Michèle Roberts: Negative Capability

It’s a brave, bold move to write a diary about being rejected as a writer and learning to live with it, especially when it is not a rediscovered manuscript from a hundred years ago but refers to the present day, and is not a one-off article in a newspaper. How can you write about your disappointments and discomfort when you have published in the past, known some success and critical acclaim, have a second home in France and friends who invite you on holidays abroad?

I am sure that some descriptions of Michèle Roberts’ life over the course of a year (a day for each month of the year) will jar with many readers. And perhaps it was too soon to publish this – this is the kind of diary that might be published posthumously – but I for one found her candour and zest for life refreshing. She copes with the double disappointment of a relationship breaking down and being rejected by a publisher and fearing that she will never be able to write again in the only way she knows how: by keeping a diary, trying to come to terms with failure but also describing the good things going on in her life.

‘Negative capability’ is a phrase that has often been mentioned before (it is also the title of a Marianne Faithfull album). It comes from Keats, who sees it as an ideal state for a poet (or human being in general): ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. A sort of Zen state. You might be quibble that it is doubtful that Roberts achieves this in the twelve months, there is certainly quite a lot of anger especially towards the beginning of the book, but she certainly tries.

Having attended a workshop run by the author, I did squirm a little at the description of one of the courses she runs in Dublin and there certainly is the literary author’s disdain towards genre literature in this paragraph:

Most of the students equated writing novels with producing marketable commodities. They were obsessed with writing correctly to certain agent-identified, agent-approved agendas… These students obviously had a template for the perfect commercial genre novel in their heads. Product! They spoke authortiatvely about rules and techniques, about backstory and front-loading and info dumps. They trusted literature less than self-help writing manuals.

As always, I can see both sides of this argument. The problem is that far too many would-be writers think they are ‘too profound, too literary’ to respect any rules, but that, to get published, you do have to meet certain criteria and commodify your work. But this proliferation of writing courses and ‘meet the publisher or the agent’ events do tend to lead to a lot of cookie-cutter novels and MFA type writing, which exasperate me and which allow little room for experimentation or diversity.

Roberts is often sharp-tongued and sarcastic about the people she encounters, but always harshest on herself. She does not shy away from dissecting her own pretensions, assumptions, beliefs, but she also shows much tenderness towards friends and neighbours, even her ex-partners. She shows the rawness of her grief at the death of a friend, and is very open about the flickers of sexual desire, the need for love, which she still feels and which, in an older woman, society deems almost shameful.

I related above all to her dual identity (her mother was French, her father English) and to her conclusion that life goes on, despite there being no recognisable or comforting patterns, and that one should stop seeking approval from somewhere.

Perhaps Negative Capability could mean finally letting go once and for all of that deep, childhood need for approval by powerful others, letting go of making them the sole arbiters of whether I was any good as a person, as a writer… Strength not as a shield, but formed from the knowledge of my own capacity for weakness, my knowledge of the support of other writers, the support of friends.

In the end, this proved a soothing read (with recipes for Normandy chicken and mackerel in the special launch pack which I pre-ordered from Sandstone Press). A reminder that there is life beyond loss and rejection, and that we have to make the most of living in the moment and connecting with our friends.

Lessons in Welsh and Poetry from Ty Newydd

Croeso i Gymru – Welcome to Wales

After 20+ years spent in Great Britain, why oh why have I not visited Wales before? The combination of mountains and sea is exactly what my soul has been craving ever since I came to this island and a worthy substitute for my Genevois home which I miss with all my heart. This was enhanced, of course, by glorious weather and the serene setting of David Lloyd George’s house at Ty Newydd.

Trochi – Immersion

Reading, writing, listening, talking, eating, breathing, touching poetry as if it were the most important thing in the world. A protective glass bell for even the most fragile bloom to grow and blossom.

Diolch – Thank you

Under the gently challenging guidance of George Szirtes and Deryn Rees-Jones, who created a real feeling of community of like-minded people, who discuss your work rather than your personality or what they would have written instead. Profound admiration and respect to Polly, Jenny, Sophia, Jane, John, Antony, Dafydd, Christine, Simon, Vanessa, Margaret, Mary and Arji, who stretched my mind, made me laugh, made me cry and made me want to persevere. People who are serious about poetry, regardless of age and background, not ‘retired hobbyists’ (as implied in that controversial report). Not that there is anything wrong with opening up the world of poetry to hobbyists either…

Dechreuadau newydd – New Beginnings

To be honest, I was the most amateurish one there, the least experienced and the least ‘serious’ about poetry, too easily distracted by my other writing and blogging and reviews. It really brought home to me that you need to dedicate yourself seriously to poetry, to reading and writing it every day for years if you want to improve rather than just have a few happy accidents of phrasing.

Digon – Enough

The first few days I was panicking about not being productive enough: I had been hoping to repeat the feat of October in Provence of 35 new poems in 5 days. Particularly since at this particular point in time I could not really afford the fees (reasonable though they are, compared to other courses). It was almost as if I were measuring out spoonfuls of ground coffee and expecting a spectacular yield of nectar by the end. Then I learnt to relax: there are times of accumulation which are just as valuable as those productive times.

Syniadau Newydd – New Ideas

Ideas can come from anywhere, from following the course of a river through the woods, from blackberrying your way down the path to the sea, from watching a dog gambol on the beach to finding a rare volume of ecclesiastical history in the profound peace of Gladstone’s Library.

 

Anadlu – Breathe

How to keep the momentum going after this week out of time and space? I need to spend part of every day with poetry, not just turn to it when I am procrastinating on my novel or when I have an odd moment of inspiration. I need to practise and improve my craft, which means finding a writing group dedicated exclusively to poetry, although the more generic local one is a good source of inspiration in other respects. If I cannot find one geographically, perhaps I need to organise an online critiquing group.

Llyfrau – Books

One can never have too many books. They are the most beautiful decoration to a room and they bring endless delight and inspiration to yourself and to others.

 

 

 

Gwartheg – Cows

Do not attempt to outrun a field of Welsh cows, who are nothing like as blasé about intruders as their Swiss cousins.

Cultural Beliefs About Writing or Plain Economics?

Inspiration or craft? Can writing be taught or is it an innate talent? Well, the answer to that may often be culturally determined. From what I saw at the Quais du Polar last week and, following a bit of debate about it on Twitter following this article announcing the demise of the British short story, it seems to me that French culture leans more to the ‘inspiration’ school of thought, while Anglo-Saxon culture believes more in the capacity to hone one’s writing talent. Hence the proliferation of MFA courses in the US or MA courses in the UK. Hence the different way of discussing the writing process and getting under the skin of the main female character (although Ron Rash seems to be more French than American in that respect).

Queuing up for their literary fix in Lyon…

As usual, I am somewhere on the fence on this topic. I believe no amount of tuition or feedback will turn a truly tone-deaf writer into a sterling one. But, on the other hand, I also believe even innate talent needs to be tamed: whether this is best done through courses or feedback groups or mentors or even self-study of other authors – whatever works for you. As long as you are aware that you can always learn something, that you can always do better. A musician or a dancer can become very competent if they put in hours and years of training – and so can a writer. They might not have the spark of genius that turns them into the next Mozart or Anna Pavlova, but they can run alongside many of their contemporaries. Sometimes stamina and resilience counts for more than that elusive inborn talent. (Another great recent debate has been around the failed novelist.)

Perhaps there is something else at work here other than definitions around the locus of talent.

In France (and Germany and probably quite a few other European countries), it is possible to make a living from writing alone: there is tax relief for writers (and other cultural contributors), book prices are fixed, writers are paid for festival appearances etc. Because the contract is directly between publisher and writer (literary agents are practically non-existent in France), authors achieve a larger proportion of the royalties. You cannot underestimate the freedom a modest income gives a writer to truly focus on their writing and perfect their craft. As most French writers do: they retreat to Provence or Dordogne in winter, when there are no tourists or book festivals to bother them, and work hard to produce a book in time for the rentrée littéraire, that publishing bonanza in autumn. Many of them produce something every year, or every second year, so they work as hard as their English counterparts (but often without the additional teaching obligations). There are some ateliers d’écriture in France, but these are either targeted at schoolchildren or else a kind of ‘writing circle’ organised by and for the local community, often heavily subsidised, without much expectation of future publication.

Quais du Polar had 80,000 visitors this year.

Meanwhile, costs of MFAs or their UK equivalent, MA in Creative Writing, are soaring, so it is difficult to justify them (to oneself and one’s family) if you do not have expectations of being published or at the very least working in the field. In the US in particular there is much discussion whether getting an MFA is ‘worth it’ or if it is a pyramid scheme designed to give employment to writers. Everyone dreams of being a writer, so a whole industry of publishing, editing, proofreading, coaching etc. has spawned alongside the official courses. Some of them valuable, some of them money-making schemes which prey upon the gullible.

However, things are beginning to change even in France. At the Quais du Polar in previous years there had always been a competition for best short story or dictation of a passage from a crime novel or reading out loud for young people. This year, for the first time, there were also writing courses for 12-15 year olds, plus workshops on self-publishing and Open Pitch sessions for adults.

In addition to this, the City of Paris has recently launched (with some fanfare) a writing school Les Mots which is specifically targeting innovation and publication, across all genres (from memoir to writing for children, poetry, theatre, graphic novels, blogging etc.). Authors, editors, literary critics will be helping budding writers to improve their manuscripts and some of the names on their list are truly impressive: Karim Miske, Jerome Ferrari, Antoine Laurain. The venue will also harbour a bookshop and a literary café. With a full price of 15 euros per hour (reductions available for students and the unemployed), it is clear that these workshops are deliberately designed to be accessible and inclusive. It remains to be seen how viable this price point really is and what success stories will emerge from this.