Marking time, making time

Ahh, it’s good to be back. I’ve had another of those hiatuses, where blogging, as much as I like it, didn’t quite get to the top of the stack of plates.

That’s is a metaphor I once invented to explain to a friend why many (most? all?) men can only think about one thing at a time. My to-do list is like the stack of plates being kept warm in a buffet serving trolley, where they all sink down and you can only pick up the top one. Everything is there, but I can only think about the task that’s on top right now.

Anyway, contentious gender statements apart, blogging and several other things got rather squashed down to the dark, stuffy bottom of the plate stack over the last month, and only this week has the pressure lightened.

I can sum up those plates in one word: MARKING.

When I was a sixth-form teacher, more than once a colleague said that ‘marking is the worst part of the job’. And to an extent I saw why: there was never enough time for it, and when the big loads came in, there was just so much of it…  (For me the real worst part of that job was Government interference and intimidation… but don’t get me started). However, my feelings were never the same about marking creative writing, which I started doing in 2008 for the Open University. Even though I had to mark up to 16 assignments in my early mornings, evenings and weekends, I never hated it. Every time I opened up a new piece of student work, no matter how knackered I was (and by about number 10 I was getting very knackered indeed), I was still excited to see that new piece of work: what the student had to tell me, how well he or she had done, what feedback I could give to help.

As creative writing teaching has become my full-time commitment, rather than a passionate bit on the side, it has been harder to sustain quite that level of enthusiasm, but it hasn’t gone. Twice a year now, in January and April, I am faced with a mini-mountain of marking from Winchester Uni, and a fresh batch of assignments at the same time from the Open Uni; and it does seem like a problem at first. It’s still not the individual assignments; it’s very rare that I get so stressed or hacked off that I don’t enjoy that moment of starting to read a new piece. It’s the sheer number of them that’s hard, because in order to get them done by the deadline, I have to stop doing pretty much anything else, and just mark. And the problem with that is, NO TIME FOR WRITING.

I can handle the fact that for a substantial period of time I have to say ‘Goodbye, world!’ and disappear: little or no face-to-face teaching, no blogging, not much time for social media. But I do hate having to drop  my creative time.

That was especially true this time around, because I’d done very well with my plan to write every day, and had got a long way with the poem that I started on 13th March. By the time I had to stop, in mid-April, it had gone through a few permutations. It started as a chatty terza rima.  Then I took out the rima bit – that was just a scaffolding to get started – and did some freewriting and so on to expand the ideas I’d uncovered. This was tricky, as I was writing about something I’ve no personal experience of: a marriage ending, love turning to hate. Still it was interesting to go ‘outside myself’.

Then one morning I opened the current version, started to read, and in two seconds I was bored. The voice was all wrong: smug, wordy, inauthentic. I’d been reading Fiona Sampson’s excellent Rough Music, and admiring the spareness of image and diction in her work, and I fancied trying a bit of that myself.  So I did some surgery, and the poem dropped from 136 words to 73.

That got it started – now I found it interesting, and therefore worth continuing. Since then, while I have added some new material, I have found myself pruning, pruning, pruning again, always trying to cut down to the least number of words that will do the job. I’ve hugely enjoyed this, because I am a verbose drafter (just look at this blog post), so making myself go against the grain was good learning.  Because it was a new venture for me I was unsure about its quality, but when I took it to Joan McGavin‘s Southampton Poets group, there was a reasonably positive reaction, so I feel more confident about it now. Though in fact, all that really matters about it is that it got me started writing again, and it was my vehicle for writing every day, which was lovely; until the MARKING shoved it off the road.

I did keep drafting and marking both going for a while, but they just don’t mix well. Somehow there was never quite as much time left after writing as there should have been…

Moreover, early in April I went to the Hampshire Writers to hear Christopher Reid and Julian Stannard, where I bought Julian’s second book, The Red Zone. Julian’s work is what I think of as ‘opening’ poetry: whenever I read it, it opens a door somewhere in my head (or several), and I start to notice opportunities for poems left right and off-centre. So I found myself scribbling a new poem every few hours, and somehow the time for marking diminished further.

Eventually I had no choice but to stop. For two weeks I did nothing but mark (at work, I mean; I was still being husband and dad and gardener and dogsbody at home, as usual). And I’m rather proud of having returned my OU marking faster than I’ve ever done before; and getting my Winchester marking done without having to take any time out of evenings or weekends to do it, which is also a first.

But, oh my, it was hard to re-start drafting. I couldn’t believe how hard; it had been just two weeks! But those fears were back, as badly as before. They’re like a tap that can’t be turned off: they pour into me at a constant speed, but a good bit of drafting pulls the plug, and they drain away. Two weeks without drafting though, and I’m drowning in them. Anyway, I knew I had to get back on the writing boat. I got some encouragement from Twyla Tharp, who says she is prepared to write off a whole week of work when she gets back into creative work after a lay-off.  I did the fear-challenging thing again. And most important of all, I wrote. It was so painful at first it literally hurt – my hand, which has some RSI, seemed not to want to move the pen – but everything’s oiled and working again now. Bridport here I come: I don’t seriously expect the poem to win anything, but then I didn’t last year and I got shortlisted, so it’s worth a try.

And I think that’s me up to date… More soon, I promise!