Archive for the ‘The dreaded writer's block’ Category

Dear Poetry Newbies: how to write a poem RIGHT NOW

Monday, December 17th, 2012

At the rehearsal 02

An earlier version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008.

Writer’s Block is every poet’s worst nightmare. It takes advantage of the times you’re too busy or happy or miserable to think about sitting down to write, and then it digs its claws in. Sometimes, it only lasts a week or so before it gets bored and wanders off to find another victim – other times it sticks around for months, preventing you from putting pen to paper in any kind of meaningful way.
As you can probably tell, I like to visualise Writer’s Block as a small, annoying, fanged, furry creature. Why? Because that way, I feel more like I can beat it, squash it, call in my imaginary pest-control. I can get rid of it any time I want – and so can you. In fact, if you want to, you can write a poem – and a good poem – RIGHT NOW.

Read poetry.
I say this all the time – in fact, everyone says this all the time – and it may sound like a cliché, but it is the most important thing you can possibly do as a poet. Reading other people’s poetry teaches you to write better stuff, but it also gets you fired up and gives you inspiration when you need it. When I want to write but can’t find the ideas, I read other people’s poems until I find a line that makes me think “I could expand on that,” or even “I could’ve worded that better.” When I want to write but nothing sounds any good, I turn to poems I really enjoy and admire, to ‘remind’ me how it’s done. Using other people’s poetry as a jumping-off point for an original work is not plagiarism, and poets do it all the time. Can’t find a poem that inspires you? Get to a library, bookshop or thrift store and look around until something leaps off a page at you (it will, eventually, honest). You can even try looking online – check out this page for some great online poetry sites.

Read poetry you don’t like.
I got this one from a former creative writing tutor, and funnily enough, it works. Everyone has a poet they really, really hate – often one whose work they’ve been forced to analyse in school. Who’s yours? Maybe you have a few? And probably the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling creatively challenged is look at the poetry of someone whose very name gets you foaming at the mouth with loathing. Well, try it. Drag out Wordsworth’s Daffodils or Keats’ Grecian Urn or whatever your least-favourite poem happens to be, and read it over once again. This time, ask yourself: why do I hate this poem? Is it because it’s actually a bad poem, or is there another reason? Do I hate it because I don’t fully understand it? Because I associate it with something negative? Or is it just not to my taste? Think about what puts this particular poet on your personal blacklist… and then do the opposite. Try to find good bits in the poem – is there a particular line that stands out from the rest? Does the basic idea of the poem appeal to you? Has the poet used any unusual words or created an interesting metaphor? Analyse the poem fairly – and from a personal point of view (none of this textbook-style, “what are the hidden meanings?” stuff). Once you’ve worked out why you can’t stand this poet – or once you’ve realised that actually, maybe they’re not a total imbecile – you can start to think about your own work. Write the antithesis of a Wordsworth poem, or try putting yourself in Keats’ shoes and writing in his style. Reading your most hated author really can inspire you, honest. Try it!

Read absolutely ANYTHING.

Noticing a pattern here? That’s because reading = writing: fact. The more you read, the better you write, and although obviously poetry is the best thing to get you into a poetry-writing frame of mind, just about anything that involves the written word can inspire you. I once wrote a poem inspired by a Louise Welsh novel, and another inspired by a newspaper cutting about a grassfire. Hundreds of people have written poems inspired by letters they’ve read, sent, received. I know one poet who wrote an ode to her telephone directory when she realised it was out of date, and started reading through it. Reading other people’s words can be really inspiring – no matter what they are. Try grabbing whatever written thing is nearest to you – be it a novel, a how-to book, a pamphlet or an instruction manual. Read it over, pick a line you like, and imagine it is the title of a poem. Write that poem.

Freewrite.
This is something I do with my students when they’re feeling at a loss for words. If you ask me, all words are good words, and just about anything can be a poem or story if you’re willing to shape it into one. Basically, you start with a blank sheet and a pencil, you count to three, and then you start writing. You write anything, and you keep writing without stopping until the page is full. No stopping to think, no trying to turn the writing into any kind of coherent shape – just write. One pupil of mine, a twelve-year-old boy who found creative writing “really hard,” started free-writing about what he’d been up to at the weekend (camping in the woods with his mates, apparently), and ended up with the first few paragraphs of a great adventure story. Another, Lisa – fourteen and very shy – was mad with her sister and free-wrote a letter to God asking why He’d decided to make the two sisters so different. It became a weird and wonderful poem for her school portfolio. Many students (me too) find it hard to stop at just one page. Freewriting is writing, after all, and when you’ve been struck by the pesky Writer’s Block, it feels brilliant to be putting pen to paper.
NB: Freewriting is NOT about trying to make ‘a poem’ or ‘a story’ or even a ‘good’ piece of writing. It could turn out to be garbage, and you have to let it, and not be annoyed with yourself if it does. But chances are, it won’t – I bet you find that something emerges.

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You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

(Photo credit)

Time out.

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

Ginsberg & typewriters

“Most of the poets I know, hearing of a sum of money, translate it not into possessions, but into time — that precious immaterial necessity of our lives. It’s true that a poem can be attempted in brief interstitial moments, pulled out of the pocket and worked on while waiting for a bus or riding a train or while children nap or while waiting for a new batch of clerical work or blood samples to come in. But only certain kinds of poems are amenable to these conditions. Sometimes the very knowledge of coming interruption dampens the flicker. [...] Most, if not all, of the names we know in North American poetry are the names of people who have had some access to freedom in time.”

Adrienne Rich

Guys, I’m taking some time out from online life for a while — especially Facebook — to work on my first collection. You know, properly. You can still get me at claire@onenightstanzas.com.

See you on the other side…

Get the gist? Saying hello to what you really think about your writing

Monday, April 30th, 2012

memory

I was directed towards Arvon’s callout to writers for their forthcoming book, Gists, by the lovely and talented Kim Moore. Arvon want to hear what and how you think about your own writing process, and they might even deign to publish your responses alongside writers who are, you know, doing it properly. Famous, and that.

I decided to go and fill in their form because of how Kim framed it — she’d been advised to answer the questions instinctively, without thinking too much. The result was that she found out a few things about her writing process that she’d never really thought about before. Book or no book, that had to be a good idea, I reasoned.

I did the same thing as Kim. I read each question once, and not desperately carefully, and then I answered that question and moved on without reading over my answers. Fortunately, they’re not too rambling and they don’t seem too riddled with typos. The results are below. Those of you who’ve read my poems — or indeed, this blog — can tell me if they’re a fair reflection or not! And if you want to fill out the questionnaire yourself, you can do so here.

How does a book or piece of writing begin to take shape in your imagination? Do you feel your writing is a process of inventing or discovering?

It’s definitely a process of discovery. I’m a poet, and often the ‘trigger’ for a poem will just appear, unbidden. I’ll suddenly hear a line in my head, or find a few snappy words stuck in there like an old tune. I put the trigger line or phrase on a piece of paper and then start poking around with it, building on it slowly. I think that’s actually more like it: it’s more like building than anything else.

What things trigger your imaginative process (for example, significant personal experiences, particular people, places, objects, dream imagery, myths, history, etc)?

All sorts of things. But I write best when I get out of my comfort zone — when I travel to somewhere completely new and a bit unknown, for example, or when something jolts me into uncomfortable territory. I write best when I’m unhappy, when I’m angry. I find that being happy means I write less, and when I do write I produce sweet, placid poems that don’t take as many risks.

How do you work - do you plan carefully or explore in the dark, trusting the process?

I’m not a planner. I try to set aside time to write, but often that doesn’t work — the afternoon I’ve kept free for poetry ends up a frustrated few hours of scribbling and then binning. I’m better when I just trust that the poetry will come and let it come as and when it wants to. I write well on long journeys, on planes and trains. I very often get ideas just as I’m going to bed. I’ve learned that I need to make myself write things down as they appear, because they all too easily melt away again.

Do you feel in control of your writing or are you responsive to the requirements of the work as it unfolds?

I have learned to become more in control. I used to be very much of the ‘first thought, best thought’ school, but I’ve since gained a MSc in Creative Writing and I’m now reading for a Creative Writing PhD. I’ve realised that although, as I said above, I have to trust the process and let poetry appear as and when it wants to, I can also shape and curate the results. So I try to find a good middle ground. If an idea seems silly but won’t stop nagging at me, I’ll try anything once. But I’m also happy to chop things out if they look less promising after a draft or two.

Do you write a first draft quickly and then revise it, or build carefully from the start?

I edit as I go along. I’ll draft and redraft and redraft on a line by line basis, so by the end of the first full draft, the poem is already forming clearly. But I’ll also do several re-writes of each piece. I write long-hand in a large notebook and will usually write a poem out three or four times minimum before transferring it to the typewriter. I’ll try it with stanza breaks in different places, without stanza breaks, mess with enjambment. Then into the manual typewriter. I realise this is an old fashioned way of doing things — especially as I’m only 26 and learned to type on a computer — but I love what using a manual typewriter does to my writing. It makes me careful, and it makes me appreciate and respect the page, its shapes and limitations, much more than word processing does.

How do you deal with blocks in the writing process?

I used to get very stressed about creative block, but then some elders and betters pointed out to me that stress begets stress and the best way to deal with blocks is to ride them out. Now, I am very chilled about creative block. If I can’t write poetry for a few weeks, I’ll write something else — I also write non-fiction essays and a blog. I also read as much as I possibly can — other people’s poems, mainly. Reading, and just reading, dissolves a creative block much faster than any amount of forced creative writing exercises ever could.

Do you write in service of any particular values?

Accessibility. I teach Literature 101 to young people from backgrounds where books just do not factor into people’s lives. These are readers who find the very idea of the written word frightening. They don’t understand the concept of storytelling, and poetry in particular looks like voodoo. Yet, when I introduce them to a poet whose goal is openness and understanding — someone like Billy Collins — they suddenly get it. And they want to read it, and they want to write. They find that they really like poetry. Why would any poet want to suggest that poetry ought to be difficult, that poetry ought to deliberately shut out these readers? Yet plenty do, and often they’re the same poets who are simultaneously worrying over dwindling poetry audiences. I just don’t understand.

What have you learned from the practice of your craft?

That reading and writing and sharing poetry has power in it. Poetry is often misunderstood by those who’ve never really dealt with it — people think it’s archaic and serves no purpose. This isn’t true. Poetry is what language was made for. Get struggling students to write poems and their literacy scores will sky-rocket, as will their social skills. Get a poet to write your advertising copy and see what happens (a lot of companies have begun to do this — look how many TV ads are written in verse these days). Poetry is not old-fashioned, doesn’t have to be self-aggrandising or dull. I’ve learned that none of the rumours are true. Poetry is seriously hip, and what’s more, it’s a long way from being dead.

What is the relationship between the writer’s imagination and that of the reader?

When, as a reader, I really connect with a writer’s work, it’s not like a conversation — it’s deeper than that. It’s almost like a hive-mind. A good writer puts me in their character’s skin and lets me see, hear and feel what’s happening. As a teacher of creative writing I utterly hate the command, “show, don’t tell”, and ban it from my classrooms. But that command is heading in the right direction — writers shouldn’t just tell the reader something. The reader should come out of the other end of a great piece of writing feeling changed. Don’t tell them, don’t show them — change them. Maybe that’s it.

Do writers have any moral responsibility in their work, wider than fidelity to their personal vision?

Writers should always be thinking about their readers. Just as publishers and agents needs writers and should therefore respect those writers’ needs, writers need readers and should treat them accordingly. The poets I mentioned earlier who shout about their ‘right’ to write difficult, obscure poetry and still have it reviewed? They’re not thinking about the reader. Personally, I want as many people as possible to be able to access, understand and enjoy my poems. It’s not hard to make sure that you’re not being elitist.

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You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!

Writing for theatre masterclass with Douglas Maxwell

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Hello there, ONS-ers… long time no speak. You may have noticed that the scenery hasn’t changed much lately here, or perhaps you’ve spotted some of the heaps of spam comments beginning to clog up some of the posts. Sorry, and sorry… I’ve been insanely busy these past couple of months. Right now, I am teaching creative writing at the Scottish Universities International Summer School, based at the University of Edinburgh. I’m loving every second, but it doesn’t leave much time for updating ONS… or indeed, anything else. However, last week my students and I were treated to a brilliant masterclass on ‘writing for theatre’, given by Scottish playwright Douglas Maxwell. I know, I know, this is a poetry blog — but he came out with so much brilliant stuff that I felt I had to share just a few of his pearls of wisdom with you…

“Being a playwright is a bit like being in The Who. We’re wild, we’re messy, we’re all over the shop… but we’re great live.”

“Everyone in the world has an unfinished novel or screenplay under the bed. But they’re not in the game. That’s not doing it; that’s pretending.”

“You need two personalities to be a good writer — you need the sensitive artist who’s a satellite to the rest of the world… but you also need a kind of ‘fuck you’ attitude — you’ve got to have the steel and not let this destroy you.”

“Day One writing is always good — everyone likes the first day. day Two: not so good. You get up in the morning and go ‘what the fuck? Someone’s messed with this! This was great yesterday!’”

“You’ve got to remember what it’s like when you’ve paid to see the thing… audiences really want it to be good, at the beginning. They want to help you.”

“You must, must protect yourself from bitterness. It’s a talent-eater. It’s like cocaine, it destroys lives. You’ve got to keep your enthusiasm and your openness, or you’ll never get anywhere.”

“Your main character must make a big decision — the ‘to be or not to be’ moment where they can go one way or the other. And the way they go will take them, and you, to the end. And they either get or don’t get what they always wanted.”

“Even on the very worst day, just get to the place where you write, and wait.”

Douglas Maxwell’s Decky Does A Bronco is currently showing in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

(Photo by Eric Lafforgue)

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Stay sharp: write more.

Monday, May 17th, 2010

My students are now well and truly bogged down in assessment season, and I’m currently handing out all sorts of hints and tips to help them stay sharp, use their time wisely and revise to the best of their ability… and hopefully pass with flying colours. The more advice I give out, the more I think I ought to apply it myself — a lot of it is good advice for writers as well as terrified students. I thought I’d share some of it here… so whether you’re a stressed-out writer or a revision-weary student, read on!

1. Sleep well.
Staying up til half past two in the morning because you’re on a roll (be it a writing-roll or a revision-roll) is all very well, but your judgement is often not what it should be when you’re totally wiped-out tired. You may think you’re writing at your very best but chances are you’re not really firing on all cylinders… and what’s more, you’re sabotaging the next day’s writing too. Better to find a natural pause, maybe write yourself some notes so you know where to pick things up tomorrow, and go get some shut-eye.

2. Start early.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am definitely not one of those writers who gets up at 4am and writes an entire academic thesis before the sun’s even come up. However, I do know that on lazy days when I sleep in til noon, I get nothing done. See point 2: go to bed at a reasonable hour, then you can get up at a reasonable hour, too. Knowing you have the whole day ahead of you to get some work done is a big motivation, whereas knowing you’ve wasted half of it slonking in bed will just make you feel guilty and tempt you to write the day off as a total loss. So if you’re reading this from under the duvet — get your butt out of bed already!

3. Eat breakfast.
Very few of my students do this, apparently — “breakfast” to most of them means a can of Red Bull and a cigarette in the five minutes before college starts. But whether you’re revising for your finals or sculpting the latest chapter of your novel, you need to fuel up properly in order to stay the course. A hungry brain is an ineffective brain — and a distracted one.

4. Take breaks.
If you’re lucky enough to have the whole day to write, that’s awesome… but don’t go thinking that you have to write solidly for twelve hours without stopping. Therein lies disaster: you’ll start to flag and your writing will suffer, you’ll get tired or bored and start to resent the task, and/or you’ll find yourself resorting to procrastination in order to break up the monotony. The human brain works at its best for around 45 minutes and then starts to need a rest, so make sure it gets one. I advise my students to split every hour into blocks of 45 minutes work and then 15 minutes rest… and rest means total rest, ie, not even thinking about your poem/novel/notes/revision/whatever. I advise making a cup of tea, reading the paper or going for a walk, but NOT potentially brain-numbing activities like watching TV (15 minutes can turn into an afternoon-long Sex and the City marathon really easily, trust me!) or playing computer games (just one more level just one more level oh dammit, it’s midnight, how’d that happen?) Take heed!

5. Hydrate yourself.
Very much like the breakfast advice: a dehydrated brain is an ineffective, easily distracted, fuzzy and tired brain. If you do not water the ideas-plant, it will not bloom, so drink some water already! I also advise my students to stay away from caffeinated coffee, nasty energy drinks and sticky stuff like Cola and Lucozade… water really is best. Or if you want to stay really razor-sharp, drink some ginko tea. It improves circulation and sends more blood to the brain, and also enhances memory. Works for me — I always drink it before an exam!

6. Use the time you have.
What seems to panic students most is fitting enough revision time into the day — they all have college classes, part time jobs and extracurricular activities, which seems to leave very little time for additional studying. I think this is a common writerly worry as well… when you have a full time job, family commitments and all sorts of other stuff going on, writing can get left behind. The best thing to do is learn to use the time that you have. Writers find this really hard — we all want to be able to devote whole days to just sitting and writing, but realistically it’s just never going to happen. Instead, we need to adapt so that we can scribble a few lines on the bus to work, or edit that short story while watching the TV of an evening (or alternatively, see point 8!). I see students sitting with their books and notes, revising in the canteen over lunch, or grabbing a few minutes in the stairwells between classes to look over their practice assessments. Writers can learn a lot from this ’study anywhere’ stance!

7. Do what you can.
But yes, I know… sometimes The Muse just isn’t there, and she just won’t turn up no matter how much you will her to appear. My students complain of the same problem — they’re reading the notes over and over, but the information just isn’t going in. In which case, say I: do what you can. If you can’t find the inspiration to write, do something else productive. I’d always say that if you can’t write, read. If you’ve got half an hour between appointments but you can’t get words out onto the page, grab someone else’s poetry book or get yourself over to Poetry Archive. Sample some ideas… it may make all the difference the next time you try to put pen to paper.

8. Turn off the damn TV.
I’ve said this so often here that I’m starting to feel like a stuck record, but the TV (and its evil cousin the games console) is out to get your creativity, and must be thwarted. Time spent watching TV is essentially time spent doing nothing, and although this is not always a bad thing, you should think carefully about your TV time before you sink into the sofa. Are you just channel hopping, or watching whatever’s on even if it’s drivel? If so, think: do I want to numb my brain like this, really? Do I care what happens to the people on this show I’ve never seen before and don’t really care about? Or could I possibly be writing, or doing something that might better facilitate my writing? I ask my students to choose: would they rather find out what happened to Crystabelle’s marriage in Soapland, or get an A in their exam? Is it a hard decision…?

9. Read this article.
Procrastination can be your friend… honest.

10. Don’t be afraid to give up and start again tomorrow.
Sometimes you have days where you get out of bed at 8am and the next thing you know, it’s 11pm and you’ve got nothing done. Everyone has those days, and they suck. You feel a total failure and it’s tempting to stay up til the wee hours of the morning cramming in revision or scribbling down the first ideas that pop up in your frazzled brain. Don’t do it: heed point number one and give up, get some sleep and try again tomorrow. At the end of the day, no one aces every single test life chucks at them. There’s always tomorrow!

Are you a student? Former student? Any novel revision survivial tips? Any sure-fire ways to optimise your writing? You know where the comments box is!

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Writing through crazy times.

Monday, January 26th, 2009

I hear from a lot of people who claim that they can’t write unless ‘the mood is right,’ or unless ‘the Muse smiles on them.’ Not a good situation to be in… and what’s more, it’s largely psychosomatic. Just because you like to write when things are calm and quiet and you’re feeling inspired doesn’t mean that you’re incapable of writing when things are hectic and crazy. And in the interests of variety and just being more prolific (never a bad thing), we should all learn to write even when we don’t feel like it. But how? Here are some tips…

1. Be willing to change your habits.
In all the ‘how to write well’ books, you’re told to set up a strict routine and stick to it — I’ve heard “write for two hours every morning” reeled off many a time, for example. I’m not doing these practices down — getting into a writing routine is definitely a good idea, but it can also get you into a rut. Hauling yourself out of bed when you know you have to sit right down and write for two hours can turn writing into something you resent, and it can also leave you feeling like you can’t write at other times of day or in other situations where the conditions are perhaps not exactly the same. If things get hectic and you find that your writing is taking a back seat, change your routine. Try writing at the opposite end of the day, allocate yourself a small amount of time (say, your lunch break) and see what you can get down on paper, or think of the time you’d least want to spend writing (on the bus with everyone looking over your shoulder, maybe?), and force yourself to try it. This doesn’t just give writing a different importance within your day, it can also make a difference to the words that are formed. A piece written late at night when you’re used to writing first thing in the morning will probably be radically different to your usual. Try it and see what happens.

2. Don’t censor.
When things are calm and collected and we have the time and the right conditions, writing comes more easily, we think. Poems come out better formed and need less editing, sentences are more original. True? Maybe, but probably not. When everything feels ‘right,’ we’re just more relaxed and willing to go with the flow, whereas when things are hectic and the setting isn’t 100% ideal for writing, we’re more on edge, and our internal censor’s voice seems far louder. So if you’re sitting down to write in the midst of a crazy patch, you’re going to have to force yourself to ignore that annoying voice. Yes, you’ll probably sit thinking “this is all going to be rubbish because I never normally write at this time of day and I know I’m going to get distracted” or “I have too many other things on my plate to be sitting writing”, but tough — push those thoughts to one side. The writing you produce when you’re stressed or busy will be different to the writing you produce when you’re calm and relaxed, but it won’t necessarily be any worse… that’s just a myth you’ve created for yourself. So no matter what your inner censor says, resist screwing up your piece of paper and chucking it in the bin. No matter how you feel about the material that emerges, hide it away somewhere and come back to it later to see how it measures up. You might be surprised by how much it seems to have improved while it’s been in storage…

3. Don’t feel guilty.
Crazy times come in all different shapes and sizes — you might just be stressing about a task you’ve been putting off, or you might be going through a massive house-move. Either way, if you’re a writer, you should not let your work fall by the wayside, no matter how mad the situation. If you need half an hour’s study-break to write a poem, or a couple of hours off from boxing up your posessions to scribble something down, just do it. Feeling guilty about the other stuff you should be doing is counterproductive — because what you should be doing is writing. It’s not like you’re sneaking off to watch some tacky TV soap or something — your writing is a perfectly worthwhile activity… possibly more worthwhile than the stuff you feel guilty about not doing! Too many writers see their writing as something that just has to be squeezed in around the rest of their lives, only getting a spare five minutes’ attention when there’s nothing more important to be done. This could be most important thing of all, you lot! No guilt allowed!

4. Take extra care.
OK, when things around you are crazy, chances are you will also be a little crazy yourself — no offense! Even the most calm and collected individual can be thrown into flux by hectic situations. You’re more likely to lose things when you’re stressed, so keep a close eye on your notebook, and if you get a good idea, write it down straight away, because I can guarantee that it’ll fly out of your head immediately if you have other, bigger things on your mind. Make sure you back up your data, too — there’s nothing worse than hitting ‘OK delete’ when you’re not totally on the ball and then punishing yourself for losing something awesome. Don’t edit too rigorously if things are hectic, and if you do, keep your old drafts — you might make changes that will later seem like too much. Basically, just take your time, and pay attention… and if you do mess up, don’t sweat it. Just make sure you carry on writing!

Do you write all the time, or does the mood have to be right? What conditions do you need before you feel you can write?

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DO NOT ban words from your poetic vocabulary!

Friday, November 14th, 2008

I recently heard that Bloodaxe issues a list of “banned words” to any poet they plan to publish. I’ll be honest - this shocked the hell out of me. I’m guessing that it may not be 100% true, but even so, it’s only one example of a worrying trend happening in poetry - creating a hierarchy of words in which some are “good,” others are “bad,” and a few are even “banned.”
This process is, if you ask me, ridiculous - and yet many, many people buy into it; particularly those who teach creative writing. As a brand-new fourteen year old poet, I used heaps of these so-called “banned words” all the time, and had someone come along and said to me “you can’t use x, y and z, and if you do, your poem’s no good,” I’d have been devastated. Fair enough - established poets probably should challenge themselves, and be constantly on the lookout for ways to revitalise their work… and if that means limiting the words they use, hey, so be it. But creating some kind of laundry list of “words not to be used in poetry under any circumstances” is just misleading and wrong, particularly for young and inexperienced poets. Surely the main thing to do is encourage as wide and varied a vocabulary as possible, for everyone?

I started thinking about this issue a while ago - for a couple of years now, I’ve worked with a tutor whose mantra is “you can’t say soul” (’soul’ is sometimes replaced with ‘love,’ ‘dark,’ or ‘desire’… but you get the idea). This has always bothered me, and recently I decided to put something on ONS on the subject. While researching the idea of “banned poetry words,” I found this perhaps-not-in-all-seriousness-but-still-pretty-worrying list of words never to be used in a poem… currently there are 99, and they’re adding more all the time.
I’m not afraid to say that this really saddened me. I dread to think how many inexperienced poets have visited this site and felt a huge confidence knock… and this is only one example of many out there circulating the internet. Young poets write about love, depression, darkness and loss… and yes, sometimes they also write about dragons. GET OVER IT ALREADY. To suggest that these things are off-limits to poets who are just writing about what they know is snobbery of the highest order. The important thing is this: they are writing. In ten years’ time, when they come to put together their award-winning manuscript, I’m pretty sure they’ll have learned a thing or two about language, and maybe they’ll choose to ditch certain themes, images, and even words. But maybe they won’t, and that’s up to them.

Encouragingly, I found a post on Rob A Mackenzie’s blog, talking about this very issue. Rob points out that a) some of the best poets around today use all these “banned words” all the time, to great effect, and b) sometimes, using “clichéd” or “banned” words can actually make your poem better:

“Using language that borders on cliche shows a lack of artifice on the part of the writer, and that approach gives a love poem the impression of being genuine. Whereas a love poem full of fresh, original imagery looks more planned out, as though the heart had less to do with it.”

Rob does point out that, “handled with less skill, the poems could all have come over as stale and clichéd” - and this is the crux of the issue. If you’re a good enough poet, you should be able to put ‘heart’, ’soul’, ‘dark’ and ‘desire’ in the same line and still make it sound amazing. It’s not the words you use, it’s how you use them, after all. After reading Rob’s post, I started to wonder whether this may be the case: poets who feel inadequate about their own abilities are the people who create these lists of “banned words”… and they do so in order to make up for their own inability to use them. After all, if they can persuade the whole poetry community to join them in condemning these words in anyone’s poems, they’ll never have to face up to their own lack of skill when it comes to writing about love, or the inner workings of their soul.
Think on that.

So basically, to anyone who’s ever encountered the “banned words” phenomenon and felt inadequate or confused, or to anyone who’s used “love” a million times in their poems and never thought twice, my message is this: carry on as you are. Ignore this “banned,” “bad,” “overused”, “clichéd” and “blacklisted” kind of crap. Do as Rob recommends - use these words carefully; think about their meanings and make sure they’re working hard for you, like every word in every poem should be. But under no circumstances should you abandon them. Words (and this is why I get annoyed with people who object to swearing in poetry, too) are the only tools a poet has, and they can be pretty slippery fish to begin with. Taking 99 of those tools away - and worse, publicly ridiculing anyone who uses them - is completely counter-productive. So don’t do it. Don’t ban words. There is no such thing as “bad” language.

(DISCLAIMER: A while ago, in my Poetry Rules - I still want to hear YOURS, by the way! - I stated that I’d never use the word “gossamer” in a poem. This was mainly through fear, because a pedantic English teacher had driven this rule into my head at high school and I’d never really been able to forget it! However, I recently had a “gossamer” epiphany, in the form of this poem. See? He even rhymes “gossamer” and “lobster” - and it works! Surely proof that any word is acceptable, yes?)

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, guys. Do you have a list of words never-to-be-used? How do you feel about this phenomenon?

Also to read:
You don’t choose your literary heroes: they choose you
Youth really can = success… even in poetry!
Dealing with negative criticism
Writing in the face of adversity
If you don’t read, you will never be successful

(Photo by Redgum)

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20 unlikely places to find inspiration: Part III

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Don’t forget to check out Part I and Part II for more weird and wonderful places to find inspiration!

11. Your bed.
I get some of my best ideas when I’m about to fall asleep, last thing at night… sometimes whole stanzas just arrive, fully formed; other times I hit on that pesky title I’ve been wracking my brains for. I know other people who claim that they dream in poetry, and wake up in the morning desperate for a pen to get down the events of their dreams before they fade. Regardless of whether you’ve noticed this happening to you or not, it’s always a good idea to have a notebook by the bed. Don’t go thinking you’ll remember that late-night, half-asleep stanza… you won’t, so get it scribbled down! And even if you never get any sleepy flashes of genius, bed is always a good place to write… it’s quiet and it’s comfy!

12. TV Commercials.
There was a recent British TV ad for toothpaste which advised parents to make sure their children took care of their teeth because they had a long life ahead of them. The narrator of the ad went on to list all the things your mouth does as you grow up - drinking, laughing, whispering, teaching, etc. I thought this was a really cool idea - it didn’t make me buy the toothpaste, but it did make me write a poem about how amazing mouths are. Just about everyone watches TV, and ads are everywhere… so next time you switch on, don’t just be persuaded or distracted by all those commercials. Be inspired, too!

13. Believe-it-or-not news items.
Bon Dylan famously scours newspapers for interesting stories to write songs about - he wrote the spoken-word-song, Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues after reading about a boating picnic which went tragically awry after hundreds of fake tickets were sold, and and the boat sank under the weight of too many extra passengers. I was inspired to write a poem after reading about a woman in drought-stricken New Mexico who burned a letter from her husband’s mistress in her garden, and started a grassfire which burned down her own home. What about the pictures of a newly-discovered South American tribe which turned out to be faked as a protest against logging? What about the fact that sometimes, so many people turn their kettles on at once that the National Grid goes down? Potential for poetry? I think so!

14. Your old English jotters.
Yes, really. Drag those dusty old school exercise books out of the loft and have a good read… check out some of the stories, poems and essays you wrote during your formative years. Perhaps they’ll spark a poem about your hellish school-playground experiences; perhaps the scrawled doodles in the margins will prompt a love-sonnet about a forgotten school crush. Write a homage to a dynamic English teacher or nick a line from one of your juvenile creations to kick-start a brand new poem. It may sound bizarre, but try it - you may even look back to find you were a poetic child-genius who wrote a load of great pieces you never even knew you had!

15. Urban myths.
A girl is babysitting when she receives a phonecall from a guy who threatens to kill her. Thinking it’s a prank, she calls the police to have the call traced. Moments later they call back to warn her to get out, the call came from inside the same house - but no one answers the phone…
How abou the fly that made its nest in a guy’s dreadlocks, resulting in hatched fly larvae eating into his scalp? Or the widow whose fox stole bit her and gave her rabies??
These weird and wonderful stories fly around in the cosmos, passing from person to person, waiting to get picked up by gossip magazines or turned into low-budget horror movies. Why not get there first and make one of them into a strange, funny or chilling poem?

Let me know your unusual inspirations! & keep an eye out for Part IV!

(Photo by Jessi)

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20 unlikely places to find inspiration: Part II

Monday, October 20th, 2008

Last week I started this series with Part I. It’s already inspired some of you to write! Here’s Part II…

6. Shopping lists
Or receipts. Or notes stuck to the fridge. Or train tickets. These things can all provide poetic fuel, particularly if they belong to someone else. Next time you spot a receipt blowing along in the wind, grab it and take a look! Who dropped it? Look at what they bought and figure out what kind of person they might be. Who served them? How did they interact?
And how about shopping lists? What was on the mind of the person who scribbled their list? Why does “flour” come first, for example… were they planning to bake cupcakes for a birthday party? Mix their own chemical-free wallpaper paste? Make a flour-bomb and play a prank on a friend? Make papier mache animals? You decide!

7. Reference books.
Billy Collins once wrote a poem about how interesting it is to just read an encyclopaedia, cover-to-cover. But it’s not just interesting - it can be inspiring, too. Reference books contain all sorts of information, which can be translated into poetry - you can learn about people, places, inventions and objects that you might never have known about otherwise. You can learn about the meaning of words - any word, even your own name. Susan Wooldridge loves biology reference books that list the scientific and informal names for fish, birds, trees and flowers:

“I brought wildflower books on family hikes in the park until I realised my obsession with the name of each flower was ruining our walks. For better or worse, by then we could recognise fiddle neck, stork bill, butter and eggs, gold field, yellow carpet, brodiea, seepspring monkey flower, Indian paintbrush, tidy tips, popcorn flower, shooting star, birdseye and owl’s clover, among others… [Before,] the woods were just kinda green.”
- Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life With Words.

Why is a pansy also called Kit-run-in-the-fields? Why do we use the expression “a kettle of fish”? Find out, or just speculate, and make up a poem as you go.

8. Nursing homes.
Here’s your chance to make a difference to your local community, AND to open up a goldmine of inspiration. This applies to hospitals, day centres and daytrips too - anywhere where the awesome elderly can be found. Think anyone over 70 is out of touch with the world you live in? Think again - those people built the world you live in, for better or worse. So get volunteering - or even working - with elderly people. Chat to them - they have all the best stories, and all too often they’re in need of someone to tell them to. In my many conversations with these lovely people, I’ve heard from a 94 year old lady who worked as a paramedic in World War 2, with only a few days’ rushed medical training, and I’ve met a guy who reckons he made his fortune smuggling diamonds. My own crazy grandmother has been the subject of many a juicy poem. In short, most young people = yet to get interesting, while elderly people = living, breathing poems.

9. Listening.
Put yourself anywhere where you can sit comfortably and listen in to other people’s conversations. I know it’s nosy and very un-British, but even a throwaway remark picked up on the breeze can make a great poem title or ending line. Next time you’re at the hairdressers/supermarket/whatever, tune into the background chatter. Pick up the tiny dramas of people’s lives while you grab a cup of coffee. And if you really can’t stand the idea of being a total nosy parker… ask. Strike up a conversation with your local newsagent, or ask the taxi driver who picks you up how their day is going. Either way, all you have to do is listen… the ideas are there, you just need to receive them!

10. Classified ads.
Unless you’re on the lookout for something, chances are you never really pay attention to those little ads in the back of your newspaper. And frankly, it’s time you did! Personally, I like the “desperately seeking” ones best… you know: “you, striking blonde with your arm in plaster. Me: the guy with the black bag who helped you in Tesco. Can’t forget you.” They sound ridiculous, but they’re full of potential! Who’s the blonde? Why did their have their arm in plaster? What was in the black bag? Why so unforgettable?!
Even the buying/selling ads are interesting. Imagine the possibilities of “locked strongbox for sale, offers considered”, or “wanted: photographs of British expatriates in India, early 20th century.” Next time you buy a paper, find an ad that appeals, or check out classifieds online. Mess around with them. Make poems.

Tell me your unlikely inspirations!

Also to read:
20 unlikely places to find inspiration: Part I
How to write a poem RIGHT NOW
Quit procrastinating!

(Photo by Greenhem)

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20 unlikely places to find inspiration: Part I

Monday, October 13th, 2008


Blocked up? Short of ideas? Got a deadline? Or just fancy trying something different, writing-wise? Try looking for the Muse in some of these unlikely places…

1: The Phone Book. The humble phonebook rarely earns its keep. Most people have one - no doubt yours is gathering dust somewhere - and yet few people realise the phonebook’s inspiration-potential. Every home has one, they’re delivered free to your door, and best of all, they’re huge – packed with weird and wonderful information that’s just waiting to be turned into poems. Have a look at some of the strange things that fall side-by-side. Pole-dancing instructors next to plumbers, taxi-drivers next to taxidermy-while-you-wait. What happens when a plumber takes pole-dancing lessons? What might a taxi driver need a last-minute taxidermist for? What kind of bizarre character reads the phonebook?! These situations are poems waiting to happen.

2: Public Toilets. Next time you’re in a manky public loo, try for a moment to forget about the lack of toilet roll or the worrying smell coming through the air-con vents, and cast your eyes around for any graffiti. Chances are that a lot of it will look exactly like the usual Jez-was-ere or Becca-hearts-Gary stuff, but even these things have their own stories. Think about who Jez might have been, and why they felt the need to immortalise themselves on a loo wall. Who are Becca and Gary, and what’s the nature of their relationship? Maybe Becca lusts after Gary from afar, and Gary doesn’t know she exists. Maybe Becca and Gary are in their eighties, and scrawled a heart on the wall to mark their 60th wedding anniversary. Write the story behind the wall-defacer… make them into a poem!

3: Long journeys. No one likes a ten hour flight, a day-long bus ride or an epic trip squashed into the back of a car. And you might think that the time you spend making boring but necessary journeys is just an all-round waste of your life. But not so! For one, these trips provide you with long swathes of time where you have hardly anything to distract you (well, except maybe for the moron on the train who has a polyphonic music phone and thinks headphones are things that only happen to other people). Secondly, even car trips can provide you with an endless supply of human inspiration. Look around at your fellow passengers, or look out of the window at the people and things you’re whizzing past. Where are these people going? What do they do? Do any of them look particularly interesting or crazy? Make a poem for them.

4: Other people’s poems. There’s a difference between plagiarising someone and being inspired by them. Is there a poem with a central idea you’re crazy about? There’s no harm in exploring the same idea yourself. Found a clever line you wish you wrote? Scribble it down and then explore it in your own way. Find a poem that you think misses a trick, or that you think you could have written better, and get your own version down on paper. All poetry-writing involves some form of stealing – and as long as you don’t just blatantly copy, and make sure you give credit where it’s due, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with finding inspiration in the writing of others. Give it a try.

5: Dentist’s waiting rooms, bus stations, and anywhere else where you might find public information posters, educational flyers or lists of regulations. The language that appears here is far from poetic but can provide food for thought. If you stare at the same poster for a long period of time, the formal, boring message can disappear and the words themselves can start to play tricks on you. A friend of mine, poet Sarah Wardle, tried this in a hospital corridor with a flyer entitled “NHS TRUST: OUR CORE VALUES.” After a while the “NHS,” and the “OUR” faded into the middle distance, and the flyer’s new message birthed a poem about being true to yourself, entitled Trust Core Values. So next time you’re mindlessly staring at a billboard while waiting for the traffic lights, plug your brain in and look beyond the slogan. You might see nothing… but you might see a poem.

Part II coming soon!
(Got an unlikely inspiration? I want to hear it!)

Also to read:
Pen Names and A Closer Look at Pen Names
How To Write A Poem RIGHT NOW.
Useful advice from writers and editors
What’s the deal with poetry readings?

(Photo by Dreamer7112)

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