Works-in-progress: Pages of an Autumn Journal, by M E Grey

What are you currently working on and what inspired you to start writing it?

‘Pages of an Autumn Journal’ is a series of poems I wrote in late 2016, and I am now posting them at www.autumnjournal.eu. They’re going up one at a time, a year after they were written, and the last one will go up at the end of December – so take a look, and do come back.

IMG_5994The title ‘Pages of an Autumn Journal’ originally applied to a pair of poems I wrote at the start of October 2016 – as if they could be leaves torn from a larger diaristic work, such as Louis Macneice’s Autumn Journal, which reflected on personal and public events during the autumn of 1938.  I then found myself persistently thinking about that title, and realised that I could collect a larger group of poems from that period together (that first pair now go untitled).

Macneice’s work is very engaged with political matters, yet from the perspective of an individual living within them, rather than as persuasion. I am not trying to directly equate 2016 and 1938 (a recent lecture by David Runciman details how this decade is not like that one), but last year there was certainly a feeling of not knowing what was going to happen next.

As a poet of British origin living in Brussels, this means living through the aftermath of terror attacks and the UK’s EU referendum; it means living in a town where people are trying, with and on behalf of a diverse continent, to come up with solutions for youth unemployment and the human consequences of geopolitical instability. Dealing with these ‘issues’ coexists with the experience of just getting on with life – and this quotidian aspect provides at least as much focus for the collection.

Who would be in your opinion the perfect audience for this?

Posting these poems one year later means that the pieces have had some time to breathe – yet they are still very recent. I hope that readers may be able to relate them to their own responses to some of the situations described, and also realise how things have changed in the time since. The poems are, together, a document from a particular time and viewpoint. Thus, while some readers might feel they have more in common with the narrative voice than others (for example if you live in Brussels, if you travel for work, or if you closely follow current affairs), they are intended for general consumption and not just people ‘like’ the narrator.

That said, I also hope the poems are of interest to people who can recognise aspects of themselves in the work – the number of people who proactively read poetry is tiny, so I hope people can come to the poems through interest in the content, as well as the form.

You have read some parts of it in BWC meetings. Did you find the feedback useful

Definitely. There is certainly a sense of validation when you get good feedback, but perhaps more important is to see people reacting to the poems in different ways.

Sometimes people ‘get’ what you first meant, but that isn’t the purpose of writing: a diversity of responses demonstrates the ways that a work can actually continue to exist. The feedback from the group helps me to develop my sense of what I am doing as a writer, and give me the confidence to put effort into disseminating this particular project.

If you could pick one celebrity to read out one of your poems, which poem/celebrity would it be?

I just want people to read them. I want you to read them – and why not start at the beginning. If I try and explain this impulse to myself, then I can use that idea of the poems as documentation or reportage – perhaps to serve the purpose of increased mutual understanding, integral to literature. But who really knows what it is that makes people write?

Works-in-Progress: In Search of Y

DavidEllard1The Brussels Writers’ Circle features members who are hard at work chipping away at various monumental and epoch-making pieces of literature. Or so we would hope. In this new segment, we interview chairperson David Ellard about his current masterpiece-in-progress.

First off, what is it, novel/short story/non-fiction and what is it called?

It’s an epic (and epic-sized) science fiction novel called ‘In Search of Y’.

Where and when does the action take place?

On the fictional planet Nile in the star system epsilon Eridani, about five hundred years in the future.

The_Seven_Basic_PlotsWhich, if any, of Christopher Booker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots’ are you following?

Oh number three, ‘The Quest’, without a doubt. My hero Jen Zo is searching for a bank of frozen sperm which (when unthawed I hasten to add) will allow an all-female space colony to have boy babies (Y-chromosome sperm, hence the Y of the title).

OK, pretend we’re a prospective agent or publisher and you have one sentence to sell us your work-in-progress. Give us that sentence.

The basic bouillon consists of sci-fi opera classic ‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert mixed in with French feminist erotic thriller ‘Baise-moi’, then lightly seasoned with touches of ‘Lord of the Rings’ by J.R.R. Tolkien and ‘Don Quijote’ by Miguel Cervantes.

How long have you been working on it?

Since November 2011 so not quite four years

A work of great length?

Yep. When I started I was worried it wouldn’t be long enough for a proper novel. Now that the completed first draft weighs in at 183,000 words I rather think I have the opposite problem.

And where are you at now? Where are you going with it?

As I said, the first draft is done but now I have to take the voluminous feedback from the group, twist and tweak the plot, reinvent the start of the novel in particular to make it more exciting and immediate, and go rewrite.

Accumulated BWC members' feedback on my first draft in repose on my sofa

Accumulated BWC members’ feedback on my first draft in repose on my sofa

How did the BWC help you in the course of your work?

I got tremendous motivation from the pressure of having to present the chapters as I wrote them. Lots of great suggestions and ideas, and technical advice – my novel is very dialoguey but I learnt loads about how to try and break that up into more digestible sections.

What was the best feedback you got from the group?

Two examples stand out for me. One member told me a certain chapter reminded her of the ‘Three Witches’ scene from the play Macbeth. I liked the idea so much I am going to rewrite the chapter in the second draft with various direct references to that scene.

Secondly, several people told me to reimagine the swearwords current on my fictional planet to give greater authenticity. This I did and now my characters have an argot all of their own. Sadly, this is a family website and I am not at liberty to discuss what those terms are, but readers of my second draft will hopefully raise an eyebrow or two when the time comes.

Who will (the final version of) your novel definitely not be suitable for?

Children. The novel contains various scenes containing sex possibly not in the context of a warm and loving relationship. Oh and lashings of violence to boot.

epsilonEridaniWe assume that it will one day be published to universal acclaim and that a Hollywood blockbuster will be made from it. Which actors will play the principal roles?

I can see Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker from the 90s/2000s ‘Rush Hour’ action comedy series playing the hero Jen Zo and his side-kick Olifah Tambo. For the Grand Mother, I was thinking Meryl Streep might like the part if I can give her a weird and challenging enough accent to master.

Thanks and good luck with the second draft!

Put Away the Hourglass

In a recent Radiolab podcast, I learned about how Oliver Sacks overcame his writer’s block back in 1968. He was struggling to complete his first book, Migraine, and eventually reached a point of such desperation that he decided to set himself a deadline. Okay, so that in itself is nothing unusual – most writers try this at some point or another when they’re feeling stuck – but what adds a dash of drama to this scenario is that his was a literal deadline. He told himself that if he didn’t finish the book in 10 days, he’d have to commit suicide.

You might sneer, but Sacks was apparently very serious about it. So serious that he ended up completing the book in 9 days.

It’s doubtful that Sacks was the first writer to use self-bribery as a way of getting the thing done, but considering that this was 44 years ago, it’s possible that he was before his time when it came to the ludicrously short timeframe he set for himself.

The podcast is really great (as Radiolab podcasts always are), and if you want to listen to the rest of it you can do so here. For now though, I’m going to leave Sacks’s rashness behind and dance with this idea of ludicrously short timeframes instead.

Now I’m not sure about you, but sometimes I feel a degree of pressure to write not only prolifically, but quickly. I get the impression that the old saying, ‘To be a writer you must write’ has been reinterpreted as, ‘To prove that you are a writer you must write as much as you can, as fast as you can.’

The pressure doesn’t come from other writers alone, either. It seems to come from everywhere. Friends ask what kind of writing schedule I set for myself, people have questions like, ‘How many words do you usually write per day/per week/per month?’ or ‘How many words have you written on your novel so far?’, as if quantity is everything.

I even found an article recently which talks about the proliferation of ‘productivity’ applications for writers. If you’ll allow me the slight diversion (it’ll slow us up, but hopefully you’ll see the point of it), I’ll describe some of them for you now:

Write or Die is a new iPad application that “forces you to write by providing consequences for distraction and procrastination”. You can set the application to three different levels of strictness. The ‘Normal Mode’ sounds harsh enough – if you stop writing, the application plays an ear-shattering noise until you start again – but in ‘Kamikaze Mode’, if you stop writing for a certain period of time, the despotic thing starts killing off the words you’ve already written.

Then there’s Pomodoro, an application that claims to help you focus and obliterate procrastination. You set a timer for yourself, writing in intervals of say, 25 minutes, with 5 minute breaks in between, sort of like what you might do at the gym.

The next one in line – Written? Kitten! – is a little softer than the others: you set a word goal for yourself, and every time you reach it, you are sent a picture of a kitten. If you’re lucky, you might even get two kittens in a barrel.

Apart from the applications, there’s also National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short), where participants bust a gut to complete a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. According to the website, “Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. This approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.”

Now don’t get ahead of me. I’m not going to say that these things are evil, ridiculous (well, the kitten one is pretty silly) and don’t work for anybody. Of course different techniques work for different people, and you do need to write a lot so that you can sift out the good from the bad. It’s just that the development of these applications shows a sort of social expectation, or social understanding, that these days, writers are supposed to be fast.

I just think it’d be useful to pull back a bit and ask ourselves whether this drive to be prolific Road Runners will help us to produce our best work. As Jenny Diski, the writer of the article on productivity applications, put it, we should “consider the possibility that writing is not just about writing, it’s also (and maybe mainly) about the space in between the writing, when nothing seems to be happening, or random stuff is having an incoherent party inside your head.”

Writing is about daydreaming. It’s about taking a walk. It’s about listening to music. It’s about buying muffins. It’s about eating. It’s about hula-hooping and cleaning out your fridge and watching five X-Files episodes in a row.

“My ideas usually come not at my desk writing, but in the midst of living,” said the famous diarist, Anaïs Nin.

This isn’t about encouraging laziness, or lack of discipline. It’s simply about reminding ourselves to slow down once in a while. As the great Sir John Cleese said in his talk about creativity, giving yourself plenty of time to meander around different possibilities means that you’re more likely to come up with an original idea than if you had forced yourself to make a quick decision.

It’s an idea that would most definitely be shared by the Canadian journalist Carl Honoré. His book, In Praise of Slow, describes a growing resistance to this ‘Cult of Speed’ we seem to be living in, and tells us that we’d all do well to get in touch with our inner tortoise. Just as Carl began to get more enjoyment out of reading bedtime stories to his son by slowing down, perhaps we’d get more enjoyment out of writing if we weren’t always burdened by the sense of time running out.

In the end I think it’s one of those paradoxes, like how exercising actually gives you more energy rather than less. Maybe if we slow down we’d feel like we have more time rather than less. So instead of setting ourselves ludicrously short timeframes to work within like Sacks did, maybe we should be like the Grandpa in the slow lane of the swimming pool. He’s not in any hurry, he’s still doing a good job, and – most importantly – he gets there in the end.

By Sarah Wiecek

The Genius of Writers

Published or unpublished, writers can all experience moments of fear. We can and frequently do have crises of confidence: moments where we wonder about the reaction people will have to our work, moments where we wonder if our writing is ‘good enough’, moments where we can’t write at all because the pressure to produce something brilliant squashes our self-belief. How can I write something brilliant when I don’t believe that I am brilliant?

In the TED talk below, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the internationally successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love, talks about a possible way of ‘diverting’ our fears by re-thinking the concept of genius. Instead of putting so much pressure on ourselves to be a genius, she says, we should go back to the concept that existed in ancient Greece and Rome. The idea then was that people were not geniuses in themselves, but that they had a genius – a disembodied spirit or ‘daemon’ that fed the artist with ideas, wisdom or talent. This meant that any brilliant work that an artist produced was not through their own inherent genius, but a genius that came to them from a mystical source.

Gilbert gives examples of modern-day poets, songwriters and other creative individuals who describe a sensation of their work ‘coming to them’. Poems fly in across the landscape, new melodies pop into a singer’s head while he’s driving. The sensation is powerful, mysterious, and sometimes arrives with incredibly bad timing.

The author is not necessarily saying that we should all start believing in magical creative spirits again. Rather, she makes a compelling case for thinking about our creative work in another way – a way that distances us from being so personally implicated in our work – so that we can manage our expectations, egos and performance anxieties.

Well worth a look!

Introducing the BWC

Previously known as the Brussels Writers’ Group, we recently had a rather radical rethink and decided to call ourselves the Brussels Writers’ Circle from now on. This is partly for semantic reasons (a ‘circle’ sounds more friendly and close-knit than a ‘group’), and partly because our traditional meeting place is Les Cercle des Voyageurs (The Travellers’ Circle) in Brussels, so we wanted to pay homage to our hosts.

Alongside a new name we have also decided to create a website to encourage new members to join our ranks, and to provide announcements, information and links to members’ work.

You can read more about us here, but a little note to start off with: inside the Writers’ Circle we try to create a friendly and relaxed atmosphere in which to share your work. This new ‘circle’ name we’ve adopted is quite apt, really. Just as it’s invaluable to have a dedicated group of readers providing feedback on your writing, it’s also valuable being able to analyse others’ work and learn from their successes (and their failures). We’re a healthily sized group with a wide range of experiences and backgrounds, and we’re always keen to add new perspectives to the mix. So if you’re writing in English and living in Brussels, or even if you’re just passing through, we welcome you to join us.