidden Abyss (2000) and wrote the libretto for Beyond the Far Haaf, a symphonic cantata by David Ward, premiered by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 1992. Recent publications are Nort Atlantik Drift (Luath, 2007) The Cutting Down of Cutty Sark (Poetry Scotland, 2007) and, as co-editor with Dilys Rose, V: New International Writing from Edinburgh (Edinburgh Review 2007). His fourth novel, Da Happie Laand, will be published in 2010. Image courtesy of Ingvild Andersen http://www.robertalanjamieson.info/
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