Hello and welcome to Day 24 of the 100 Day Writing Challenge. Normally I say the name of the challenge before I announce the day, this time I inverted the order. Did the change in routine disturb you? Ooh, look at me capering in my jester’s motley, the topsy-turvy lord of misrule.
And maybe today is the day for turning the old ways of doing things ‘pon their collective bonce. This is one of the core questions that creativity asks, right? If you’re being creative, you have a mandate to ask the quote unquote stupid questions. Nay, an obligation. What would happen if I did it different? What would happen if I did the opposite?
Now there’s a time and place for this kind of experimentation, right? I’m not keen on the surgeon removing my gall bladder to be gripped by a sudden fit of creativity. I don’t want her trialling new, counterintuitive ways to perform the operation on a whim. But for surgeons outside the operating room to ask ‘what if there was a way we could do this better? What assumptions have we made and what might happen if we challenged some of those?’ That’s the basis of medical advancement. It’s the basis of all science, right? How much of what we think of as ‘truth’ is just received wisdom, a legacy, a habit, something we do because it’s always been done that way?
And what we’ve got to understand is, for writers, the stakes are never that high. If we write the story wrong, no one dies. The only threat – and sure, it feels existential – is to our ego. Although – let’s not do this down – as human beings, sometimes threats to our sense of self feel so painful that we literally would rather die than face up to them.
I said on day zero that part of the point of this course is to build up your confidence. But if we try to do that purely by turning away from feelings of vulnerability, of fraudulence, of embarrassment, of inadequacy or lack, of worry, of feeling like a bit of a prat – if our only strategy is to try to smother those feelings with great dollops of Instagram slogan ‘go you!’ whitewash, then frankly we’re just carpeting over the hamster. It’s still there – a conspicuous lump by the coffee table, gradually starting to mulch and stink.
Far better, I think – and what do I know, I’m just a disembodied voice in your head – to employ the very tools of novel writing to engage with these challenging feelings. Good fiction isn’t propaganda, it doesn’t hammer one ideology – if you want to do that, write an essay, post on social media. Good fiction is inherently oppositional. It embraces a dialectic. It gives voice, stage time, power to opposing ways of seeing and being. It makes evil eloquent and attractive. It rams things together because in doing so you don’t just regurgitate a party line – you strengthen and enrich our thinking, our empathy, our ability to discern wisely.
So one thing that’s really fun to play with is experimenting with voices that really aren’t us. Who think differently to us. And I suppose that’s the essence of fiction but I’m talking hugely different. You know, people who are almost our Jungian shadow side. That we’d feel terrified being like.
As a performance poet I took part a couple of times in this UK show called the Anti-Slam. You might know that poetry slams are this type of event where poets get on stage and read a poem and the audience or judges rate them out of ten, and at the end there’s a winner and you slam semi-finals and UK slam champions and all sorts of competitive nonsense like that. Well, the Anti-Slam turns it on its head and seeks to find the absolute worst poet.
So you get all these poets coming up on stage, mostly in character under an assumed name, and reading the worst poems you can imagine. Arrogant, self-involved odes to themselves. Patronising, obstreperous political poems full of really really bad rhymes. Love poems with tortuous metaphors and slightly creepy subtexts. Dreadful attempts at rapping.
Whenever I’ve watched it’s been hilarious. And what’s kind of beautiful is, I think, in a lot of cases, knowing the poets involved, we’re kind of telling on ourselves. Like the ‘joke’ character we end up adopting is sort of a very exaggerated version of ourselves. So people who do protest poems might come on stage as a very, very, very earnest ranting political poet. Someone who has a soft spot for love and compassion might do the Anti-Slam as a scatterbrained hippy.
It sounds like a procession of cruel stereotypes but in practice I think it comes out more like a giant, very enjoyable group therapy session. To bring out these sides of ourselves we fear, basically, and to give them a voice. And to celebrate them. And it ends up being entertaining both for those of us who know the scene intimately and for those who hate poetry, for whom it’s a very fun pisstake.
Cos here’s the thing: I started writing poetry properly after a massive breakdown. I was clinically depressed, I had zero confidence in writing – in my right to write. And where I began, the only place where my tender, burned-all-over heart could bear to be touched, was in parody. In pisstakes. With a friend, I wrote these deliberately dreadful nature poems that were odes to different birds like the thrush or the eagle.
And they were fun to write. And the nasty waves of self-loathing that were triggered whenever I tried to do anything that mattered to me couldn’t get to me, because they were deliberately bad. Hey, I’m not trying – oh what’s that inner critic? You hate it? Great! That’s what I was going for.
But then – here’s the sneaky part. Over time, I’d write one and an attempt at a purposely overwritten, dire poem would have a line in it where part of me would go: ‘hmm… that might actually be… good?’ And slowly, over lots of farting around and play and going off to read other people’s poems, I built up to writing my own, serious attempts at poetry. And I ended up getting good enough to earn a full-time living and to travel the world doing poems at people.
So I was wondering today if we couldn’t, perhaps, lean into our inner dreadful writer. Like, if you still have doubts about your capacity to write well, if you still worry about starting to put some of your exciting ideas down on paper for fear that all the beautiful butterflies flitting around your head will die under the killing jar of your technical incompetence, I hope you will therefore concede that you are capable of writing badly. And so I say to you: what if we start there?
So I’m going to give you like two minutes, two and a half, let’s say, to list as many negative qualities as you can that a writer might have. I’m not sure if ‘negative quality’ is an oxymoron. Negative traits? Like what do you think the very worst writer you can imagine, what kind of personality and stylistic traits would they have? This doesn’t have to be some universal prescription, some of them might be mutually exclusive – there are lots of ways to be bad. Just a list of dreadful traits for a writer to have. Are you ready? Two and a half minutes, just a basic list. Don’t worry too much about making each one perfect – some might be big flaws, some might be small. Just list them. Hammer them out.
Write til you hear the gong. Ready? Go.
<two and a half minutes>
And that’s it. So you’ll have some words down on a piece of paper. Up until now I’ve tried to keep things positive and nonjudgemental but sometimes it can be healthy to explore this side of our feelings.
So you can imagine what I’m going to suggest next. I want you to pick let’s say three or more traits from this list – whichever ones jump out at you – and take them deeply inside yourself. Inhale them, take them into your essence, feel their corrupting power flowing through your fingers as they begin to seize control. What are the flaws you’re going to embody? If you like you can give this writer a name, you can imagine what they look like, but it doesn’t really matter. What’s going to happen is you’re going to give in and allow them to write through you for the next seven and a bit minutes.
They’re actually writing the culminating scene of their latest novel. And actually the writing’s coming really easily. They’re feeling hugely inspired, they’ve really hit their stride today. So you’re just going to jump in mid-scene, at this climax of their book – what’s the book about? Who are the characters? What’s this big conflict that’s finding its apex in this moment? I don’t know. Let them deal with that, you’re just the fingers. And for seven and a bit minutes you’re just going to let them write through you. With this style that is very, very them, and embodies every part of their personality.
Are you ready? I realise this is a big leap, but I believe in you, and more importantly, I believe in them.
Here we go. Three… two… one… Go.
<seven and a half minutes>
And that’s it. Phew.
I don’t know how that went for you. Some people find this exercise the most excruciating thing they’ve ever done in their lives, some feel set free like never before, and many people are somewhere in the middle, gingerly testing out this new voice.
I think it depends what flaws you alighted on. Obviously there are amusing foibles, like someone who is given to flowery, purple prose, and then there are less amusing ones, like someone who is cruel or bigoted, and if you found yourself channelling the latter I don’t doubt you feel a bit like you want to go rub yourself down with a hot towel and maybe get deloused. Often this exercise produces broad parody, it’s a good one for getting writing workshops to make each other laugh – sometimes someone will come out with a really uncomfortable, challenging character piece where you could hear a pin drop, and I think that’s valuable too.
The point of this is not to suggest that all your work should be edgy satire, just that, as a writer, you contain multitudes. And the very voice of self-criticism in your head, the imagined adversary, is actually a brilliant bit of sustained character work on your part, no more real than any of the other characters you conjure onto the page – and no less, either.
Enough for today. I’m getting dangerously close to tossing another log on the fire and reading you interminable excerpts from the western canon of dramatic theorists. Let us adjourn, you have a good rest and tomorrow we can continue this journey into the wrinkled lump of grey fat scientists insist is the seat of reason.