Innate, is it?

I recently read an interview with an author/creative writing tutor where the journalist asked The Question That Must Not Be Asked – ‘Surely you can’t teach people how to write?’

The author was rightly (in my opinion) a little prickly in his answer, giving a curt, ‘of course you can’, response. Writing is just like any other craft, he said – you work at it, you improve… or you don’t and then perhaps maybe it just isn’t for you.

Yes – there are bad writers. And yes – you need to work at it to be good and to get better.

I know that for many, this is not News but, given the journalist in question bringing the matter up, it appears that maybe it is. Art is taught – people go to classes, learn it, practice it and improve. Music is the same, as is craft work, engineering, medicine, baking, designing… I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

IMG_1982Just because the majority of the population can pick up a pen and physically write – can log onto a computer and tap away at the keys, does not, I’m afraid, a writer make. Is this harsh? Well, maybe for some, but it is my belief that if you want to be a writer, you read a lot, you write a lot, you hone your CRAFT, you take advice, instruction – as you would with any other art form/career – and you make yourself good.

You go to classes – perhaps a creative writing course and you say to those who proclaim that writing can’t be taught, that you are learning the tools of your trade – what you create with those tools afterwards is where the creativity comes in – the actual art that is personal to you.

Writers have historically always come under a bit of flak, I think. It’s the profession which everybody thinks they can do and which most aren’t, therefore willing to put much proper time and effort into. ‘Sure anyone can write’, is a frequent proclamation. ‘I could have written better myself’, ‘I’ve a book in me somewhere – just waiting to get out…’

I think everyone should consider how lucky they are to have the potential to write and I think, perhaps, that if there’s a book in there – let it out. If you could have written it better – go ahead – try it. If you are that ‘anyone who can write ‘ – get stuck in. See what’s it like and put in some effort, but don’t pretend you won’t have to work at it or improve it along the way. We all do.

The best thing about writing is that yes – it is open to anyone at any time – so dive right in…

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Incubating ideas

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster’               - ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop

Following my last post, I have been determined to set aside those things which prevent me from being creative – to ‘lose’ them, if you will. And… I have done it with varying degrees of success. The ‘day’ job is an obstacle for anyone (unless you’re lucky enough to be earning sufficiently from being a stay-at-home writer!), but I am glad to say that notes have been scribbled, books read and films watched, so creativity is being reclaimed from the day-to-day drudgery, despite unexpected circumstances rearing their ugly heads!

Another boost to my creative instincts came this week from learning that one of my short stories is to feature in the debut publication of the new online short story journal, The Incubator, along with a book review, so that was certainly cause for IMG_1626celebration. I am attempting to write one short story a month and so far, this has been happening, so getting positive feedback about one of them helps the process along. I mean, I’d write them anyway, but it’s nice to know I’m producing readable work…

I have subsequently taken more time this week to incubate ideas for my writing – with regards to poetry and prose. Words may not always ink the page, but ideas are constantly being planted and left to seed slowly in the mind. There is much to be said, I think, for creative thought without action. Sometimes, thinking is enough, for now, until the ideas flourish enough to be committed to visible form.

That said, I must away to think some more, read some more and perhaps… maybe even breathe some life into my imaginings…

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Cultivating creativity

Do you make time to be creative? Do you read books, watch films, listen to music….?

Well, I made the time (one week on) to read an article on creativity yesterday, which pointed out the benefits to us all of finding time to tap into our creative sides - whatever that may look like. For me it’s definitely reading books and creative writing, although film-watching comes in there too. Find out what works for you and go with it. Except – it’s increasingly to do that in a work-weary world. The emphasis is always on working harder and longer and leaving leisure behind.

Well, I think not. I have become one of those people now (thanks to a long commute and very late working hours) who often finds themselves checking emails and work stuff on the laptop As I Eat Breakfast!! I’m not proud of IMG_2035that, but it’s going to stop. Before, I simply read a bit of my book, scribbled notes or just sat with my wee pup and thought things over at that time in the morning. Unleashing creativity is only helped by switching off from work and tuning into our imagination.

I’ve said it before but - many of my ideas and writing inspiration come whilst I’m out walking the coast with my dog – i.e. when my brain is away from work and let loose to just ‘be’.

So, from hereon in, it’s back to basics.

The clocks may have just hopped forward an hour, but I’m winding back…

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‘Still’. One small word. One diverse collection of many words - Chelley McLear, Poetry in Motion Co-ordinator.

This is the tag-line to the second poetry anthology - entitled Still, and inspired by the same theme - which has just been published by the Community Arts Partnership (CAP) and funded by the Arts Council Northern Ireland. It is a collection that I am delighted to be a part of, having been selected as one of the poets included in the book, launched earlier today at the Black Box in Belfast.IMG_2202

Over the past year, inspired by the various writing events and workshops and courses I have attended, I have steadily developed and concentrated upon my creative writing and indeed, come round to the fact that, yes – I am a writer and a bit of a poet and there’s no reason not to admit it. You certainly don’t have to be published to be as such, but it is really rather nice when it does happen. What’s more – it’s different from seeing your name in print on a journalism piece – just as brilliant, but different. IMG_2203A poem or a story you have created and aren’t simply reporting, means that much more and particularly then, when someone deems it good enough to be printed - it means a lot.

So, today, I declined and then promptly changed my mind about reading my poem to the assembled audience of fellow poets (I may never get this chance again!). Everyone was there to support one another, I was the fourth up (which helped) and, well, once on stage, you really couldn’t see anything, thanks to the great bright lights and the darkened space of the er, Black Box.

I read it, I enjoyed it and I fear I have developed a taste for it…

River starsIMG_2199

Liquid light, scattered

each iridescent pin-prick of space

in space drowning.


Winks of dying fire,

celestial performance poets

caught half-alive in reflected refraction.


A depth of possibility.

Death re-played on a window of water

blackened by a bashful moon.


Diamonds in the airIMG_2200

hung softly in sleepy, silent dark

and still,

no ripples to swallow their dance,

or dull the romance of a river

dressed in stars.


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Collecting thoughts

I recently wrote a review of a collection of what I consider to be brilliantly constructed short stories (I’ll provide a link to it when it’s published) and it’s got me to thinking again of my own approach to writing in this genre.

The short story requires a clear voice from the outset – it, more than any other story should drop the reader right into the action from the first word. There’s no time for skirting around the issue – characters must be strong from the outset and their tale likewise.

The stories I reviewed find their strength firmly in the everyday – they draw on seemingly mundane experiences and transform them, through the power of carefully chosen words, into something much more meaningful.

A writer I know once advised that we should ‘write every day – even if you don’t like what you’re writing – and finish it’.

It’s sound advice, but all too easily forgotten amid the hubbub of a busy working and home life. The short story format should, however, fit in more easily with a hectic schedule but then again – sometimes it’s more difficult to create something where there’s no room for indulgently descriptive padding…butterflies

I’m currently collecting my thoughts on all of this, as I muddle through my own particular jig-saw of a writing life – piecing together odds and ends of poetry and snatches of short story and hoping the pictures they form are recognisable and somehow meaningful. Different people work in different ways but the key of course, is just to keep on working – whether you write a few words, sentences or paragraphs per day. Some writers produce 500 words a day, others won’t stop until they’ve achieved Stephen King’s recommended 4,000 (I think!) words a day… others spend an hour, a morning or an evening writing.

Myself? Well, put it this way – my words are like butterflies in the breeze… sometimes I catch quite a few gems in my net… other days they just flutter away, but they’re always buoyant and beautiful and just waiting to be collected…

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Seeing Double

One of the great things about going along to writing workshops is that it gives the opportunity to meet fellow writers, and this week, I have decided to share something about the work of one of the members of my recent peace poetry workshop experience.

Originally from Sicily, Antonio Chisari is now living in Derry and has created an interesting project inspired by his dual homes. This project is called Double/Doppio and is a collection of short stories written in both English and Italian. The ‘double’ aspect to his work, however, is mirrored in much more than just the title. As he explains on his own blog (link above), the stories portray the two sides to their narratives – for example, the consequence to ourselves of an action we take can also be of consequence to someone else, whether we realise it or not. There are hidden meanings and alternate ways of viewing the world and this, I think, is what ‘Double’ seeks to explore.



I am fortunate enough to have been gifted a version of the book to read, but have not yet read it in its entirety, for the usual reasons of work interfering with leisure. Suffice it to say, however, I am intrigued by the concept and like the two-language format. There is also a taster of Antonio’s writing on his blog, for those who want to check it out.

In my own writing, I continue to chip away at my peace-themed poems and have decided to tweak the format of one which is almost in a traditional poetic style. Almost. It is still probably more free verse, but rhyming is something that seems to come very naturally to me and it just always seems to happen with my poems! That said, the tightening up of the piece has improved its reading, in my opinion, which reaffirms the advice of writing something, leaving it aside for a week or so, and then returning to it. I tend to do this less with poetry as opposed to prose for some reason, but am beginning to be more meticulous with my poems and taking the red pen to them so that each word can indeed ‘fight for its right to be there’.

Of the two poems I currently have in mind for the project, both are individual responses to incidents which polluted peace – one told from the point of view of a fictional voice and one from my own voice - drawing upon a childhood memory which always sticks out in my mind when people mention the Troubles in Northern Ireland. They need a little more tweaking I think, but they’re getting there!

Prose has taken a little bit of a backseat but… with the launch of Northern Ireland’s new online journal, The Incubator, which celebrates the short story writer and their work; as well as the imminent re-launch of The Honest Ulsterman, there is plenty to motivate me into picking up that pen! I’m also still intending to write a short story a month (a sort of new year resolution which grew into being!) and have indeed, got a story for January and February already written. The hope is that with each one, improvement will be seen…

Oil painting workshop with Julian Friers (left of me)

Oil painting workshop with Julian Friers (left of me)

When it comes to the creative process in writing, inspiration comes from many things in life and this week, I ventured into the world of oil painting in a workshop arranged as part of Creativity Month in Northern Ireland. Would a blank canvas be akin to a blank page, I wondered - one waiting for paint, the other for words – both seeking, well, creative genius.

To be honest, the workshop - led as it was by the brilliant Julian Friers - was helped along by our talented tutor, who had primed our canvases for us and allowed us to attempt to mirror him in painting a tree-scape. As he said at the start, every picture would turn out differently and that is one of the things I most liked from the exercise, as it was physical evidence of how differently every person in that room interpreted the concept of a simple tree set upon a grassy landscape. Each painting was indeed varied, but was subsequently unique, and portrayed something a little different to the observer than the one next to it.

The expert's painting...

The expert’s painting…

The process of applying paint to canvas, it should be added, is wrought with technique and is, I would argue – like telling a story. It is telling a story – of what the painter wants to convey and of what the picture inevitably conveys to those who look upon it. As we all derive our own meanings from the tales we read, so too will we take away our own interpretations of the pictures we view.

It was nice to get an insight into another creative process and to see the similarities we all, as artists of any craft, face in our work. Will those colours/words work like that, or do they need to be re-painted/substituted and blended into the background – brought to the foreground? Is this the correct perspective we need for the tale? Is there depth to what we have created and where do we want to draw the eye towards? What is the lasting impression we intend it to make?

My tree-scape...

My tree-scape…

Perhaps it’s just me, being enthralled with writing and words, who sees the parallels in this, or perhaps it harks back to what Antonio has done with his creative writing project – and presents two sides to the singular concept of creativity….

(The problem is – now I want to add painting to my ever-increasing list of creative pursuits. If only one could paint a little extra time into the picture!)

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Poets and painters

‘The English sonnet has the simplest and most flexible pattern of all sonnets…’

So began the third and final week of my peace poetry workshop in Derry, which saw us take on the sonnet and free verse to inspire our submissions for the project. As it turns out, most of the poems I write are in these two forms, and it was nice to look at some professional examples, including Shakespeare and Christina Rossetti.

An interesting way in which we have begun a few sessions, is doing 10 minutes of free writing before we start – i.e. this week, we wrote about a favourite place before using the writing to inspire a subsequent sonnet. It’s a good way of getting ideas onto the page before you begin, and is different to my usual method of writing on the hoof - refining and reshaping as I go.

In terms of the free verse, there was a bit if a debate over what constitutes poetry, when we were presented with Charles Bukowski’s ‘gamblers all’ piece. Most of us loved it, but there was a little contention as to whether it should be called poetry or prose – what made it poetic? True, if you put it into the style of a story, it reads more prose-like than some poems, but, my theory was just that – it is laid out poetically, and it evokes a wealth of imagery which prose would perhaps take longer to do. My favourite explanation of what poetry is, however, came from Catherine, our facilitator (and, I summarise):

‘Poetry makes you consider something you see on a daily basis (or are so used to, you don’t give it a second glance) in a more meaningful way - it makes you see it afresh, through new eyes – as if you’ve never seen it before. That’s why poetry often appears difficult or abstract.’Ewagorals

I love this description – and it’s worth being reminded of. Poetry refines our senses – it can take a simple moment or a seemingly unimportant object and elevate them to something beautiful and wonderful and fresh and new. Seamus Heaney of course, is one such example of a poet who captured ordinary moments perfectly in his writing by doing just this.

Poetry makes us think of things in a different way - presenting the world to us more creatively and more potent with energy.

I liked ‘gamblers all’, as it provides a perfect snapshot into the mundane drudgery of a 9-5 lifestyle – where we are all sucked into the inevitable rat race whether we like it or not, and have no choice but to ‘enter the arena once more’. This line in particular, is perfect poetry – it says so much in just five words about the state of so many people’s working lives…

I similarly loved the next poem we studied – Advice to a Discarded Lover by Fleur Adcock, which was deemed a little harsh by some, but was, I thought, a wonderful description of how someone felt about – well, a discarded lover. Comparing them to a dead bird – ‘eaten up by self-pity/crawling with unlovable pathos’? The imagery is just brilliant!

I won’t include any of my own offerings this week, as they are being refined ahead of being sent into the project co-ordinator, Leon Litvak, but suffice it to say – I gained a lot from the workshops and have plenty of inspiration for writing my own peace poetry…

Staying on the subject of poetry, I was delighted to discover this week that a poem I submitted to the Community Arts Partnership in Northern Ireland on the theme of ‘still’, is to be included in an upcoming anthology. The book launch is on March 23 in Belfast, so I am looking forward to that! I only hope my peace poem is as successful…

Cherry Smyth

Cherry Smyth

Meanwhile, at the end of a rather busy week, yesterday, I enjoyed a book reading by the lovely Cherry Smyth at Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart. A talented poet, her debut novel, Hold Still, is my current reading material, and it was particularly interesting to learn more about the painters she refers to in the novel, in between the extracts she read. Well worth checking out…

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