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.

The Stand-In

At around 5pm on Monday of last week, I received an e-mail from my former tutor Eddie Small. He was to stage his play The Four Marys on the Wednesday and Friday to mark the publication of the script, but one of the actors had dropped out for family reasons.

The Four Marys by Eddie Small – note that Brian Cox is the actor, not the professor
The Four Marys by Eddie Small – note that the foreword is by Brian Cox the actor, not the professor

I immediately agreed to step in; everyone would be reading their lines from paper so there would be little to learn. The play takes a humorous look at the history of Dundee through the eyes of four real historical figures who shared the same first name. My role was that of a bored tour guide who comes in at the beginning to usher a dignitary through her duties and appears again at the end to release two tourists who have been trapped in a museum for the whole play.

Although I’m accustomed to performing poetry, acting is a different skill: you’re reading someone else’s words and directions, whereas a poetry reading can be more flexible. Additionally, poets are often allowed to read from the page, although not always, while a professional actor must memorise each line.

Both performances turned out well, and I was particularly excited about being allowed to improvise so there wasn’t an awkward silence as I reached the stage. An ad-libbed line about being on a zero-hour contract went down particularly well with the audience.

It’s definitely an experience I would repeat; in fact, I would like to take part in more improv. I believe it’s one of the best ways a writer can sharpen their skills. When you’re in a scene, you’re under pressure to recall what you already know or to make it up on the spot.

Some desk research suggests that The Four Marys – published by The Voyage Out Press – is for sale locally, but is not yet available online. Here’s where you can find out more about the play.