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The story is always smarter than you

By Richard Pelletier

Paying a visit to Material, an essay by the writer Lucy Corin

So there I was in my writing shed looking for answers. As one does. For reasons unknown, I pulled The Writer’s Notebook (Tin House Books, 2009) off the shelf. I made my way to page 75, Material. Not quite sure how or why I landed there, but I remembered being quite taken with Material at my first go around a couple of years past.

It is flat out astonishing. So I want to share just some of this material with you.

Lucy Corin: 

“Generally we are taught to value content over form, to have something to say and then to “find a form for it” as if one part of what we produce is our stuff and the other is a suitcase we bought to put our stuff in. You find the form to “suit” your content, your material. This is not an unhelpful way to think about things, but it is not the only way. I believe it is only because I have spent so much time working with words as material that I have come to have any idea of what I have to say, in words, to and about the world I live in. I learned from what I made, what I was making.”

That previous sentence is so good I want to read it again.

“I learned from what I made, what I was making.”

One of the things I think about as I try and finish a novel is, ‘what is here that I can’t see? What’s happening at the sentence level, or in the story, or in the structure…the way this beast is arranged, that I am not seeing but is probably hugely important and will doom me to humiliating failure? “What,” as Donald Rumsfeld would say, “are the unknown unknowns?”

Lucy: 

“We are also taught, on the sentence level, to make form as invisible as possible, in order that it not “interfere” with content. To do this we must gently/subtly/slyly vary syntax, sentence length, paragraph length, so as to distinguish it from an overly patterned, “less sophisticated” and “visible” text like See Jane run. See Jane sit. See Jane spit.  “Normal” prose – “Jane ran for a while, then rested on a bench, spit, and continued her run,” keeps the reader’s mind focused on the content. In this sort of sentence the form seems to float somewhere behind or below the material, which this sort of writing insists is the information, or the content of the sentences.”

As a long-time photographer, I think of myself as a visual person, and I’ve written about how photography has informed my writing. In the new book Dark Angels on Writing, I wrote about seeing and how important I think seeing is to writing. When I wrote that piece, I didn’t know the half of it.

I wasn’t thinking of the different ways to see and understand the arrangement of the words on the page. Lucy showed me. So did John Everett Benson, (world renowned calligrapher and stone carver) who wrote me the letter below regarding the piece I wrote about The John Stevens Shop in Established: Lessons from the world’s oldest companies.

Letter from John Everett Benson“All writing is some combination of visible and invisible forms, and the combination itself is a pattern that is meaningful to me, the rising and falling of my awareness of and attention to one kind of material—content, or what words represent—and another—visible words, ink, like paint, on a page.”

~ Lucy Corin

Lucy then goes on to talk about several different stories and novels in terms of their shape on the page and what that shape tells us about meaning.

Lucy Corin Material

“…you should look at the material you produce to find your material.”

~ Lucy Corin

The drawings on the right are, L to R: Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee, and The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

Lucy:

“The dialogue and paragraphs (Barbarians) are balanced, varied and integrated, but the scenes are short and visually marked (in this case with asterisks.) There’s a feeling, reading this book, of falling in and out of a dream, of waking, blinking, and then sliding back under after a breath. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is similar in shape—short scenes with breaks—but the size and texture of the sentences and words are less varied than they are in Coetzee’s work, and that makes the atmosphere much more stark, the rhythms more overt, more about repetition, the sense of day in, day out, in the skeletal landscape in which this novel is set.

When form works, it is indistinguishable from content. Your material is your material.”

God, I love that.

* * *

There is an important, central-to-the-whole-thesis look at Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, which Lucy says is a ‘superb example of a story in which every moment reads multiply and microcosmically, literally and figuratively, the epitome of a “tightly-crafted story.”

A lot of what follows depends on her look at that O’Connor story, but I’m going to move us along, while I urge you to buy The Writer’s Notebook and read the entire piece.

So let us get to the truly lovely part of this:

The story is always smarter than you.

Lucy:

“The story, I like to say and remember, is always smarter than you—there will be patterns of theme, image, and idea that are much savvier and more complex than you could have come up with on your own. Find them with your marking pens as they emerge in your drafts. Become a student of your work in progress.

Look for what your material is telling you about your material. Every aspect of a story has its  own story.” (italics mine)

This is pure dynamite. She is essentially saying two glorious things. First that all the little bits—they all have their own story and you can find those and work with them…. I think this is why fractals come up in discussions of storytelling.

And…that you have (most, if not) everything you need to take the writing to an even better place, if you can sort out how to investigate your own work, how to “see” what is being said, see into what is going on with the material and ‘play’ with it, so you can amplify some things, minimize others and create new kinds of relationships between various elements.

Toward the end of her piece comes, Try This:(this is highly abbreviated)

  1. Print out your story and put it on a wall. Put it up in a way that allows you to look at it all at once. You might or might not break it up between paragraphs, or scene breaks, or some other obvious element that is key to the piece. Look at the patterns of section, chapter, scene, and paragraph size…Try eliminating every ‘return’ in the document…
  2. Take a highlighter pen and start marking the metaphoric threads, the thematic motifs, the patterns of image, the way sound works or begins to work. Look for what drops off and accumulates. Ask every aspect you can isolate to have its own story.(italics mine) Ask for a beginning, a middle and an end.
  3. Look at the words and how they are arranged within sentences. Look for capital letters and longness and shortness. Look for the concrete words, look for the abstract words. See if they cluster…

Lucy:

“To make a beautiful piece means you have really witnessed it and really made decisions about it. So again, material is content: he makes a mistake, he makes a bigger mistake, etc. And material is also form: it’s tense; point of view; a story told in four linear stretches, each overlapping in time for one paragraph; point of view beginning very close third person, shifting gradually until almost wholly detached/omniscient; it’s a series of short clipped lines followed by a long graceful one; or a story told in three parts, five pages/one paragraph/six pages, etc. It’s also syllables, consonants, vowels, punctuation, and the white space surrounding everything.”

It’s been said a million times over that everything happens in the rewriting. And certainly that is where the screws get tightened. But for me, as I’ve been rewriting, I’ve also been searching and searching for a way to see more deeply into the thing I am making in order to understand what the hell is going on in the thing that I am making.

So thrilled to have found a way in… Thanks, Lucy.

The Writer’s Notebook Amazon UK

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Writing is always writing

Credit: John Simmons

By John Simmons 

I know the title might sound as vacuous as ‘Brexit means Brexit’. (Forgive me but I didn’t write that – ‘above my pay grade’ as the government spokesperson might say.) But there is a real point contained in ‘Writing is always writing’. Actually there are two points…

Don’t restrict yourself
First, as writers who attempt to earn our livings in the commercial world, we often put ourselves into straitjackets. As if there were irreconcilable differences between, say, writing a website and writing a novel. Or even, within the ‘commercial’ genre there were specialisms that have specific and rigid rules that make you a writer of annual reports or packaging or blogs or websites. If you are a good writer, you should be able to write for any of these genres. Because the basic principles apply:

  • Care for your craft, think about every word and the order of those words.
  • Make choices based on the tone of voice you need to achieve for the task you are working on.
  • Picture the person you are writing for, his or her needs and expectations, and write words for that person and situation.

Break out
You are not writing to a formula. If you do, your words will not connect properly with your reader. Your writing has to have humanity that comes from you as an individual. So don’t limit yourself to a specific style of writing for which you claim unique expertise. Because your expertise is extraordinary – you are a writer. Which means: take risks, stretch yourself, always seek the kind of writing you haven’t done before.

This brings me to the second point. As a writer you will always be writing, and always trying to improve as a writer. Carry a notebook with you, use it every day, make it the essential kit of your life – and accept that the notebook is for you only, not for the outside world, you have permission to experiment for your eyes alone.

Read widely 
Part of that experimentation is drawing on other kinds of reading. Writers have to read and to read more widely. If you want to become a better writer of websites, don’t just read websites. Read novels, memoirs, poetry. Observe how other writers write, and try some of the techniques used by novelists and poets. Read the opening paragraph of Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, then try writing the first draft of your next commercial project under its influence. Of course, you’ll discard most of it, but there will be something that sticks, that opens you up as a writer.

Author, John Simmons

Does this work?
It’s worked for me over a long career where I’ve been an editor, copywriter, brand consultant and a novelist. Each feeds into the other. It’s the philosophy behind the Dark Angels programme that has inspired hundreds of writers of every kind.

We’ve now put it into a book that will be published by Unbound in June.

Contact us for more information on Dark Angels, or to book onto one of our residential courses.

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Keeping Time

Dark Angels at The Good Messenger Workshop, Hawkwood House, January 2019

At Dark Angels residential courses, we sometimes think of our writing exercises as ‘experiments’: to try things out together, drawing on new ideas in a safe and supportive environment.

Why do we write?  
Our most recent workshop at Hawkwood House in the Cotswolds was based on the latest book from one of our founders, John Simmons: The Good Messenger. Over the course of a whole weekend, led by John Simmons and Neil Baker, a group of us gathered together to test out some of these new experiments about a ‘writer’s purpose’.

The latest book from John Simmons: The Good Messenger

24 Hours
The book uses time as a structural device – one part of the book recording a day at a time in each chapter, and the middle section of the book telling the story of one single day – Armistice Day, through the eyes of a single character. One of the most interesting outputs from the weekend was to ask each participant to record what was happening at different hours of the day, then to combine them chronologically to create a coherent whole: a collective Dark Angels voice. We also wanted to test the idea as a storytelling structure; to capture what Dennis Potter called ‘the nowness of now’. 

The Final Piece
On the last day, the group formed a circle in the beautiful library of Hawkwood House and read out their individual pieces as a collective piece of writing – a beautiful prose poem written by 11 individuals, that we called ‘Keeping Time’. From breaking dawns through rescuing rodents, the poem recounted a day in the life at Hawkwood, as 11 unique observations over the course of 24 hours.

Listen Up
We’d say The Good Messenger experiments were a resounding success. And so we bring the work to you now as an audio treat, and invite you to experience just a tiny droplet of what Dark Angels is all about:

The final Dark Angels collective prose piece, Keeping Time. Written at Hawkwood House, January 2019. Narrated by Melissa Thom.

Audio production by Melissa Thom and Euan Mcaleece.


Drop us a line at melissa@dark-angels.org.uk – we’d love to know what you think.

And if you’d like to join us on one of our courses, you can find more information here.

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In conversation: Richard Pelletier and John Simmons

In which John Simmons and Richard Pelletier chat about a new novel from John, staying productive as a writer, social media, and reading.

Richard:
John, you’ve just published The Good Messenger. Early reports are highly favorable and congratulations are in order. You’ve got another in the works. How do you stay so productive in the age of social media? What’s your schedule? Do you write every day? Do you set word count goals?

John:
I suspect my answer will disappoint those creative writing gurus who seem to recommend a monastic approach with set hours and recommendations of ‘get up early, do two hours before the rest of the household wakes up’. I am far less disciplined in my writing habits – with one exception.

First, I don’t impose a daily requirement to write on myself. That doesn’t mean I forget – a new book is always in my head, but forcing words out is not productive. I carry a notebook around and I make notes. That can happen at times when a notebook isn’t to hand, for example when I’m out running. I find my Sunday morning run (about an hour) is always a good space for thinking about my novel. It requires memory and instant resort to the notebook as soon as I reach home. The one exception I mentioned is that I always work for a few hours on Friday evenings – it’s a habit that dates back 30+ years. I look forward to it as I write better then than any other time of the week.

Most of the week I’m working on other projects: copywriting, running workshops, brand consultancy, organising projects for 26 etc, etc. Social media is a natural part of that world. I like a lot of it, but try not to get caught up in unproductive encounters.

Richard:
Despite the fact that you say you are far less disciplined than the tyrants who tell us all what we should be doing, you’re doing something right. You keep kicking out new books. You’ve made a huge contribution to the lives of many writers on matters of language and constraints and creativity. I think you have something else to offer your community of writers—how you, John Simmons, work.

John:

John Simmons, at work, surrounded by Dark Angels.

Much of it, I think, comes down to experience. The more I write, the more I can write. The more I write books, the more books I can write. Many people are daunted by the thought of writing a book, so it looks like an enormous obstacle to overcome. I want people to get past that obstacle so, as well as my individual books, I’m proud to have made it possible for many (hundreds?) to become published authors as contributors to books for Dark Angels and 26.

There’s also ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person’. I rarely turn down any invitation to write. I have terrible work habits – I’m rarely unavailable. I take holidays, but I stay in touch through emails, Twitter etc. I’m an electric plug always on. Things happen, invitations come in, I respond. I don’t have an ‘out of office’ message. When I’m doing something that I love, why would I want to avoid it? It’s an aspect of my mantra ‘Only connect’.

Part of this is working on several projects at the same time. Diversity of work stimulates me, and I often find that projects magically feed into each other, and they spark new ideas.

But we’re all different. I wouldn’t recommend my way to anyone and I’m sure you have a completely different approach. We each have to find our own way. What’s yours?

Richard:

Richard Pelletier in his new writing shed, not writing, paralyzed by the appearance of a new book by John Simmons.

I’m pretty undisciplined myself, except when I’m not. As far as my own writing goes, depends on the project. For our book Established: Lessons from the world’s oldest companies, I was so head over heels in love with that story, and I was so determined to tell it well, I wanted to work on it all the time, and so I did. As you know, I’ve been working on a novel since before the Big Bang. Once I’ve decided I’m back into it, I can hit it hard and consistently for long periods and get a lot done. Where I get stuck on that project is that I want separate and special blocks of time only for that. And if I have set that up and I begin, I’m good. But when that bridge falls, as it inevitably does, it’s hell getting it back up again.

I’m not a word count person, but I often work in three or four hour spans. I use an app called Focus Booster. It clocks your working sessions in 25 minute chunks. Then you get a five minute break, then you’re back on the 25 minute clock.

So I’m curious about you and social media. Only (and always!) connect. I’m interested how it affects your reading. All of us, are more or less struggling to read as much as we once did. How are you faring in these distracting times? When do you fit reading in?

John:
Your app sounds like my idea of hell. Which just proves ‘We each find our own way’. I find my own way with social media and I’ve found twitter useful for marketing, occasionally research, and some serendipitous connections that I always love – for example with the Basque community about my Spanish Crossings novel and the story behind the story.

I wish I were a better reader, I wish I read more books. I did most of my reading when I was young and no longer have the attention span for reading that I once had. But I believe in the importance of reading, more than ever. In recent years I’ve been reading with the purpose of informing my writing.

So, for example, three important works of fiction behind The Good Messenger are The Wind in the Willows, The Go-Between and Mrs Dalloway. They’ve all been important books earlier in my life (such a joy to reconnect with them); they had stayed in my memory, like old friends, and now they’ve inspired my latest writing.

Richard:

Reconnecting with beloved books is one of life’s most sublime pleasures. I’m about to reconnect with Foster, a beautiful, beautiful novella by Claire Keegan. Gillian Colhoun gave me her copy of this book (along with a hair-raising tale of the author) when we were at Moniack Mhor. I see this young girl, in a house that is not hers; I see her in the kitchen helping with chores, I see the fields, and the garden, and her father in the kitchen as he leaves his daughter…

Postscript: In poking around the Simmons twitter feed for this conversation, I made the startling discovery that not only do John and I have wives with the same name, worship Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, cook from the same cookbook, we also both revere the last Raymond Carver book, A New Path to the Waterfall.

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In conversation: Craig Watson and Therese Kieran

[Having recovered from a boisterous and wonderous gathering of Dark Angels at Hawkwood College, Craig Watson and Therese Kieran discuss the lighter side…]

CRAIG:

The incomparable Mr. Watson

When we did the Oxford Masterclass together last year, Gillian Colhoun introduced you as a poet. Later that weekend, when you shared your ‘personal piece’, I understood why. After three days of intensive writing and a hearty supper at High Table, I only recall that your poem had more snap, crackle and pop than a bucketful of Rice Krispies and that I fell a little bit in love with you as you read it!

But it was your other poem – the one John asked you to reprise at Hawkwood as an example of some of the great writing produced on Dark Angels courses – that really struck me. You wrote the first section before you flew to Aracena for the Advanced course and, amid the comedy, you convey a clear sense of trepidation for what might lie in store.

So, with reference to your own experience of Dark Angels, and for the benefit of anybody thinking about attending a course, can you tell us why we ought to be afraid?!

THERESE:

She who is always in the light, poet Therese Kieran

Hah! Great opening question Craig. The obvious response is that one ought not to be afraid, and I’m sure not everyone is. In fact, there must be lots of Dark Angels newbies who bound up to their first course like excited puppies.

Think about it: there’s a certain mystique about the courses. Advance information is kept to a minimum and relates mostly to where, who and why, with little indication about exactly what you’ll be doing. This is one of the key strengths and I’d urge anyone thinking of doing a course to arrive curious and eager for the blank page. And there’s another anxiety. What will you fill your blank pages with? How will you fare? Will you be outranked and face the imposter syndrome plank? Will you buckle under pressure and run for the emotional-wreck-step? Will you survive the nightly imbibing, the communal set-up, the pairings and sharing of words?

Well the truth of the matter is not only did I survive, I thrived. And I’m not going to lie, I carried a lump in my throat sometimes, shed the odd bucket of tears too, but that’s me – my mother used to say that my bladder was too close to my eyes…!

But what about you, Craig? Did you have any pre-course anxieties? As I asked in my Hawkwood poem, ‘What did you expect?’

CRAIG:

It wasn’t so much pre-course as just after I got there: everything’s alien and I’m trying to suss out this bunch of weirdos – probably literary-genius-weirdos – that I’ll be spending the next few days with. I start to relax when there’s no crummy corporate icebreaker demanding some ‘interesting fact’ (these were always a trial for me until I had a pee with Suggs). Before long, my ‘vert’ decides it’s okay to lean extro, but the chitinous armour stays fastened. As the exercises progress, civility cedes to vulnerability until, about two courses in, I’m finally prepared to expose the wizened lump of gristle that serves as a heart.

How would you describe the peculiar brand of magic that is Dark Angels?

THERESE:

There’s no hard sell, simply the promise of something special. Introductions are gentle, no fuss; employ a ‘come sit by the fire’ approach that puts you at ease almost immediately. Place plays an important role in every Dark Angels course and adds to the adventure. From Moniack Mhor’s remote hill-topped croft above Inverness to the brightly coloured Finca el Tornero in Aracena; then to the time-worn grandeur of Merton College, Oxford and more recently to savour mid-summer like never before at Hawkwood College, a giant beehive nestled among Cotswold valleys. Each one offers specialities of the season and locale designed to support the transition to an immersive process that is completely different from everyone’s day-to-day. So that’s the first spell.

Next there’s the informal manner in which we are invited to partake in proceedings. And yes, the ‘crummy corporate ice-breaker’ is banished! There’s no platform upon which to assert one’s literary or business accomplishments; no CVs, just BE – be who you are. There are a few common denominators – that we share a love of words and a goal to be better writers – but there’s never an agenda, a pack, a name badge, a PowerPoint presentation or an evaluation questionnaire. These seem alien to Dark Angels’ ethos. But in the absence of such corporate norms lies a clue to expect the unexpected; be prepared for surprises – which is also how and why the magic happens. None of it would have been possible without the combined talents and individuality of its founding triumvirate – aka John, Jamie and Stuart – whose ingenuity, attention to detail, respect for everyone and general bonhomie drives writers to aim for the very best they can deliver on each task.

So yes, there’s magic – in people, place, purpose and play. But how do you resurrect the magic once you’ve returned to ‘normality’? Do you have a little piece of Dark Angels gold that sustains you?

CRAIG:

Actually, it’s bronze: a small statue, like the three wise monkeys – but with John, Stuart and Jamie – all sitting together cross-legged on my writing desk. Most nights, I’ll stay up till 4am tidying away the leftover wine, then I’ll rise at dawn and sing a few rounds of Ubi Caritas before knocking out a couple of screenplays, a short story, three haiku, a sonnet and six minutes of automatic writing; all before showering, shaving and shouting at the kids…

Aye, right! But I’m not sure I ever quite got back to ‘normality’, even before I got roped in on the business side of things. Our three founders certainly conjured up something special and, frankly, the magic deserves to be spread more widely than they can manage by themselves between book launches, festival appearances and the like! So, we’re making efforts to offer and fill more courses (which is a sure-fire way for folk to maintain the Dark Angels buzz) and we hope to get a bit less haphazard in how we keep in touch with our ever-expanding choir.

A consequence of this corporatisation is that we’re obliged to track our ‘net promoter score’, which means you’ll have to finish up by completing a short evaluation form summarising your Dark Angels journey as pithily as possible. The choice of form is up to you.

THERESE:

Craig, ‘corporatisation’, ‘net promoter score’?! I sense some slippage. Quick, get yourself signed up for a Dark Angels one-day refresher course!

I’ll give you a freshly-brewed sestude, exactly 62 words, that sums up where I think the journey has taken me thus far, but not before saying how wonderful it’s been to chat about Dark Angels with YOU and to thank you for making me laugh (again and again). Were it not for Dark Angels, this would never have happened.

Out of the Dark, This

To consider my purpose
to discover I am not the main event
but a conduit, the glue, a bridge
an unmarked crossing left off a map
vital to those who find it
useful, reliable, secure
fit for purpose and more
A brilliant misnomer
for there is light, always
in sign or slight suggestion
in head and heart connection
in conversations held, dear

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