New Year Writing Review

Every so often I give you a little update on what I’m doing writing-wise. The start of a new year seems like a good time to reassess, plus I find myself torn between very different projects at the moment, so explaining them to you all might prove to be a clarifying exercise.

Well, cast your minds back to last autumn and some of you will recall that I had embarked on a biographical project writing about writers’ lives. I’d picked Colette for my first essay as I know a lot about her, but I had found the writing itself to be quite hard going. I whined about it several times on this blog. Finally I finished the essay (or ‘the wretched beast’ as it had become familiarly termed in my mind) and sent it off to be read by someone I don’t really know at all, but whom I’d encountered on a writers’ site. Well, he absolutely loathed it and told me so in a way that made it hard to distinguish between his dislike for the piece and his personal dislike of me for having written it. Now I didn’t get educated at Cambridge only to flinch at that sort of thing. Here the criticism is not only devastating as a matter of course, it’s impersonal and often undeniably correct.  But I was annoyed as a teacher because the quality of a rewrite depends to some extent on the quality of criticism received. You really don’t need someone else’s violent emotion in between you and that valuable help (and I should add here that the fact I was an academic was what really got my reader’s goat; he was incandescent with rage about what academic writing had done to literature). So with a sigh, I put it all to one side for a while until I could get a better perspective myself. One thing was certain; I hadn’t enjoyed writing it as much as other pieces.

Once I’d cleared my mind, I found that a new project was beginning to form. I was feeling this urge to get out and about again and it occurred to me that I’d really like interviews to be part of what I did next. I began to think about interviewing people who’d been through long term therapy. And then, I began to think about how much more interesting it would be to interview people who’d divorced. I find it fascinating how the same events can look so radically different to two people who have shared them intimately. I realised that I’d want to interview both partners to a divorce, precisely to see where the points of contention lay, and that it might be as well to try to find couples who’d been through counselling, not least because they would have a head start on putting words to their experiences. Then I’d want to interview couples therapists, and maybe if possible friends and family members who’d been involved too. Well, I became quite excited about this project, and told my friend at the bookstore, who became quite interested in filming some of the interviews. I think relationships are fascinating, and to understand more about what goes wrong in them would have a real use value.

So I’ve been mulling this idea over for a while now, wondering how to organise it practically, where to find the interview candidates, that sort of thing. Then, just before Christmas, I went to see my doctor for a run of the mill check-up and inadvertently messed with his head. He is quite interested in the fact I write and was asking all about what I was up to. So, gamely, I launched into a description of this interview project, ending up by asking whether I could put a poster up in the surgery. Well, my doctor groaned at that point and nearly put his head on the desk.

‘I thought you were going to ask me if I’d be one of the interviewees,’ he confessed.

So bear in mind it was pantomime season because my next words were,

‘But you’re not divorced.’

‘Yes I am,’ said my doctor.

Now for two pins, I would have said ‘Oh no you’re not’, but then I did pause and consider that he probably was in full possession of the facts about this. Even though he wears a wedding ring and has pictures of his cute kids about the place. But then he began telling me all sorts of interesting things about what had happened. To the point that I began to make noises about how good it would be if I could interview him. But no, the doctor insisted that his ex would never be involved in such a thing. And then he signed me off for an unprecedented full year without further review and waved me goodbye, quite happily, but urging me to ‘Stay well! Stay well!’ Which did make me think about how hard it was going to be to get both parties to a divorce, or indeed anyone who’d been divorced, to talk about it.

After that, the more I thought about it, the more problems presented themselves. I spoke to a dear friend of mine who’s another university lecturer and she was telling me about a dissertation candidate who’d been interviewing elderly people for their memories of newsreels in the cinema during the war. Apparently even though the student was given a special room in the nursing home to conduct interviews, which sounds formal enough, several of the elderly gentlemen made passes at her. Which made me wonder about the wisdom of interviewing divorced men on my own, possibly in their homes. Well, let’s be clear, it made me realise that was something completely out of the question. I am and always have been cat nip to the nutters, loners and quirkily challenged of the world. Let’s not analyse it too much, but the mentally unsound really like me. But if people are doing me a favour, will they be willing to make the trip into my college (much safer venue) for the interview?

Anyway, a couple of evenings ago, I happened to be noodling about on my computer when I opened up a couple of documents. One was a long semi-academic piece I’d written on Gabriel Josipovici. And that was good. I guess 15 years of practising something day in day out will do that for you. I wish I could just stick with the kind of writing I know how to do, but it’s simply not interesting and challenging to me at the moment. Ach, I am such a thorn in my own side. And then the other piece was that old beast of an essay on Colette. With the benefit of distance I could see that the beginning was all kinds of wrong, but that it wasn’t too dreadful at all once I’d got into my stride. The next day I rewrote the beginning, and it looked better. So that got me thinking about picking up the biography again, and trying one more essay to see if the whole process had improved any. But what about my interviews? Did that mean I wasn’t going to proceed with that idea any more? I know in an ideal world, I’d be the kind of person who could do both, but I find that creative life is much better when I focus on one thing at a time. I have to get into a groove, and then the process gets much easier.

So what it boils down to is a choice between the biography project, which is good because it’s easy to write and research in my own time and own way, but not so good because I feel like I’m just repackaging information, not really adding anything unique or different. Or the interview project, which would be good because I’d be writing from real life, something I get a kick out of doing, and the topic is fascinating, but not so good because it would be hard to arrange as well as demanding and tiring. You see my dilemma? All I really want is a little project that suits me and that would give me some fun. Perhaps I should take up gardening instead?

 

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28 thoughts on “New Year Writing Review

  1. Hmmm, that’s really difficult. I don’t really know, but I think with writing it shows if you are passionate and excited about something, or not. Is there a way you could make the interview project less demanding and tiring? Could your friend at the bookshop help you in some way?

    • I do agree, you’ve got to have your heart in a project or it goes flop. I’m sure there must be ways to make the interviewing less demanding, and I can think about that. My dear friend in the bookstore has about three jobs already, and a part-time PhD on the go, so I probably wouldn’t dare ask her. But asking other people for help is always a good idea!

  2. I’ve been doing some interviewing for a couple of years for a British Library project called Life Stories. It is hugely enjoyable. I completely agree with Helen about the need for being passionate and excited, so if there’s any way you can work out the logistics of finding and persuading the divorced people, I’d say go for that. Advertise somewhere?

  3. Maybe there is a third one waiting for you out there?
    I think you should probabay not write about Colette first, precisely because you know that much. When writing a piece like that I feel exploring is a better driver than trying to say all you already know.

    • Ah, well, that Colette essay is already written, and yes, I did have way too much to put into it! But then I’ve been reading up on Rumi and realising that I know far too little about mystics, Sufism, medieval Persia and Islam to really do him justice. It’s always a tricky balancing act in research… I will await that possible third project. It may appear over the horizon, you never know.

  4. Always best to do what you really want to do if you can, so look into that and keep the other as a fall-back position. Gardening is good you know! As to the ‘mentally unsound’, there I was thinking I really like you – must be confusing you with someone else! Happy New Year, by the way.

    • Lol! I do like to think I can count the sane and the well-balanced among my friends, too! A very very Happy New Year to you, dear Bookboxed, and my garden is looking atrocious right now, so I really ought to pick up some skills to deal with it. But joking aside, you are quite right that in creative projects you really should go where the energy is. I will ponder it all some more.

  5. “Cat nip to the nutters”?!?! That, in itself, is fascinating, Litlove, and suggests all kinds of interviewing opportunities! Regarding the choice – I’m not so good at focusing on one thing at a time, but I might suggest doing a trial run on your divorce project – say, an essay length, by finding one divorced couple to interview (and others involved, perhaps, if you can). Go through the project on a micro-scale and write up your reflections. You might find you want to keep going or you might find that it’s not what you thought it would be, or you might find that you’ve discovered what you wanted to know already by doing one divorced couple/group. In other words, start small and make your next choices based on what you find out as you go along. Less tiring too! I am going to try to take my own advice by working on a chapbook, rather than my full-length poetry manuscript, which has been languishing without my attention for a while. Good luck! (Oh, and I’m sure your Collette essay is interesting! I’m glad to hear you gave it another go!)

    • Beth – I definitely think you are onto something with your suggestion of a micro-scale trial. I’ve been discussing all this with my husband tonight and thinking I should do a simpler, easier survey of students first, given that I have them to hand and can do something useful for college, all in a context I’m very familiar with. I completely agree that starting small is the right way to go. And daft students are so much easier to deal with than any other sub-category of nutters! :) I love the idea of you working on a chapbook. Actually, I also love the word ‘chapbook’ which always sounds so evocative to me. And thank you for the support about Colette! It’s so much easier to judge something after a significant passage of time, I find.

  6. Go for the interview. Sure it will be demanding, tiring, probably be difficult getting couples to talk and It will take a long time to complete. But the subject is so so interesting, so human and I like human :)

  7. Both projects sound so promising. Since you are like catnip to nutters, perhaps you could arrange to have another person come along with you, perhaps your friend at the bookstore?

    • That is very kind of you to like both! I definitely think I would need a companion if I had to travel to see people I didn’t know. But my poor friend at the bookshop has about three jobs already, so I might need someone with a little more leisure. But that’s not impossible to find.

  8. Hmm…sympathetically encouraging divorced men to talk about themselves and all the intimate details of what went wrong with their marriages emotionally and probably in some cases sexually…I think it would be very suprising if some of them *didn’t* hit on you so you are quite right to be concerned about that. I’d also have to wonder about the motivations of anyone who agreed to be interviewed for such a project. It probably wouldn’t be people with a healthy “I’ve moved on” attitude so you could end up having a lot of very angry emotion dumped on you.

    I was just thinking I’d love to read a book of interviews with elderly retired female Cambridge academics. I think it would be fascinating to hear about their struggles and reflections and you’d be able to add a very interesting perspective to it. (Just a thought)

    • Amanda, you are brilliant. That is what was nagging me at the back of my mind but I couldn’t put my finger on. Yes, it’s like that joke that no one should ever become a chairperson if they have volunteered for the job, because that immediately indicates all the wrong qualities. It probably would be people with axes to grind who came forward, and interesting as that may be, it would not be easy to deal with. I really love your suggestion about female academics, too. That might be extremely intriguing.

  9. Oh wow, I understand your conundrum, and I think you should go for the interview project because it sounds like you are passionate about it! I struggle with the same thing in my job. I do both research and grant writing. I am very good at the research because I have been doing it for eight years–and I find it relatively easy. On the other hand, grant writing is much more of a challenge to me because writing is hard for me as well as demanding. But my heart really is with grant writing. For now, I am fortunate because I am in a position where I can do both. But at some point something has got to give as it will become harder and harder to become better at one thing when they require two sets of skills!

    • Ali – this is exactly it – trying to keep two sets of skills up to a high standard is hugely difficult! Don’t you find the thing you know how to do just isn’t quite so curiosity-awakening as that shiny, new skill? I’m really glad you get to do both research and grant writing at the moment, and I really hope there turns out to be a way to keep up both. Specialisation does sort of feel inevitable, but it would be nice to manage to keep hold of variety!

  10. Oh I like the idea of elderly female academics too. In fact from there you could branch out to elderly female professionals of various kinds. I love to hear those stories and often those elderly women are fascinating and have no fear of telling it like it is. Remember you can also do interviews in various forms, by phone, skype, or through chat software, as well as in person.

    • Lilian, yes, I’ve just reviewed the memoirs of an elderly lady and she certainly had no fear of telling it how it was – I like that! And thank you for reminding me about the alternatives to face-to-face interviewing. I really need to look into them!

  11. Isn’t it at least nice that you have so many good options? It sounds as though you have some good projects to choose from and just need to feel inspired particularly by one and then work out the logistics. I think you could get people to talk about their divorces–you are a very good listener and people going through the process often do feel the need to talk it out–there is something very therapeutic about that. I think you would be a very sympathetic listener, though I guess you would also need to be slightly removed as well, but I still think you might be surprised by the people who would talk with you if your project was presented in the right way. You just need to find a good way in, so to speak. Not sure how easy it would be to talk with both parties–probably one would be more open to it than the other. I’ll be very curious to hear how your project pans out and what comes of the interviews if they happen–sounds like an excellent project to me! And could be very helpful to people in the end as well–as readers.

    • Danielle – bless you, it IS nice to have options, and I do, after all, have plenty of time on my hands to choose which project to concentrate on. I think you are spot on that it all depends on how I put it across to my potential interviewees. Presented in the right light, I can see I’ll get the sort of responses I want. I am also pretty sure that the main obstacle will be to get both parties to talk. I think that might well be problematic. I’ll report back here undoubtedly as to what happens – whichever project I go with!

  12. I sympathize with your dilemma. Interviewing people can be tiring, but I think this is where technology can really help. You can get a dictaphone which records telephone conversations as clear as day, meaning the elimination of tiring travel for you and the interviewee. I would also suggest Skype, so that you can have that ‘face-to-face’ experience, and actually see the person you’re talking to. There is also the questionnaire – you could email people a list of basic questions just to get the whole process started, and then follow up face-to-face, thereby enabling your interview to focus on the more fruitful areas of investigation. The Oral History Society http://www.ohs.org.uk/ might have some further suggestions. Also, you can apply to the Royal Society of Literature for help with travel and research costs. So you could reimburse people who come to see you.

    You sound very passionate about this project, and it would be a shame to avoid it because of logistics. As an academic, you probably have great planning skills, and maybe this could be seen as an opportunity to really put these to good use! I can’t wait to see what happens next…sounds like a really interesting idea. As does the Colette one, which you sound more than capable of pulling off, and I have no doubt you’d get into it more once you started it. But from what you’ve written here, it does sound like your heart is pulling you in another direction. And a heart is always worth listening to.

    Best of luck, whichever way you go!

    • Dinah – you are fantastic! Thank you so much for all this really relevant, practical help. It’s exactly what I need. And yes, I do think you are right; that ultimately we have to let hearts rule projects over minds – it’s where the energy is! I hadn’t put academia and planning skills together but now you mention it, yes, I suppose we do end up learning how to organise these sorts of things quite effectively. Thank you for that – it’s most encouraging!

  13. If anyone doubted that you attract the people we all try not to sit next to on the bus, the ferocity of the person offering criticism on your essay is proof :D

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