Kindling the Writing Spark - an interview with Michael Loveday
Michael Loveday is writer of fiction and poetry, living currently in Bath. He also teaches creative writing and literature. I first met him at the UK's first ever Flash Fiction Festival in 2017, held in Bath. His workshop was the last one I attended at the end of a wonderful weekend. It was Sunday, I felt a bit burnt out because of all the brainpower I had used during the festival, but the sun was shining and Michael’s workshop was for about 6 to 8 people, so I thought: What’s the worst that could happen here?
The point of the workshop was to work on something we had written that weekend, so armed with a page of scribbling that I had done in Kit De Waal’s workshop the day before, I entered the little port-a-cabin. Michael’s format to the workshop was something I had never seen before; very informal and friendly, with the main focus being positivity, which is often hard when obtaining or giving critique. I loved it.
Michael has kindly agreed to be a guest on my website today, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to tap into some of his wisdom and experience.
Thanks for agreeing to be a guest on my website. I am very excited to welcome you. At the moment I am reading your novella in flash (Three Men on the Edge) and will post a review of it here very soon, but in the meantime, let’s get to know you a little.
Looking at your website I see that your first short story publication was in 2010 but your first poem was in 2004. Nowadays, would you call yourself primarily a poet or a story writer?
I seem to fluctuate in terms of what I put my energy into – sometimes poetry, sometimes stories, sometimes journaling / life writing, so I suppose I would just label myself a “writer”. That then allows me to write that blockbuster screenplay one day. ;-)
What do you think the main difference is, given that the lines between prose poetry and flash fiction are sometimes really quite blurry?
I would say that yes there is a “blurred line” between stories and prose poetry, in the sense that it’s like a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles – (a) there are types of prose poem that aren’t like flash fiction at all, and vice versa; but (b) there is, for me at least, an area where things get fuzzy. It can be rewarding then to analyse and debate differences (e.g. is the focus on narrative or language? It is a story or just exploring an idea?) but at some level, too, it’s healthy to say, “it’s just a piece of writing” and forget about it! Verse and prose are clear opposites, at a formal level, because verse has line-breaks (“Verse reverses – the reader turns at the end of the line – while prose proceeds.” (Richard Howard)). But for me, poetry is a quality – in the same way that we can say a ballet dancer is “poetic”, or a footballer.
My website about this topic, pagechatter.org, collates useful quotations and descriptions though, if people are interested to explore further:
(Click HERE to visit Page Chatter)
Which do you enjoy writing more?
It depends on my mood. When I started writing prose properly in about 2009 – 2011 it took over and I barely wrote a (verse) poem for about three years. And I was a bit worried I’d lost interest for good. But gradually poetry (with line-breaks) came back to me. I suppose to some extent I do find verse poetry more difficult than writing stories, even though I’ve been doing it for longer. Working with line-breaks seems to double the complexity of a piece of writing – suddenly you have to worry about form as well as the words themselves – the shape on the page, the position of the words, the exact rhythm of a line. So perhaps with verse poetry you’re more likely to find me tearing my hair out (or, at least, what’s left of it).
Why did you decide to move into teaching creative writing? Have you found that it helps you with your own writing?
I did a community project in 2011 during my MA where I got to teach creative writing for the first time – eight classes at a local active age centre with a fellow student. I loved it – I used to be involved in market research, and would sometimes facilitate focus groups, discussing purchasing habits with members of the public – why do you use certain brands of shampoo, why do you buy travellers cheques, why do you drink certain soft drinks etc? Facilitating a creative writing workshop felt a bit like facilitating a focus group, but on a topic that I genuinely felt passionate about. So I kept doing more of it until I decided to try to earn my living from it.
I suppose teaching is both a help and a hindrance to one’s own writing. It’s a help in that, as a teacher, you have to figure out some key principles of writing – key messages that you want to drum home to other writers, and figuring these things out can reinforce your own writing principles to some extent, for your own practice. (Having said that I generally find that when I confront the blank page, all ideas of “rules” go out the window, and until I’ve got a proper draft done I don’t know what I’m doing, and often for a long while after that too!) And thinking as an “editor” when reading someone else’s manuscript helps any writer to polish their own work, I think.
On the other hand, it can be a hindrance in that teaching takes up time and emotional energy and “headspace” – spending lots of time thinking about other people’s writing leaves you with less time and headspace for your own. It’s not a job that can be done on autopilot. But I love teaching too much, at the moment, to stop. So I wouldn’t change that.
As a teacher, how does it feel when one of your students achieves success with something they have written?
There are all sorts of definitions of success, I suppose, so if you mean, by “success”, publication, or a competition win, that’s rewarding, but not more rewarding to me (or the person themselves) really than watching someone become more confident about themselves, or learn to express themselves better, or helping them to feel they can tackle a writing task / overcome a writing challenge without fear. I’ve done quite a bit of working with people therapeutically e.g. the disabled, the housebound, carers – and “success” might sometimes be measured in terms of different criteria than winning a prize or even publication. Maybe the best success is kindling the writing spark within people who arrive at their first class saying “I’m not very creative” or “I can’t write”. Some people are very stubborn in believing this! Because of their past experiences of learning, or some nasty comment they once received. If, after a few months, they start enjoying the process of putting pen to paper, maybe dabbling with writing at home (not just in class), then that’s the most wonderful thing to see.
My goal as a teacher is to help other people discover themselves creatively, and feel better about themselves, rather than helping people win prizes or get published per se. I’m really committed to it, as a vocation, as my way of helping people and contributing to the world generally. I suppose I see helping people win prizes or get published (the other, more public, kind of “success”) being more to do with my work as an “editor” or someone who comments on manuscripts, rather than as a “teacher”, which for me is more about inspiration. Of course it’s rewarding when someone wins recognition. But some students whom I teach, especially the undergraduates, who have by the time they work with me, say, already written drafts of four novels, and published a lot in magazines, will probably “succeed” in terms of publication regardless of anything I tell them, because they are already committed and already so far along the journey. So my input becomes more about simply challenging them to go further, and providing technical advice on their manuscripts, as an editor would, in ways that push the writing beyond its current level.
It is so exciting that you are judging the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award this year. This new form is just taking off and becoming more popular (props to Charmaine Wilkerson for bringing home the Saboteur award in the novella category for her 2017 Bath winning novella). Why do you think Flash and Novella-in-Flash is enjoying so much success lately?
The Novella-in-Flash has been around for a while but I think the Award has done a lot to enhance the profile of the form within the Flash Fiction community, and I’d also suggest that Rose Metal Press have done a lot too through their publications, especially their anthology My Very End of the Universe (2014), which serves as an introduction to the Novella-in-Flash and the history of the form. Charmaine’s novella is a really superb piece of writing, and fully deserves its success. I’m thrilled for her that it won the Saboteur Award!
Flash Fiction generally has been enjoying a higher profile for all sorts of reasons, I think – partly it’s to do with the fact that, in the internet /smartphone age, people are doing their reading on screens so much more, and shorter stories work much better than longer ones for that; partly I think it’s to do with the prevalence of the writing workshop culture, and the fact that flash fiction as a form is manageable to accomplish in a 20 minute writing session such as you might have in a workshop. So it’s becoming a popular thing to tackle in workshops.
Can you describe the process of putting your own novella together? Were the flashes all already written or did you write them specifically for this, or a mixture?
I started it as a specific writing project in 2011, as my MA dissertation. At first, I was thinking of it as prose poetry (because I hadn’t really heard of flash fiction, and also because my dissertation supervisor was the poet Fiona Sampson) – pieces of writing in three different “voices”, and I just kept going after the MA. And kept going. And kept going. At times it looked like it might become a novel, at times it looked like I might only keep a pamphlet of verse poems from it. It was a very experimental process, but everything in the manuscript was written with the intention (or hope), from the beginning, of being included in it.
Which writers do you enjoy reading the most? Any recommendations for great collections to read?
My favourite book of all time is Days and Nights in W12 by Jack Robinson (Charles Boyle). I’ve read it about once a year since I first discovered it in 2011. It’s the book that turned me on to short form prose. There are loads of other writers I could mention, but that’s the one book I keep returning to. I think Days and Nights in W12 is, despite being a slim volume of short prose pieces, magically insightful about modern society, about modern cities, and about the stories we tell ourselves and the way we live. It’s also quite funny, and beautifully crafted in its sentences. Sort of memoir meets journalism meets travel writing meets short-short story meets prose poetry.
What is the next thing in your diary?
As I write this, the next thing in my diary is driving to a friend’s house Bristol to pick up some tea cups to use at the weekend – I’m getting married on Sunday, and my partner Lynda is planning for us to use tea cups as part of the decorations!
Thank you so much for talking to us, Michael, and congratulations and all the best for the future to you and Lynda.
Michael's Novella-in-Flash Three Men on the Edge launches in July. There will be a review of it on here soon, but in the meantime visit Michael's Website HERE to find out more about him and his fiction publications.