Write your Poem first, worry about Readers later

Figure skater performing a layback spin

Figure skater layback spin

On a busy rink with no one paying attention, a figure skater will land their double axel perfectly. Five minutes later, with their coach watching, the figure skater will wobble just after landing the jump. A month later, on an empty rink with a prize on offer, the skater knows the only way she’ll land that double axel is to imagine there is no one behind the barriers watching her.

There are generally two reasons for writers’ block:

  1. You wrote yourself into a dead end and need to back out by a couple of stanzas and take the left instead of the right turn.
  2. You’re staring at a blank page or screen and that idea you had just won’t articulate itself.

The blanking issue generally comes from performance anxiety: either you’re putting yourself under too much pressure – “You’re a Writer, Write!” or you’ve finally carved out some time for yourself to write and now you can’t – or you’re worried that you won’t find a reader/editor who will like what you’re trying to write. Naturally the more you urge yourself to write something, the blanker the page looks. It becomes more like a bully, “Look at all this blank space you could fill with words, but you won’t because you’re not the writer you thought you were.”

The cure is to take away the anxiety and that’s never as simple as it sounds. Try these steps and adapt them to suit you.

  • Take a break. This might be as quick as getting a cup of coffee or a longer break to take a walk.
  • On your break, think about what you want to achieve with the poem you’re struggling to write. How would you want a reviewer or workshop to discuss it? Why do you want to write this poem – are you trying to raise awareness of a subject or resolve an issue or record a memory before it’s completely forgotten?
  • When you get back to your blank page, quickly write down in note form what you want to achieve.
  • Now your page isn’t blank anymore. You’ve still not written your poem but you know where you want it to go.
  • Don’t worry about the beginning, start in the middle or work backwards and sketch out what shape the poem should take.
  • The writing may be hesitant, uneven or full of false starts, but you are writing.

You’re writing because, like the figure skater, you took your focus off the audience and placed it back on the poem.


Leicester Writers Showcase Ella @ 100

Journeys in Translation Event during Everybodys Reading

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Does Your Writing Environment Impact your Poems?

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

Mary Oliver

Virginia Woolf famously wanted her own room, Mary Oliver prefers solitude and J K Rowling wrote in cafes while her very young daughter napped (although I’m guessing now she has a home office.) Some writers take over the kitchen table after other residents have gone to work or school. Others have an office, some at home, some in a separate building so they have to leave home to go to work. Some write directly onto a computer. Others insist on writing out first drafts by hand.

How much does environment impact on writing?

The last six pieces I wrote – reviews and five poems – were all written in different places under different circumstances:

  • I wrote my reviews in the lounge of a rented apartment, computer on my lap, TV in the background because the person I was with wanted to watch it.
  • One poem was drafted by hand in a notebook while I sat in a parked car, background noise supplied by the breeze and birdsong. The person I was with was playing a game on their phone.
  • Another poem was written by hand in a notebook whilst I was sitting on a public bench overlooking the sea, background noise a combination of lapping waves and seagulls.
  • Another poem was written by hand in a notebook in a noisy café.
  • Another poem was written straight onto a laptop at home. This was probably the only uninterrupted draft.
  • Another poem drafted in the notepad app on my phone during lunch break in a noisy office where the radio leaks from the neighbouring warehouse.

The reviews have been accepted. One of the poems has been accepted, the others are still being worked on and aren’t ready for submission yet. The accepted poem was the one written in a noisy office.

If I needed privacy, a place of my own or insisted I could only write drafts on my laptop or in a specific notebook, I wouldn’t get much writing done. Habit has made the ideal writing environment redundant.

I tend to do a lot of drafting in my head before committing words to paper or screen. I have a reasonable memory and experience has taught me that if an idea is good enough, it won’t get forgotten. It will haunt you until you write it. However, it may start in the form of a rough pottery urn but then may shatter and the shards regroup into an elegant china coffee pot and then it may decide that a coffee pot isn’t much use without cups and a milk jug so will reach out and link to those shapes too, bringing them together on a graceful tray. At this point, I’ll pour the coffee and start writing, wherever and whenever I happen to be. I’m not fussed about drafting by hand or on screen.

Ideally, I’d be able to sit at my desk at home with a familiar keyboard and screen. Reviewing has disciplined me into reading from a screen just as I would read from a printed page so I don’t fall into the lazy habit of skim reading from a screen, although I will skim read a boring article in an online journal just as I would speed reading a boring article in a print newspaper. Ideally, I’d have something close to silence (inevitably nature will intrude, the fridge will hum, the computer itself is not always silence). I can filter out predictable noise such as a radio or background chatter, but it’s hard work and makes the writing process more tiring. I have never been able to filter out someone else humming, whistling or tapping in the background whilst I write a poem, particularly if the humming/whistling/tapping is arrhythmic or I don’t recognise the song and can’t make the distraction predictable.

Habit has taught me to seize the moment and write with the environment and tools available. If I wait until I can get home and sit at my desk with minimal distraction, it would only give me a narrow window of opportunity to write and, of the last six pieces, only one was written at home. I would lose a lot of poems if I waited for the ideal environment or indulged in the luxury of only using a certain type or notebook or pen or downloading apps or switching off the internet hub to make me focus on word processing instead of social media.

For most of us, the best writing environment is the one we create with the place we happen to be in and the tools at hand. Worrying about the ideal environment or creating the right set of circumstances is just like waiting for the muse to strike: procrastination.

 


Leicester University’s Centre for New Writing is undertaking a three year collaborative project, Colonial Countryside, which will mobilise child historians to develop new audiences for cutting-edge research about British country houses’ Caribbean and East India connections. Peepal Tree Press will publish and resource new writing. To kick-start this project, a pilot event will be held with Colmore Junior School in Birmingham and Kenwood and Harewood Houses. A crowdfunder has been opened to pay for 20 children to visit country houses and related archives along with a historian and a writer to support the children in creating a podcast about their experiences.

The JustGiving page for the project is available here: https://www.justgiving.com/campaigns/charity/uniofleicester/colonial-countryside


 

Does your poem end where it should?

I usually talk about titles because a good title will make a poem stand out in a list of contents and could be the difference between the reader choosing to read your poem or the one on the page after yours.

However, a good ending will entice a reader to read and savour your poem again. A bad or underdeveloped ending will wreck the reader’s experience. What makes a good ending?

Have you wrapped up your poem like a ready-made kit?

If you’ve resolved every question, explained every image and tied up every loose end, your poem may feel complete but your reader will find it frustrating. What you’ve done is excluded the reader from interpreting your poem or failed to give them space to develop an emotional connection. Instead of giving your reader the kit and guide, you’ve already made-up the kit and left the reader thinking that was pretty but pointless.

Do you deliver the promise of your premise?

Poems have their own internal logic. If your poem is grounded in an urban landscape, suddenly veering off into fantasy for the final couplet will irritate. That doesn’t mean your urban landscape can’t have a surprising piece of architecture or that your poem can’t end with the narrator suddenly realising that s/he’s no longer on planet earth, but give your reader some clues earlier in the poem. Even in twist-in-the-tale stories, the clues to the twist were in the story if the reader was paying attention.

Have you over-explained?

If you cut the last two lines of your draft poem, does it still make sense? Trust the reader to understand your poem. If you feel the need to explain your ending, then your poem is not ready for publication. You can guide a reader towards the conclusion you’d like them to make, but you must allow for a reader to make a different interpretation.

Have you employed a Deus Ex Machina?

Readers feel cheated if the downtrodden hero/ine who never gambles discovers a winning lottery ticket or some wealthy relative (who hasn’t been mentioned in the story so far) turns up out of the blue or a fairy godmother waves a magic wand. Cinderella’s fairy godmother enabled her to go to the ball, but it was Cinderella herself who left her glass slipper behind so her prince could find her again.

In a poem, the narrator needs to resolve their own problem.

Is the form dictating your poem?

In an early draft, your poem might have looked like a sonnet but, if you’re struggling with the ending, it might be better to release it from a sonnet’s straitjacket.