My first poems were experiments; I built them on borrowed rhythms; I was a dedicated tinkerer, putting together the shapes and ideas which I shoplifted. And images. Like people who excel at crossword puzzles, I found that I could, with a little jiggling, produce images of quite startling vividness. My first poems (pomes) were lit with a whistling blue clarity (emptiness) and they were accepted by the first magazine I sent them to. Only I knew what paste-up jobs they were, only I acknowledged my debt to a good thesaurus, a stimulating dictionary and a daily injection, administered like Vitamin B, of early Eliot.
I, who manufactured the giddy dark-edged metaphors, knew the facile secret of their creation. Like piecework I rolled them off. Never, never, never did I soar on the winds of inspiration; the lines I wrote, hunched over the card table in that grubby, poorly ventilated apartment, were painstakingly assembled, an artificial montage of poetic parts. I was a literary con-man, a quack, and the size of my early success was amazing, thrilling and frightening.
But after Watson left us, after he walked out on Seth and me, poetry became the means by which I saved my life. I stopped assembling; I discovered that I could bury in my writing the greater part of my pain and humiliation. The usefulness of poetry was revealed to me; all those poets had been telling the truth after all; anguish could be scooped up and dealt with. My loneliness could, by my secret gift of alchemy, be shaped into a less frightening form. I was going to survive - I soon saw that - and my survival was hooked into my quirky, accidental ability to put words into agreeable arrangements. I could even remake my childhood, that great void in which nothing had happened but years and years of shrivelling dependence. I wrote constantly, and I wrote, as one critic said, "from the floor of a bitter heart."
And the irony, the treachery really, was that those who wrote critical articles on my books of poetry never- not one of them- distinguished between those poems I had written earlier and those that came later.
Carol Shields, The Box Garden, 1977
This is a book I return to again and again (bit of a theme in the attic, really) and it's this passage that I remember the most, that I turn to because of what it says about writing, the beauty and the pity of it. I love the narrator of this book, Charleen Forrest, dignified, poverty-stricken poet and brilliant mother, with her unruly dark hair and twisted toe, and the certainty that she will never be brave. I love her gentle, accommodating son Seth.
(An aside: Sister Book
There is a companion book to this, Small Ceremonies, where the narrator is Charleen's sister Judith Gill, successful biographer and failed novelist. This book is also about writing, a comedy of errors and cross-purposes, about the deviousness and desperation of writers, the stealing of plots (or perhaps not), the using of other people's lives as material.)
"Soaring on the wings of inspiration"
I have soared (I have also struggled - more on that later) - and it's an exhilarating feeling, page after page rolling out effortlessly under your fingers. "Don't stop to think of words" advised Jack Kerouac, and it's true, when you know what you're writing, there is no need to stop, and the words come, unbidden almost, not separate to your thoughts, but part of them.
Mathematicians say that they know when an equation is right because of the beauty of it, and writing is the same: there's a rightness to the expression - it flows, therefore it is.
I remember soaring when I wrote parts of Little Wing - the episode where Emmy leaves Matt and the baby behind, and goes on a bus to Sydney. Also the part where on Christmas day she finds herself in a park alone and a creepy man sits down near her, and follows her - she comes to a Catholic church, and imagines going inside. But then she thinks, Enough! and tells him to stop following her, and leaves.
When these parts of the book were edited I remember page after page without an editor's mark on them, they were so sure of themselves.
(Interestingly, Little Wing is the only one of my books not nominated for a single award, when all the others have had several.) So do people notice when you soar?
1952 Vincent Black Lightning
I can also remember trudging, one painful word after another, unable to get going, unable to think what I want to say.
At times like these I resort to games. I came to a part of My Candlelight Novel where I couldn't move it forward, however I tried. It was like taking a horse to a jump, and it refusing.
There was a song I was listening to at the time: Richard Thompson's '1952 Vincent Black Lightning', a song about a man, a woman, and a motorbike.
James says to Red Molly:
"... and I've seen you in the cafes and on corners, it seems/ Red hair and black leather, my favourite colour scheme."
I took some of these words and started sentences with them, or used them in some way.
She came in barefoot, and padded softly around the room with her hands in the back pockets of her trousers. Finally, she perched on the windowsill. Black sky stood out behind her. Hair as red as hers was a perfect foil for the black. And the short cut suited her, even if she had done it herself. Red walls, red hair, black sky. Perfect.
"Marjorie in leather pants," I said. "Who'd have thought it?"
Waste not, want not
A novel is such a voracious beast. It can swallow everything your imagination can come up with and then demand more; I sometimes find myself asking people about their lives and writing it down in an effort of get material. I'm shameless about this.
And sometimes you write something that goes nowhere. Seems such a waste. A whole novel, abandoned. Nice bits in it though.
So a part of it - just a part - might be good material for something you're working on now. It's like taking an old, outmoded dress with fabric you like, unpicking it, and making it into something else.
Waste not, want not.
Carol Shields is right. Writers can be devious and desperate. They'll use anything they can get their hands on. They soar on the wings of inspiration, and they shoplift and cobble things together. Some work is written from experience and emotion that mean something essential to the writer (even if they don't know why they are writing it), some is manufactured as product.
And critics can never (rarely?) tell the difference.