Poetry or Short Story – What Shall I Write Today?

This weekend, Abigail Wyatt (co-editor of Poetry24) asked whether it was hard to write poetry at the same time as fiction.

This week I will be submitting several short stories to various competitions along with a short memoir, I also have several poems I’m yearning to write. Can I do both? Or is my intent on honing the final drafts of my prose the reason why I can’t get off the mark with this week’s poems?

Nuala Ni Chonchuir* believes that whilst short fiction and poetry are without doubt different things, certain aspects of each form complement the other. Poets must be concise, so too the short fiction writer. Poets watch and dream and imagine, they take notes and have a good memory, so too the short fiction writer. Poets love words, they play with words, they agonise over the use or placing of a single word but this skill is not lost on a short fiction writer. I agree that writing poetry enhances my skills as a fiction writer and, I am sure, the reverse is true.

Sometimes the hardest part of starting a poem is getting that first line – once that is established the rest flow and it is often prose (and particularly fiction) that enables that first thought. I have to imagine the poem, become the poem, live the poem – just in the way that I live my characters as I write them. Once I am inside the poem then the rest just flows and all that remains is days of reading, re-reading, experimenting with line, enjambment and cutting.

Because I am a poet I know that I can mess with prose, I can tease grammar and play with words – so long as I do it knowingly and deliberately – there is never an excuse for bad grammar but experimental prose – that’s a definite must. If my paragraph is characterised with long sentences then how about throwing in a three or four word sentence somewhere in the middle – or even a fragment? Knowing what the green line on my word processor is for is important; knowing that I can consciously ignore it is crucial.

Today I had Cleaning Instructions published. It is not my first short story but it is the first to be published. I am thrilled, it looks amazing next to the artwork (not mine), it feels professional – it is professional. How did this story differ from my others? Well that’s another Blog but, one thing I know is that I brought poetry to my prose.

I played with words and sentences and structure. And once I’d written it (and sent it to be rejected), I read it again. And I cut. More purposely this time – as I do with my poems.

Whilst it is surely hard to work on several pieces at once (each requires full attention), I do think that you can use one form to complement the other – and that’s a good thing.

  • Language and Style: A guide from a short story writer/poet in Short Circuit  Vanessa Gebbie (Ed) 2009 Salt Publishing: London

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A Good Novel

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its Gilbert_Chestertonauthor.

G. K. Chesterton
English author & mystery novelist (1874 – 1936)

G K Chesterton is well known for the above quote but, after a day of reacquainting with my (almost finished first draft) of Cold Steel I am left wondering exactly what he meant.

I consider myself an apprentice writer. Published but still a learner. I guess this is in much the same way that we continue learning to drive, learning Yoga, learning to cycle. We never truly finish our apprenticeship because there is so much more to take on board, to experience, to live. As part of my apprenticeship I read Alex Keegan’s essay on theme (premise) this morning.*

And Keegan’s words interested me (and scared me) far more than Chesterton’s. Keegan tells us that theme is at the heart of a story. A good story[teller] knows the theme. Theme is not plot, it is not what happens but the underlying story that emerges; it is what we, as readers, are told as we read the story. Told in a subtle way. So that we begin to hear a message despite it not being written in stark letters across the page.

And I think this is what Chesterton meant, perhaps, that a good novel has at its heart a strong theme, such that we discover and learn with the characters. And that is how it is as a writer. I do know my theme, I am writing about grief and memory and loss and discovery (are they themes?) and to get there I am putting my characters into the pages and seeing where they take me. I haven’t got a road map or a plan. I haven’t got spreadsheets with dates and times and interesting plot points. I haven’t planned my settings (although I do know key places very well by now, I am on my 282nd page, after-all). I know that these are devices that help other writers – accomplished writers – I just hope that my own, more lived-and-breathed version of writing can also stand the test of time. That I can pop my characters into scenarios (as Keegan suggests) and let them write the story.

And I hope that at the end, the reader will learn about my heroes and not about me.

* The Importance of Theme. Alex Keegan in Short Circuit (2009) Vanessa Gebbie (Ed) Salt Publishing: Bloomsbury, London

Kill Your Darlings?

200px-William_Faulkner_1949

There is so much to learn as a writer. William Faulkner famously said (and it is quoted on many a Blog) that in order to write one must perfect the art of murder or, ‘Kill your darlings.’ And that is exactly as it is. And the more I write and read (for to write well one must read voraciously) the better I get at this difficult task.

I am currently editing the three-quarters version of my first draft of my novel. Now there are many things wrong with this act, probably the greatest being the act of editing before I am finished. Wisdom (and many renowned, respected writers concur) tells you that you shouldn’t edit until the entire first draft is complete. And that is, I am sure, good advice. But every so often I just have to take a pause. I write and write and write – generally getting down three to six thousand words a day for a good chunk of time. I inhabit every character, find myself with my head in my hands over the latest anguish, heart racing and no longer able to think as myself only as Dave or Ruth or Kate and then I have to take a break.

A good break. A long break. A reviving break. So my editing is not so much editing as reacquainting. Except it seems wasteful to reread without my trusty red pen in hand. And so I revisit and many things happen. Firstly I fall in love with my novel again (and that is very important), secondly I become the characters again and then, of course, I cut, chop and restructure. I notice the glaring anomalies – where Kate goes from 34 to 37 in a period of weeks (careless?). I scrub the adverbs and most adjectives (an embarrassed flush gracing my cheeks). I question the validity – could they really have been married so long? Would that happen?

And then I get back to the writing. Refreshed and eager. The return to my novel is like returning to a good film, or a favourite place, or visiting a good friend you haven’t seen in a while. It’s an excitement, a thrill, a relief to be there again.

And I think my writing is all the better for it.

But how does it work for you?

Nature or Nurture?

cuba_crab

Nature or nurture? Thousands of crabs migrate each spring in Cuba, crossing major roads in their journey.

Where does poetry start? What defines a poem, or transforms prose into something poetic? Just as we ask what creates a person – their birth or their upbringing – so I am beginning to think it is with poetry.

I consider myself to be a master of Free Verse. Is this lazy, I wonder? Does it mean I am not, truly, a poet? Surely I should be able to manipulate words such that my poetry gains strength from syllables? From rhyme? I certainly appreciate and enjoy formal poetry and am often in awe of well-rhymed poems.

Yet I do utilise form, structure and rhyme in all my poems. And sometimes I think that the words free verse are something of a misnomer – a dumbing down or devaluing of poetry based purely on the fact that structure may not be immediately apparent. So a poem lacks a rhyming pattern. The stanzas (if any) are not uniform. Does this make the poem any less potent? Any less strived over? Less worthy?

All my poems are fuelled by passion, form, rhyme (more likely internal for me). I use assonance, alliteration. I spend ages considering my words. I play with line breaks. I read, rewrite, re-read. I consider the power of a word when placed at the end of a line, the beginning of a stanza, on its own line. Every break in rhythm, every syllable is carefully constructed and deconstructed and reconstructed until I think I’ve explored every possibility and created a piece of writing that is both musical and meaningful.

This week I wrote Bachcha (it means child in Hindi). I wanted to write about this difficult subject, I wanted to create rich images that juxtaposed the beautiful with the horrific and yet I began the poem lost for words – as my first stanza tells you.

And I noticed that I had still used assonance and imagery even when I felt I was pulling hens’ teeth (to break a writer’s golden rule and use a cliché). So how much of poetry is innate?

I reckon it is this internalised poetry (nature) that first allows us to put pen to paper but it is nurture that necessitates repeated editing and rewriting. It is nature that ensures our poetic voice shines through but nurture makes our finished work appear accomplished.

Nature means you cannot steal my work (it wouldn’t sound like you). Nurture means you should recognise the time I’ve spent – and appreciate the final product.

I didn’t think I could write Bachcha, I felt I hadn’t the words but the part of me that simply writes gave me the bare materials to complete a poem that others describe as powerful.

What do you think?

From Chocolate to Caviar (what do you feed your brain?)

choc_caviarThere are many fine blogs around – you could become a recluse and quit your job and still not have time to read them all – so apologies if it is years before I pay yours the respect it’s due.

Last week I read Down and Out in the 21st and was particularly drawn to the question of whether fiction is a waste of time and, particularly, the idea of Empty Calories for your Brain.

There is so much that we can (and do) read. The back of cereal packets, billboards, DVD packaging, books, blogs, Facebook, Twitter for example. Writers are (happily) burdened with the fact that they must read daily. And with great variety. So it is that I read a great deal and, without a doubt, read things that I would never have imagined reading in the past.

And what I read starts to categorise itself. And I thought that it may be worthwhile trying to order our reading via its value for your brain. A sort of chocolate to caviar of reading matter.

I guess it would start at White Chocolate (no nutritional value whatsoever) and include things like Caviar (luxury but not necessary), rice and peas (staple brain fodder). So at the White Chocolate end I would place books like Oh Dear Sylvia by Dawn French (and please don’t get me started on this…).

For Steak and Sea Bass I would list Rape, A Love Story by Joyce Carol-Oates and Weddings and Beheadings by Hanif Kureishi. These are, in my humble opinion, the type of essential read that all writers should add to their list.

I guess in the Caviar pot I’d put books like Narcopolis by Jaat Thayil – books that I’ve loved, that are swimming in sensory detail but may not appeal to everyone.

And I’m wondering how you would rate the books you’ve read if you had to order them in a culinary sense? I’d love to read your comments on this.

Don’t Give Up Your Day Job

Oscar-Wilde_1996173b

Oscar Wilde Photo: Napoleon Sarony

Over the last two weeks I have read just about every article on the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Granta Young Novelist that I could find and I was struck by one novelist’s assertion that you cannot give up your regular job. I didn’t write down her name (annoyingly) and now I can’t remember. So I Googled it (you can Google everything), only to find just about every novelist says the same (including, apparently, Oscar Wilde).

Enter nasty little voices in my mind telling me what a fool I am and what a mistake I’ve made. I did give up my day job. Granted I took a part time job after a few months, one that I can do comfortably whilst still devoting the most of my life to writing.

If you want to be a writer you have to do two things, the first is write (every day) and the second is read (also every day). And you have to do both of them voraciously and variedly. It’s no good sticking to a diet of one or two things (even J K Rowling had to branch out eventually).

And now I’m thinking about all the difficulties that result from my decision – no car, no holidays, making a chicken last three (or more) meals, making my own granola, discovering the joy of polishing my shoes, homemade presents for everyone at Christmas… actually there are a lot of benefits to the more frugal life. I’m fitter, I still enjoy my food, caring for your belongings is therapeutic and I’m one of the few people who can claim to have decimated their income and be mathematically correct.

As part of my Mindfulness training, I read Nadine Stair’s poemIf I had my Life to Live Over and was drawn to the following, ‘I would perhaps have more troubles, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones.’

Living life to the full includes taking risks. Prior to becoming a writer I had lots of worries – all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybe’s – and I spent a lot of my time hoping that I was pleasing everyone. Now my worries are different – but they are concrete and the real concerns of life are rarely insurmountable (even if they are uncomfortable) and, in return, I am achieving something wonderful.

In the last month I have had five poems published, one micro-fiction and two news pieces. I have been asked to judge a writing competition.

It isn’t success that makes me a writer, it is believing and making that commitment that makes me a writer. It is choosing to write and read every day. It is telling people that I am a writer.

John Crace is both correct and incorrect. I may not make lots of money writing but richness can be measured in other ways and, for the moment, I am happy with richness of spirit – money isn’t everything.

The Dangers of Knowing a Writer (1)

Is it dangerous knowing a writer? Are you worried that you know a writer?

I was at the launderette yesterday. I arrived whilst it was quiet and, although the machine I wanted was occupied, it was on its final spin and there was nobody waiting for it. There are many advantages to using the launderette but the most enticing is the brevity of the experience. The washer in question holds a full seven days’ worth of laundry (including bedding) and the full cycle takes just under 28 minutes. I estimated I would be done and dusted in less than 35.

I was wrong. What I hadn’t reckoned with was the full force of humankinds’ tendency towards weirdness and it would be a further 15 minutes before I even got my laundry into the machine. At least I had my notebook.

It took three minutes for the current machine user to begin unloading – a process that should have taken seconds. I watched as she opened the washer door and removed a single sock, stretched it, flicked it and placed it in her bin bag. Next was a t-shirt – shaken, brushed and folded before laying in her basket. Third item out – a towel – towels, it would seem, require vigorous shaking to the tune of much puffing and panting, then a brush before precise folding and placement in the basket. Smalls were destined for the bag (after flicking, shaking and stretching) all other items made it to the basket. Eventually.

Part way through she realised a tissue had sneaked into her load leaving tell-tale traces of white bobbles on all the clothes. At this point the process lengthened as she went to the doorway with each item to shake it outside, brushing off all residue before returning to her basket.

Later I was asked if this would make a poem? Certainly, was my answer or, failing that a character in a short story. Is it, therefore, dangerous to know a writer?

If you exhibit strange behaviours in my presence chances are some remnant of that trait, of your dress, of your visage will make it into my writing. But will I write you in detail? I am a fiction writer. I create. I write poetry about real events but cloak them in imagery or emotions that I’ve imagined. Writing means expanding on reality. If you read my work and think it’s about you then you can be 100% sure that it is not.

But, as a reader, you create your own meaning and, just as I recognise myself or my experiences in the fiction I read; if I’m doing my job well enough you might recognise something of your own life in my writing. Well that’s the way I see it – what do you think?

And as for the woman in the launderette? Well, I’ve already started that story

Write What You Know?

Do you or don’t you? I finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry this week – a skilful piece of writing that did exactly what it said on the tin, a page turner, tragic, vaguely comedic, emotional. I won’t give anything away, if you want a review then check-out what I post on Waterstones.

At the end of the book, Rachel Joyce explains how much of herself and her experiences have gone into the story and I was drawn to consider the above maxim. Last week another poem of mine, Behind The Pyramid was published on Poetry24 and I was asked about my own experiences of losing a child. I have none. How then did I write the poem? Does one need to have experienced something to write about it?

I do believe that as writers we bring ourselves to our work. It is through our lived experiences that we find our own, inimitable, voice. That we stamp our own style and self on our writing and yet, if we only wrote of what we ‘know’ then what would happen to science fiction? To fantasy? To crime? Are all crime novelists murderers on the sly?

I think it would be a mistake to restrict ourselves only to what we have experienced. As creative writers we owe it to the world to create, to make something new, to explore and expand reality. Michael Chricton was a great sci-fi writer. His novels felt real because he brought his vast knowledge of science to his fiction but then he took that all important next step; he expanded, drifted and created.

On an Open University course I wrote a screenplay exploring the lives of a teenage lad with Asperger Syndrome who planned to split the atom from his garden shed, a NEET youth (not in education, employment or training), an obese man and an elderly lady. Each character was plucked from news reports and town-centre observations. I collected hundreds of cuttings, YouTube clips and details. I was scared I may be raided or arrested as I searched for facts about explosives and splitting the atom (not such a rare hobby after all). I scoured the shelves of online chemical sellers, found uranium, plutonium, knew how much per gram. I researched methods of suicide, listened to a myriad song lyrics and watched daytime TV.

And I became worried; I feared that my screenplay would become a documentary. My tutor reassured me; pointed out that this wouldn’t happen because at some point I would finish my research and start to create. I would imagine these lives instead of reading about them. I would add the characters’ lived realities. My story would be born.

I was reminded about the tale of Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in The Marathon Man of which there are many versions, you can read a comprehensive list here but Olivier’s alleged final comment, ‘My dear boy, have you thought of just acting?’ is, I think, the real message for creative writers. You can (and indeed should) research as much as possible but then it must stop, the clippings and the videos and the interviews should be put to one side; what matters is just imagining, that is when we become creative writers.

Reading Between the Lines

I love to read between the lines. I like to write like that too – leaving something to be considered or learned – and often I worry that my work does not, that in fact I am too literal and, therefore, mundane.

Writers who read (and to write well you have to read – prolifically) will understand the feeling you get each day when you read something profound – and I do read something amazing every day. It may be a piece of poetry that is so beautifully expressed and has multiple layers (and then I worry that mine is mono-layered or predictable), it may be a short story that explores love or death or life in some way that I never even thought possible, or perhaps I’ll read a news piece that’s expressed in an eloquent language that I would never have dreamed to use. Each day I read and think, ‘Yep, I need to be so much better before I’m even halfway there.’

Roland Barthes* said that ‘writing is the destruction of every point of origin’ and it’s true. A badly written or bland piece will remain on the page, will not be destroyed but, equally, will have no effect. Yet a well written, vibrant piece will result in the ‘death of the author’ because it is the very act of reading that brings the piece to life. The reader creates the meaning – and a good piece of writing allows many meanings for many people.

As I said, I love reading between the lines. I love fiction that makes me understand myself more – or the world I live in – or my neighbour. I love fiction because good fiction helps us learn fact.

Last night I started to read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce – I’m only on page 55 so this is in no way a review or recommendation but, it has to be said, I learned something I didn’t want to learn last night – so much so that I couldn’t shake the fact from my head as I went on my morning run.

My right eye leaks, it has done for as long as I can remember (although that’s no indication of when it started to leak – who, after all, would remember that their eye didn’t water?). I’ve always thought that this was perhaps some conspiracy of the cosmetic industry. My flooding right eye results in an excessive need to reapply make-up – and not just my eye make-up – we’re talking foundation, concealer, blusher along with, of course, mascara, liner, shadow. I think my annual cosmetic bill could be halved if I could repair my eye.

Last night, I found out that this is not a major conspiracy but, apparently, proof of my rapid ageing. Ok, unlike Harold, I don’t also have stiffening joints, ringing in the ears and a shooting pain in my chest but heck – I didn’t really want to find out last night that my right eye means I’m now an old lady? And does this mean I’ll find it hard to realise my ambition of living to 115 with all my faculties and spending my days annoying the hell out of people?

Of course if Barthes is correct (and I hope that he is), this is only one interpretation of Joyce’s words and across the globe there will be thousands of others and each of them, necessarily, different to those of the author.

Long live the reader – without you every writer’s words would be dead words.

(* Image Music Text Roland Barthes (1977) Fontana Press)

The Power of Lines

I attended school before health and safety; human rights hadn’t been embraced never mind the rights of a child and corporal punishment ruled. It wasn’t called that at primary school, it had no name, it was just It. Your parents sent you off confident that you would learn and be protected. Instead you suffered endless abuse. Some benign – standing on a chair all dinner because you dared to socialise whilst you grabbed a rushed sandwich or spending break with your nose pressed to the stone wall because you accidently tripped and the teacher thought you were pushing. Others sadistic – being hit with the thin edge of a ruler because you were pushed in the queue and your teacher thought you were dancing. And then there were the punishments which were an affront to literacy. Lines.

I was given lines once because I hadn’t copied my RE passage off the board quickly enough. I was five and the passage was about Jesus’ forty days in the dessert being tempted by the Devil. I had to write over and over, I must work quickly and neatly and then, on the next break, I had to copy the rest of the passage from a friend’s book.

Last Monday I gave myself another ‘lines’ exercise but not in any kind of tribute to my rather pathetic primary school experience. This was the act of reducing my poem from 67 lines to 40 in order to meet submission guidelines. I’ve read people’s letters in a number of literary magazines aimed at writers, letters where the author bemoans the paltry word or line allowances. Forty lines? Fifteen hundred words? And yet, despite my toils, I am firmly of the belief that restricting and shortening can (and usually does) improve work.

Having been inspired to write after reading Gethin Chamberlain’s harrowing article, my poem If The World Ends… went through countless drafts – there are only six electronic versions but my poetry writing depends upon my beautiful fountain pen and decent quality paper before I get anywhere near a computer. And my first electronic version was 67 lines. And I loved every single one of them. And I had a coffee and asked myself – is it so precious that I don’t submit? Or find a different forum – one with a more generous lineage? But I knew the answer was no.

Restricting lines makes us better poets because it makes us mess around with line length. It makes us take a coloured pen to everything, highlighting the bits we can’t lose, circling the iffy bits. Playing with metre, and enjambment… I love this stage in poetry writing but I’m curious what other poets and readers think.

If you’d like to read an early draft of my poem (if you can bear the subject matter more than once) and compare it to the published version then I’d love to hear from you – please do leave a comment or send me an email.