Tag Archives: Poetry

The Writer’s Toolbox (3)

I’m not a cat person, but these ladies look pretty curious.

Curiosity may be fatal for felines but it is essential for writers.

If you’ve been following this series of blog posts up to now, you are hopefully writing regularly in a writing journal. At this stage, be curious not critical about what your work. Instead of judging your writing – this is good/bad – wonder what brought me to write this? If you choose to bring your writing to an audience at some point, there will be plenty of time to garner critiques, for now let curiosity and compassion for your words be your guide.

Writers also need a voracious curiosity about the world around them. What you see, hear, taste, smell, feel, experience, are all essential inspiration for a writer. In her seminal book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about taking artist’s dates. These are trips taken by creatives to feed the imagination. It could be as simple as going to a local museum or visiting a part of town you’ve never been to, perhaps a park, a graveyard, a church (or another place of worship). It could be going further afield. Everywhere is redolent with stories.

Go on these trips of discovery as a writer. Possibly alone or with another creative person, certainly not with others who will constantly need your attention. Then notice, notice, notice. Notice the external, but notice also what is going on for you, how the external is impacting on the internal. Stop frequently to write in your journal. Personally, I find stopping frequently for tea and cake also aids the creative process!

It may be that you have already decided on something you wish to pursue in your writing. Of course, these days, it is easy to sit at our desks and research with Mr Google etc. However, there is nothing like experience as research.

Go to places you want to write about. Find the little niche museum which covers the subject you are interested in, speak to the volunteers/staff about their passions. Visit the historical sites which are connected to what you are interested in. Put yourself in the environments which are inspiring you. It may not always be possible to do this in actuality, so see if there is a way of replicating it. Perhaps it is the rainforest which is stimulating your words and a ticket to Peru is beyond you, then a visit to Kew Gardens may not be.

I was listening to crime writer Ann Cleeves on the radio yesterday, she said, ‘People make a mistake when they separate setting from plot and character. People grow out of where they are born and live.’ (Desert Island Discs, Radio 4, 17th February 2019, Presenter: Lauren Laverne. Producer: Cathy Drysdale.)

Stories also grow out of place, out of environment, out of setting. Open your curiosity to the world around you and your internal landscapes and allow the words to tumble onto the page.

A Writer’s Toolbox: the self

If you’ve read the first post in this series, https://bit.ly/2RqqBKn, then hopefully that has encouraged you to write regularly. You may have adapted the sprints to suit yourself, all well and good. The point is to be writing regularly without critiquing and without too much concern over what is the point, apart from enjoying yourself.

Now we come to the most important implement in the Writer’s Toolbox: the writer themselves. Everything that comes from the writer is mediated through the self. So let’s consider how the self might work for the writer.

We have five physical senses: touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. We may favour one of these senses. If I say the word ‘tractor’, do you see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, feel the texture of it? This little exercise gives an idea of which sense you may lean towards. A writer encourages the development of all the senses. Try these explorations:

  •      walk (preferably through a bit of nature) with all your senses opened. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Once you have worked out which sense you least favour, go for a walk and focus on that sense. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Take an image (a photo or a postcard or a picture or a painting), imagine yourself within the picture, what would you be seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling? What textures could you touch? Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Imagine that one of your senses has gone. Take a short walk without that sense working. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.

You may discover your own ways of opening up your senses. Keep exploring what your five physical senses can tell you.

Writing is about imagination, inspiration, that’s what people commonly say, which all sounds very head-based. Poet William Blake likened the imagination and inspiration to a grinding millstone and a blacksmith’s forge. If we continue with his analogy, then we need the grain, we need the base metal, for the millstones or the fire in the forge to produce anything. We need the raw materials for the imagination and inspiration to feed on. These raw materials come through the senses, but also through the body as a whole. The body is the receptor by which we experience the world as we pass through it, then the mind puts language and interpretations to this experience. Working in concert, the two enrich our writing.

The self can be a tuning fork, resonating with the environment and finding the individual note for the individual writer. One of the things I have found which encourages the mining of the resources of the body is mindful walking. Mindfulness is a word which is used in many different contexts with a myriad of meanings. I like this definition from psychologytoday.com (accessed 5th October 2015): Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience. Try walking mindfully and then writing for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.

Writing creatively means engaging emotion, both for the writer and for the reader. We don’t think emotions, we feel them. Philippot et al. (2004) suggest that emotions are primarily experienced though bodily sensation and then translated into feelings and brought into consciousness. Writers connecting with their bodies are more aware of emotion, more able to capture them and find ways of communicating them which will touch a reader. However, writers are in the business of engaging with a plethora of emotions, not just the ones which we might think are nice or respectable or allowed. This can be hard, can be painful, can be distressing. Be sure you have supports in place to help you through.

The self may also be the spanner in the works, which jams the creative wheels. Another part of a writer’s toolkit is a small but resilient core of self-belief. This is usually difficult to hone and maintain. Writers need to experience a full range of emotions to put them into their writing, some, such as shame and anger, are not conducive to self-belief. Writers might lay themselves open to criticism and rejection – generated by themselves or by others, or (even harder) imagined others.

It is worth remembering that both the creative practice and the construction of self-belief are iterative. There is a back-and-forth to the process. ‘Onwards and upwards’ is an oft repeated phrase, as if going forwards is always what’s best. Writers can feel they are going backwards or round in circles. Remembering that this is an important part of being creative may help this become less frustrating.

Take your time exploring your senses and mindful walking and see where it takes you. I’ll be exploring further tools in the writer’s toolbox in the next post in the series in the coming weeks.

 

Philippot P, Baeyens C, Douilliez C, & Francart B. (2004). Cognitive regulation of emotion: application to clinical disorders. In: Philippot P, Feldman RS (eds.). (2004) The regulation of emotion. New York: Laurence Erlbaum Associates.

Be Inspired!

I was going to write a considered post about Wilfred Owen and Edith Sitwell. Wilfred Owen was killed on the 4th of November 1918, almost a hundred years ago and seven days before the Armistice. His poetry still haunts us today with his depictions of the horrors and waste of war. Edith Sitwell (daughter of Scarborough) was instrumental in having his first collection published after his death and it is mainly thanks to her that we can read his poems today. However, since I have got my nose stuck into rewriting my fifth novel, No Justice, I haven’t got the creative energy to do anything else considered. So you can catch up with Edith and Wilfred in Richard Greene’s excellent biography Edith Sitwell: Avant garde poet, English genius (https://amzn.to/2zhuSDE)

Meanwhile, I invite you to be inspired by the changing seasons. Go out for a walk in some nature if you can. Notice the nature around you, open all your senses to it. Also notice what is going on in your body and your emotional state. I say notice, do not judge, merely notice. Then take fifteen minutes to free write – write quickly without thought to purpose, construction, spelling etc. Unhitch your internal critic as much as you can. If you want to, use this free writing as the basis of a short poem or a piece of flash fiction.

Feel free to ‘publish’ it in the comments section of this post, I would be interested to read what comes out. But make it short!

Here’s one I prepared earlier:

Aspects of Autumn

Season of mellow mists and after damp,
joint between fecundity and decay,
you’re the rusted hinge, the balanced moment
before summer green becomes winter grey.
Your turned leaves are brazen in their dying,
firelit, their brassy tones trumpet their end,
they only fall to nest the ripening
kernels, torn from their cradles by the wind.
Your clods of decomposing foliage
remind us of our oozing hours,
your fruitfulness recalls our barren endeavours
to do, to strive — vanquish the final toll.
So then, only let your splendour fill us —
allow it to give us pause. Let us be still.

 

Experimentation in Writing

I have begun my read through of novel #5, No Justice. I put it away several months ago, so I am coming to it with a relatively clear head, in preparation for re-writing. I had set out to write a straight forward crime novel, but it seems I am incapable of straight forward. I break several ‘cardinal’ rules: there are many characters; there are many narrative voices; there are ‘poetic’ descriptions; we’re several chapters in and there is no crime to investigate.

On the other hand I enjoy writing (and reading) it, and since I may be its sole reader, isn’t that the point?

I admire writers and artists who break the rules and stick to their own creative vision. We would not have most contemporary prose without Virginia Woolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’ approach. Yet she had to self-publish as she could not cope with the rejections she got from commercial publishers. She and her husband Leonard set up the Hogarth Press to publish her novels in 1917 with a hand-press in their dining room. The hand-press cost them £19, the equivalent of £900 today. Hogarth press is now part of Random House publishing. Ironically perhaps, RH is one of the big conglomerates which currently so dominate the market that they can dictate what books we find on shops’ shelves and what reviews we find in the media.

I have written elsewhere about trends in experimenting with the narrative arc (https://bit.ly/2yTSX6Q). I recently read Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor and boy does he knock around with our expectations of story-telling. Each chapter is a year, there is no traditional paragraphing, human tales are given the same value/space as nature’s tales, there are no speech marks (this last, I personally found rather confusing). Not to mention the unresolved resolution. I had some complaints about the ending to my first novel, The Art of the Imperfect (for me the clue was in the title, it’s going to be imperfect). I would suggest these critics would hate McGregor’s finish.

I understand that some readers want an easy ride, they don’t want to be pushed or challenged, but I like it, and I want greater daring to come into my writing. In my last post (https://bit.ly/2xinR5B) I said I was entering a piece into a novella competition. I made the deadline and my submission included fictional prose (which moved between centuries), literary criticism and poetry. Maybe the judges will merely see it as a mish-mash, however, I was pleased to have attempted something different.

Currently I am wondering how to pull apart the timeline in No Justice without losing pace. Or, given I’m already transgressing various ‘cardinal’ rules, maybe it’s OK to lose pace?

How do you experiment in your writing?

 

Beyond the First Draft: the re-write

We all have our own creative process. What I am sharing here is what works for me, it might not work for you. I understand some writers re-write as they go along. For me, this is like trying to go forward in reverse gear. It may be different for you. Experiment for yourself. However, if you are re-writing as you go along, just take a moment to reflect. Are you self-sabotaging by making sure you will never finish anything, by continually going over and over the same section of writing trying to get it perfect? Are you squashing your creativity? Many of my most creative ideas quite frankly look pants when first committed to paper. My first impulse would be to re-write them out. But left to ‘stew’ and then crafted, they become something else.

‘I do a lot of rubbish, you have to work through the rubbish. If you are doing rubbish you can’t go away and say, OK, I’ll come back when I’m cleverer because it doesn’t work like that.’
Author, Judith Kerr (‘Pink Rabbits and Other Animals’
Radio 4, 14th June 2018, producer/presenter Jessica Treen)

So this is my method:

  • Write a first draft, relatively quickly, with no looking back. For me this is joyous, I am only pleasing myself and playing with words and ideas and characters.
  • Leave it for several weeks in a nice folder (always value your writing by keeping it safe and well shod).
  • Re-read. Try to put on a reader’s head at this point. For poetry you might be looking at rhythm, word choice, consistency of images, form on the page, voice. Would a stranger understand it or, at least, take some meaning from it? For prose, perhaps ask yourself about the narrative arc, research, narrative voice, character development, conflict/crisis, pace. Write notes for yourself on the manuscript, on a separate sheet, at 3am in the morning.
  • Re-write using your comments.
  • Leave it for several weeks in a nice folder.
  • Second re-read which might lead to some re-writing, but don’t over do it until you have some feedback. You don’t want to ‘bake’ your ‘cake’ until you’ve got some input on the ‘ingredients’. Many a time I’ve been asked to give feedback on a piece which the writer considers finished and is unlikely to alter. It’s a waste of time and energy for the both of us. Choose your readers carefully. For me, they should be writers or intelligent readers, people whose judgement I trust. Ask your readers specific questions, pointing them at the parts you want to work on and protecting the bits you know (in your heart of hearts) you will never change. Ask for positive feedback as well as a critique. Your readers should not be proofreading (unless your writing is unreadable because of grammatical or spelling errors). Proofreading comes right at the end of the process.
  • Read your feedback, then put it away for several weeks and read it again. Remember to thank your readers and buy them tea and cake (or similar). Make a list of the parts of your work which you are going to work on. Re-write. Re-read.
  • At this point you could well be ready to self-publish or submit. If you are self-publishing, and can afford it, pay for a copy editor and a proof reader. If you have to choose, pay the proof reader, it’s nigh on impossible to proof read your own work. If you are submitting, you can probably do your own proof read, and the copy editing will come once your manuscript is accepted.

Here is some further advice from author Lisa O’Donnell on the Curtis Brown Creative site: https://bit.ly/2OBR4Pw

I believe in my method. However, there are times when needs must. I am submitting a novella to the Mslexia competition and the deadline is the 1st of October. I am re-writing as I go and I can smell the burning of crunching gears.

What’s your advice for re-writing?

The Writing Journal

Writing in my journal by a Norwegian lake

I have been keeping writing journals for over ten years now and recently I spent many happy hours reviewing them. The result is a list of ideas and kernels of pieces of writing which should keep me going for the next ten years!

I’ve been writing since I was 19, so I’ve had the habit of writing regularly for over thirty years. oftentimes in notebooks and/or in diaries. I didn’t commit to the idea of a writing journal until I returned to the UK after a spell working abroad for an anti-poverty non-profit. In many ways, I can see the commitment to my writing journal as also a commitment to accepting myself as a writer – rather than waiting for some kind of external ratification of me as a writer. I began to say (when asked) ‘I am a writer’. I dedicated time and space to writing and further developing my craft, even though there was little endorsement from the publishing industry.

During the last ten years I have taught creative writing (for the University of Hull) and run numerous workshops. The first thing I always encourage people to do is to start keeping a writing journal. For me, this is a special notebook. It is 15 by 21 cms, so relatively portable. It has no lines to cramp my writing into going in a particular direction or being of a particular size. The paper is relatively thick (the notebooks I use are sold as sketch books) which means I can sketch if I like, use watercolour pencils and oil pastels and stick things in without spoiling the page surfaces for writing. I date every entry. Entries might include: very personal reflections on how I am feeling or what I’ve been doing; musings on being a writer; scrappy thoughts on writing pieces to be developed; beginnings, middles, ends (in no particular order); observations on the world around me; quotes; poetry (written by others and me); images such as postcards; cuttings from newspapers and magazines; bits of information gleaned from the TV, the internet, radio, other people….

I am wedded to a writing journal and hand-writing. It works for me. I do believe there is something exceptional about ‘free writing’ – which I have written about elsewhere eg writing the therapeutic journey – done with a pen. I think it is a way of unearthing what is below the surface of conscious thought and of circumventing the many ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ which a lot of us carry around.

However, I could see for other people a writing journal might be, for example, a folder on the computer; a box file; or a filing cabinet drawer. The main thing is that it should only be used for gathering inspirations for writing, it should be added to regularly and that it should be away from prying/judging eyes.

Over time the writing journal will become a treasure trove to be mined, especially, but not only, when a writer is feeling depleted and de-motivated.

I am currently reading Deborah Levy’s essay Things I don’t Want to Know. I was charmed to find her mentioning her writing journal. She notes how descriptions she had written of the cabin crew on a LOT fight to Poland in the late 1980s ‘morphed into nurses from Odessa’ in a novel she was to write a decade later.

Nothing written in a writing journal is ever lost, it will always pop up somewhere or become a scaffold for some piece of creative work.

Which is why, whenever I am asked by someone about where to start with writing I suggest a journal. If a person can commit to writing in one of those habitually, then there is a chance they will realise their ambition of writing stories or poetry or a novel or a non-fiction book or even a series of blog posts.

What is your experiences of keeping a writing journal?

Reading & Writing Poetry: Sarah Askew

I am delighted to welcome Sarah Askew to my blog, with her poem, ‘Not A Minute’s Silence’.

Not A Minute’s Silence
A muted explosion
of stamping feet
on sticky floors.
Mouths shriek

against my ear plugs.
Ten seconds of madness
to honour the silence
of Monday’s voiceless concert-goers.

The walls shake around me,
inside me. I felt
the reverberations, the impact,
three days late.

 

Sarah explains the naissance of her poem:

I wrote this poem in response to the Manchester Arena attack in May 2017. Just a few days after the attack, my partner and I had tickets to another concert at the O2 Academy Bristol, which still went ahead despite the increased terror alerts, but with extra tight security.

So there was a highly loaded atmosphere, not to mention the incredible heat wave that had descended that Spring, and the place was packed. The walls were sweating, shoulders and elbows jabbed, and leather clad behinds refused to budge. At one point I attempted to find the bar for a drink but was soon forced to retrace my steps as I could wade no further through the immovable wall of bodies, faces invisible to me in the dark.

And then the singer, outspoken as she is, invited the crowd to take part in, not a minute’s silence, but ten seconds of madness, in memory of the victims from Manchester’s concert. They had gone out that night, she said, to have fun. We were asked to honour them, not with silence and sadness, but with noise and madness; to make up for the fun they never got to have. The band counted us down, and the foot-stomping, hand clapping, cymbal-crashing, vocal-wailing began.

I hadn’t realised quite how anxious I had been about attending the concert until I was stuck in the middle of such chaos. And then it occurred to me: what must it have been like for those people in Manchester – in Paris, in London, in the middle of any terror attack – to be in the eye of such a storm of noise and panic and confusion. The chaos surrounding me was safe, controlled, expected. Theirs had been dangerous, sudden; fatal.

And, despite the fact that I was very much in my own bubble- ear-plugs in, eyes closed, feelings (up until this point) about terrorism in general, pretty much on mute – I found that I was crying. Relief, sadness, fear, shame, all washed over and through me and I remembered why I myself had given up singing with a band just a few months before: I hate chaos.

When I reflected upon this (uncharacteristic) flood of emotions at my poetry group the following Monday, this poem arrived…

Sarah (aka The Pocket Poet) is an award-winning poet and writing for wellbeing enthusiast based in Wiltshire. She has lived with various mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and OCD for as long as she can remember and has always used writing as a therapeutic tool to promote self-awareness and self-expression. She runs writing for wellbeing workshops for groups and individuals and also offers a bespoke poetry writing service for those looking to give a personalised poem as a gift.

You can find Sarah at:
http://thepocketpoet.weebly.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ThePocketPoet

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sarahthepocketpoet/#