One Wednesday Night, the Poem

I was talking to a friend about poetry and she’d generously let me read one of her pieces of writing.  When I did, I was reminded of advice that my old English teacher gave me.  He was the first person, offline, that I showed my writing to.  He taught me for four years and, unlike many teachers, he would talk to me like an equal.  It felt like he valued my opinions and we would debate the Shakespeare biased curriculum time and time again.  My stance being that he wasn’t the only playwright and we should get variety.  Anyway, come sixth form, when he was no longer my teacher, we shared poems we’d written and he’d ask for my thoughts on his and offered his thoughts, gently, on mine.  He played an important role in my life and in shaping who I became.

But back to the point.  One piece of advice he would give me time and time again was to use what I’d written but say it in less words.  Strip it back.  See what it becomes.  And in doing so, you learn a lot about what you’re saying, the point you’re making and the language you’re using.

Having offered this advice to my friend, I went through some of my old poetry and tried to find one to exercise brevity on.  But nothing caught my attention, none of the poems I returned to hooked me today.  And then I picked up a copy of One Wednesday Night which I’d printed to critique and that did hook me.  A poem about nosebleeds and tummies would be hard to pull off but I liked the starry sky part of it.  And so I picked out a few words and phrases and started to play with them:

A dusty sky; the stage is set.
Leading role – the crescent moon.
Venus; shining golden in the spotlight.

Before my tired eyes
Dots begin to glow

– the constellations of closed eyes?

The supporting cast step out
From hiding in the wings.
The starry queen holds court;
a dancing bear and timid cub perform.

Street lamps conceal stage hands
and then, like the curtain closing,
the cast, the stars and stage

All fall away.

The play is lost to sleep.

NB, the stars you see when your eyes are closed are called phosphenes.

Simile and Metaphor: Figurative Language in Nature Writing

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently reading Writing About Nature: A Creative Guide by John A. Murray.  It’s a good book and is helping me see nature writing more critically as well as pushing me a bit in my own writing.  Being able to critique and pull apart other people’s writing can help you to be more discerning with your own.  It can also help you to understand why a particular piece might feel powerful and help you to understand what it is you like and don’t like about different authors.

I’m about half way through and so far we have considered:

  • The importance of journals
  • The essay as a form
  • The writing process
  • The opening and closing of nature writing, touched on in my post about The Doe’s Song
  • Word pictures
  • Figurative language

It is the latter that I want to consider here.  In any kind of creative writing, metaphors and similes are powerful tools.  They help readers to see images in their minds and make connections between different ideas.  And when it comes to nature writing, nature herself has given us a vast encyclopedia of potential metaphor to play with. With this rich bank, we can weave together the natural world and the human condition, we have tools which allow us to get a sense of something otherwise undefinable and evoke feelings and ideas that are difficult to express.

Fresh imagery can provide a new way of seeing the world and that is essential for the progression of humanity.  We become numb to cliched imagery, we stop seeing it, we no longer respond to it’s power.  And so, in this chapter, Murray invites us to develop our skills.

Each chapter ends with suggested exercises and there are a few which particularly appealed for figurative language.  One is to read a nature book and keep a list of all the figurative language which particularly appeals, something which I looked at with Otter Country.  The second exercise gives us the start of similes and invites us to complete them in an non cliched way.

As dark as… a mole’s world.

As smooth as… a well loved, much kissed, teddy bear.

As bright as… a triumph of daffodils ringing with the laughter of children.

As green as… the life blood of a tree. 

Damning a wild river is like… trying to hold the world in one hand.

Peering through a microscope at one-celled organisms is like… god on the sixth day, creating life in his image and reflecting on his work.

(Italics mine)

A third exercise asks us to turn literal language into figurative.  The example is around the word trembled.  We are given the sentence: The aspen leaves trembled in the wind.  And the response was: The northern lights trembled in the Alaskan night sky like the thoughts of a mother sleepless with concern for her baby.

Played: The young grizzly bear cubs played in the grass. -> The starlight played upon the lake, casting ripples of childlike joy across the water.

Whilst not mentioned as an exercise, playing with found words is something that I’d like to do at some stage.  I started it by flicking open a book and picking a random word and repeating it but with a little more care for the second word:

Blizzards as tangy as lemons * The blinding sheen of meditation contains glittering vulnerability * The wheels of mill houses scooping water over and over, spinning river into flour

Nature writing works well for this as there are already a wide range of literal and figurative images for you to combine.  The first half of the wheels of mill houses image, for example, was found in Salar the Salmon by Henry Williamson, of Tarka fame where as the other two were found in the creative guide itself.

Share your metaphors and similes, or examples you’ve come across below!

Storytelling tarot spread 

I’ve seen writing inspiration tarot spreads on pinterest and thought they were interesting. Then a while back a friend asked if I’d do one for her.

I had a look and couldn’t settle on a particular spread, they all had strengths and weaknesses and in the end I pulled together the strengths and my knowledge of writing to make my own.

Half focuses on characters, their motivations and their relationship. The other half is based on the story arc idea with a card for each key point in the plot.

The reading I did for my friend was really interesting with some great stuff for writing I think. I hope so anyway!  I was inspired to do my own reading which turned out to be very different even though there were a couple of the same cards.

hj 220716 edited

Normally when I read for myself, I just note ideas down but when I did this reading for my friend, I used full sentences and wrote all my thoughts which turned out to be quite helpful. So I repeated this for myself (PDF).

Following this, an essential step is to actually sit down and write… I did a writers block spread for my friend as well. For me, I’m going to try and create a writing plan or routine which sees me do a little each week. I’d love to say each day but I know that my unpredictable pain and energy levels will mean I don’t achieve that. And once I’ve missed one day, it becomes very easy to miss another and so on… I’m thinking it might be worth adding to my Friday check in /week ahead planning.

If i don’t get far with a plan, then I’ll do the writers block spread for myself but I think I probably know my own blocks; lack of self discipline, lack of energy at times, wanting to get something spot on first time but mostly just not sitting down to write. I have all the excuses… Pain, brain fog, using the computer can worsen my pain, using voice recognition software is frustrating… But I have the time, I have vague ideas and the inspiration from the above spread, I just need to actually turn on my laptop and start drafting and jotting down ideas…

Wish me luck!!

a poet, anger and a banana… a writing exercise

Sometime last year, I bought a few old issues of mslexia off ebay.  I’ve got a subscription but I wanted some more to read.  The last couple I’ve looked at have had some interesting exercises to get you writing.  And as one of my projects for this year is to get back into writing, I figured I should actually give them a go rather than just thinking “oh that’s an interesting idea”…

This is the one that got me onto my computer to write.

Write a list of professions.  Come back later and write a list of emotions.  Come back later again and write a list of objects.

  profession Emotion/feeling etc object
1 poet guilt Gun
2 taxidermist Anger Spoon
3 teacher love Banana
4 Police officer Despair Door
5 Model Joy Camera
6 Journalist Excitement Pen
7 Artist Happy Painting
8 Poison taster Ashamed Screwdriver
9 Vet Courageous Tablet
10 Cook Bitter Chair
11 Editor Apathetic Marmalade
12 Taxi driver Grief Jar
13 Masseuse Overwhelmed Glasses
14 Hair dresser Anxious Window
15 Carer Peace Peach
16 Photographer Lust Plate
17 Actor pride Book
18 Miller scared Skirt
19 Ghost hunter confused horse

Then there’s different ways you can use your lists but the idea is that it’s a springboard for a couple of sentences, an idea or a vignette.

I’m choosing three numbers at random and picking one word from each column accordingly.

So 1, 2 and 3 gives  me a poet, anger and a banana…

8,9 and 7 gives me a poison taster, courageous and painting:

Everyone thought the poison taster was so brave, so courageous, risking her life each and every day for the sake of saving another. But she knew differently. It was a cop out. It was placing the risk in someone else’s hands. She felt no fear when she took that first bite or mouthful for her boss. She knew the outcome; live or die. But the second she sat at her easel and held a paintbrush in her hands, she froze. Her mind filled with anxiety, doubt, criticism. Overwhelming her, forcing her to turn away. The canvas remaining blank. A stark reminder to her of her cowardliness.

The painting remains unpainted. The poison taster poisoned.

What combinations do you get?  What stories do they tell?

“Morning” pages

Julia Cameron created the idea of morning pages.  Essentially, it’s a bit of a mind dump that you do upon waking up.  She says there is no wrong way to do it but for her version of morning pages, you must use a pen and paper, must do them every day and must do them first thing.  Which creates an issue for me.  I cannot write by hand (somethings I cannot even type), I cannot do them daily due to fatigue and I cannot do them when I wake up because I have carers with me and I have an hour to get from bed to work.  These are non negotiable.  So I’ve taken her idea and made it work for me.  I have committed to doing my “morning” pages once a week at whatever time of day works.  Some weeks I’ve managed to do them twice and sometimes even in the morning!  Essentially, in order to keep at them, I had to reframe the concept to make it achievable for me.

And I like them.  I like the satisfaction of being able to tick them off my mental to do list.  I like that they free up my head a bit so some of the mundane crap thoughts are out the way.  I like that it gives me a bit more space for ideas to come to me.  And I like that it helps me recognise patterns and themes in my thinking.

For example, today I sat down with no idea what I would be writing and went from weather (always a good start if you’re short on ideas) to “when you break everything down, we are all the same, we are all protons and electrons and neutrons. Elementarily, we are no different to the dirt we tread on. Elementarily, we are all the same.”  (How on earth did I get there?!)

And there is something in that which may later become a poem.  It may not.  And I don’t always end up with ideas or phrases from my pages but sometimes I do.  And if nothing else, I can say I have written this week.