Poems are the words that snag in the branches

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Sculpture by Giuseppe Penone at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park earlier this year.

Until January this year, I hadn’t written prose for over 18 years. Then I agreed to a  writing exchange organised by poet Fay Musselwhite, which involved writing a response to another writer’s work. The writing I chose to reply to was a prose piece about the landscape of the Fens. I produced a poem that wasn’t any good, and a piece of prose, which was better. I reread it a month later and thought it might be good enough to be published somewhere, so I sent it to Brittle Star, with a covering letter almost apologising for sending them prose, rather than some poems (they’ve published my poetry in the past). I only sent that one piece, as I didn’t have anything else. Normally I’d submit 4-6 poems, feeling that it’s only right that the editors should see a range of work from which they can choose, hopefully, the work that best fits their magazine. Happily, Brittle Star accepted that submission; it appears in the forthcoming issue.
Looking back, I’ve identified that piece of writing as a breakthrough for me. I wrote prose because I was responding to prose, certainly, but I think I was also looking for something new. Now I’ve committed myself to a target of 2 pages of writing a day, prose naturally lends itself to that. It’s much harder to do that type of target for poems; they come from a different place for me, a different process. It’s like the sculpture of Giuseppe Penone above. Poems are the words that snag in the branches, whereas prose is the tree – it starts from the solid trunk and spreads out. This is a very subjective definition, I know, but sticking to two pages a day I feel I can follow a branch to its tip, then return to the trunk and follow another branch, and so the writing grows. Another thing I’ve begun to realise is that the short story, as a form, probably won’t hold everything I want to say. So, I’ve had to admit to myself that I’m working on a novel. This isn’t intentional. It’s just sort of crept up on me. However, I’m going to do my best to see it through – so if my posts become a bit more sporadic you know why. In the meantime, the poetry is more or less on hold, although I do have work that was written last year that I’ve sent out and am awaiting a reply. It’s in the hands of those tireless editors of small press magazines who value what’s being written in the margins and keep the word-flame alive. Hats off to them all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Enjoy the puzzleness of the maze

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Phlegm – Mausoleum of the Giants

I’ve stuck to my 2 A5 pages of writing for a few weeks now and it’s interesting how it’s changing what I write. I’ve now got a fair number of pages – although I’ve set a 2 page target, I invariably write more. However, what I’m writing is prose, not poetry, and what’s more, the pieces are starting to link together. Or rather, I’m seeing links and exploiting them.

I didn’t set out to write prose, but I seem to be in the grip of something bigger than I’d anticipated. Eric Maisel says you can’t work freely, because the work you mean to create has already begun as soon as you’ve thought it: ‘That you have this idea means that you’ve been working already, that you’ve started, that this idea has a life of its own.’ Eric Maisel, Fearless Creating).

A couple of months ago I queued for over two hours on a Sunday afternoon to see the Mausoleum of Giants’ exhibition by Phlegm. It was well worth the wait. The photograph above gives a flavour of the world Phlegm creates in his installations and murals. I want to create a world in my writing. I’ve never had this impulse with poetry. Writing poetry encourages me to look at things in a new way, but writing prose demands that I create a place, a world, which the writing will somehow inhabit. If this sounds confusing, it’s because that’s how it feels.

Maisel compares this stage in writing to starting in a maze. It’s not just that you are lost, but that you are confined or constrained by your personality, your history and by the idea itself (the work that you can sense taking shape). These, in effect, are the hedges you can’t see over. To summarise, Maisel offers three ways of negotiating the maze: listen for clues, move forward along a path even if it turns out you’ve taken a wrong turn (you can always choose another path later) and finally, ‘enjoy the puzzleness of the maze‘.
This is where I see myself at the moment, moving through a maze, confused at times, anxious about where all this writing is taking me, but also elated to be engaged in the work, creating a new world, choosing my direction, fathoming how and where the pieces fit, and above all enjoying the ‘puzzleness’ of it.

Fearless Creating by Eric Maisel (Tarcher/ Putnam 1995)

 

 

3 random words …

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No, expertise and creativity aren’t among the random words!
This is a screen shot from a TED Talk by Balder Onarheim entitled 3 tools to become more creative. The dotted line on the graph represents 10,000 hours, which is the amount of time it is supposed to take to acquire expertise. What the graph shows is that creativity progresses alongside expertise, but just before you reach that magic 10,000 hours mark your creativity starts going down. To paraphrase Onarheim, it seems there’s something valuable about not knowing too much within your area of expertise that serves to keep you creative.
When I heard this, it clarified something for me, which is that when I go to a writing workshop these days, I don’t always feel the same energy behind my writing as I used to. I find myself somehow second-guessing not only the exercises but also my written responses to them. This is in no way a reflection on the tutors. It’s my brain thinking it knows what to do – and on one level, it does, but I don’t want this ‘thinking’ brain to get in the way. It’s for this reason that I’ve been trying to stick to producing 2 pages a day, to try to override the ‘thinking’ brain.
In his TED talk, Onarheim suggests 3 methods for becoming more creative. You can watch the whole talk to see what they are, but I really like this one. It’s a very simple idea: come up with 3 random words every day when you’re brushing your teeth. You might notice some link between the words and your surroundings. The aim is to become quicker and more random (I mean more abstract really) because you’re trying to override your associative limitations.
I’ve tried various versions of this, including writing the words in my notebook, which  creates a strange word bank I can tap into when I sit down to write my 2 pages. Looking back over this week, I have: SOCKET, LATHER, ANVIL and PLASMA, ARBITRARY, MOOD. I’ve also started to extend the lists to 6 words. I’m not that quick, but it’s an exercise that’s supposed to be done daily, so I’m interested to see if I can actually improve my speed. I also want to see how these words might find their way into my writing, or shift it in a new direction. Who knows where it might lead?

 

The result is what you see today

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Here’s a quick plug for this forthcoming anthology from The Poetry Business. I’m so happy to have a poem in it, but I also have a confession to make: I very nearly didn’t submit any poems. Oh, the reasons for not sending work out were endless: I don’t run, I don’t write about running, I haven’t been writing enough poetry lately, I have work but it’s not good enough, etc. I could go on.
Most of the time, I respect my inner critic. I have a lot of bad poems on file and that is where they should stay. However, it’s a fine line between filtering out what works and what doesn’t before submitting, versus holding back from sending work out at all because you fear it isn’t good enough. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron has some ‘Rules for the Road’ for the artist to follow, one being ‘Remember that it is my job to do the work, not to judge the work‘. I like this because it cuts to the chase. It’s so easy to waste time evaluating your own writing, time that could be much better spent on new writing or some other form of creative discovery that will enhance future work. Moving forwards is  vitally important. So, listen out for that voice that wants you to weigh every word and then tells you it’s not quite good enough; when you hear it, ignore it.  Send the work out anyway and let someone else be the judge.

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (Tarcher/Putnam, 2002, f.pub. 1992)

 

 

 

 

 

Every picture …

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The MeetFactory, Prague

Earlier this week, 3am magazine published three of my redacted poems, which meant I was on cloud nine for a day or two. They’d accepted them a while back but I wasn’t sure what their schedule was, so I’d forgotten about them. You can find them on the Poem Brut section of the magazine. Then yesterday I went to the Sheaf Poetry Festival and felt very humble listening to some fantastic poetry (including some exciting  new voices). There’s something about a live reading that really affects the way you respond to a poem. John Hegarty says that with storytelling, ‘our very physicality helps deepen our and others’ responses to it‘. It’s the same with poetry; a live reading creates a special tension and energy.
I’ve chosen a photograph I took outside the MeetFactory (above) for this post because it occurred to me that so much of our understanding depends on how we ‘hear’ a text. We all carry our own interpretational ‘freight’. Think about that saying, every picture tells a story. You might look at the car hanging from the building and think of a story set in a scrap yard, or the aftermath of a flood, or maybe you’d go for a dystopian future where cars hanging from buildings is the new normal, or you’d push further for the big idea, such as hanging cars as a symbol of the failure of capitalism. I like the potential for meaning that pictures and words carry. And after all those poems yesterday, I came away feeling excited, not just about what I’d heard, but the space it opened up for what is still to be said, because for every story that’s told, every poem that you hear, there are as many others that remain hidden, even unimagined, until you sit down to write them.
Since I’ve been doing my personal challenge of 2 pages a day, I’ve noticed a very fragmented narrative starting to emerge (so much so that I’ve labelled the file A Short Story until something more fitting comes into my head). Attending the Sheaf Poetry Festival gave me some new ideas and prompts, and other avenues to explore.  It was great to have that sort of experience, where you arrive thinking one thing (which is always what you know, and by extension, what comforts you and makes you feel safe) and then you leave at the end of a long day, full of questions that you want answering and eager to explore them in your writing.  So, here’s to more festivals in the future (the Sheaf festival programme runs until 26th May so there’s still time to participate).

Hegarty on Creativity: There Are No Rules (John Hegarty, Thames and Hudson, 2014)

 

Systematically derange the language

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Burnt Breakfast by Su Richardson

Sticking to my two pages a day has so far proved a good discipline. To avoid the writing becoming stale and cliched, and also to keep me interested in the ‘doing’ of it, I’ve drawn inspiration from Bernadette Mayer’s list of prompts. I came across these on Trish Hopkinson’s website (there’s a wealth of links for writing prompts on there). The one that has really inspired me is ‘systematically derange the language’. Mayer goes on to suggest that you try writing ‘a work consisting only of prepositional phrases, or, add a gerund to every line of an already existing work‘. I’ve often cut words ending with ‘ing’ from my writing. Now I’m cramming them in! The writing I’m producing is prose though, rather than poetry; somehow there seems to be more room to play around with ‘ing’ words in prose. I’ve also noticed that I’m inventing a cast of characters as I write, which is more usually a feature of prose too. I’m not going to try to categorise the writing any further than this. It’s very much fragments at the moment, but I’m hoping that they will add up to something meaningful and fresh.

I also attended a writing workshop run by poet Suzannah Evans yesterday at the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield. The exhibition is entitled ‘This Life is so Everyday: The Home in British Art 1950 – 1980′ and it was a great  for me to be able to develop some of the ideas I’ve had while writing my two pages a day into something more substantial (although still episodic). If you’re able to get along to that exhibition, I’m sure you’ll find it sparks some ideas. If not, browse Bernadette Mayer’s prompts (and journal ideas) and see where they take you. So, until next week, happy writing! 

 

 

No excuses

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Taken at the Dox Arts Centre, Prague

I’ve been ruthless this week, in a way that feels quite alien to me. I’ve shelved so many jobs in order to stick to my goal of writing two (yes, just two) pages of my notebook every day. The things I’ve put to one side include reading (poetry and prose, weekend supplements) making art/ collages, cleaning the bathroom, weeding the garden (although the weather was against me on this week). Still, you get the picture. What’s interesting is that because my target is quite low, in terms of word count, I’ve exceeded it nearly every day. This has been really positive. It’s given me that ‘Can do’ feeling, and made me keen to carry on, so much so that yesterday I treated myself to a new notebook, in anticipation of finishing the current one. I’ve stuck to A5 so I can keep the momentum – there’s something about turning the page that makes me feel I’m being more productive.
Writing is important to me, and I’ve said for a while now that I’ve embraced distractions as a way of feeding the work, but the bottom line is, if you’re not setting aside time to do the work, then anything you’ve gleaned from these distractions isn’t being given a fair chance to flourish into something new on the page. So, instead of finding excuses (or allowing the distractions to take over) I’m concentrating on finding ways to fit my writing into what seems, at times, an impossibly short day.
Of course, I realise that there will be some weeks where I can’t be as productive as I’ve been this week. Natalie Goldberg suggests this:

Make a writing schedule for the week and stick to it. Be realistic. “Okay, this is a hard week. I’ll only write twice for fifteen minutes …”
Each week for a full month, make a schedule and see how it goes …

Even if your writing isn’t completely present during these sessions, it cuts through a lot of anxiety and neuroses finally just to do it.’   (Natalie Goldberg, Wild Mind: living the writer’s life, Rider, 1991)

With this in mind, I’m already planning ahead, putting gaps in my writing calendar where we’re out for the evening or away for the weekend. I feel nervous about doing this for a month though, because what if I don’t stick to it? What if I let myself down?
I suppose there will always be this tension, and in a way there needs to be in order to create anything worthwhile.
By the way, in case you were wondering, Zig Ziglar was a salesman, not an artist, but he made his name as a motivational speaker. So, find a way to do your writing this week. No excuses!