This week my publisher, Sheila Wakefield of Red Squirrel Press, asked me for information about the new book for the Inpress catalogue. Most publishers produce an ‘Advance Information’ sheet a few months before publication, so their distributors can start to promote it. She asked me for a recent photo, some biographical information, and a description of the book. This immediately made me realise that it won’t be too long before the book is published, so I thought I’d write about the story behind it.
It’s a collection of haibun, a Japanese form consisting of poetic prose, written in the spirit of haiku, and usually containing haiku which reflect the subject of the narrative, but seen from a different perspective. I’ve been writing in the form for some years now, and several of my haibun have been published in online and print magazines. I was thinking of applying for a Hawthornden Fellowship, and initially I had it in mind to finish a novel I started writing some years ago. But somehow haibun stuck in my mind, and I began to think about writing a collection of them.
I didn’t know what a haibun collection might look like. What form might it take? I applied to Hawthornden and was accepted for a four-week period in October-November last year. Last August I bumped into my old friend Alan Spence at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and we got to talking about haibun. He said he’d heard the form described as a ‘waybook’, and that immediately started crystallising my ideas. Basho’s great work, Oku no Hosomichi – The Narrow Road to the Interior – is a record of a journey. Many other haibun narrate journeys, real or allegorical. So now I had my form, my framework; the book would contain poetic stories of places I had been, things I had seen.
The big uncertainties remained. Could I write a whole book in this form? More importantly, could I produce a readable book? All of my writing is an exercise in communication; if I can’t engage a reader I have failed as a writer.
So I settled in to Hawthornden Castle, making friends with my fellow writers, exploring the castle, its history and surroundings. And I started to write. It was like pouring water into a well – it just didn’t stop. I had thought 100 haibun might be enough; in the event I wrote more than that. I wrote at least five haibun every day, and often many more. I wrote longhand, in a hard-cover A4 notebook, and every evening I transcribed them onto the computer, editing as I went. Eventually I had three processes going simultaneously – writing, editing, and polishing.
Early on I found I was extending the form. I found it was hospitable to subjects other than just travel. So philosophy, sciences, the natural world and personal histories found their way in. And it also seemed natural to include tanka and other forms in the narrative, as well as haiku. Towards the end of my time in the castle, I started to think about structure. I did not want to write a linear narrative – today USA, tomorrow Japan, then China, Scotland, and so on. I settled on a book containing four sections, each somewhat different in tone, but not mutually exclusive in terms of content.
When I got home in early November I printed the whole collection out, spread them out on the living room floor in their sections, and assembled them into a sequence that made sense to me. The Book of Ways was complete. I emailed it to Sheila, she said she wanted to publish it, and, a few tweaks later, it was finished. It’s the most satisfying writing I’ve ever done. I don’t know if I will ever again experience that feeling of non-stop creativity I had at Hawthornden, but I’m so glad it happened.