Every so often, I find I naturally lean towards writing in a certain style. There was a long while where I was churning out poems in triolet form, then I went through a clerihew period, and a time of short free-verse work.
At the moment, I’m drawn towards producing longer and more wistful pieces, as demonstrated in last week’s entry with a video of a recent poem called The Living Ghosts. With a running time of more than two minutes, it’s the longest poem I’ve produced for some time.
Sometimes there will be a trigger for writing in a particular manner, but often there isn’t anything specific.
I find that if you have such an impetus, the best way to deal with it is to run with it. I have a spot at an open-mike on Sunday, and I want to produce something original, so I’ll be letting that wistfulness come out before it turns into another style.
One piece of advice often given to writers is to keep a notepad and pen by your bed to capture any ideas that occur overnight. So for years, I’ve duly kept said pen and paper but it didn’t work; I need physical movement to come up with ideas. At least, that was the case until a few weeks ago.
I realise there’s nothing duller than hearing other folks’ dreams, so I’ll keep this brief. I saw an image of a woman called Magin – that’s Magin, not Maggie. She was in hippie-style clothes sitting next to a man in plainer clothes; both were eating ice cream. I can’t remember at what point I decided they were cousins, but on waking up, I realised there was a story there. I’m currently working through that.
Then on Saturday, I began a poem for a poetry group, in which I wanted to include the phrase ‘Young’s Modulus of Elasticity’ as it was part of the prompt. I discovered that was the easy part, and I was having some trouble completing the rest of the poem. I left it aside, went for a long walk, and headed to bed on my return.
I must only have been in bed 10 minutes when I figured out how I might continue the poem. I spent the next hour drafting five stanzas in total, then I really needed to go to sleep.
But this doesn’t mark a change in the way I come up with ideas. These are merely two cases in nearly seven years of writing and they stand out because they’re unusual. In any case, I still need to finish these pieces and find out whether they’re any good.
There’s a group of ageing Hollywood actors who appear to have given up learning their craft. They might have been a hot ticket in town 30 years ago, but now they turn up in forgettable films, probably thinking only of the paycheck.
For as long as I write and perform spoken word, I never want to slip into this mentality. I always want to be able to look at other poets – and folks in other creative fields – and take something from their work that hadn’t occurred to me.
To chart my progress so far, I need to go back to the Millennium, years before I began writing. This was when I first heard the Gil Scott Heron track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on the radio.
I’d never heard anything like it, this relentless and repetitive stream of consciousness with cultural and political references I only half understood. It opened my eyes to what can be done with words. I eventually bought the whole album on vinyl, and it’s of an equally high standard.
Another early influence was Original Pirate Material, the debut album by The Streets, and its follow-up A Grand Don’t Come for Free. I was at university at this time and whenever I listen to these, I’m transported back there.
Looking back, I can now spot weak points in the lyrics, but I particularly admire the concept album structure of the latter. There are two other major releases by The Streets that followed these, but I’ve never liked them as much as the first two.
These days, I continue to be influenced by those I’ve seen and heard: the humour of John Cooper Clarke, the forthrightness of Andrea Gibson, the politics of Alan Bissett.
I recently attended two performances by my friend Gemma Connell, who’s a dancer. But as well as movements, she made prolonged eye contact and even brief physical contact with members of the audience. And last week, I once again saw Luke Wright, who gave an energetic performance of What I Learned from Johnny Bevan. I’m now asking myself how can I make an audience feel the same way as I did, but using my own words.
Of course, there comes a point where I can have too much creative input and I think I’ve reached that stage now. So I’m going to let it settle, then start writing my own original pirate material.
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.
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 stapler, Wednesday and aquiline? You have five minutes.
If you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory, you’ll know that Sheldon Cooper is particular about which seat he chooses, particularly in his own apartment. Writers can be similarly picky about where they pen their works.
Among my writer friends alone, there is one who writes better with absolute silence and another who penned most of her novel in a noisy student pub. There is no right or wrong way. For my own part, I’m typing this entry in one of my favourite places: at the bottom end of my bed, standing with my back to the window. But when I’m stuck on a project, I sit on the mezzanine floor of a particular cafe in town and it usually unblocks my flow.
On Saturday, I was given the opportunity to attend a one-off writing group at the secluded Barry Mill near Carnoustie to raise funds for its restoration. After a tour and a demonstration of its working waterwheel and machinery, the nine or so attendees followed the stream back to the weir through acres of wild flora.
The tranquillity, location and history of the place was supposed to serve as inspiration for a poem or prose piece – and it worked. It took me some time to put something together, but I managed to write three verses, using the mill as a starting point, and nearly everyone had written something for reading out. It didn’t help, however, that it was raining onto our notepads for much of the visit, or that two of the chairs collapsed – mine included – before the session even began.
So if you feel your writing is becoming a little stale, try going somewhere else. Not everyone is able to escape to the countryside, of course, but it might work even to move location within the same general area or even the same building. Before I discovered my current spots, I experimented with a number of places before finding one that felt just right.
I’ll leave you with an electronic postcard of Barry Mill.
A rather short entry this week. In fact it’s a mere musing on the event that turned everyone and their dog into expert astronomers. I’ve used the form of the tanka, which starts as a haiku but has two extra lines of seven syllables apiece.
The moon ate the sun
on Friday morning in March.
We viewed it through the
office window, expected
to work through all the carnage.
I’m pleased to report that I’ve been asked to respond to the Jim Campbell exhibition currently showing at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Until now, only other artists had been invited to do this, but there will also be poets and prose writers this time. The event takes place on Thursday the 15th, 7pm, Gallery 1; tickets are free of charge.
Something that fascinates me about the creative arts is the ability for writers and artists to respond to each other through their work, often very quickly. A recent example is how cartoonists around the world reacted to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. I’ve previously taken inspiration from the Michael Brown riots in November. In the BBC News report, there was a snippet of a police officer shouting, “Stop trying to turn over the vehicle immediately,” through a megaphone. I responded with a 340-word piece, but only to that fragment of speech, not to the rest of the events in Ferguson.
But it doesn’t always take tragedy to provoke a response. In 2000, Tony Blair lifted his arm at the end of a speech and inadvertently revealed a sweaty armpit. A day or two later, a deodorant company used the image in a press advert.
This isn’t the first time I’ve responded to an art exhibition, although I wasn’t asked to do so last time – I was simply inspired. A friend’s solo show opened on a Friday in summer 2013. By the time I caught the bus home, I was beginning to develop the idea. I spent the weekend typing it up and changing the names to ensure it was definitely fictionalised, and I sent it to her on the Monday.
On Thursday, it’ll be a different type of response. I’ve spent weeks working on it and had time to explore different options such as using props. All I need to do now is keep rehearsing so the response is as fluent as I can make it. Next week, I’ll be offering click save draft my best tips about public speaking.