Thursday, 2 April 2015

Some Thoughts on Writing

I've been looking for something to get excited about on this blog for a while, and also looking for something which will make me write better. I think the entries, on both the music and sport blog, have been pretty limply written for quite a while - ideas have petered out, sentences have jarred, hell, I've left far too many "it's"s in (yes, I know I have a habit, on this blog, of erroneously writing "it's", i don't know where it's come from, I go back and edit when I can, but I imagine if I came to this blog by chance, I'd leave in disgust at the number of "it's"s left in. U-G-L-Y - Ugly!!).

What are my standards? Is it just that I'm not a good writer, now or ever? Well, I look at some of the entries from last year (as opposed to the last six months) and think "Yes, I did that fine, I wrung the details and the essence from that; albeit it was a trivial matter, but I did it justice". That's all I can ask for. Both blogs have a limited readership - feedback on style and substance is few and far between, and when it comes, usually biased in my favour by friendship.

Well, then, that's where I'll start. Feedback and judgement.

I write a fair bit. I watched the Nick Cave documentary '20,000 Days on Earth' last year and I remember feeling briefly inspired by him saying words to the effect of "I'm a writer so I just write ...". Yes, i thought, I'm a writer, I shall just write and write.

Well, yes, I am a writer, actually, kind of. Professionally. A certain kind of writing.

So what writing do I know about? I'll break it down. I don't write fiction or drama, haven't done since school. I used to write academic essays, I write these blogs, which are either lists or various things that might fall under the umbrella of quasi-journalism - reviews, assessments, argument, invective, autobiographical reportage etc. I'm not on twitter, but I write facebook statuses, that's some kind of writing, I write quiz questions of various sorts and I write a professional blog on quizzing and quiz theory. Finally, I used to attempt to write poetry, from 17 to 32ish, fairly often. I don't really write it at all any more.

Am I any good at any of these? How can I tell if I'm any good? The question matters to a variable degree.

To a large extent, I never dare to find out if I'm any good. I wrote poems in a bubble for almost 15 years, not interested in finding out what anyone else thought. I deferred to my own judgement, and, but for the first couple of months, where, so amazed that words actually rhymed, I believed myself the next Gerard Manley Hopkins, I judged myself not quite up to it. Rightly, I think. I was a pretty good self-critic. I wrote and I matured and I improved, but I was lazy. There were a few times where I knew that I was pretty close to breaking through, that if I concentrated and put the time in and revised and edited and cared, I would be able to write consistently competent verse, but I pulled back. In the end, I'd never have been fantastic. I lack the instinctive sense of rhythm, the empathy and the imagination. My academic understanding of metre remained divorced from its application. I liked to write di-dum di-dum, I liked to start and just see how the rhythm and rhyme turned out. I knew I needed to get beyond that and I never really did.
But ... and it's a big but ... most people ... i mean 99.7% of people ... wouldn't know any different. Poetry ... fucking poetry ... no one has a clue ... not even the people that pretend to know about it really. About 1% of the people that pretend to know about it, maybe ... General people's general understanding of what makes great verse is almost entirely based on what is poignant, what is moving ... at best, people can tell when they're being manipulated into finding something moving ... I mean, I studied poetry for my degree, and I wrote it for 15 years and I have no clue if something's actually good or not, not really.

So, I'd have always fallen between two stools. It takes some cojones to write some shit like the lyrics to 'Angels' or 'My Heart Will Go On', the kind of words that make millions of people all over the world cry at the death of their loved one, and I'd have lacked those cojones.
And I also lacked different cojones - to a) get really good at writing verse, and b) be prepared to put sub-par verse before an audience, and thus to learn and improve it. 5 years ago, while I still wrote verse but was on the point of stopping, I went to Latitude the night before my compadres. There wasn't much music on, so I spent a few hours in the poetry tent. It was thrilling and galling at the same time. They were good, it was fun, it was so basic, but not in a bad way ... they were just pros, that's all, they'd honed it, they knew what worked ... shit, I thought, if I'd only known that this was all I had to aspire to ...

Sometimes, poetry can seem far out of our grasp and make us think we can't do it, but sometimes, it really doesn't. For my own part, I spent too long aspiring to a standard, methodology and form which was always unattainable ... perhaps I should have just got competent and aimed for poignancy ...

... do you know, I stopped writing regularly in late 2010, I'd got through my 101 songs blog, I knew it was a fork in the road for my poems. I was better, but also more self-critical, than I'd ever been. My dad died. I wrote a poem about it. It was shit. True sadness, true meaning, didn't elevate my craft ... I was still "di-dum di-dum", I still had the same tricks and tropes. That was depressing.
I remembered the same feeling 14 years earlier when, in late 1996, believing myself the new Manley Hopkins, I thought spending 8 months in Africa, free from modern materialistic complaints, would make me the new Shakespeare/Wordsworth/Ovid etc and it was only there, surrounded by emotion and beauty, enveloped by the opportunity of time,  that I woke up to the fact that I was a pure novice.

I put poems on my original (2009-2010) blog and a few friends would say if they liked or didn't like. It was nice, and it actually helped, but it also made me realise, first-hand, the obvious ...  it's utterly subjective. One smart dude would love one thing and not like another, which another dude really liked... OMG, hoo noo? I think I always feared the Don of Poetry at the University of Verse coming down and pronouncing me a piss poor pauper of poorness ... but, actually, of course, someone really clever thinking I was shit wouldn't have mattered. I (the overlord of objectivity and amateur pop criticism) think U2 are shit, and the Doors, and the Sex Pistols, and Muse, And Alt-J, and Elvis Presley ... it doesn't matter, critics and millions and millions of fans are still queueing up to say they're awesome. I had a false enemy pushing me back constantly.

That can even be the case with the quiz questions, but not really. I haven't had the option to be self-defeating when it comes to my profession. I'm definitely good at it. I've been doing it for 9 years, so I ought to be. I've had feedback, occasionally negative but mostly positive - feedback on individual questions, on rounds, on whole sets of 1000 questions. There's also the truest feedback of all, which is simply seeing, night after night, how people respond to questions and rounds. In every area I've grudgingly listened and improved. I now know, beyond, any doubt, I'm very good at writing quiz questions. My question-writing is versatile, quick, well-judged, clever, fun, all dem tings. Too many people have responded positively to my work to dispute it. If someone should grumble about one question, one batch, one day, it won't kill my self-confidence, it'll just be an excuse to be mildly vituperative and then get on with sorting out whatever I didn't quite get right.

Some folk are truly immune to criticism because they're steely and that's probably helpful, though has its nicknames. Others do care about it, but in certain spheres and certain ways, can be confident enough to be at ease with it. That's how I am with quiz questions (not entirely, but mostly) and, funnily enough, how I was with translation of Latin and Greek, but have never been with anything else.

I don't value writing quiz questions as highly as writing poems. It's a weird hierarchy. Far more people watch, take part in and judge quizzes than poems. My quiz questions, across various forms, have been widely praised (yes, it's true!) but that doesn't make me feel I've made it as a writer, just that I'm doing my job OK.

There are considerable skills involved in it, in particularly in adapting to the task in hand, in researching and writing quickly, in understanding what people will and won't like, in dropping in clues which people don't realise are there. It's a learned skill. I've improve immeasurably since I've started.

And what of facebook statuses? No, I'm not kidding ... what a weird thing .. thank god I've kept myself off twitter ... every time I write what I think is a particularly well honed status I get a shiver of anticipation, only to be disappointed by the two cursory likes that come my way. And vice versa, ya know.

So I know, sometimes, if I'm a good writer. When it comes to my work, I care, broadly, if I do it well, but I don't get too encouraged or discouraged by individual responses. Quiz question writing ain't Dickens, but it has its value ("its" not "it's", huzzah!). It's certainly taught me the value of brevity - verbosity will be my curse to the end, I think that's why I didn't take up twitter originally.

Anyway, it's fun writing about writing. I'm very lucky to be able to do writing of any sort for a living, to call myself, in whatever sense, a writer. It clearly isn't wholly satisfying, otherwise I wouldn't have spent 100s of 1000s of words on this blog, but there we go.