Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Make Patchwork Poetry From the Words that Bombard You All Day

Words come at us all the time, in texts, emails, conversations overheard, facebook updates, news feeds and more. Needing a boost for my flagging creativity, I recently decided to write a poem for every day of the working week, piecing together snatches of these words, patchwork fashion. I edit art and craft books, and the instructional text I deal with can be banal, or strangely evocative, so I scribbled down bits of this too, along with some of the bizarre things that get called across my office.

My five poems were informed by books I was editing on sewing and Manga, daily reflections from the vicar, a poorly spelled review, a visit from 7-year-old twins, online articles, a church notice about a food bank, a Tony Benn quote on the day he died, a text from my son about a minister visiting his school, and in spring-like weather, people calling from windows or talking on doorsteps. They were also haunted by the missing Malaysian Airlines plane, and the trial of Oscar Pistorius.

Thanks to
Thanks to

Whether you usually write poetry or not, I urge you to have a go at this. Scribble down the words as they strike you, and then look at them at the end of the day and begin to put the various lines together. Some of the juxtapositions will be funny, others poignant. You can of course add personal reflections from your day. I guarantee the results will be fresh and vibrant, and will surprise you. 

Working Week

Slim young men in misty sunlight talk:
She actually stood up for me, which I was quite pleased about.
I burst into harsh neon, lost schedules, failing machines;
Add downward-pointing thrusters on the backs of the thighs.

May is new today, but copes impressively while I sift through ozalids.
Already on my mind, I’ve got a big dilemma with Martin;
They went blah, blah, blah, and then they went off on a tangent;
Exploding at speed across an alien planet.

What do you think of this comment, and how should I reply?
Is there a way for us to not let our hearts be troubled?
Edge the smoke with greys.
On top of all that, they’re only offering half a page.

The unattended bath will flood the room, the unfilled car will stop.
Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?
They think they’ve found a life raft.
We are every hour, every second, looking at every area of the sea.

The families of the passengers have been told to prepare for the worst.
However, their aren’t any of the process of making them.
I think it would of added something to the patterns.
Love you and so glad you are feeling better.

Grab a pen and write a thank you note to someone.
This size is more efficient; we get better printer prices.
I think it might be paternity leave. It’s such a precious time.
The dummies are on the way.

Thanks to ever-increasing work pressures,
Workday lunches are when good intentions nose-dive.
I don’t know, I think the cupcakes had more impact.
By shutting the door, we could chat more freely and noisily.

I step out into grey, cold wind and make my way homewards
See a devil-faced dog, white with pink eyes,
And remember ancient shame, stuck up a tree
In a childhood garden, under barked attack, the only one afraid.

Two hundred people and an aeroplane
Swallowed up in mystery
And none can fathom where or why;
If the sea knows, it won’t give up the secret.

I must try to disentangle the workings of my office.
That’s not the usual procedure we go through.
There was no distress signal or radio contact
indicating a problem.

It’s very bizarre; I’ve had all these emails.
We are studying the behaviour of the passengers.
Mary is screaming for something now.
Maybe she was rushing and panicking?

Thread is an absolute must for any stitcher.
Not just a head, but a head with a body; perhaps arms.
The marabou has a fluffy mind of its own;
Blow on it while stitching to reduce entanglement.

On the homeward path, a small child passes
Chatting with his Dad. I am tugged, winded, snatched at
By the instinct to nurture, outdated and irrelevant
But still so fierce.

It’s not depression; he isn’t depressed.
He has been with us seven years, which is six years longer
than any of his relationships have lasted.
A passer-by thought this was dog was a pile of trash.

It ended about three weeks later.
Last words from the cockpit were, ‘Alright, goodnight.’
Finally, attach the firecrackers along
the entire length of the ribbon.

The last communication suggests everything was normal
minutes before it went missing.
Sometimes you feel she could turn on you at any time.
I waited for a second to see if they had guns.

It’s a different question from ‘where have all your dummies gone?’
We feel that the word ‘character’ is really important.
Could you tell her that I’ve left for the day and to call tomorrow?
I’m getting close to being unpleasant.

It wasn’t Mummy’s fault they broke up; it was hers
She used to sneak down in the night and eat all our food.
Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.
Beheaded means your head comes off. What’s ‘divorced’?

There are forty-three ships and forty aircraft
searching the South China Sea.
With right sides together, pin then sew around the heart.
The mist of mystery is dissolved by the words of the Son.

There is a shape somewhere in the sea
that might be a plane.
If you prefer a fuller heart,
Make your template with a five-inch depth.

Zilch reply from anybody!
We’re all away that week. We’re out buying yarn.
Watch while angels on a plane
Bring a baby back to life.

There were trophies and medals in the house,
And a jacuzzi, but no blood.
I could not find the words to vocalise my state of mind.
I was stopped by the incredible kindness of a stranger.

I was taught everything at school
Except how to look after my wellbeing.
Part-baked bread and unisex deodorant.
What a shame your experience was ruined.

These items can be delivered to the Christ Church office.
Money, sex and power. Carl Beech
Will talk about these battleground areas.
No teabags, beans or soup at the moment, thank you.

It’s ok not to be popular or funny.
They would have no cars and no clothes
So might find public transport draughty;
Otherwise a good start at cultivating a grateful heart.

Gove turned up late to the whole set-up
and talked to one fit Year Twelve, before buggering off.
Where is your God? I don’t see your God here.
These were the words of the judge appointed to the trial.

The air has a chill whiff of spring and rings with voices.
I said to her, have some dinner first before going round there
I ain’t going round and starving all evening.
I didn’t know nothing about it
I’ve never run out of gas or electricity,
And now she thinks I’ve got the hump with her.
Hello darling, it’s mummy.
Can you make me a cup of tea please?
I’m nearly home.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a boring book in my life.
She started off really, really enthusiastic
And then she started getting shirty.
It’s going to take every ounce of my talent.

An additional search may be opened in the Indian Ocean.
I leaned back and inhaled, and it went down the wrong pipe.
The worst case scenario would be
Halfway between Madagascar and Australia.

I have told you now before it happens,
So that when it happens, you will believe.
The poor, the addicted, the sinful.
I did my critique, and she got really curt with me.

Why shouldn’t your jam jars be well-dressed too?
I have told you these things so that you may have peace.
This cap will make your homemade jam feel special.
The boring, the stupid and the weak.

People we laugh about, or even at –
People we try to avoid.
One half know better and the other half don’t listen.
Pomposity has rocketed since you joined.

Mussolini’s headquarters was a supervillain lair
Perfectly presented for the picnic table.
When the balloon goes up on Monday,
I’m not getting involved.

I’m not getting through here, am I?
Is everyone listening now?
The court saw graphic images of the crime scene
Including a toilet streaked with blood.

To whom are you accountable, and how can we get rid of you?
Because he’s a celebrity, they may remove things from his home.
May the peace of the Lord, a peace the world cannot give
Fill our hearts and minds.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Using the Bad Stuff in Life to Make Your Writing Better

The good news is that my husband is better. After making very slow, two-steps-forward-and-one back progress for nine months, his eventual recovery was sudden; almost overnight it was as though he was here again after a long absence. For a while, I just basked in the joy of having him back. Anxiety and depression are dreadful for those who endure them – I don’t even pretend to know what it is like, though I did a lot of studying to help me understand Jon’s plight better. However, living with someone who is suffering takes its own toll. For the long months of Jon’s illness, I think I lived on adrenaline: researching the subject, buying books, seeing a counsellor to help me cope better and coming up with endless strategies to try to aid Jon’s recovery. I grasped on to need to economise because of our cut in income and became absurdly gung ho about that; here at least was something I could do. The problem with anxiety and depression is that healing takes time; in the meantime there is not really a lot you can do to improve the situation. You just need to find a way to endure it – and my way was constant, frustrated, adrenaline-fed effort.

The thing about adrenaline is that once it is not needed any more, it drains away, and this can leave you feeling very flat. I experienced this years ago when Jon was knocked off his bike by a car. While he was in hospital with broken bones and a punctured lung, I was Mrs Coping Marvellously, juggling hospital visits, work and caring for two young children. However, once he was home, slowly recovering, panic over, I suddenly felt very low.

I think this is what is happening now. Jon is going from strength to strength, rediscovering the joy of teaching and feeling confident and optimistic about his abilities. Ironically, Mrs Coping Marvellously now feels she is rather rubbish at everything. All marvellousness has flown. The first sign was a massive slump in my confidence about writing. A few rejections for short stories and poems I had sent off were enough to make me feel like giving up altogether. The thought of writing a query letter for my novel, full of bouncy self-confidence and marketing savvy, was too exhausting to even contemplate. Writing itself became a chore.
What do you do in these circumstances? You keep going. One word at a time. Keep thinking about your writing. Keep involved with it. Tell yourself that feelings pass. Skills learned through years of hard work don’t disappear overnight; confidence will return. Perhaps don’t undertake anything as major as contacting agents or making big decisions about your writing when you are feeling low. Just carry on being a writer until the creative spark, the energy and the motivation return.

If you are a writer, the bad things in life are never wasted; they give you that crucial edge of insight when you are creating the even worse things that happen to your characters. This week, as part of a Lent course, I was called upon to identify my ‘toolkit’ – those skills, gifts, attributes or just character traits that allow me to benefit others in a way that is unique to me. It wasn’t a great week for such positive thinking, and I was tempted to put ‘I blessed my colleagues with my ability to remain mainly upright today’. Then I thought of empathy. I always imagine how other people are feeling. Of course this doesn’t mean I am always right, but it is habit of mind I have always had: whatever happens, I wonder what other people feel about it. Thus if something happens to upset a friend or colleague, I hope I’m there with a listening ear to give them a sense that I hear them and validate their feelings – which is all most of us want when we’re upset.

It is also empathy that makes me want to write. People fascinate me. What makes them tick, what lies beneath the exterior, how do they experience life? It is this inner life that I want to create, in a way that readers recognise, believe and feel compelled to follow through to the end of the story.

When life kicks you in the teeth, it gives you a unique opportunity to experience what suffering feels like. Often those feelings are a surprise. I understood, for instance, why Jon’s illness made me feel worried for his safety, and insecure about our future. I hadn’t expected that it would make me feel angry. I hadn’t expected to feel lonely, unloved and guilty.

It was when I was walking home from work, thinking about empathy, that my mind drifted into thinking about the characters in my novel, Unspeakable Things, and it was my own surprising feelings about the last nine months that informed several sudden new insights into how these characters would feel. When I got home, I made some notes, probably explicable only to me:

‘Make Jim scarier. Churned up with anger he can’t explain over Sarah’s mood.’

‘Review bit where he thinks the place has a different meaning for her. Give Jim more edge. ADD DRAMA’.

‘Sarah might feel panic as her lack of knowledge dawns – why didn’t I ask? How could I not know what she died of? Is there a secret? Is that why all the questions, odd looks..?'

‘Clarify emotional journey between Jim and Sarah, always with the seeds of his possible betrayal of her, his feelings of anger, rejection and guilt as she drifts away.’

These notes address a structural issue in the novel: I need to tweak and clarify a potential plot twist that should get readers excited. It is a need I have identified before, and worked on, but that probably needs more work. On that walk home, though, it was my own difficult feelings over Jon’s illness that fed a reworking of my characters to make the dynamic between them more believable. I know that as Sarah drifted into deep, internalised obsession, Jim would feel angry and alone; that he wouldn’t understand the feeling, and that he would feel guilty about it with a kind of self-loathing and attempted repression that would only feed the explosive nature of his anger. I’ve been there; that’s how I know.

No one, not even the most committed writer, wants the bad stuff to happen. But when it does, eventually we can learn from it, and make our writing more insightful, empathetic and believable as a result.