I have never had writer’s block, but I certainly have a deep fear of editing – which makes writing rather awkward. Ernest Hemingway used to smooth the previous day’s efforts off before moving forward to the new pages. Once you get to the end of something in excess of a hundred thousand words, that approach makes sense. My method is to press on, and then rewrite and edit from the beginning. By the umpteenth time around, I am dizzy.
Chief amongst my editing fears is missing the what I call the backwards on a donkey moment. This is when some word, or phrase, or sentence jars the reader up. Either by a lack of clarity, poor imagery, the wrong idiom, or sheer clumsiness of composition. When writing first drafts the backwards on a donkey moments are inevitable. It is the job of the writer to edit them all out later. I fear I will not. The fear stays my eyes, and my fingers. Nothing gets done.
There it is out.
Now it is out, I must press on.
The backwards on a donkey description for words that don’t work well came to me, when I misheard an Anne Sexton poem, read out late one night on the radio many years ago. The poem was called Flee on Your Donkey. It’s long, and confessional, as her poetry was. In it, she reflects on being in a mental institution, again.
Sexton was a Pulitzer prize winner. She committed suicide aged 45. She suffered others; others might say they suffered her, including herself.
We call it life I suppose. Here are the lines – they are the last of the poem. The ‘hotel’ is the hospital. My problem has always been one of imagery – the backwards bit – she is sitting backwards, and the donkey gallops, as they do? The first time I heard it, I did not hear the word backwards, and could not understand her description at all. Of course, now, it all makes perfect sense. I think. One word, misheard, not said, can make so much difference.
flee on your donkey,
flee this sad hotel,
ride out on some hairy beast,
gallop backward pressing
your buttocks to his withers,
sit to his clumsy gait somehow.
any old way you please!
In this place everyone talks to his own mouth.
That’s what it means to be crazy.
Those I loved best died of it—
the fool’s disease.
If I were an artist, with a studio and paints and rags and stuff, today I would just sweep the whole lot aside onto the floor. I might jump up and down on canvases and throw tubes of oils out of the window. If I were a potter, I’d take pleasure in throwing each piece at the wall and watching all the work smash into little pieces on the ground.
Take that, I would say, although no-one would hear me.
It wouldn’t be in a fit of rage either. It would be a calm destruction. A clearing of the decks to start anew. If there’s one thing I dislike over all things, it’s being stuck.
Words don’t lend themselves well to being torn asunder. There they will remain, 2D and lifeless, on the screen or the paper, waiting for someone to string them together for long enough to give them meaning. Individual words are fixed in nature, evolving barely in one lifetime. Maybe that’s why I like poetry – you can make them do things they don’t ought to. Stuff square words into round holes, make them work a little harder for their imagery.
I find these properties of words frustrating sometimes; I really do. Still, I shall kick on, in my head, at least. Meanwhile, enjoy these clouds heading in the wrong direction…
Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth at Snape Maltings
Is waiting for the end of the school year better than being on holiday? You know, that whole delayed gratification thing… I am sure if you asked my children that question they would immediately say, ‘Hell, no!’
But for me, knowing that there is an end in sight, is better than the actual end. Once the children break-up – and this term has been a marathon seven weeker – it won’t be five minutes before I have to start stressing about sourcing and buying new school uniforms and shoes and P.E. kits and so on and so on. The fact that the eldest starts a Whole New School in September means we are going into uncharted waters, both logistically and physically. This is the first time that she will, for example, have to wear a blazer…
So, perhaps, the trick is to try and seize today and wring it out – slowly. Today is warm, today the work is not too hard. Tomorrow it will be different again, harder I imagine. So today, mentally, I let the anchor go. It has not yet hit the sea bed, but the wind has dropped and we are becalmed. I imagine the anchor falling, cutting through cool water; water that gets a darker and darker shade of blue as it sinks further and further away from the light. Sinking past the pretty coloured fish that flit under what’s left of the light, before you are eyeballing a pilot fish somewhere on the way down to the Mariana trench. For me, that’s always the best bit, that part in the long middle is always the most interesting – the part where you are no longer on deck and you have not reached the bottom of the ocean. I suppose, it’s the process that interests me most, perhaps even more than the final product. And that’s why I enjoy the drop, because it’s where realisations find you – when you freefall, when you aren’t even looking for them.
Unfortunately, I cannot get this analogy to work properly when flying on a plane. Then, the bit in the middle is definitely the worst – even with the in-flight entertainment. I think it has to do with passivity, if I was doing the flying, I would be fine. Anyway, here’s some more end of term work. I’m realise I am mixing my metaphors – the deep blue sea, the sky and the yellow brick road – but if you can’t do that at the end of term when can you?