Cheap profundities and tramp steamers
The working kitchen and the critic

Not writing

Like many writers, I spent much of my childhood telling myself - sotto voce if no one was around, or in my head if I might be overheard - the story of what I was doing as I did it. It wasn't a commentary, exactly, at least not in the sense of commenting on my actions as someone else would: it was more that putting my life into words brought my existence into focus as nothing else did. I guess in a family which rated books and words and talking beyond almost anything else that ordinary life contains, it was hardly suprising.

On the MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan, four times a year, all the students and tutors travel down to spend a Friday and Saturday workshopping their work. Starting from the hours on the train, or in the motorway service station, when you read and mark up the thick booklet of everyone's writing, through the readings, workshops, tutorials and hours in the pub, you're living, breathing and thinking in words. On the Sunday, I used to get up early to drive up into the Brecon Beacons, clamber onto a horse, and spend a day riding. It was the perfect antidote, first of all because even if the riding isn't hard it uses a darn sight more muscles than writing does. Second, the Beacons are one of the most beautiful places in the whole of Britain and on a horse you're higher up and can go further than you can on foot. But there was more to it than that. I'm not a particularly good rider, but even at my level riding takes a kind of bodily intelligence, an alert relaxation, which is the complete opposite of the mental intelligence of writing that only engages your body incidentally.

One afternoon we were riding a path that ran high along the side of a valley. I looked down, and saw a heron flying along the rocky stream below us: I love herons but I hadn't known they have a white stripe across the upper side of their wings. Then I looked across to the far side of the valley. It was early spring, as I remember, the air quite warm, and patches of sunlight lay on the old rusts and browns and bronzes, and on the acid greens which were just coming through. From force of habit I started describing mentally what I was seeing, but it was a process of translation: my experience of that moment wasn't verbal at all, and words seemed inadequate to the experience, just as there will always be some things about a poem that no translation can capture. Nor was my experience an hour or so later verbal. We were in a field, relaxedly chatting, when I felt my horse suddenly tense, then gather herself to bolt. Before I could possibly have thought about what was happening I'd dug my bum down into the saddle, shortened the reins, and got her together under my control. Only then did I see what she - with her 360° vision - had seen: two cyclists were pedalling up behind us, and she didn't like the look of them at all. It occurred to me then that riding is an almost completely right-brained activity, because there isn't time to be anything else: it has to be visual not verbal, simultaneous not linear, a-logical not rational, perceptive and responsive not analytical. And after two days of workshopping that was exactly what I needed.

It's probably what I need more often than I get it, so next week will see me in the Peak District, doing a landscape photography course. Photography is less physical than riding but it is very right-brained. At one time I did a lot of it, as The Mathematics of Love testifies, but I've got out of the habit of seeing things, of thinking in images, of using visual intelligence. As writers we train ourselves in words, we work obsessively at technique, sensitivity, vocabulary and sound. If this blog is sporting its first-ever image at the end of next week you'll know why: it'll be because only by asking readers to become seers will I be able to transmit one important part of the writing life: not writing.

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