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A Little More Practice
Writing my way into a wider dance
Next week, I’ll be taking part in a YouTube livestream for thepodcast. The host, , asked me to put together a few thoughts on my ‘practice’ as a writer and that grew into today’s post.
As we head towards Regrowing a Living Culture, the five-week online series that I’m teaching this autumn, I’ll be posting a couple of times a week here. Then things will quieten down to the regular rhythm of weekly essays or letters. Thanks to all of you who have already signed up or helped to spread the word about the series.
You can join Nico and me live at 16.00 CEST this coming Tuesday (24 October, 2023), or watch the recording afterwards. Please note: the livestream has been rescheduled for Wednesday 25 October, 2023 at 16.00 CEST. You’ll find it via the Annotations YouTube channel.
I grew up in a house full of books in a town in the North East of England. At nineteen, I went to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at a famous university. Within a fortnight, I had realised that I didn’t belong on that track.
It was Friday afternoon and I was sitting in the college library, working on my maths-for-economics exercises. The guy sat opposite went out for a cigarette and, while he was gone, I picked up the book he had been reading. It was a collection of essays on poetry by one of the tutors at our college. When he came back, I told him, ‘I think I should be doing what you’re doing.’
He suggested we go for something to eat. On the walk to Burger King, we ran into three different people he had known before arriving at university, and I realised that he had arrived here together with half his social world. In the whole city, there weren’t three people who I’d known before arriving.
The following year, the government brought in tuition fees for British universities. We marched with placards. The one I made read: In the midst of life, we are in debt. There was a slogan we chanted on those protests: Education is a right, not a privilege! I chanted as loudly as anyone, yet the words sat awkwardly, because I felt the education I was receiving as an enormous and uncomfortable privilege, one that I hardly knew what to do with at the age of nineteen, twenty, twenty-one.
Having defected to English Literature, I was surrounded by writers. Out of twelve of us in my year at our college, one sold his first novel for a staggering sum halfway through our first year – this was the friend who had taken me to Burger King – while another was named among Granta’s ‘Twenty Under Forty’ list of the best young British novelists before his first book was even out. Our tutor for the first year had been poetry editor at Faber & Faber, which put him in a direct lineage from T. S. Eliot. There was no such thing as ‘creative writing’ within the syllabus, but I took his unofficial one-term course on writing poetry, and it was like putting my words through a pencil sharpener.
All this while, I was wandering through an environment that is full of unmarked doors, subtle handshakes, taps on shoulders, yet I was almost entirely oblivious to this, and doubtless giving off all the wrong signals. So for all that I’m grateful for in that education, in my case, it was not the stepping stone that it proved to be for some of those around me.
Instead, within a year of graduation, I had moved back north and started a journalism training programme at a former polytechnic, from where I entered the BBC at the ground floor, working newsroom shifts at the local radio station, where we’d get occasional calls from producers in London who started, ‘Sheffield, that’s near Newcastle, right?’
What sent me back along this passage of memories was the word practice.
In my twenties, I knew that writing lay at the heart of the work that was mine to do. I had already spent time around people who had worked out how to be writers, who were publishing books and getting recognition, some of them my own age. I had many of the pieces, but no idea how to put them together.
Partly, I just needed practice in the ordinary sense. In the course of a decade, I must have written half a million words, most of them unpublishable, abandoned drafts of unfinishable books. At the time, I worried that my failure to finish them, the way I seemed to write in bursts and not with steady commitment, was a sign that I didn’t have what it takes. But now I’d say the sign was the insistent starting over, the way I kept trying, despite not knowing how to do this. That was the proof that I was for real – and that was me keeping the fire lit, while I waited for other parts of myself to grow up and show up, for life to knock me around enough that I would have something to say, and for the chances that would bring me together with people who showed me what I was missing.
But there’s another sense of practice that came in somewhere along the way. Because, for all the time I had spent around writers, I never heard anyone talk about having a practice until, near the end of my twenties, I fell in with people who had been to art school. There’s plenty about the way that art schools teach their students to use language that I can’t stand, but the ability to reflect on ‘my practice’ – in the way that Nico’s question this week invited me to do – can be helpful. Not least, the way it is left open at the edges, so that all sorts of habits and patterns in life can be parts of my practice, whether or not there is any obvious connection to the work of writing.
As a writer, the company of artists, improvisers, dancers and musicians has often been more help to me than the company of other writers. When the surface level of our practices is so obviously different, it invites curiosity and translation, rather than flat comparison. And out of such encounters comes a recognition that we may be doing something remarkably similar through seemingly different practices – or something remarkably different while engaged in what appears to be the same activity of putting words and sentences together.
Here’s what I wrote to Nico, in response to his question:
My practice as a writer starts with a need to make sense of the world from within: using words not to describe the world, as if from a position of detachment, but to get involved with it.
The temptation of the written word is that it looks so final, but I am always aware of writing as participation in a larger conversation with friends and strangers, some that I sit across a table with and some that I meet only in the pages of their books.
Only part of that larger conversation even takes the form of words.
The process of writing tends to start for me with an intuitive tug on the attention, something that is felt before it is thought, and the work is to draw what I’m sensing into view, to give language to it.
Often it helps to write longhand, rather than typing at a keyboard.
Lately, I’m aware of two different modes that I write in. There is one kind of text that is written in a single flow, the way I would write a letter to a friend. Another kind is crafted slowly and carefully, with a lot of attention given to structure, rhythm, variations of pace and voice.
In the books of the writers who have mattered most to me, there are moments when language deepens beyond the flatness of the page, becoming a space that can offer shelter, a place where we can meet. If anything I write can give that to a reader for whom my words arrive at the right moment, then I have gone some way to paying forward the gift that I received from those writers.
Writing is central to my work, the activity to which I keep returning. It’s how I find my bearings from which to go out and act within the world, and it’s the home to which I return to reflect on and learn from everything else I am involved in. The work of our school has a particularly intimate relationship to writing, because in the teaching I do and the conversations we bring together, I’m involved in tuning that intuitive awareness, the ‘vital compass’ that Suely Rolnik talks about. I find words coming out of my mouth that end up later getting written down, and I notice how those words land with others, or how they are born out of our conversations.
‘So are you, like, a full-time writer?’ someone asked me yesterday.
And I realised that the answer is yes. Not because I earn a living entirely from royalties or freelance commissions, but because I’ve reached a point where all the work I do is part of a weave of activity that feeds into and grows out of writing that I want to be doing.
The support of the growing number of you who have taken out paid subscriptions to this Substack is an important part of that and a great source of encouragement.
The way that we bring people together around this school called HOME and the space that it has given me to teach and host conversations is another important part of the weave – not least because I see it contributing to the weaves of other participants, so that I’m aware of a wider dance which I get to be part of without ever seeing the whole pattern.
And in the other activities that make up my work and contribute to making a living – the talks and tours, accompanying a book into the world and contributing to conversations in all the different circles into which I get drawn these days – I’m increasingly aware of that weave. Because sometimes I fall out of it, and I’ll catch myself responding to an invitation or a request from the wrong place, from the adaptive child whose keenness to please can easily flip into resentment – and when this happens, I need to pull myself back, listen beyond the surface of what is being asked, for what is being called for, and find my way back into the dance.
That, in the end, is what my practice looks like these days, and it’s a privilege to get to shape a life this way.
Join me for a five-week journey, exploring what the work of Regrowing a Living Culture might look like, starting on 7 & 8 November 2023.
From the Neighbourhood
Continuing the occasional series in which I share the work of others who feel like neighbours in this corner of Substack (and beyond), here are a couple of recent pieces that made a deep impression on me.
I worked withon the SANCTUM issue of Dark Mountain, when she was our ‘Marginalian’, creating a shadow text that ran through the margins of the book, before moving to the centre in its final pages and claiming the final word. Her Substack is always worth reading, but her post from yesterday, ‘A Prayer in the Motherhouse’, was as powerful as anything I’ve read in response to the horror of events in Israel and Gaza.
Within that post, she shared a short poem which I want to pass on to you, ‘Red Sea’, by the Puerto-Rican Jewish poet Aurora Levins Morales:
We cannot cross until we carry each other,
all of us refugees, all of us prophets.
No more taking turns on history’s wheel,
trying to collect old debts no-one can pay.
The sea will not open that way.
This time that country
is what we promise each other,
our rage pressed cheek to cheek
until tears flood the space between,
until there are no enemies left,
because this time no one will be left to drown
and all of us must be chosen.
This time it’s all of us or none.
The other piece I want to share this week comes from’s . It’s a tender story that picks up from a recent session at Stephen Jenkinson’s Orphan Wisdom school, where Jenkinson wonders about an opportunity that was missed in one of the earliest colonial encounters in the Americas, the whisper that – as Adam says – it might have gone another way.
Reading that post, perhaps you will feel as I did a deep kinship with the paths I’ve been walking in the Into the Deep essays I have been writing this autumn. There are many of us who are ‘longing for home in a displaced time’, and finding glimpses of what that exilic home-making might look like, even among the horrors of our unfinished histories and the horrors of these days.
Thank you for reading, as always – and especially to those supporting my work through paid subscriptions and by sharing these posts so that they reach new readers.