On the Mary Evans Picture Library’s Poems and Pictures blog today – my Mirror poem! You can find it, with its gorgeous, accompanying photograph from the Mary Evans archives, here.
The Mary Evans Picture Library is a wonderful archive of images, tucked away in a beautiful Arts and Crafts building in south east London. Every Thursday, the Poems and Pictures blog, curated by Gill Stoker, publishes a poem, old or mint new, accompanied by something from the archive. It’s absolutely gorgeous and an ideal oasis of calm for these uncertain times.
I’ve just had a chat with Jo at the Umbrella cafe and, sad news, we’ve decided that our Word of Mouth events in #Whitstable will go on hold until it’s wise to do this kind of thing again. I’ve let the writers know and we’re all together about the wisdom of this. I hope very much that when the time is right, we’ll start again as scheduled, beginning with our Raining Men event, then a celebration of artist-poets. Perhaps we could bring back our cancelled International Women’s Day event too.
Meanwhile it’s the perfect time to stockpile some poetry.
One reason I do my free writing groups is that I just love being among writers, chatting about writing and having a good old scribble/type. On Monday the Rose Lane Writers met, about eight of us, in the café of Canterbury’s Waterstones for our monthly writing get together.
People often come to writing groups because they’ve stalled or can’t get started with what they want to write. In June 2018 I discussed this with my Churchill Writers and wrote When the writing flow stops – 12 tips to keep writing. The Rose Lane chat on Monday went slightly differently.
As usual, we scribbled around our obstacles for around ten minutes, with everyone writing intensely for the allotted time. What had they come up with?
Fear was top of the list. Most of all, fear that the words would be sub-standard. That they would not live up to the deathless classic we were all born to write… I mentioned (as I always do) Joseph Grand, the civil servant in Camus’s The Plague whose way of writing a novel was to tackle his first sentence every night, rearranging clauses and sub-clauses, deleting and replacing adverbs and adjectives, but never progressing beyond that first precious sentence.
It was ‘Papa’ Hemingway who said, with characteristic clarity, that ‘all first drafts are sh*t’. The important thing with any first draft is to get it written. Forget about expecting inspiration to hand you perfect pages. Start somewhere, anywhere, and write lots and lots and keep writing. The more words you write, the more choice you have when it comes to picking your best ones. If you wait for ‘inspired’ words to arrive, you could wait your whole life.
There’s a wonderful paradox here. Give yourself permission to stop worrying how perfect your writing is and you are more likely to find really great passages flowing from your fingers. Loosening up your expectations makes your writing a happier place for you and that makes it easier for the good stuff to get to you. That is why a good session of wool-gathering or pot-holing is just as important as the day when you push your chair back and congratulate yourself on writing a page that really zings. It’s all part of the same process.
Years ago, in my drama-writing days, I had so many rejections that for a year and a half, I could barely write a shopping list and was getting thoroughly unhappy. I thought a course might help so I signed onto an Arvon course. Workshop after workshop came and went, all great stuff, but I still couldn’t get more than half a dozen words down, about anything. (Anyone who feels this fear has my sympathy.) My thanks go to dramatist Abi Morgan, tutor on the course, for dispatching me to a room on my own where I was to write without stopping for three full hours. To begin with, I dithered, swore, paced around. Then I sat back down and got on with it. I can’t say that brilliance fell onto my pages, or that the problem vanished but it was a turning point and I’m deeply grateful. These exercises might help you…
The senses exercise
Sit on your own somewhere, anywhere, with paper and pen or your favourite screen. Let yourself become aware of nothing but where you are and what your senses tell you. Scribble what you find, just for yourself.
Check your way through the five senses. Four of them are handy there on your head: eyes, nose, ears and tongue, with the fifth covering all of you as touch and feel. Scribble about what you smell, hear and so on. This is private writing with no perfectionism in sight. The only thing that matters is to keep writing and see what comes.
Are you warm or cold? Become aware of what you’re wearing and what pressures it makes on different parts of your body. Can you feel the air moving on you? Are any parts of your body tense? (I usually write in something like a sprinter’s starting position, forward on the chair, up on my toes.) What is your mood? Is it changing as you sit here?
Most of our senses are more complex than we realise day to day. Even on the most silent beach for example, we can stretch our hearing to catch a thousand sounds from far away. We can zoom in like hawks for precision as we choose.
Feel free to develop this for as long as you like. A time limit of ten minutes might feel comfortable, and it’s always surprising how much can come to us in just ten minutes. If you find you’re writing freely, keep with it as long as you have time.
This exercise can do several useful things for us:
- It helps us get into the swing of writing, gets us limber. The point is to ditch all thoughts of perfect pages and cultivate a sense that writing is fun, easy and a joyous place to be.
- It helps us to bring concentration to our writing wherever we are, however distracting and noisy it is around us. We learn to use the distraction, to concentrate on it and write about it and its detail. Then select a bit of what’s going on and let it take you into your writing world. In no time you will be writing happily in your bubble.
- This exercise can (as Proust showed us) take us on a ramble through our memories, something we can also harness for the good of our writing.
- The more we develop our ability to be aware of specific details, the better our writing will become. Really notice yourself and the effects your life has on you. If we’re excited, our heart and breathing rates increase, our stomachs might clench, and we might even start to shake. How and in what order do you feel things? Does one effect lead to the other or do they happen independently? What do you taste when you’re excited? We’re looking for unusual little things that the readers might not have noticed much but which they recognise immediately as true.
- After a few minutes, do you feel this kind of writing taking off on its own journey, that you’re writing something you never thought would come to you today, or ever? This is my favourite aspect of this relaxed writing: the more we do it, the more it can produce a sense of adventure that brings freer, better writing.
The hillside exercise
Imagine that your writing journey is like a climb in the hills. As you reach one peak, you sit and rest your eyes on the horizon and spot an even bigger peak further off. Sitting here with your writing today, you have reached a peak in your writing journey by the sheer fact of writing and learning about your craft.
Write privately for yourself about how far you’ve come. Take some time to enjoy where you are. Remember the days when writing was a longing that wouldn’t go away, maybe it was all talk but you didn’t know where to start. Sea level. Congratulate yourself on how far you’ve climbed, feel in those writing hands of yours how different you feel.
Have a look higher up the hillside at what’s next. Try to describe how that might be and how you’ll feel about it, about what climbing steps could get you there. There’s no need to push this anywhere, just see where it takes you. Emotions
List all the emotions you can think of, then choose one and write about it for ten to fifteen minutes. You can write fiction, non-fic, drama, memoir, in whatever person or tense you like, whatever works for you, with one proviso: do not name that emotion in what you write.
Rose Lane Writers
We have new dates for our writing group – always on Mondays between 10 and 12 noon: 20 April (skipping past Easter Monday), 11 May, 8 June and 13 July.
Usually from Easter I move a group on to learning tricks of the craft but we still have work to do on plot. So, our April session will be about thrillers, in May we’ll look at love stories and from June we’ll move on to aspects of our writing craft, starting with dialogue. For us writers, a day with writing in it always feels better than one without. If you would like to play with this free writing for longer, you might enjoy this page of writing prompts.
Have a happy time, everybody. May your writing soar…
I’m thrilled to have my poem Carnlough Bay accepted for inclusion in the Northern Ireland section of the Places of Poetry anthology coming up soon. The anthology draws from the fascinating Places of Poetry map co-directed by Andrew McRae and Paul Farley.
Places of Poetry … aims to use creative writing to prompt reflection on national and cultural identities in England and Wales, celebrating the diversity, heritage and personalities of place.
The map is such a great idea. Goes to show that you can think something up (just guessing here) on a rainy Sunday and months later we’re all enjoying a beautiful reality.
Carnlough is a place my parents loved. My mother painted the harbour there in her last years and the pair of them probably dropped into the Londonderry Arms across the road in the course of the day. Thanks go to Anne-Marie Fyfe: it was on a poetry course of hers in Carnlough (with Cahal Dallat) a couple of years ago that I wrote a first draft of the poem.
My Churchill Writers gave me flowers yesterday. I’m full of amazement & gratitude. What a fantastic lot they are.
We had our last session for the term in Churchill College, Cambridge yesterday. It’s a lovely chance to enjoy being together in an atmosphere where our writing selves, so often squeezed out in the rest of our lives, can flourish.
We shared out copies of our wonderful anthology – it’s even more exciting and beautifully written than I remembered – with special thanks to everyone involved in the publication, production of a stunning cover, sub-editing (that’s you, Caity Ross) and the writers themselves. You can order a copy here.
Lauren, a wonderful baker as well as a superb writer, brought us celebratory brownies which went down beautifully while we all discussed thrillers, using this blogpost of mine as our template. There’s always something new to be discovered whenever you sit down to write. During the exercise where we scribbled about our favourite thrillers, I found myself relishing not only the degree to which Endeavour (the young Morse) is an exile in his world, never quite fitting either with the police or the academic world, but also his, and Wallander‘s, capacity for naivete. Thriller detectives (whether they’re officially police or not) are usually well rounded characters with plenty of quirks. As well as a passion for justice, and courage, do we need them also to have a certain sweetness to accompany us through the dark thriller world? Holmes is not particularly sweet but Watson has it. Something to think about.
Have a happy writing Sunday.