Miners and Watchmakers

In my last post, I mentioned that one of the things we think is very distinctive about the Writing Smithy is the fact that Sarah and I are practising, publishing writers – she’s a poet and I’m a novelist and short story writer. The fact that we work with other writers might not be so unique, but the combination of our disciplines is, and often results in some illuminating conversations.

When Sarah and I meet to work on managing and marketing The Writing Smithy, we almost always talk for a little while about process. As mentors and teachers, the different ways we and our clients manage to get words onto the page is something we’re both really interested in. We’re readers too, looking at Creative Writing as a product, an artefact. But when we’re working on Smithy business, we’re as interested in Creative Writing as process.

And because she’s a poet and I’m a novelist, because we work with different clients and because our own process are so different (this is a positive thing) when we’re talking about our work we often resort to metaphors in order to translate our experiences to each other.

So Sarah has told me that getting the first line of a poem right feels like unrolling  a carpet – the rest of the poem unfurls from that first line. And I have told her I imagine poets like watch makers, tinkering with tiny tools, hunched over intricate and well designed mechanisms that fit in the palm of their hands.

For me, novel writing is like digging, like archaeology in the dark. I dig up a big lump of something, then spend months looking at it, moving it about like clay. Or like knitting, spinning the wool for the first draft, and knitting it into something in the second. Two stages – generating the material, and then working with it.  Or maybe I’m not a knitter or a quilter, but a runner. There’s the treacly trudge of editing a novel compared to the white hot sprint of the first draft.

So often the metaphors are about scale – it’s the most obvious thing for a poet and a novelist to compare and contrast.  It is like making a patchwork quilt, sewing tiny stitches so close to the material that it’s hard to remember the big bed-pattern. I’ve compared working on structure to painting a huge canvas. You are two inches away from the canvas, so near you can’t see the edges and that immersion, that blindness to the whole is important. But at the same time, you also need to step back, to look at the whole thing, to move away and decide where the edges are going to be.

Blind and not blind. Writers double themselves. Readers and editors. Poets and watchmakers. Doers and watchers.

Seamus Heaney thought writing poems was like digging too. Pens were like spades (and guns).  Russ Litten has told me editing feels like sculpting – cutting out all the lumps that don’t belong in the story, making it a more edited, shapelier thing. Emma Darwin sometimes blogs about novel making in architectural terms – plot can be a scaffold, a framework, or in more gruesome ones – structure is the backbone, the skeleton of a piece. The Paris Review interviews are stuffed full of references writers make to writing as being as much like something else as it is to itself.

Of course, people use metaphors to describe the product too – the text itself, or a quality of it, rather than the way it was made. Ailsa Cox collects metaphors for short stories on her blog. Short stories aren’t short stories, you see. They are soil samples, sea turtles, cats.

And earlier I said Sarah and I ‘resort to’ metaphor  – which suggests there might be a clearer, better, more useful way of communicating with each other and our clients, if only we could find it. But I don’t think that this is the case. I think we use these sorts of metaphors because we’re writers – because there’s an instinct, always, to make internal things concrete. To show and not tell. And because we’re communicators – the metaphor making is about translating. I use these kind of metaphors when I’m teaching and when I’m answering questions at events – perhaps I assume that the people I’m speaking to are more familiar with the rhythms of digging, of carpet laying, of knitting, than they are with writing. Perhaps I’m wrong about that some or all of the time.

Are there metaphors I’ve missed out? When I first start working with a mentoring client, it’s important I understand how they ‘see’ and feel about their own process. A mentee once told me that editing her novel felt like ‘wading through treacle’ – by the end our session she’d transformed that image and now pictured herself as an intrepid Prince Charming, cutting through unruly branches and thorns in order to reach the castle where the princess lay sleeping. Do you see the difference? It’s important, isn’t it?

If you were going to ‘show’ me your writing process instead of ‘telling’ me about it, what would I see?

(Sarah and Jenn from the Writing Smithy literature consultancy are guest blogging here until August 12th.)

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