Notes From the Wasteland No. 35 ‘Do You Remember Learning to Drive?’

I think I type too fast. In fact, I know I type too fast. Way too fast. So fast that without fail almost every sentence I type I end up typing twice, once riddled full of errors and then once having corrected all the errors.

Does this happen to you?

I’m sure it does and when it does, do you find it irritating? I know I do. I find it incredibly irritating. I find it breaks my flow and makes me stutter and pause and that’s because every time I see a red line I have to attend to it, I can’t just leave and go back. I wish I could, that would be far simpler but I can’t, and because I can’t, it feels like I’m doubling my effort for half as much.

Do you feel this way too?

Should I have more control of my digits? Should I type slower? The answer to both questions is always of course I should have more control and of course I should type slower but if I do then would I lose out on some kind of spontaneity? Does slower and more controlled mean that my writing would suffer? As I sit and type this I have to say that I don’t have an answer. Maybe I don’t need an answer? Perhaps what I’m doing is actually writing and editing at the same time?

Is this even a thing?

If it is then I may have stumbled upon some kind of cosmic truth, like rolling back a stone and finding something valuable and lost to the world, something important, rare, even. But that’s not likely and in all honesty what I think is much more probable is that I have simply spent so much time typing that I am now over-sensitive to the whole process, acutely aware of every single, solitary tap of the keyboard. Its all a bit like driving a car. When I was learning to drive I was conscious of every single action and movement and decision I made as I was driving. That’s fine, that how you learn, by being hyper-aware, and, of course, once I passed my test this pattern continued for a while longer. I was careful, cautious and considered – the way all drivers should be. Over time, however, I noticed that I wasn’t remembering so much of the journey. I would get in the car, start it up, head off and arrive at my destination; the thinking-everything-through part of driving faded somewhat as I became more experienced and driving became more automatic.

Did this happen to you too?

Perhaps, then, with all hype aside, my returning to focussing on every single aspect of the writing process, and despite the grumblings above, is a good thing? Why would I say that? Perhaps it means that I am learning to write, again, differently, more effectively? Or, perhaps even more simply, I am still learning to write – I just had forgotten that simple fact.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 31 ‘Can You Imagine Not Writing?’

One day you decide to stop writing. That’s it, you say. I won’t write another word ever again. Not a single word. I’m just going to find something else to do, anything other than write. I refuse to put the letters together one after the other any longer. I just won’t. I’ve got plenty of other things to do, you say. Plenty. I won’t have to worry, you say. There will be lots of other things I can put my mind to.

I never liked writing anyway, you say. It is just too hard to find something to say every day. I can’t stand staring at the blank screen, with the cursor blinking as it dares me to write something. I can’t stand the pressure I put on myself; to have ideas and develop them, connect thoughts and let them lead somewhere. I hate this process, you say. It makes me feel small and weak and helpless. It makes me wonder why I bother because even if I manage to string enough words together to make a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter or, even, here’s hoping, a novel, who will read it anyway?

And maybe that’s the point of all of this, the tick that makes the clock what it really is? Maybe the hate at the heart and, yes, it can be described that way, sometimes, always, not too often, never, maybe the hate at the heart of this conundrum is that we can’t always see why we do something, in this case, write, because we can’t always see who will read our writing. And this is a real reason for many people to stop, or, at least, question why they are writing in the first place.

So, the question isn’t really about what it would be like to not write ever again, because, for me, that would be impossible and absurd. Perhaps the issue here really is about whether or not we understand that by writing we are committing ourselves to a process which may be little more than any other form of regular exercise, like running, say, or cycling. Of course, writing may also be a process which is not like running, say, or cycling, but the fact of the matter is that when we run, or cycle, we do it for ourselves, unless we are amazingly lucky enough to be a professional runner or cyclist. And so for running, cycling, we can substitute writing for ourselves as a legitimate reason for writing in the first place.

Can’t we?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 30. What Do You Look For in a Sentence?

How do you like your sentences? Do you like them long and full and complex, complete with clauses and pauses and colon and commas? Do you like them parading down the page, long enough that you have to wait for them to form before you, materialising like matter in a science fiction film? Do you like them meaty and chunky, bristling with energy and effort, forcing the reader to really engage or risk losing all meaning through the simple facts of their length? Now, I’m all for punctuation, all for it. Punctuation is a life-saver. It is a life giver. Punctuation is the sinew that keeps the joints of your writing supple and fully functioning. Punctuation is the permission your words need, if any was needed, for them to take their place in the world.

Punctuation is everything.

Nowadays, the world seems to be filled with commas. Everything is continuous, in flux, never-ending, endless, and this state suits the comma, giving only brief pauses before the next thing arrives, hot on the heels of the last. This can be joyous, thrilling, wonderful, invigorating, breathless, like the frames of some wonderful scene from a wonderful film where the merging of character, space and place, and story, is perfectly judged and seamless in its edited flow. This can also be nectar on the tongue as we read and and we race, caught headlong and falling into the depths of a particular story, racing and reeling as events unfold across the unlimited boundaries of paragraph and page.

But sometimes I want brevity. I want breath. I want pause. I want to dance to a different beat. A simpler, shorter one. One that has a sense of space.

I want a simple sentence.

Not diminished. Not damaged. Truncated. Weakened. Frayed. Fragile. I want a sentence that works just as hard. Committed. Apposite. Ready. Formed properly. Shorter. Just shorter.

Period not comma.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 28 ‘What Do You Do When You Can’t Write?’

It happens. It really does. It happens to all of us. Now and again. Once in a while. Every day. All the time. There are just times when we can’t write. Just can’t find the words. Or write a sentence and then delete it. A paragraph? A page? Entire sections.

We. Can’t. Write.

And so what do we do? What do you do? Me? I dig deep. I recall and remember those other times when I felt like this, when my words wouldn’t come. No matter how hard I tried. I picture those other times when I couldn’t get the words to form sentences. It used to happen a lot to me. I used to find it quite distressing, putting undue pressure on myself and then feeling like I had failed. But when it happens now I think about three things:

  1. A sentence today is a paragraph tomorrow. I can write. I have written before. I will write again. I will be satisfied with anything I can manage, even a single sentence. I will do everything I can to stop feeling bad about my (apparent) lack of progress. And then try again tomorrow.
  2. Sometimes you just can’t stop. We’ve all been there, in the flow, words forming sentences forming paragraphs. And when we’re in the flow it feels like we will never stop again. And when I can’t write I picture this flow and remember the warmth of the rush.
  3. My house was built brick by brick. In most situations, once the foundations are in place, building a house means laying brick upon brick upon brick. Writing is the same. Only in very rare circumstances do people complete novels in one go. Most of the time, we build our stories and our worlds brick by brick. This way, we can focus on the wall in front of us and not the roof that isn’t there yet.

What do you do when you can’t write?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 27 ‘Is Writing like Breathing?’

There’s something automatic about writing this paragraph. The way my fingers tap the keys and the words form from the letters I choose, the positions of which never change so over time my hands have learned to guide themselves in perfect sequence with my thoughts. Occasionally, I mis-spell a word, but that’s part of the nature of this process, like coughing, I suppose. But overall, writing this paragraph, this post, that paragraph, that book, novel, line sentence, thesis, overall, writing is like breathing, at least for me. Automatic. Regular. Vital. Essential. Laboured, sometimes. Weary. Heavy. Sometimes I am out of words like I’m out of breath, but still they come, ragged, rasping but still there. In this sense, it makes no sense to ask how do I write? Or why do I write? Because it makes no actual sense to ask how do I breath? Or why do I write? It is simply a biological fact that I write because I breathe and because I breathe I write.There is nothing else. How could there be? Why should there be? Writing is simply a function. A necessity. A fact of existence. Nothing less but everything more.

Is it the same for you? Is writing like breathing? Automatic? Regular? Life?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 19 ‘Teaching people is such a sacred thing’

It begins again. The working week begins. Although the space between the week and weekend is not always clear as I have to work at weekends too; I always do. This is just what I have to do. I have to make sure that my classes are prepared well in advance because even though my favourite part of teaching is the chance to talk around and between my notes I still always worry that I don’t have enough material. I have been teaching for twenty one years and this is the fear that always grips me. The truth of the matter is that I always have more than enough material, far far more than I normally need but even then this doesn’t satisfy me. I suppose this is because I can’t bear simply using the same material year after year and so it means that each class I have prepared I then have to rewrite and then rewrite and then rewrite. This is intensely satisfying and very necessary but also extremely exhausting. But I cannot have it any other way. Teaching is such a particular joy, one I have been so lucky to have stumbled into. But it is only a joy for me, and for my classes, I hope, if I come to each class and each topic afresh and with genuine vigour. The thought of coming to class having not prepared and ready to look like I really don’t care is only the kind fo thought that haunts me not sustains me. I will not be that so-what kind of teacher, that I used-to-care-but-don’t-anymore outlook that some people adopt. This is because it is such a rare pleasure to put a thought in someone’s head, see them acknowledge the workings of their own brain having had a gentle prompt from something I suggested, to see that spark ignite behind their eyes, it is such an honour that needs to be treated as sacred. And so, to me, anyone who abuses that honour by not caring, and daring to show that they don’t care, that they can’t be bothered, don’t, in my eyes, deserve to stand in front of anyone, let alone ruin that sacred relationship by refusing to acknowledge its sacredness. And though I sometimes grumble and complain, fearing that I am giving all my time and energy away, I realise, inevitably, that I am so honoured to be trusted to say things to groups of people, people who look to me for suggestions and conversations, for stories and different ways of telling them, for explanations and sometimes wonderful complications, that I will always do what it takes to make sure that no person leaves any of my classes feeling that whilst I may not have all or any of the answers, I will always at least commit to giving my all and everything every time.

And then again. Again. Again.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 17 ‘How I manage when people let me down’

They always will. They always do. People always let you down. And when they do you won’t be surprised because you’ve been let down before and you will be let down again. And again. And again. Sometimes, it will be an enormous letdown, when someone you love doesn’t love you any more. Or never did. When they reveal that everything you thought was right was actually, totally, spectacularly wrong. So wrong that the word loses all meaning in its enormity, like a planet blocking out the light. And when that happens, and it will, or already has, or will happen again, there is no shelter or shade from the blast of this searing heat, all stripped down bone-bare and beyond.

It might also be the smallest of letdowns, something minor, minuscule even, inconsequential to most, unimportant, in their eyes anymore, but the importance, minor or otherwise, becomes magnified in our minds due to the fact of our disappointment and whilst it might be something as mundane as someone running late, or not calling back when they said they would, or a million other small actualities that result in the facts of our lives being constantly more complicated than we first imagined, it becomes less mundane and much more magnified in our worried minds.

But then the letdowns accumulate. Like trains running late, each letdown has a knock-on effect, altering the timetable of our life and impacting on every rail and at every junction. Not to mention that feeling of not getting to where you want to be, to be delayed, held back, to be caught in someone else’s time, not your own. Someone else’s. Always someone else’s. And the feeling of being on someone else’s time is not a good feeling, always waiting because with waiting comes hoping and with hoping comes disappointment.

Disappointment. The crush of knowing that the thing you thought would happen is also the thing you knew would never happen, but you thought it might anyway; just once, just one time. Disappointment is a weighty reason not to look to other people, a reason that endlessly justifies the decision you made the last time someone let you down – this, this is the time that I will not let someone, anyone, let me down again. Not ever. Not now. Not again. But again is a hard word to avoid and so the next time we make such a declaration, for the same reason, with the same words, their meaning loses some sheen through being said over and over. But not again. These five letters loom large, a monument to the automatic repetition that is my default position.