What’s the thing you read when you want to remember how to write?
Poetry, usually, because that’s where words are put together in the most startling fashion. If I find something I love — in poetry or anywhere else — I might write it by hand into my commonplace book, which now contains a fantastic assortment of rhetorical figures. Every so often, I might take one of those lines — whether from last week’s newspaper, a comic novel by PG Wodehouse or a blazing line of poetry — and rewrite it to reflect my own concerns. The trick is to “make it my own” while keeping as close as possible to the original.
Also, as my writing increasingly includes illustration, I’m devoted to the books of Scott McCloud, which thrillingly explain the “grammar” of pictures.
You’re at the newsstand and have decided you’re leaving with four magazines. What are you picking up? (from any era, be as oddly specific as possible).
I’d love to find a copy of Harper’s Magazine, from about 2001, which contained a very, very long story about the writer taking part in a national poker championship. I don’t particularly like poker, but that story had me gripped. I’d buy a copy of the Financial Times magazine from the years when I was staff writer, just to have the pleasure of seeing it, like an old friend.
I’d go back to the 1700s and buy one of the earliest editions of the original Spectator, which would probably look now like a rather amateurish zine. In the same line, I’d like an original copy of pretty well any samizdat Soviet publication (I just hope the newsstand has one, hidden beneath the counter somewhere). In both these cases, I’ll enjoy the reminder that brilliant and urgent writing doesn’t always come neatly packaged.
What’s the thing you read when you need to feel something?
Poetry again. But it has to be the right poetry for the right mood: no good reading Sylvia Plath if I feel like cheerful laughter, and a book of limericks won’t bring me a lot of consolation in times of trouble. The anthologies by Bloodaxe Books are sensational:
But possibly the best, most moving nine pages I know are the (entire) text of Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett.
What newsletters have you continued to happily subscribe to?
The most consistently excellent newsletter I read is written by Ted Gioia. It’s about music, mostly — but actually I don’t care what he writes about. He writes well about anything.
But there’s another who has given me more practical inspiration, in terms of how to use the newsletter format. I “discovered” Craig Mod last year. The great revelation was his use of “pop-up” newsletters, time-limited and (therefore) more precious because everybody knows from the start that they won’t last long.
What’s your favorite This Is A Great Day On Twitter day (one of those days when you couldn’t stop reading the timeline)?
It was the day in March when Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released from captivity in Iran, after six years. When I heard that she was to be released, I was just utterly happy. And every so often some new development was delivered to the world via Twitter — she’s leaving prison, she’s going to the airport, there’s a selfie of her on the plane… My own microscopic contribution was this drawing of how I imagined Nazanin in the taxi to Tehran airport.