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