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Stocktaking or The Chaos of Creation
I’ve had a bit of a dry spell with regards writing. I’ve been working on stuff but it’s mostly in short, quick bursts. Poetry in the main, editing here and there. Since February I’ve hardly written a word of prose.
I used to feel bad about these lulls, feel like I had to be writing every day. When I was doing my Masters in Glasgow, one of the teachers spoke about doing 500 words a day. They meant it as “that’s a good day’s work” but we latched onto it as “bare minimum.” It took me a long time to realise that this thinking is counter-productive. Writer’s block happens when you try to write before you’re ready. Once I accepted that there would be days when 500 words was out of reach—because of the day job, because of mental and physical health, because of living my life, or simply because I was running on empty—I felt a lot better and I actually became more productive. Changing my thinking about productivity and what creativity actually looks like (it rarely looks like sitting at a desk for 8 hours) freed me up to be productive and creative.
So this lull hasn’t stressed me unduly, but I feel the malaise lifting and the pistons pumping once more. As such, I decided to go through my hard drive and tidy things up, take a good look at what I had written to date, and see what I could work with moving forwards.
I never work on just one thing at a time. This is my other writer’s block hack: multiple projects. If I’m working on a novel, a book of haiku, a memoir, and a review for the paper, then whatever creative mood I’m in, I’ll have something that suits it. Feeling frustrated and ranty? Work on an essay. Feeling playful and imaginative? Science fiction. Feeling introspective and melancholy? Poetry time.
Again, at Glasgow, I was made to feel by some that this approach was spreading myself too thin. I was warned that I’d never finish anything that way, that I’d spend my life with half-finished projects. So I tried to do it their way. I did one thing at a time. But when you’re working with 80-100,000-word books, that’s a long time in one voice, one mode, one form. Ideas come that don’t always fit, so do you just ignore them? Or do you add them to the notebooks we’re urged to keep, stacks of dead ideas waiting for the kind of time mortality denies us?
Then I read an interview with James Kelman where he said he works this way too. That he has a bunch of novels on the go at any one time and works on whichever one fits his mood. He has no idea what the next book will be because his creativity will dictate which ones gets finished first. Kelman has been prolific despite this, apparently, bad approach. You take the path that best suits you.
I spent a couple of hours this morning going through folders and files. Deleting things. Organising. Moving into various categories. Most of it turned out to be copies of copies of copies. Final final final final final maybe drafts. I divided what was left into “Published”, “Submitted”, “Ready to Submit”, “Redrafting” and “To be Finished.” Then I wrote the results on the board in my office (minus a few academic papers and essays that are still embryonic). This is the photo above. I do this because I like lists, I like having the words written down so I can evaluate them outside the echo chamber of my skull. It’s like looking at a map: you are here, and here are the possible directions you could go.
In “Submitted” there is Rearview Mirror: Travels in Seattle, real and imaginary, a travel/mental health memoir. Below it is a poetry collection, Where the sky begins. Both of these are out at publishers, so everybody cross their fingers.
“Ready to Submit” features two poetry sequences, Kobe Waterfront and All of this has happened before. The former has already appeared in Tokyo Poetry Journal and I’d really like to make it into a little chapbook with some art. The latter, those who follow me on social media will know, is something I just finished. Dead Seal Beach and Fuji Rock and Ever After are short story collections which wait for a day when people begin publishing short story collections again. DSB is a flash fiction collection, another potential chapbook, while Fuji Rock is a Japan-themed collection of longer stories (mostly).
At the redrafting stage is The Fortune Keepers, and old story I’ve never got quite right but recently, with the editorial help of a friend (the excellent Christian Livermore, buy her books), may have found a solution for. In the “Finish” box is Homecomers, a science fiction novel unfinished at 62150 words which offers the solution to The Fortune Keepers by creating a universe in which both books can exist, with Homecomers as book 1 and The Fortune Keepers as book 2 in a series. Finally, there is Thin Smoke Without Flame, another old idea that I recently had an epiphany about and took from 20,000 to 65163. I find endings the hardest to write, which is why both these novels hover around a similar word count. I naturally seem to pause just after 60,000 words, the rise at the top of the rollercoaster before gravity takes hold.
To preempt exclamations about being prolific, I stress: Thin Smoke is an idea I had two decades ago. Fortune Keepers is about a decade-and-a-half old in places. Some of the stories in Dead Seal Beach and Fuji Rock were written when I was a student in the late 90s. I don’t throw things away; I recycle all the time, and I persevere. Every story has its own unique gestation period.
I don’t know if this will be of any interest to anyone. Some people seem to enjoy delving into how artists work, so maybe one or two of you are in that group. I don’t offer any of this as advice, or guidance in how to write. You do you. Nothing else will work.