I was on the phone to a writer friend the other week. In itself this is a rare occurrence: normally we communicate by email, text, and, what another writer friend calls the ‘quaint’ exchange of letters. In a year’s time we will be gearing up to tutor a week of poetry writing at Totleigh Barton, our first course together for thirteen years. We are very excited. But because Arvon rightly plans so far ahead, we needed to get our blurb together with about a week’s notice. So we exchanged emails and made a time to chat. My friend wasn’t hanging around: ‘What matters to you?’ she said. I felt a little depth charge of déjà vu go off inside my brain. Hadn’t I been asking the exact same question in my interviews with professional writers during the Teachers as Writers project? And hadn’t I spent a lot of time analysing their answers? To mix metaphors, the boot was now on the other foot, and I hesitated. Sensing this, my friend put her question in a slightly different way: ‘What do you want them to leave with at the end of the week?’ ‘Oh, that’s easy,’ I said. ‘I want them to find the material that is important for them to write about. Not their partner, or their employer, or their family, but the material that matters to them.’ ‘Brilliant!’ said my friend. ‘I think we’ve cracked it. That was a quick meeting wasn’t it?’ For the record, it wasn’t: we then redrafted it out loud back and forth to each other for another half hour. But the essence of it stayed the same: Find the material that’s important to you.
As this is my last TAW blog post, that is the point I would like to finish by making. At the risk of sounding woolly and provocative, I don’t think that anything else really matters. Not really. I also think that finding what matters to us as writers is messy, non-linear, and takes a lifetime of effort. I think it is also inextricably linked up with how we want to say what we want to say. But first we need the what. When Katherine Mansfield said she wanted to ‘tell how the laundry basket squeaked’, and Robert Lowell remembered ‘some little country shop’ that set off a whole store of half-forgotten memories, I think this is what they were talking about.
The problem is that to get to the point of writing the story or poem about the laundry basket or country shop, which may in fact be about something else entirely, we will need to write a lot of useless words first, in both senses of the word. Which is when things get difficult. We start out with this enormous sense of excitement and amazedness at our own potential, only to discover thirty pages in that our story is not about the small country shop but our feelings about our mother. At which point we tend to give up or write about something less emotionally challenging instead. The good news is that if we hang in there, apply our bottoms to whichever chair is nearby, and write a little and often about things which matter most to us, the writing will become, as Saint Anne Lamott says, ‘its own reward’.
That other stuff we are all tested on (and which will one day fade), about frontal adverbials, say, we can learn that on the way. Things about layout, differences between genres, and the rhythm of our sentences. All important, all vital, all necessary. But unless we can sit quietly for a minute and twist that ‘doorknob’ (Lowell again) into our memory and experience, there will be nothing to say. As Michael Morpurgo once said during a reading in a school assembly: ‘You want to be a writer? There’s only one way I know of achieving that: start.’
Teachers as Writers project (Arvon Foundation, Open University, University of Exeter)