With the official launch of his debut collection, The Humble Family Interviews, at Waterstone's, Birmingham, this week, Nigel Hutchinson offers some thoughts to the hows and whys of writing.
There are some kinds of writing that are practical and disposable — shopping lists, diary reminders, calendar notes — words that live in the stream of here-and-now. For approaches that are less obviously utilitarian strategies need to be developed.
Practices that avoid one's writing slipping into a groove that is already worn are valuable assets. Finding one's own road less travelled is as exciting and unpredictable as setting off on holiday with no idea what the destination is.
It is a question of tuning oneself. Slipping into a space at a tangent to, or parallel with the progress from waking to the closing of a day; under the skin of the flow of thought, somewhere there are no distances that can be measured.
It has something to do with paying attention in the way that one might notice a chance metamorphosis of a weathered scrap of paper, or the fall of light across a wall.
This is not always easily accomplished.
With practice and some occupation that leaves the mind free, words and ideas can present themselves. In part they will be rags of memory, fragments of half-remembered songs, others will come as surprises. There are sediments of language and sensation stored in the library of one's head, although digging is less fruitful than noticing what has risen to the surface.
One will find cousins of these stories and truths almost anywhere. Cues will occur, a phrase or a line in a book, magazine or letter can set one tracing back through the text to uncover other narratives and confessions. One word triggers a direction, which leads to the next, and on. Suddenly one is a detective, forensically interrogating the evidence, the unintended stories buried in an entirely different discourse. It is true that one will never find the same story twice. There can be many suspects. They have been there all along, simply waiting to be discovered. Not everything lies on the surface of a page. Words can be very patient. It is difficult to ignore the possibilities of found book titles such as Spherical Harmonics and The World Rebuilt (so easily "The Word Rebuilt") Go with instinct and curiosity rather than knowledge.
Practically, a pencil is an ideal tool here, circle words that open like the beaks of hungry fledglings and see what words nearby seem to feed what the word that first caught the attention prompts. Peck at the rest of the piece of text until a story is told. This can be done randomly or methodically.
A vocabulary restricted in this way not only forces one to examine every word and what it might come to mean, but also requires nimble footwork. It not so much encourages inventiveness as demands it. At the same time one will be working towards a structure and creating a novel map of how the work will unfold.
The Humble Family Interviews developed as a series of short poems using only the vocabulary in an exhibition booklet. Soon emerging ideas began to chime with the author's childhood, adolescent memories and adult interests. Once this unlocking of a metaphorical gate had happened consonances lined themselves up — resonant road names, lost occupations, recollections of the scent of places, town planning, painters of the sublime and the quotidien weaving themselves into a fabric of time and place. All of this material was awaiting recovery.
The sequence "Accidents Of This Game" takes it's structure from the number of lessons in a 1930s Gaelic language primer. It is the second trawl through the twenty nine lessons and vocabularies. The first version used only the vocabulary from each exercise, the second expanded to include additional words in the exercises. A third sets off from this now familiar territory into the regions of song, story, myth and fractured history. Using another language as a reference point required a recognition of syntax, figures of speech and imagery. Like meeting an alternative version of one's thought patterns, forming different shapes with the tongue. Sometimes one doesn't know what one thinks or wants to say until the evidence looks back from the page and asks questions.