How To Avoid Poetry

If you are one of those people who has spent some time looking into poetry and found that the experience felt rather like staring into a huge black hole; if the whole thing  just seems so unfathomable, that the concept of free verse sends you into mental freefall and the mere mention of the words ‘iambic pentameter’ makes your hair folicles itch,  then you and I have something in common. I am, at this very moment, and, in fact, for  many weeks now, attempting to avoid the writing of a poem that I have studpidly bound myself to write. My avoidance strategy has become a complex web of time wasting strategies, of which writing this post is one. Others include, cleaning the oven; polishing the hand me down silver condiments set I never use; shopping for dresses I can not afford; re-reading Anna Karenenia ; starting a  new novel set in the 1930’s, giving myself a good laugh by re-reading three books of song words written by fifteen year old – so self absorbed(!); playing priates, tea parties, postman pat or what ever game my two year old demands; watching Harry Potter 1, 2, 3 on repeat; and spending hours searching for free online streaming of Boardwalk Empire on the net. But ugh, the threat of it is still there with the deadline looming over me like a dementor (see Harry Potter). All the happiness is draining out of me, leaving only the misery that is a book called Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form by Philip Hobsbaum.  Oh God, was there ever a book so destined to send me dolally? I have tried to absorb his take on the mechanics of poetry  but I’ve come to the conclusion that poetry is the literary equivalent of quadratic equations and I’ve never understood those either.It’s like GCSE maths all over again  – as soon as I put it down, I’ve forgotten most of it.

Even the musings of Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, WH Auden, Philip Larkin and the entire collection of Irish writers in The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry haven’t helped. They’re all so amazing and I’ve no idea why. To add to my problems I have commited myself to writing a poem that will sit within a short story. What is wrong with me? Why would I give myself the added pressure of tying the bloody thing in with the narrative.  Is it A, becuase my literary ambition knows no bounds? Or B, becuase I am thick and didn’t realise what I was letting myself in for? The correct answer is B. Anyway, now I have a short story with a hole in the middle of it. I have created the very first short story donut. I’m so proud.

If you’re reading this, and you’re  a poet, I don’t expect you to have any sympathy with me, go one with your musings and inexplicable line breaks and leave me to my misery. For those of you who, like me are mid poetry crisis, I can offer no advice, only empathy and reiterate my newfound knowledge that poetry is not something that should be entered into lightly. It will take over your life, even in your bid to avoid it. Ooh, also poetry does sound better if you read it out loud.

My Life In Books

Sorry for the rather long gap between posts but this next post needed some consderation before I could put fingers to keyboard. Inspired by the current BBC book programme, My Life In Books, I’ve compiled my own bookography. In keeping with the format of the BBC version, I’ve restricted myself to five books. The process of culling some of my all time favourite reads has been extraordinarily difficult, but knowing I had to be brutal, I decided to base my picks on the extent to which they affected or influenced my life at the time of reading and beyond. I’ve suprised myself by a couple of my choices, but on the basis of the criteria I’ve used to make my list, I can’t argue. So here goes:

Early Childhood: The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

Me, under the covers plus a torch plus The Magic Faraway Tree. I could not get enough of this book or the sequels that followed when I was a kid.  What could be more amazing than an enchanted forest containing a gigantic magical tree, with a rotation of strange, magical lands hovering above it  and a group of weird magic folk living inside its trunk. To my six or seven year old self, the answer was nothing.  I wanted to be best friends with Moon-face, Silky the fairy, The Saucepan Man, Dame Washalot and Mr. Watzisname. Wasn’t too bothered about the Angry Pixie though. I can’t remember which Land it was they visited where they ate strawberry and cucumber sandwiches, but to this day, I still think that it’s a sandwich combo winner. A few years ago, on a bit of a nostalgia trip, I started re-reading it and it just didn’t have the same effect, so I stopped – I didn’t want to ruin my perfect memories of it.

Early Teenage Years: The Lord of The Rings by J.R. Tolkien

I blame my Junior Four teacher entirely for this one. I was eleven when he started reading the books to us for an hour at the end of every Friday. He turned us all into Tolkien junkies and without even being aware that it was happening, I was initiated into the geek club.

Later Teenage Years: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I read this when I was a seventeen year old college girl. It was one of the set texts on the English Literature A-Level and is responsible for my continuing obssession with Margaret Atwood’s writing. Since then I seem to have been reading an Atwood book each time a pivitol moment in my life has occured. It was also my first foray into dystopian novels and I then went on to develop a bit of a taste for them. What else can I say, the woman is a genius. Yes, I’m pretty sure that every female with ambitions to be a writer says the same thing, but there’s no taking away from her brilliance.

University Years: Sketches By Boz by Charles Dickens

Persuing my bookshelves, whilst considering this period of my life, I re-stumbled upon Sketches by Boz and realised that this book basically summed up my university career during which, I studied for a hybrid degree in English Literature and the History of Art. The premise of which was, that art and literature were interlinked and infused with social context. We  had to develop a knowledge and understanding of the social context in order to analyse whatever novel or period of art we were studying. Sketches By Boz is  a series of literary sketches or scenes written by Dickens about London in the early 1800’s. ‘Boz’ was a pen name used by Dickens during his early writing career and he used it , apparently, to keep his fiction writing seperate from his job as a journalist. It’s one of his earliest published works and in it, he depicts the life of the city in such rich detail, you can’t fail to be transported to, what has become known as, Dickensian London. As an exercise in the power of description, I don’t think you’ll find a better example. Just amazing. At a time when, it became hard for me to read books without analysing them, Sketches By Boz really stood out: the city of London and its characters literally leapt off the page. Re-reading bits of it now, in a different context, looking at his skill as a writer and observing how he created such intoxicating scenes, I’m so glad that I have re-discovered it. Got a feeling it’s going to come in as a useful reference while I’m doing the MA.

Mid to Late Twenties: The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald

When I was younger, I thought my working life would lead to the lifestyle described by Fitzgerald in this book. For the most part, it didn’t,  but there was  the odd heady, decadent moment when I achieved something close. What I love about this book is its ability to draw you in to a world, that you know is false and flimsy, but you’re still mesmorised by it. I was twenty six when I first read this book, about to enter a short period, of about four or five years, which would later become known as the height of my career. After I finished reading it, I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out’. So, in a sense, The Great Gatsby contributed to a new type of thinking,  that maybe I could do something else, be something else.  Anyway, here I am doing the something else in a bid to become the something else. Time will tell if it was worth the risk. And if, in the end, it turns out that it wasn’t, I won’t hold it against F.Scott Fitzgerald.

So that’s my five. In another few years I might revisit this list, maybe expand it to six books, one for each half decade. In the meantime, here’s a list of all the other amazing novels that didn’t quite make my five book cut. I reserve the right to add others or change my mind about these at any time, and I probably will.

The Little House on The Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder; The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfield; The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde; I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; Everything by Thomas Hardy; Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro; The Winter King by Bernard Cornwall; The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice; The Making of A Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Time Travelers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

A Breakthrough Of Sorts

Apparently moaning helps. After my little rant on this blog a couple of weeks ago, I was suddenly struck by the muse and have since powered my way through 12,000 words or so. Hurrah! Yes, I know it’s quality not quantity that counts but still, I’m feeling alot better about the whole writing thing. In celebration, I printed off the novel as it exists to date, all 40,000 words. It was reassuringly weighty in my hand, but on closer inspection there was an alarming number of gaps and inconsistencies of style and it immediately dulled the brief joy that I had felt about the fact that I had written 40,000 words and the feel of those 40,000 words in my hand.

A fragmented approach to writing is to blame. Despite the existance of a chapter plan, the limitations of my life mean that I write in dribs and drabs, and rarely in chronological order. The result, as I say, is gaps and inconsistencies.  I am now going through, page by page, re-writing and editing so that a homogeneous style prevails throughout, with a plan to get my first ten chapters completed in full by the end of March. After that I’ll start bridging the gaps between the already written later chapters and the not yet written chapters in between with a complete first draft ready for August.   And then I’m going to breathe and maybe take a little jaunt to Dublin.

I’m always reading about writers treating the writing process like a job, going into their study at 9am, coming out at 1pm for lunch and then working again until 3pm or 4pm. I would love to have the time / space to work like this, but at the moment I don’t. From now on I will try to insert some disicpline into my writing life, such as it is. So, every day I will write for two consecutive hours and hopefully, as a result, whole chapters will be written with perfect ease in the way that they were on holiday last week, when I had no distractions, a sleeping child and skiing husband. Should this new regime fail, I may consider relocating to the alps permanently in a bid to re-create the perfect writing conditions. If I must suffer for my art in this way, so be it.

Ten Poems About Tea

Candlestick Press are publishing a new book of poetry called Ten Poems about Tea which literally features ten poems about the drink, tea. Apparently it’s got an introduction by the lovely Sophie Dahl and comes with an envelope and a bookmark left blank for your own special message. ‘Tea’ themed presents are having a bit of a moment in my household, having bought both my husband and my brother a t-shirt from Fatface featuring a cup of tea and the words ‘Tea Solves Everything’. It does, doesn’t it? We’re big tea drinkers you see. This little poetry gem however, looks more like my kind of thing and I plan on sticking it under the Husband’s nose prior to Valentine’s day, in the hope that he gets the hint, or, at the very least makes me a brew. And at £4.95 +p&p it’s not going to break the bank. They’ve also got lots of other ‘Ten Poems About…’ pamphlets on a range of topics for the same price. Get them, or force your other half to get them for you, at www.candlestickpress.co.uk

P.S. I’m not on commission, I just like charming little things like this and small pots of fake lavender.

The Writing Smithy

Teachers: people who have the capacity to make you or break you. Both my parents are teachers: aside from their literal invovlement in the making of me (although I don’t like to think about this too much)  they have continued to support me in various ways throughout my life, never giving me the answer, but providing me with guidance and allowing me to make my own decisions. In addition to my parents, I’ve been lucky enough to have come across a handful of really wonderful teachers: some of whom have had the necessary teaching qualifications, some , experts in their field, I have paid to impart their wisdom so that I might benefit from it and others who were simply giving enough of their time and energy to mentor and guide me in their area of interest. Most of what I know has been derived from a combination of osmosis – watching and listening to how these people do what they do and knowing when to ask for help.

When I decided to cast off the shackles of a corporate career and embark on a life of writing and freelancing, I knew that there were things about my new, intransient, unrealiable state of living that would heckle my control freak tendancies. In true control freak style, I mapped out a plan complete with a heady objective of where I wanted to be in five years time. Happy with my blueprint for success, I began researching how to achieve it (are you getting a picture of the type of person I am?).  It all hung around the novel I had begun to write four years previously and that was now about to take centre stage in a life previously devoted to money making. And therein lay the rub: this plan, so carefully constructed, was all based on a series of words (all 15,000 at the time of intervention) that, barring myself, only my mother had read. What to do? I needed help, a second, unbiased, professional opinion about my writing and I found it in the form of Jenn Ashworth (also know as The Whipcracker on this blog).

At the time (although it hasn’t changed too much since then) I had a real desire to change my life and just enough self belief to send her an email and ask if she could help. Her reply, friendly and polite, suggested we meet to discuss the process of ‘creative mentoring’ and asked me to send a sample of my writing. This was duly done and I waited with some sense of trepidation of what the meeting might hold, hoping feverishly that she wouldn’t say it was complete crap and that I might be better not attempting to articulate the contents of my head at all. Anyway, long story short: she didn’t say that. She said that we could work together and booked me in for five sessions. My mentoring sessions with Jenn, then gave those first six months of ‘not being an employee’ a vague structure and some much needed respite from my life as a new mother. Suddenly I had deadlines and critques from which to learn and improve from. I now had an excuse, or a reason, to make writing one of my priorities: which basically meant I sacrificed the ironing and gave myself permission to write. And I began to approach my writing differently: I learnt techniques to balance out my writing and engage the reader more effectively, I developed a better feeling for structuring my novel and each chapter within it. I honed my characters into three dimensional people. In essence, I got serious about the business of writing and knew that if I was to acheive my dream of being a published author, I was going to have to be as self motivated and focussed as Jenn was. Six months later I was accepted on to the Distance Learning MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University which, overjoyed though I was, meant giving up my mentoring sessions with Jenn – too many cooks and all that. But I don’t think I would have got here if it wasn’t for Jenn. She was always positive, extremely down to earth, incredibly patient and unfailingly generous in the transfer of her considerable and instrinsic knowledge of  ‘what works’. She was never obtuse in her commentry, giving only the practical advice and guidance that a new writer like me so desperately needed but was too afraid to ask for and I never felt belittled or unworthy of her time. In short, she was, and is, the perfect kind of teacher, and I say this with the authority that only the daughter of a headmaster and a lifelong association with various academic and training instutitions can have.  

We’ve kept in touch since, and was thrilled to find out that in the last month, she has teamed up with the poet, Sarah Hymas, to set up brand new creative mentoring service called The Writing Smithy. Apparently they’re offering a range of different services for writers and aspiring writers including the type of creative mentoring I received. However, you don’t have to be Lancashire based to access their expertise: they’re also offering mentoring at a distance via skype and / or email, which is not too dissimilar from the MA I’m now doing, although probably a darn sight cheaper.

Writers of all levels and at all stages, if you haven’t had your face burnt by the glow that this blog post has emitted in praise of Ms Ashworth, you might want to check out her new venture, The Writing Smithy (it’s linked above but you can also find it at www.thewritingsmithy.co.uk).  It may be the best thing you ever do.