I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past few weeks working on poetry as part of my MacDowell Fellowship in New Hampshire. I’ve also been spending a lot of time sitting in the beautiful James Baldwin Library at MacDowell, looking out at the gorgeous views of meadows and forest beyond.

With both of those things in mind, I thought I’d share a poem.

‘In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss’ is a poem in my second chapbook, Assembly Instructions (Southword Press, 2019). It was written following a workshop I ran a year or so ago, at my old school: QEGS in Penrith, Cumbria. I was working with the school’s creative writing club, exploring poetry and its relationship to place. The workshop took place in the school library…

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In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss

the students are writing poems. I say,
write in an animal. Include an insect –
make the poem crawl. End
with something that opens, give it space.
What colour is your poem? Blue, they say, or Green.
One says his poem contains a bird and birds
always make a poem purple.

What colour was that Friday afternoon
before the buses came? Some now-or-never
shade – when never was Monday and weekends
were an ocean –
and I remember his mouth was the pink
cavity of a conch, and the books were grey with dust
and undisturbed, though I swear behind their spines
they whispered. I swear they’re whispering now.

The boy’s tongue tasted of pennies and rich tea biscuits
and there was too much of it. Our kiss
was the colour of water.

I say, put water into your poems.
Like the sea?

Yes, I say, or a vase or tap
or gob of spit.

                        But Miss, they say,
that could be anything.

And I say, Yes. Exactly.

 

So many times, at book talks and author events, I’ve heard people ask a writer: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I’ve been asked it myself – often by children in school writing workshops. And it makes sense as a question; we’re so often fascinated by the workings of other people’s minds, and by the creation of something out of nothing.

But the thing is, it’s kind of a difficult question to answer. A lot of the time, our ideas seem to appear to us from nowhere, from the mysterious depths of the unconscious. Call it inspiration. Call it a synaptic glitch. Call it the creative brain working overtime while all you appear to be doing is washing the dishes. However you see it, it’s certainly difficult to pin down, and many writers don’t really have a clue where that initial spark of an idea actually comes from.

Which is great if you’re a writer and enjoy maintaining an air of mystery – but rubbish if you’re stuck for story ideas and just want somewhere reliable to find one.

Writers’ block and what to do about it

Well here are five prompts for seeking out an idea. Unlike some of my previous prompts, these ones are actually sequential – so they lead on from one another. The idea being that, at the end, you’ll have enough of an idea to get you writing a new story. It may work for you. It may not. Either way, practice makes perfect!

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1 – Go somewhere you’ve never been before

‘Once a year, go somewhere you’ve never been before.’ – Dalai Lama

Most of the time, when you see this quotation online, it’s superimposed against a backdrop of palm trees or world maps or aeroplanes. But going somewhere new doesn’t have to mean travelling to another continent. It can be just as interesting (and certainly much cheaper) to explore somewhere new within your own back yard.

It might be a neighbourhood you’ve never visited. A walk you’ve never gone on. A café or pub you’ve wandered past but never actually been inside. Make it somewhere where you can comfortably sit and write for an hour or so, without getting thrown out, or so cold that your fingers no longer work. Then visit it.

As soon as you’re there, start looking around you. Notice everything: the smells, the overriding colour of the place, the feeling of the atmosphere, the sounds – whether they’re in harmony with one another, or whether there’s one particular sound that stands out. Notice how you feel when you’re in this space – not just emotionally, but what is it like to physically occupy a body in this particular space on this particular occasion? Write all of this down. As much as you possibly can. Build a complete picture of your place.

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2 – Who’s There?

This post isn’t just about creating a believable setting. If you’ve spent time on the first prompt, you’ll already have done that. After all, reality exists in the details. Instead, it’s about using place to generate story. So, next, we need to think about character.

Create a character who inhabits your space. If you’re in a café, then maybe your character is the person making the coffees. Maybe it’s the old woman who goes there every afternoon for a cup of tea. Maybe it’s the man who brings his toddler on a Monday afternoon. Maybe it’s the cyclist passing through.

Whoever you choose (and you can base them on an observed person or on somebody totally fictional), make them detailed. Figure out who they are.

If you want, you can start by using some of the more generic character prompts.

5 Fiction Prompts: Getting To Know Your Character

They, once you already have a bit of a sense of who this person is, you can make it specific to this particular setting. What are they doing in the space? Are they familiar with it, or is it their first time there as well? Are they comfortable in this space?

The relationship between the person and the place that you’re describing is going to be key, so don’t be afraid to make it a large part of their character formation. For instance, the old woman who goes there every afternoon might have her eye on the young barista. The cyclist passing through might be suddenly hit with a desire to visit his estranged brother, because the taste of a particular chocolate cake reminds him of a childhood birthday party.

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3 – Look Deeper

You have an idea of who your character is, and how they occupy this space. But what do they want? What’s going to happen?

These two questions are intrinsically linked. Nearly always, what happens in a story is governed by what a character wants, and the barriers that are in place to prevent them getting it. So let’s look at how place can help us with that.

Now you’ve created your written portrait of this place, think about what it represents. For instance, if you’re on a walk that runs next to a train track, there are all sorts of themes that could be sparked by that – themes like industry, progress, moving on, being on the edge of things, forced direction… Then again, if you’re in a bustling café in the centre of town, there’s a very different set of themes in play: socialising, food, consumerism, communication… Or, if you’re at a swimming pool: water (and all the many things that can represent, such as depth and memory and life and purification), being out of your element, children, health and exercise…

This is the hidden level to your place, the aspect of it that speaks to the subconscious, to our story-building brains. And we can use it to help tell story, or even to help prompt it.

First, list as many themes as you can that are connected to your place. Write them down so you can see them. Then, once you have the list, choose the one that most interests you.

Let’s say my place is a café, and I’ve chosen the theme of ‘communication’. And perhaps the character I’ve chosen is that cyclist passing through, who tries the chocolate cake and is reminded of his brother.

For this exercise, what my character wants has to be connected in some way to the theme. So the chocolate cake might spark a desire to communicate with his brother. Maybe their problem has always been an inability to communicate.

(If you want to add another theme, and you feel you can do that without muddying the waters, then go ahead. For instance, their inability to communicate might be based on their different appetites – not necessarily literal, but emotional; their different approaches to consumerism.)

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4 – Through Their Eyes

Now that you know your place, and you’ve gotten to know your character and what they want as well, we’re going to combine the two.

Write another description of the place, but from your character’s point of view.

Remember to keep in mind who your character is, and what they want. What do they notice about the place that you didn’t? Maybe they’ll notice particular people, or the stains on the waitress’s apron, or the way the sunlight sparkles off the teacups. My cyclist with the estranged brother will probably notice families conversing, or the moments of failed communication between others – such as when the waitress gets somebody’s order wrong. Maybe he’ll also notice something symbolic, like the frayed wire on the telephone cord. If he likes the café, then he might also be noticing all the things his brother would dislike about it.

The character’s state of mind, what they want, and how they feel in the place will all govern how they see it.

It might be easier to write this in first person. If it is, then go for it.

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5 – Now What?

Now you have a more complex understanding of your place. You’ve observed it closely. You’ve created a character to inhabit it. You’ve seen it through their eyes.

This is all great, and hugely important work for the scene / story / whatever it is you’re about to write. But so far, nothing’s happened.

So we come back to what our character wants, and what obstacles are in their way to getting it. List them, if you like. Then try putting them in order: what’s the biggest barrier to them getting what they want? What’s the one that they’re going to find hardest to overcome?

This might be connected to the place, or it might be completely separate. For instance, with my cyclist, it could be that he can’t renew communication with his brother because they fought over their mother’s will, and his pride is at stake – or maybe he still thinks his brother is wrong. Then again, it might be a physical barrier connected with the café: he came into the café to get out of the storm, and now so much snow has fallen that it’s impossible to leave.

Of course, you could be really clever and do both: a physical barrier that becomes a metaphor for the psychological barrier underneath.

Once you have your barrier, the only thing remaining is to figure out how your character is going to overcome it – and the extent to which they’ll be successful. This is your plot. Your ‘what happens’.

And so the final task? Write it!

‘I guess I should be writing but I can’t think what to write about…’

Sound familiar?

Sometimes, it’s true, our brains are overflowing with ideas, and the only problem is how to get them all down on paper fast enough. But as most people will know, that isn’t always the case.

A few weeks ago, I posted 5 poetry prompts designed to generate poetic material by making language work to produce itself. Which is all very well and good if the ideas are already there, but sometimes it can just be useful to have someone to give you a nudge. So in this post, instead of suggesting an idea for a poem, I’m going to do even better than that: I’m going to suggest five.

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1 – Abstract Object

This one requires you to find an object – preferably one you find interesting in some way. It may be particularly tactile. It may be intricate and beautiful. It might be old and falling apart. It doesn’t really matter what it is, so long as it’s something you think you can use to write about. Go outside and rootle around your garden, or wander through the park till something catches your eye. If it’s raining / you don’t have a garden / it’s the weekend and the park is full of children, then find something inside your house. Pick a couple of objects, if you like, then you can decide which one to write about later.

Of course, you could just imagine the object. After all, I’m an entire internet away, and I’ll never know whether the object is actually there in front of you or not – but you’ll probably find this exercise easier if it is.

Once you have your object, spend a good few minutes exploring it. Look at the object from every angle. Think about what it feels like. Does it have a smell? Can you see the object’s history in its physical appearance at all? Does it tell a story? How do you hold it – if you hold it at all? Try to notice something about it that you wouldn’t notice at first glance. It might be useful to set yourself a timer (2 minutes? 3 minutes? 5? Whatever you feel comfortable with) and allow yourself to do nothing but focus on your object until the buzzer goes.

Now you’ve got to know your object, you can begin writing. The exercise is this:

Choose an abstract noun, and describe it as the object.

The easiest way to do this is to choose an emotion as your abstract noun. And the best way to think of the poem is in terms of metaphor. So, you might want to start your poem by saying your abstract noun is your object. E.g.

Love is a sheep skull.

Sorrow is a standard lamp.

Hatred is an acorn.

Loyalty is my grandmother’s wedding dress.

Desperation is a new biro.

Joy is a chipped plate.

Try to be as specific and physical as possible in your descriptions. Not everything will work with the abstract noun, but that’s ok – you can edit later. For now, you’re just writing. And the more physical description there is, the more rooted & grounded your poem will feel.

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2 – Praise

Our second exercise is to write an ode: a poem in praise of something.

This might sound fairly ordinary – but there’s a twist. After all, it’s easy to write a poem praising sunshine, or payday, or a person you love. (And let’s face it, those poems can also get kind of sacharine.)

Instead, write a poem praising something that’s normally looked down on. Something normally seen as inferior, or best kept out of society’s gaze. Something most people might not even notice – or if they did notice, wouldn’t give much thought to.

If you’re stuck, try writing a poem in praise of one of these:

  • the shopping trolley in the canal
  • chewing gum on pavements
  • ugly babies
  • tumble dryer lint
  • the draught
  • empty beer bottles
  • stretch marks
  • peeling wallpaper
  • rising damp

We’re doing a number of things here. We’re treading new ground, speaking about an ordinary object in an unexpected way. We’re elevating the ordinary to the realm of the extraordinary. We’re forcing ourselves to think about something in a way that surprises us as well as the reader – a bit like the first exercise, we’re getting to know something well.

This could also be a good opportunity to practise writing in a different register, or tone. You may just want to write a descriptive poem about your subject, describing it in a positive way. But you may decide to write your poem addressing the subject, which may lead to you writing in a heightened register. Think: ‘O shopping trolley’.

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3 – Excavating the Cliché

This is another prompt that involves looking at things unexpectedly. It’s an exercise I use in workshops quite a lot, because it can be done at any level or in a number of different styles. It’s easy to adapt to a way in which you feel comfortable writing, while also challenging you to think outside the box.

For the prompt to work, you need to start with a cliché. I know, I know. Normally we’re told to avoid them like the plague. They’re ‘dead language’ – which means that we’re so familiar with them, we’ve stopped truly seeing the images inherent within them.

Example: I cried a river. 

We’re all familiar with this expression. It’s overused, to the extent that now we usually just see it as over-dramatic. What we no longer see is the inherent image of the tears flowing, so many it’s like a literal river. We know that’s what it means, but we don’t see the river in our mind’s eye. Instead we just see a person crying, potentially into a glass of wine.

So for this exercise, I would excavate that image. Mine it to its full depths, and write a poem about it. You cried a river? Ok. What kind of river? Was it a brook tinkling down the mountainside? Were there cataracts, and sheep drinking from its banks? Or was it the Ganges? Was it a slow brown ooze? Was it filled with people washing and praying? Were people cremated on the river of your tears? The richer you can be with this exercise, the better.

Looking for some clichés to get you started?

  • My love is deeper than the ocean.
  • I’m free as a bird.
  • My mind is a prison.
  • There are walls around my heart.
  • The wind whispered in the trees.
  • Her face lit up.
  • You are my sunshine.
  • We hammered out our differences.
  • Breaking the ice.
  • He threw a tantrum.
  • Her face fell.
  • Time flies.
  • Old as the hills.
  • Fit as a fiddle.

Remember, the more detailed you can make your image, the better – and the further it is from being a cliché.

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4 – Use Your Senses

Ok. We know this one. If you want to write well, you have to describe things using your senses. We were probably taught this at school, when we learned to do ‘descriptive writing’. Using the senses helps to bring the reader into the world of the poem, or the story, or the memoir, or whatever it is you’re writing. It places them there. It gets their neurons firing and they imagine themselves in that place or situation. It starts to create empathy.

So if we already know all this, why am I saying it here?

Partly, I’m saying it because, even though it’s something we know we should be doing, it’s surprising how often people forget about at least two of the senses, possibly even three or four. We’re generally pretty good at describing how things look. We may also be good at describing feel, or sounds. But a lot of the time we forget about smell, and about taste.

Which is crazy, when you think about it, as there’s tonnes of research linking the olfactory senses to memory, and memory is a goldmine for poetry.

So I want you to write a poem in which you smell or taste something. It can be something pleasant, or something not so pleasant. But try to make it something specific. So not just ‘pie’, but ‘blackberry pie’ – and not just ‘blackberry pie’ but ‘the blackberry pie your sister made on the first time in her new kitchen’.

Try writing the poem in the present tense (so you’re in the moment of smelling or tasting whatever it is), but try to also link it to memory in some way. It can be a real memory or an invented one, as long as it’s something ‘past’. Something that gives the poem an expanded sense of time.

(If you’re not sure what I mean by this, try looking at Louis Macneice’s Soap Suds or Kim Addonizio’s Wine Tasting.)

And, just as with the other exercises, try to be as detailed as possible.

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5 – Things Behaving Badly…

…or at least unexpectedly.

For the last prompt, I want you to give yourself free reign. Embrace the childlike. Remember that this is a poem, not a piece of journalism, and things can behave however you want them to.

So if you want to write a poem where buildings get up and walk away, you can do. Or if you want to write a poem where planets are coins dropped by the gods, or where all the birds leave and are replaced by flapping books, then go for it.

Whatever it is that takes your fancy, try to pick just one thing. So for example, you wouldn’t write a poem in which the world was flat as an LP and every time it orbited the record player everyone had to jump the needle AND where people outsourced their souls to computers. You’d pick one of those ideas (or, more likely, your own much better idea) and focus on that. So you’re sticking within the rules of your own unexpected world.

And again, try to be detailed. Be specific, and ground your poem in physical description. Use those senses. That way, whatever bizarre thing is happening in your poem, it will still retain a sense of realness.

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And that’s it! I hope you find these prompts useful for generating material. And if you get something from these prompts, but are struggling to take your initial ideas further, then feel free to mix and match these prompts with the 5 prompts on using words to generate more words. Good luck, and happy writing!

 

March has gone by in a whirlwind. A literal whirlwind at times, as a storm blew in at the start of the month and I had to force myself to leave the house. But also, obviously, a metaphorical whirlwind. And that’s just because there’s been so much going on.

(I’m going to keep this post deliberately personal and non-political, because I feel like crying every time I watch the news at the moment, either from anger, frustration or despair.)

In many ways, for me, it’s been a month of contrasts: from the start of the month, where I had days on end of not leaving the house, of burying myself in admin work at the kitchen table and drinking and endless supply of cups of tea; to the second half of the month, where my feet have barely touched the ground, and left me hopping from home to Manchester to Cork to London to NYC! So I guess it’s hardly surprising that I look up from my desk and suddenly it’s practically April. Not that April won’t be its own brand of exciting, to, of course…

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A few good things:

The great big trip: I’ve been talking about this one for a while, but it’s finally here: the great big Poetry Trip to America! I’m currently in New York (actually, I’m currently in New Jersey because it’s much cheaper to stay just across the river rather than in Manhattan itself), where I’m researching my collection-in-progress any New York Public Library, thanks to a Developing Your Creative Practice Grant from the Arts Council. (If you haven’t applied for one yet, let this be your incentive to go for it!)

I’m nearly at the end of my week in NYC, but after that it’s up to New Hampshire (by means of an excruciatingly long Greyhound bus trip) for a three week residency at MacDowell Colony, where I’m planning to put all this research to good use by drafting plenty of poems – and keeping my fingers crossed there are a couple of OK ones among them.

And speaking of poems…

Assembly Instructions: This month, my new pamphlet, Assembly Instructions, was published by Southword Editions, as a result of its winning the Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. I headed over to Ireland for Cork International Poetry Festival, where the pamphlet was launched, where I read alongside Regina O’Melveny and Breda Spaight, whose Southwod pamphlets were also being launched.

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Gretna: From Ireland, I hot-footed it to London in time for the Marchland Arms season at Ye Olde Mitre: a sixteenth century pub in Holborn. There, I saw Northern: a series of three performance pieces concerned with the borderlands between England and Scotland. One of these was Gretna: a semi-dramatised version of a series of poems I’d written about Gretna Green, performed by two actors and including music from folk musician Lora Watson. It was fascinating seeing the poems being brought to life by other people, and experiencing them with the added level of such beautiful music.

School workshops: Although most of the early part of the month was taken up with pre-trip admin, I also managed to run a couple of school workshops – including one on World Book Day. I didn’t get to dress up as a book character, unfortunately (which is a shame, because I love a good excuse for fancy dress), but it was such a wonderful day, filled with some amazing poetry crated by the young people, and I came away with a bag of handmade cards and intricately folded letters which the Creative Writing Club had made to present me with on my visit.

The National Trust: I also spent a slightly soggy day being filmed reading a couple of poems for the National Trust. These were both commissions for the National Trust’s Tables Turned project, which also saw me writing a poem inspired by a workshop with a group of former miners in Whitehaven last year. Unlike the miners’ poem, however, these two new ones were both filmed outside: one in the Borrowdale valley, and the other in Carlisle overlooking the River Eden. Let’s just say I had a lot of drying out to do on the drive home.

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The month in books:

It’s perhaps unsurprising that I haven’t read as much as planned this month (do I ever? Still testing myself at the new year’s resolution…), since I’ve been spending almost every spare moment trying to catch up on all the admin I didn’t do while I was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in February, as well as trying to get ahead with all the admin that I won’t get done while I’m away in the US in March and April. So maybe it’s natural that the books have got pushed a little to one side?

But the good thing about being away, and about being here solely for the purpose of poetry, is that now I’m able to push them back into the centre a bit more. I’ve been rocking up to Bryant Park in NYC an hour or so before the library opens each morning, purely so I can spend some time reading before I start the day’s research. (Oh all right, it’s also an excuse to get coffee and pastry – but those things just go so well with books!)

  • The Science of Storytelling, by Will Storr
  • Salt on Your Tongue, by Charlotte Runcie
  • other gods, by Regina O’Melveny
  • The Untimely Death of My Mother’s Hens, by Breda Spaight
  • Diving into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich
  • Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine

The month in pictures:

 

 

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed me posting photos of a sleek blue chapbook with a bold yellow title. This is my new pamphlet! Hurrah!

Assembly Instructions is published by Southword, after it won the Munster Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. It’s a slim & visually stylish volume (thanks, lovely Southword folks!) about how we put ourselves together, and the formative experiences that make us who we are.

AVAILABLE TO BUY HERE

Although it technically came out a couple of weeks ago (and is available on Amazon here, and will soon be available directly from Southword here), I’ve only just got my hands on them. 

This week, I was invited to Cork International Poetry Festival, to launch the pamphlet at a reading. I read in the Grand Parade library, at a free event alongside two other poets, also launching chapbooks: Brenda Spaight and Regina O’Mulveny. Sometimes, I feel as though pamphlets or chapbooks published by the same press, or discovered through the same competition, can have a sort of homogeneity to them – but it was a lovely event, with a really interesting combination of voices, each of which felt very different to each other. 

In fact, it was a lovely festival overall. I almost want to say that everyone should go and enjoy Cork International Poetry Festival – but then if everyone descended on it, it might lose some of that intimate feel that it currently has. Because although the festival is international (and very much so, pulling an impressive list of participants from Ireland, the U.K., the rest of Europe and beyond), it feels like a small, friendly community. A well-kept secret that everybody is sort of in on. During the three days that I was there, I met some lovely people, and discovered some incredible poetry. What a wonderful festival to be a part of! 

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I was born in the morning

slithered out of the cut in my mother,
a thing no bigger than a bacon rind

and squalling. There was something
of the nymph about you
, she said later,

a dragonfly lifted too soon from the lake.
She watched my birth

in the sheet-metal ceiling,
her other self a storm cloud

brewing at dusk, a small fire
far too far from the beach.

When my mother unfurled her body,
her arms were scrubbed toufh

and she caught me. All through my life
she has rocked my reflection,

as we head for the unchartered deep.

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‘I was born in the morning’ is taken from Assembly Instructions. It was first published as part of a group of poems shortlisted for the 2018 Manchester Poetry Prize.

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I’m sitting in the back corner of Brew Brothers café in Kendal. It’s just after 5pm on a Friday night. Outside, the street is full of people gearing up for a big night out, or trudging home after a difficult week at work – but in here, it’s warm and bright. There’s a mellow buzz of conversation against the backdrop of music: a mix of people meeting up for post-work coffees, or a pre-dinner glass of wine. One or two other people also have laptops. For me, at this moment in time, there’s just the right level of background stimulus to provide a productive atmosphere.

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

I haven’t always written in cafes. When I was a student, I found it next to impossible – too easy to be distracted by what was going on around me. But since then, I’ve started to lean towards it more and more. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe something to do with how our brains change as we get older, or the fact I have exponentially more admin than I did as a student, trying to distract me from the creative stuff. I still do the bulk of my writing sitting at my kitchen table – but when your writing space is the same as your living space, sometimes it can be good to take a break.

The seat I’ve chosen in this cafe is significant. It’s in the corner, with a view of the rest of the café. Separate from everyone else, not overlooked, and yet with a view. The other people with laptops have taken up similar seats.

There’s an evolutionary theory that most humans would plump for these sorts of positions, away from the door but with a view of the rest of the room. Prehistorically, it means we were far enough into the cave to be safe and warm, yet able to see the entrance in case a predator should approach. Calm, yet alert.

Like a lot of evolutionary theory, this is probably largely guesswork, but it imitates the state I tend to occupy when I write, halfway between relaxed and on edge. Or, as X-Men: First Class would have it, ‘somewhere between anger and serenity’.

There’s something about being in a café that provides this carefully balanced feeling. But, as with all balances, it can quickly tip one way or the other. I have to be picky not only with the seat I select, but with the café that it’s in. Somewhere with ambient noise, but not too much of it. Somewhere bustling, but not too full. And above all, somewhere with good coffee and cake.

MY TOP 5 CUMBRIAN CAFES FOR WRITING IN

Of course, there are downsides to writing in cafes as well. One is that you’re always dependent on it not getting too busy. Another is that, really, there’s only so much time you can spend in a café, unless you want to spend your money on buying your lunch and a lot of coffees there. (I mean, it’s probably still cheaper than renting an office space if you’re someone who can’t write at home.)

And for some people, any noise while writing is something of an abhorrence. We all have our different practices. The important thing is finding what works for you, or for this particular project, or even for this particular scene or poem or whatever.

Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.

This is one of a number of pieces of advice that I sometimes hand out in creative writing workshops. It comes from the Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules, written by Sister Corita Kent (though often incorrectly attributed to John Cage). It’s a list of ten ‘rules’, which urge the writer/artist to develop a work ethic, and to engage with the world around them.

Finding a place you trust is rule number one.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a café, a pub, your attic, or a park bench. I think the important thing, for me, is that it’s a place that allows for that feeling of intense focus that comes from being both calm and alert simultaneously. And then, once you’ve found it, you have to trust it.

A couple of years ago, I listened to Liz Lochhead being interviewed on Desert Island Discs. One of the songs she selected was Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Some Days There Just Ain’t No Fish’ – a 1947 song written by Bob Russell & Carl Sigman.

I’ve used a fishing metaphor on this blog before, when talking about submitting work to magazines & competitions, but it applies equally well to the actual creative process, too. The more often you sit down and try to write – the more often you cast your line – the more likely it is that inspiration will catch.

‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ – Picasso

Which is all very well and good, and a useful maxim for forcing yourself to write when you think you’re too tired / hungover / busy / distracted etc etc. But what about when there’s something deeper going on, that’s in some way blocking your creativity?

I’ve talked a little bit before about what I think are the different types of writers’ block: the ‘I don’t really fancy writing at the moment’ type, and the ‘there’s actually something major that I need to deal with in my mental health that is completely prohibiting me from writing’. (Clue: the first one is much easier to solve, and basically just requires discipline; the second one is much more tricky.)

So what do you do if you’re experiencing that second type of creative block? If you’re turning up to the writing desk / kitchen table / cafe / train commute every day with your notebook and pen, and it doesn’t help? If you’ve found a stack of writing exercises to work your way through, but nothing comes out right? If you’ve been keeping a writing routine for weeks, waiting for that inspiration to come and find you working, and yet you still feel blocked?

This is the sort of thing some writers have nightmares about. When I was younger, I used to be one of them – I saw writers’ block as some mythical disease, like a witch’s curse that could descend on me at any time and leave me unable to string a sentence together. But the truth is, as I’ve got older, I’ve learned a bit more about my own brain, and about how my mind works. And I’ve learned that writers’ block isn’t so much a disease as a symptom of something else.

About three years ago, I started to experience some pretty hefty anxiety. I say ‘started to’, but it had sort of been there all along. I just hadn’t been able to recognise it for what it was – partly because I just didn’t know enough about anxiety, or about my own brain, but also because up until then it had always been a kind of low level burn, like the sound of a waterfall, always there in the background and sometimes louder than others, but never enough to make me stop and pay attention for very long. Then, at the start of 2016, there came a flood, and suddenly I was drowning in it.

For six months, I barely wrote anything. I tried. I really, really tried. I’d just left one of my two part-time jobs to give myself more time for writing, but whenever I sat down and tried to write something, it felt like someone had put a cement mixer in my brain.

Eventually, I went to the doctors, and refused the offer of pills (I knew that wasn’t what I wanted, and while they are absolutely the right course for some people, I knew that I wanted talking therapy instead). I was referred for therapy – or rather, I was given a piece of paper with a phone number on it and told to refer myself. I never rang the number.

(This isn’t a blog post about how the NHS, for all its strengths and qualities, is hugely lacking when it comes to supporting mental health – though if it were, I might point out how I told the GP that the very reason it had taken me several months even to go to him was because my anxiety kept preventing me, and so this tactic of asking me to jump through that appointment-making help-seeking hoop again was highly flawed. But that’s another argument.)

After 7-and-a-bit months, I got over my period of anxiety. No, that’s a lie. I didn’t ‘get over it’ (hateful phrase) – but the flood-rush subsided and the waterfall went back to its normal level, and the words began to return. A number of things helped me with this, particularly friends and books. I read an awful lot during that time, and although I didn’t realise it then, this reading was feeding my creativity. I might not have been producing anything, but the creative process was still going on, under the surface, building my understanding of story, of language, of creative thought.

But the real turning point came that summer, when I travelled to America to do an enormous road trip up the west coast with two friends. We spent three weeks on the road (as well as a week or so either side and my friend’s house in Oregon), and it threw me out of myself in exactly the way that my brain needed at the time.

In his book, The Idle Traveller, Dan Kieran talks about travel as the process of forcing your brain to pay attention. When we’re surrounded by the unfamiliar, our survival mode kicks in, and we’re forced to notice everything around us. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is about assessing the new environment for potential dangers, but it also serves the mind creatively. We have to be switched on. We have to exist in the moment, and to really pay attention to what’s around us. In other words, we have to be mindful.

While travelling up the west coast of America, we stopped in San Francisco. Sitting on a bench on Pier 39, sharing fish & chips with the two wonderful friends on either side of me, listening to the buzz of people and seagulls and the distant slap of water against the docks, I burst into tears. They were happy tears. For the first time in over half a year, I felt happy. Completely and utterly happy. I was able to be absolutely 100% in the moment: that almost meditative state that’s so important for mental health and for the creative process.

That evening in our AirBnB, I jotted down a couple of lines for a poem. Back at home a few weeks later, I started writing the poems that will hopefully form my first full-length poetry collection. A couple of months after that, I wrote the first scene of my novel.

So what’s the lesson here? I’m not trying to tell you how to cope with anxiety or any kind of mental ill-health, because all our minds work in different ways, so that’s going to be different for everybody. But what it taught me is that, whenever I feel blocked in my writing (as in, really truly blocked, not just procrastinating because checking twitter is easier), there are things I can do. I can read. I can go for a walk. I can travel. Not necessarily a long way – even a day trip somewhere local will do, as long as it’s somewhere I don’t know well, somewhere that I have to be fully present in.

So I guess the lesson, if there has to be a lesson, is that it’s ok not to be writing all the time. There are so many other things we can do to feed our creativity. Whether we’re writing a poem every day or just giving our minds a fallow period – as long as we’re stimulating our minds, that creative process never really stops.

And although at times you get a messful
Other days are less successful
Some days there just ain’t no fish