The Energy of the Beginner

Having run events for so many years now, it’s always interesting to watch the folks who are new to writing.

Some have an idea, but don’t know how to start off. Others need constant reassurance that they’re doing a good job. There are even some who fill every spare moment with writing classes and courses.

It’s not only inevitable that everyone will go through this process, but it’s necessary. All the experimentation allows you to figure out your preferences and dislikes. From my own perspective, I figured out early on that I like sending my work to publishers but entering it into competitions. I then worked out that I like to pen monologues or plays rather than novels.

If you do have that kind of energy, my advice is to use it while you have it. Bluntly, once your motivation goes, it might never return.

Redrafting the Unredraftable

Exactly six years ago, I made the first draft of a poem called Sir Madam. The gender identity of the main character is undefined, and the narrative takes a condensed look at this person’s life, culminating in an incident that happens on a train.

This is the only one of my pieces I’ve been genuinely scared to perform, fearing I’d hit the wrong wording, tone or point of view. However, it’s become a piece that I’ve performed at slams and other gigs, and it does receive a positive reaction.

Until a few weeks ago, the text seemed set in stone, but the title started bothering me. Not only has terminology has moved on in the last six years, I now felt the character needed to be given a name, and that name is Shannon, so the title has also been revised.

I also took the opportunity to rearrange and redraft the rest of the text. Although I’ve been writing poetry for nearly a decade now, I still made a rookie mistake on Sunday when I started redrafting just before a gig, held online by Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists. I thought once I’d shuffled around a few lines, that would be it, but it still didn’t look how I wanted it.

As my turn rapidly approached, I decided to read out something else. Besides, the tone of Shannon might have brought down the light mood of the room. But I will return to the piece and I will redraft it to my liking once more.

Note to Self – Don’t Call This Entry ‘A Walk Down Memory Lane’

Yesterday, a pal had planned to come and visit me, but she had to call off through ill-health. I used the time instead to go for a long walk, which ended up being more than 11 miles.

I’ve always found walking to be useful for sorting out ideas, but when wandering around certain areas, I also remember fragments of what happened there. Sometimes it’s a conversation with a primary school teacher, or where I first heard a certain song, or a memory of what the place formally looked like. There’s even an area of town I associate with Moby-Dick because I regularly read it on the bus while travelling through.

As I talk about all these memories, it also strikes me that while they’re reasonably interesting snippets, few of them hold enough substance to be an anecdote in their own right.

That’s one of the key differences between nostalgia and memoir. Nostalgia can be as simple as a reminiscence about a happy time, whereas memoir typically tells a story.

One of my favourite memoirs is Toast by Nigel Slater, where each vignette is titled as the food he was eating or cooking at that period in his life. All the stories are strong enough to be self-contained while still sticking to the subject.

That’s not to say my wandering memories are completely useless. If I were in a writing class, and the prompt warranted it, I could pick one of these as a starting point for a poem or a fictional story, just not a biographical one.

How The Live Scene is Doing

This entry serves as a kind of companion piece to last week, where I talked about still being able to hold the open-mike night Hotchpotch.

It did indeed go ahead, but with substantially reduced attendance. On any other night, we can normally welcome upwards of 30 people in the room, with more than half of the attendees taking a turn on stage. But last week, we saw less than ten readers.

To be fair, a few of them had called off in advance because they were either away for Christmas or didn’t want to catch anything before seeing relatives, so we made the best of it. Dispensing with the timer, anyone who wanted to read was allowed two turns, with a drinks break in the middle. I’d encouraged the absentees to come instead to the virtual version that Sunday, called Hotchpotch Beyond.

But a smaller pub attendance didn’t translate to a larger online presence. There, we welcomed two genuine readers – one Scottish, another from Russia – while two troublemakers were booted out and reported to Zoom. In November, the Beyond event had to be abandoned altogether because only one other person turned up.

Yesterday morning, I made an executive decision to suspend Beyond, and I told the pub regulars before the wider membership. Nonetheless, our previous online presence has shown we’ve been able to reach an otherwise untapped market.

I can’t stress enough that it’s never the fault of the audience if they don’t turn up. It’s up to me as an organiser to attract attendees, and to show them a good time once they’re through the door, so it’s us who needs to adapt. It’s a much bigger question how we’re going to adapt to reach that otherwise untapped market, but it’s one that we’ll work on.

When The Muse Strikes

As I sit down to write, it feels like a continuation of the last entry, where I talked about inspiration appearing at 5am. This time, however, the inspiration happened near the end of the day.

I’ve been asked to provide a poem for a 12 Days of Gratitude project. As late as Saturday of last week, I’d absolutely run dry of ideas. There were plenty of people to thank, but nothing that fitted into a structure.

While I do find walking helps with the process, I wasn’t having much luck – and over an hour later, I thought of my first line and the structure. I even took a couple of pictures to document this. It’s rare that I would show such an incomplete draft so early, but it happened by surprise.

Half-completed villanelle about gratitude
Half-completed villanelle about gratitude

My walk had taken in river views and grassy areas, but when I wrote those lines, I was probably the least inspiring place I’d been that evening: behind the Mecca Bingo.

Picture of Mecca Bingo where villanelle was written
Picture of Mecca Bingo where villanelle was written

What I need to do now is finish the piece and make a recording of it, but arguably the hardest part is over, so the rest should be plain sailing.

The Evasive Verse

This week, I’ve been trying to write a piece for my poetry circle. Specifically, it had to be in some way related to the author Robert Duncan Milne, a forgotten contemporary of H G Wells.

As the reading for this has taken up so much of my time, I don’t have a full-length entry for this site.

However, I’ve often advised that going for a walk is a great way to sort out the ideas in your head, and that’s exactly what happened here. After days of reading, and trying to tie together a few of Milne’s concepts into a single verse, it was a lunchtime trip outside that gave me the final verse.

I’m about to read it over just now, maybe tweak it, and send them my work.

Not Raining, Just Pouring

It sometimes happens that a number of writing projects need to be completed at the same time, and that’s exactly what’s happened over the last week.

Some of these are self-imposed, like two job applications and writing a private blog entry for a closed group. But the others have been opportunities like supporting a funding application for an Edinburgh poetry organisation, and an invitation to write a public blog post for Creative Dundee.

This deluge has been a prime lesson in prioritising, some pieces due on sequential dates. I’m making headway, with only the Creative Dundee post still outstanding, but at the time of writing, I haven’t been given a definite submission date.

It does, however, pay to hit a deadline. Just yesterday, I heard I’ve had a piece selected to appear in Poetry Scotland and I can’t wait to see it in print.

Looking Ahead to Fun a Day

Every January, I take part in a project called Fun a Day Dundee that happens every January. There is no specific brief: you can write, draw, compose music, dance, or whatever your skillset us. The timing is designed to fill the void that artists often experience after the Christmas rush.

For the first time in a long time, we were able to meet up in person on Sunday. As I’d already arranged to do something else that day. I was only able to come along in the last 15 minutes, but it was great to see everyone again.

When I first started Fun a Day, my work was strictly writing, creating one new poem or story for each day of the month. One year consisted of writing a number of words each day that would combine to form a single sentence.

I’ve edged slowly into drawing, inspired by the other participants, and I’ve developed a style that includes recycled materials. Sometimes I use the recycled material in the work, other times I shred what I’ve created.

At the beginning of this year, I looked back at popular culture between 1998 and 2001, and writing was still an integral part of my projects. I kept a handwritten diary of my thoughts as I created each piece.

I don’t yet know what form this year’s project will take, but I know the title, and I know I’ll continue to log my thoughts in a notebook as it progresses.

Another t

Indefinite Ephemera

This week, I received a direct message on Twitter. It’s unusual for me to have one of these, so I wondered what was going on. It turned out to be from someone called Hayley.

Some background here: I’d met her six years ago at a feminist poetry evening in Dundee, and I’d performed a new poem that directly referenced my bisexuality for the first time. She’d enjoyed it and asked for a copy. However, the piece was so new that I had only one handwritten version in my notebook, so I copied out the piece and gave it to her, adding the date and place.

In the message, Hayley told me she had been 19 at the time, and had kept that paper for the last six years, adding that she found it just as validating and comforting at the age of 25.

The poem in question was then included in an anthology by the first publisher I sent it to, but it means more to me that someone has kept it for such a long time, and I hope it continues to bring such validation.

It’s not the first time someone has kept a piece of mine. A few years ago, I owed £1 to my pal Jen Robson, so I placed a coin in an envelope with a silly four-line verse on the front, expecting it to be discarded. To my knowledge, she still has it.

Here’s What You Could Have Been Reading

Every so often, I’ll start to write an entry, then abandon it. Sometimes I don’t know how to finish it; sometimes a more urgent topic arises before I can finish it.

As such, I have five draft entries in my WordPress account, listed in order of when they were last edited. The original unedited words are in italics, with further explanation below each one.

18 Mar 2018: The Importance of Outside Influences

While it is necessary for an author to read within their own genre, one of the first pieces of advice given to beginner writers is to read widely.  and collect influences from different sources.

This is fairly self-explanatory and probably would have segued into a couple of examples of where the author has successfully put together two disparate ideas to create something new.

Oddly enough, I was at a workshop run by Kirsty Logan a couple of weeks ago where she explored this very idea, so this topic might make a resurgence.

15 Oct 2019: But Who Would Want to Hear About That?

At the weekend, I took part in two different tours: on Saturday, a road train around Arbroath; on Sunday, a walking tour around the mostly-disused basement of Glasgow Central Station.

In both cases, it was clear that the guide had a vast knowledge of his subject, including a recognition that there were still mysteries to be solved

There is no shortage of fiction written by people with an exhaustive knowledge of their subject: Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, Dan Brown in Angels & Demons, &c. Often it makes for compelling reading, but an author needs to be careful not to overload the reader.

21 Jul 2019: Respeaking

Respoken.

This was the entirety of my note. It was a reference to how TV subtitles are created, at least on the BBC.

Rather than using a stenography keyboard, the operators listen to the output and use voice recognition software to produce the words on the screen. This means the computer only has to understand one person rather than a variety of volumes and accents.

This draft also came with its own image:

Sample of closed captioning on a news programme
Sample of closed captioning on a news programme

13 Jul 2020: Different Place, Similar History

Post-industrial place with distinctive dialect.

I wrote this fragment while listening to a poetry event from Wolverhampton and surrounding areas. Someone talked about living in a post-industrial place and the language that grew out of that, and I could draw a comparison with where I live, hundreds of miles away.

I’m not sure how much I could expand much on this idea, but it’s still there for the taking.

10 Aug 2020: The Fallback Formula

While taking my Masters degree, our class was asked to perform a piece for public reading. We could do anything we wanted, but the tutor suggested the prompt ‘piece of my mind’. As I wasn’t finding any ideas, I did what I often do in that situation, and go for a walk. I recall it was a freezing February night.

The walk resulted in my first list poem, called Textbook. Each of its 23 lines begins with the words ‘I’ve learnt’, in which the narrator is worried about a third party. The original plan was to begin each line with a different verb, but I found the repetitive structure worked rather well.

Those two paragraphs were the original entry, while the one below was copied directly from notes I made at the time.

Kirsty, voice suited the piece, dichotomy, you’re never the subject until last line. Corrin, liked the repetition, person depression, created flickering image. Graeme, think you can tell it’s someone close to narrator, didn’t get gender. Jackie, speaker was male, person was female. Eddie, took it as daughter who was self-harmer.

I’ve discussed my writing process many times, including the devices I rely upon, so there’s no specific reason to finish this piece.