The Book of London

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I am always on the run. I have lived in four different places in the last four years. am tired. I moved from Livorno and my University in Florence to Oslo for a semester, then back to Tuscany again. I went to Bronxville, a small town 30 minutes away from New York City, and then back to Italy. And then I moved to London, where I stayed for one year and a half.

Now I am back to Livorno. My last days in London were hectic, as I had to pack, say goodbye to my old job, complete a one-week work experience at HHB Literary Agency and, of course, see my friends for the last time. I have been thinking about London in the last few days, right after the emotion of being home fade away. I am spending my time with my loved ones in the places that I know and love, but London keeps coming back. I have the impression that it will always be.

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The first emotion I feel when I think about London, even before nostalgia or sadness, is gratitude. I don’t think I would ever be able to express my gratitude for all the people I met in this amazing year and a half. I would like to hug all the amazing people I met, my flatmates, my friends, my professors. My classmates and friends in London always did their best to help me with my writing and my English. They read my shit and gave me feedback. They listened to my clumsy English and corrected me if I needed it. Now I am braver and I know for sure that my grasp on the language is improved, thanks to them.

Almost all of my luggage is unpacked and settled again in my room in Livorno. But there is a bag, full of notes, memories, pictures and stuff that I am afraid to open. I am afraid it may mix up with the life I have here and I am sure I’ll start crying when I open the notes I received, the presents and gifts and the love all the people I met showed to me. And then, of course, I am scared of going back to London with my mind, and fall in a blurry place. But I just can’t leave everything there, in the dusty bag. I need to take everything out and, possibly, write my book of London. Stick all the notes and pictures and memories and the songs I listened to and the stories I wrote and the films I saw and the small things of life that I am so afraid to forget when I’ll leave Livorno again. Because I will.

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I left London three weeks ago and I am still living in some strange place where I can smell toasts from Pret in the morning. Where sudden gusts of wind mess my hair up in the tube station and everything goes too fast. A weird, blurry place where people are always busy and girls go to work stumbling on high heels.
Here in Livorno, instead, the wind on my face smells like the sea, even when I am not on the shore. The buzz of the too many mopads pierces my ears constantly and the food oozes with oil and garlic and flavour. I have eaten the best Cacciucco of my life. I have spent 20 euros to eat eight different dishes at dinner – something that is simply impossible in London.
I have written a new story about London, because I miss this huge part of me so much that sometimes Livorno seems like a temporary place. Maybe tomorrow I am going to prepare my suitcase and head off to Stratford again. I will take a long walk in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and go shopping at Westfield, buy some shit at Poundland and decide what to eat for dinner while shopping at Sainsbury’s – always the same tasteless shit, I am afraid.
I will hear guys calling their pals “mates” instead of “bimbi” and I will smile when I’ll enter a pub, with the smell of ale and old carpet that is so vivid and alive to me now that it seems like I have never really left.
And when I am in this blurry place in my mind, missing London and thinking about this cheesy shit, I will think about Livorno, about the smell of jasmine in my garden, the threatening gazes of seagulls scanning the moats for some pigeons to slaughter. My hometown, with the accent that I know so well and makes me laugh everytime.
I have been living in too many places in the last 4 years and I miss them all. The world where everyone is scattered, trying to find their own path even if far away from loves ones, is a tough one.
I left a piece of my heart in London and I can’t wait to visit again.
It is not home now, but will always be anyway.

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The Tragedy of Writing a Comedy

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When I was ten or eleven years old, I wrote my first novel. It was about this group of teenagers who had always spent most of their time together and had to face the first summer apart (doesn’t this sound terribly like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants? It sadly does). The distance between them would make them realise and discover new things, feelings, problems and secrets that would have remained concealed otherwise.

It was easy. I wrote it all quickly (almost 300 pages!), without planning. And then I kept on doing that. I wrote another series about some friends who played in punk bands – this happened when I was in my Green Day moment. I filled pages and pages of notebooks. I was thirteen years old. Then I wrote a lot of fanfiction with my friends – so many pages of pure bullshit. American singers and actors would speak the perfect accent of my hometown in Italy and we found it extremely funny.

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And then, after that, I wrote my first romantic comedy. A naive, stupid novel that had some good moments – I wrote it when I was sixteen, maybe, I can’t really remember. Funfair Lights was the title. I made one of my best friend read that. My ex-boyfriend read it as well, and I played it cool but instead felt very frustrated when I discovered that he made his mom read it as well. Isn’t it a cruel violence? I give you something private, something I am excited and scared of at the same time, and you make your mother read that? Fuck it. Anyway.

After Funfair Lights, I wrote the first thing that had some sort of dignity – a rom-com as well. Why Do I Want Him.Writing novels was – really – easier that what it is for me now. I would just write. I would try to go on with the story without putting too much effort in the planning. With the last two (the rom-coms), I started discovering that some planning was necessary. Even so, I was convinced that planning should not limitate my own fantasy. If writing a chapter made me realise that what I planned was fine, but not as good as it would be if I took another unexpected direction that came to me only when I kept on writing, I would go with the new option. No doubts about it.

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Now I am working on the first novel that I feel may go somewhere. Not because it is good or whatever (it’s probably not), but because it’s mine. I am working hard on it. I had my professor read it, my classmates and friends read it, and I am writing in the language I love: English. I want it to shine, I want the story to take me away.

Since I started studying Creative Writing and taking the work of the writer more seriously, I have stopped abandoning myself to the reason why I started writing in the first place: to enjoy it. To love it. I really did. I wanted my “readers”, whether they be my brothers, friends or whovever – to feel like they couldn’t look up from the page. They needed to know how the story went on. It was a matter of life and death. They needed to go on! They had to! No matter what! The house is on fire? Fine! I need to know whether they will finally get together first.

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I have a very strict structure of chapters now. They need to be perfect, not only by themselves as chapters, but also as a group of single bits that need to form a coherent, entertaining story. When I walk, I think about structure and plot and how I should go back to old chapters and make everything fit. For example, I could have forgotten to mention a detail about a place or a person that would become more important later. So I needed to go back and re-read what I wrote and try to make everything fit. Fitting ends.

But I miss being an unaware writer. I would go on and on, and writing would be terribly natural. I miss it. I have been studying and practicing and reading rules and I know that they are all important, essential tools that a writer should know. But my objective for the next month will be to be more like the writer I was: brave, imaginative, happy-go-lucky. With the young me in mind, I am sure Plan B – Love at the Time of Brexit will only come better.

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The Last Class and the Final Project

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As I had an exam, I could not attend the last class. It was a pity, because I had the chance to read the poems they read in class and they were beautiful. Some of them included important elements of the city (not necessarily London), that could inspire us to write about the city. It is important to remember that not only is our poetry project about the city and London, but all our MA is called Writing the City. London must be an essential part of our own writing, and therefore, reading poetry that is set or about cities is really helpful. For example, I was amazed by the many images that I found in Praise House: The New Economy by Gabrielle Calvocoressi, with many characters, food, animals, plants, objects that form the great “choir” of the city. And I really enjoyed the Seven Views of Cork City, about a city where I have been but that I don’t know and remember very well, where the speaker describes very different moments and aspects of it.

Then we read a moving piece by Claudia Rankine, where she talks about the violent death of Mark Duggan. The issue of violent deaths of black men is one of the important issues that we may want to consider. It is not like we need to write about London: we need to write about something in London, something important, that responds to the city of London. I know what the issues I write about are, and I am not too unhappy with what I have come up. The last poems Ron wanted us to read were all by Ross Gay and were published in the same collection. They seem the same poem, but actually they are very different, with a complete different tone, atmosphere and ending. I really liked this idea, it was the sort of clever ideas that I never have in poetry.

Still, I want to say positive about this project. It will be fine. I am going to use some of the obstructions, but most of all I am going to use some sentences, some images, some lines, and I will build up completely new poems. I am satisfied with two or three obstructions, which anyway need to be edited and shaped. I will write about London and about being from another place, it will be about the sea, about my fears and my idols. It will be about David Bowie, who died last year. It will be about drugs, and coming back home, and going away. It will be about sex and about love. About the body and about water. All these themes were important parts of my obstructions. Without the obstructions, without this process of constantly trying to re-read everything, to consult my notes, to consider every single inspiration, I would have never tried to write poetry.

Now I have a final project before me. I have gathered a lot of material that I am scared and excited to re-read and to shape. I will do it. I need to be daring.

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Editing Process

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Together with the feedbacks we had to give to our classmates, I started going through what I wrote during the classes, the obstructions and the exercises I did. My editing process started, and it was good to read some essays about it. First of all, I decided what I wanted to include and what instead did not really work (I was not happy with many of my obstructions). Instead, I was proud of some of the poems I wrote by myself, and I thought they were relevant to what we studied. Even if I had a slight idea of what to include, I needed a guide to edit, to shape up my work. Phillip Glass said that in order to arrive at a personal style the writer needs a technique to begin with, and that is exactly what I needed to start working on the project as a whole. Also The Microlectures about Criticism written by Matthew Goulish were very helpful. At a certain point in the essay, he states that modernists believed that each work of art somehow outstretched interpretation and each criticism reduced the infinite possibilities of the work, and that no critique was exhaustive. It confused me but also made me feel better – there must be something good in what I wrote, right? Goulish says that there is always something good in a piece of art, and the good editor knows how to spot that before the “negatives”. Then he says that the act of critical thought finds its alue through fulgilling these purposes:

  • To cause a change
  • To understand how to understand.

These elements were very helpful both in my feedbacks for my classmates and in my way of looking at my own poems. The first catalyst of Session 7, besides, was about editing. James Thurber, in 1959, said that editing should be a counseling rather than a collaborating task, and that the editor should help the author do their best in their own style, not in the style that the editor likes. That means a lot, and it goes both for feedback for other people and for the editing process of my own work.

The other two catalysts, Lucille Clifton and Edwidge Danticat, were both some other inspirations to be brave and daring with writing, which is never enough now that the deadline is rapidly approaching. In their quotes, they say that it is not good to play safe when making art, that artists and writers should be ready to the unexpected, welcoming it. Create dangerously, Danticat says. I am going to remember this.

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Another text that really helped me in my editing process was the Eight Letters to a Young Writer by Teju Cole. He wrote these letters for a newspaper, pretending to address a Nigerian writer and giving them suggestions about writing. The first rule is: keep it simple. This is something I always try to do when writing fiction, but it does become a little tricky when I write poetry. I think that I have always to address those important, big themes like death and peace and war and I don’t know. Then he says not to use clichés, to avoid adverbs (Ron spotted some in my own poems); when reporting speech, use simple verbs like “say” or “tell” rather than the ones that specify how something is said – the reader should be able to guess it by the context.

Then he says to read as much as we write – and I really need to read more poetry. I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction, but not enough poetry. Then he said to rely on observation, to observe observe observe and be precise. He suggested to be daring, corageous, to write something we had never read before, and always to avoid writing narratives that have only a single meaning, to try to sink into the complexities of things. This was just the first letter about eight rules and suggestions the beginner writer could use – so much in just a single text. The second and third letters were about freedom and voice. Freedom meant to be completely daring and experimental with our work, to be free to accept, study, analyse our mistakes and to fail and fail and fail. The artist has the freedom to do what they want, to modify their work endless times. So we need to take advantage of it, and try to be free with our work, allowing it to take many shapes and forms until we find the best. As for voice, instead, Cole says that is useful to give us information about the speaker – he takes the example of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. His language and the style in which the book is written tells a lot about how funny and impetuous the character is, but also how sad he is. So the voice is not simply the way you tell the story, but it is where the story comes itself.

I need to consider all these things when writing poetry and when editing my own work. At the end of the day, they are not that far from what I consider when I do write fiction.

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Obstruction #11: Bibliomancy

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Based on our experience at the Poetry Library and our wandering between books while flip them open and notice the best sentences and lines, Ron gave us an obstruction that was based on Tweets by poet and fiction writer Alexander Chee, who introduced the concept of teaching “Bibliomancy“: he tweeted prompts to write poetry by getting inspired by books in a library. Among these prompts, there is the idea that Ron gave us to reach out for the books, flip them open, notice and write down the best sentences. Then, maybe, write a poem that is inspired by those quotes.

As I said before, I was deeply fascinated by the first line from Allen Ginsberg’s poem America: America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothingI do not know if it inspired a poem or not – the piece I wrote is written in prose and sounds like a monologue addressed to someone. But, still, it inspired something that I liked and that I may shape into a poem for the final project. It is about the way I feel towards my home country, how Italy is so beautiful, how me and my peers all studied and worked hard and many went abroad to find more opportunity because, in terms of jobs and economy, Italy for students and young people is a very bad place to be at the moment.

This “piece” is called Cosimo, just like the name of the guy I imagine performing it. Cosimo is an important name for the place where I come from. Cosimo de Medici is an important figure in Tuscany and Livorno’s history.

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So I am back. If I was a superhot girl or an evil killer, that would be such a badass thing to say. Look, the hottie is back in town, watch out, wives, I am going to steal your husbands before you can even know it. Or if I was fucking Machete, that’d be supercool as well, speaking with that low voice and all. But, to get to my point, I am only a regular guy who smokes too much pot and has grey hair at 29, is back in his hometown and doesn’t know that to do about it.

To be honest with you, I know I wasn’t really thinking about it when I moved to London and decided to start working as a freelancer from a fucking shack. And I also know I couldn’t have afforded it if my parents weren’t rich as hell – but there’s no need to tell you that the main reason why I did it was that I was tired of living in a city were everyone was putting so much pressure on me. Find a job. Make your relationship work. Get a grip on your life. All the cliché things that you say to a guy who’s just graduated and spends his time vegetating in his room, piling pizza boxes and stubbing out joints in his mother favourite good china glasses when she’s at work. And of course there was you. Let me talk and don’t interrupt me because I feel like I am speaking my mind for the first time since I have run away from that total wreck otherwise known as our relationship. There was you, always saying what I needed to do and who I needed to be. And it was fine. I’m sure in your mind you meant to help me, but you didn’t. I am sure one of the reasons why I got grey hair at 29 is you, and how badly it ended up for the both of us. I am sorry I run away. It wasn’t a nice thing to do. But I had to. We couldn’t make it together.

And now I am here. I am back because our best friends are going to marry tomorrow, and since I got off the plane I have felt alternatively like I shouldn’t be here at all and like this is the only fucking place in the world I should be. And you know why? Because if I just look at the sea, if I just stop ranting and try to hear its sound and to sense its smell, I just curse myself and my decision to move to a fucking wood in the middle of nowhere. And the same goes for you. If I just look at you, I see how you decided to keep your hair long and wild as when you were 22, but I also see that you have some new wrinkles I had never seen before. And when I just notice all these things, I just can’t stop thinking that I was a fucking fool and I should have stayed here with you to watch those wrinkles come out everyday and to tell you that even if we are almost 30 now, you’re sexier than all those 18 year old girls around.

But when I stop smelling, looking, hearing, and I start thinking, then I know there’s not much left for me here, and those things that I miss wouldn’t be enough, or simply wouldn’t work out. There’s not much in London for me as well, but I feel like I am doing something there. Even if it’s just smoking pot, drinking and trying to write some shit while my parents keep on paying for everything. Even if it will never be home.

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Feedbacks for Dummies

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For session #6, Ron asked us to submit a poem that we wanted our classmates to read and gives us feedbacks on. Our session at Southbank Centre was quite packed: the wandering, the Poetry Library and even the individual feedbacks – it was a great class. Before everything, anyway, we started with reading the catalysts. The first was Jericho Brown, author of the essay “The Possibility of God”. In the excerpt, he talks about line breaks and states that they have everything to do with doubt and that’s what makes poetry so different from prose: poetry is “infused with doubt”. The moment of the line break is the one when you are thrown into a place of uncertainty, where you are not sure about what happened or what is going to happen. Only faith that the next line will land us on solid ground, says the author, is what keeps us breathing.

This is a very romantic way to look at things. I am not sure if I completely agree on what the author thinks about the difference between prose and poetry – I think prose is infused with doubt just like poetry, only, in a very different way. It reminded me of Octavia Butler saying that she wrote about things she did not understand or she was worried of. But the concept of line break as a moment of uncertainty, like a pirouette into the void, is something that I can totally see in my own poetry as well – the line break is a moment where you want yourself and your reader to pause, to have a very short halt before plunging back again into the narrative. Concerning Octavia Butler, she was also the second catalyst, and I related very much with what she said: the writer should forget talent and inspiration and rely on habit, on commitment, on continued learning. Imagination and talent are important and must be used, but persisting is even more important. This quote, from “Furor Scribendi”, made me feel a bit better about my poetry. I am not a poetry writer and I always feel like my poetry is shit, but this is a very negative attitude and I really need to get out of it. Even if I am so convinced not to be talented in poetry, I know that I can rely on my commitment, curiosity and passion, which are all important parts of a writer’s life.

The last catalyst was Marianne Moore, on The Paris Review, where she compared the work of the poet with the one of the scientist, stating that they both experiment and waste effort in order to obtain the best result. “Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision…”. The process of writing poetry is constantly on the move, is a continuous research and discovery. To me, this meant a lot because my own writing (whether it be fiction or poetry) is constantly changing to the point that what I wrote just a while ago is not satistying to me anymore. This is not a positive attitude either, so I need to work on this again. It’s not like my past writing is shit, it’s just constantly evolving. It does become different. It does get better, sometimes. This is another way to look at it. I love how catalysts are like personal motivators.

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However, even with the most positive attitude I would still be scared of feedbacks, both from Ron and my classmates. Well, it is not really that I am scared of feedbacks – I know that even the worst ones are important for my own development as a writer and person. But it is scary to make other people read our stuff. On the other hand, feedbacks offer new perspectives. If they are given with kindness and honesty, they are the most valuable thing a writer can have. Since everyone had submitted a piece, Ron wanted us to pick one (we did not know who wrote what) and to give feedbacks on it in class, and then repeat the whole process at home with the other pieces. He told us to notice how the work is different from anything we had read, what could be helpful, what could be worked on, what we could suggest development about (here’s what you could try…), what worked. He told us not to use formulas like I don’t like, I love, I like, I don’t get, and not to simply notice what was not working but also suggesting ways and proposing new ideas.

The editor, he said, does not tell you this is how you should write, but explores and analyses what’s on the page and what is possible to do to improve it. This was an introductory feedback session to the next classes, that would be dedicated to a lot of peer feedback. He told us that the editorial experience needs to be honest and genuine. He told us to come with noticing, commenting on what feels different and unique about the drafts that we are reading, what’s remarkable and extraordinary, and also suggesting that the authors try something new, asking questions, showing them how their piece could be different and maybe improved. We picked the poem Obstruction #9 by Sophie, a beautiful poem about Ireland. I did a lot of underlining, circling, noticing. This is my feedback attempt:

  1. What is unique, different. Dark, gloomy colours; alternation between idylliac seaside and the city. It is a sharp poem, full of violent and strong images. Forces of nature are beautifully described.
  2. A question. You mention two places that I want to see more in detail: how do they affect the speaker’s feelings, attitude, emotions?
  3. Propose a new version. I think the best thing of this poem is the presence of very dark colours which are important details of the place, they embody the atmosphere of this poem. Some very vague and broad terms like dream, heart, soul, give me peace could be transformed into more concrete and real details.

After this introduction, Ron told us to select other pieces that we may want to send him and to bring in class to receive feedbacks on. He told us to work on all the other poems we had received by our classmates with the same structure: what is unique about a poem, a question, a suggestion.

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Get Down on It: Writing Poetry

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As Ron told us, I started wondering about my final project and what I could write about. To be honest, this is a real challenge for me, because I feel like writing something that is completely different from anything I’ve done before. It does really scare me, even if it should not – I guess being scared is fine to the point when it does not block you and prevent you from writing. But if it does, then things become a little too difficult. So, being scared is fine as long as it is only made out of uncertainty and doubt. I am very convinced that literature should challenge both the writers and the readers and make them look at things from the perspective of those who are not likely to be heard in society. I write about sexuality, violence, rape, marginalisation. But I would also like to write about joy, about miracles and beautiful things. I am a bit confused. I like to write about dark things and to make the reader wonder who is the good one, and why the good protagonist acts like a dick, or why the reader feels empathy for someone who’s clearly a bad person. I would like to wonder what being a bad person exactly mean. But I would like to challenge myself and experiment other things.

Ron gave us interesting essays to read at home and to consider when thinking about our projects. One of the things I absolutely should do is to try to experiment with form and with interesting layouts.

We had to read an essay about the letter &, written by Mairead Small Staid and called The 27th letter. In the 19th century alphabet, it followed the letter z and it meant “and per se and”. A logogram masqueraded as a letter, a letter that is also a word. This symbol existed long before its name (ampersand): it was used by ancient scholars: it represented the Latin et. Poet Larry Lewis uses it a lot. Keats used it as well: that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason… Mysteries, doubts and uncertainties are, says the author, the quarts and neutrinos of poems. In the FAQ page of the Writers Guild of America, the difference between using “and” and “&” in writing credit is explained. The “and” is used when writers wrote separately, the “&” if the text was produced by a team of writers. In screenplay, the same happens.

In poetry, finding an “&” can trigger a sense of closeness, being a single unit and make the two terms that are linked as a single unit themselves. It is a knot that ties, a knot about to be tied. Symbols are easy, but not meaningless.

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After reading this essay, I wanted to experiment a lot with other symbols. What always strikes me about poetry is the hugely wide range of possibilities that you may want to consider and to use in your poetry. You can shape your poems into any form you like, you can use illustrations that you drew by yourself and you can insert as many strange and weird symbols as you want. I guess the important thing is to be aware of their meaning and to take careful choices. These symbols may work or may look too “forced” inside a poem. What I guess is worth doing is trying, trying to see if they have a meaning, it they are used at their best, if they look good on the page. The best attempt is not the final draft, but a draft that teaches something to the writer.

On this matter, we read another interesting essay by Annie Lemott about shitty first drafts. The author stated that none of her writer friends produces good first drafts, and that we always have to give us the opportunity to write very bad stuff in order to learn something from what we just spit out on the page. In fact, at the end of a very weepy, cheesy, bad first draft there could be a wonderful sentence, a great image that may trigger a whole new, beautiful piece. It may point the direction where we need to go or want to go. I really related to the part where the author calls a first draft a sort of a “child’s draft”: “where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later”.

The author knows that, when writing, there are so many voices in their head that will try to critique them as much as possible. There will be William Burroughs, complaining about how boring the author’s writing is, and then their parents, who will be worrying as well, and many other voices that any writer can hear in their head. The author of the essay suggests to treat those voices as small mice to close in a glass jar and consider, but also silence, at the right time when writing. Let it all flow. I must not be scared to experiment and I must not be scared to write bullshit.

I want to start considering and thinking about my final project keeping these essays in mind: what I think I learnt in these past 5 sessions is that I should not be scared, and these two essays represent exactly what I fear the most: to write complete bullshit and to experiment with form. I need to let myself go.

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