Dr Emma Jones is a published poet and currently writing her first novel. Her first collection of poems, The Striped World, was published in 2009 and won multiple awards, including the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. After giving a guest lecture on research at the post-grad run Creative Writing Workshop on Tuesday night, Emma agreed to have a chat with Katie Munro about her work, and share some hints and tips for the young writers of St Andrews.
One thing all writers across the mediums deal with is writer’s block: do you have any tips on how to deal with this?
I tend to work in cycles: I’ll have quite a fallow period, and then I’ll have a period where things are coming more thick and fast. What I’ve found over time is that it’s happened reliably enough that during a fallow period I can tell myself ‘No, actually— it is going to come back. It’s not gone forever.’
There are always things I can do to make sure I’m not completely passive in the face of it: for me, the important thing is reading a lot. That tends to keep something happening, whatever the writing part of the brain is, it keeps it slightly active, on the lookout.
Keep a note of small things that happen: I might not get a full poem for a long time, but I’ll get fragments, snatches of phrases, shapes of poems, and you learn to jot those down; to recognise the one that could turn into something interesting and start writing around it. It doesn’t matter what you write in response to that phrase, is terrible, it’s almost you’re keeping the phrase alive, the act of trying to write is like the bellows on a fire; keeping the ember burning.
In your lecture, you spoke about the importance of research. How much research is too much? How do you know where to stop?
It’s hard. I, like quite a lot of writers, am fairly compulsive, perfectionistic; we feel like we never know enough. The thing is, you’re never going to feel like you’ve read enough. My tip is to write as you go, even if nothing comes of it. When the work, poem or fiction, starts to feel like it has a natural rhythm, a momentum, then I feel you know that you’re in the work in a way you weren’t before. It’s like you’re in a house, and you’re discovering the rooms— but before, you were on the outside. Virginia Woolf used to say that she, when planning writing, would know when she had the rhythm; once she started writing a few sentences and they seemed to her to be the music of that particular work then she knew she was there, and she was in it. She said that’s when a finished piece comes to be; you know that you’re doing something that has a shape.
You spoke about keeping lists while you research. What would you generally make a list of?
I make lists of – for my current project set in the Forties – things that I know that I won’t know the answer to. For example, if I’m reading something and someone has a word for a cardigan that I haven’t come across, I’ll note that down. But also the phrase in which it’s contained, that bit of dialogue; you want to know the detail in its habitat in order to create a convincing world. I also list what I don’t know as I’m going through, during the process of drafting. It gives you something to do, as well, during periods of writer’s block.
So much of writing is the preparation for writing; I feel like the act of putting the hand on the keyboard and pen on the page is the last thing you do. So much of what is going to happen then has been fermenting for quite a long time. It’s through the act of writing I then realise what my preoccupations are.
Any top tips for young writers?
The South African writer Isak Dinesen says, ‘approach the page every day without hope and without despair.’ That’s the aim; you can overestimate or underestimate yourself, so to keep the task small is how to get things finished, I find. Be kind to yourself; read your own work as you would a friend’s. You’ll get closer to finishing.
As a successfully published poet, do you have any advice for young writers when it comes to getting work out there?
It’s different for poetry and fiction, but for both sending work out to literary journals is a good idea. Competitions are great, especially for poets. It seems a little mercenary to put your toddlers out there, but it can be a way of making sure you finish projects, and give them an external life, even if nothing comes of it. Taking part in both of these means that people in the community of the genre you’re working in can become aware of you, potentially leading to other things. It shows seriousness of intent, which is something publishers look out for.
Show your work to friends, find a reader that you like. I have a close friend I’ve known since childhood, who is also a writer, and we are always each other’s first reader. It can be useful because it’s someone who knows you well enough that they know what you’re trying to do and can say ‘no, you’re not achieving that.’ They know what to pick you up on. Getting involved with classes and workshops like this one is always helpful. It gives you deadlines that make you more likely to finish projects, and also feedback on your work.