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. 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. 26 ‘Can You Write 200 Words a Day?’

I have spent enough years working with enough people to know that when it comes to self-directed research projects it is normally the fear of the total that causes the most distress to people. I should know, the distress I see in others was once the same distress I once saw in myself. It was during the first year of my doctorate and I wasn’t writing anything worth writing. The first year is often like this and so I imagined that I was roughly on the right track. I told myself that it was a good idea to be working through the things I didn’t want to write about in order to get to that which I did want to write about. But somehow, it just wasn’t working.

I soon realised that I had no real project.

I had managed to get a full doctoral scholarship based a research proposal that clearly promised enough to get the award but the problem was that the research itself was not going to sustain a doctoral-length study. It was too vague and not formed enough. You sometimes expect projects to sharpen their focus as you go through the early stages but this one was not going to work. Fortunately, very fortunately, I was able to come up with a convincing enough alternative (as well as being lucky enough to meet a new supervisor) and so I started afresh, this time with new purpose. With the problem of the topic resolved I now faced something far more pressing; how would I get the project completed within the time frame of my scholarship. For a wide range of real reasons, I really needed to finish as soon as I could.

But I was now facing the reality of writing – the reality of constructing eighty, ninety, or a hundred thousand words to make an original contribution to the body of knowledge.

These numbers hit me and haunted me. They loomed over me like skyscrapers, casting long dark deep shadows. I. Was. Paralysed. This was it. I had no more excuses. I had no more time. All I had was the pressing need for words, thousands and thousands of them. Thousands. Everything was predicated one me finding these words from somewhere. Anywhere. Thousands and thousands of them. And so I started writing. I wrote a paragraph. A small paragraph. It was probably one hundred words, give or take. I remember staring at this paragraph, expecting it to need deleting like the countless other paragraphs I had written and erased, written and erased. But this one stared back at me. It felt different to the others. It felt more convincing, more suitable for saving and that was what I did. I saved the paragraph and closed the document. I went away and left the paragraph alone. The next day I opened the document and the paragraph was still there. It still seemed suitable. In fact, overnight, the paragraph had somehow acquired a new tone, one I hadn’t noticed previously. It sounded formal, admittedly, but also also balanced and ready. When I read the paragraph it also felt connected to something, to an idea, a direction. Surprised but encouraged, I wrote the next paragraph. It was about the same number of words as the one it followed and that was the key, it followed. It wasn’t separate, it was connected. It lead somewhere. I saved the two paragraphs, closed the document and went away again. The next day, they were both there and when I read them I realised that I was so bothered by the total number of words I was expected to produce that I had lost sight of the fact that actually the total didn’t need to be my focus. That was too big and too abstract and just too much. I needed to focus on the way I was able to make a paragraph join another paragraph.

It was a small thing, a tiny thought, but central to everything that followed.

From then on I stopped thinking about the total and started thinking about the words themselves, their succession and connection, the way they flowed and fill the page. And so I resolved to write two hundred words a day and be happy with that. If I wrote more then that would fine, a bonus, a reward. If I wrote less, that would be fine too. When it happened I would save the document and walk away, confident that when I came back the next day I could start again. And I did. And I could. And so I did. Until the day arrived when I didn’t need to any more. Because I had finished. And my two hundred words had become ninety-six thousand words. Each one connected to the next. And the next. And the next.

And what a day that was.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 24 ‘My Top Four Lessons Learned from Teaching Classes via Zoom’

As everyone knows, Zoom calls are (very) hard at the best of times, what with patchy wifi, variable frame rates and the various other glitches and hitches that colour the nowness of our communication. Teaching over Zoom is even harder, especially with patchy wifi, variable frame rates and the various other glitches and hitches that colour the nowness of our communication. I have been teaching remotely, like many of us, since last year, and have had a lot of time to reflect on my experience. Here are the top four lessons I have learned teaching classes via Zoom:

  1. FILL THE VOID WITH YOUR ENERGY. However much energy I expended in a class room, when I was face to face with people, now needs to be quadrupled. Zoom can be a dead zone for thoughts and feelings and responses and the only to overcome this is by powering through the gears and refusing to succumb to the darkness.
  2. DON’T LOOK BACK. Don’t mourn the physical classroom. That room is empty now and will never the be the same again, even if I ever get back into one. With the best will in the world, Zoom now represents the death of the classroom. This is both a fact to be acknowledged and an opportunity to rethink everything I have ever done teaching-wise. And I like opportunities like this. This is what I thrive on.
  3. DON’T CHEAT YOUR STUDENTS. Zoom has given me a chance to rethink and redo my approach to teaching and all that it entails. The length of a remote class can be challenging but this is a good thing and not to be squandered. I know of people being paid to teach full time and all they do is play films over Zoom for their students to watch over Zoom. If that was me I would be asking for my money back straightaway.
  4. BE GOOD VALUE FOR MONEY. Don’t overlook the experience of those you are teaching. They are paying for the privilege to sit in their bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, shared flat, communal area etc so give them all you got. I have never liked PowerPoint, even when it became an industry standard, so I use it sparingly and I make very effort to make any slide I create to look like any other piece of content my students consume. Not that there was before, but there is now simply NO excuse for shoddy presentations with low resolution images, default fonts and bullet points.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 23 ‘Who wants to see my raindrop?’

I write every day. Every. Single. Day. This is a simple statement of fact. Most of us. We face the day with a blank page and watch the cursor as it blinks, waiting for the words to work once more. It is hard to write every day, especially when our days are filled with the endlessness fo other things, important things, trivial things, meaningful and meaningless, both and all with little distinction. Even still, I write every day. In part this is from fear. I worry that if. don’t write then ambitions will suffer and I won’t achieve the things I want to achieve; the thing, I should say, which is to let my words support me. I receive a thousand emails a day telling me about courses and workshops and tips and tricks and income streams and other opportunities that only require me to sign up to see that my writing can be a career. Most mean well and are clearly from people who have achieved my aim, and when I read the emails and updates I really feel that success from my words is possible, even if I’m not sure which email to keep whilst deleting all the others. I have self-published six novels, some of which have spent a considerable time at the top of various online charts and ranks. They are well received and well-liked by those who read them, which is, of course, in the grand scheme fo things, not as many people as I would like. I’m very close to finishing a television proposal for one of my book series, including a pilot episode script I have completed using Final Draft. I have a second television series proposal close to completion, complete with another pilot episode and based on a new novel that I am currently working on. But I guess the question that stalks my writing, haunting it like a face at the window, is who can get to find my words and read them? Who can I show them to? Who wants to see them? I don’t ask these questions because I feel desperate or disappointed. I am writing anyway, for myself, because that is all I know. I am asking these questions out of genuine interest. The world is drowning in written words, drenched like an endless deluge, so I suppose I am wondering how it is that I can find someone to show my particular raindrop to.

Notes from the Wasteland No. 22 ‘Why is it so hard to sleep?’

Why is it so hard to sleep? I have a busy day tomorrow. I have to be at my absolute best as I reach out across the pandemic void to try and connect and be enthusiastic and keep conversations going and not allow myself or anyone else I am (virtually) with to flag but remain focussed and interested as we consider weighty debates and important aspects of learning that will likely have a direct impact on the people in my classroom and their futures. A day full of total and absolute responsibility you would say and this is the moment at which my body refuses to slow down and let me take a break. That’s why I’m writing this post now, in the early morning, downstairs in a silent house, hoping that each time I press down on the keys on the laptop that I don’t wake anyone else. The house is quiet, resting before we all fill it again with sound and heat and feet on its stairs. I imagine that this is the time that the house looks forward to the most, when everyone has gone to bed and it can return to its still repose. As I type I can picture the house feeling itself settling for the night, longing for the few hours it gets before everything starts again and its role as the house is no more defined by its desire but by ours. I feel like I should apologise to the house for getting in the way of its rest, and reassure it that this isn’t something I have chosen to do to spite it. Far from it. I would much rather be drifting somewhere outside of my day thoughts and feelings, somewhere slower and darker and much much safer but I can’t. I am here. I am writing. I love writing. It is all I love. But I wish I wasn’t writing now. I wish I was asleep. I need to be asleep. Instead, my mind was churned and racing and things I have only just started thinking about combined with things I have always thought about and the merging of the two, along with all the other fractured thoughts that come to me when I don’t want them to and make me think just far too hard and far too long. I fret about my teeth. It feels like they are falling out and will crowd my mouth with their broken bits, choking me awake some day, one day. I think of people I used to love, really love. I mull the circumstances that have led to me no longer loving them. I replay my many times with them, the times when I thought I would simply just die of love and lust and plain and simple passion, and those other times when grief and loss puckered my mouth as my snot fell free, issuing forth and down onto my already drenched sleeve. I think about all the hurt I have ever felt in my life, some deserved, some most definitely not. I think about all the hurt I have ever caused, some, I hope, wrongly, rightly, deserved, most, for the largest part, most definitely not. I think about bright says and dark times, all the slights and fights and times when the words I wanted to shout couldn’t form and I walked away instead, not only not happy about the circumstances of the upset but also because the words I hoped would help protect me simply weren’t forthcoming. But I can think of them now and if only it were possible to travel back to each and every situation where I had needed them, I would now deliver them with all the wit and power and gusto that my (foolish) words so desperately deserved and then, with all those wrongs now right, I could put them out of my head once and for all. But I can’t so I can’t and instead of resolution these same situations now return to haunt my open eyes and simply billow back and forth in my already bulging head.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 21 ‘Is Tomorrow the same as Today?’

I’m beginning to think that I’m not the only one privy to the cosmic truth that tomorrow is going to look an awful to like today. Or yesterday. Next week. Or even some time soon. That’s an awful amount of heavy lifting for one truth but it is a weighty one, after all – most cosmic truths are, I suppose. Not for them the common or garden stuff, the basic, the mundane, the everydayness – not at all, cosmic truths like this one demand asteroids and night time pyrotechnics, bright lights and the fear of cataclysm or alien invasion, whichever comes first. Or perhaps they might arrive together, two parting gifts to a sceptical world who learn the ultimate truth just at the final moments of their existence. Either way, or, indeed, in all ways, depending upon which way you look at it, the cosmic nature of tomorrow’s being similar and/or identical to today, as thoughts go, is really a planet to gaze lovingly upon. Most of my day is spent thinking smaller thoughts like what should I wear and where should I wear it. Admittedly, this thought, in itself, has more than a whiff of the repetitious about it, but we’ll overlook the scale of this question for the magnitude of the other, even though both stem from the same source of discontent.

But surely if I know something today about how tomorrow will be then somehow I am privy to a further cosmic truth and might be able to somehow foretell, forecast, and predict the future and such an act of divination has to be appealing. Hasn’t this been the dream since forever ago? The one thing that humans have always craved and coveted, the availability of knowledge ahead of its determined revelation? And if this is so, and there’s no reason why its shouldn’t be, then why can I not get excited about my new-found divination? I suppose the answer is because as much as I am thrilled to be able to predict the future, the predicting of this same future simply indicates that my knowledge of what is about to happen is pretty much the same as my knowledge of what is happening now.

And what kind of knowledge is that?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 20 ‘Is this really all I know?’

Really? After all these years? All this time doing the same things and I’ve learned nothing? Nothing? You’re kidding? You’re not. So all those things I thought and felt and hoped and dreamed, all those things are fragments now? Scatterings of matterings? Only they don’t matter now. Nothing seems to. But how does that work? If nothing matters now why do I still care? Care deeply? So deeply that caring is everything? How can all this be? I just don’t understand. I do completely feel that all those things I hoped would happen have not. But then many of the things I never knew would have take place, occurring unexpectedly; not figuring in my reckoning. Most importantly, I never thought that I would be a father. I couldn’t foresee a time when I would be a parent. It always seemed so far away, distant, reserved for other people. Many of my friends had children when they were younger and so I figured that as I got older I would be a great uncle, perhaps, a nice neighbour, but I never imagined I would ever be lucky enough to feel the keen joyous burn of parenthood. Never. I just couldn’t see it. But she is here anyway. And though we may sometimes fight and snarl and circle each other as her desire to be herself and be with herself collides with my daily difficulty with this desire of hers, I always know deep down inside that I can catch her eye and smiled as she nods and when she does the swirl of the universe raises me up and reminds me that our bond is simply beyond comprehension. Far beyond and then further still. Utterly immeasurable. It as if everything I ever knew before I knew her has now been altered slightly so though things may appear to be the same as before they are not, and never will be again. And this kind of knowing that I don’t know is one that I cherish in a way that causes me to struggle to find the true words to express myself. But it is worth the effort to try and at least remind myself, and her, just how powerful this whole thing is, like swallowing the brightest star in the sky and feeling it glow beside my heart, spreading light and warmth and hope and more love with every beat.

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. 18 ‘Sometimes I really hate my life’

On those dark, dank days when every dream I ever had feels long gone and lost, down the drain, stretched over the time of my life and now rendered useless, like a spring oversprung. When every wish I ever made feels mocking now, as if when I breathed the words into the candle’s flame the gentle rocking of the flame was not my breathing but actually the candle mocking me. ‘Oh really? You want this? That? Them? Really?’ Had I known this earlier in my life my birthdays would have far simpler. There would have been no hope and no excitement. Just a day like any other. Because that’s what happens when we dream, we set up certain days as important, we flag them, marking them in our head as the moment when something starts. This day will be, I say to myself, the first day in that new direction my wish has revealed to me, the new path I will take, following each day dutifully while I wait for my wish to come true. And so I trudge accordingly, not sure where I’m going but hoping that my wish will be there waiting for me when I finally arrive, no matter how long it takes. But it always takes too long. Far too long, as long as it would take to measure the circumference of the earth with the scoop of a teaspoon. Impossible. Immeasurable. Imagine trying such a Sisyphean task; it would be the stuff of legends.

There’s a lot of energy in these words. They are highly animated. They fizz and form a chain of punctuated momentum and so the question is, what do I do with this energy? As I write today I don’t know. When I write tomorrow I won’t know. But its alright not to always know these things. They are, after all, the molecules which fuse to form our future.