On Writing Our Selves

Celia Hunt discusses with Charlotte the importance of looseness and layering, and ‘imagined readers’ and making room in our writing.

Celia Hunt: I was re-reading Rachael Matthews lovely poetry pamphlet recently (do not be lulled by the dainty starlike blossom, The Emma Press, 2021) and there’s a quotation on the back cover by Caroline Bird that caught my attention: ‘Poetry is born from the desire to confess and hide simultaneously, and Matthews demonstrates this masterfully’.

That resonated with me because I think there’s something similar at work in my own poetry, not so much a desire to confess and hide simultaneously but to say difficult things obliquely rather than directly.

Somewhere I’ve said that creative writing can provide an oblique angle on ourselves, if we’re writing from our own experience. We don’t have to confront ourselves head-on, but sideways, and this can open up new ways of looking at ourselves and our stories.

When I’m writing poetry, I often find that something I need to say emerges spontaneously out of a scene I’ve created that on the face of it doesn’t have anything to do with it. My recent poem ‘After the Row’ is an example.

After the Row

I take my usual route along the roads
and climb up twittens now no longer dry
until the serried rows of bungalows
give way and I arrive where sea meets sky.
The ground is squishy underneath my boots
from last night’s pour but crops have drunk their fill
soft wash of barley frothing in the wind
green knives of not-yet wheat stand strongly still.
The path into the wood is narrowed now
by nettles and cow parsley fat with seed.
The yellow iris in the pond flies flag
for one small duckling joyriding the weed.
I cross the buttercup-gold meadow heading
for the church where Hannah dances in the sky
and Dave (whom men wanted to be and
women longed to have) has long since died.
I settle on their bench and sigh. Is it
a problem that I’m quiet, that I think more
than I speak? A tiny silver plane above
my head evokes a thought I can’t ignore.

Celia Hunt 

When I wrote the notes for this, I wasn’t aware where it was going. It was my usual walk from home to my favourite village just over the Downs. I’d done it many times but never made notes before. This time I did and then left them for a while, and when I came back to them, this ending emerged, which had little to do with the walk or the landscape, although when I’d finished it, I felt it had everything to do with it.

Charlotte Gann: Ah, Celia, yes! ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant—’? I like your poem, especially for the way it closes and the title – which even, itself, is ambiguous until the end of the poem, if read on the page – and how both these bring in so much more information and depth than the descriptive part could alone. I love, as well, the gaps left between these three elements: room for the reader, as they say? But also, as I think you’re putting it, room for the writer, too? To slip in, and slip out. To move. And navigate her way through personal material?

And I like that complementary picture the poem also provides: of this poet as someone who thinks more than she speaks? So delicately done. And echoed in the way this poem itself has come about, and indeed, reveals itself?

CH: Yes, space for the reader is hugely important, isn’t it? It took me quite a while to understand that when I first started writing, the need to leave some things unsaid or only hinted at, so that readers can bring to it their own experience, their own interpretations.

And similarly with the writer, the emerging poem as a space within which one then allows the imagination to bring in material that wasn’t planned. Writing a poem is a much looser process than I ever imagined and sometimes into that loose, open space come things that are difficult or painful or we didn’t know we felt. And how to put them on the page and send them out into the world – if that’s what we intend – can be very challenging.

CG: I like your word ‘looser’; yes. As in not (over)controlled, content wise? Allowing room for development, and surprises, and the unconscious to do its wonderful work?

I’ve found this process of ‘revealing’ really hard too: walking that line between overexposure and feeling unseen/unheard/invisible. I am quite a direct writer, and person, in many ways: ‘plain speaking’ my poems have sometimes been described – and clear, direct language and diction is important to me, as is writing on the whole in understandable sentences.

At the same time, I have often drawn the frame around my poems quite tight. I tried to convey emotional truths without over telling the story. My new group of poems actually paint in more of the details, I think: like I’m slowly breathing deeper, and drawing back, and letting my lens take in a fuller picture…

It’s definitely been a gradual process: of putting work out, and seeing how it ‘landed’; and then writing some more, and trying/seeing again…

CH: Interesting that you have started painting more detail in your recent poems; sounds as if you’re trusting the process more. In fact, the whole process of how we reveal ourselves through our work is endlessly fascinating. What aspect of ourselves are we revealing – intentionally, inadvertently, which bits are we hiding?

I’ve recently completed a first draft of a memoir about my experience of learning across my life. There are things in there that I felt uncomfortable putting on the page when I wrote them, but now it feels as if it’s not those things that are most revealing, but more subtle things that have slipped around the edges, of which I wasn’t fully aware before.

I guess it’s a question of the tension between freedom and control – whether we are willing to allow to be seen aspects of ourselves that potentially conflict with the way we like to be seen by others. In the same way that we imagine our readers when we write, which affects what and how we write, we also imagine how we will be seen by those imagined readers, and this can sometimes be uncomfortable or even cause a block.

CG: Yes, Celia: to those imagined readers. Who are they we imagine?  I think when I first published a pamphlet – eleven years ago now, back in 2011 – my biggest worry was about real people in my life, who I feared might jump out and negatively react to the work. I think, in terms of imagined readers, I maybe hoped there might be people who simply understood and maybe mirrored what I had been trying to explore. Neither of these quite came true!

I’m not sure I trust the process more now than I did – because I also did then, or some key part of me did. But I think I have grown less afraid (or indeed hopeful!) of some imagined consequence. (I’ve also got a decade older, and my life that bit starker: and I can see more of the terrain. I like your idea of learning across your life…). I definitely fear ‘judgement’ less – though that was an enormous fear, always, I think, in my life.

Increasingly I focus more and more on simply trying to make my writing clear: that’s a huge job, I find, in and of itself. (It’s me I have to dodge, probably, not anyone else.) I hope that if I do my part in integrity, that’s all I can do, really; and I worry less than I used to about how that ‘information’ may then be received.

I’m very interested in what you say about the glimpses that crept around the edges of your intentions?

p.s. I went on a poet-friend’s recommendation to see the film Emily yesterday. Nice quote from the Branwell Brontë character: ‘Everyone’s strange if you look at them for long enough.’ Maybe even ourselves?

CH: Yes, the strangeness of ourselves, or at least the complexity, different facets of our personality, our temperament, parts of ourselves we inherited from the people who were around during our upbringing, or defences we developed to protect ourselves from them. And that complexity is at play in our writing, sometimes helpfully, sometimes not.

I remember the tutor at the first creative-writing class I attended saying that the piece of the autobiographically-based novel I’d submitted had two voices in it. I didn’t understand that at the time, but a great deal of the teaching I then went on to do and the exercises I devised were triggered by that comment.

As to your distinction between real and imagined people, I think real people are also, to a degree, imagined people. I often imagine how my family will react to what I am writing, whether poetry or prose, but of course they may not react like that at all. We’re often just projecting our own fears or self-disapproval. As you say – ‘it’s me I have to dodge’.

And that’s one of the most important parts of creative writing for personal development, isn’t it, how it can make more visible the parts of ourselves we try to dodge. Writing my memoir has enabled me to be more accepting of my own complexity, with both its positive and negative aspects.

CG: …so, in the end, it is about ourselves accepting ourselves? Or, more of ourselves at least. I agree with the idea and sense of many layers and doors opening and closing interiorly, and our many parts.

Maybe that’s what this whole writing (for personal development) is about? A gradual unmasking of ourselves to ourselves?

I think as well as self-acceptance there’s also, perhaps, for me, something in my writing endeavour about modelling a willingness to be seen.

And also an element of reportage. Particularly, in my case, around the more painful and hidden aspects of my life: things I’ve had to grapple with, behind the scenes, for decades.

I’d like to leave some (small, quiet) record of that struggle – and the hard-won insights along the way. A contribution, of sorts – my contribution – to our broader, human discourse…

CH: A gradual unmasking of ourselves to ourselves. Yes, that’s one way of thinking about it. I also like to think of it as becoming more open to what has been called ‘selfing’, allowing ourselves to be in process rather than fixed in our personal narratives or other people’s narratives.

It sounds contradictory but I think one can feel more whole when all one’s different parts – one’s community of selves – have the space to co-exist. Writing about ourselves, particularly when we use the techniques of poetry and prose fiction, is a powerful tool for this.

But there’s also, as you say, the very important element of wanting to be seen and of sharing the struggle through the writing that attempts to give shape to it. I find it deeply satisfying when I find the right words and the right shape for an experience I’ve had or a thought that felt important. Poems are wonderful for that. And then having them read or heard by others completes the process.

CG: It does. Thanks so much for sharing this conversation, Celia! Finding the right words and the right shape for an experience: yes… And I love your explanation of ‘selfing’.