The writers’ workshop

That summer he enrolled on a course at a remote writers’ centre in the Highlands. The tutor was a poet whose work he admired and whose success he once aspired to. The Poet was only a few years older than him, but had been lauded from early in his career, garlanded with awards and critical approval. Most recently, he had won a prestigious prize for his last collection. He felt an affinity for the Poet’s work, an affinity not reciprocated by the literary community. The Poet’s work was exceptional in a way his was not. He was able to delve into language and deploy diction with effortless precision. Every word that the Poet utilised was perfectly weighted, each line finely tuned to ring out with pure sound, singing while his mumbled, harmonising while his choked.

He had always been sceptical about creative writing courses. They gave hope to the hopeless, he thought, a self-perpetuating system whereby the badge of authorship was conferred and legitimised by other authors. He’d always wanted to do it the hard way, retain the solitary edge of writing. As with any profession where success was predicated on marketability, nepotism or networking, he preferred to be on the outside looking in.

You could spot a poem or story that had been through the creative writing filter, as it had frequently been finessed like an over-elaborate decorative cake. Too much artifice, not enough art. Underneath all that sickly icing, it was just a cake. Flour, eggs, butter and sugar. Too much of it was bad for you.

Creative writing courses were expensive, largely the preserve of the aspirational or financially secure, well beyond the reach of those of more modest means. When writers complained about not earning enough from writing, he wondered if they had considered retraining as a nurse. Caring for the elderly. Packing crates. Writing was a privilege, not an entitlement. It wasn’t like digging graves for a living.

Driving to the centre, he got lost twice on the back roads outside Inverness, a combination of his car’s antiquated navigational system, which didn’t recognise the address, and his own stupidity. He eventually drew up at a white walled crofter’s cottage with a small patio garden. Through the windscreen he could see an unbroken vista of pine forests, grazing pastures and, further away, the Cairngorm mountains.

The car park was almost full, and he squeezed his car into a small space near the gate. He was the last to join the group, slipping in through the entrance just as the Poet concluded his introductory remarks. They were sat at a wooden table in a long, narrow room with stone walls. At the other end of the room was a wood burning stove and a selection of sofas and armchairs on the point of collapse. As he took his place next to a young woman with round glasses and long hair the colour of candyfloss, his feet became entangled in a set of crutches.

He took a moment to glance around the table. The rest of the group was mostly made up of ladies of a certain age, some Scottish but a good number of English exiles, all clad in varying shades of purple and grey. There were a couple of younger women finishing creative writing projects, and one other man.

The Poet had the sallow look of a young man on the cusp of middle age, one who had been softened and fatigued by recent fatherhood. He asked the group to introduce themselves and say a little about what they were working on, what they were reading and what they hoped to take away from the session.

Francine mused on the simplicity of her poetry. Davina explained she was an undisciplined but committed writer. Leontia was working on a collection and a memoir, and was on the steering committee of a local literary festival. Ellen had written her first poem that year. Daniel was a retired mental health nurse also feeling his way into poetry. Lynda was a published writer, working on a new book about the people and culture of the Scottish islands. Gillian wrote for pleasure. Eloise was a postgrad at UHI, focusing on mental health and confessional poetry. Eleanor had studied at Stirling, and her writing centered upon embodiment in the landscape. Joan liked Philip Larkin and wrote regularly. Pat admired Sylvia Plath. Marjorie kept bees.

All were deep into a personal writing project of some form or other. Some had seen their work published, some had not. For those who had been published, their commitment was palpable, an urgent need to communicate. He felt it too, but when his turn came to speak, he spoke haltingly, feeling circumspect about his work, viewing it as invalid next to some of the others, particularly the Poet. How could one reasonably say they had written all their lives and yet have nothing to show for it? He disliked having to account for himself, his failure at becoming a writer, despite his best efforts.

Introductions at an end they began with a memory exercise. The Poet introduced them to a poem called ‘I Remember’ by John Brainiard, reading a short extract to the hushed group, followed by another poem, ‘I Ran All The Way Home’ by Paul Farley, which Anglicised Brainiard’s American vernacular. When Leontia asked the Poet if that wasn’t plagiarism, he contemplated interjecting with a pithy comment about Harold Bloomian anxiety and strong precursors, but, being fearful of mansplaining, decided not to bother.

The Poet asked them to use Brainiard’s model to explore a narrow kaleidoscope of experience. This, the Poet said, and the memory of atmosphere informed his own writing, lent it an immersive focus from which he was able to pluck out images, like salmon at a ladder. He suggested that they reconvene in ten minutes.

In silence the group leaned over their notebooks, nibbling their pencils or diligently scribbling. As he surveyed the table he noticed that Lynda was writing using a fountain pen. She had left one of the refill cartridges on the table, stood on its end. He had not seen one since he was at school, over twenty years ago. He decamped to a sofa and began to write.

 

I remember the yearbook with its timetable.

I remember my first Parker pen. The smaller ink cartridges, and the longer expensive ones.

I remember my geometry set. The set square and the protractor. The sharp spike of the compass. The stubby pencil and the sliver of rubber.

I remember using the compass to carve graffiti into a desk. ‘I am eating my own head’. A line borrowed from The Breakfast Club.

I remember Mr Stoker, the chemistry teacher, asking me about the graffiti. I remember flatly denying it was me.

I remember Mr Stoker playing the guitar for us in Year Assembly.

I remember Mr Stoker was such a Ralph McTell superfan that he convinced him to play a concert at our school, and years later hearing a busker in Covent Garden playing ‘The Streets of London’ thanking Mr Stoker for trying.

I remember the observatory, the second to be built at a British school.

I remember it being a matter of weeks before it was vandalized, less than a year before it was dismantled.

I remember its eviscerated brickwork remains, like a half-eaten pie crust.

I remember the school crest. The wheatsheaf. The motto. Ut Severes Seges. What you sow, so shall you reap.

I remember the Headteacher asking us first years what we thought it might mean and a small boy called Joe Tomlinson piping up, ‘Summat about a crop, sir’.

I remember kneeing Joe in the balls before PE.

I remember Joe headbutting Simon Costello in Maths.

I remember Simon wanking in Personal and Social Education.

I remember debagging Paul Jones after a gang of us tied him to a tree.

I remember the face Mr Ayers was pulling in the photograph on his office wall as he dressed us down like a sergeant major.

I remember naming names and naming the wrong names.

I remember being afraid.

i remember the letter my mother wrote to the Headmaster on ruled paper.

I remember the board rubber Mrs Griffiths used to silence our form.

I remember going on report.

I remember we had the most academically gifted boy in the year in our form.

I remember he was bullied for being born to Indian parents.

I remember being bullied.

I remember being a bully.

I remember the green blazer two sizes too big.

I remember Big School had a double meaning.

I remember wanting to act but being afraid.

I remember the Gibbons brothers. their effortless talent.

I remember rehearsals for Oh! What a Lovely War! I remember the revolving stage, the barbed wire, the Pathe newsreels.

I remember Mr Lonsdale’s rages, and his kindness.

I remember reading They Called it Passchendaele in the library on his suggestion.

I remember Mr Green’s presentation pointer.

I remember Mr Wood’s pauses. His delicate phrasing and rumoured homosexuality.

I remember thinking it didn’t matter.

I remember the ammonia odour of the toilets.

I remember the cold tiles in the games changing room. The clacking of metal studs on the floor. Rings of matted grass and mud.

I remember checking other boys for pubic hair.

I remember Mr Ayers ensuring we showered.

I remember taking my shoes off in the winter and warming my feet on the pipes running under the desk.

I remember BO in the history rooms.

I remember goading fourth years to chase us in the first year and some years later first years goading us.

I remember the backs of chairs being bent like a finger after successive forms of reclining boys.

I remember dead arms and dead legs and knuckle raps.

I remember the RM Nimbus.

I remember Mr Stanley hating his job.

I remember pretending to be Frank Skinner in assembly during the European Championships in 1996.

I remember cringing.

I remember being reprimanded by the Headmaster four times: once for singing, once for wearing the wrong jumper, once for punching a boy and once for debagging Paul Jones.

I remember keeping my nose clean.

I remember the Armistice Day assembly when eight boys fainted in the sports hall, each crumpling as if shot by a sniper

I remember the gelatinous wads of old chewing gum under the desks.

I remember watching Grange Hill after school, and wishing I went to a mixed school.

 

Each remembrance seemed to trigger a fresh one. Some had always been highly visible, but others had been buried or simply crowded out by new experiences. As words flowed from his pen, it was difficult to resist the pull of the old memories. The more he wrote, the further he was drawn into his schoolboy self. He could have spent the entire day doing it.

Their time up, the group reassembled at the table. The Poet asked how them had found the exercise. One by one they described the process of writing within this kaleidoscope of experience. Some were less enthusiastic than others. Many had found themselves unconsciously venturing into darker territory.

The Poet volunteered that he had written about several memories. A bowling ball, a tapestry and an Orthodox liturgy. Each was distinct from the others, covering a broad range of experiential possibility, and each had a particularly tactile quality. The memories were so separate and distinct, so incoherent as to appear obtuse, and yet he was envious of the disparity and their precision. He marvelled at the purity of the mind that had arrived at these specific instances of imaginative recollection.

For their next exercise the Poet asked them to use the same method to recall something significant which could not be addressed directly. A cataclysm or epistemic break. A fall. Or something monumentally uplifting that would under the normal order of things be boiled down to received observations or glib clichés.

He returned to his place on the sofa. Before he began writing he knew that he was going to write about the birth of his first son.

 

I remember darkness. Darkness and the creeping dawn.

I remember your painful, painstaking walk.

I remember massaging your back as you swayed your hips.

I remember your breathing. Your heartbeat like a foot pump. The echo in the chamber of your belly.

I remember waiting.

I remember the birthing suite looked like a room in a Dutch brothel.

I remember the harness and the birthing pool.

I remember the lure of the bed.

I remember the midwife but not what she looked like.

I remember the funeral dirge of Radio Three.

I remember the ambient temperature.

I remember my skin tingling.

I remember the view from the window. The beige courtyard, the flagstones and gravel beds, the single bench. The cigarette butts and pigeon shit.

I remember the flat greyness of the new day.

I remember the stagnant water in the birthing pool.

I remember being afraid.

I remember being helpless.

I remember thinking ‘this is it’.

I remember something yielding, suddenly giving way.

I remember the splayed arms and shocked expression of a new being.

I remember blood dripping like liquid spilt on a table.

I remember the sharp shrieks.

I remember being handed my son.

I remember my awkwardness.

I remember your gasps as they stitched you back together.

I remember weeping in the toilet.

I remember waiting for the taxi.

I remember sleeping like an old man.

 

They ate lunch outside at a long picnic table. Having neglected to bring sunglasses, he sat with his back to the sun. Usually he hated the awkwardness of these situations, the need to be erudite and intelligent and credible and funny, to prove one’s worth as a writer. For a while he listened to Leontia address the politics of charging for reading poetry submissions, before departing on a tour of the writers’ centre. He was shown a rotunda with a roof lined with heather, and a spartan cottage for the centre’s residencies.

Wild metaphors followed lunch. The Poet read from the poem ‘The King of the Cats is Dead’. He asked the group to re-write the last I-remember exercise in a more extreme form, harnessing the emotional recollections and exaggerating them, to stretch the language of memory to breaking point.

Perhaps he had eaten too much at lunch, but he had no appetite for it. He looked over the I-remember sequence for the birth of his son. There was nothing that he could harness and embellish without over-emphasising his ambivalence towards the event. He had pursued inspiration down a philosophical rabbit hole. This was not what he had wanted to do. He searched in vain for some profundity and brought up only bile.

There was no truth in it. It was fake, bogus. He loved his boys, but their birth had been a rupture of sorts. He had stopped writing almost overnight. The poems had ceased. At times he felt he had nothing to say anymore, other than how much he loved them and their mother, and how terrified he was.

He thought of his own mother, of how she had devoted her life so thoroughly to her husband and children that she became incapable of doing anything else, other than being a housewife and mother. How when he had told her that she was to become a grandmother that her initial response had been one of quiet dismay, not joy. How this dismay lent itself easily to the depression she had felt through middle age, her discomfort at growing old. Unresolved. Not spoken of.

How the symptoms of depression worsened in the year after his first son was born, how she cried whenever they parted after visiting. She began to lose her appetite, forget things, sleep for hours on end. She refused to see a doctor. After she collapsed in the bathroom, his father took her to hospital, where she was diagnosed with CNS lymphoma, a cancer of the blood which manifested itself as aggressive tumours which the central nervous system. There was a large tumour at the centre of her brain stem. Inoperable.

His timid, beautiful mother who was socially awkward and lacking in confidence yet always dressed well and carefully watched what she ate and drank, as if biding her time in preparation for grandness in old age, endured three years of treatment and remission only for the cancer to return after the birth of his second son. All the symptoms were there, the confusion, forgetfulness, physical infirmity. She needed two walking sticks to walk, but refused to go back to hospital. When he came to stay with her one weekend, she collapsed the night before he arrived. His father was away, so he drove her to hospital for an emergency MRI. Then he had to break the news to her, and phone his father.

He thought of his disheveled, confused mother now, clear of cancer but confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk or care for herself or remember what she did or who she saw the day before. Another woman entirely. Unrecognisable to him. He could barely remember what she was like before she became ill.

His mother was younger than most of the women at the workshop.

There was one last exercise. The Poet asked the group to take one of the wild metaphors they had worked on, and to write within it, to slip the thing you were describing inside the skin of that other object. Sat on the sofa, as he looked out of the window he saw a gardener yanking the starting lead of his lawnmower. He decided to write something about him instead.

 

The bald, bearded man

With ruddy cheeks

Pushing a lawnmower uphill

Outside this window

Could be pushing a pram

Home from the shops

Or away to meet his mum

For coffee and cake.

 

Look how he carries

The grass collector,

Like a car seat

Nestling a newborn,

Listen how he talks

To his flowers

With the tender hush

Of a bedtime story.

 

And watch

As he clicks the latch

Of the garden gate

With the careful hand

Of a young father

Leaving the room

Where his children

Lie sleeping.

 

At the close some members of the group asked the Poet if he would read from his own work. He agreed, and chose a poem about waiting to be born, lying latent in his mother’s belly. As he began speaking the eyes around the table began to close, until the entire group was listening in rapt silence. It had been a while since he had been to a poetry reading where the audience closed their eyes. Now he remembered why he’d stopped going to poetry readings.

As the poem came to its perfectly distended close, the rest of the group exhaled a deep sigh.

The workshop over, he took a long-overdue, deeply-satisfying shit in the WC, washed his hands, thanked the Poet and bade him farewell, and manoeuvred his car out of its tight parking space to begin the journey home.

Driving back, he was overcome with a feeling of melancholy. Like he had been emptied from the inside out. Eviscerated. Disembowelled. During the I-remember exercises he had bled himself white. That hadn’t been his intention when he arrived. A sequence of memories had come rushing at him at high speed. He had intended to find more material for his novel. The novel which wasn’t a novel. He wasn’t sure that he had been able to do that. He wasn’t sure if he had achieved anything at all.

Poetry was a serious business. Some took the business of poetry seriously. Writing it, reading it, listening to it. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever taken it seriously enough. Maybe that had always been his problem. He glanced over the low waters towards the hump of Ben Wyvis, hulking like a dormant prehistoric beast. There was beauty and cruelty in this landscape of rugged vistas and cragged rock, the Highlands and its bloody history. A different type of poetry. If you closed your eyes to it, you’d miss entirely.

On the road ahead a 4x4 towing a trailer overtook a cyclist and almost crashed head-on into a white Citroen pulling out of a T-junction. He braked hard and sounded his horn. 

A serious business indeed.