I have been a fan of Tim Clare’s Death of a Thousand cuts for quite a long time, having had a piece of my own work gnawed to a pulp, spat out and incinerated on one episode. A bare-faced, unapologetic revelation about how sloppy a writer I was. This is the kind of revelation we all urgently need, the sooner the better, and one which we perhaps don’t get enough of in the safe space of creative writing seminars.
This happened when Tim was taking submissions from opening pages of novels (which I believe he is still doing, submit on his website if you dare) and analysing them section by section, taking no prisoners and crucifying them if necessary. Here he encourages a fierce and often careful critical voice when editing work.
In his latest podcast series (a whopping 53 episodes) Couch to 80k Writing Boot Camp, Tim encourages writers to tell this voice to shut the fuck up and get the hell out of town. At the beginning of the series he starts soft and eases you into regular writing, encouraging listeners to write lists of names, objects or scenarios. Later it develops to free writes. Tim says just turn up, and for ten minutes don’t stop writing. The words you produce might be sappy, incomprehensible, meaningless or preposterous.
You might produce something like this-
Stabbing scythosaurs with scientists in Seattle. Umbrellas with undulating udders. Swimming again, why am I always swimming? James, wherefore dost thou swimeth so? That ladies and gentlemen is the question in question. Or, no, no, no that is not true. That would be unspeakable. We must not go there and together we must move somewhere else….
The dagger of life or the dagger of death? The dagger of the east or the dagger of the west? The dagger of the unborn, and the dagger of the unworthy, certainly. Swimming in the swamp, arms flapping about like newspapers in a London breeze, floating down into the underground. A sack inside a sack, inside a sack, lumpy lumps of lumpy lump and lump, which lumpeth forth into the lumpworld, where all are the lumpiest of lumps. Creatures feathered and friends also now with feathers. All armoured and conniving for the death and the destruction. Wanderers, (Bolton) will win the title and wanderers will wander, in this world forever.
But the actual production of words is paramount. You might not like what you’ve written afterwards, but stare at the page after a ten minute free write and you will see paragraphs and paragraphs of your own signature creation. Some of which might even have potential to be used in later projects, or even better, just turning up to write might even create ideas for projects in themselves. It’s actually quite a crazy thing to do, to create in such a way, experimenting in the laboratory of your brain. Looking at the words, you realise that was in your mind at the time. You might have things like that in your mind all the time, but you let them die like mindless lemmings, queuing up in their thousands to leap off the cliffs of doom. But if you wish you can freeze them, record them and look at them, clear, shameless, naked and inviting you to inspect and play with them. After all, the human creative capacity is the most exciting and mysterious thing in the universe for us, it’s why we get out of bed in the morning. So why not prod it, squeeze it and push it to it’s limits and see what happens?
Tim’s exercises are like an obstacle course, encouraging writers to flex their creative muscles in entirely new ways and approach their craft from exciting new angles. This can be anything from writing a scene with monosyllabic words, to writing from the perspective of an assassin hiding in a nearby tree. The possibilities are endless. But also, Tim encourages a change of setting when writing, having recorded one podcast in the woods, another driving around in his car at night. He argues that toying with your environment, routine and writing apparatus is essential for keeping ideas fresh, and the process fun. I don’t think anybody could possibly disagree.
Aside from listing a multitude of fun exercises that conquer the boredom, mental lethargy and pure dread that writing often brings with it, Tim is a truly warm, empathetic and hilarious guide. Listening to him speak is simply a pleasure. He says he doesn’t script the podcasts but if this is true he has an almost unbelievable, superhuman ability to conjure up hilarious and outrageously detailed metaphors (‘popping up everywhere like mushrooms full of hallucinogenic word juice’) and analogies to suit what he is trying to explain. He doesn’t even edit, it’s just one take and there it is, bang on the money every time.
Doing the exercises I grew to enjoy Tim’s insights about life as much as his ones about writing. He speaks about the benefits of having a calendar, and marking it with colours for achievements e.g exercise, writing, meditating. The idea never really crossed my mind before, but I am doing it now and I’ve never been anywhere near this productive in my life (I have probably NEVER meditated, written, and exercised in the same day. As you can see from my calendar I did this loads last month). He talks a lot about cold showers as well, which is a step I’ve not yet had the drive (or bollocks) to implement, but I will take his word and will definitely be open to blasting myself with a torrent of nipple-sharpening water in future.
If you are like me, you know that writing is the only thing you’re half decent at, but find writing, the thought of writing, actually writing and anything associated with writing tends to freeze your spine and make you want to run away as far as you possibly can and hide up a tree somewhere, then you couldn’t ask for a better course. This will make you realise, slowly that you can do what you want to do, and it doesn’t have to be agonising. Or boring. It can actually be rather fun.
Who knows? one day you might even publish a novel.