A Tutor Like No Other

Throughout the ten years I’ve been writing, there has been one figure almost constant throughout: a man called Eddie Small.

I learnt of his death a few weeks ago, and his passing has left a gaping hole in the Dundee literary scene. He would always appear at poetry events to support writers or to read himself. One of his strengths was that he would chat and joke with anybody and everybody.

In this way, he would encourage people to improve themselves. He worked with a pal of mine who had a terrible fear of public speaking; so much so that she once ran offstage mid-reading. With his intervention and patience, she was eventually able to read her work in front of a theatre audience.

I, meanwhile, love the limelight. When an actor couldn’t perform in his play The Four Marys, about four local figures who shared a forename, he thought of me and offered me a small part.

I last met Eddie in January of this year, talking about his latest book To Bodies Gone, celebrating 130 years of Anatomy at the university.

Indeed, he was very open to talking about death and encouraged others to do the same. On one memorable occasion, he somehow managed to arrange for my classmates and me – English students, not medical ones – to visit the medical school mortuary. I recall it was rather life-affirming.

As his passing was so sudden, it’s been hard to take in. It’ll be a long time before I turn up at an event and don’t expect to hear him roping someone into one of his many projects.

Almost a Live Show

Regular readers will know that I run an open-mike evening called Hotchpotch, where members can come along either to read a poem or simply to listen to others. However, we haven’t been able to run in its classic form since March because of restrictions on live events.

So far, we’ve been using YouTube as a substitute, and posting members’ readings to our channel. However, we’re holding a one-off event called Hotchpotch Presents… next week.

For this, we’re moving to Zoom, and the most notable difference is that the line-up is advertised in advance, not comprised of those who turn up on the night. We have 11 performers ready to perform seven minutes each, and they’ll be introducing each other to keep the flow.

We have experience of this format before, having trialled it as a live show in April 2019 at the Rep theatre in Dundee. There was quite the vibe that night, and I do hope we’re able to channel for this second airing of Hotchpotch Presents… on Monday 19 October.

Makey-Uppie Stories

One of my favourite Twitter users is the Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards. This account is dedicated to picking out tall tales and outrageous claims from social media users.

The best way to gauge the style is by reading a number of posts. After a while, you might begin to spot some common elements:

  • The story is usually heard second-hand from a friend or relative, or witnessed by the writer, although some accounts are first-hand.
  • The setting is usually a crowded public place such as a supermarket or a gym.
  • Stories often feature a child aged under 10 who speaks more articulately than would be expected from that age range.
  • In an argument with a member of staff, a manager will sometimes intervene; the member of staff is usually fired on the spot.
  • The story rounds off with a report of spontaneous cheering from the crowd.

The winner of the award in 2018 is a textbook example.

And yet, when we read an autobiography, there is usually an understanding that the events don’t take place quite as presented. Sometimes events are merged, or timelines become elastic, or the wording implies that something else really happened.

The difference between this type of writing and a Didn’t Happen award nominee is that the author has taken care to ensure that the events are at least consistent with generally accepted behaviour. How often have you seen a member of staff lose their job in front of customers, or heard an entire cafe cheer at someone else’s conversation? Probably never, and certainly not at the same time.

And with some authors, the story is so good that readers don’t care whether or not they’re being deceived. Try starting with these rock-star memoirs and make up your own mind.

Local Motion

If there’s one activity that unites writers other than producing words, it’s a tendency to go for long walks, an endeavour that seems to help organise the thoughts. I aim for 21,000 steps every day – a 20,000 target, plus a 1,000 margin of error – so I’m on my feet for a lot of the time.

Over the last few months, I’ve been catching up with a podcast on my walks. it started five years ago, so it’s been quite amusing recently, as the hosts and guests lay out their plans for 2020, assuming live gigs and workshops would be going ahead as normal.

I’m now only about six months behind, but I’m finally feeling the fatigue of consuming so many episodes on the trot. I’ve therefore made a conscious decision to ease up on my listening for the moment, and I’ll catch up when I’m ready to dive back in.

Now I’m back to using the time to organise my thoughts – just like I used to – and it’s helping me produce more work. Long may that continue, even when I start my podcast again.

For instance, I wanted to write a piece for my poetry group to include in a pamphlet, but I couldn’t strike the right tone. After a few walks, I managed to sort it out and make a submission.

I’m Apparantly Building Quite the Voluminous Vocabulary

Although I don’t generally have a problem with spelling or grammar, I like to use Grammarly software as a double-check. It’s especially useful in a browser, which tends only to have basic correction functionality.

Every week, I receive an e-mail with some statistics about my writing. This week, I was advised I have a voluminous vocabulary. Let’s take a look at what that means:

  • You were more productive than 85% of Grammarly users.
  • You were more accurate than 78% of Grammarly users.
  • You used more unique words than 86% of Grammarly users.

So far, we’re onto a winner. Reading on, here are the tones it’s detected in my writing and the percentage of the time I’ve used them.

  • Informative: 20%
  • Informal: 16%
  • Joyful: 13%
  • Appreciative: 12%
  • Formal: 9%
  • Friendly: 7%
  • Neutral: 7%

And the number of words checked since 18 Jan 2017?

1,033,593

Now let’s see the weaknesses:

  1. Missing period: 16 alerts
  2. Missing closing punctuation: 16 alerts
  3. Missing comma in compound sentence: 13 alerts

The is where Grammarly and I disagree most. I like to use an Oxford comma and the software doesn’t. And fet it would like me to use them before and after ‘therefore’, whereas I think that slows down the sentence unnecessarily.

The purpose of these e-mails is not merely informative, but to encourage me to upgrade from the basic package. I used to subscribe to the Premium servies, but I find it has more features than I need.

But if spelling and grammar is your sticking point, or you’re worried about accidental plagarism, it’s definitely worth subscribing.

Repetitive Strain Recovery

It was around the time of the 2014 Commonwealth Games when I really started notice the strain in my fingers. It had started off weeks before as a pain in the middle finger of the hand I used to click a computer mouse, but as I was writing humorous commentary about the opening ceremony to online friends, it was difficult to keep going.

The cause was obvious. I had a job where I was typing for most of the day, and I was using a computer outside of working hours. As such, something had to change before my fingers dropped off and I couldn’t write any stories or poems.

One practical adjustment I could make at work was to apply for a roller mouse. The roller is in a fixed place, and it can be controlled with different parts of your hand to avoid straining one place. I’d already been using AutoCorrect to save keystrokes when entering common phrases and jargon.

Outside of work, however, there was more freedom. I started to write my first drafts by hand, making use of the lined pages in my diary. To type up the second draft, I learnt how to use voice recognition. Used properly, speech-to-text software has a good level of accuracy even out of the box, but it’s important to exercise patience while it learns the way you speak.

Furthermore, I found that lifting free weights at the gym relieved the pain in my fingers temporarily. As I usually go at lunchtime, this helped me out in the afternoons.

This year, I’ve realised that by making these changes, I can now type for much longer without my hands hurting. However, I still keep my other measures in place as I don’t want another five or six years of beating RSI again.

It Would be Clichéd to Use the Title ‘Poetry In Motion’, so I Shan’t.

One of the best-known verses in the English language is I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, written more than 200 years ago. I can hardly compare myself to William Wordsworth, but a couple of days ago, I took my own walk with the aim of writing poetry.

Since 2017, I’ve been a member of the Wyverns poetry group, which has been meeting by e-mail rather than in person for most of the year. There are, of course, better solutions than e-mail, but that’s the way we’re stuck with for the moment. As such, I’d missed the theme for this month and I didn’t have much time to write it.

So I headed up the Law Hill in Dundee with the intention of writing in the forms of a tricube and a ghazal. Unsurprisingly, at 572 feet above sea level, the poems ended up being about a hill.

The connection between walking and writing has been known for centuries, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Wordsworth was so gushing about his daffodils.

And yet the other classic piece of advice to writers is the very opposite of going for a walk: to keep a pen and paper by your bed for ideas. Apparantly, the limboland between waking and sleeping is a good place for them to materialise, but that doesn’t work for me.

I need to be moving around, pencil and paper at the ready, just in case I spot golden daffodils.

Concerning Cringeworthy Competition Clangers

Many times before, I’ve talked about submitting prose and poetry to publishers and competitions. I haven’t submitted anything for a while because I’ve been working on longer-form pieces.

But I was taken back to those days last week after reading a post from the point of view of a poetry competition judge.

It’s a largely personal list, but the more I looked down the list, the more I nodded at what John McCullough was saying: the difficulty of reading a handwriting font, poets covering the same old topics, and disappointing last lines. He adds that there are non-winners who have still moved him in some way, poets who successfully connect two unrelated concepts, and how he reads each entry twice at different times to give a fair hearing to every entrant.

When I was submitting regularly, I always preferred doing so to publishers rather than competitions, with a few select exceptions like New Writing Scotland. There’s almost never a fee to pay, they usually reply to you even if it’s a rejection, and the rules for entries are often simpler. In fact, I was left baffled by a few smaller competitions with rules that were difficult to interpret or were even self-contradictory.

Still, as someone who has dealt with the public for many years, I’ve seen how people have a tendency to ignore or make up rules on a selective basis, and it rarely leaves a good impression on the receiving party.

So when the rules tell you to use Times New Roman, don’t resort to the aforementioned handwriting font, even if you think it looks nicer. Certain topics might also be wanted or not wanted, so don’t be tempted to send an inappropriate piece ‘just in case they like it’; it’ll only signal that you haven’t followed the requirements.

There’s no formula for winning a writing competition, but there are plenty of avoidable ways to lose one.

The Long and the Short of It

Back in May, I mentioned I’d been taking drawing lessons from Ana Hine on Patreon. The lessons are still going on, and I’m slowly learning different techniques to use in my work.

Parallel to this, I’ve been taking part in online life drawing classes. At the beginning, the model poses for three minutes as a warmup exercise before moving onto 10- and 20-minute poses.

I felt defeated before I’d even started: three minutes simply wasn’t long enough for me to make a decent attempt. That’s about as long as it takes to read this post twice over, according to http://readtime.eu/. What’s more, I spoke to artists who not only liked these short poses, but sometimes preferred them.

But then I began to make a comparison with the poetry I write, specifically the clerihew form. I’ve written these for so long that it’s now relatively simple to pen an original one on the spot. For instance, my personal trainer asks me to send a food and exercise report every evening, and I always include one with the e-mail.

I reasoned that if these three-minute poses were as simple to some artists as clerihews are to me, then there must be some value in persisting with them.

With Ana’s help, I’ve been drawing people passing in the street or sketching characters from a film without pressing Pause. One day, I aim to churn these out as quickly as those clerihews.

Don’t Scare the Newbies

In her autobiography Sex and Shopping, the novelist Judith Krantz talks about a professor from her college days. In the anecdote, he’d reduced her grade from an A to a B on account of her spelling. That incident put her off writing for more than 30 years.

Rationally, it seems like an overreaction: one comment by one person on one day set her career back three decades. Yet negativity is a powerful weapon.

Some years ago, I had a job where I spoke to the public by phone for 37 hours a week. On any given day, the interactions that I remembered most vividly were not from the friendly and co-operative callers, but from the rude and obstructive ones. And it works in reverse: one disrespectful sales assistant on one day can mean a shop losing a customer.

There is research to suggest that it takes five positive events to cancel out a negative one. In the case of Krantz, she was also of college age at the time and therefore in learning mode, so it’s likely she would have taken this more personally than if she’d already been producing work.

Last week, a friend finally showed me some of her poetry after we’d talked about it for weeks. She hadn’t shown anyone before, so I’d promised to take it seriously and to provide constructive feedback.

Dismissing someone’s work without good reason is at best unproductive and at worst unprofessional. If a writer hasn’t received feedback before, how can they improve? I’ve never seen a piece that couldn’t be improved by restructuring the narrative or removing words.

After our discussion, I hope the aforementioned friend will feel encouraged to show future work to me and to others.