Photograph of me taken by Eunice Welsh. I did a lot of the writing for my book on Love on her veranda in St Kitts, West Indies.
Some observations on my own writing
Under the blog theme of Writing on Writing I will mostly be writing about other people’s writing. But I thought I would start this ball rolling by owning up to some features of my own writing. I’m possibly not the best person to evaluate my own work so this could turn out to be a tad solipsistic. But I have, at least, an extensive relation with my own writing, so I am going to fess up to what I think I’m doing.
I have more than one mode of writing. On the best of days writing spews out of me like projectile vomiting. I can hardly manage the physical process of writing – digitally or by pen – to keep up with the torrent of words that march in my mind. I am tripping over myself to get the words down. And usually, I’m happy with the results of that process and they don’t need much editing.
I can relate to the idea that its not me writing but something is writing through me. Some people see that as a spiritual process. I don’t. Being more inclined to a materialist perspective I understand it more like a surfeit of writing energy that needs to find expression.
At other times, writing is more like work. I have to hustle myself to think hard or do some research to sufficiently oil my writing wheels. Sometimes doing that propels me into the productive writing mode above. Sometimes I just have to plod away. The results of this more measured way of writing tend to be more turgid and boring and I then have to work it up into something more satisfying.
I’m really lucky in that some writing seems to come quite easily for me. I worked closely on parallel projects with a friend who self-identified as dyslexic. When we met up to compare notes, she would complain about her writing process – that she always had to labour over every word and every sentence and it always felt like a huge drain on her energy. I would irritate her by confessing that the words just fell on to the page for me. However, she built her text, line by line in a sequential manner, and ended up with a completely organised whole. I, on the other hand, flitted here and there, like a promiscuous butterfly. I would be ‘inspired’ to write a chunk for chapter 2, then I would work on some elements for chapter 8, then further develop my Introduction and make notes for my Conclusion. I then had to do a massive organising job to fit the bits together into a coherent structure. Horses for courses. There isn’t a right way. There is just whatever is your way.
I wrote a piece recently and passed it over to a couple of friends for their consideration. One said she could identify two different voices in my writing and she thought that might be a problem – like the two voices didn’t sit well together. The other friend also identified two voices but thought they worked well together.
I had already been aware that I moved in and out of different voices when writing. This was what I did habitually. I knew it might be a bit questionable but I also thought it was kind of my ‘authenticity’ and also that it might be interestingly innovative.
The piece in question is here. It is passionate and polemical. But beyond that, it moves between a knowing, slightly intellectual argument and a kind of cheeky, sometimes sarcastic, juvenile playfulness. They are both ‘authentically’ me.
So, let’s talk about authenticity.
A few years ago, when Big Brother was watched by nearly everyone, the question of authenticity was foregrounded in discussion of the housemates.1Big Brother was a TV programme made originally by the Dutch company Endemol. From 2000 it was broadcast in the UK on Channel 4 and E4 and in many other countries. It was innovative, popular, controversial and a leading player in the ‘reality TV’ genre. It was acquired by the Shine group in 2014 and aired on UK Channel 5 till 2018. People in the house were criticised or praised according to whether or not they were ‘real’, ‘authentic’, ‘being themselves’ and ‘playing or not playing a game’ (which was regularly understood as ‘playing a role’).
Expert and armchair psychologists and the housemates themselves would spend hours discussing how authentic or not they thought housemates were being and would argue the point by bringing up endless evidence of when someone was not being ‘themselves’.
What does being ‘yourself’ or being authentic mean here? For most of the commentators it would be that people would be consistent and especially that people wouldn’t say one thing in one context and something different in another context. But it was also something about the gestures, mannerisms and voices. If someone was caught saying something which didn’t seem to accord with their body language they were crucified. In the goldfish bowl where housemates could be, and often were, watched day in day out, we all became amateur body language experts.
Being inauthentic was considered the biggest crime in the BB house, this side of actual violence. Why do we get so exercised about authenticity? Its because the world appears to be made of shifting sand if we can’t assume the relative fixity of someone’s personality. It makes us feel that we can’t trust people and even the evidence of our own senses so it makes us very anxious. But the whole idea of ‘authenticity’ is more slippery than it might seem.
When we were in our late teens, my sister and I were walking along Princes Street in Edinburgh one sunny summer day. A large man, obviously a tourist, wearing a stetson, asked us for directions. His Texan drawl was unmistakeable. My sister and I spoke over each other to give him directions. She answered him, very helpfully, in the broad East Perthshire dialect that we both grew up in. I answered him in bastardised Texan. She was authentic. I most definitely wasn’t. But the man understood me and he did not understand my Sis.
I worried throughout my twenties that I was shallow and a charlatan. I would drop in and out of accents depending on who I was talking to. A Scots friend came to visit me when I lived in West Yorkshire. We went out for the evening in a taxi driven by an Asian man I knew. I chatted to the taxi driver in a kind of inflected West Yorkshire while my pal looked on in shock – we had been talking in our shared local Scots up to then. When I phoned home to Scotland, my English mates would laugh at how much my language changed to Scots. When I went back to Scotland, my family accused me of using Yorkshirisms. I had no authenticity!
This inauthenticity had a long pedigree. When I was a kid, I would entertain the family, and especially my Mum, by mimicking voices from TV. I loved doing it and I think I was quite good at it. And the conversations I would have in my own head would be conducted in a variety of voices. I was a good listener. I could really hear different voices and I liked to play in them.
By the time I got to my early thirties I decided to stop worrying about my worryingly inauthentic self. I thought I would just go with my variegated flow. Sometime after that I thought a bit more about it and decided that it was an asset. Sometimes, like with the Edinburgh Texan, it might be useful to really hear what the other person was saying and to answer them in a way that they could comprehend. I decided that while I might be inauthentic, I was also responsive to others.
I’ve become perfectly comfortable with the idea that I have more than one voice. Does this mean I have multiple personalities? Maybe. Does it make me particularly odd or even problematically pathological? No, I don’t think so. But your thoughts on this are welcome?
My authenticity is precisely to be someone who plays around with voices.
Writing and publishing
I’ve written enthusiastically since I first could. Primary school poems, am dram productions, what I did in the summer essays, teenage diatribes, radical essays and poems, short political articles, lesson plans, reports, more essays, research papers and a book. But I’ve published very little. I’ve published less than someone who worked for years as an academic should have. And most of what I have published is secreted away in obscure places that no one visits. Not great at finishing stuff. Not too confident about putting it out there either. People who know me might find that hard to believe. Most people I know think I am confident. But confidence isn’t an all or nothing thing. Can I say nothing thing? Just did.
I am confident about some things and not about others. I have no problem walking into a room full of people I don’t know. I can and have delivered speeches or lectures to large audiences. I can go up to just about anyone if I need to communicate with them. But, I have some monkey mind going on with regard to publishing stuff. On the one hand I worry that if I publish something then its fixed for ever and I won’t be able to change it. This is sort of true. On the other hand, I worry that one person living in a hut in Alaska or in a surfing community in Mozambique or on a stoop in New Orleans, might take against something I’ve said. Huh. Chance would be a fine thing. It is absurd, of course.
But age has caught up with me. I’ve now reached a point in my life where I have realised that if I don’t publish some stuff soon, I never will. And that would be sad. So I am now on a mission to publish everything and risk being damned. Bring it on.
Over the years I’ve had to write for diverse audiences. Students, other academics, senior managers, readers of left-wing newspapers, consumers and so on. I would tailor my voice and the content accordingly.
But when I sit down to write for me, and the projected and beloved readers of what I can write freely, what often comes out is polemical. I’ve had to accept that I may be a rather argumentative person and even somewhat belligerent on occasion.
I once had a male friend, and he was a good friend, who accused me of being ‘an angry woman’. True to form, I raged at him that I was no such thing. I think he might have been right. Which is not to suggest that I don’t have light moments and that I don’t sometimes write with gentleness. But yes, there is often a passionate anger propelling my writing. Virginia Woolf, wonderful with words but on shaky ground as a human being, argued that people and more especially women, should not write out of anger. I have long maintained that if had she written her anger more, she might have avoided some of her depressions and not filled her pockets with stones before walking into the river Ouse.
I would like to write fiction and have many ideas for novels. But when I sit down to write, what invariably results, is an argument with varying degrees of intensity. I’m going to work on that – so watch this space - but in the meantime, its non-fiction all the way.
Correcting and editing
I am quite possibly over-confident in my abilities as a copy editor. I used to work with a literary specialist whose favourite pastime was curating the placement of commas and colons in his and everyone else’s work. For decades he did a fantastic job editing a well-regarded, international, literary journal. Because we got on and because we shared an anal delight in correct punctuation, referencing and bibliographic and orthographic styles, we spent many hours discussing their intricacies. In truth, although he never made me feel anything other than an equal in these matters, I was very much the understudy and regularly sought his mentorship when faced with particularly difficult questions. I was confident before that but became more so with his guidance. I am now so confident I break rules without a backward glance. I don’t much like the Oxford comma, for example, but I am occasionally browbeaten by the Word package I use which seems to love it. I sometimes cave in, so I end up with something that is inconsistent – which used to be a hanging offence. But I’m past caring. If it reads ok with me, its fine. If you have an issue, I’m still the sort of saddo who would enjoy a chat.
Editing content is a whole other problem. If I like the style of a paragraph, I find it hard to ditch it even though it adds nothing to advancing a narrative. When I’ve gone off on a huge tangent, if I find it interesting, I want to keep it. I should probably hire a good content editor but a) I can’t afford one and b) as a registered control freak, I would find it hard to let someone else dictate what stays and what goes – but I might be open to trying.
The most demanding thing I have to do after splurging lots of words is creating order out of acres of content. I think in quite a big structure way so its not usually that difficult but if I’ve written a lot, I can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the volume of material and how best to organise it. I’ve only once found that so difficult I had to ask for help, but in that case, there were other factors at work. I might write about that one another day.
I won’t write much about content here except to say that my blog themes of Feminism, Identity, Writing on writing, Love and Relationships, Politics and Theory represent the things I have written about often and the things that I return to over and over again. Beyond them, I might write about anything and since I don’t want to hem myself in, I am happy to leave that open for the time being.
I often aim to make my writing accessible but my inclination to play about with words or follow exciting ideas means that I may fail. If I produce, what seems to me, an entertaining string of words, I sometimes choose them over making straightforward sense. I do that in speech as well as in writing. Occasionally it has gotten me into trouble when the urge to say something funny has trumped a need to say something more appropriate. I had another literary colleague who confessed to me that he often said things out loud because he was trying them out, rather than that he really felt or believed them. I got that and I do that too.
I’m not a huge fan of overworked literary constructions. I read a novel recently that began so obscurely that I nearly ditched it after two pages. I didn’t, and it turned out to be brilliant.2Hurston, Z. N. (2020 ) Their Eyes Were Watching God London: Virago I began another novel with similar issues and fought my way through sixty-six pages. It’s a big novel and I’m not sure I will go back. I wanted to like it but couldn’t.3Ellman, L. (2019) Ducks, Newburyport. Norwich: Galley Beggar Press
I would just feel laboured and self-conscious if I tried to construct writerly metaphors. If it doesn’t come comfortably for me then it doesn’t work. I feel blessed that because I’m playing with words the whole time, interesting metaphors, occasional neologisms, puns, associations and other wordplays pop up all the time and I often make myself laugh. In my simplistic way, I figure that if it makes me laugh it might do the same for others. Those moments come along infrequently after many paragraphs of simple prose. But when I’m really on fire, I think I produce turns of phrase that I can be proud of.
As the whim takes me, I will add further thoughts on my own writing, if I think they might be of interest to others. For the moment I will stop writing about writing and just do some writing.
1 Big Brother was a TV programme made originally by the Dutch company Endemol. From 2000 it was broadcast in the UK on Channel 4 and E4 and in many other countries. It was innovative, popular, controversial and a leading player in the ‘reality TV’ genre. It was acquired by the Shine group in 2014 and aired on UK Channel 5 till 2018.
2 Hurston, Z. N. (2020 ) Their Eyes Were Watching God London: Virago
3 Ellman, L. (2019) Ducks, Newburyport. Norwich: Galley Beggar Press