GOLDEN LANGUR INTERVIEWS MIKE AGIUS
GL: When did you first know that you wanted to write? Was there a light bulb-moment or a particular experience that triggered it?
MA: Have I ever wanted to write? I don’t think so. I have always wanted to have written, but the idea of all the hard work to get to the ‘have written’ state never appealed. I have always battled against laziness. I realised some time ago that in order to have written, I needed to write. I have, as long as I can remember, had stories in my head. Sometimes I just wake up with them. The big one is set in Malta at the time of the 1565 siege. I told my childhood friend, Mike, about it, and he pestered to me get it writ, so I started. Mike devoured each chapter and kept on pestering me for more. Then he died, and I stopped.
GL: How important is reading poetry for you, as a poet? Please could you name the poets whose work you enjoy? Is there any particular poet with whom you identify?
MA: I am a computer programmer and run a small software house, so I don’t have much spare time, especially given the current economic situation. When I do stop, I tend to veg out in front of the telly and then regret the wasted evening. I still do it though, despite everything. With the health scare, you would think that I would blaze all the time, but no. I veg, instead of reading and writing, which, I must admit, can be a chore. If I spent less time working, I would be more inclined to write, but when I finish work I am generally knackered. I enjoyed, and still do, Browning, who I did for ‘O’ level at school, because we had an inspirational teacher, Mick Curran, who brought English to life.
When I was young, my Dad, with all his innate wonder at the power of language, had me and my sister learning poetry. Daffodils and Eagles, and all that stuff that I disliked then, and avoid now. But I don’t regret the learning, and the sense of wonder it imbued. More recently I have consumed everything from Catullus to poets alive today, such as Jane Yeh, Mark Haddon and Richard Price, and loads of others that our youngest daughter has nicked. I enjoyed Donne with my girls when they did him in English Lit. When I was the same age as our youngest (18), I read poetry by Blake, Hopkins and others, just like she is doing now – except, where I bought the books, she just ‘borrows’ mine.
Do I identify with a particular poet? I don’t know enough about the subject to give an informed answer. I haven’t attempted to be like anyone.
GL: The prose poem, Yummy, is about your wife, Liz. To quote a passage:
‘. . . My heart beats faster when you’re my pasta. A little arrabiata for a starter, with red wine, basil and pasata, plus thyme and, sizzley, some woo woo chilli, and holy moly macaroni – hot tomalley unravioli.’
Another poem, The Sadness of Gloves, is also inspired by Liz. How central is she to your writing? Does she critique your poems?
MA: She is central, I suppose. I have never felt about anyone the way I feel about her, so I do get moments of inspiration when I want to write about her in poetry. But Liz, and our eldest son, Alex, don’t get poetry at all, and freely admit it.
However, they are very patient with me, and when I sit them down to listen, they do so intently; then tell me it ‘is nice’. I could be reading any old crap though. Our girls are my critics. They read pretty much everything I write.
GL: Do your girls suggest edits to your work and do you accept their suggestions?
MA: Yes, both Georgia and Verity offer suggestions and if I agree I will heed them.
GL: You have written about your friend, Michael, who died six years ago. To take a few lines from the poem, Sometimes:
‘. . . I reach out,
and you vanish,
as you always do,
but still I reach.
It seems simple;
elementary logic -
I reach out, and you
Do you find writing about him cathartic? Or do you write to keep his memory alive? Is he your muse?
MA: Mike’s death started me writing poetry. I suppose it was, subconsciously, a neat way to package up the way I was feeling, and I have not stopped. I don’t write about him to keep his memory alive. I think about him every day, but I don’t think he is my muse. I write about Mike when we have met in my dreams. Generally, we get up to no good, and have occasional deep conversations. Just like life really, except when I wake up he’s not here.
I wish that I dreamt about him more.
GL: In recent months you’ve written about your own diagnosis of cancer and treatment. In the poem, Exhibit, subtitled: Man – With Cancer – 2009, you express a sense of guilt:
‘. . . Have I betrayed them
I’m a Daddy,
I cannot be sick;
yet I have arrived
at Cancer Station
un-aware that I was travelling.’
In another poem, Welcome the Bad Days, you say:
‘. . . Cry in the rain
so no-one will see your tears.
Good days make you smile,
bad days shape you;
make you what you are.
Welcome the bad days,
and smile when they are gone.’
How has your illness shaped your writing?
MA: I wrote a few miserable poems, but other than that I don’t think it has shaped my writing any more or less than anything else. In all ways we are the sum of our DNA and experiences; it’s the weight given to experiences that affects us on a day to day basis. You don’t have to succumb. Resistance is not futile.
I always thought that I had plenty of time to do everything I wanted, but the cancer made me realise that I don’t and that I must prioritise and organise, and fight the tendency to laziness.
I have an English side, which I know and understand, but my Maltese half is largely a mystery to me. I know the history of Malta intimately, but I cannot think in Maltese, and I believe that to really understand a culture, you need to think in it’s language. So, I have started to learn Maltese. I just got back from a holiday there, having reconnected with relatives, some of whom I have talked with over the years, but the majority I have not seen for 19 years, other than at my Auntie’s funeral last year. We fell into conversation so easily. It was great to see them all again. More importantly, it was revealing the way our kids saw their own personality traits, and senses of humour in others, as well as who looked like whom. It is true that the cancer shaped my writing while I was recovering, and cancer has turned me into a raving hypochondriac. Pain in toe – oh no, toe cancer – I remember – I just stubbed it. That kind of thing. So it is an ever present demon. I look out for symptoms all the time, I guess.
Exhibit was a grind of a poem. It had a few decent lines – the Cancer Station line and the last one, which packed the punch. That was what all the other words were for – to support those two statements.
We went to London to see the museums and galleries before I had to go into hospital. At that point in time we didn’t know if the cancer was stage 1 or 3 and we had 4 months of not knowing, which was a strain. I was trolling round the museum with the youngest, and she went off to the book shop so I sat on a bench at the end of a hall of exhibits, on my own, feeling alone, sad, lonely and scared. That made me think. That’s where that idea came from.
Some of my pals have got cancer too, which stirs it up a bit. I am not much of a fan of my own poems but I wrote A Frightened Man as a result of what a couple of mates had said, and I do like that poem. It is sad, yet defiant.
GL: The American writer and literary theorist, Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004), said:
‘It is not suffering as such that is most deeply feared but suffering that degrades.’
Do you think that suffering adversely affects the creative imagination? Or does suffering make one a better poet or writer? Please could you elaborate a little?
MA: I don’t think I have suffered. I got lucky. I didn’t have a battle with cancer. Who does? You just lie back and let the specialists exercise what they know, play the odds, and do what they have got to do. It’s not a question I have the experience (thankfully) to answer.
GL: A recurring motif in your writing is a questioning of religion. In the prose poem, Ants, you toy with the idea of the ant being an ‘agnostic.’ In another poem, I quote:
‘God resides in a two-up, two-down . . .’
Charles Bukowski (1920- 1984) said:
‘For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written . . . We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church . . .’
Do you think this ‘unlearning’ of religion is vital for the craft of writing in this day and age? Do you, as a poet, find it liberating? What is it about religion that you, as a poet, find problematic to articulate?
MA: I have had a problem with Catholicism for a number of years, then faith. My Dad, being Maltese, was brought up as a strict Roman Catholic and so was I. I lost religion years ago, and I believe I am an agnostic now.
I had had my prognosis in November 2009 and it dawned on me that I had not prayed once. Not even, ‘Oh God, why me?’ It never occurred to me to pray, and I had quite happily surrendered to science. OK. The number of candles burning in Malta probably increased global warming considerably. There’s a lot of good in religion though, and some solid logic in the philosophies, so I don’t have any hatred for the religious. Also, I know some people that I totally admire who are inspired by religion. It just ain’t for me.
However, I do wonder if there is a correlation between the decline in the number of people who believe that God is watching them and the increase in the number of CCTV cameras.
Does it affect my writing? I don’t know. I don’t think I feel that strongly either way. I am conscious that I have said ‘I don’t know’ a number of times, but it is true. The more I learn, and the more I think, the more I realise how little I know, but I don’t turn to God to provide that knowledge. As a race though, the more we learn, the farther God seems to retreat into the gaps in our knowledge. Analogous to the Emperor’s clothes and Salome, and to mix a metaphor, God is running out of veils, and could soon end up naked and exposed. I know people who have done some ugly things and caused great hurt in the name of religion, and others who have shone a light into peoples’ lives, and I cannot rationalise, or accept a judgement, that grants salvation to both.
We’re on this earth a short while, and then we are done, and in that short time we have to do the best we can, hurt as few people as possible, improve as many others’ lives as possible, and have as few regrets as possible.
GL: You often write about events: personal (Sweetest Pollen), historical or political (Black Gold, Just Make it Stop, Guernica). What are your main sources of inspiration – people, political events, travel, films or music? Please could you share a few details?
MA: Politics, travel, film and music would really have to stir me up to write about them. People, history and science float my boat. I think that it is the job of the writer to create a world where we can explore the universe and the human condition. The ancient Greek root of ‘poet’ is to create, and metaphor is to transfer. I like the idea that in our created worlds we can defy natural laws: have plants and animals that talk, and people float into the air. I like that we can paint a world with oblique strokes and somehow transfer it into someone else’s mind to make them laugh or cry.
Can I do that? I think maybe I have, on the rare occasion: that I have got it right.
GL: Would it be fair to say that you are an urban poet, i.e. that the city and urban-scape dominate your writing? What is it particularly about this that inspires you?
MA: I live in a city and, although I occasionally write about the countryside, I tend to write about the things that happen around me mostly. People have said that I am an urban poet, but I don’t think I am. Maybe I wrote a few poems together that made people think that, but it was an unconscious process for me.
GL: Do you write your poems quickly, as the ideas come? Do you keep notes? Do you need to be at a particular table or in a particular room to write? Do you write straight away on your computer or by long hand?
MA: Yep. I generally wake up with them, or they pop into my mind. I rarely sit down to compose, or struggle with an idea, and they happen anywhere and everywhere. I only use paper if I don’t have a computer to hand, so I bash them straight into my lovely Mac then ignore them for a while. It takes a day or so for me to detach myself from them. Then they are no longer my babies and, although I am still interested in them, I can slash ‘em up. Once they are out there, I am no longer that interested.
Occasionally, I break that rule: write and post within an hour or so. I always regret it and edit them online.
GL: In discussion about your poem, Awash, which was accepted for the We Are All Japan anthology, you say:
‘I don’t like my poem much, but hey, maybe that’s the key to success, only run with the stuff I don’t like.’
Is this a lack of confidence? Why are you so critical about your writing? Do you regularly revise? Do you ever reach a point when you think a poem is as perfect as it can get? Or do you never reach this stage?
MA: I don’t think I lack confidence, I just do stuff and move on. There are a handful of poems I have written that I like. The Reluctant Cub Scout is one that I like all the way through. Others have some phrases that deliver so I consider them OK. I like what I have been writing recently more though.
I am critical and will rarely see a poem, or anything I write, as perfect. I am a perfectionist who has learned to live with my own imperfection. Having a short attention span helps. Boredom is good for me. It drives me to try new things. So I do get to a point where I accept that a poem is as perfect as I am prepared to make it. I am always mindful of the law of diminishing returns, so I cut my losses and do something new.
GL: Your poems in the main poetry forum, here in Writers’ Dock, regularly get Pick of the Week commendation. Have you thought of sending your poems out for publication? Could you share a few publishers you have approached and where your poems have been published?
MA: I had one published in an anthology early on. It’s not good though. I sent off a bunch to Carcanet and they were rejected. I hate that. Not that they were rejected, but I that I was not told why. I think I was batting well out of my league there though.
So I don’t bother. Maybe I should send some of the more recent ones.
Christmas Surprise was picked up at www.christmas-time.com/christmasurprise and I like that poem. In hindsight, it has a neat harkening back to ‘He grasps the crag with crooked hands’ from my childhood learning. Not that the line was conscious though. It also has a sense of mounting panic, which I think is quite comedic.
For the time being I am happy and grateful that a jury of my peers judge anything worthy of PoTW.
GL: James Joyce (1882- 1941) wrote:
‘Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.’
Of course, Joyce was writing from the perspective of an Irish national at the time of the British occupation of Ireland. Are you ‘torturously’ conscious of your choice of words, not just in terms of meaning but also in terms of sonority and enjambment of lines?
You have mentioned a ‘Salfordian’ accent/patois. How does this influence your writing?
MA: Not so much Salford. I went to school in Salford but I am, at heart, a Mancunian. I write the occasional poem with a regional accent. I did Joyce at Teacher Training College, so I appreciate his perspective. Also, 40% of the intake were from Ireland. Interesting days. I think that ‘choice of words’ tortures all writers. I’ve yet to meet one who doesn’t agonise over a phrase. You just have to read some of the postings on WD to realise that.
GL: Malta has featured in your writing. Please could you elaborate on the importance of this place for you?
MA: Oh, it is very important. I am half Maltese, from my father’s side. The English half of me gets sun burnt though. Malta is like a poem. Everything is all wrapped up in a neat package: history from megalithic times to present, art (Caravaggio’s The Beheading of John the Baptist, is worth the air fare alone), architecture, music, religion, sun, sea, and food and wine. Plus, most of my relatives are there.
GL: You have recently mentioned a novel. Would you care to share a few details about this?
MA: The thought occurred that, when Harold Godwinson supposedly swore to back William the Bastard in his bid for the throne of England, there were no English witnesses, and that history is written by the victor. Also, some scholars doubt that the meeting ever took place. Why would Harold do that anyway? He was a clear contender to be elected by the High Witan. He was smart, brave, handsome and well liked, by all accounts, so why would he?
So, I decided to have a couple of heroic young men witness the meeting from a hiding place – but they are discovered. The story follows the youngsters through to manhood: in Normandy with Harold and then at Stamford Bridge, and finally Hastings where they end up fleeing in separate directions for their lives. The second book is about how one of them fights alongside Hereward the Wake, and how the other survives through various means, and their eventual victory and reunification. I have the timeline and most of the characters in place so it is pretty much plotted.
I am going to publish it through Amazon (assuming I get time to write it) under the name of Jack Slaughterman, because I do kill an awful lot of people.
GL: Finally, if you could have a wish for your writing, what would it be?
MA: Having some publishing success would be nice. To have written means that, I suppose. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone picked up one of my stories on Amazon and liked it?
So my wish would be . . . to have written.
– Golden Langur
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN A WRITER/POET AND THE READER IS COMPLEX. Edgar Allen Poe identified a force more intangible than a reader that drove him to write:
‘With me poetry has not been a purpose, but a passion.’
Neil Gaiman clearly differentiates the two:
‘If the writer were more like a reader, he’d be a reader, not a writer. It’s as uncomplicated as that.’
He reinforces the common image of a writer’s secret hideout, ‘I move into that peculiar universe where you know you have stuff to finish and you do nothing but write.’
Flaubert evoked the intense immersion that writing entails:
‘I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.’
Monica Ali says, ‘When the words are flying, the house could be burgled and I wouldn’t notice . . . writing is a way of escaping the quotidian.’
The roots of such unworldly perspectives of writing lie in the fact that writers of early fiction were men and women of leisure. For example, the Indian romance, Kadambari, was written by Bāṇabhaṭṭa, a Sanskrit scholar and the Court Poet of King Harshavardhana, (606–647 CE). Tale of Genji was penned by the Heian Court Lady, Murasaki Shikibu (11th century). Likewise, Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), who rivals Henry Fielding (1707 -1754) as the founder of the English novel, was a middle class printer.
Thus, up until mid-nineteenth century, writing fiction was a pursuit of leisure and not a moneymaking profession. Today all major writers ‘market’ their work. They engage directly with the reader on their own blogs and social network sites, like Twitter and Facebook. Julian Barnes, the 2011 Man Booker Prize winner, has his own website, and so do Gaiman and Ian McEwan.
However, something more than moneymaking underpins this relationship between the writer and the reader. Why do we write at all? Why not just think it? Writing pre-supposes a reader, an audience.
Paul Auster (1947-), the American crime fiction writer, describes the novel as ‘an equal collaboration between the writer and the reader.’ It is, he says, ‘the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy.’
Joyce quipped about Finnegan’s Wake, ‘I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.’
Writing happens in that inexplicable spark between reader and writer. Beckett understood this:
‘I cannot explain my plays. Each must find out for himself what is meant.’
– Golden Langur
MALOUF IS AN ACCLAIMED AUSTRALIAN WRITER OF MIXED DESCENT (Lebanese Christian father and English-born Portuguese Jewish mother). This novel won the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Award (1996).
It tells the story of Gemmy, a white orphan abandoned from a ship and rescued by Aborigines. Gemmy suddenly and literally erupts into the life of a Scottish-origin family, the McIvors, in the Australian outback.
‘Do not shoot. I am a British object’, are the first of the rare words he utters to Lachlan Beattie, an adopted cousin of the clan, and he remains an object felt mainly by his startling effects on others. Gemmy thus is an ambiguous mixed figure belonging neither to the whites nor the Aborigines; a creature both of the slums where he was brought up and the Outback, into which he was adopted. He has no language and thus becomes a passive catalyst for bringing out latent reactions in others. In some cases this is naked hostility from the McIvors’ white neighbours. He arouses their suspicions and ends up being victimised, but he also transforms the McIvors generally, importing into their colonial seclusion a taste of the blinding light and dark matter of the Outback. Jock McIvor, the head of the family, for instance, is moved to find the beauty and wonder of insect life: something he would never have owned up to before.
The story of Gemmy is told in scattered moments and flashes of beautiful prose, rather than a continuous narrative. Indeed the narrator’s voice is pitched in an extraordinary way between inside and outside, landscape and mind, which enables Malouf to unleash his verbal virtuosity – the opposite of Gemmy’s near silence – to powerful effect in the description and mind-reading of his setting and characters.
Language is central to the book, manifest in the beauty of description and fundamental charity of the author to even his most unpleasant of characters (such as Andy, a neighbour of the McIvors, who makes up false stories to implicate Gemmy in an Aboriginal plot), creating a lyrical effect whose main subject is Australia itself. This emerges in the quotations from the field notebooks of Frazer, the minister for whom Gemmy becomes a trusting and trusted informant on the wild side of Australia’s nature. (Another Frazer, incidentally, was an early anthropologist, the author of the Sacred Bough, perhaps a hint from Malouf about his intentions.)
Gemmy represents, and is, ‘Aboriginal’ in both senses of the word, yet by not actually being an Aborigine he represents it at a remove. He becomes an elusive and fugitive signifier of something always elsewhere, ‘the other’ – to use the jargon of the then fashionable (1993, the year the book was published) semiotic movement.
The centre of the book is the transfiguration – if one can use such a loaded term for it – of the McIvor girl, Janet, who is covered by bees and yet survives. Bees play an important part in Aboriginal myth as agents of transformation, and the Queen Bee that Janet turns into later becomes a nun, as if to consecrate this strange transformation into a Virgin Mary figure. Gemmy, who ends up as a parcel of bones on a tree, but alive in his affects on the others whom his life has touched, is a Christ-like figure: two-natured aboriginal and white and a redemptive force. Thus the writer fuses native spirituality with the great themes of Christianity also. Throughout the work there is a pervasion of a religious sense, a kind of sacred manna which appears most strongly in the language of the book itself – Gemmy is ‘sensitive to this dealing between name and spirit’ and so is Malouf. ‘It was like peering through into the City of God’, says Lachlan, about the hives kept by the nuns, when he visits Janet. It is an apt quote about the book itself.
The one criticism of the book, if I may make it, is that the ending after the disappearance of Gemmy – presumed dead and a packet of bones hung up on a tree – seems to suddenly deflate and become detached from the main body of the work as we follow the fates of the McIvors. Apart from that I found the book a beautiful and unusual work of poetic fiction, and one might add, from a writer for whom beauty of both word and thought are paramount.
– Golden Langur
THE POWER OF LANGUAGE TO HEAL IS NO RECENT DISCOVERY. Throughout the ages humankind has explored the educational and therapeutic value of language and literature. Every civilisation from past to present has made use of metaphor, imagery, rhythm and other literary devices to construct teaching stories and fables, and to transmit personal information as well as cultural history and tradition from one generation to the next.
Poetry, with its condensed form and lyrical quality, is an especially evocative form of literature capable of eliciting responses from people of all ages and in all cultures. The earliest use of poetry for healing can be attributed to tribal cultures where shamans and witch doctors chanted poetry for the well-being of the tribe or individual. Poetry therapy in modern practice refers to the use of published and original poems as well as story, narrative literature, song lyrics and therapeutic writing (journal therapy) in an interactive process for cathartic release, enhanced self-awareness, new insight and renewed hope. During the interactive, guided discovery process, poetry provides a universal perspective from which to understand the profound as well as the mundane events that constitute an individual life.
What is poetry therapy? Poetry therapy differs from the highly analytic (and often oppressive) interpretive process of English literature class in a significant way. While there is inherent value in the act of reading poetry, therapeutic value is derived through a facilitated discussion of the reader’s feeling-response to a poem. Participants are invited to discover and share their own intuitive understanding of a poem, rather than analyse meter or agree with the experts on the poet’s intended meaning. A participant’s personal response to a poem or story is valued; engaging in a dialogue with a trained facilitator about that response can then lead to deeper layers of insight.
In the seminal handbook for poetry therapy (Biblio/Poetry Therapy, The Interactive Process: a Handbook, North Star Press, 1994) authors Arleen Hynes and Mary Hynes-Berry define a four-part interactive process for biblio/poetry therapy as follows:
1) recognition, 2) examination, 3) juxtaposition, and 4) self-application.
To put it simply, a poetry therapy process might go like this:
An individual reads a poem and recognises that the poem has meaning. Taking a closer look, the individual recognises the poem has a significant personal meaning or they have a feeling response to some aspect of the literature. The reader then considers where this feeling or response originated. What caused it? How does it feel exactly? Is it like some other feeling or experience? During this phase the reader usually has an ‘aha’ moment and makes a connection between the response to the poem and an important personal process, belief, or life event. Some form of learning has taken place. Once the reader/participant achieves insight, s/he can decide what to do with the new information: How will I use this new awareness in my life?
The ‘aha’ moment can occur spontaneously for healthy individuals. In a clinical situation, dialoguing with a trained facilitator is recommended to optimise and complete the healing process. Self-application is vital to integrate the learning and can be as simple as writing a journal summary of the insight to capture awareness. For structured developmental processes, a participant may create a personal action plan based on their insight; clinical applications may extend to complex treatment plans for continued growth.
What is poetry therapy and its effects on the modern individual? While positive results can be achieved with a variety of therapeutic modalities, poetry therapy is unique in its use of literature as the primary catalyst for change. Poems have tremendous potential for use in the treatment of mental illness. Poetry therapy appeals to the healthy aspects of the mind in both clinical and developmental applications, reinforcing strengths rather than diagnosing problem areas. Practitioners report outstanding success using poetry therapy with teens and adolescents, with seniors, with prison populations, for counselling grief and loss, for addictions, and emotional disorders. As the need to confront personal feelings, improve self-awareness and enhance self-esteem is no longer confined to mentally ill patients, poetry facilitators today support all kinds of people in their normal growth and healthy development process.
For more information about poetry therapy, contact: www.poetrytherapy.org. The National Association for Poetry Therapy is a community dedicated to the advancement of language arts in growth and healing.
To find a certified poetry practitioner in your area or to learn more about credentialing/training as a poetry therapist, contact: www.nfbpt.com. Incorporated in 1983, the National Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy sets standards of excellence in the training and credentialing of practitioners in the field of biblio/poetry therapy.
– Susan de Wardt
Life Coach Susan de Wardt, CJF/CAPF is the ATH (All Things Healing) Editor of Poetry Therapy (www.allthingshealing.com). She has helped people find the courage to expand life satisfaction and creative potential for over twenty years. A masterful facilitator of process, Susan specialises in the use of poetry and art to transform lives.
NANOWRIMO (NATIONAL NOVEL WRITING MONTH) is, at the moment of writing, almost upon us again. Every November a huge creative outpouring takes place all around the world. Words flow out. Write a novel in thirty days!
This process of writing it as it comes works for many; some hate the very idea of it, saying ‘how can a serious book ever be written in such a way?’ Whether we like it or not, NaNoWriMo is a start. It’s a focus to just get some words written. It’s a support mechanism. It gives us something to work with, to mould and to edit. The process of writing itself is the way that words are imprinted into the world.
This article combines two sets of interview questions: firstly, the Office of Letters and Light (OLL, the non-profit organisation that brings NaNoWriMo, amongst other projects, to us all at this time of the year) have kindly given permission for journalists to make use of questions put to Executive Director, Chris Baty; secondly, Sarah Mackey, from the OLL, responds to bespoke interview questions from your Writers’ Dock journalist.
For the record, I’ve participated in – and ‘won’ – NaNoWriMo in years past. Try it yourself. You will then have your own informed opinion.
Interview excerpt with Chris Baty, Office of Letters and Light
Tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, and your role with NaNoWriMo.
Chris Baty (CB): I founded NaNoWriMo accidentally in 1999. That first year, I managed to convince twenty of my friends here in the Bay Area to write a 50,000-word novel in a month. I’ve been very privileged to watch the idea spread over the last dozen years. I’ve written a novel every year since 1999.
What advice do you have for people who are considering taking on the NaNoWriMo challenge?
CB: You absolutely should do it! Even if you don’t really know what you’ll be writing. It turns out that, if you start writing and keep writing, the story tends to take care of itself. Also, if you’re plagued with a persnickety inner editor, it’s a good idea to leave all the editing until December. Yes, it’s hard to leave errors and awkward prose on the page, but the most important thing is to stay focused on the goal of getting a beginning, middle and end of your story written in 50,000 words. It seems like a crazy amount to write in a month, but that 50K comes a lot sooner than you think it will. Finally, I’d recommend you tell as many people as possible that you’ll be writing a novel in November. It’s a great way to build some accountability into the creative process, and it also means you may end up getting someone agreeing to join you in the escapade with you. Having someone to celebrate (and commiserate) with dramatically increases the likelihood that you’ll both make it to 50,000 words.
Why should someone sign up for NaNoWriMo?
CB: Firstly, it’s an unbeatable way to get the first draft of a book written. The thirty day deadline helps you be less precious about every sentence, and it forces you to make writing a priority in a way that you just don’t without the external structure that comes from things like taking a class or taking part in NaNoWriMo.
On a less bookish note . . . One of the tough things about being an adult is that we don’t really give ourselves enough time to play. We’re busy with work or school or family, but we still need that creative time, and our imaginations are just as active as they were when we were younger. Writing a novel in a month is a great opportunity to reconnect with that spirit of play that brought us so much happiness when we were kids. Book-building just feels great. When you have a big creative project on your plate, you feel more awake and life is a lot more magical. You are also able to appreciate the books you read on an entirely different level once you’ve written one of your own.
There are now more than 60 published NaNoWriMo novels. Do you think more participants are focusing on getting published, and do you think they should focus on that?
CB: I think getting your book published is great. The most important thing, though, is giving yourself the space to make something that is meaningful or entertaining or satisfying for you, the creator.
What do you get for winning NaNoWriMo?
CB: You get a digital web badge, a handsome winner’s certificate, bragging rights and, thanks to our print-on-demand sponsor CreateSpace, a free paperback copy of your book. But I think the most important thing you get is a fun month spent exploring the outer reaches of your imagination. And vastly increased sex appeal.
Interview with Sarah Mackey, Office of Letters and Light
DCC: Why is it that you think that NaNoWriMo is so successful?
SM: I think there is so much in the world today that tells you what you shouldn’t do, or can’t do, or won’t be able to do. NaNoWriMo is where someone tells you: You know what? I think you can, so why not try it? It’s giving you permission to try. And it’s in trying that you succeed. Sure, we set a goal, and people ‘win’ the event when they write 50,000 words. But you really win when you sit down and give yourself permission to see what happens. I think when people have that push from an external force – in this case, a non-profit full of people who really believe you can write a novel in a month – they let themselves do something they wouldn’t otherwise try. And once they give themselves that permission to be creative, to make creativity a priority, they find that it fills a void in their lives.
Also, people really like stickers.
DCC: Do you have feedback from writers – what are they telling you?
SM: Maybe the number one thing we hear is people who didn’t think they’d be able to do it but got caught up in the momentum and gave it a try, and were amazed at what they were able to accomplish with that slightly ridiculous deadline, a supportive community, and a perhaps-unreasonable amount of caffeine. People who never had the confidence to call themselves writers who are now wearing that badge proudly.
The other thing we hear a lot of is that it changes how people approach more than just writing. It’s a whole attitude shift, from ‘No, I don’t think so,’ to ‘Sure, why not?’ If you take the lesson you learn from NaNoWriMo and apply it to the rest of your life, who knows what you can accomplish? It’s all about figuring out what’s important to you and finding time to fit it into your life.
DCC: What’s the most amazing thing you ever heard about NaNoWriMo from outside OLL?
SM: There are so many great stories we hear about NaNoWriMo and the myriad of ways it changes people’s lives. But maybe the most remarkable, in a tangible sense, are the babies. The ones born to parents who met through NaNoWriMo and got married and had children. We’ve always known that really amazing bonds are formed from this event, that we are creating more than just hundreds of thousands of first drafts – we’re creating communities. But when there’s a baby picture on the office fridge with a note about how this human being exists because of your event, it really is a crazy and kind of profound feeling.
DCC: Winning the NaNoWriMo challenge is achievement in itself, but can you tell us more about your sponsor link and the free paperback copy?
SM: We feel pretty strongly that the finished draft of your novel is a prize in and of itself, but we do like being able to sweeten the pot thanks to our sponsors. Our partnership with CreateSpace means that everyone who successfully passes the 50,000 word line in November can submit their novel and receive a proof copy of their novel. There’s nothing like holding an actual, honest to goodness book that you wrote in your hands, with a cover and a spine and everything, to make you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.
Plus, while you may understand the intangible benefits of completing a self-inflicted challenge, the people around you tend to be way more impressed by the actual physical book. It’s great for whipping out at cocktail parties.
- Dean Cody Cassady
NaNoWriMo can be found via www.nanowrimo.org