The writing process – a blog tour

The talented, fellow British poet Tim Cresswell has invited me to take part in The Writing Process Blog Tour in which all sorts of writers around the world are answering the same four questions. It's like a giant game of tag. I've also invited the delightful Yukon writer Marcelle Dubé to take part too. You can see her responses at www.marcellemdube.com.

The following ramblings feel rather self-indulgent but I'm trying to think of it as one of those question-and-answer sessions that you get at literary festivals and which I love listening to. It's just that this one's online.

What am I working on?
I’m working on a manuscript of poems about extinct animals. At least I hope it’s a manuscript; it could turn out to be just a long series of poems. I’m approaching my chosen subject very haphazardly – serendipitously you might say – and broadly. Perhaps I should say it’s about extinction rather than extinct animals because I keep finding myself writing about the human animal too and our impact on the world. My challenge is to try to see the world outside of the human experience. Poems come to me intuitively and usually in response to something I’ve felt in some way so I don’t really think what I’m trying to do is possible but I’m having fun trying. I know extinction doesn’t sound like a fun topic but it’s a chance for me to get lots of things off my chest. That’s my kind of fun, apparently.

I’m also about to get the revisions to my short story collection, The Birthday Books, from my editor at Hagios Press and am really looking forward to getting going on those.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?
Hmm. Difficult question. It differs in the sense that no two writers can write the same thing. They might choose the same themes, they might have similar experiences to draw upon but the order in which the words end up being put down will never be the same. I think that’s why writing is so magical for the writer as well as the reader. It’s a great comfort that we’re all in this together, sharing this experience we call life, and it’s also deeply satisfying when we’re able to gain insights into others’ lives and ways of thinking.

In terms of what my writing is like, if that’s still answering the question, I write poetry and literary fiction that's grounded in the real rather than the speculative world. Yet even saying that feels restrictive. One of my dreams is to be able to write a speculative story one day and imagine an alternative future. I can’t even say I’m the only British-Canadian writer living and working in the Yukon as my friend the talented writer Patricia Robertson was born in England and lives here in Whitehorse too, although she moved to Canada as a child and I came here in my thirties. And then there are other writers here who are first generation Canadians with English parents.

Going back to my writing, I tend to write about ordinary people living in the same time period as me and making choices about where to be geographically. That doesn’t sound too different, does it? As I said, difficult question.

Why do I write what I do?
I write what’s going on in my head in order to help make sense of the confusion I feel as I go around each day being part of this peculiar human race that’s colonised this world. That’s where the poetry comes from. It’s therapy for me. I seem to write when I don’t know what else to do with the feelings I’m having about something that’s upsetting me. For example, particularly as a result of living here in Yukon, I’ve written poems about meeting people who go hunting and trapping and raise genetically-modified chickens. Behaviour that to me is cruel and unfair. Often these people are my friends. No wonder I get confused. 

The fiction I write usually comes out of an experience I have lived with or have had an emotional reaction to over a long period and that I believe has significance beyond my own witnessing of it. There has to be something necessary about having to tell the story and when I say story I'm talking about my poetry as well as my fiction.

I am also an imitator. I love stories. I love reading novels that I can’t put down and that make me feel heartbroken when I get to the end of them because they’re over. I dream of being able to write like that.

How does my writing process work?
For me to write, I need silence and decent chunks of time, not just a few minutes here or there. I’m not good at dipping in and out of what I’m working on, although I’ll do it if I have to because that’s much better than not doing it at all. I try to write every day, which can be hard because I work full-time, even if it’s just one of those shallow dips. It keeps me connected to what I’m working on and keeps me calm. Having to write each day feels more and more like a compulsion or an addiction as I get older. I get restless, panicky even, if more than a day goes by and I haven’t written anything. Half a sentence can be enough just to feel that, yes, my writing brain is still there inside my head; it hasn’t fallen out onto the pavement to be trodden on and kicked into the gutter.

An idea for a poem or story could come to me at any time, whether I’m at work or walking the dog in the woods or on the bus. When that happens I write it down in my notebook and transfer it to my laptop as soon as I can. I have lots of little notes like that. I don’t go back to all them but it’s a comfort to know they’re there in case the ideas one day stop flowing.

I usually start with such little notes, then expand them with more thoughts and fragments written in that hopefully silent chunk of time. Then I play around with what I have on the page until I have a draft. After that, I’ll keep tinkering with it until finally I can put it away and not look at it. I try not to look at it for as long as I can. Weeks or months ideally – years would be better but I’m too impatient.

Occasionally a whole poem will come to me in one go. It’s still very much a draft but won’t need a huge amount of tinkering. It’s miraculous when that happens.  It’s never happened with an entire story, although a scene might come in that way. That’s when I wonder if the poems exist quite separately from me; I just happen to be in the right place at the right time to be able to download one from the universe.