Last Friday I took a very scenic trip along the north coast to Carnlough, passing through barely there villages and driving curiously along little twisty tree-lined roads and spacious mountain thoroughfares. I ended up in a small town snuggled against a beautiful backdrop of mountains and fronted by a calm blue bay. I was there to sample a creative writing class led by former Portstewart and long time London-based poet/author Cherry Smyth (see above) as part of the 11th John Hewitt Spring Festival and the journey was certainly well worth it!
I was a little early but the room, complete with fireplace and antique bookcases, soon filled with fellow writers – of prose and poetry – and introductions over, we got stuck in.
I’ve been going to quite a few one-off writing classes recently and there’s always the risk that things can get repetitive but this wasn’t the case in Carnlough, as Cherry’s exercises breathed inspiration afresh into our minds. In fact, it was breath that we first focused on.
We were asked to close our eyes and focus on our breathing – be aware of it – before writing, stream of consciousness style – about our breath. How was it now, how was it before we wrote, whilst we wrote? What was it like when we were afraid, stressed, excited, when do we take a sharp breath and so on. Cherry prompted us a little as we scribbled frantically and a few people shared their efforts at the end, but it was a good opener to the class.
Cherry quoted from the French writer Hélène Cixous‘ book, ‘Coming to Writing’ before the session, in which it says – ‘writing was in the air around me… Write me. Are you going to write me or not?’
The quote (which was longer than this, but that’s all I remember!) really struck a note with everyone and for writers, is a lovely answer to why, perhaps, we write – because words are in the air around us and because we have to. The writing needs to be written and our own particular writing can only be composed by us so… are we going to write it or not?
Next, it was the turn of the left hand (or whichever hand you don’t normally use to write with) to take centre stage, as we wrote a few lines in our childish, spiky writing from its point of view. For some, this meant a surge of creativity, for some, a freedom in their writing and for others, frustration and an annoyed leftie getting even! The it was back to the ‘right’ hand again, the underlying reason for all of this an exploration of not being able to communicate.
‘What could it stand in for?’ Cherry asked us. ‘What else could we use it (the exercise) for as a metaphor?’ For example, not being able to write could be used as a metaphor for humility, learning to trust, or falling in love – ‘like putting your left hand into a right-handed glove’.
We then had to think about one of our first experiences of learning to write and compose a short piece, referring to the sights, sounds, smells and memories that went with this, which resulted in a wonderfully varied collection of stories.
Time crept on however, and although we had two hours in the end, the minutes whooshed by like arrows and our final exercise was inspired by a sonnet – ‘The Children Of The Poor’, written by Gwendolyn Brooks. For this, we read the first verse and then picked a line which stood out to us for whatever reason and then write a poem with each line ending in a word from our chosen line or using that line as a title for a piece of writing. I chose the opening line – ‘People who have no children can be hard’ – as did a few others and, as Cherry said afterwards, the responses were a lot more intense with this class, given that it wasn’t just full of students, but had a more varied age range.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my taster of the John Hewitt Festival experience and am now considering applying for the bursary to attend the Summer School in Armagh in July. There are two bursaries up for grabs in the Coleraine area (forms available from Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart), so it’s worth a try!
In more writing news… I met with Portstewart young adult author, Debbie McCune, today at lunch to have a chat about agents, publishing and writing in general and came away with some good advice. Nothing beats talking with fellow writers and sharing experiences and she was very helpful in explaining how she landed her book deal and the ups and down of her writing journey so far.
For example, after a lot of hard work in writing her first novel, which was given the thumbs-up by agents and a top publisher, the marketing people then pulled the plug on Debbie’s first book, as they said they had already taken on enough novels of that genre at the time. As soul-destroying as this inevitably was however, Debbie kept on writing and it paid off, as she managed to get ‘Death & Co’ picked up by Hot Key Books and was also approached by a publisher regarding her original manuscript at around the same time!
It is of course, a tough business to break into, but there is nothing to be gained by not trying, so my next steps are to contact a few more writers I know and ask for feedback on a chapter (or as much as they would like to read) and Debbie has agreed to have a look at chapter one in the meantime (once things have calmed down with her own deadlines and engagements!) As she said – it helps greatly to network and meet people face-to-face and in the end, most writers do find that they just happen to be in the right place at the right time… well, the work needs to be sparkling as well!
There are also more writing events coming up in the near future which I hope to get along to and of course, El Gruer’s writing class (now delayed until tomorrow evening rather than tonight), which never fails to inspire! (Although, I think I need a new word for ‘inspire’ – I use it A LOT!!)
Anyway, I leave you now with a suitably atmospheric picture of The Vanishing Lake at Loughareema, which I snapped on Friday on the way home from Carnlough. Only thing is… the writing on the sign, courtesy of my flash, seems to have vanished along with the lake!