I feel slightly embarrassed to admit that although I have facilitated creative writing workshops for near on ten years, I had never in my life attended one myself.
The chance came at my local BOOKMARK festival (Blairgowrie, Rattray and the Glens) this last weekend. The theme in general was PLACE, and when friend Marion indicated she had signed up for a writing workshop with Scottish author/creative writing teacher Fiona Chadwick on that very topic (M: “I have always had trouble with description…”) I thought, well why not, what the hell! I have no trouble describing people or places, whether physical or emotional, but there is always something to learn, right?
Apart from the odd feeling of being led instead of doing the leading, I was surprised to find I wrote so sparely. Compared to Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’, for example, which is so rich in detail that the pages become quite tiring to read. Nowadays, he reads “old fashioned”, as in over-blown; but in Mann’s day, the reader needed – nay demanded – to be spoon fed every scrap of detail.
By contrast, Raymond Carver – he who helped wean us away from such visual and emotional feasts of intensity – took inspiration from Japanese literature, and now (more fashionably) allows us to fill in the spaces. I remember the first time I read Kawabata Yasunari’s ‘Snow Country’ and on reaching the end being left in shock: what had happened? where was the plot? the tension? the point?
All those evolved essentials of Western literature had been left to me to imagine, discover, invent, visualize, translate. Reading as active and creative interaction, rather than purely passive enjoyment.
It was not that I began consciously to edit, cut and pare back my writings on the page. It happened on some interior level: I simply found myself writing more simply, more sparely. I can see how – and as – it happened when re-reading my book, Chasing Shooting Stars (Amazon.com): the writing becomes tauter, more restrained as I learned over the decade it took to write that I did not have to put everything in to be effective. In fact, the more I left out the stronger the work became.
Returning to Fiona’s workshop, I was also reminded how easily and quickly I wrote. Automatically indeed. Mind on hold; intuition wholly in creative mould. Mind you, everyone – including the one elderly woman who admitted she had never really written anything in her life before – said the same. In part this was because of the way in which the exercise was presented: starting with ten minutes writing about sound (start writing now!) and then with reduced time allowances of 7, 5, 4 – and no breaks, on touch, taste, smell and sight: the five senses.
Here is what I wrote. Unedited. No great shakes, but a good learning curve and an exercise I shall use or borrow from on occasion.
Sound? Silence. Does it exist? Sara Maitland wrote a book on the subject, exploring whether there is such a thing as silence in this world we live in, and no: there is always noise. Cut out all external sounds and we begin to hear our heart beating, lungs inflating, deflating, the blood coursing through our veins.
She went into the forest. She went into the desert. She climbed to the top of mountains, and listened, as I am listening now: to the scratch scratch scratch of pens on paper, and someone’s bangle hitting the surface of the table. Stop. Listen again. My cuff on the paper. Fiona doing something on the far side of the room – tearing paper? A page being turned over…
I am touching my lip. A proprioceptive action, one that I was not aware of, but now I am. The pen feels smooth but anxious between my fingers. My other hand supports my face, surprisingly cool. Also smooth! What does this mean? That I have smooth skin or I’m a smooth operator? No, I feel rough, not quite right… I need Tora’s softly smooth fur to quieten me down…
That banana at breakfast was a bit too new and straight off the boat to be perfect. Akii likes his ripe; I don’t. I prefer a slightly raw texture, one that feels fresh and young and on its way… I wonder what that first banana tasted like? The one my mother handed me in 1945 and said “Here, eat this!” I have no memory of how it tasted, or even whether I liked it or not…
The smells and aromas of summer have given way to those of autumn. From sap risen to sap settling into sleep. And the scent of death, but not in a depressing way. Many people hate this time of the year, for its sinking into rot and decay; it reminds them if their own autumn to come. But I like it. I love the colours, the flurrying of leaves, the scattering of seed, the sudden unexpected sunsets…
Our eyes are one way to see. Most imagine there is no other way, but the Sages knew… know there is an internal eye that sees beyond the obvious. Second sight? Maybe there are layers of seeing… I think of Akii not even seeing that there were cherry trees outside his apartment in Chigasaki. I saw them with my eyes. I appreciated them bursting into flower. I witnessed the fall of petals that in Japanese culture remind us of life’s impermanence. But he had not even registering the obvious: the avenue of trunks and branches, leaves and flowers.
Obvious to me that is. But things are different now. Only a few days ago he looked up and said, “Oh! Sheep in the sky!” I looked across the road at the sheep in the field and then upwards to see them replicated in white clouds strolling across blue…
Another exercise that Fiona gave us involved folding a piece of paper in half and writing a list of nouns down the right hand side of the fold: in my case, tower, eye, bracelet, coin, notebook, tsunami, quiche, hamlet, plough, buzzard. Then turning the paper over and listing ten verbs down the left-hand side of the fold: swim, like, escape, follow, note, add, watch, investigate, hide, leave. Opening the paper out offered ideas for linking verbs to nouns that we might otherwise have never thought of: The coin hid from eye and plough for centuries; the fishing boat swam into the tsunami ; the buzzard hung in the sky, ever watchful…Three sentence/phrases that I came up with that might lead off a longer piece of writing, or may even be woven into a work in progress.
I would like to thank Fiona who led us forward through three hours of exploration and discovery. We had a good time and everyone went away enthused. Most importantly, everyone left with a new or revised belief in themselves as writers: the mark of a successful workshop on the written word.