So, over the last weekend I’ve attended Manuscript Bootcamp (see last post), an intensive 3-day programme where your manuscript gets absolutely slaughtered and picked clean by various people in the industry, from writers to editors and beyond.
As mentioned, given that the programme comes only once every two years for poetry, and that only 6 manuscripts would be able to get in, getting in was a big confidence-booster for me. I mean, it’s not as though getting in was easy – I’d spent many sleepless nights in Dublin poring over the details and intricacies of each and every aspect of my humble submission (and yet, as I would soon learn, still missing so much).
I wanted to pen down some thoughts, not just as a way of internalising what happened over the weekend, but also as a memory aid, of sorts. The biggest takeaway of Bootcamp, for me, was not so much how to improve my work per se, but rather to rethink what it means to be a writer.
First off, despite the name of the programme, there wasn’t any hostility. We didn’t have to do push ups whenever we used a cliche. And there was no baying for blood, no animosity – which is good, of course! Nonetheless, the programme was intense, spanning a weekend of thought-provoking panels which really got us to reconsider what we were doing with our craft.
In particular, a constant theme of the bootcamp was ‘the heart of darkness’, for lack of a better term – the idea that if you write about something and it hurts you it’s true, stuff like that. We were constantly encouraged (and urged) to go further into the heart of darkness, to wade into the swamp of the heart and emerge with poetry, stuff like that – which for me, as a confessional writer of sorts, sounded like sublime advice.
The most important takeaway for me was to reconsider my identity as a writer – both within and outside of the text. A lot of my poetry is from the first person perspective, even though admittedly not all of it is based entirely off memory. Memory distorts itself, fractures itself over time, colours itself through different lenses. There was no way anybody’s poetry could be entirely based off memories they experienced, and I’ve lived a relatively normal life.
As such, there was always this conflict for me – can I be true as a writer without being true to my person? Can my identity as a writer be separated cleanly from my identity as a student, my identity as a son etc? Is it ethical? Is it right?
What blew my mind, however, was the suggestions by one of the panellists that even the you was me. I know, this sounds confusing. But whenever I wrote with an “I”, I tended to include a “You”. (For example, see here) This felt natural to me, and it was a way for me to frame my poetry. A lot of my work is conversational, and so is my voice, and I never thought too much of it. But this suggestion was really something – what if all my poetry was but a conversation with myself? Or, as he described it, a “tantrum against the self”? Maybe my writing never included other people – maybe it was all about wrestling with myself, my traumas and memories and innermost desires.
I wish I had more to say about what was ostensibly one of, if not the highlight of my poetic career (is that the word?) so far. I really do. But I’m still hung up on that question, and everything else I have in text. I guess the moral to be learnt is that as writers, we need to be conscious of who we are on and off the page – who are we writing? Why are we writing? Who are we in our craft, and who are we without it?
Maybe I’ll have more to say in a few weeks.