Jy blaai in die argief vir 2010 September.

#12 Sustaining creativity – Helen Brain

September 30, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

For most creative people there is a tension between doing what we love and the need to earn money. A few people have reached a place where these two things mesh, and some lucky people have a patron, but for most creatives it’s hard to find a balance between expressing creativeness and making a living.

So if you’re engaged in an everyday job that isn’t very satisfying, how do you keep your creativity fresh? Here are some of the ways I’ve learned to keep the creative spring bubbling.

  • Don’t watch it or worry about it. The less attention you pay to it, the happier it is.
  • When it dries up, it’s often due to anxiety. Face the anxiety – talk it over with a therapist, or trick it; if the idea of writing 1 000 words a day is too daunting, set the limit very low, at something you can easily achieve, like 300 words a day. Another good trick when you’re stuck is to try and do it as badly as possible. Write the purplest prose. Draw the most indulgent picture, and once you’ve confronted the worst mess you can make, the fear usually unblocks.
  • You have to feed the spring, and I do it through daydreaming and playing. I particularly like spending time with children, because they’re so engaged in what is happening right now.
  • Interact with other people. I get some of my best ideas messing around with other creative people on Facebook.
  • I have everything I need. If I’m always longing for something bigger and better, I’m pushing aside, and rejecting what I have now. And it’s in what I have now that my riches lie. I would prefer to live a small life very richly, rather than skim over the surface of an extravagant life.
  • Don’t be afraid of failure. Accept that it has a cycle, that what you make will vary between not very good and fantastic, and that there is a place for both of them. Let the cycle work itself out. The good times will inevitably get less good, and the crappy times will improve, no matter what you do, so don’t worry about it.
  • I’ve learned never to talk about my writing while it’s in progress, or to show people my half-made pictures or projects. You get only a certain amount of energy for a project, and if you talk it all away, there’s much less left to do the actual creating.
  • Giving back feeds you with energy, as long as you maintain boundaries and don’t get drawn in and manipulated. Fundraising, advertising, writing copy or checking websites for charities or people who need a hand up seem to open you up in ways you wouldn’t have imagined sitting in your work cocoon.
  • There is no wrong. Don’t be afraid of making a mistake. It’s just a new path to follow. I imagine each project like a trail with hot spots – like a treasure hunt. I find a clue and move forward towards the next hot spot in the trail. When I make a “mistake” I take it as a variation on what I had intended, and full of possibilities.
  • Routine. I don’t like having a routine, but I don’t like chaos either. I have to find a balance between the two, and I’m discovering that having some elements of my life – the practical stuff, mainly – in a routine relieves anxiety and frustration, and helps me to be more creative.
  • Keep a balanced life. I do it by having four imaginary people in my head (a team of advisers) who are in charge of the four areas – a wise woman who is a healer and in charge of my psyche, a creative woman who writes my books and draws my pictures, a man who fixes things and keeps them running smoothly, and an older man who cooks and grows vegetables and cares about my health and routine. I consult them when I have a problem, and see what solutions they come up with. My unconscious mind is far cleverer than my conscious mind, and my team of people are a way for me to access my subconscious and make decisions that I think are wiser than ones I could make using only the conscious part of my brain.

    What happens when the creative spring dries up completely?

    When my husband became very ill, I lost the will to create. The last thing I helped create was a beautiful coffin, which artist friends painted with Ethiopian angels, and which we lined with buchu and pelargoniums and kooigoed. It was burned with him.

    And then, in the awful days after his death I wanted to destroy things. I nearly bashed down my bathroom, painstakingly mosaicked with toys and broken china, but one of my friends persuaded me not to. Instead I hacked the garden, at night, in the dark, cutting down hedges, ripping out creepers, getting it to a state that echoed the deadness inside me. I chopped alien trees, and the act of chopping and destroying purged my rage that this beautiful man could have been destroyed in the prime of his life.

    I didn’t panic, because I knew I’d come out the other side – that one day I would create again. What mattered was that I had a surfeit of emotional energy that I had to utilise in a way that allowed me to keep going with my everyday life and not be destructive to myself or my children.

    Before he died he made me a rose-bed in the middle of his carefully created indigenous garden – a real act of love on his part. We chose the most fragrant roses. At one point a fungus attacked them, their leaves fell off and I thought they were all going to die.

    But today, 14 months after he died, the garden I hacked down has come alive again. And the rose bushes are thick with fat, crimson flowers, smelling of Turkish Delight.

    #11 Why I publish poetry – Colleen Higgs

    September 22, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

    First and foremost, I’m a passionate reader, and have read voraciously ever since I could. Starting Modjaji Books, and becoming an indie publisher, is a way of taking that passion to another level. I hope that it is possible for a small, niche press to thrive in this tough economic climate. I attempt to take each title on its own merit and find readers for it. In 2010, with the internet, e-books, Print on Demand, digital printing, Book SA, LitNet, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other social networks, it seems to me it may just be possible. By the end of 2010, Modjaji Books will have published 12 collections of poetry. As anyone in the know will tell you, it is almost impossible to get a book of poems published. “No one wants to publish poetry.” “Poetry doesn’t sell.”

    Why have I set myself this very difficult task of publishing poetry?

    I love poetry – that is the first reason. I especially love the kind that speaks to me of the unsayable, the unthinkable, the mystery at the heart of life. I love poetry that makes me tingle, makes me feel uncomfortable, that stirs me and disturbs me. Poetry is where my spiritual life finds a home. Reading more generally provides me with a home and a sense of belonging, community, connection and understanding of others and what it means to be alive and human. Ordinary daily life is made richer for me because reading is an essential part of it. I have learnt as much from reading as from actually living my own life, if not more. The world of books and words, images, stories, meanings, the insides of the minds and hearts of others are the air I breathe and the food for my imagination. Through words, images, poetry I believe I have developed my ability to have empathy with others.

    If it wasn’t for books of poetry, I would be much poorer, I wouldn’t have been able to absorb and distill the beauty and strangeness of other sensibilities, other minds, other imaginations, other hearts, other ways of seeing. I can be with the poems of Adrienne Rich, Joan Metelerkamp, Muriel Rukeyser, June Jordan, Emily Dickinson, Makhosazana Xaba, Sindiwe Magona and feel as though I have heard them speak to me. Some of their words and meanings stay with me always, as a psychic resource in the same way that good mothering is. Some of the poems are the richer, purer air for me to breathe in, that reminds me with each deep breath that I am indeed alive.

    Publishing poetry, therefore, is an enormous privilege, a pleasure and a joy; even if it doesn’t entirely make financial sense. I get to be midwife to the mysteries the other poets live and dream. Publishing poetry seems to me to be a small, yet essential job. I pay tribute to others before me who have also known this in their own ways and also publish poetry. I think here of Robert Berold, Gus Ferguson, Lionel Abrahams, Gary Cummiskey, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Vonani Bila and Allan Horwitz. As you can see, the South African list of indie poetry publishers is all male. This is another reason I chose to be a publisher, to make a space for the voices of women.

    More than with any of the other publishing work I do, publishing poetry is an imperative. It makes me nervous to say this out loud and in public, here on LitNet, as I already have more poetry manuscripts than I know what to do with. And yet, I got asked the question, so this is the answer. I want these voices, these images, these shining pieces of beauty to see the light of day.

    # 10 Editing – Helen Moffett

    September 15, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

    With total freedom to choose a topic, I find myself returning to a song I’ve been singing for many years – the question of editing and its quality.

    It’s no secret that I regularly bemoan the lack of (good) editing I see in locally published books (and books published abroad, but let’s stick to our own backyard for now). This afflicts all categories and genres of writing, but here my focus is quality fiction – so-called “literary” novels, short story collections, poetry – and those works of memoir or non-fiction that hinge on good writing.

    Because this is a drum I beat so relentlessly, I sometimes fear it’s become habitual. I also find myself asking why good editing is so important – are the reasons as self-evident as we assume? As someone dedicated to supporting local writing, to identifying talent that is often raw and colloquial, am I guilty of tunnel vision, unable to see the narrative woods for the typographical trees?

    As I mulled this over, a friend sent me a piece, “Red pen blues”, by Claire Armitstead, an outpouring of frustration about the poor editing she encountered while judging the Guardian’s First Book award. As so often happens when editors try to give examples of poor editing as opposed to poor writing, her critiques have the smack of train-spotting about them, but what I found particularly interesting were the comments that followed.

    A recurring theme is the complaint by readers that typographical errors “spoil” their pleasure in reading – in this category, the comment “Nothing spoils the flow of a book more than being brought up short by a missing full stop, or a mis-spelled word” is typical.

    There is truth in this, but this kind of annoyance with the quality of production – and a book studded with typographical errors isn’t necessarily one that has been badly written or edited – masks a far larger problem. As Armitstead says, “My frustration is that even books with the flair and intelligence … to make the longlist would be even better if an editor had pushed them a bit further.”

    This presupposes a shared understanding of what it these editors were supposed to have done. The comment thread, however, reveals that there is no such understanding. One person clings to the Romantic notion of the Writer, alone and heroic in the creative quest: “I’ve never understood novelists who allow editors to mess with the structure or writing of their works; it’s your book, if you can’t write it yourself, then give up.” Someone mentions “copyediting”, another “literary editors”; one blames authors (“most fiction isn’t copy edited because the authors don’t want their text touched by anyone else”); and of course the villains of the piece are the publishers, now run by “bean-counters”, and ultimately the education system, which either fails to teach scholars to write, or teaches them badly.

    What I find interesting is that a previous piece I wrote on this topic and posted on Book SA last year attracted very similar comments – clearly this is a global problem. Some authors insisted that they were finally responsible for the appearance of their texts; some railed against deeper systemic problems (poor education, cash-strapped publishers jettisoning editing); and it was clear that nowhere in the world of publishing and writing is there consensus on what it is that an editor does.

    I’ve written elsewhere that a good edit is invisible – it is only bad editing that is glaringly obvious, which leaves us with the problem of trying to establish what editing involves by looking at its shadow.

    It does bear mentioning, however, that production values – the physical processes and specialist tasks that go into making a book a tangible entity – are taking a hammering as costs are cut and cut again. A recent disturbing development: a few local publishers seem to be foisting the task of proofreading the page proofs of forthcoming books on to the authors. Proofreading is a specialist skill that involves far more than simply checking for typos and word omissions. Learning how to massage a line or paragraph so as to eliminate loose tracking, bad word breaks or widows/orphans takes practice and experience. It’s wishful thinking to assume that an author can pick up on glitches like these, and mark up proofs for the typesetter. Poor typesetting in turn can sabotage a book that might have been exquisitely written and prepared, undoing the careful work of author, editor and proofreader.

    But at least the duties of the proofreader and typesetter can be quantified. It could even be argued that the job of a copyeditor is fairly clear-cut (although I regularly wrangle with colleagues over the difference between copyediting and line-editing – every publisher I’ve worked with has a different notion of what these entail). It is the realm of “deep” editing – a process known by a dozen different terms – literary editing, development editing, manuscript development and more – that is the source of my most profound frustration. Like Armitstead, I regularly read books that evoke the response, “This shows promise – but it could have been so much better with good editing.”

    Yet some of my authors are puzzled by my insistence that their manuscripts need close, careful editing: in many cases (alas, not all) they have worked their way through numerous drafts and have responded to the input of various readers. Surely, by now, their labour of love needs only a few tweaks? They are dismayed to be told that the 60 000-word final manuscript they’ve worked so hard to produce constitutes raw material to be shaped, carved, honed and polished until the shape is crystal-clear and every facet shines.

    The good news is that the quality of this “raw material” is at an all-time high in South Africa. This is what drives my dissatisfaction with editing and publishing processes that simply dole out a hasty lick and promise to writing with the potential for sustained brilliance – not just the occasional sparkle – if thoroughly edited.

    Steve Connolly, former MD of Struik publishers, was fond of quoting the following proverb at me: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” I’ve found this a useful corrective when tempted to edit as close to perfection as possible. Perhaps “perfect” sets the bar too high.

    Or so I thought until I read the short story collection Homing, by Henrietta Rose-Innes, recently published by Umuzi. I had encountered some of the stories before, in various incarnations; I had even edited one for publication in Oshun’s collection 180º some years previously. The originals had been carefully polished to begin with; what I found breathtaking was the author’s almost relentless insistence on rewriting and reworking stories that already represented an exceptionally high standard of writing, that had already garnered praise and prizes.

    Rose-Innes’s collection represents the closest thing to perfect writing I’ve yet seen produced in South Africa. It’s not just extraordinary in its own right: it is ringing testimony to the saying “Writing is rewriting.” And this also encapsulates what editing boils down to. But because the editor should never be the one doing the rewriting, in the final analysis, she or he is the one who enables rewriting – providing the “push” that Armitstead finds lacking in today’s publishing industry. In an almost alchemical process, the good editor catalyses the author’s rewriting. This takes guile, craft, confidence, the ability to tune into and reverberate with the author’s voice and vision, and sometimes nerves of steel. Sadly, the best teacher is experience, and there are no short cuts – after 25 years, I am still learning how.



    #9 Short stories – Arja Salafranca

    September 8, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

    In 2008 I researched and wrote an article on the genre of the short story for The Star. I opened with the opinion that “short stories are commonly called the Cinderellas of the literary world. Publishers complain that readers don’t buy short story collections, and so publish few volumes, then bookstores don’t stock them in great quantities. All around it seems to be a Catch-22 situation. But, are things changing? After years of drought, in which you found just a few local volumes published, whether of anthologies or of collections by single authors, 2008 has seen what some are referring to as a renaissance of the genre in South Africa.”  I then reviewed four collections of stories that had recently been released, including Liesl Jobson’s flash fiction collection 100 Papers and Zoe Wicomb’s The One that Got Away.

    Many of the writers, literary editors and publishers agreed that short stories are a hard sell, and there was doubt among those polled whether we were indeed witnessing a renaissance.

    Two years later, and what was a slow trickle then seems to have become a veritable flood. Admittedly the number of volumes being published in this country is small compared with the UK, or the US, a country which still reveres and celebrates the form, but in looking at what went before, I think we’re seeing a delightful turning. This year alone in South Africa we’ve seen the publication of Louis Greenberg’s Home Away anthology, the rerelease of Ivan Vladislavic’s early stories, Flashback Hotel, Henrietta Rose-Innes’s collection Homing, David Medalie’s The Mistresses’s Dog, as well as, from Modjaji Books, the Bed Book of Short Stories by women writers and Meg Vandermerwe’s This Place I call Home, as well as my debut collection, The Thin Line. Readers who love short stories are finally just about spoilt for choice. Just about. There are still many more short stories that do not find homes in anthologies and many writers who struggle to place a manuscript of stories with publishers, but the doors are cracking slightly, I hope. There’s also the Pen/Studzinski Award, which offers writers the chance of recognition for the form and publication in book form. Not to mention the annual Caine Prize – awarded for African stories.

    Yet, short stories, like poetry, battle for recognition and readership, and many publishers are still loath to take them on. We’re told that the South African public prefer non-fiction to fiction, with the  former far outselling “made-up” stuff. And novels predominate in the fiction arena.

    So, why do I still write short stories? Why do any of us lovers of the form still write them?

    I can only say in my defence that I am drawn to the form, and its brevity. And I enjoy brevity in other forms too: I love reading travel and other essays, I love reading anthologies of collected journal articles and essays. I like being transported briefly to a place – getting my “fix”, so to speak. When time is tight I can pick up a book of essays, read a few, put the book away until there’s time to read again. I love novels – but novels require more commitment and time. I recently heard that it takes the average person three weeks to complete reading a book. I lose the thread – and interest – if I take more than a day or a couple of days to read a novel. I like to enter into a fictional world completely, utterly, stay within it, catch the threads from beginning to end. And yet, increasingly in a time-poor world, you have to make space and room in your life to read a novel.

    As US short story writer, Jonathan Papernick, notes in his blog post, “In Defence of the Short Story”:
    With less and less time in our busy lives, short stories are the perfect antidote to the workaday world – an expansive, human experience compressed into a package that can be consumed in its entirety in a half an hour, and sometimes in as little as five minutes. Short stories allow us to walk in the shoes of a characters and understand her hopes and fears and dreams intimately without having to make a three or 400 page commitment that may never be met. What better way is there for a reader to understand a young Jewish girl’s sexual dilemma with her crucifix-wearing suitor than to spend four pages in her mind as she works through the complexities not only of her tradition but also of her expectations as a modern young woman, without the reader actually going through the experience herself? How else can we enter the mind of a religious extremist, or an Iraq war vet, or a girl struggling with her weight, or a drug addict or … the list goes on and on. The fact is, we are better people for reading stories, more understanding, humanistic people, able to empathize with those who are not us. This world needs greater understanding, and a well-written short story can pierce the heart like a bullet and stay with a reader for the rest of her life.

    I’ve also heard readers say that short stories “drop” them; that you can’t live with the characters or get to know them as you do with a longer work. For others the open-endedness of so many modern short stories leaves them cold, or puzzled. And yet, I like that about short stories – I like that open-ended quality, I like being able to muse on the ending, take a few possibilities and ultimately decide on them for myself. Short stories make you think – make you work. There are sometimes no easy conclusions, and I find that peculiarly satisfying.

    But how to get readers?

    We need to give short stories the same “push” that was given to local novels about a decade or so ago. That’s when we really saw the start of the enormous numbers of local novels both being published and – most importantly – being read by local readers. We’re hungry to hear our own stories, and a potential market does exist for this form, but we as readers have to make it, or help create it. As I said in an interview with Dye Hard Press:

    We need to demand their prominence as readers and writers. We need to ask more magazines to publish them; we need to buy more collections, ask booksellers to stock them, or shop online. We need to read and buy short story collections … We need to write stories that draw readers in, and very importantly, as writers, we need to read short stories and read widely. As I said before, if you can’t find volumes of stories in your bookshop, go online, there are collections and anthologies out there that don’t make it to our South African shelves. Go explore.

    Another avenue of exploration offered can be found in the excellent The Short Review, an online celebration of short stories, founded by the UK writer Tania Hershman which “shines the spotlight on short story collections, new and older, across all genres, styles, publishers and countries. Each month we review 10 books and interview as many of their authors as possible”. Go explore.

    Arja Salafranca’s debut collection of short stories, The Thin Line, was published by Modjaji Books in 2010. She has published two collections of poetry, A life stripped of illusions, winner of the 1994 Sanlam Award, and The Fire in Which we Burn. Her poetry is also collected in Isis X (Botsotso). She received the 2010 Dalro Award for poetry. She edits the Sunday Life supplement in The Sunday Independent and is studying toward an MA in Creative Writing at Wits University.

    Further information: http://arjasalafranca.blogspot.com


    #8 Closing the circle – Ingrid Andersen

    September 2, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

    As it turns out, I happened upon Richard de Nooy’s engaging post about the influences on his writing while I was in the process of thinking about my own. Richard wrote:

    I often feel uncomfortable when I am asked which authors or artists have inspired me. The only honest answer I can give is: all and none. I am a sponge, constantly absorbing the experiences of the real world and then gently squeezing out a trickle of fiction that looks and tastes real and clear, but only because all the imperfections have been filtered out.

    Recently, I’ve been coming to understand who has influenced me as a poet. I studied English literature at Wits in the mid-1980s, while South Africa was struggling to get out from under the threatening finger of PW Botha. It was a time when it was usual for teargas to drift in at lecture theatre windows. No doubt my lecturers and tutors gave me a thorough grounding in the canon of English literature. It was more than two decades ago, so I remember very little, except the writers with whom I went on to form a lifelong relationship. I do remember loathing Milton.

    While my studies broadened my understanding, they narrowed me as a writer. I had been writing poetry since childhood, but it took the study of literary criticism to silence me. I did what I could to emerge from under my education. In the years up to the publication of my first collection, Excision, in 2004, I was, to all intents and purposes, finding my voice again. I read extensively. As time went on, I wrote poetry that was more visual, terse and lean. I pared away the unnecessary, I made words work hard. For me, poetry was a visual art form in which one could see through the image or the object to meaning.

    My earliest memory of reading a poem that delighted me utterly was of reading Mervyn Peake’s poem “Conceit” in that heavy tome of a biography. Peake grew up in China, and one can almost see the sparse black ink brush strokes:

    I heard a winter tree in song
    Its leaves were birds, a hundred strong;
    When all at once it ceased to sing,
    For every leaf had taken wing.

    Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”, WCW’s “This is just to say” and Eliot’s “Preludes”, likewise, had captured my imagination. My childhood was saturated with art galleries, art books and prints on the walls. For matric French we immersed ourselves in the painstaking translation into English of the French Romantic poets – Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé and others. I was seduced by the sensual richness of the imagery.

    When reader comments on the manuscript of Piece Work, my second collection of poetry due out in September from Modjaji Books, made comparisons with Imagist poetry, they brought me, full circle, back to literary theory. My amnesia was thorough: I could remember nothing about the movement. Some quick searching in my university’s library surfaced Pratt’s definitive anthology, The Imagist Poem, and two or three other books. Sparse pickings.

    To my surprise I found that many of the poems that had delighted me over the years and had appealed to my imagination were to be found in this anthology. Pound, early TS Eliot, Williams, Sandburg. I read what I could find about Imagism and about the kindred Objectivist movement. I enjoyed some of George Oppen and Lorine Niedecker’s poetry. Reading Pound and Hulme’s writings on Imagist Poetry was almost eerie – I felt a physical jolt of recognition. Here was the muscular, hardworking, visual poetry I strove for – although my subject matter was broader, and I certainly did not relate to all of the poetry in the movement.

    Which leaves me musing. Did I, although I don’t remember it, absorb the principles of Imagism during my years of studying English literature only to find it resurfacing later? Or did I find my way unwittingly along a path similar to that travelled by the Imagists by absorbing the visual richness of art, reading the French Romantics and Basho, only to discover that I was connected across a century to a group of people who met at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in London’s Soho?

    I cannot know. Nevertheless, it intrigues me.