So Steve and I are back from the Writer’s Festival. We had a great time – well, I did; I think he did too (his favourite was a workshop on Bears In Poetry; he got to read one of his latest pieces). I came back with a bunch of new books, a small jar of iron gall ink (more on that below), and a ton of inspiration and encouragement.
I think the one main impression, the key idea, I took away from this conference is this: There is no one way to doing things as a writer. It came out over and over in presentations, in workshops, in discussions, in Q&A sessions. There are pantsers, there are plotters. There are people who crank out novels every few months, there are ones who take years. Some write in third person past tense, some use first person present. There’s traditionally published authors, there’s self-published ones. There’s outliners, there’s free-writers. And you’ll find any stripe of them in any category – not all plotters are trad-published, not all self-publishers are pantsers (or vice versa). In other words, do whatever works for you and for what you’re working on. As one of the presenters (the most excellent Jodi McIsaac) put it: It’s not a rule, it’s a tool.
And speaking of tool, the last workshop I took, and probably the most fun one (even though it wasn’t directly related to the kind of writing I do, with keyboard and screen and stuff), was on ink. That’s right, the black stuff (or blue) that flows from the end of your pen and makes words on paper. The presenter, Ted Bishop, has written a whole book on it: The Social Life of Ink: Culture, Wonder, and Our Relationship with the Written Word. I haven’t read it yet, but yes, of course I got a copy. And he signed it for me – in my own ink. You see, being one of those suck-up-to-the-teacher types, I brought him a jar of my walnut ink (and a walnut with the husk still on it, to show what they look like).
But what we actually did in the class was make real, honest-to-goodness, classic iron gall ink. The kind of ink that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written in, and the earliest existing copy of the Quran, and Magna Carta, and of course all of Shakespeare’s stuff and Jane Austen’s and pretty much anyone who is anyone’s and every nobody’s as well, up until the early 20th century.
While Ted was talking about the history of the ballpoint pen (fascinating!), we passed around a mortar and pestle with an oak gall in it, taking turns grinding it down to a fine powder. Then we ground in a chunk of gum arabic (the stuff that’s the binder in watercolour paints), mixed it in water (it was still a boring buff colour at this point), then added a teaspoon of ferrous sulfate, which is a pale green powder (I got to stir). And – voilà! – the mix instantly turned a deep black! And then we got to try it out – and the funky thing about this particular kind of ink is that it doesn’t go on as black as it becomes later, but looks quite watery to start with. I thought the pen hadn’t been loaded correctly on my first stroke, and re-dipped it and re-drew the lines – but what happens is that it’s actually the chemical reaction with the air, aka plain old oxidation, that makes it go really black on the page. Kind of like Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map, where the letters appear pale at first and get stronger and stronger (Ted’s description, not mine). It’s a beautiful ink, a deep blue-black (once it’s done oxidising), and completely waterproof – I soaked the sheet of paper in the picture here after I’d written it, and it didn’t smudge or run at all. And it could last for millennia…
So, that’s what I did on my weekend. And now I’m itching to get back to writing (I’ve even played with the idea of handwriting a story sometime – not with iron gall ink, of course; dip pens are far too tedious – but then I always end up back at the keyboard).
So I’ll sign off, with Life, the Universe, a Writer’s Conference and Iron Gall Ink. Talk to you later!