Tag Archives: Writing Exercises

Guest Post: Delighting in Notebooks by Glynis Charlton

How many notebooks do you have? Not the irresistible ones you’ve stroked in arty places and found yourself buying, only to leave them untouched because they were ‘too nice.’ No, I’m talking about the partially filled, slightly dog-eared variety, with random notes tucked inside, the ones you’ve promised yourself you’ll go back to?

 

I can’t tell you how many I have. Not because I’m being super-secretive, but because I stopped counting a long time ago. The answer would be embarrassing.

For a time, they lived in a big blue plastic box, then they began to nudge the lid open, so the others got piled up on top, until the pile was so precarious I was in danger of needing to invest in box number two. But would that be an investment? Surely it would be akin to procrastination and, as I know only too well, I don’t need to hone my skills in that department.

What needed to be done, I decided, was to attack each notebook in turn. Type stuff up, put it into orderly digital categories, use some kind of code or sticker in the notebook to show what had been dealt with. This would then allow me – ooh, two or three months down the line – to select various drafts from the orderly files on my laptop, refine pieces that particularly called to me, and submit them to appropriate places from an impeccable spreadsheet based on focussed research. That was three years ago.

Don’t get me wrong – I did make a start (thanks to a boring tale involving medication that gives me a bonus half hour before breakfast). But it was just taking too long. I was, as my mother always loved to tell me, ‘at the back of the queue when they were handing out patience.’ I grew dispirited, annoyed with myself. At this rate, it could take me years to type everything up before I even began to develop or edit any of it. There was an amalgamation of pieces drafted in cafés, on trains, planes, at Lapidus days, workshops, masterclasses, and yes – for goodness’ sake – even during residential weeks at Arvon. All just sitting there.

I don’t help myself by being fickle. Poetry? Ooh yes, I’ll take that piece I started at Simon Armitage’s masterclass, craft it until it’s as good as I can get. Or maybe I could try my hand at a radio script? I did go on that workshop run by Rachel Joyce, two or three years ago, I wrote that thing about someone in an accident … or maybe it was a hospital?

Inevitably, I reached the point, over porridge one morning, where I decided this bonus half hour would probably be much better spent working on The Novel (two, to be exact, but the first one makes me cringe). So, the notebooks were shelved for a while – literally – and out came the novel again. But that took so long to get my head back into it that I ended up doing neither. Instead, I reassured myself, oh so easily, that half an hour’s reading before breakfast would ‘inform’ my own writing, which of course was true up to a point. But actually, the real informing to be done was from Procrastinating Me to Writer Me. Now here’s a radical idea, I told myself, have you noticed there are actually another 23.5 hours in each day? I know, I know, said the other one, but take Leonardo da Vinci … I mean, he had treatise after treatise he never got round to writing up, all those fountains and statues never built. But he was Leonardo, Glynis: look what he did do. OK, fair point.

Plan B – or C or D or whatever it is by now – is to go through each notebook as originally planned, but this time just type up the pieces that really pull me. The ones where I’ve put a big tick by the side or scrawled ‘do something with this.’

Meanwhile, I’ve discovered Tim Clare’s online Couch to 80K Bootcamp, so I make sure I do at least one of his short exercises every day. Why do we find it so much easier when it’s someone other than ourselves urging us to spend just ten minutes to do something that, let’s be honest, we actually enjoy doing once we get down to it?

I find setting a timer works. So too does shutting the rest of the notebooks out of site and being systematic. OK, so you’re not a great Renaissance genius, but you might just find a tiny nugget in that wobbling pile of notebooks that’s worth sharing.

 

Glynis Charlton [www.glynischarlton.com] is a poet and fiction writer whose work has been published in several anthologies. Her poetry was Highly Commended for the Bridport Prize 2016 and she is currently working on two novels. Glynis has also scripted a film short, screened at Leeds International Film Festival, and another screened on BBC1. She works freelance and has been running workshops in Yorkshire for many years and also runs an autumn writing retreat on a tiny Italian island [www.italianwritingretreat.org]

 

 

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.

A Writer’s Toolkit: Getting Started

However much I ignore it, the New Year does bring with it the idea of new possibilities and opportunities. It feels like a time to reassess, perhaps, and try new things. Maybe it is the moment to start or re-invigorate your writing?

This year, I plan to do a series of posts called A Writer’s Toolbox which aims to give anyone the impetus to get on with the writing they want to do. These posts will be interspersed by my usual musings on being a writer, plus some posts by guests. I have some exciting ones already lined up. But if you are a writer and would like to contribute a post, please do get in touch. There’s no money, no glory and it won’t change your life, however, if you would like to give it a whirl, email me on kateevans@tinyonline.co.uk

Igniting or re-igniting the spark
At the risk of sounding un-empathic, it sometimes bemuses me when people tell me they want to write. I wonder why they are not doing it. On the face of it, writing is one of the easiest creative arts to ease into. There’s no need for any special equipment or even much space. If you can put one word in front of another down on paper, then you can write.

So if you want to write, and you are not doing so, then the first question to ask yourself is what is getting in the way of me writing? Perhaps spending ten minutes writing about this should be your first piece of writing. Over years of writing, running writing workshops and being around writers, the general things which get in the way of writing are:

  •     Finding the time within your life. To start with it doesn’t have to be a lot, perhaps as little as ten minutes a week. But, like doing anything, it’s about carving out the space to focus on what you want to do.
  •      Other pressures, such as earning money or looking after children/other family members. This is obviously a tough one, but needs to be negotiated and balances and boundaries found.
  •       Giving yourself permission. Sometimes it is ourselves which get in the way. Negative thoughts such as: ‘I’m not good enough’; ‘what’s the point in this?’ ‘Everyone will laugh at me.’ My advice is, as far as possible, don’t get too hung up on the why or the end product or on what you might imagine other people thinking and saying. Writing is first and foremost a pleasure for ourselves. If it becomes something else – something to share with an audience, for instance – that is a bonus. It is not necessary to start out with the idea of what you are going to write. The first exercise is to put one word down on the paper and then another while setting your critical voice(s) to one side. It can be a struggle. So don’t beat yourself up if at first you don’t succeed.
  •       What is your motivation? If it’s to make money, then these posts are not for you. If it’s to explore your world through writing and develop your creativity, then read on.

My writing journals

Getting Started
Buy a writing journal, this is a pad of paper or notebook which you will only use for writing creatively in and no-one else will use or look at. Personally I prefer something with strong paper, a decent cover and no lines. Make sure you have some pens. Decide on an achievable amount of time that you can put aside for writing and write a positive statement in the front of your journal: ‘I will spend xx minutes writing every xx.’

Take a walk, preferably somewhere green and open. Sit down for ten minutes and write as freely as you can. Do this on a regular basis.

Begin to collect inspirational prompts eg postcards, images of different kinds, snippets from the paper, music, pebbles, buttons, scraps of material, flowers, herbs, small objects…. Take one of these up, examine it, and write for ten minutes as freely as you can.

After each ten minutes, close your writing journal. Do not re-read. Do not critique. Leave what you have written to ferment and marinade.

As far as possible, keep to a schedule of these ten minute ‘sprints’ from prompts (such as a walk or an object or an image or a piece of music) for a month. Then review. Is there anything in what you have written you feel particularly fond of? Then underline it. Was there a particular prompt which worked better than others? Perhaps use this more often.

Continue with a similar schedule for another month and review again. By this time, you may be getting a clearer idea of something you want to develop further. Or perhaps not. If not, continue with the sprints until something emerges.

NB: writing in short uncritiqued sprints from a prompt to get started in writing is a method used by many writer. I first came across it in ‘Writing as a Way of Healing’ by Louise DeSalvo and ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron.

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.

 

Writing the therapeutic journey #8: the yoga of writing

The Nab from the veranda at Barmoor

I have just returned from facilitating some writing sessions during a yoga retreat. I have been very fortunate to be a part of three of these retreats run by the Little Yoga Company (http://www.littleyogacompany.co.uk/) and held at the wonderful Barmoor centre on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors (http://www.barmoor.org.uk/).

During my sessions, I invite participants to explore: free writing and whole body writing. I have written a lot about free writing (most recently: https://goo.gl/5exuRx) so I thought I would focus on my ideas around whole body writing.

We often think about writing as a very cerebral activity, but I think if we ignore the part our body has in the process, then we miss out on a lot. The word yoga comes from the Sanscrit word for ‘union’. And what I want to encourage is a union of mind and body in writing, along with a union of self with the universe through the natural world.

I wrote this following the retreat in the Spring: ‘The body has knowledge which the mind has not accepted or is unaware of, bringing that knowledge to the writing hand and onto the paper allows the mind to consider it. This knowledge stored in our body can bring us closer to a more authentic and enriched sense of self.’

The idea that the body stores information is not new, look, for instance, at the work of Babette Rothschild and Kim Etherington. There is some research evidence which suggests emotional response begins in the body and then is given a name by the brain. Whether we are writing for our own well-being or for an audience, tapping into the font of knowing which resides in our body can be useful.

Participants on a yoga retreat are already primed to being aware of what is going on in their bodies. To enhance this, I often start my writing session with a simple body scan. It’s easier to do this standing up with eyes closed, so the focus goes inwards. Take some breaths, then draw your attention to your feet and make sure you are safely rooted to the ground and balanced, perhaps imagining yourself as a tree, your toes delving into soil. Begin to bring your focus up your body, slowly, while still maintaining a steady breath, letting your mind’s eye explore your body internally, perhaps particularly areas where there is tension or pain. Once you have reached the crown of your head, rest for a moment before descending your attention gently and slowly back down to your rooted feet again. Open your eyes. Focus on the first thing you see (if you can do this outside or in front of a window looking out onto some nature, all the better). Sit down and free write for five minutes.

Tree in Autumn colours at Barmoor

It is also interesting to write noticing what is happening in your body. Again do some free writing, perhaps using the prompt of, for example, a pebble or the view of a tree (something in nature). As you write, have a part of your attention on how your body is. Do you grip the pen? Do you draw tension in at certain times? What’s going on in your shoulders? In your back? Are parts of your body askew or wound round each other as you sit?

You might like to reflect back on the results of this focus while writing. See post: https://goo.gl/sucyDu 

I do not know where this exploration of whole body writing will take you. However, it may open up some memories or give some meaning or understanding to a particular health issue. It may help you to define some needs or desires which are not currently being attended to. If you are writing for an audience, it may make your descriptions of emotions and your characterisation more rounded. It may encourage something else entirely to surface. The main thing is to remain open and curious, noticing and kind. See https://goo.gl/a6Wp7e

This is what I wrote following the retreat in May:
Unloosen
the potentials and ‘also’s
in every season of life.

I would like to thank and acknowledge my friend Lesley Glover for the discussions we have had which have helped me formulate these ideas. See her website at: https://lesley-glover.co.uk/

Have you experience of yoga and writing you would like to share?

 

Nourishing the Creative Soul

As a writer I find that I must take time to nourish my creative spirit. Julia Cameron in her excellent book The Artist’s Way talks about this too. She suggests ‘artist’s dates’ which we take by ourselves to top up our creativity, visits to, for instance, art galleries, the theatre, festivals…

This weekend I went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (https://ysp.org.uk/) What a wonderful place this is. This was my third visit and I sometimes feel I could move in there! As I wandered around, I discussed with my companion (OK I didn’t follow Cameron’s stricture of going alone) the sculptural beauty of the nature around us as opposed to the sculpture created by humans. The trees in particular were looking especially wondrous. I often think this with my writing, why should I try to capture in my paltry words what mother earth creates with truly staggering and startling abundance? In the end, I came up with the suggestion that what we artists and writers are trying to do is add a layer of meaning or story-telling beyond the realism.

We also deliberated over why artists feel the need to share their work, especially when, frequently, the expression is so personal. I have often thought that my need to publish is narcissistic, egotistically and possibly pathological. However, on Saturday, I realised that to share is a human trait; it forms bonds, societal boundaries, empathy. Sharing is (at its best) the glue which sticks us all together. It gave me a modicum of relief from my worries over the balance of my wits.

I am very lucky because next Sunday I will also be gaining food for thought and, hopefully, soul by attending Hull Noir https://www.hullnoir.com/ I am only able to go on that one day – the festival runs over the weekend of the 18th/19th November, and there are events in the preceding week as well – but the panels look as if they will stimulating. The subjects being ranged over include: the golden age Vs digital age; freedom, oppression & control; unusual settings; and unlikeable protagonists.

Hope to see you there!

 

Photos copyright Mark Vesey 2017