A creativity workshop with Jeremy Irons

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Freeing Creativity – a workshop with Jeremy Irons.

We were told to wear loose clothes to the Jeremy Irons Freeing Creativity Workshop so I practised a few high kicks and lunges to test out my shortish dress in the comfort of my own home. Fortunately, there was no crawling around or jumping on the floor of the Gainsborough Hotel in Bath, though we did have to stand for incisive questioning.

Jeremy is Chancellor at Bath Spa University, and around eighteen MA students from different courses gathered for the workshop. He made an imposing figure, loose-limbed, trainered, his dog’s lead looped loosely around his neck. The dog, a small, white, poodly breed, spent most of the time on its back with its legs in the air being tickled by pooch-lovers.

The first thing he said to the group was that we could leave if we were going to be offended by anything he said to us. Each of us had to stand up and present ourselves to the group. ‘You have to sell yourselves,’ he said. Speak up, use consonants, hold yourselves. It could have been intimidating but his natural authority and integrity reassured.

He’s a natural interviewee, or perhaps communicator, drawing every individual out so we found some fascinating information about our fellow students. A jockey’s fall that ended one career led to a psychology MA. People opened up in ways that usually only close friends do.

A shepherdess / fine-artist explained many farmers bury fleeces as the cost of processing this natural material is un-economic. She turns her flock’s fleece into lamp shades and other articles and manages her flock, four children and her artistic career all at once. Jeremy cautioned her to make space for her art.

When it came to my turn to speak, he said, ‘your posture is terrible’, and physically rearranged my body so my shoulders were down, bottom out. He said that past hurts and damage get trapped in the body and can cause problems internally, recommending the Alexander technique to me.

I said I was interested in unblocking creativity. What can stop writers writing is the editing or analytical side of our brains which stops us allowing ourselves to create and play. Jeremy agreed using the example of how kids freely explore. He recommended I take a drama class, explaining that drama helps you with channelling art, and to become a clear channel for this.

In my own practice, there is often a moment when my writing is going well that I drop down into the task and this is a state I aspire to, that magic moment when I’m in flow, so his suggestion resonated.

I was fascinated by the other MA disciplines whose approach to their artistic endeavours seemed to have more solidity in the outside world than for the writers. As Creative Writing students, we have no certainty of publication. The fine artists or sculptors are working with tangible products and the business and artistic side of their art seems more closely woven together.

Jeremy commented later that writers have to expose their traumas, dig deep, because that is what readers are interested in, arguing that you can’t compartmentalise your life. He thought that you had to be willing to speak about such things in public too. Perhaps it’s different for actors, but for me and other writer friends, speaking and writing are very different activities. I go to the page to find out what I think or what those traumas are. They only exist on the page and lose their power when I speak. Speaking is an entirely different process for me. Stephen King recommends writing a first draft with the door closed and I agree with that too.

The irony of the day was that our masterclass didn’t materialise. There was not enough time as eighteen people told the story of what they did before studying their MA, their work and future plans.

We ran over time but on reflection, it was a perfect example of the old cliche, ‘show not tell’ for writers. By being utterly present to listen to each of us the Chancellor allowed a little alchemy to happen and the subject of creativity and story-telling emerged along the way.

We ended with Jeremy telling us how walking in Nepal (should one afford it), away from sensory input, helped his imagination to soar. His last piece of advice was to have a mentor to aspire to.

If only we’d had more time. Those nuggets from him were priceless. As we chatted over coffee afterwards he made a point of checking my posture again (and the weight of my handbag) and reminding me of how important it is to look after oneself as you get older. I found myself giving him a friendly pat on the back which felt completely natural though not something I normally do to men I’ve just met, let alone famous Oscar-winning ones.

Bath Spa Uni is very lucky that he is Chancellor. He’s definitely a man of the people.

 

Jonathan Safran Foer on writing and literature

Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer

Last night I clumped over to Bath on my crutches to see Jonathan Safran Foer. Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights were hosting the author interview in the austerely grand setting of a methodist church on Argyle Street. (cream painted pews, gilded organ, lofty ceiling).

Whilst I haven’t read any of his books I wanted to find out more from the author who can produce such beautiful titles – Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and of course, his latest novel, Here I am.

One of the joys of beginning my MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa is the reading list and he’s on it. The second joy is to have your writing pre-conceptions turn upside down. I was delighted that the interview style gave Jonathan the opportunity to talk about his writing methods.

He began by talking about book tours and how often an audience will ask questions about his work that he’s never considered before.

He explains, “writing is not intellectualising, it’s being open to intuition.” Whilst writing, Here I am,  he didn’t talk to anyone about what he was doing; he sat in a room and let the writing emerge. He continued, “I try and repress questions – I’m not even thinking about what what I think about something. I couldn’t say I’d put something in the book intentionally.”

“The shallowest type of fiction is when you try and make sense of the world. I don’t think about the function of literature. I try and write for its own sake and liberate writing from utility – books are one of the last refuges where you can do something for it’s own sake.”

What I would have loved to have found out is how many drafts his work goes through. He went onto say that once he has the manuscript he sits down with his editor to go through it. At this point, “editing is intellectual – we shape it to be accessible and to conform to the form of the novel – but that’s the last 5% of the work. I’m just steering the ship beforehand.”

I found this staggering – all those ‘how to write novels’ book I’ve been devouring over the years where you lay out plot and theme and  write endless drafts and redrafts. Authors I know who say that when pitching ideas within a two book deal within genre fiction you have to pitch three or four story ideas which have to conform rigidly to that genre. But perhaps that is the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction.

Writing in this way must be liberating – but how does he achieve it? Scribbled in my notebook I’ve added these words from him.

“Submerge yourself in the writing – allow your sub-conscious to surface.”

“Ask yourself, is the character good company in the book?”

and,  “I like books that are primary. Books have to be perfect unto themselves and a book has speak for itself with nothing left out.” He gave, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison as an example.

and finally I’ve written, “Let the book go where it wants to go.”


Further reading: Guardian interview 

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights for events and to purchase the book

 

On starting an MA in Creative Writing

Decades after my first degree I have the freedom to study an MA. Both children graduated; one with a job and the other just setting out on finding a path in the world

Corsham Court

Corsham Court, Bath Spa Unviersity

Corsham Court Campus at Bath Spa University is very Jane Austen. Hobbling on crutches up the long driveway as peacocks squawked and sheep gazed beyond the ha-ha I felt as antique as the surroundings.

As a mature student I wasn’t in the minority; there is a great mix of ages though with any gathering of writers there are egos and anxieties to be managed. I was surprised at the distance students were travelling to the campus; London, Taunton and someone from Moscow – who suggested that I should have Gucci crutches or at least decorate them. I said I’d think about it.

We met in ‘the Barn’ around the back of the building, and to my delight Fay Weldon was there – one of the first writers who challenged and gripped me as a reader.

The grand piano was full of lecturer’s books – I was in the right place. These academics are writers who have grafted and worked and lived their craft combining this with teaching others. One by one they spoke about their first memory of writing and read from current work. We heard extracts from Fay Weldon, Gerard Woodward, Richard Kerridge, Nathan Filer, Gavin Cologne-Brooks and Tim Liardet.

I’ve written down scraps of insights/ discussions which I won’t attribute as my notes aren’t good enough to be accurate.

  • Keep your reader in mind at all times. Surprise them. Keep them hooked (Fay Weldon)
  • In your novel have a cosmic statement. What is it really about?
  • Are you writing about your father or your mother?
  •  It’s important to read aloud, to pace your novel, and to hear that (Nathan Filer)
  • What do you need to say in your novel?
  • (When thinking about subject matter for a novel) What do you care about ?
  • When writing get’s hard that when the work starts – and you need a great deal of hard work and application (Tim Liardet)

On re-writing: The essence of re-writing is being able to see why and clarify again and again and again.

On poetry: When poets try and put a collection together sometimes they have enough poems to fill a book, but that doesn’t make a great collection. ‘Poems need to hear one another, to run as a smooth sequence. Be aware of silence and how it is used in a book of poems. (Tim Liardet)

Favourite quote of the day; When Flaubert was asked where he got his ideas for Madame Bovary he said: “I thought of a woman in a dress the colour of a woodlouse” He didn’t think of the great sweep of things. But I think writer’s work in different ways and that’s allowed.

This quote led our seminar group to a discussion of observing precise objects and how we could use these in our writing. In our group we looked at black and white photographs from August Sander. Everyone spotted something different but the quality of the observation marked some students out. My old anxieties returned. The students who had just come from the BA course being good at this game.

Overall a very satisfactory first day, despite the hobbling up the myriad staircase.