Friday, June 5, 2020

Hayden Westfield-Bell - Small Press Writing Day

Poetry vs Prose

I came into writing through poetry, and for me poetry happens. Leaping at me seemingly from out of nowhere. A line would hit me when out for a walk, and then I’d have to sit down and take stock. Think around the words. Pull out a notebook and pencil and take it down, shift letters around. Encourage it to grow into a line, and then a stanza, and then find the message in the poem. But that initial line, or thought, or feeling always felt like divine intervention. It came straight out of the sky. Everything else afterwards, I think, relies on the skill of the poet. You have to be patient, take your time with it.

Novel writing is an altogether different endeavour. It requires more control from the author. If you let it grow it’ll take over the garden. The novel will never be finished. There’s always something else character x or y could do. Then, as the work gets larger, it becomes near impossible to keep it all in the minds eye. So, my sensation of writing something longer is that you need to have enough passion to want to write it, and then the self control and patience to plan it out. Get organised. Research. That requires an entirely different space.

And so you see my space pictured. I’m currently set up for novel writing. Screens for research and looking through pre-written material. Post-its for jotting bits down quickly. A wall so that I don’t get distracted by folks outside of the window. The table can be extended to give me space for papers, or a notepad, or a typewriter depending on the nature of the writing. This set-up is actually pretty new, and since moving into this flat (6 years or so ago now) I’ve never really had a dedicated writing space - often, the table in the corner of the bedroom becomes a dumping ground for other items. Clean clothes, old paperwork, or odds and ends being pulled from cupboards. Now I hope to keep this area concretely mine.

The Routine

But what about the everyday? The routine of writing? Presently, there isn’t one. I recently changed careers and now develop software. I’m on call every few weeks, and 9-5 doesn’t work when you’re working in tech. Things break, they have to be fixed, and so 5pm becomes 6pm becomes 7pm… I used to enjoy returning home at the end of the day and sitting in front of my computer, typing out a paragraph or two before dinner. Nowadays, the idea of returning home from work to sit at another desk and type yet more words is frustrating. So I’ve started to return to writing by hand. This way, without the pleasure of a delete key, I find myself concentrating on writing and not on editing.

The magic happens whenever it can happen. Often in the evening, after 5pm. There’s a little routine - put the kettle on, fire up the laptop (if needed) and find some instrumental music to put on. Look at the previous days writing, and try to feel my way back into it. No editing - nuh uh. If anything comes to mind it goes on a sticky and sits on the page. Get the first draft down, then worry about what’s wrong with it. I recently purchased Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling, which I’m finding a useful resource to guide my writing - specifically, in the early essays, Pullman emphasises thinking about writing as if it were a job:

"And as the servant, I have to do what a good servant should. I have to be ready to attend my work at regular hours. I have to anticipate where the story wants to go, and find out what can make the progress easier - by doing research, that is to say: by spending time in libraries, by going to talks by people, by finding things out. I have to keep myself sober during working hours; I have to stay in good health. I have to avoid taking on too many other engagements: no man can serve two masters."

His words are most comforting, as I find myself (as, I’m sure, do many writers) sitting at my desk in the evening struggling to write, and instead plotting, or sketching ideas, or making timelines and charts, all the while thinking, “Why am I not writing? I’m just moving paper around!” But this too is writing. It’s something I have never experienced with poetry, but appears to be a facet of writing a novel.

On Typewriters

Computers are incredible devices, they certainly make the process of writing, editing, and publishing a simpler and far smoother experience. The knowledge of the world is at your fingertips, and so researching is a breeze too. But I find that their very merits often aggravate the actual process of putting words to paper. I’m easily distracted by Wikipedia, or social media, email notifications, or any manner of other things my computer can do - including that nefarious delete key.

When in the throes of trying to take down an idea, my handwriting often turns to mush. I’m a scribbler, and so my sentences begin to fall into one another in my excitement. It becomes difficult then - both to read my own words, but also to share them with others. This is where typewriters come in. No delete key, and instant legibility. Currently I’m typing out my third rewrite of a science fiction novel I’ve been working on for a few years. The tap tap tap of the keys removes the need for any instrumental music, as the heavy sound of the keys often nullifies any sound coming from outside, or from the neighbours.

Hayden Westfield-Bell is a poet and writer based in Edinburgh. His work has been published in Popshot, Emanations, Black and BLUE as well as The GRIND and as part of the Ash Sessions. He is currently working on a science fiction novel. @wickertongue on Twitter.

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