The Perfect Pen

As a writer, I have certain conditions in which I like to work. According to my new writing guru, Verlyn Klinkenborg, creating conditions for your own creative process will only become barriers in the long run.

“Anything you think you need in order to write –
Or be “inspired” to write or “get in the mood” to write –
Becomes a prohibition when it’s lacking.
Learn to write anywhere, at any time, in any conditions,
With anything, starting from nowhere.
All you really need is your head, the one indispensable requirement.” (80)

As much as I see the reason in VK’s “short sentences”, I am struggling to follow through on this. There is a specific pen I like to write with. I recently lost that pen and bought a replacement today. Thankfully, it is stocked in most highstreet stationers. What’s so special about this particular pen? Well, for starters, it is the perfect shade of blue. I find page upon page of black biro a depressing spectacle. Blue offers a far more pleasing aesthetic, but it is not too bright of a blue as to be overstimulating… As I’m writing I’m starting to see how picky this sounds. But I shall continue anyway. In addition, this pen has remarkably little resistance on the page. My hand can glide along each line and a beautiful river of letters transfers effortlessly onto the crisp white paper.

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And it’s not just the pen. I don’t like starting a new notepad. I like being able to flick through previous pages, read the occasional paragraph and think, “Man, I write some good stuff.” Those previous pages are a comforting, midnight-blue blanket of prose. Those paragraphs give me the confidence to turn to the dreaded empty page and begin. As a result, there is an old notepad I refuse to throw away because some fantastic essays began in those pages.

And beyond the raw materials, the environment has to be right too. Firstly, excellent light. Not yellowy, low-energy lamps, whose rays fail to chase away the darkening sky as you toil into the night.  Of course, a desk and comfortable chair are a must. And then there’s the noise factor. Everybody likes to work differently. Some people want absolute silence. Others blast heavy metal through their headphones. I need the right amount of ambient noise. Not silence, not heavy metal, but somewhere in between. I want friendly chatter, but not raucous laughter. A reassuring, indistinct melee of noise. I want to hear that buzz of life that reminds me there is existence beyond the realms of the word counter. The ground floor of UEA library was my perfect work zone. Having visited some local libraries recently, I can now say I miss university more than ever.

I am currently battling with drama school applications and that means Personal Statements. Yes, that dreaded task has rolled around again. There is already a post dedicated to my hatred of this task – the whole concept in fact – so I shan’t rant any further. What I will say is this: I have just acquired a visitor’s pass to Reading University library and a brand new pad of paper. I now sit with an old notepad, a new notepad, borrowed wifi and my favourite blue pen. Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

And so, with a hint of panache and some abbreviation, I can now say…

P.S. You Are My Bitch.

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Book Review: “Several short sentences about writing” by Verlyn Klinkenborg

Several Short Sentences About Writing

by Verlyn Klinkenborg

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“The question isn’t, can the reader follow you?
That’s a matter of grammar and syntax.
The question is, will the reader follow you?” (128)

I’ve never written a book review, but I think it goes something like this: a brief description of subject, author and intended audience; list good and bad points; and a couple of pithy quotes.  I shall largely adhere to this format.  Though do forgive me if I find the implied rules of this genre too confining for my wild artistic tendencies.

So, to begin: a brief description of subject, author and intended audience

This is a book written for writers by a writer about writing.

Too brief, perhaps.

While this text is applicable to writers of any experience or style, I think it is particularly useful for those at a turning point in their career as a writer – professional or otherwise.  You might be taking on a new genre, or adapting to an alternative medium – you wouldn’t write an internet blog like you would a private diary entry, for example. Or you might be moving from school to university, or university to the working world, and experiencing the imperative to evolve as a writer as well as a person. It is this last writer to whom I particularly recommend this book.

I have personally struggled with the step up from school to university writing. It is a transition that leads to anxiety. Be more mature, be more sophisticated. Be “better”. While university is the place to improve and mature, a better writer grows, not by anxiously reaching, but by exploring and experimenting. Don’t be bogged down by the “rules” of writing as they were dogmatically put to you in the early years of education. Respect the rules, of course, but don’t be afraid to challenge them. Verlyn Klinkenborg is emphatic on this point. “And yes, you may begin a sentence with ‘but.’” (119)

(From here-on, I shall refer to the author as VK. Younger readers: feel free to insert drinking puns.)

A revised brief description: this book is for the reader who is struggling to find her voice.

good and bad points

I am loath to tritely fulfil this requirement.  I shall rather offer a few points of interest:

On VK’s style: he really does practise what he preaches. Expect many short sentences about writing.

Don’t be precious about clichéd notions of “what it is to be a writer”. In fact, don’t be precious about clichés, full stop.

“A cliché is dead matter.
It causes gangrene in the prose around it, and sooner or later it eats your brain.” (45)

He isn’t a romantic. There will be no coddling.

VK follows the recent trend of using “her” as the generic pronoun in his text. I’m trying it out. I still find it odd on the ear, but then perhaps I’m antifeminist.

His style isn’t for everyone. He makes no exceptions and allows no excuses.  But he does not patronise you.  His is a clear, forthright voice.  He does not seek to trick or beguile, and though witty at times, his humour is curt at best. Some may find him abrasive, others, refreshing.

At times you will feel like you are back at school. But, as I have already discussed, re-examining the confining and sometimes misleading rules of English school teaching is crucial. This is how you extinguish anxiety and allow your own voice to emerge confidently.

and a couple of pithy quotes.

How about just one:

“You’re holding an audition.
Many sentences will try out.
One gets the part.
You’ll recognize it less from the character of the sentence itself
than from the promise it contains – promise for the sentences to come.” (101)


Reference:

Klinkenborg, V. Several short sentences about writing (New York: Vintage Books, 2013)

Further Reading:

“Several Short Sentences About Writing” Reviewed by Vinton Rafe McCabe (New York Journal of Books, 2012)

Selling Myself

About 4 years ago, I went through UCAS and encountered the innocuously named ‘Personal Statement’. Innocuous, it is not. For any of you who have gone through UCAS, you will know that it becomes the bane of your life. How do you sum up your life, your ambitions and your accomplishments in 4,000 characters – or 47 lines of text (including spaces)? Hours are spent poring over the 47 lines that can determine the success or failure of your university application. We must all learn to sell ourselves if we are to succeed.

And do you know what’s even more annoying? From that day forward, there will always be personal statements. Job applications, and pretty much any application for that matter, have sections dedicated to this same hideous task, reincarnated with titles such as “About Me” and “Tell us a little bit about yourself”. It is one of the most frustrating things you will ever write and not just because there is so much you will want to say and find the character counter thwarting you at every turn. The greatest frustration, for me at least, is maintaining what I have dubbed the ‘Confidence Equilibrium’.

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When you are applying for a job, or for a place at university, or pretty much anything, you cannot be modest – and this goes for both written applications and interviews. When you are being asked to sell yourself, you can never, in fact, be yourself. There is a version of yourself you are required to present, and not necessarily a version you would like to be. The applicant must balance their account of themselves carefully so as to not tip the see-saw too far in either direction. Drifting to the left side – excessive modesty – means you fail to demonstrate any confidence in your own skills, and if you don’t believe in yourself, why would a potential employer? On the other hand, drifting to the right – excessive self-confidence – appears like arrogance and any notes your interviewer makes on his mysterious clipboard as he analyses you may well read “egotistical ass”, and no one wants to work with one of them either.  So, how to achieve that illusive middle ground? It is attempting to master this skill that will haunt you throughout interviews in your young adult life.

“What is your biggest flaw?” This question is the bread and butter of interviewers, bread and butter that forms the tasty treat in a wildlife trap, luring in anxious interviewees. If you are honest about your flaws then you are in danger of taking yourself out of the running completely. You could go with “Do you know, I just can’t think of anything off the top of my head. I guess I’m just that good,” followed by an awkward attempt at laughter. Or you could go with the classic: say a flaw that isn’t really a flaw. Instead take this opportunity to present another positive about yourself, but in order to appear like you are still answering the question, present it negatively. “I’m just too much of a perfectionist”. This is simply false modesty by any other name and those who employ this tactic are, to my mind, cheating. If there is a right answer to this question, I haven’t found it yet.

Once I graduate, I will be faced with a sea of applications, interviews and auditions – I’m going to try and be an actress, I don’t think I’ve mentioned that yet – and I will be trying to sell myself. I’ll let you know how it goes!

If any of you have employed any of these or your own interview/application tactics I’d be interested to know how it turned out! Leave comments below! Thanks for reading!

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Making it up as I go along (aka Splurge No. 2)

These blogs are not going to be thought out. They will be spontaneous ramblings, or – to use a pretentious literary term – extempore creations. Thank you university! That sort of language is also to be expected, but I hope it won’t put off too many of you. I will not be spending extensive amounts of time planning these entries, but making it up as I go along. Again, if you want to be pretensious about it, then my writing style will reflect my lifestyle. I am making it up as I go along. I’m still getting out of the habit of writing academic essays, so it is slightly artsy notions such as those just expressed that may pop up unexpectedly and blogging is a creative outlet for those tendencies.

These blogs will take the form of mind splurges. And this is splurge No. 2. Splurge. I like that word…

My mind splurges also tend to end abruptly.

Ps. If anyone would like to splurge back, I welcome comments, responses etc.

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