As pretty as it was to see London under a blanket of snow last week, I was pleased that the Beast From The East made a timely exit for our recent salon: Process and Practice: Exploring Poetry and Prose with Blake Morrison. The audience traveled from near and far to join us at the Tea House Cafe and there was a sense of anticipation as everyone settled in with a drink for the evening’s discussion. The Tea House cats, usually found planted in the guest’s chair, were conspicuous by their absence and so, without the usual preliminary cat wrangling, we began.
In addition to his poetry and novels, Blake has a background as a former literary editor of the Observer and the Independent On Sunday. He’s well known for his two best-selling memoirs, And When Did You Last See Your Father and Things My Mother Never Told Me. The former was made into a feature film starring Jim Broadbent as Blake's father, Colin Firth as Blake and me and the rest of the Goldsmiths MA class of 2006 as extras! Blake’s written an array of forms, including non-fiction, journalism, essays, plays, opera, libretti and more. He’s been Professor of Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths College since 2003 and his new novel The Executor, a novel with poems, is about to be published this month.
Blake began by writing poetry. In the early days he felt that short stories let alone a novel were way beyond him. Poetry is a good discipline for an apprentice writer - it demands economy. For poets, who tend to write in the first person, moving from poetry to memoir seems like a natural transition.
The breadth and diversity of Blake’s writing is down to the fact he’s bad at saying no to things! Some of his work, like book reviews, are written to commission and bound by a word count and deadlines. Other forms, such as libretti, are a collaborative effort and comes with particular restraints. Philip Larkin called this sort of writing, ‘required writing’. In contrast, for Blake, writing a novel or a poem is a process of discovery.
Sometimes the form evolves around the material. The memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father, was not planned but began as a series of journal entries and stories written in the period leading up to and just after Blake’s father’s death. To begin with the material seemed baggy. He was also sensitive to the feelings of living people, primarily his mother and sister who were also involved in the story. He thought about fictionalising it but it felt cowardly. Poetry seemed the wrong choice too. Somehow the interleaving of journal entries, written while his father was dying and stories reflecting on the past combined to work in a way that other forms didn’t. The title was a God-send as it justified the layering effect. For other recent examples of life writing with interleaving narratives read, H is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald’s, The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream by Katharine Norbury or Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington.
We moved on to Blake’s forthcoming book, The Executor, a novel with some poems and about a writer who finds himself the executor of his friend’s estate. The friend, a poet of note, dies unexpectedly. The main character is faced with difficult challenges, personally and professionally, about what matters most in life. The narrative is laced with poems and explores aspects of the publication process too including ethical issues concerning the wishes of the living and the dead. Blake touched on how he developed the novel and it was interesting to learn that the poems came first.
Discovering a structure or form can take time. The Ballad of The Yorkshire Ripper, a long poem published in 1987, is written in Yorkshire dialect and tells the story about the serial killer, Peter Sutcliffe. With its use of rhyme and dialect to tell the story of a crime, the traditional ballad form felt suited to the subject.
Having completed a PHD about writers, as well as being a books editor for fifteen years, has taught him a lot about editing. Blake is currently going back over his poems in an archiving way and transcribing old notebooks. He doesn’t like to give up on a project but might put things aside for a time. Ideas are precious and he tends to follow things through, even if it takes years.
Advice for Life writers:
Blake advises his students to get it down on the page. Don’t let your family (or whoever it is you’re concerned about) breathe down your neck - or you’ll never write anything.
Worry about it later once you’ve got something to work with.
Don’t leave yourself out of the story - dramatise yourself a bit.
How does poetry inform your prose?
It gives a certain economy to the writing.
Makes you alert to the rhythm
It has to sound right to you: read your work aloud, it’s a good discipline.
It also injects a level of simile and metaphor into prose, particularly in plain writing, there is always room for the arresting or surprising.
How do you protect yourself or know what to reveal?
It’s a balancing act. His memoir about his father was written very quickly and in a raw state. With hindsight, it’s hard to know if he would take things out or not. He suggested that you always have to be willing to embarrass yourself! He sets his life-writing students a workshop exercise: The Worst Thing I Ever Did. The workshop arena is a private space, and he likes to remind them that they can always make it up! Family ethics is a hot topic - look at the attention that has followed in the wake of the novels of Rachel Cusk, Hanif Kureishi or Karl Ove Knausgård. It’s always worth examining your motives and asking yourself, why do I need to say these things? If you’re sure you need to say it, then do.
In looking back at a body of work, common interests and themes can emerge. This can take time. Sometimes you can’t be sure what you’ve written about until it’s long finished and published. Blake’s work, crossing varies forms, has reoccurring themes concerning masculinity, male rivalry and misogyny. When investigating a subject, he’s looking for emotional truth. Sometimes this can take a writer to a dark place but trying to find a process to work something out can ultimately be enlightening. You do come out the other side. Here Blake referenced a commission for the New Yorker to write an article about the Bulger murder case. He sat in on the trial looking for answers but found none. Writing the book, As If, marked a way of coming to terms with a dark subject.
Thank you very much to Blake for being a super guest and shining a light on his writing process and also for staying on to chat with everyone. Thanks also to Emma and the audience too for some excellent questions.
Next month on the 30th April, Emma and I will be talking, The Agony and The Ecstacy: Writing Sex In Fiction, with Michèle Roberts. On the 21st May we’ll be discussing The Power of Place with Courttia Newland. We have two more salons planned on June 4th and July 2nd - so do save the dates. I’ll be posting more details on the website soon.
In addition to the salons, Words Away is running two workshops in collaboration with book editor and writing teacher, Andrew Wille. Due to popular demand, Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity, is back on Saturday 21st April at the London Bridge Hive. Then on Saturday, 23rd June we're running The Craft of Revising with a very special guest editor and publisher joining us in the afternoon. Come and join us!
Hope to see you soon.
Links: Blake Morrison