15 December 2010

On Writing 1

NOTE: I've taken this from my old website (which I'm in the process of taking down). I wrote it in August 2008...


The Beginning

I started to write because of two things: I love to read and I love to talk. Plus I enjoy my own company as much as the company of others. (I only hope I’m not the only one to feel that way about me…) It’s the funny thing about writing, you have to like getting out there and living and watching other people live so you’ll have something to write about, but then equally you must be the one who shirks off a trip to the pub so you can write that thing down that’s been lurking at the back of your brain since early Thursday morning.


My mother is the main influence on my writing, since she’s the one who taught me to speak. She also introduced me to the concept of lists, which may be the reason poetry came naturally to me, though I had no great encouragement towards ‘literature’. To quote myself –
I write the words my mother taught me
while conversing with plants, the dead,
her unruled notebooks -
rituals wrought with secrecy, scars,
her intonation – 'wait till I tell ya'.
(from ‘The Poem’, a poem about writing as a long tradition where we pretty much end up writing the same stuff over and over again. It ends on ‘I write these words, the poem long written / and written and re-written – I change them / only by the breath that breathes them.’)

Literary influences are harder to pin down: reading has always been such a private pursuit that I only started to divide the written word into ‘literature’ and whatever everything else is when I started to write and submit my own work for publication. And this type of categorising still makes me uncomfortable. Good writing is what counts, and different pleasures can be found in a variety of genres and styles.

So, poetry – Emily Dickinson, Nikki Giovanni and Rita Ann Higgins I like pretty much anything by. Also, when I was 21 or 22, I stumbled upon the work of a Polish poet called Anna Swir, whose sparse and direct language and emotional honesty informed my early work. A favourite collection is Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, which has on occasions lived in my handbag (to be read when waiting for a pint / lift / conversation, and savoured for its for its humour and beautiful sound). 

I won’t even go into my fiction influences, far too many, across a huge span of time and genres. Let’s just say I’m a sucker for suspense and a good character. (At the moment I have a stack of crime fiction on the end of my kitchen table, and I’ve just come through a phase of short story collections, perfect for a short attention span!)

Other influences on my writing are music and painting: anything from Kate Bush to Bruegel to Johnny Cash to Frida Kahlo. In fact, I wrote a poem called ‘Judith and the General’ out of envy for the simple violent beauty of Johnny Cash’s song ‘Delia’. I wanted to write about a woman killing a man she had slept with, a possessive kind of killing – not revenge, but cathartic to her in some way – so I borrowed the Judith story from the Bible and made something new with it. Bible stories are another influence I should list. I grew up reading them in various adapted-for-children forms (my parents were supercharged Catholics) and I remember being entranced by their heady mix of violence, beauty and miracle.

Voice and Myths

The best thing about writing: getting the contents of my brain down and shaping the result so another human being can read it. For me, that’s writing at it’s best, making me feel like a part of the world, helping me make sense of the world, sometimes even helping me create a new world. I like to feel connected to other people: that’s why I read and that’s why I write. People are fascinating, and the heightened experience of my fellow humans that I get through writing satisfies some itch. I write it down because I’ve got a lot of words, no conversation could possibly hold them. Plus, although by nature shy, I am quite a loudmouth and I’d like as many people as possible to hear what I say. Hence publishing. Bottom line is, I think all writers are in love with the sound of their own voice. Some people claim they’re after legacy. I say, so procreate. People who write just like the sound of their own voice.

I didn’t have any great struggle to find my own writing ‘voice’, the quality that Al Alvarez refers to as ‘the vehicle by which a writer expresses his aliveness’. The contents of my brain will only spill out if I use the words that naturally live up there. Now this means I have had people use words like ‘very striking’ and ‘distinctive’ and ‘mysteriously allusive’ to describe my writing, and not necessarily in complementary contexts, but I can only use the words I’ve got. Although I have stolen one or two in my time: ‘zirkeley’ is one of my favourite finds. It is used to answer in the affirmative, in an overly polite manner. As in:

‘Would you mind emptying the dishwasher, please?’ (Said to a husband, child, or sister.)
‘Zirkeley,’ they would reply.


Who do I write for? Myself, first. When I’m alone in a room and I have a hunger for words I can’t get my hands on, I write. When I'm writing, I find it difficult to consider the Outside World… Apparently poets are the biggest market for their own work, so I guess that when I write poetry, I must really be writing for writers. I try to forget that while I am actually doing the work, otherwise I’d never get a word out. Sometimes I wish I had a musical bone in my body, could join a band and appeal to a broader selection of people. Maybe I should be writing for TV – adverts get high ratings, don’t they? And they, too, use condensed language to communicate a particular idea or emotion... Hmmm. 

In terms of audience, and my own private perception of having one, fiction is more satisfying. At least with fiction, all the regular people I know (i.e. non-writers) are more likely to read what I’ve written.

Audience, Revisited

But really, when I look at the question ‘who do I write for?’, an entirely imaginary audience springs to mind: curled up in a chair in the privacy of their own rooms, all reading the same page at the same time, a lone (yet communal) endeavour. They have the intellectual curiosity of an old-time inventor and the capacity to make broad leaps of imagination. And they have the sense of humour that can find a funny angle in pretty much any situation. Even when I (as the writer) wasn’t trying to be funny. And they’re demanding: no matter how well something has turned out they want it better, more. And if it’s really good, they never want it to end. 

We have a love-hate relationship, my imaginary audience and I.

Future Fantasy

Okay, so I had to have a fantasy section. Where do I go from here? Obviously, I plan to win the lottery and so fund a life of poetry and prose fancy. Failing that, I will continue to write as part of this work-in-progress called My Life, stretching my writer-self all the time. I’m sorting out my first full-length poetry collection, so in 2009 I’ll see my poems together under the one cover, courtesy of Salmon Poetry. And then a creative break to focus on fiction (or an ad or two or…) before starting the next collection. A sort of crop rotation for the writer. My dream-life.

Celeste Augé
August 2008