Andy Miller’s Climb Through Life
Andy Miller may be retired, but he’s an example of someone who refuses to put his feet up and has turned his hobby into a new career. He is also proof that, even if your profession appears to be far removed from arts or literature, there’s still no reason why you shouldn’t take the craft of writing seriously.
You’d didn’t start from a literary background. Would you talk about this and how you came to write poetry?
I started my academic career in science, pure sciences. My first degree was in maths and physics as I didn’t really get on with literature while I was at school; I’m still pondering why that was. It was partly a social class thing. If you were from the council estate at the grammar school, as I was, and a boy, then it seemed that you did science. You didn’t do literature and the arts, which felt like forbidden territory. (My parents, by the way, would probably have wanted me to mention that it was the respectable end of the council estate that we were from!). I always regretted not being able to get on with poetry then and I think I was secretly envious of my A-level contemporaries walking around with their copies of ‘To The Lighthouse’. But, although I’d always read ‘populist’ children’s literature, at school I couldn’t concentrate on Dickens and his ilk. So it wouldn’t have been the route from me at that time.
I always loved words though and I did write a poem right out of the blue, when I was 16 or 17. I submitted it to the school magazine and it was accepted. The teacher who was editing the magazine, however, sent it back at first and queried whether it was actually me who had written it or whether my name had got on there by mistake, or I had copied it from somewhere. I’m sure I enjoyed confounding his expectations.
I don’t think there’s any obvious relationship between poetry and science, except that concentration and precision are needed in both. It’s a very different kind of precision for each of course. The science precision is relatively straightforward, but there’s something about the care required in the selection of words in poetry, the attention to meter and scanning. I love the precision of all that, although I haven’t really written much poetry in my life. It takes me an awfully long time; removing a word then putting another in and musing on it. But it doesn’t seem a million miles away from the pipettes and test tubes, trying and trying to get down to less than 1% of error. There’s something in the concentration required that’s similar and very satisfying.
How did your anthology While Giants Sleep come into being?
I’ve just finished the first draft of a full-length ‘novel’. It started out as a memoire but it’s ended up as a memoire wrapped around a fictional story. Both are concerned with family secrets. In terms of form, I’m trying to contrast the kind of autobiographical accounts people give when attempting to deal with complicated emotional truths, with how fiction is used for the same end. These forms obviously have very different features which enable them to talk about complex emotional subjects and they also both have weaknesses, in that neither can fully capture such complex subjects.
So it’s an exercise in content and form, which I suppose most decent novels are. I’ve been writing it for a very long time but I have been doing other things in between. I don’t have a very efficient writing style, but it’s probably also taking a long time because I am trying to write it in a careful, poetic style while at the same time aiming for readability.
My book While Giants Sleep is one of the projects undertaken in between. It’s a pulling together of all my odd bits of previously published and unpublished writing outside of my academic work. They were basically just pieces on old bits of paper yellowing away in a box file. When I found myself in 2011 a bit stuck with the memoire/novel I was writing, I allowed myself a little diversion pulling this collection together. So that’s how the anthology came into being.
How much of your background in psychology is weaving its way into your book?
There’s lots of it, I think. My background in psychology, most recently, has been mainly ‘academic’ so I have a theoretical and research-based interest. But I’ve also been a practitioner for decades so I’ve worked with lots of young people, parents and teachers. And there’s a personal side to it, as I’m interested in taking a therapeutic or personal development approach to my own life. For me, psychology isn’t just something that is done to other people. So I think I’ve come at the discipline from most angles and that this influence is there all the way through the book.
Who has helped you edit the book?
The pieces that have appeared as magazine articles and the book chapters have obviously been professionally edited as part of the publication process. The poetry, I’ve mainly self-edited although I did attend an excellent Arvon course which helped me greatly years ago. I also have a friend who is a very experienced published poet and he has given me lots of straight and very useful feedback, especially earlier on.
How do you self-edit? How do you know if something is right or something is wrong? Poetry particularly, as that is microscopic editing.
Yes poetry does require microscopic editing and I love it. How do I self-edit? I suppose I have been dealing with scientific and professional papers for more than 35 years, both as an editor reading the submissions of others and as a writer putting in my own work and receiving feedback in the form of suggested or required alterations. Or sometimes, of course, outright rejections.
The first paper I wrote as a sole author, for example, back in the late 1970s returned with referees’ comments that said something like ‘there are some good ideas in this paper, but many of the sentences are far too long. The author needs to consider splitting these into two or even three separate sentences before publication can be considered.’ I was furious and walked round in such a bad mood for quite a few days, thinking, ‘He or she hasn’t even got the decency to put their name to it etc etc.’ Then when I calmed down, I realised it was fair comment and that some of my sentences were really long. In fact some of them went on for five or six lines. That’s just a small example but it was extremely helpful and it has stayed with me. I still veer towards long, ugly sentences if I don’t check myself, but I know that I do and try to look out for such things when I edit my own work.
So, to answer your question, I suppose I self-edit by having internalised some of the critical feedback that I have received during my career – and by trying to make sure that I adhere to the same advice I will have dished out to others over the years.
You’re used to writing academically, but isn’t it quite different to writing fiction? So how do you translate the skill?
It’s certainly different and I don’t really know how one translates between the two. Perhaps a parallel can be drawn with athletes who need both a general level of fitness and then a set of skills specific to their particular event. My academic writing (and my daily diary) in a way serve to maintain a level of general writing fitness and I then have to superimpose a whole range of other techniques and knowledge – those of the fiction writer or the poet – on top.
The book I’m working on at the moment is my first foray into fiction so I am finding that I have a lot to learn. I’ve read fairly widely in my life and in the last few years have also been drawn towards books about the writing process itself by authors such as David Lodge, Stephen King and John Mullan. Another thing I’ve acquired in my academic career, I suppose, is the ability to be dispassionate and throw away what I can see as substandard work. At first I found it very hard to discard a morning’s, or a longer period’s, writing. But when I began editing and had to deal with others saying, ‘Not one word of this must go, it will be ruined if anything at all is cut’, then I saw the error of my own ways. I’m much more pragmatic about my own work now as a result.
How do you know how to edit your poetry?
I don’t know how you edit poetry. Perhaps my way is to write slowly and to produce draft after draft in longhand. I began the ‘Toads’ poem that won the Yeovil Prize in 2011 around 20 years ago, but I remember well how it came about.
I started with one or two niggling ideas for it but no real sense of the form or structure. I’m not religious but occasionally, if it was on, I would find myself getting quite sentimental during ‘Songs of Praise’ on Sunday evening television. It seemed melancholic, echoing with nostalgia, and could help induce a mood that I sometimes found very conducive to writing; even about topics that weren’t ostensibly sad or dealing with the past.
The night I began the ‘Toads’ poem, I’d been to the off-licence for a bottle of red wine and ‘Songs of Praise’ was blaring out from my other room. I’d also bought five Hamlet cigars, which I used to smoke. So I started on my old green screen Amstrad at 7pm and, although I had to go to work the next day, I didn’t finish until 2am. I’d become utterly absorbed in it, playing around with words, taking lines out and putting others in; and I’d also drunk all the wine and smoked all the cigars. So I felt really bad the next day. But I had a draft I was pleased with.
After that I read it to myself frequently. I would put it away for a while then get it out again and read it to myself out loud. I worked on it further on the Arvon course I mentioned and then it disappeared into my box file for nearly two decades. When I decided to pull my anthology together, I re-read it and did a final tidying. That’s when I thought a submission to a competition or two might also be a good idea. So, although I can’t afford to spend decades on each poem – or drink and smoke like that, – in this instance the slow burn worked very well for me.
How useful has the writer’s group been for you while writing your novel?
I joined Nottingham Writer’s Studio about 15 months ago and was there at the formation of a new fiction writing group. I used to live in the city and although I’ve now moved out into the sticks, it has certainly proved worthwhile enough for me to make the trip in regularly.
The way our fiction group works is that we meet once a month and half of us will submit some of our work, in advance, for critiquing. There are only half a dozen of us so we get plenty of opportunity to become familiar with each other’s work and to receive regular critical feedback when we meet. As a result I have been able to submit bits of my book as I’ve gone along. I’m then able to listen to various critiques, which gives me something to reflect on. At the end of the day it’s up to me what I decide to put in and leave, out of course, but at least I have the benefit of other viewpoints. I’m also fortunate to have a couple of friends who are not only published authors but also generous enough with their time to read and comment on my efforts.
It’s not only the writing group that has assisted me though. I’ve also been involved with a reading group that I set up in the city at the end of 2001. Cathy Grindrod was Nottingham’s Literature Officer then and she gave me some really good advice on setting up such a group and also found us a venue. We’re into our twelfth year now and some of us have been on board since the beginning or very soon after. Our brief, which is a bit elastic, is that we read mainly modern novels. But we do slip in the odd Thomas Hardy or Jane Austen now and then as well. We also have a poetry evening once a year. I feel I have had an unbelievable education in literature as a result of the insight and knowledge of some of our members. It’s been an absolute privilege to sit and talk about so many books over the years with these people. And unlike being at school, we get to drink beer in the process. But, I’m afraid to say, still no Virginia Woolf as of yet!
Your anthology While Giants Sleep is a mixture of all sorts of things, poetry, writing about climbing, walking, travel writing. It’s this sort of writing that is going to form the basis for your event at the Nottingham Festival of Words. So tell me about this.
One of the things I’ve done a lot of in my life, but which I don’t do any more, is rock climbing. It’s an intense type of activity, more a way of life than a hobby or interest. And, given how rewarding I found it, it seemed an obvious subject for me to write about. But when I first started climbing in the 1960s, the books and articles on the subject were almost all of a descriptive or procedural nature. With a few exceptions, not much of what was published aspired to be literary, in the sense in which we now use the term. Over the last twenty years or so, of course, there has been a considerable growth of literary approaches to these sorts of activities by superb writers such as Robert McFarlane and Kathleen Jamie.
By the mid-1980s, I was also going through a divorce and wanting to write about relationships and having arrived at a stage that we now tend to refer to rather ponderously as ‘mid-life’. I knew that attempting to write about either subject – climbing or relationships – was to enter a potential mine field. Some of my climbing mates were likely to beat me up for traversing into the poetic and there were already far too many miserable and self-pitying tales of relationship break-ups. But I did publish a small collection of prose and poetry called ‘Hanging in the Balance’ in the late 1980s and did it rather well, critically if not commercially. Not only did ‘She’ magazine publish one of the pieces, but the climbing journals also reviewed it very positively. Some of the poems were published on respected literary magazines too. Terry Gifford, who had recently inaugurated the Festival of Mountaineering Literature, and whom I had never met, described it as, ‘Better than whole volumes of empty narrative’ and as, ‘Climbing through the important things in life’. So, I was absolutely delighted by this and other reviews and have since incorporated ‘Hanging in the Balance’ into ‘While Giants Sleep’ as the second of its four sections.
I’ve also always enjoyed walking in the mountains and hills. Although I’m not sure what I would make of his writing these days, I was deeply impressed by Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums in my teens and some of his other writing from that time. Kerouac talked about the ‘meditation of the trail’, the mental freeing-up that came from a sustained and steady plod up a mountainside and I found this Buddhist idea very appealing at the time.
As I’ve grown older my walks seem to have grown longer, and last autumn I completed the South West Coast Path of England. It’s 630 miles long through spectacular scenery and I regret that my time availability meant that I had to split it into instalments over many years. The longest continuous walk I’ve undertaken (so far) has been the Annapurna circuit in the Himalayas which took around three weeks. I remember after a fortnight or so having a very strong desire just to keep walking for the rest of my life, a dread almost of returning to immobile days in fixed locations. For the first week or so after I’d returned home I was going to bed at nightfall and out walking on the hills by 5am before going off to work. Sadly, inevitably, it didn’t last.
Another notion from even further back that entered my head and never quite left it was the forty days and nights that Jesus spent in the wilderness. This intrigued me as a child; it seemed both terrifyingly lonely and fulsomely suffused with self-reliance and resiliency. And perhaps it’s not a complete coincidence that a considerable proportion of the long distance walking I’ve undertaken in my life has been on my own. But, for me, the physical activity most connected with writing is running, even though it is not something that I particularly excel at. I seldom come back from a run without some creative insight or even the occasional break through. It’s as if the physical activity itself can ‘jog’ a new idea.
Exactly what are you doing at the Festival?
I’ve called my session ‘Climbing Through Life’; taking my title from Terry Gifford’s review. I’m intending to read relevant excerpts from While Giants Sleep and to develop the themes of climbing and long distance walking as metaphors for some of the big challenges that life throws at us all. I suppose this could be a bit corny but I think it can be a strong metaphor. And by challenges, I don’t just mean physical ones, the arduous or the risky, but also events like growing up and growing old, adult relationships and those between parents and children, living fully and well.
Hopefully, the content of the pieces will be interesting enough to enable them to stand alone. But I also hope to engage the audience in discussion about the types of metaphors they themselves draw upon when considering life’s challenges. And these challenges needn’t necessarily involve getting one’s boots on. Caring for an elderly relative could, for example, provide as equally a striking example of application and persistence as an arduous alpine trek.
So, we’ll be interested in the events themselves, in their possible value as metaphors and in the ways in which both can be of service in literary endeavours.
‘Climbing Through Life’ will be on Saturday 16th February, 4.00pm – 5.00pm. In the Newton Arkwright Building, Nottingham Trent University.