In brilliant spring sunshine, twenty years to the day he died, I found myself in George Mackay Brown’s beloved Stromness delivering writing workshops to PhD students from the Glasgow School of Art’s Institute of Design and Innovation (InDI). I’d previously delivered workshops at InDI’s Creative Campus at Forres. What a pleasure to get to Orkney, and what a boon to hit Mackay Brown’s anniversary, providing as it did a perfect opportunity to illustrate how the cleansing techniques of poetry can, to great effect, focus and sharpen academic writing.
And not just academic writing. I read poetry to sharpen my own novel writing, particularly at the slicing and cutting stage. Sharing this working practice in workshops is, I find, a great way of opening up conversations about writing, and for discovering what activities will best help any particular group. When, for example, I reveal how I might lose as many as 40,000 words between a first draft and a finished novel, and that this is all part of the process, a group’s initial horror morphs into new respect for the central editing role of the delete button.
Indeed, I’d go so far as to claim the delete button as my best friend as I move from writing novels set in the past – I dislike the straitjacket category ‘historical novel’ – to a novel set in the 1980s. Moving is hard. Firstly, I’m more at home in the 1780s or even the 1280s than in a decade through which I actually lived. Secondly, it’s been difficult to pinpoint exactly what I’m writing about. I don’t mean the plot. That’s the easy bit. I mean identifying the fundamental core of the book. In the struggle to locate that core, I write and delete in equal measure, which, whilst frustrating, is a useful daily reminder that whether novelist, poet, tenured academic or student, poor writing always stems from muddled thinking. George Mackay Brown didn’t write on a computer so was unacquainted with the delete button. He did, though, scrupulously edit. How lovely to share his clarity and vision under wide skies in Stromness!
If you hate the thought of editing your work, break down the task into manageable chunks and keep in mind that every editorial task you carry out will improve your writing.
It is vital to get quality feedback on your manuscript by approaching the right person for each aspect of your writing: an expert on the subject to check the content; your supervisor or a colleague to check the argument; a trusted friend with good writing skills to check the grammar and punctuation.
How can snap out of writer’s block? Leave your laptop on the table and try a physical approach to work your way into your writing.