Thursday, November 03, 2011

Dark Angels: What I learned in Scotland

I’ve earned a living as a business writer for over twenty years and written fiction for almost eight. But throughout that time, a dividing wall has kept my “corporate” writing separate from my “creative” work. The former pays the bills, the latter nourishes the soul, and never the twain shall meet. That used to be my attitude.

Two years ago an event in my life put a crack in that wall. A depressed friend killed himself. His action was a reminder that life is precious and must not be wasted.  It made me reflect on my own trajectory. Was I being true to myself, leading an authentic life, making choices that I was proud of? Or was I denying an important part of who I wanted to be – not just a writer for money but a creative artist, a phrase I still type with trepidation?

I decided that the wall that kept my writing personas separate needed to go. It was built, I think, out of fear. But fear of what? Embarrassment? Failure? Was I worried that business clients who heard I wrote short stories might think I was some kind of oddball? Probably. And did I suspect fiction editors would take me less seriously if they thought I sold words by the yard? Yes. It’s not rational, but fears often aren’t.

Whatever my concerns were, I needn’t have worried. When I’ve let slip to business clients over the last year or so that I write fiction, they’ve always been impressed – if not with the results then at least with the ambition. And whenever I’ve discussed the difficulty of earning a writing income with my fiction friends, they’ve congratulated me on my commercial acumen. “Coming out” in this way has been good for me.

But it has remained a tentative process. Even as I’ve chipped away at that public wall, in my mind these two areas of writing activity – corporate and creative – have remained separate. They required different skills, had different objectives – they were ineffably apart.

Moniack Mohr
Now, I’m exaggerating a little for effect here. One reason why I’ve been successful as a business writer is that I do sometimes use the tricks of the fiction trade to help with the “day job”. I know that a sprinkling of personal anecdote here, a dash of metaphor there, can liven up the dullest corporate assignment. I know, too, that finding ways to “muck about” with words can make the work more enjoyable, and that when I’m enjoying myself I write better and faster. Most importantly, I know that when I dip into the fiction toolbox I produce writing that makes a better connection with readers – and that, of course, is what it’s all about.

The dividing wall has been a real one nonetheless, and the chinks I knocked out of it were only small. So at the start of the summer I decided to demolish it for good. My chosen wrecking ball was a course called Dark Angels, run by two writers whom I admire greatly: John Simmons and Jamie Jauncey.

I first heard about Dark Angels in, I think, 2004. John has written a book of the same name, which was published in that year. His book talks about the need to bring creativity into business writing. Not because it makes the chore of grinding out business copy more bearable for the writer, or because it makes their words more effective – although it achieves both.

No. The real benefit is that writers who try to be more creative often have to rebel against corporate jargon, marketing mumbo-jumbo and organisational double-speak. They have to change the way people think about the world of work. They have to insist on the value, the necessity, of writing that treats its readers as thinking, feeling human beings – not constituents of a stakeholder group or marketing category. They have to become rebels. I like rebels. I liked the idea of becoming one.

Chapter five, Recreation and Retreat, tells the story of how John and his colleague, Stuart Delves, held a week-long workshop at Totleigh Barton, in Devon, where they helped fifteen other writers to work in the spirit celebrated in the book. The workshop was also called Dark Angels; it sounded, to me, like a week in heaven. Seven years after reading about it, I finally decided to go.
The view from my window in Scotland


So what did I learn from my week in Scotland, at Moniack Mohr? I can get extraordinary amounts of work done if I turn off my Blackberry and shut down the WiFi. I can chant in Latin and find it enjoyable. I can drink vast quantities of whisky without getting a hangover, but only if it’s Aberlour a'Bunadh and has a dash of water. People are like books, you can’t judge them by their covers. Polyphonic harmony sounds lovely. Some people can’t bear listening to praise. You can learn a lot from crumbling a stone between your fingers. Bird-spotting guidebooks are strangely reductive. Beatles songs can be more musically complex than they seem. I am a better writer than I realised. Everyone is a better writer than they realise.

Did I get what I wanted from the course? Other participants said the experience had transformed them: “I’m not the person I was on Monday,” one reported. That didn’t happen to me; I was a little envious. I left for the airport feeling that I too had learned a deep lesson, but I wasn’t sure what is was yet.

The day after I got home, we drove down to Devon for a holiday, renting a house in the South Hams with another family, old friends. One morning we visited the famous craft centre at Dartington Hall. Outside, in a small wooden shed, a man in faded jeans and a grey t-shirt was giving a glass-blowing demonstration. I stopped to watch. He put the finishing touches to a small shot glass and then started to make another, talking to his small audience as he worked.

His name was Ian Hankey. He has worked with glass for twenty years, he explained. I noticed the parallel immediately: I have worked with words for the same length of time. “How long did it take to learn?” asked one of the spectators. “I’m still learning,” he said with a smile.

I meant to stop for a few minutes only, but I watched Ian work for an hour and a half. Listening to him talk about his craft was like looking into a mirror. He made a wine glass next, moulding, stretching and reheating the glass, always changing it, adjusting it. Like a writer working on a first draft, everything was provisional. He was controlling the glass, but allowing it to find its own flow, the shape it needed to be. He was never quite sure how the piece he was making would turn out, but that didn’t seem to worry him.
Ian Hankey at work

At one point the wine glass cracked. There was a palpable sense of tension. Ian was worried that an hour’s work was lost. But he found a way of rescuing it.

I peppered Ian with questions, as I am wont to do. Do you ever burn yourself, I asked? He laughed and pointed to several burns on his hands and on his arms. But these are all from cooking at home, he said. The kitchen is a dangerous place, anything could happen. But in the workshop, he is in command. There are no accidents.

Indeed, as Ian chatted to us and worked the glass, it became clear he had other senses at work. He just knew, at one point, that the furnace had become too hot. He could tell when the glass was about to break. Skill like this can only come from working with raw materials, from hours of practice and experimentation and failure; from trying to make something, understanding why it is going wrong, and working out how to fix it. This is what I do all day, but with words. 

These are tacit skills, he believes, and they are hard to learn because they are hard to articulate. You can’t record them in any book of instructions. He teaches glass work to college students, but tacit skills can’t be taught in a classroom, he said. They can only be assimilated by working alongside an unforgiving taskmaster, an opportunity few young glassmakers have now that production has moved overseas. But that’s exactly how I started to write, I thought, hammering away at a knackered typewriter with a ball-breaking editor breathing down my neck – and that old editor’s industry, newspapers, is dying too.

As Ian worked there were sometimes bubbles, tool marks or other “flaws” in the glass. These can be removed, he said, but nowadays he leaves them be. They are evidence, he explained, that the piece has been made by hand – only an industrial factory produces perfect work. These human traces are not only testament to the provenance of a piece, they add to its quality: you never get bored of looking at something “flawed”, he said: it has individuality, it is unique.

And here I had another “ah ha!” moment. This, of course, is what I had been learning to do in Scotland: writing in a way that allowed for individuality, understanding how the “flaws” that the overseers of a writing factory might want to eliminate – those metpahors, memories and other traces of humanity – were actually what made a piece work, what gave it enduring appeal and fascination, what enabled it to connect with readers.

Listening to one man talk about his craft told me so much about my own. So I asked him the question that I had taken with me to Scotland: if you enjoy working with glass so much, and are so skilled and experienced, how can you be content making simple wineglasses? (I expressed it in more polite terms: which do you prefer making: functional objects or art pieces?)

Ian’s answer was a wise one. Expressing your creativity through glass is a wonderful thing to do, he said, but function also has its beauty. Producing a well-made, attractive, functional wineglass, and then making five the same so the customer can buy a set, is a very challenging and satisfying activity, he said. And I knew this to be true, because I’d just watch him do it.

The students Ian teaches at college can all make glass sculpture, he explained, but ask them to blow a simple Christmas bauble and they struggle. They don’t have the craft skills, the technique, to make anything that someone would actually pay to use, they can’t sustain themselves as working craftsmen. So if they want to have a life working with glass, they need to connect with both art and craft – the two are not separate. Likewise with me and my words. That is the lesson I learned with the Dark Angels.

4 comments:

Jane Lewis said...

Great piece, Neil. You've captured the spirit of Moniack Mhor, and the point about connecting with both art and craft is a telling one.
Jane

thescribbler said...

This really spoke to me too Neil. As a fledgeling Dark Angel I too have to find a balance between commerce and craft in my work. I love the idea of the craft of writing and that quiet satisfaction of a well turned phrase. It sounds to me like you've found your place perfectly.

Neil said...

Jane, thanks for that.

Hi Scribbler. Glad to make a connection. Have you done Dark Angels? I had a look at your blog. I run too. You write about that noble endeavour so well.

Faye said...

Thanks Neil. I particularly like the story of Ian Hankey and both your insights that 'flaws' and 'function' have beauty because they are what make a piece of work connect with another.

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