The Alchemy of Writing by Rue Collinge

Essay
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Writing by Kasia Grzelak, 2019

I miss the physical act of writing [ELLIPSIS]… The world has always made sense as soon as I have my notebook [COMMA], and I miss it with a belly-wrenching [INSERT DASH BEFORE WRENCHING END OF LINE COMMA], world-turned–sideways [INSERT DASH AFTER WORLD INSERT DASH AFTER TURNED END OF LINE] kind of hurt [FULL STOP]. There is no other part of my body I would notice missing more than my hands [COMMA], and now somehow I am on an awkward first date in a long-term relationship [INSERT DASH AFTER LONG END OF LINE COMMA], and I’ve forgotten how to do it all [FULL STOP].

6 September 2017, 8:17 AM

This is what’s left of one human being,

this thing on a slip of gauze;

but the rest of me, scattered across

continents, calls

screams for its face.

 

from the Japanese poem ‘Revelation’, Koichi Kihara, 1922[1]

 

If you had asked me what a writer looked like a few years ago, I would have spun you a tangled web of impressions. They wore glasses (probably). Their office was a coffee shop, or a cluttered library, or a tree trunk from which they could watch the world go by. My exposure to the writer’s process was also pretty shallow. I parroted editors such as Crowe and Oltermann who ‘wanted to tear down the invisible wall between us readers and them writers and see what’s really going on behind the page’[2], but was still secretly convinced that Book Was Always Better. Writing was a tangible act of creation. I felt a writer was more akin to a potter than anything else – unless they had their hands on the raw material, they couldn’t shape it.

My writing process is starkly different to that rosy image. Nearly three years ago, I was diagnosed with a health condition which severely limits the use of my hands and wrists, so I write with my hands in my lap, with a headset, and a computer bristling with dictation software. Writer’s cramp is no longer the issue – instead, it is the possibility of losing my voice! I can be speaking for up to ten hours a day, depending on the task at hand.

My relationship with the software has not been an easy one. Dictation is imperfect, but so is the person dictating. I struggled to translate what I was thinking into good content, punctuated as it was with the voice commands necessary to navigation and editing. It wasn’t possible to maintain a creative stream with this constant attention to the “nuts and bolts”. Words were reduced to building blocks. Vocalising my thoughts was a stilted, unnatural process. Before, I had been able to condense those first flashes of thought into a coherent sentence, with my keyboard or pen. Now, I was frustrated by their disconnected nature. They spilled onto the page and I tried – unsuccessfully – to connect the dots. In my inability to translate myself properly, I stopped trying to innovate. I did only as much as was required to complete my undergraduate degree, but I didn’t write outside of it. I was too busy grieving for what I had lost.

By the time I began my Masters degree, I had a better facility with the software, but there was still a yawning chasm between what was in my head, and what ended up on the page. Perhaps, as Brande put it, I hoped ‘to hear that there was some magic about writing, and to be initiated into the brotherhood of authors’[3]. She might have been writing in 1934, but her words resonated. I felt challenged. As we studied the different facets of creative process I realised that I needed to train if I were to better translate my thoughts. My difficulty was that I had yet to perceive dictation as anything more than a crude tool with which I could still approximate my old creative process.

As Hall points out, often ‘Our minds are musclebound, not by intellect, but by formulas of thought, by clichés of both phrase and organisation’[4]. I was constrained not only by the usual array of issues which plague us as writers, but also by my choice to suffer rather than celebrate the unique possibilities of dictation. I slowly became convinced that I could achieve as much, if not more, with this new technology as when I had used traditional methods. But how could I do so?

The same simple advice appeared wherever I looked: write often, in quantity, and without editing as you go. Brande compares the mechanism of writing to exercise, to which we can become better accustomed as long as we practice[5]. This stamina grows as writing becomes a habit which we cultivate. I was writing a journal at the time, and realised (with a tone of surprise) that:

It is brilliant and useful to write rubbish. Probably most of this is. Sifting through – mining for the gold – is part of the process. Writing for no one but myself is the goal here. I am not trying to find the shape of the finished product. I am not considering my audience. I am not writing for applause or adulation. I am writing because in order to get better, I must.[6]

I practised. I couldn’t just create nonsense, because the effort of editing it all later was too lengthy. I had to learn to distil it. Dictation has forced me to organise my thoughts differently, to know what I want to say before I speak it aloud. How can I best translate what I’m thinking? Which words will best capture the story I am telling?

I began to see parallels in the challenges of translation – of works from another language, especially those with a very different aesthetic. The anthology Japanese Poetry Now has been, according to the translator, ‘remade into English’[7], not translated. This choice of language is spot-on! The phonetic differences and its logographic nature alone are a huge contrast to any European language, and when cultural aesthetic is taken into account, the task is monumental. As Fitzsimmons approached each poem for the collection, he tussled with how ‘to preserve rather than reduce mystery’ whilst still trying ‘to make poems in English… with fidelity to pattern and whole, the human vision vibrant there’[8].

I wanted to remain faithful to the mental catalyst which inspired me, but wanted increasingly to render it in ways appropriate to the new language I was learning. And as I have bent my will to doing so, I have developed a greater precision with language. I have also developed a greater appreciation for the relationship between form and content, especially in poetry. As formatting my work must be achieved by voice commands, detail needs to be worth the time expenditure. A poet is less distracted by form for form’s sake, or gimmicky concrete aspirations, when it is painstakingly achieved.

I had previously experimented a little with form, but this growing awareness of sympathetic form led me to study other poets in a new way. As Knowles explores in her study, the visual element of poetry is hardly a new phenomenon[9], but we owe our modern inheritance to poets such as Mallarmé, who ‘turns spatial values… into a signifying force in their own right’[10]. He marshalled both the forces of ink and the white spaces between words with equal weight. It is this new understanding, a more imaginative wielding of dictation, and long hours of practice which have allowed me to develop a writing process which is far more robust than it ever was.

In this process of digging, I have found I am excavating self, piece by piece. I am coal-smudged, dirty and grinning with new callouses on my hands from this work mining words. Not all of my forays are successful or productive. I cannot pretend that I bring back gold with every trip, nor that I don’t sometimes groan from the strain or shrink from the labour, but I am learning the tunnels and trying new parts of the rock face.

I am mining for gold. Look – how it gleams in the dirt.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Brande, Dorothea, Becoming a Writer, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934)

Donald Hall, Writing Well, 6th edn. (Illinois: Scott, Foresman/Little Brown College Division, 1988) pp.18-23

Crowe, Dan, Philip Oltermann, eds., How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors, (New York: Rizzoli, 2007)

Knowles, Kim, Anna Katharina Schaffner, Ulrich Weger, & Andrew Michael Roberts, ‘Reading Space in Visual Poetry: New Cognitive Perspectives’, in Writing Technologies, 4 (2012), 75–106

Fitzsimmons, Thomas, ed. and trans. Japanese Poetry Now, (New York: Schocken Books, 1972)

[1] Koichi Kihara, Japanese Poetry Now, ed. and trans. by Thomas Fitzsimmons (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), p.36

[2] How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors, ed. by Dan Crowe & Philip Oltermann (New York: Rizzoli, 2007), p.4

[3] Brande, Dorothea, Becoming a Writer, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934), p.22

[4] Donald Hall, Writing Well, 6th edn. (Illinois: Scott, Foresman/Little Brown College Division, 1988) p.19

[5] Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934), p.71

[6] Process Creative Journal, 16/10/2018, Appendices p.2

[7] Japanese Poetry Now, ed. and trans. by Thomas Fitzsimmons (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), p.iii

[8] Japanese Poetry Now, ed. and trans. by Thomas Fitzsimmons (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), pp.11-12

[9], 10 Knowles, Kim, Anna Katharina Schaffner, Ulrich Weger, & Andrew Michael Roberts, ‘Reading Space in Visual Poetry: New Cognitive Perspectives’, in Writing Technologies, 4 (2012), p.76

 

About the Author:

Rue Collinge is a linguist-turned-storyteller living in Gateshead, UK. She has performed across the North-East and on the radio, was  shortlisted for the Terry Kelly Prize in 2018 and has had her poetry published in several magazines and anthologies.