“You’re the only writer I know who does all three genres,” Shelley Harris said recently. We batted this around for a bit (after I’d established that she meant poetry, prose and scripts rather than ‘funny’, ‘not funny’ and ‘obscure’). I discovered it is difficult not to sound pretentious (I think I said ‘wanky’ at the time) trying to talk about the differences, and also that she thought it was fascinating. “You should blog about it,” she said. Hello.
I did seriously think about doing a Venn diagram with three interlocking circles, and shading, and labels, but then caught myself and had a gin instead. This is not a postgraduate seminar on Derrida. This is just a girl, sitting in front of a computer screen, asking you to layer in another medium because that rather neatly illustrates what I’m talking about.
There are different energies to writing. Lots of poets I know hate the term ‘poet’, because you’re only a poet when you are actually writing a poem. All the rest of the time you’re just someone who has written a poem: a distinction worth remembering, or you start wearing too much velvet and drinking sherry. I remember a good way Don Paterson put it once: there is the ‘mad red eye’ of writing the thing, which must be followed by the ‘cold blue eye’ of rewriting and editing it.
Every writer I’ve talked to about the actual process mentions a mood, a ‘zone’, when words flow freely without being inhibited by conscious thought or that voice from the back of your head telling you everything is rubbish. This state of free-fall exists: we have all experienced it. The main difference between writing poetry, prose and scripts – in my case, comedy scripts – is the acuteness of this feeling. It could also be described as how close you are to being unhinged.
Some of it is physical. I cannot compose a new poem straight onto a laptop. There must be paper, a soft, sharp pencil, silence, and a lot of staring out of windows (actually, that last one is pretty much a given for all three genres). I’ve read that the physical act of pushing a pencil around to form words uses a different part of the brain from that used to type. I’m left-handed, so it may be more acute with me. This may or may not be true, but it feels different. I can touch-type, much faster than I can write longhand. I have no problem writing prose straight onto a screen. There is something about the calmness, the vibe waiting for you when you hit that sweet spot of poetry, that I cannot achieve on a keyboard. Perhaps it’s something close to meditation.
The first draft of a poem is almost always rubbish. Sometimes there are individual words or phrases so lucid you know they are the core and will remain until the end. Sometimes most words fall away as one line leads you in a completely different direction and you must find new ones to fit the new poem. Sometimes you have written it drunk – always an entertaining re-read the following morning. That’s when the cold blue eye earns its keep.
Prose – whether it’s funny or profound – can have an element of that base energy, but certainly with a novel, the extended architecture means you cannot hold the entire concept of it in your real-time thought processes during the time it takes to write. The key difference is that you can with a poem. It’s as if you are walking around a sculpture, looking from different angles, but always with the thing right in front of you. A novel is more of an exhibition in different, adjoining rooms. With metaphors, perhaps involving rooms.
Comedy writing is the most sociable (or can be). If you get too much up your own arse you can bet it won’t be funny. Its sole purpose is to make people laugh. It’s an instant thing. I can write a sketch or a scene from a sitcom and dip into Twitter or answer the phone without too much problem: I am predisposed to feel sociable because that is the immediate goal of what I’m doing anyway. Bouncing jokes off a writing partner is great. One day I might have one.
If I’m writing a poem I won’t answer the phone. I don’t go online. I can’t do it if there is anyone else in the house. I become the clichéd recluse.
But what do I know? Out of the three, my poetry has so far been the most successful, but that may be because I’ve simply been doing it for longer. I know the forensic way words are chosen in a poem will bleed into some passages of my prose, and the more I learn about comedy scripts the tighter (and funnier, I hope) they get. There is, as Douglas Adams wisely said, a fundamental interconnectedness of all things. But then he broke his own nose with his knee, so perhaps we shouldn’t trust everything he said.