If I had to sum up my writing life in one sentence, ‘one thing leads to another’ might be the phrase. It covers the cause-and-consequences chains in writing itself, such as plotline and characterisation. Also, the way that one idea/ image/line/clause/sentence flows naturally into the next. I say ‘naturally’, though this may in fact be the result of hours of re-drafting, whittling and crafting.
For me, this is more like nature’s flow in the changing seasons than the order of clocks and calendars. Still a continuation and accumulation, but one that links or spools onwards through patterns and recurring motifs rather than exact measurements, though such elements may also be present in the form, for example, of metre.
Spring: Honey bee. Think of something you really like – honey, flowers, sunshine… What things have to happen beforehand in order for that thing to be, and for you to enjoy it?
In my life, ‘one thing leads to another’ has applied in career terms too. It can be useful to have an end-game, assessing everything along the way to check it fits that ultimate goal. But many of my writing milestones have happened more serendipitously, through shorter-term aims and being open to spontaneous possibilities. This is partly my making sure I’m not so focussed on a final outcome that I lose life/living/enjoyment along the way. I’m also aware that too narrow a focus might shut off amazing opportunities which I’d never have thought to dream of.
My best example is my third poetry collection The Magnetic Diaries (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2015) – a narrative in poetry and emails based on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary brought into a contemporary English setting. I’d never envisaged turning it into a poetry-play. But then I saw a call-out from Hereford’s The Courtyard theatre for new scripts for a one-off performance. Malvern company Reaction Theatre Makers not only staged the play but also took it to Edinburgh Festival Fringe and on an Arts Council England funded tour.
Meanwhile, poetry’s brevity and intensity made writing flash fiction a natural side-step for me as a poet. That this should develop into flash sequences (like poetry sequences) then to a novella/novel in flash isn’t surprising. At least, not in hindsight, though I never set out expecting these developments. Flash gave me a structure of small steps that somehow felt less overwhelming than sitting down with the intention of writing a full novel. One thing led to…
Summer: (Un)cluttered seas. Are beaches really just sun, sand and surf? Consider the grittier side of holiday experiences and/or the marine life/pollution below the ocean surface’s blue sheen.
So far, so good for my guiding rule. Or maybe not. Actually, one thing often leads to more than just one other. In writing, that’s where editing decisions have to be made, or one option tried, and then another until a piece finds its shape – as feels right to the author/ a publisher, at that point in time in those circumstances at least. (Yes, fiction might become poetry, poems might become flash and some poems in my collections are different to their earlier published versions, while others have slightly different lines when I perform them.)
Opportunities too may develop simultaneously due to several starting/inspiration/motivation factors coinciding. This could mean working on various projects concurrently or prioritising which to go with first, hopefully returning to others later. Like inspiration, progress can come in fits and starts, or loop back multiple times. Meanwhile, the words ‘plan’ and ‘unplanned’ acknowledge the future as part of the present. How many of us would start writing something we knew we’d never complete? Even the seasons repeat, if not exactly identically.
I could say I’ve increasingly developed my photography skills since 2015, knowing I was likely to need to produce covers for my small poetry and flash fiction press V. Press. This is true. But my first photography prize was in a local competition in 2008. In 2012, I’d combined art and poetry for an exhibition as part of my Masters in Creative Writing. Then nothing more, until I become interested in the possibilities of photography initially for sharing poetry on social media, later as a combined photo-poem art form (see my previous Blue Nib article on this here) No neat, direct and undeviating timeline here.
My poetry film work has followed a similarly indirect trajectory. Partly, this is because all art forms have technical tools and terminology that take time, reading and practice to learn. Film production, in particular, is hard without specific training or working in collaboration, and self-doubt can corrode a creative’s toolkit. My interest in poetry film might have died had I not discovered Poetry Film Live. (Helen Dewbery’s The Blue Nib article ‘Writing For Poetry Film’ can be found here) Poetry film has been a jolting journey, but 10 years after I started ‘dabbling’ in this art form, I got my first paid commission ‘Mosaic Modern Worcestershire’.
Autumn: T-trunks. Traditionally, autumn is harvest time and red leaves, falling. What has been the best/worst thing that has happened to you, or a fictional character, this year? Celebrate fruits, vegetables and crops, your creative produce as a writer, or life’s highlights and joys. Alternatively, focus on hunger/drought, your or a fictional character’s wants, needs and disappointments.
All my creative projects are a balance of some structure and sketched planning, while remaining open to inspiration and experimentation. Rather than ‘one thing leads to another’, maybe ‘one space leads/unfolds into others…’.
For me, this is inherent in the mantra about writers reading others’ work – opening the mind to new styles or techniques and getting into the zone/space where inspiration may strike. Walking, cycling or swimming alone give me this too. While the body’s preoccupied by movement, my subconscious is nudged into motion with ideas, or edits on existing pieces. Like Aristotle’s famous ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’, where there is a space, inspiration and creativity rush to fill this.
If this space exists already, all well and good, hopefully… If not? Procrastination may be a writer’s best friend in this sense, but it’s not the only one. Free writing – a stream of consciousness flow of non-stop writing for five or ten minutes – can be a useful practice. As with brainstorming, after I’ve finished I can go back and find words or phrases that act as windows/doors/openings into a new piece. Prompts, workshops and collaboration also work similarly.
Yes, time, energy and commitment are needed to make these spaces happen when they aren’t naturally apparent. This isn’t easy when most of us are constricted by time, energy and financial constraints. But, in fact, as long as space is possible, the need to sometimes fight for it can generate writing power and intensity. If I’m honest, I wrote most intensively when my children were toddlers and I never knew when I’d next have time and energy. Without some sense of urgency, it’s easy to slip into an ‘it can wait until tomorrow…’ frame of mind. If I don’t have an external deadline, I’ll often create one for myself (from competition or submission deadlines etc).
Winter: Behind the webs. The cold season may be a time of hibernation, with a sense of anticipation/expectation. What are you, or your fictional character, waiting for – in nature, life or another setting? What surprises might lie in hiding?
I’ve already circled back several times in this article – just as the seasons, life and often writing do. The new year, a new leaf, a new start has become a custom – or cliché, depending on how you choose to look at it. As we move towards the winter solstice and year’s end, now might be a good point for reflecting on what’s gone before and what might lie ahead. But the truth is that actually we can do this whenever it’s useful to us as writers.
Even when neither structure nor flow is immediately apparent, chances are it’s there somewhere. The prompt photos in this article are from an ongoing experimental project ‘eco-alphabetics’ (using manipulations of different letters to explore human impact on the environment). The pieces here don’t start with ‘a’. Spring features ‘b’, summer has ‘c’ but autumn is ‘t’ and winter ‘s’. You may not initially have even registered this without zooming in or enlarging the images. I’ve ordered the photos here as somehow partially representative of these seasons. However, they might not typify that season at all for some. Shifts, overlaps, divergences can be the very spaces where creativity thrives most strongly.
Space then is vital, and some structure essential to hold/create space. Balancing risk may also come into a play. How and at what point will differ. Take my novel in flash example. I don’t currently have a traditional novelist’s bravery. For me, a standard novel structure would mean all my eggs/words in one basket. But, in addition to its creative possibilities, an ‘in flash’ structure gives me many individual pieces that might be published even if the whole culminating manuscript isn’t.
With everything, there is always a learning curve and the risk of not pulling off a project as well as we hope or others might expect. Fear is natural. But what is left for us as writers if we don’t take, and keep taking, creative challenges?
A Mountainous Art
The poet-climber wants to speak in leaves:
a whisper like spring unfurling; long vowels
harvested from summer trees, shorter ones
falling from swaying autumn branches;
a blizzard of soft consonants nearing winter,
an occasional howl to match the wind…
But the ascent is more a steep rock face,
fingers reaching for nooks, un-metric feet
inching slowly forwards, her voice trapped
inside a cavity of fear. The only sound:
her rasped breathing. Even her silence
feels un-belayed – like any second now,
she might fall from her lines’ sharp edges.
Or, grit her teeth, hammer in a new piton,
test her weight, and push onwards, upwards.