Because sometimes I need a nudge.

bookshelvesIn a flurry of office-rearrangement heavily disguised as tidying, I paused to flick through some old writing magazines.  Surely, I thought, it was time to re-use their space.

With a heap of books waiting for their turn on a shelf, I had determined to be ruthless, but it’s hard to overcome a natural instinct for hoarding.  I decided to compromise, and rip out pages worthy of saving.  That’s how I found myself rereading an interview Debbie Taylor did with Helen Dunmore for Mslexia, back in 2002. It concluded with this quote from Dunmore:

The more you do creatively, the more you can do.  You have to keep the momentum going.  If you are a musician and you don’t keep building it into your fingers for several hours every day, you will lose your edge.  It’s the same with writing.  It isn’t really the output that matters.  Sometimes it’s just the act of doing it.

I don’t see creativity as this fragile little flame that needs to be cherished.  I see it as an immensely powerful aeroplane.  as long as you don’t deliberately keep turning off the runway and going back to the terminal, it will take you wherever you want to go.

I put the magazine back in place, left the heap of books in their corner by the bookshelf and sat down at my desk – in the pilot-seat.

Dorothy Sebastian pilot, 1929I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for take-off.

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Getting to know a character.

The other day I woke up with a plot idea.  I jotted down the gist and then took the dogs for a walk.  Sometimes when I come back to such notes, I find they’ve lost their shine.  This time they hadn’t.  All they needed was the right character and something was sure to evolve.  It would be a woman, I knew that much, but who was she?

I could almost see her, just beyond my page, as a shadowy presence.  I had an idea about her size and colouring, but that’s not enough to shape a story.  I needed to know what she was really like.

photo(10)But where to start?  One way is to follow a questionnaire.   There are hundreds of variations to chose from, and they’re easy to get hold of – you can find one of mine here, or check out a search engine.  There are all sorts of formats: all kinds of lengths.

But, how do you know which one is best for you?

Well, I’d say that depends on how you use them.  Generally the format will be a numbered list of questions.  The tone often gets deeper as you move down the page.

I suppose the most important thing to remind you is that these are triggers, and while it’s a good idea to go with your first answer, you should also be prepared to revise details as you develop the profile.

So answering number 1, I gave her a name…Pippa.  But apart from a few celebrities, who goes through life with only one name?  We usually need at least a surname to balance that, so hello Pippa Phillips.

But then, instead of moving on to consider her age, I found myself wondering,  Pippa Phillips, Pippa Phillips…who gets a name like that?  How do they get a name like that?

Who better to ask than Pippa Phillips?  This is how my side of the conversation went:

Are you married?

What was your maiden name?

Ahh, so have you married a relation?  Interesting.

Have you children?

Who’s surname do they take?

How did you decide that?

You have a good relationship with your husband then? Oh, sorry, I shouldn’t make assumptions.

How did your families take that?

So, how long have you been together?

Cleary I’d moved off the questionnaire, but that shadowy presence I’d perceived was talking to me, and I like the idea that the story leads the writer. I knew that soon, Pippa would step out into the light and become a describable physical being, and not at all the person I’d first thought of.

DSCF5296Does it matter that I went off on a lateral line?  Just in case you think it does, let me ask how often you’ve been sent a survey that restricted you to an inapplicable set of assumptions?

Questionnaires are a general tool.  They make a great foundation for all sorts of exercises and stories.  But sometimes we need reminding that they’re not a formula, they’re a kick-off for creativity.

Group Sequence Poem

We’ve just finished a Writing Residential in North Wales – a great week, thank you very much, to all involved.DSCF6077One of the challenges I set the group this year was to contribute either a haiku or tanka to a Japanese style sequence poem.  A pad containing the first three lines was left on the coffee table.  This is the poem I picked up on the last day:

Voluptuous waves

matted fibres lift from the rocks

a forest wakens.

Carrying the soft waters

a spiral of tide and light.

Silver fish fly through

laughing green seaweed branches

dancing in their sky.

Infiltration of the stones

seaweed scent released to air.

Small stones roll to beach

children throw them at each other

no more smell of weed.

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Writing what you know.

Sunday: after a session of research for some sense-of-place classes, I turned on the radio and found Poetry Please.  I’m not a regular follower of the show.  Usually at that time I’m busy working or enjoying myself.

Yesterday though, having decided that the season is shifting from salad to soup temperatures, midway through the afternoon I dragged myself back from the fifth century, and set about chopping veg.

Housework, huh? I loathe it.  Despite the end results of having a tasty dish, or even a comfortably clean house, I can’t see the processes for getting there as anything other than tedious.  Consequently, I’ve perfected a variety of self-fooling strategies to contend with my resistance, (multi-tasking for the sake of my sanity?) via BBC radio 4.

My wireless rarely lets me down, and sometimes gives me a shiver of synchronicity.

bee hive 3Yesterday’s theme was Bees, which chimed because it soon became clear that the chosen poets, and the producer of the show, had also done some detailed research.  If I’d needed reminding about why it’s important to gather background material, listening to this did the trick.

Writing is not just about the words you write, it’s about the way you’ve seen or experienced things, and the world view you provide.  Here’s one of the poems that caught my attention.

                       The Hive

                       By Jo Shapcott.

The colony grew in my body all that summer.
The gaps between my bones filled
with honeycomb and my chest
vibrated and hummed. I knew
the brood was healthy, because
the pheromones sang through the hive
and the queen laid a good
two thousand eggs a day.
I smelled of bee bread and royal jelly,
my nails shone with propolis.
I spent my days freeing bees from my hair,
and planting clover and bee sage and
woundwort and teasel and borage.
I was a queendom unto myself.

Look at the way Shapcott has used technical detail.  Here aren’t dry facts, and she doesn’t give the impression of a glancing gathering of scientific terms.  Here is an imaginative involvement between nature and self.   And what happens when I hear it?  Well one outcome is I’m intrigued.  I look it up and read it, again and again, and think about that tingle I’m getting.  Could it be that I too feel the beginnings of a colony growing inside my body?

bee 7