A Short Piece About Short Pieces

Ten years ago next month, I joined my first writing class with the author Zoe Venditozzi.

In each lesson, she would give us a prompt, which might comprise a sentence, a few words or even a photograph. We’d then have five or ten minutes to write a paragraph or a passage inspired by it, sometimes with extra restrictions like using a particular viewpoint or writing a certain number of words. Many actors take improv classes to hone their skills, and this was the writers’ equivalent.

Since then, I’ve built up a considerable volume of short pieces, many of which have been revised over the years, but nothing that forms a larger cohesive work on a single theme.

Some time ago, I wanted to change this, and add some longer-form pieces to my archives. These turned into stage plays: one is ready to go, the other needs to be redrafted. I also have in mind a radio play that is mapped out but needs to be written.

Now, I’m ready to go back and write shorter pieces. I’m in a poetry monthly group that keeps me focussed on producing work for the next meeting, and I wrote another original poem for the purposes of performing to a virtual audience yesterday.

Along with this, I also need to return to the habit of responding to publishers’ requests for pieces. I used to aim to send an average of one a week, and that still seems like a manageable target.

Starting from the Bottom

I attended my first writing class in 2011. On a Saturday morning, we would meet in a craft shop.

For two hours, with a cup of tea in the middle, the leader would give us exercises to complete. She might provide a sentence, or five randomly-chosen words, or even a photograph. Our challenge was to write a passage inspired by that prompt and share it with the group. It’s understood that this is a draft, not a finished product.

Over the next few years, our class moved from the craft shop to different cafes in town. At one point, we were even able to use a private dining room in a four-star hotel.

The type of exercises, however, remained similar: here’s a prompt, go and pen something. It’s a format I enjoy because it encourages the writer to make decisions and solve problems quickly. I think this has made me a better writer, just as actors take part in improv classes to help their skills along.

I’ve recently taken the opportunity to revisit this type of practice. Under the banner Poetry in Turbulent Times, Imogen Stirling is running a weekly class via Zoom.

One particular area of focus is a concept I knew little about: the kenning, using two words where only one would normally appear. The run is currently scheduled for four weeks, but if it’s extended, I’m interested in still taking part.

Even though I’ve now had nearly a decade of experience since 2011, I find I’m still being challenged almost as much as when I was a beginner.

Keep on Moving

When I started writing, I needed to go to a class to begin any stories. When someone gives you five minutes to write a passage containing the words stapler, Wednesday and aquiline, it starts the creative process in a way that sitting alone with a blank page doesn’t.

I can’t remember exactly when I began to write pieces without any prompting, but it was around then that I felt more comfortable calling myself a writer, then later a poet. These days, stories and poems tend to bite at me until I write them, although attending a class is still my prime inspiration. Yet even now, there are times when I can’t seem to start moving. I hesitate to use the much-debated term writers’ block because it’s not that I can’t write, it’s that I don’t have enough of an impetus.

English: San Ginés bookshop in Madrid, Spain E...
English: San Ginés bookshop in Madrid, Spain Español: Librería San Ginés en Madrid, España (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many writers worry about balancing the need to write and the time to read. So when I don’t have said impetus, that’s the perfect time to pick up a book. My current novel is Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, from which I’m learning a lot about structure.

Better yet, I like to visit bookshops. A few days ago, I was in St Andrews visiting Bouquiniste, and Toppings & Co – both small businesses – plus a popular chain store. As I browsed, I found myself thinking about the excitement all these authors must’ve felt on hearing their books were to be launched; thinking of them stopping by to check it wasn’t one massive hallucination.

I also imagined my own novel on its own table with a cover boasting Sixty Million Nicker – now a major motion picture above a gushing quote from The Guardian. And that inspired me enough to pick up the manuscript again that evening. After all, there’s no launch if it’s never written.

One day, I hope I won’t have to imagine, and I wish you all the best with your own work, however you become inspired. And if you’re not, why don’t you start with the words staplerWednesday and aquiline? You have five minutes.