Dark Angels in Spain

I’ve just come back from a writing workshop in Spain. This was the “advanced” version of the Dark Angels course I took in Scotland last November. When I came home from Scotland, I wrote a long blog post about what I’d learned there. So, what did I learn in Spain?

It’s hard to say. Dark Angels isn’t the kind of course that has learning outcomes. On the second evening we sat around the dinner table and took turns to share what we hoped to get from our five days in Andalusia. My answer was simple: Scotland had been fun, I hoped Spain would be too – and hotter.

The lovely pool
Writers “at work”
Fun it was. I ate a lot, drank a lot, wrote a lot, laughed a lot and talked, talked, talked. By the end, I was sick of the sound of my own voice (oh God, it’s him yapping away again.) I made friends, and got to see myself as others see me, which is always revealing. People said I was driven, focused, committed, tall (really?), sporty (I wish), bitchy (in a fun way, I hope) and funny.

But for this to be a tax deductable expense rather than a holiday, I needed to learn about writing, creativity and business communications. Yesterday I sat down at my desk, back in my study, to write about what I’d learned. After 30 minutes of nothing, I took my dog for a run instead.

Out in the muddy fields, I was reminded of something that I literally took away from that first Dark Angels course. On the final morning in Scotland I gave our two tutors – John Simmons and Jamie Jauncey– a card each on which I’d written, “The one thing Neil needs to do when he gets home is…” I asked them both to complete the sentence. I’m sure they can’t remember what they wrote, but it has proved very valuable over the last year.
I thought I’d repeat the exercise in Spain. This time we had three tutors – Stuart Delves was there, too – so I’d get even more guidance. Excellent. But when we were waiting for our airport taxis, I decided not to get my cards out. It might have been that they were too busy, or the moment wasn’t right, or I didn’t want to bother them again. But I like to think there was a deeper reasoning taking place (I like deep reasoning).

I got a sense of what that might have been when I was running with my dog, thinking about Spain. One moment came back to me. Jamie was setting up an exercise as the course neared its end. He finished explaining what we were supposed to do and all the other students got out of their chairs to make a start. I remained seated, and asked for a small detail of the activity to be clarified. Jamie laughed. “Neil,” he said, “you are always waiting for instructions.”

Stuart, Jamie, John and Me
That was a little light bulb moment for me. In Scotland, I got a better sense of where I was in my life and in my writing (both creative and commercial), but perhaps I expected other people to tell me what to do next. In Spain I realised that I don’t need to be told. I’ve got a good idea of where I want to go. Of course, it may turn out to be further away than I think, and there will diversions along the way, but I don’t expect someone else to draw me a map. Advice is still appreciated, especially from people who know the terrain so well, but I shouldn’t expect instructions.

So maybe that’s what I learned.  Or maybe that’s just a load of sentimental tosh. I don’t know.  Maybe I’ll decide next week that what I really learnt in Spain was how to make chorizo. But I take comfort from number 11 of Brenda Ueland‘s twelve rules for writers: “Don’t be afraid of yourself when you write. Don’t check-rein yourself. If you are afraid of being sentimental, say, for heaven’s sake be as sentimental as you can or feel like being!”

Brenda, how right you are.

And if you don’t know Ueland’s rules, here are the rest. They are from “If You Want to Write”, one of my favourite books about writing:

Brenda, honorary Dark Angel?
1/ Know that you have talent, are original and have something important to say.
2/ Know that it is good to work. Work with love and think of liking it when you do it. It is easy and interesting. It is a privilege. There is nothing hard about it but your anxious vanity and fear of failure.

3/ Write freely, recklessly, in first drafts.

4/ Tackle anything you want to- novels, plays, anything. Only remember Blake’s admonition: “Better to strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”
5/ Don’t be afraid of writing bad stories. To discover what is wrong with a story write two new ones and then go back to it.

6/ Don’t fret or be ashamed of what you have written in the past. How I always suffered from this! How I would regurgitate out of my memory (and still do) some nauseous little lumps of things I had written! But don’t do this. Go on to the next. And fight against this tendency, which is much of it due not to splendid modesty, but a lack of self-respect. We are too ready (women especially) not to stand by what we have said or done. Often it is a way of forestalling criticism, saying hurriedly: “I know it is awful!” before anyone else does. Very bad and cowardly. It is so conceited and timid to be ashamed of one’s mistakes. Of course they are mistakes. Go on to the next.

7/Try to discover your true, honest, untheoretical self.

8/ Don’t think of yourself as an intestinal tract and tangle of nerves in the skull, that will not work unless you drink coffee. Think of yourself as incandescent power, illuminated perhaps and forever talked to by God and His messengers. Remember how wonderful you are, what a miracle! Think if Tiffany’s made a mosquito, how wonderful we would think it was!

9/ If you are never satisfied with what you write, that is a good sign. It means your vision can see so far that it is hard to come up to it. Again I say, the only unfortunate people are the glib ones, immediately satisfied with their work. To them the ocean is only knee-deep.

10/ When discouraged, remember what van Gogh said: “If you hear a voice within you saying: you are no painter, then paint by all means, lad, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working.”

11/ Don’t be afraid of yourself when you write. Don’t check-rein yourself. If you are afraid of being sentimental, say, for heaven’s sake be as sentimental as you can or feel like being! Then you’ll probably pass through to the other side and slough off sentimentality because you understand it at last and really don’t care about it.

12/ Don’t always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers. “I will not Reason & Compare,” said Blake; “my business is to Create.” Besides, since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of Time, you are incomparable.