With all the novel-related talk, it’s been a while since I shared a poem. Not since Easter, in fact. So, with summer (finally) here, I thought I’d share a swimming poem.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time revisiting places I used to go as a child – including several local swimming pools. On this occasion, I decided to spend about an hour swimming, determined to take a break from the desk life and get some exercise. Instead, I got the idea for the poem about fifteen minutes in, then spent the rest of the time holed up in a changing room cubicle, scribbling away. Oh well. I tried.

The poem is from Assembly Instructions (Southword, 2019).

1999

In the communal changing rooms where old women’s bodies
flapped and scattered droplets like pieces of crystal,
we contorted ourselves behind the bright flags of towels, wished
together for the other pool – the one with lockers and locked doors,

where the air was jungle-thick and cubicles close with damp –
where once I saw your chest raised like a ripple of water.
You whispered look, showed me the first kindling of hair,
and I had to ask does it hurt? so you said feel it – see? soft – like a bird – 

Though you meant only one bird, the sparrow in the old byre,
battering itself bloody against the glass, till your dad
caught it, said girls, said don’t be afraid, and kept it
quaking between his hands for us to stroke.

In the pool, my stomach is too bare, and a man
with ribs like a shelf of dusty Reader’s Digests watches me swim.

 

 

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.

 

‘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.

image

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!

 

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.

image

Recently, I wrote a blog post sharing five fiction prompts, to help you get to know your character. In the interests of balance, I thought I would write a post with some poetry prompts as well.

None of these prompts suggests a subject for a poem, or tells you what to write about. (I may do this kind of prompt post in the future, but I’ll see how it goes.) Instead, each of these prompts is a way of generating material using the language itself.

Language makes up the bricks and mortar of our work. It’s what allows us to build. So, to continue this possibly-a-bit-overplayed analogy: these prompts won’t tell you what kind of house to build, but they will help you create more (and hopefully better) bricks.

Ready? Got your notebook handy?

Then I’ll begin.

Poetry Cairn, Lakes Alive Festival

1 – Freewrite

Different writers use freewriting in different ways, but for me it’s a bit like practising scales on an instrument, or like doing stretches before a race. I tend to freewrite for 5-10 minutes at the start of a writing morning / writing day, just to clear away the cobwebs and warm up the writing muscles. Sometimes, the thing I write becomes the basis for a poem, and sometimes not. I doesn’t really matter either way; the point is the writing of it.

So what is freewriting?

The idea is that you write without thinking too hard about it. You set yourself a timer (3-5 is probably a good amount, particularly if you’re new to freewriting), and you start writing. You don’t stop writing until the timer goes.

It doesn’t really matter what you write, and it certainly isn’t supposed to be a poem, or anything ‘poem shaped’. The aim is to just get words down on the page without worrying whether they’re any good or not. You can’t stop to censor yourself, so you just keep going. If you get stuck, write the first thing that comes into your head – even if that’s ‘I don’t know what to write about’.

The hardest bit about freewriting is working out how to start, so it can be useful to have a stock list of phrases or first lines as a jumping off point. Some of mine are:

  • I want to give you…
  • There was something about…
  • Do you remember…
  • What happened was…
  • That was the day…
  • It tasted of…
  • My body is…

Or another good exercise, when you’re feeling particularly creative, is to come up with a list of 5-10 first lines you could use for poems that you haven’t written yet, and then use them as the starting points for freewrites – one a day until you run out of first lines, and have to come up with another list.

You can use a line from someone else’s poem as a prompt, but of course if the freewrite does turn into a poem in its own right, make sure you change your first line, or credit the original writer.

Freewriting can be useful in two ways: one is to reach past all the day-to-day fluff that clutters our brains so much of the time, and allow you to access the edge of the dream state that exists just below the conscious mind; and the other is that you actually end up writing down all of that day-to-day fluff and clutter, but at least that clears it out of the way ready for you to move onto some other writing afterwards. Either way, you’ll probably come out with some words / phrases / ideas that you weren’t expecting.

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I bought some fancy coloured gel pens for editing

2 – Phrases Breed Phrases

Sometimes, you write a phrase that won’t let you rest until you’ve written another phrase. I don’t mean those instances where you get so caught on the excitement and inspiration of writing that you can’t bear to put your pen down even though you’re desperate for the loo – though those moments can be very useful as well. Instead, I’m talking about the phrases that demand a certain syntax, which in itself demands that you write more in order for the sentence to work as a grammatically correct sentence.

For example:

Even though the dark was coming in.

is not a complete sentence in its own right. It’s only half of a thought, and as such it leads us asking questions, wanting to know more. It’s an idea that demands to be completed: Even though the dark was coming in… what?

Even though the dark was coming in, I couldn’t leave the silence of the lake.

Now I’m not saying that’s a great line, but it’s certainly fuller than it was a paragraph ago. The syntax of ‘even though’ has forced me to add a second part to the sentence, which suddenly doesn’t just contain the images of darkness and of a drawing nearer, but also contains a lake, a silence, and me as the speaker of the poem. The picture is starting to build.

Good beginnings for this kind of enforced building up of a sentence are:

  • Even though…
  • And if…
  • Because…
  • Before…
  • After…
  • Once…
  • Under…
  • Despite…

Each of these are words you can use to begin a sentence, that force you to take the sentence somewhere new part way along. And if you want to get even more mileage out of your words? Then you can repeat your start words to build up a bigger picture. E.g.

Even though the dark was coming in, I couldn’t leave the silence of the lake.
And even though the air was full of midges, I sat without twitching.
And even though someone was calling me, far away, from across the fields, I pretended not to hear.

These might not all make it into a final poem, but it’s a way of getting words and thoughts on the page.

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writing prompt - Katie Hale

3 – Repeat Yourself. Repeat Yourself.

Repeating yourself might sound like a cheat’s way of generating material for a poem, but it can actually be incredibly useful in providing a structure and a music to a poem. This can be repeating an entire line, as a kind of chorus returning us to the same idea, or it can be a word or words, woven through the poem like a tapestry.

  • Repeat the start of the sentence (anaphora): e.g. I went down the stairs. I went alone. I went because I wasn’t afraid of the dark.
  • Repeat the end of the sentence (epistrophe): e.g. The room was old. Everything about it felt old. Even the darkness felt old.
  • Repeat the end of one sentence at the start of the next (anadiplosis): e.g. I went down the stairs. The stairs creaked in the dark and the dark swallowed the torch beam.
  • Repeat a single word or its derivatives (polyptoton): e.g. The room was old and dark. In the darkness, I felt my fears darken.
  • Repeat the sentence structure (isocolon): e.g. The room was old and dark. My torch was weak and flickering.

This is a great exercise to use for generating material. Do it with your writing hat on, and leave your editing hat well and truly to the side. Don’t worry about whether you’re repeating things too much – just write and use it as a way to discover thoughts and images you didn’t know were hiding in your brain.

Afterwards (and only afterwards), you can put your editing / shaping hat on, and heed this word of caution: repeating anything has to be handled with great care, particularly in poems, which tend to be short enough that repeating any word anywhere is noticeable and so has to be deliberate. Make sure you’re repeating something for a reason, not just because it’s an easier way of making the page look fuller. Is the repetition adding something to your poem? Meaning? Rhythm? Music? Connection between apparently disparate ideas? You don’t necessarily need to be able to specify exactly what each repetition is adding, but you have to be able to feel it.

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writing prompt - Katie Hale

4 – A Brave New Word

Words have a wonderful way of suggesting other words – a bit like with the freewriting prompt, or the phrases breeding phrases prompt, above. Those two prompts both work on a syntactical level, and speak to our human need to complete and organise; we have an incomplete sentence, and we force ourselves to finish it. However, this next prompt works in much finer detail, on the level of individual sounds.

The first step is to pick some words you would like to include in your poem. These can be anything, but try to make them words that you like the sound of, and preferably words you wouldn’t normally use in your poetry. For example, for a while I had a tendency to put ‘meagre’ into everything I wrote, so I wouldn’t be allowed to choose ‘meagre’ for this exercise, as it’s already too heavily placed in my active writing vocabulary. We all know those words that we keep coming back to – our own little writing tics that we can’t seem to shake. Stay away from them – for this exercise at least. Find something more unusual to you – a new word you want to try out. Flick through books, if you like. See what kind of vocabulary other writers use. Choose one or two of their words (though not too many from each writer, or it’ll make it too easy to slip into attempting that writer’s voice as well).

My words might be: shotgun, fascinator, primal, staccato, grudge, cormorant, startle

Don’t worry – you don’t necessarily have to put all of those into the same poem. Although you can do, if that’s the sort of challenge you want to set yourself. Instead, you’re going to focus on the sounds. For each word, you’re going to build up a sentence that contains more of the same consonantal sounds.

Let’s take ‘shotgun’. The word ‘shotgun’ contains 4 consonantal sounds: ‘sh’, ‘t’, ‘g’ and ‘n’. So you might want to make a list of words that include those sounds: nag, gin, gaunt, shatter, tosh, shutters, tiger, grain, grant, train, shunt, gauche, hunt

So your sentence could be: The tiger was gaunt and hunting, but the shotgun was a train shunting through the trees, shattering the jungle.

You’ll notice the use of words that weren’t on my original list – particularly ‘trees’ and ‘jungle’. That’s ok. After all, we don’t want a completely homogenous sound world in our poems, and the sentence needs to make sense as well. Having said that, ‘trees’ pretty much belongs in this soundscape anyway, with that ‘t’, and the ‘s’ that sort of speaks to the existing ‘sh’.

And as for ‘jungle’? Well, that definitely belongs.

Why? Consonants have pairings and groupings that give them a similar music. This is easiest to spot in the voiced and unvoiced versions of consonants, such as ‘b’ and ‘p’. Try saying these two letters. You’ll notice that one of them (b) uses your vocal chords, while the other (p) is composed of nothing but air. That’s because they are, in a sense, the same letter, but formed either using or not using the voice.

The same is true of ‘c’ and ‘g’. And ‘t’ and ‘d’. And also ‘ch’ and ‘j’ – which is why I said that ‘jungle’ belongs in the sentence above: ‘j’ belongs in the same sound world as ‘ch’, and ‘ch’ is not a million miles away from ‘sh’ (the only difference being the hard beginning on the ‘ch’ sound as opposed to the ‘sh’).

So what does this mean? Effectively, it just gives you a bigger sound world to play with. Suddenly, the word ‘shotgun’ lets you play with more consonantal sounds: ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘j’, ‘t’, ‘d’, g’, ‘c’, ‘k’, ‘ck’, ‘n’ and ‘m’.

So my list of words might include: danger, ticking, marked, shake, dodge, juggernaut, decode, game, knocking, cudgel, untangle, conglomerate, tug, ghost, gamut, mango, teach, crèche, niche, manchego, jumping, imagine, dawn, need, meadow… The list goes on and on.

Some consonantal sounds that go together:

  • b / p
  • c / g / k / ck / qu / x
  • d / t
  • f / v
  • h
  • j / ch / sh
  • l / r / w / y
  • m / n
  • s / z

Play around with these, using the sounds within a single word to create a sentence within the same musical soundworld. Often, this will force you to put words and images together that surprise you – and the added bonus is that it nearly always sounds beautiful and musical.

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Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

5 – Challenges

This is a technique I use a lot when I’m working in primary schools, as it keeps children on their toes during the writing process, and it gives them something to work towards if they’re struggling for ideas. As with many of the exercises I do with children, I find that it can also be fun and challenging for adults, too. It’s a good exercise to use when you’re freewriting / jotting down ideas for a poem, as a way of forcing yourself to include images you wouldn’t ordinarily have thought of, or a way of taking your thoughts in new directions.

Essentially, you challenge yourself to include something in your poem. You might want to choose 3 of the following, and challenge yourself to include them in your next freewrite / your next poem:

  • an insect
  • some sort of water
  • a landscape feature
  • something made from wood
  • a municipal building
  • a plant
  • something dead
  • something alive
  • some kind of weather
  • an organ (bodily or musical – it’s up to you)
  • a piece of furniture
  • a bird

You can include these in a literal way in your poem (e.g. a grasshopper was announcing the evening), or you can use them to form your imagery (e.g. my heart was a grasshopper in the uncertain grass of my chest).

The trick with all of them is to try to be specific. So if you choose ‘water’ as one of your challenges, don’t actually use the word ‘water’, but something like ‘puddle’ or ‘dripping tap’ or ‘river’. Even better, be specific about the type of puddle, or dripping tap, or river. Is it a clear stream tinkling down the mountainside in summer? Or is it a gushing river, brown, full of silt and swollen with too much rain?

Use these challenges to force yourself to think outside the normal bounds of your creative comfort zone, and to generate imagery.

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And those are the five. Notebook at the ready – and good luck with your writing!

‘Yes, but what do you actually do all day?’

I keep hearing this from people, most of whom probably imagine that I spend my days loafing about in an oversized white shirt, drinking coffee and penning the occasional deep & meaningful couplet. While this isn’t 100% incorrect (at least, I do spend most of the day drinking coffee), there’s actually a lot more to writing, and to being a writer.

I’m going to separate those two things out here, because so often they get lumped together, and in my opinion, they’re actually slightly different things. There’s writing. Then there’s being a writer.

So what’s the difference?

Well, writing is the act of sitting at the computer or notebook or even vintage typewriter, and forcing yourself to get those words on the page. Being a writer is all the other stuff that comes along with that, so that your work doesn’t just stay on that computer or typewriter or foolscap paper.

A lot of people who are starting out, who dream of being the next J K Rowling, tend to wish they could skip the ‘writing’ stage and get straight to ‘being a writer’ – though this is often because they believe the oversized-white-shirt-wearing, coffee-drinking, inspirational-loafing myth. The writers who know what’s really involved are the ones who want to push aside all the ‘being a writer’ stuff and get back to the more wholesome business of ‘writing’.

the writing desk - February 2018

So what does ‘being a writer’ really involve?

The 3 main things a writer needs to do (the ‘essential skills’ on the job description, if you like) are:

Write:

This goes without saying, I suppose, but it’s important to remember that you can’t be a writer if you don’t write anything. It’s all very well owning a rack of flouncy white shirts and a feather quill, but it’s the words on the page that are at the forefront of the job. They’re your product.

Imagine a biscuit factory. It’s got a killer marketing campaign, a red-hot accounts department, wonderful managerial staff… In fact, everything it does is first class. Except it never makes any biscuits. Well, no, not quite never. I mean, it made a biscuit once. Or rather, it mixed up the cookie dough, but then never got round to baking it. But still, it loves to talk at parties about how it’s a really really great biscuit factory.

It just doesn’t work, does it? If the biscuit factory doesn’t make biscuits, then it has no product, and nothing else really matters. (If talking about poetry / fiction / any other form of writing as a ‘product’ offends you, then I’m sorry. But this post is about the business of being a writer, and any business needs a product, no matter how soulful and erudite that product may be.)

Read:

Following closely behind writing is reading. Though really, I should say that reading comes before writing, rather than after it. Because the reading, as I’m sure we all know, informs the writing. To continue the biscuit factory metaphor: you need to have tasted biscuits before to know what they’re supposed to look like; you need to have seen a biscuit recipe to know what normally goes into them; you need to know what other biscuit factories are making if you want to make something that’s truly your own.

I’ll admit that reading is often the first thing to be sacrificed when I’m struggling for time – something I’m really determined to work on this year. But it’s amazing how many people think they can skip over the reading bit. I was once chatting to a guy before a poetry open mic night, and during the conversation I asked him who his favourite poets were. With a look of greatest derision, he replied that he didn’t read poetry, because it would cramp his writing style and he wanted to remain individual. Needless to say, his poetry was not individual, but instead was universally bad. (This was also the guy who, later that evening, told me my poetry was ‘unfeminine’, and that I should write about ‘nice things like flowers and rabbits instead’ – and then later proceeded to aggressively heckle a poet who was performing a more political piece. But that’s another story.)

Edit:

This is another absolute must for writers: once you’ve read plenty of books, and you’ve written your own creative work (whether it’s a haiku or a 100,000-word novel), you need to edit it. For some reason, this is another step that people sometimes think they can skip, as if the words they first scribble onto the page or bash away on the keyboard are somehow divine and Must. Not. Be. Tampered. With.

I don’t know whether this is because we’re lazy, and once we’ve written ‘The End’ we just want it to be over. Maybe we’re all just too eager to move onto the next thing. Or perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves into believing in the sacred moment of inspiration as some sort of untouchable perfect truth. Whatever reason, it’s almost always completely and utterly wrong. The work needs editing. Writing is a craft as well as an art, and a piece of writing needs to be crafted.

This doesn’t just mean checking for spelling and punctuation errors, either. It means rewriting. It means reworking, as if the poem/story/whatever is a piece of clay and you have to mould it into the shape it ought to fit. Sometimes it’s like a house that needs tearing down and building back up again, with the same bricks all present, but just a different architecture. Editing is a skill in and of itself – and it doesn’t stop once you hand in the manuscript to your agent / editor and get it accepted. The editing goes on and on, usually for months.

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I bought some fancy coloured gel pens for editing

These are my three absolute essentials to being a writer. The ‘necessary skills’ on the job description. The rest of it sort of depends on what sort of writer you want to be, and how you want to run your business. But here are a few common ‘desirable skills’, which can definitely help you on your way to being a writer:

Emails: Ok, I know it’s obvious, and I know it isn’t particular to writers. But it’s worth mentioning, if only because it takes up so much blooming time. Whatever business you’re running, dealing with emails is an important and time-consuming aspect of the job. It’s just the world we currently live in. And being a writer is no different.

Submissions: If you want people to read your work, you’re going to have to make some sort of effort to get it out there. Of course, one method of doing this is going down the self-publishing route, but I’m going to leave that to one side for this post – partly because it isn’t my field of expertise, but mainly because once you’re self-publishing, you’re not just being a writer: you’re also being an editor, a copyeditor, a proofreader, a designer, a marketing person, a sales rep, and a whole host of other things besides. So looking at the more traditional route: submitting your work. This can be as big and momentous as submitting a novel to agents, or as frequent as submitting poems to journals or competitions. Either way, the skill set is the same: research your options and opportunities; tailor your submission to the recipient; create some sort of system so you know which pieces you’ve sent to whom, and when; try not to get too disheartened if / when it comes back as a no.

Applications: In the next column over to submissions is applications. This is about looking for those other opportunities for you as a writer, which you can apply to – such as funding opportunities, residencies, and any freelance work that might be up your street. (Rather than submitting your new type of biscuit to a ‘biscuit of the year’ competition, you’re looking for a council grant to help you build that new wing of the biscuit factory. That sort of thing.) There’s no rule that says you have to do this, but if you get a grant to buy you time to write, then that’s got to be a good thing. After all, if you’re thinking of your writing as a business, then you need to find a way to make that business pay. (I’ll talk about other ways to earn a living from writing in another post.) But warning: depending on the application, these can be incredibly time-consuming, which means lots of time writing applications, less time writing the real creative stuff.

Marketing: Again, there’s no rule that says you have to do this as a writer, but more and more, it’s expected that writers will assist in marketing their own book. As well as the book, however, writers often find they have to market themselves as people. Luckily, there’s no set way of marketing yourself, or your book, which largely means you can tailor it to what you feel comfortable doing. If you love making YouTube videos, then great, you can start a book vlog. If you hate the idea of filming yourself, but you’d love to go out and run events in local bookshops, then that’s also great.

Blogging & social media: This is probably really a part of the ‘marketing’ point above, but it’s such a major thing that I think it deserves its own subheading. Often with these things, you’re not marketing a specific book (or one particular type of biscuit), but you’re marketing yourself as a whole brand. And you’re doing this not by shouting into the twitter-void in the hope that someone somewhere will hear your echoes. You’re doing this by connecting with people: with your readership, with fellow writers, with other people in the literary industry. All too often I see writers tweeting things like ‘Buy my book!’ followed by a link and 9-10 hashtags. Once or twice this is fine, but when this is the only thing a writer ever seems to tweet, then you have to question why you’re following that person. After all, if you had a choice between eavesdropping on, or even engaging in, an interesting conversation, or standing beside the man in the sandwichboard continuously yelling about some promotion or other, I can guess which one you’re most likely to pick.

Talks / Panels / Readings: Again, the days where writers wrote a book, came out for a signing or two the week it was published, then returned to their garret to work on the sequel are long gone. It’s very common for writers to give readings of their work, or to be expected to talk on subjects related to their book – either individually or as part of a panel discussion. This isn’t just a case of showing up and rattling something off, either. Like anything else, all these appearances require preparation. The ability to prepare for these, and then to perform well in them, is another skill in the writer’s job description.

Writing (again): As well as working on your own creative projects, as a writer you might also be expected to write articles and commissioned pieces. This is much in the same vein as giving talks or appearing on panels, except that it’s written down and published, instead of spoken live.

Workshops / Teaching / Project Management: And lastly, there are all the ways that a writer can make money, which are indirectly related to writing, but not writing itself. Many writers teach, or run workshops, or mentor other writers. Or they manage writing-related projects, or work for literature-based organisations. All these things have their own job descriptions, but I wanted to make a nod to them here, just to illustrate the sheer variety of skills required to ‘be a writer’, beyond just the skill of ‘writing.

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Good luck – and keep writing!

Six weeks ago marked the centenary of Armistice Day: 100 years since the official end of the First World War. The atmosphere was a strange mix of learned horror and official pomp and circumstance, with a disturbingly celebratory and victorious tone to some of the remembrance events. Six weeks on, I want to share my own poem about the centenary, which was broadcast on Radio Cumbria on 11th November 2018.

‘When there was peace’ was commissioned by BBC Radio Cumbria’s Up For Arts project, supported by Heritage Lottery Funding. It was recorded at Carlisle Cathedral.