On words and ears and why I write

One of the questions every writer faces sooner or later is, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Plenty of us tell ourselves, oh, I write for myself; it doesn’t matter if anyone else reads it but if this isn’t exactly a lie, it’s perhaps only a half-truth. Very little makes me admire a writer more than when they stand up to be counted, so to speak, and admit that, actually, they write to be read. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that it tends to be published – and often very successfully so – writers who are brave enough to say as much out loud (although perhaps this is because these writers have less fear of people pointing and laughing or, worse, ignoring them altogether).

Of course traditional print media is not the only way for writers to be heard. Oral storytelling is far older than the written word and, while it has rather lost its place in the western world, it has its successors. Mind you, some forms of writing lend themselves rather better to oral performance than others. Few people would sit through a recital of even a novella but a play is another matter. And the long history of poetry recital is increasingly being supplemented with flash fiction. Years ago I engaged in the quaint-sounding pursuit of “Speech and Drama”, which mostly consisted of reciting – from memory and with appropriate theatrics – a variety of poetry. As a somewhat melancholic teen, I spent far too much time perfecting my performance of several of Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” collection. It did gain me a Poetry Society gold medal for spoken poetry after a performance at the Central School of Speech and Drama, during which my grandmother had an angina attack (hopefully unconnected), and also prompted me to plough onwards with my own highly derivative poetry collection (long since consigned to the loft for future generations to squirm uncomfortably over or rats and pigeons to use as nesting material).

The idea of performing my own materials in public had not really occurred to me until a friend of mine – a published novelist – reminded me that it was doing readings of her short stories at the local library that pushed her onwards with her creative writing several years ago now. When that same library, in Winchester, started to host an evening called “Loose Muse“, I read the promotional materials with interest. Started in 2005 by Agnes Meadows, Loose Muse, whose home venue is London’s Poetry Café, aims to provide a supportive environment for women writers of all genres to come together, share their work and learn from each other. As well as providing an opportunity for new and upcoming writers, it also showcases more established ones. For example, I was delighted to hear the award-winning poet Rhian Edwards perform (ukulele and all) and subsequently to enjoy the Family Matters tour, performed by the poet/writers Agnes Meadows, Patricia Foster, Janett Plummer and, in absentia, Linda Shanovitch.

I actually only intended to go along as moral support for a friend who’d been asked to perform one of her comedic short stories in the guest slot but she persuaded me to take along one of my poems in case there was space in the “open mic” slots at the end of the evening. There was – and I read “At Pine Ridge”, published last year in Synaesthesia magazine. The second time I went, I was braver and read something new that I have yet to submit anywhere. It got positive feedback, which has encouraged me to think about to where I might send it but, more importantly, it sparked a conversation among several of the people sitting near me. It’s a poem about early motherhood and everyone near me, including the 80 year-old lady who’d read a magnificent ballad about Queen Eleanor, had something to say or to recall on the topic. It’s a good feeling when something you’ve written engages so many other people and makes what I said in my first sentence above seem only a quarter-truth. Perhaps, after all, writing to spark a reaction in others is what counts…..


Freestyle writing challenge

Two days ago I was tagged by Helen Jones to consider taking part in a short freestyle writing challenge. I used to do this sort of thing a lot. It’s a little like warming up before a run or some other vigorous exercise; it prevents the “muscles” you’re going to use in the main event (whether that’s running or writing) from spasming from the shock of unaccustomed use and reminds you that, actually, this body (or mind) has potential.

And it’s potential that’s you get from a freestyle writing exercise. It’s as far from a polished piece as it’s possible to get but it’s not useless. Far from it. And actually it’s fascinating to see what the mind is capable of coming up with at short notice and with no prior preparation. I’m not sure I’ll do anything further with what mine produced – at least not now – but I will try to make it a more regular thing as a way of warming up to the poetry-writing and novel-editing that currently fills my writing hours.

So, the rules were as follows:

  1. Open an MS Word Document
  2. Set a stop watch or your mobile phone timer to 5 or 10 minutes, whichever challenge you think you can beat
  3.  Your topic is at the foot of this post BUT DO NOT SCROLL DOWN TO SEE IT UNTIL YOU ARE READY WITH YOUR TIMER!
  4. Fill the word doc with as much words as you want. Once you start writing do not stop.
  5. Do not cheat by going back and correcting spelling and grammar using spell check.
  6.  You may or may not pay attention to punctuation or capitals. However, if you do, it would be best.
  7. At the end of your post write down ‘No. of words = ____” so that we have an idea of how much you can write within the time frame.
  8. Do not forget to copy paste the entire passage on your blog post with a new topic for your nominees and copy paste these rules with your nomination (at least five (5) bloggers).

My topic was:

You went to sleep in your own bed but have woken up somewhere completely different. Where are you, what’s happening and can you figure out how you got there?

I didn’t address the brief fully. Reading through my piece, it’s clear I have zoomed in on the physicality of where am I, with scarcely any sense of what’s happening or how I got there. Oh well – things to consider for another exercise, I suppose.

Here’s what I came up with:

Thin grey light – not the soft yellow that flushes the edge of my blind. This light fills the room. Room? Is that what it is? The walls are grey too – and hard, like stone. They’re so cold they feel damp. Perhaps they are damp. Or perhaps it’s my hand. I rub it against the duvet, except it isn’t a duvet. It is…..nothing; only my own self and the translucent cotton of my nightgown. Oh, I’m cold. Yes, I’m cold. I sit up and I’m lying on stone too. I can feel the hardness in my back and around my hips as if my bones have grown overnight, intruding into new places in the muscle. I flex my legs: first one and then the other. I stretch my arms. It hardly seems like my body. And yet there’s the cold; there’s no denying this cold.

I scrunch my knees up against my trunk, seeking the slight warmth the one can offer the other, and wrap my arms around myself. Now I’m halfway to vertical I can see where the light is coming from. It’s seeping around a large rock. I ought to investigate but I’m afraid. The cold is no new sensation. Unpleasant maybe but not yet, at least, unbearable. And for as long as I sit here, rocking to myself, I can pretend I’m somewhere quite usual. Or, better, I can imagine that I’m set to wake any moment. Yes! That’s it! The alarm’s going to go off in a minute or perhaps two. And then there’ll be the smell of toast from downstairs and the sound of someone shouting, ‘Get your shoes on! Hurry up!’ Perhaps next door’s dog barking at the blackbirds tugging worms from the lawn. Anything but this.

Oh. Now I’m listening. I can’t help myself. Someone is shouting but it’s nothing about shoes and nothing about being late. I can’t hear a dog but if there is one I don’t suppose it’s one I want to meet. I turn my head, look around. There’s a big rock – huge – at the back of whatever this place is (a cave?). I get to my feet – they’re bare, of course – and pick my way over the stones that litter the floor. I’ll hide here until whoever it was put me here comes back for me. They’ll rescue me, I’m sure.

Words: 392 (in 10 minutes).

I’m going to flout the rules and not nominate anyone in particular to try this exercise but, if you want to, particularly if you’re a Taverner (and whether or not you have your own blog – you know who you are), it might be fun – and it’s only ten minutes. If you do want to have a go, your topic is: <don’t scroll down until you’re ready to write>









You have just been born. Where are you lying? Who – or what – else is around you? Do you know who you are?