Tag Archives: inspiration

The Writer is ‘In’

Well, you wouldn’t expect anything less messy for my work space, would you? And flowers, of course.

You can tell when I’m ‘writing’.  The kitchen floor’s immaculate (yes, really), there are freshly baked scones in the tin, I have washed the car (yes, really), weeded the borders, walked the dog, groomed the cats, spent an hour on Twitter, done four loads of washing, and ironed my way to the bottom of the basket (yes, really).

In other words, I’ve put off the dreaded deed until I’ve completed one hundred zillion important chores which simply HAVE to be done before I can park my bum on the chair in front of my computer, and get down the actual job of writing.

When I get there, open up a file, and begin to flex those creative muscles, I usually wonder, what it is that’s made me so hesitant to get going?

Because I actually enjoy the process of writing.  I do a lot of it, one way or another. I write articles, poems, short stories, flash fiction (and dare I own up to having three adult novels and one children’s book on the go?), and most nights I write in my journal. I also write weekly letters to my sister and mother, usually longhand with a fountain pen (on water-marked Basildon Bond writing paper – how anachronistic is that?).

Of course, it is the fear of failure that holds me back. Which is why I don’t do sky-diving or ski-jumping, I guess. Which is daft, really, I know. After all, it is not the actual writing that can fail me – it is the publication, or rather, failure to achieve publication, which spoils it all. Back to that strange need for third party validation, which I’ll never quite get over.

In the past, I have aimed at getting a hundred submissions out over 12 months. That was a tall order, and I haven’t quite managed it yet. But my logic is that the more material out there being considered for competitions, or by magazines, newspapers and publishers, the better my chance of success. So, on days when I get one or two rejections, news of a competition shortlisting or publication in a magazine, is all the more sweet.

I have taken some annual leave this week with the intention of putting nose to the writing grindstone. My daughter and I (we are Luri Cole writing a thriller together) are so close to the finish line, we just need a final push. No distractions from visitors, or the garden (it hasn’t stopped raining for days – perfect writing weather), we have the space, the time, the equipment all in place.

So, what am I doing writing a blog post? Oops!

Word Juicing For Scribes

It can be quite difficult to keep coming up with new writing ideas and ways of making those creative juices flow (yes, I agree, that sounds borderline disgusting), but if you are looking for some writing inspiration, read on.

I run a lovely fortnightly creative writing group in the far reaches of County Mayo, Ireland, where we’re often looking for something to write about while we’re waiting for the kettle to boil (again). I thought I’d share some of our prompts and writing exercises, should you find yourself in a similar predicament.

In our group, we have writers of all abilities, from people who haven’t written anything more than a shopping list or a Facebook message since the Leaving Cert, to published writers who regularly win competitions and are working on grabbing the Man Booker Prize. We have a range of ages, backgrounds and (gasp!) we have men as well as women.

So, keeping everyone engaged can be a bit of a problem, not least because I never know who is going to turn up. We often have a feast or famine situation –  too many chairs around the table or not enough chocolate biscuits to go around.  A writing exercise will take twice as long to get through if there are twice as many participants as expected. And in the same way, we’ll get through twice as many prompts if there are only a few of us there.

We have great fun sometimes (well, I do and some of the members come back for more, so I’m guessing they do too).

One of the things I am always trying to do is get writers to try something different.  I will encourage poets to have a go at flash fiction, short story writers to have ago at memoir, and so on. Also, I try to shake up things by suggesting different points of view, time-frames and tenses, just to see what happens.

A quick starting point is my word box, the random words and phrases cut out of magazines and brochures which I’ve been collecting for years. (I’m aware you might think I write ransom notes, but I’m not that desperate. Yet.)

We might pick six words from the box and try to make them into a sentence or paragraph.  Better still if they make a story, or the start of one. If we all start with the same words, it is fascinating to see how each person uses them.

Then I throw in some challenges to move those ideas on and do that messy thing with creative juices and all, suggesting we take what we’ve already written and re-write it in another style. The styles are printed on scraps of paper and are drawn from a little bucket in the middle of the table.   You don’t see what you’ve chosen until you unfold the paper.  Like a Summer Fete raffle but without the prizes.

There will always be someone who complains they can’t possibly turn their newly scripted masterpiece into a breaking news story, or a women’s magazine confession, but it is always interesting when I force them to try.

So why not give it a go? Here are six snippets from my word box just to start you off:

BRIDGE;   FOLDING PAPER;  STIFLED;  GREEN GINGER;  COMMANDO;  WASH DAY

Make a very short, short story with them. Then accept the challenge to re-write it in one of these styles:

·         adult fairy story

·         Jamie Oliver recipe

·         breaking news story

·         school report entry

·         prayer to a patron saint

·         instruction manual

·         heartfelt love letter

·         paperback thriller blurb

·         Leaving Cert exam question

·         radio advert

·         women’s magazine confession

·         email to the boss

·         resignation letter

·         Hollywood film trailer

·         newspaper agony aunt reply

·         dinner party anecdote

·         politician’s acceptance speech

·         court room drama report

·         message to a house-sitter

·         Wild West bar room brawl

 

There.  I did warn you creative juices were messy, didn’t I?

Pet Shop Noise

Lenny, the nearest we got to having a pet alpaca

I can’t remember how I ever came to think that keeping alpacas was a good idea. We imported a small herd of them into Ireland in 2003, convinced they would make us a fortune and they’d become pets, alongside the laying hens and lying cats.

Trust me, alpacas don’t make friends with humans.  They like other alpacas, of course. But they only ever tolerate humans, no matter how nice you are to them. Ours had a very cushy billet in the west of Ireland, and thankfully, they rarely spat at us.  The spitting thing is a way of keeping order amongst themselves and it’s nasty if you get in the way – half-digested grass which is green, slimy and very smelly. And if it gets on your clothes, it is practically impossible to remove the stain.

We brought our alpacas over from Worcestershire via Scotland and Northern Ireland on a night when the skies were lit up with the Aurora Borealis.  A memorable evening, which of course, I turned into a poem.

I have read the poem at a few functions recently, recalling that amazing evening when the sky was green and red and we thought that was the norm (we got that wrong as well, never seen the Northern Lights since).

We eventually found the alpacas new homes, but not before we’d collected a goodly amount of fleece from them over several years. I learnt to spin and discovered alpaca makes a lovely soft, hard-wearing yarn for knitting and crochet.

And to think, I used to be frightened of dogs…

I’ve been thinking a lot about pets, and how humans enjoy keeping companion animals. And I was considering what some people think of as pets, exotic creatures such as monkeys, or snakes, or iguanas.  Even alpacas.

My mate, Tully

My first choice of pet will always be a tabby cat (like my third birthday present), but any cat will do really (rescued, not bred to be sold), plus now my dog, who is a surprising friend to me, given that I spent many years being terrified of her kind.

And if nothing else, pets can serve as inspiration for poems.  Just for the craic, here’s a ditty I wrote ages ago about our white hamster, sadly a pet I never photographed.

Snowball, a Hamster
The cat has a mouse again
and it makes me consider
how many more fortunate,
furry creatures we have kept,
pets to nurture and cherish.
There have been many:
cats, rabbits, a dog,
more cats,
and Snowball, a white hamster
carefully named by a six-year-old
who instantly lost interest.
He used to live in my study
(the hamster, not the child),
well away from feline temptation.
I’d let him skip along my desk
as I tried to write my memoirs
(the child, as well as the hamster).
When the time came
and poor Snowball ailed,
we took him in a shoe box
to the vet’s evening surgery,
humane dispatch for a fiver,
ahead of a State funeral,
with flowers and speeches,
even a few tears.
The shovel, or a brick,
would have been cheaper
to put him out of his misery,
but none of us could do it
(even the six-year-old,
who was really seven by now).
I remember how in his prime
Snowball would run across
my keyboard leaving a trail,
black pellets of rodent incontinence,
which I would eventually scoop up
and turn into a poem.

 

 

Fur Coat and No Knickers?

One of the best things that ever happened to me was becoming a mother.

I can’t imagine what I would have found to do with my time without children to fill my every waking minute.  They still try do it, and they’re (allegedly) adults now. Although, these days I do sometimes manage to snatch a few hours free from them demanding what’s for dinner, or where are their socks/phone chargers/car keys (delete as appropriate).

It sounds like there are dozens of them. It only feels like that sometimes – they are just two, one of each, as they say. A son and a daughter, neither of whom has properly left home yet.

My own mother, pictured here with me many years ago (before my sister arrived on the scene), is now 93 years old.  She lives in a care home and is quite frail and  forgetful, which is sad because she used to be a very busy, capable, fit woman, who taught me loads.

She wrestled with barrage balloons at the tail end of the Second World War (as a member of the WRAF), succeeding as a feisty female in a male-dominated workplace. I have her to thank for my  brand of feminism, which has never let me accept failure just because I’m a woman.  At an early age I realised there were different rules for boys and girls, which just served to make me more determined to succeed. Women have to work harder in their careers to prove themselves – I was no exception, and was often bitter about such inequality. I like to think things won’t be so hard for the next generation.

My mother also taught me how to strive to become a domestic goddess, and I can still rustle up a Victoria Sponge, or sew a fine seam when the occasion arises.

These days, I have my mother to thank as a source of some of my more popular poetry.  She’s at the heart of my attempts to blend pathos with humour.

Here you go: Fur Coat and No Knickers (just in case it’s slipped past your attention so far).

A Shed Called London

GBS called his writing shed ‘London’

I want a shed. Pretty please. Somewhere I can hide away and write my masterpiece. And wallow in self-pity, should the need arise.

Of course, a week-long writer’s retreat in Monaghan might help get me started on the masterpiece, but it appears that’s not to be – more of that later.

But what is it about wanting a room of one’s own? I’ve written before about how much I long for my own space, claiming the lack of same is what’s holding me back from becoming (ahem) a best-selling novelist/children’s author/poet/playwright (delete as appropriate).

But of course, I know it isn’t about where you write – 20 years after Harry Potter’s first appearance on the bookshelves there are all these nostalgic videos around showing JK Rowling scribbling in an Edinburgh café. It’s about what you write, like wizards and magic stuff.

Plus, there are plenty of people who have written beautiful material in bus shelters or airports, at kitchen tables and the like, while nursing babies/sick children/elderly parents/bombastic bosses/unsympathetic partners (again, delete as appropriate).

So why am I yearning for a shed of my own? Don’t I know all my papers would get damp in there? Where would we put it? Who would paint it a nice shade of green? Who’d clean the windows and put up some shelves? And I’m not that keen on spiders or earwigs…

George Bernard Shaw had a shed at the bottom of his garden in Hertfordshire. He reportedly called it ‘London’ so the maid could truthfully turn away unwanted callers with news that the boss was ‘in London’. It was a specially designed hut built on a revolving platform so it could be turned (with a quick shove) to catch the whole day’s sunshine.

That man (with a July 26th birthday and a vegetarian taste in food) was way ahead of his time! His shed had a typewriter, telephone and electric heaters – and he wrote some of his most famous work there, including ‘Pygmalion’. By the time he died in 1950 aged 94, he had written fifty-two plays and five novels, and said he always tried to produce at least five pages of writing every day.

I had wanted to write at least five pages a day on retreat at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Monaghan – everyone I know who has been there tells me it is a wonderful creative opportunity for writers. But I can’t convince them that I’m a worthy candidate for a residency. My second direct application has now failed (another indirect one was turned down earlier this year). The upsetting bit today (June 28th) was they clearly hadn’t bothered to review my new submission – they sent me a rejection letter dated March 21st (!) although my application was sent on May 14th. And I wasn’t even asking for a handout – I would have paid my own way.

If I had a shed, I’d head off there and cry very bitter tears.

Are We There Yet?

Chess, unfinished.

As a wordsmith, when do you ever know your work is done? By that I mean finished and complete with no more amendments and tweaks to be made.

It goes for most creative work – even cooking, you can keep going, adding more seasoning, stirring this way and that, changing the presentation as well as the content. Likewise with art in all its forms – another brush stroke here, an extra shave of the plane there, more this, less that. And so it goes with writing: more words, fewer, different order, wider vocabulary.

Recently, I ‘finished’ a major re-write of what I hope will eventually become a published poetry collection. I have sifted through my favourite poems and come up with about 75 that I think are now complete. That was after the Masterclass with Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke last month (which I’ve burbled on about at length elsewhere on this blog).

I’ve now done enough workshops, classes and creative writing group sessions to think I might have finally got it (whatever ‘it’ is). Anyway, I’m starting to hawk my collection around the various poetry publishers. Shouldn’t take too long – hardly any of them accept cold calls (aka open submissions).

Then what? I shouldn’t expect failure, but I did consider trying the WB Yeats route. His sisters printed and hand-bound the early editions of his first published poetry. But there’s something in me that eschews self-publishing – I need that third-party validation thingy all the time. And anyway, I don’t have enough artistic sisters to take on the hand-crafted publication of my work.

Back to never being finished. I have just heard that I have taken third prize in the Oliver Goldsmith Festival Poetry Prize, which is another rather nice accolade, although the poem, ‘Concentric Circles’, is one of those that never seems to be finished. Every time I look at it, I change something, although clearly I thought it complete enough to enter in a competition.

I’m also trying to find a suitable title for my soon-to-be-published (!) collection. Another moveable feast – it has a different title every time I think about it, not least because it’s hard to categorise.

I heard Don Paterson, the poetry editor of Picador, talking at Poetry Ireland in  Dublin last month, and was greatly encouraged by his attitude to themed collections. Mine doesn’t have a theme – I write about life as I know it, the world around me, my family and other animals, that sort of thing.

‘Concentric Circles’ is a poem about a bachelor farmer. Living in rural Ireland that subject pops up every now and then, as do the themes of memory loss, aging parents, adult children, the cruelty of nature, life, love,  and the general desperation involved in being human.

Dead hares, jilted lovers, superstitions, refugees, hurricanes, home-made wine, care home smells, punctuation, Irish Diaspora, fossils, the River Liffey, Christmas excesses, horseflies, filial ties,  ecologically-sound fruit salad, sibling rivalry, parental approval, summer barbecues, the displaced and dispossessed, magpies, artisan baked bread, fur coats, spitting alpacas – there’s a lot of stuff mentioned in my poems.

But not really a thread running through which I could use to sew them together into a themed collection.

And then there’s the title. The title? Oh heck! Forget the finishing – where on earth do I start?

PS I give you a picture of Chess, the unfinished cat (he has no tail) for want of any better illustration

A Beginner’s Guide to Procrastination

So. You are going to have a Writing Day. No appointments, no need to leave the house, no distractions – the kitchen floor doesn’t even need mopping – brilliant! Ahead, a whole day of writing .

Here’s what you do:

First, take a nice view, preferably one with a lovely comfy chair in front. Settle down to spend some time relaxing into the moment (mindfulness – it’s all the rage these days), watching the birds/clouds/treetops/passersby/traffic (delete as appropriate).

Imagine what a wonderful poem you could write – a sonnet, perhaps, 14 lines of stunning verse with a twist in the middle – based on your view of such extraordinary ordinariness. Words are hopping through your head, time to pin them down. A villanelle might be the way to go. What about a pantoum? Choices, choices.

Start hunting for a notebook. Not any old pad of paper, discarded chocolate wrapper or old envelope as Emily Dickinson did (I kid you not), but your special hand-stitched, pink floral A5 lined velum pad, the one that’s part bujo and part writing journal, full of  good ideas and the beginnings of poems and stories that you really should get around to finishing.

It might take a while to find the book because along the way you’re going to stumble upon distractions like the post arriving, 22 unread messages in your inbox, and the houseplants crying out for a watering. Then there’s a cup of Earl Grey to brew and a packet of ginger biscuits to locate (that alone can take a while since you’ve hidden them for reasons known only to yourself and you can’t remember where).

At this point, your partner/best friend/neighbour/least favourite sibling/offspring may call for a chat, either in person because they know you’re at home and you’re only writing (which isn’t real work as everyone knows), or because they’re on the same network and like to get their money’s worth with the free calls.

When you can get back to your chair-with-a-view, you might have to ignore the stomach rumbling because it’s now almost lunchtime. But you realise that you don’t have your favourite pen to hand, the one you’ve written your best work with.  Not that you’re superstitious or anything, but why take the chance? Spilt salt over the shoulder and into the eye of the devil, right? (left actually); no walking under ladders (isn’t that just common sense?); no putting shoes on the table (who does that anyway?); no opened umbrellas indoors (no need surely, unless your roof has a leak, which is bad luck in itself).

So the pen with which you wrote your prizewinning poems has been put in a safe place so it doesn’t get lost. And although it is eventually found, it is then definitely time for lunch, because even writers need to eat. It doesn’t need to be a lengthy affair of more than an hour or two. Roasted Butternut Squash Soup from scratch is nice, and you can check out the news headlines while its cooking, make a couple of cats purr at the same time, and dash off a few important WhatsApp messages to make good use of your time. And you know you shouldn’t bolt your food because indigestion isn’t conducive to creativity, is it?

So then it is well into the afternoon when you head back to the nice view, pen and notebook at the ready (because first draft poems have to be proper pen on proper paper, no exceptions).  Time to recapture the moment when you felt a poem coming on.

Drat!

A blank. Nothing. Not really writer’s block (which I’ve heard described as what happens when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you), more a memory lapse. You’ve forgot what were the right words in the right order.

Time to stare into space (or back at the lovely view) in an attempt to pluck appropriate words from the ether. The thesaurus might help, but where did you leave it? If you’ve the energy left to look for it, that might pass a few more minutes…

And there you have it. Procrastination.  Distraction. Writing. A whole day of it. There’s nothing to it really, is there?