“Leonard Cohen said he felt one of his strengths as a writer was that he’s a vacuum – he has no ideas, but draws them inside.”
How does a writer address the dreaded blank page – the (whisper it) writer’s block phenomenon? Well, no matter how talented that writer, everyone at some point in their writing careers will have moments of hesitation, of seeming uninspired, and it was this predicament which the Scottish poet, John Glenday, sought to discuss at his creative writing workshop in Carnlough, nestled in the heart of the Antrim Glens, on Friday, as part of the John Hewitt Society’s Spring Festival.
As anyone who visits my blog will know, I refer often to the inspiration I get for my own writing from walking around the north coast with my dog, so I was delighted to learn that John Glenday does the same with his two four-legged friends. To write, it is important to seek out where and when suits you best, be it early morning, late at night, in a bustling coffee shop or at home in the quiet. I find that whilst busy environments are becoming a little easier for me to write in, I’m most at home, well, at home. I write best when I’m squirrelled away from the distractions of the world and think better with only birdsong in the background.
For John, a busier environment works better, and I can understand why – when all around you is busy but you are directly uninvolved in it, it can make it easier to hone in on your own work. But ultimately – it’s whatever suits you best.
Going back to John’s Leonard Cohen quote, he told us that “good writing comes from good looking”. It is from soaking up our environments and being aware of what’s happening around us that we glean ideas for our writing, whether consciously or unconsciously. And as for the writing process itself, well – it’s like being an archaeologist…
“Archaeologists will describe the arrangement of things they’ve discovered, or they’ll talk about particular kinds of wood used to build a coffin… They’re not actually interested in these things, but what they tell us about the people who lived there at that time. They’re the indicators left behind. That’s what poetry is – we’re talking about the way people live their lives.”
In short, because we are creating poems in a scientific way, we have to look at life clearly and so… that’s why we’re less likely to run out of things to say and thus, avoid the blank page syndrome. Using the analogy of fitness, John reminded us that if we were fell runners, we would train every day to maintain our fitness and improve our abilities.
Would we improve by telling others about our plans to run? No. If we watched others running? No. If we practiced? Why, yes…
Likewise, with writing, we must write every day. Yes, it’s something we all secretly know, but life often gets in the way of this. The good news? Well, we’re not talking a short story or a novel a day here. We’re not even necessarily talking a paragraph.
Write a sentence. Why not write two? And then, if you really must dash… at least you’ve written.
“Graham Greene was asked what his goal was in a day’s writing and he said… 200 words. What’s that – five/ten lines? But he would do that every day,” said John. “We can set ourselves small goals, but we have to keep at it.”
Everyone has their own writing process and, in writing poetry, our group felt that what hooks readers is a sense of the specific – detail is key, regardless of how personal it is. In fact, the more personal, the better. People connect with that and apply it to themselves. They make it mean something to them. An air of mystery also helps, for isn’t a poem more intriguing and compelling to read when you have to re-read it; when you discover something new every time you look at it; when you sometimes just enjoy the rhythm of a poem and its beautiful language but don’t necessarily ‘get’ what the poet is driving at. It doesn’t always matter.
And what is worse than a blank page? A page of writing that nobody wants to read. And of course, a first draft isn’t always the poem you end up with. Edits can reveal altogether new poems – the poetry often meanders off during the writing process…
“It’s about finding the poem afterwards,” said John. “Often, the most interesting writing comes when you’re re-writing the poem.”
One poem we looked at was Black Silk by Tess Gallagher. It has specifics –‘The buttons were all there’ – and it has mystery, for we, the readers, know not who the subjects are to each other, but we feel compelled to find out; to read on and to think about it. We are interested.
We did, of course, also put pens to the page and compose our own poems during the workshop, aided by some quirky prompt material (pictured here) – a colourful collage of English words published in Japan in the 19th century. We chose our separate ways across the page, using the subjects of the squares we crossed in our poems and let’s just say – there were no blank pages afterwards!
Many thanks to the John Hewitt Society once again for another great event and to John Glenday for his inspired workshop.
To other poetry news and I’ve decided to share a link to one of my Peace Poems (for the QUB Reading and Writing for Peace poetry project). It’s an open Facebook page, so no need to be a Facebook member to see it and you may have to scroll down a little bit to find my poem. There are lots of great contributions on there, so lots to peruse!