I’m featured in the Dark Angels newsletter this week, answering questions about what I’m up to, what inspires me, what advice I have – that sort of thing….
1. Tell us about something you’re working on right now.
During lockdown I worked on a daily process of cutting up client drafts and recycling the words into things that looked a bit like poems. I was curious to see if anything meaningful emerged from the mess of paperwork littering my writing shed. It was a relief to let go of effortful ‘writing’; instead, I was just playing with the process of making new things with scraps of broken words and sentences. With hindsight, it was my own version of the Japanese art of Kintsugi, which I’m obsessed with. A designer friend liked what I was doing. Now we’re making a book together. It’s coming along nicely.
I’m also working on a project inspired by the wood that my house backs onto. Most days I take a pocket notebook into the woods and write haiku as I go. Some of these poems will be exhibited in London this October, alongside some simple drawings, also by me. The plan is to make this work into a book, along with some thoughts on why I like haiku and some suggestions about how to write them, for people who want to give it a go.
Another big project that’s just starting is a collaboration with the landscape artist Jason Hicklin. I’m not sure I can say much about that just yet, but I’m consulting ferry timetables so I can get to Skomer Island, in Wales.
In the commercial world, most of my work just now is about helping organisations to talk about sustainability. Outside of writing, I recently planted a herbal tea garden. It’s growing like crazy, so I need to work out how to dry the leaves. I’d like to have home-grown tea all year round. I’m growing lemon balm, camomile, hyssop, verbena, blackcurrant sage and two types of mint.
2. Can you recommend something for us to read?
I’d like to say: anything. Just read. But I’m probably preaching to the converted here. So, two suggestions: one old and one new. The old one is Writing Poetry From the Inside Out, by Sandford Lyne. This little classic is the most inspiring and practically useful book I own about how to write poems, and how entering the world of poetry can change your life. I dip into it almost every day, and I’ve underlined almost every line. If you buy it and don’t like it, please don’t tell me. It would break my heart.
The new book is The Art of Enough: seven ways to build a balanced life and a flourishing world, by Becky Hall. I’m often reflecting on what really matters to me, how I want to live my life, and how I connect with the world. This book is a thought-provoking, practical and profoundly radical guide to that process. I loved it so much that I wrote Becky a gushing fan email (I’m prone to that sort of thing). Then I realised we’re already connected via a mutual friend. I shouldn’t have been surprised: everything is connected.
3. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever read or received?
My writing life started in newspapers and magazines. My first editor was the beautifully named Dick Garlick. One day he looked at a story of mine and declared, “It’s all sizzle and no steak.” I’m a vegetarian these days, so the metaphor doesn’t really work, but I try to keep the underlying message in mind: write something that has substance, something that matters. “Only connect”, as we like to say. About 99.9% of the words I write will never see the light of day. That’s fine, as those words wouldn’t matter much to a reader. But they matter a lot to me. And the process of writing them means everything. So, the most important piece of writing advice that I’m always giving myself is this: be selfish. Write what you want to write, and do it how you want to do it. As Howard Thurmon, the African-American preacher, said: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
4. Share one thing you do when you get stuck.
I don’t think I get stuck. Staring out the window, going for walks, dipping into books, meeting friends for coffee, strumming the guitar, interrupting my wife, doodling, making more tea, lolling about – this is all part of the process. The great gift of working as a writer is that everything you do contributes to the work. Let me pretentiously quote Carl Jung: “What did you do as a child that made the hours pass like minutes? Herein lies the key to your earthly pursuits.”
5. What’s your desert island book and why?
There was a time when being stranded on a desert island would have been a dream. My book would have been a giant empty notebook, and my luxury would be an endless supply of Kitaboshi pencils from Japan. But things have changed over the years. I’m still a big introvert, but my desire for human connection grows with every day that passes, like my middle-aged waistline. So, I think I’d opt for a book called “How to build a raft out of pencils”, by Neil Baker. Chapter one is almost finished.