Exploring the Islands

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I’ve just finished reading Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment. It is an extraordinary book, beautifully written. It’s one of those books that you can sink into, and carry around with you, exploring the themes and questions and points of view in your mind. It came at just the right time, as I feel I have been exploring my own, metaphorical islands, some of them abandoned, some of them not so much. Cal Flyn’s islands are real places in which human intervention has stripped and scorched them, the interest is in the psychological attachment to them, and the physical response from nature. My metaphorical islands are grief, writing, friendships. Last week I sent the new poetry collection to the publisher. I know they’re waiting on ACE funding, like so many indie publishers, so I’m really just waiting to see what happens before I can release any details. One nice thing about it was the way that my editor shortened the title of the collection in her response email. Something about that made it feel familiar, wanted, warmed to, and that made me happy. The collection has passed through that strange place, has gone from being a Schrödinger’s collection that exists only when I perceive it to be a collection, and is now a manuscript on a desk in a publisher’s office with a title that is solid and firm, a title that can hold the weight of being shortened for ease of communication. Put simply: It exists as a complete thing, it is created.

And so I bed into the non fiction book. I’ve started getting out and immersing myself in the physical places on which the non fiction book is based. It’s been wonderful. These places are islands of time in which I can almost touch the people who came before me, who lived on this land. I’ve been out walking in the early autumn light, smelling the loamy earth, quietly making my way through the richness of this place, disappearing into it, crossing from one island of interest to another through fields of black earth. The research for the non fiction book has been wonderful too. I have spent days holed up in my office with only the old dog and the rain on the windows for company, structuring a story I want to tell. When Hilary Mantel died recently I found myself revisiting her work, pulling quotes from her books to share, so that I could somehow express to the world what she meant to me. Hilary Mantel, though she will never know it, gave me permission to trust myself as a writer exploring, as an amateur researcher, as someone with ambition, someone from a working class background. I admired her drive greatly, I admired her genius response to the complexities of historical fiction, her way with language, her risk taking. We have lost a great writer there and it saddens me to think I’ll never read a new Mantel book. This quote in particular I find reassuring:

Some writers claim to extrude a book at an even rate like toothpaste from a tube, or to build a story like a wall, so many feet per day. They sit at their desk and knock off their word quota, then frisk into their leisured evening, preening themselves. This is so alien to me that it might be another trade entirely. Writing lectures or reviews – any kind of non-fiction – seems to me a job like any job: allocate your time, marshal your resources, just get on with it. But fiction makes me the servant of a process that has no clear beginning and end or method of measuring achievement. I don’t write in sequence. I may have a dozen versions of a single scene. I might spend a week threading an image through a story, but moving the narrative not an inch. A book grows according to a subtle and deep-laid plan. At the end, I see what the plan was.”

I spent a whole, precious day of research not finding what I was looking for, eight hours of researching and instead of the thing I was searching for, I found an image, a tiny paragraph in a loose interview with someone who knew someone who is important to the book, from forty years ago and boom: I could see the place and the time and the life of the people I am writing about, like a wormhole opening up. The whole chapter will now open with that single image. Much of what I’m reading and researching is structuring other parts of the book, but there’s no way I can set a word limit and work to it every day, I just don’t work like that. I have to immerse myself in a project, from all angles, I have to let the structure form itself, I have to let it become a ‘special interest’ otherwise I cannot write it. If I’m not obsessed with it, I can’t write about it, and I have to feed the obsession before i get to the writing part. That is the way I work, and that is the way in which I produce good work. I wish I’d worked that out sooner. For me, to be a writer is to abandon myself on an island in my head, and turn inwards.

And of course, seven weeks after my dad’s death, I am still on an island of grief. Still finding some days challenging, other days less so. I went to see his grave last week and found it surrounded by fallen acorns and fallen apples. My mum says he has a friend – a squirrel – who comes and sits near the grave. I like that idea. I keep meaning to say thank you to everyone who sent messages, cards, flowers. It meant a great deal to me to be remembered and acknowledged with these kind acts, and I apologise if I haven’t gotten back to you. You find out who is willing to make themselves uncomfortable for you when you lose someone and are walking the road of grief. Some people will walk with you a short while, even if that company is just in the form of a letter, a card, an email, a message. It is noticed, it is noted, it isn’t forgotten. Some people surprise you in their absence. Some friendships turn out to not have been friendships after all, not really, and you feel the sting of your nativity in their absence of thought. Grief then, is a kind of cleanser, it brushes out the corners of your life.

Next week my days begin with the Spelt Dawn Chorus Writing Group which I got a lot out of last month. I’m hoping I can get a lot out of it again this month. It’s a quite, peaceful yet productive start to the day, feel free to join us!

Until next time


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