So not a therapist

The Nightmare (Thomas Burke (artist), after Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) – Tate Britain, Public Domain)

So. Recently, I ran a workshop on techniques to start creative projects. I have run it a few times now (and I have written about the techniques elsewhere), but not so often that I am on autopilot. Almost every time I find out something interesting for me. This time was no different.

We started the session doing some free writing starting from the phrase ‘a garden is …’. Everyone got their heads down and wrote, all in handwriting tidier than mine. Then we went round to see what people had found in their writing. As you’d expect, even with that starting point there was a huge variation in the approach, subject and style of the writing. But what I hadn’t expected was that one person became quite emotional as they finished going through their text.

It came as a surprise, but, on reflection, really shouldn’t have. We aren’t doing therapy, but any workshop which involves people accessing the things inside them, has the possibility that some of those things will be disturbing or distressing. We are always hoping for wonders, but there is no rule that the things which emerge will be beautiful and uplifting.

No life is entirely free of pain, and for many people life is grim. If we invite them to an act of self-exposure – which is what writing is – we should expect evidence of those experiences in what they create.

In fact, given that we are dealing with human experience I’m surprised that so little of what comes out is negative. On this occasion, we gave the person a moment, then moved gently on to the next exercise.

And I was reminded, once again, of the power of this writing stuff, which I sometimes treat too glibly.



The left-handed writer

So. I have a couple of poems going up in an exhibition at the Catalyst Festival. Grand. But the organisers also wanted a bit of blurb about ‘why I write’.

That paralysed me. Why do I write? Flippin’ heck. It doesn’t help that I have always found this sort of meta-writing difficult (I don’t like writing press-releases or advertising text either). Some authors write books about why they write (and maybe someone, somewhere has written a book about why they wrote a book about why they write), but, honestly, I can’t be bothered with that.

I don’t want the grim wisecrack, in the style of Doug Stanhope (‘I’m Doug Stanhope and that’s why I drink’). Nor do I want the weirdly worthy: for example David (and Leigh) Eddings:

The field of fantasy has always been of interest to him, however, and he turned to The Belgariad in an effort to develop certain technical and philosophical ideas concerning that genre.

(I have loved that sentence for over thirty years.)

I was stuck. Then, on a train, away from the interwebs, I thought I might as well try one of the techniques I recommend to other people: five minutes’ free writing. I opened a new text document in FoldingText (because there is no possibility of wasting time with formatting) and started typing.

It worked. The first few sentences were gibberish, but quite soon I got something worth developing. What I ended up with is manifesto-y, but I think it is an adequate answer. Here it is.

Why does anyone write? Dr Johnson said no one but a fool wrote except for money. So, I write out of folly. I write out of ignorance, to find out what I think. I write out of excitement: when the big idea wasp buzzes around my head the best way to be rid of it is to pin it to the page. I write because sometimes, very, very rarely, I think I might have something worth saying. I write with an excess of hope, but no expectation of success. I write as peacock and as ostrich. I write out of fear, because if I stop the writing I might disappear. I write because I have something even more difficult to do. I write because the world keeps giving things to write about. I write because I can’t draw, paint, sing or dance.

A Christmas Garland Redux


So. Last Christmas I wrote a twelve sonnet cycle, on the theme of Christmas, and posted them on Living Lantern, a day at a time. I was contemplating another Christmas project for this season, but a Christmas deadline on another project put an end to that, so I’m having a rest.

In the meantime, to make the original cycle easier to read, I have compiled it into an ebook. You can download that here:

A Christmas Garland – mobi format for kindle

A Christmas Garland – epub format for all manner of other readers.

The ebooks are free, but if you feel that you want to pay something for it, you can also buy it on Amazon (that link is to, but it’s also available on

‘Take that thing away’

Campo SantoSo. In the HG Wells short story The Pearl of Love an Indian prince falls in love with a young woman who dies shortly after their wedding. He dedicates his life to building a monument to her. In old age, with the building nearly complete, he studies one of the vistas within the monument and finds it spoiled by her sarcophagus. ‘Take that thing away,’ he commands.

I was reminded of that story this morning in the shower, when I suddenly saw the resolution to the tangled and unworking plot of a story I am writing. I realised that the very beginning scene, which I had tweaked and tidied for ages, and was very much in love with, had to go. ‘Take that thing away,’ I commanded.

Of course, the position isn’t quite the same, as the beginning scene isn’t the core of the book: even though it had been there since the start. We have to learn though, that once we have started, the things that we began with may not make it to the end.

Perhaps it would be better if we treated them in the same way as builders treat the wooden formwork for concrete: it holds the drying concrete in place, but once that has set the formwork is struck and never seen again. Or again, maybe as the metalworker’s wax image which is vaporised as the molten bronze or silver is poured into the mould. In each case, what we start with is not the finished piece, but we need it in order to create it.

Let us all begin to use the harsh but powerful phrase: ‘take that thing away.’

The inner life of a book

TheManWhoWasThursdaySo. For the last two days I have been in a writing workshop run by Northumberland Theatre Company in the labyrinth of Alnwick Playhouse. The first day, with Ann Coburn was about structure, layering, subtext and dialogue, the second, with Stewart Howson was all about adaptation.

The primary point of the morning was the importance of being true to the inner life of the original in the new medium. That is much more important than slavishly following the original structure and order of narrative (I have ranted about this sort of thing previously, but Stewart got the point across much more strongly).

We then did an exercise (of course). We each had to chose a book, identify the inner life and then, using newspaper and string, express that inner life in an installation. We also had to produce a one line pitch, a sentence summary and paragraph summary of the book. The process of taking the inner life from the medium of words to the sculptural-conceptual newpaper was weird, but strangely fulfilling: just what was at the heart of the book, and how could that be expressed in paper and string?

When every one was finished, we went round look at each installation in turn, trying to guess the book from just the newspaper. If we didn’t get that (which was the usual result) we got the one line pitch, then the sentence summary and finally the paragraph. We got a few quite quickly (Henry James, Portrait of a Lady), others were obscure books no one other than the adaptor had read.

Now you can join in the fun. The picture at the top of this post is my installation (ignore the rectangular white lines: those are just markings on the floor). So: can you identify the book?

If not, here’s the pitch:

It’s not paranoia if they are watching you

Got to it yet? If not, then here’s the longer phrase:

When your enemies turn out to be your friends, who is the last enemy?

Still not got it? OK. Here’s the paragraph:

At the end of the nineteenth century the forces of anarchy and law are warring over the body and soul of humanity. On man embarks on a suicidal mission to uncover the heart of disorder, only to find himself anointed as the messenger of chaos. Unable to avoid the task, he struggles to identify his friends and his enemies.

Of course, it’s G K Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday.

I don’t really want to say much more about the book – spoilers – but a key theme is about unfolding knowledge, hence the spiral of gradually unfolding pieces of paper.

Now, that was just an exercise, but I continued to think about the book as we did the next section on holding frames or framing devices. By the end of the afternoon I knew exactly how I would adapt the book for the stage. So, if anyone wants an adaptation of The Man who was Thursday for a small touring company, get in touch, I’m ready to write it.

99% perspiration

So. Here I am in a field (fortunately in a tent as well), reflecting on today’s writing workshop at Catalyst Festival. I wanted to do something on the necessary disciplines of editing and revising: we are still too tied to the romantic and spiritual ideal of inspiration. We spend a lot of time thinking about how the initial process of creation happens, when we push back against the void, whether white page or blank screen, to make something, but we spend less time thinking about what happens next, when that formless, unshaped thing needs to be licked into shape. (And licking into shape is a very appropriate image: remember that a bear cub, newborn, has no form until its mother, by repeated application of her tongue, creates limbs, torso and head.)

I wanted to give experience of critiquing, to start to build those editorial instincts that can be used to turn the ‘all right’ into the extra-ordinary. What better way to begin than by offering one of my own poems for study?

I chose a recent piece which is still in its early stages, here it is:

Acacia Baileyana
or Under it all a seed

Disorder is reduced
To a more rational register
Noise flares
Shift to silence
Branches burst
The marks and symptoms of disease
are disinfected as they run
Tongues of satisfaction
offer the warmed sky simplified matter
then subside to harder contènt
After bitter resistance
unruly colour
settles down to grey

What would they make of it?

First, the basic question of ‘what is it about?’ A surprise for me there: turns out I must have had my obscurity dial set to high when I gave this a title, as only one out of the nine people round the table said ‘fire’. Acacia Baileyana is an Australian tree, the seed of which only germinates after it has been heated by a forest fire. It turns out not many people know that.

Once I gave the hints they started to make sense of it a little more, and I received useful comments: the first two lines might fit better at the end, the marks and symptoms of disease need to be clarified, the pairing of long and short lines could be tightened. All good stuff, which I will ponder.

But the best thing is that those nine people have spent time analysing someone else’s work, and are beginning to develop some of the skills needed to analyse their own.

Measuring up

So. The metre is still running. Although I’ve been writing and thinking about iambic pentameter for a while pentameter is not the only option for iambs (it is a silly looking word – like a typo for lambs). Of course, there are tetrameters, but even trimeters. But what about monometers? Lines of one iamb apiece. I thought I’d give it go.

This was the first thing I got:

The fish
I ate
had life
but now
is dead.
I gulped
it down
and now
I am
well fed.

Now that looks OK, but if I prod the lines a bit it looks more like pentameters in disguise:

The fish I ate had life but now is dead.
I gulped it down and now I am well fed.

The lines run together properly. Grrr. So I tried it again:

The fish
it lived.
But now
it’s dead.
I gulped
it down.
I’m now
well fed.

That initially looks better, but again, merge the lines and I think it’s happier as dimeters:

The fish it lived.
But now it’s dead.
I gulped it down.
I’m now well fed.

How can I get it to sit happily as monometers. Finally, I tried:

It lived.
I grilled.
I ate.
It’s dead.

I think that works. How about you.