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NaPoWriMo Lessons

I’ve done NaPoWriMo for the last three years. I’ve found it hugely useful to create new poetry and improve my craft. The process of writing thirty poems in thirty days is not a great achievement, but it is a useful one. It highlighted a couple of things to me:

Pushing Through Resistance

Each time I work on this challenge, I get sick of it. There comes a point where I feel I have nothing left to write about. This generally happens around the third week, where I have lost the initial momentum and the end seems far away.

This year I also struggled with the arbitrary rules I had set myself. Towards the end, they felt constricting. I was increasing the line count day by day. My poems tend to hover around 15-20 lines, so stretching them to a longer length seemed difficult. On day twenty or so, I thought that I couldn’t write longer poems at all, I had lost anything I wanted to say and might as well give up.

As will be obvious, I didn’t give up. I kept on pushing through, writing increasingly long poems until I reached the thirty lines. Some of the longer ones became my favourites. The resistance and fear I felt were because I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone. It was something new and I didn’t know how to do it. But the limits I set myself pushed me forward and helped remove the fear. No matter how good it was, I needed to get x number of lines written and published by the end of the day. The deadline and limits allowed me to push myself, even though they were completely self-imposed and arbituary.

The power of the subconscious

Most weekdays I would write on my lunch-breaks. I only had an hour and by the time I ate and did general life business, there wasn’t many minutes left to actually write. I learnt to trust my subconscious and just go with my instincts on what to write. There simply wasn’t enough time to find an idea that I knew would go somewhere.

If I didn’t have a clear idea of what to write, I would flip through my notebook, choose a phrase almost at random and just start writing around whatever it was. Before I realised it, I had a poem. Writing in this way over a number of days made me feel like I wasn’t in control of the process, the writing was coming from my subconscious. It sounds strange to say but I think this is when I produced my favourite poems when I barely knew what it was I was writing about. Poetry as a form is all about the half-glimpsed images, the moments that floor you emotionally and you never quite know why. Digging in deep threw up unusual images for me. Often I would understand a poem halfway through writing it. This process can be hard as it feels like giving up control, but it is worth it. Trust your gut instincts and your feelings to guide you.

Time to write

Life continued around NaPoWriMo. I started a new job and adjusted to a new life. But every day, there was always at least half an hour where I could squeeze in writing. This process has highlighted I can always write in the cracks or the quiet moments of the day, even if it’s only for ten minutes. Despite this constant impression I have of being busy, there is almost always a few minutes that can be carved out and reclaimed. And a few minutes is better than none at all.

Next year

I’m going to do this again next year. The whole process is extremely beneficial to my work and always throws up interesting poems. I’m undecided about whether to post them up online next year as I may want to start sending poems out to magazines. But whatever I decide, I find it useful to exercise to work on something intensely for a month, every day.

You can download all the poems I wrote for NaPoWriMo 2018 for free here.

Napowrimo 2019 day 30

Faster Than Light

Let us wander around the symmetry
and geometry of narrow alleys
that shift around us as we meet
ourselves walking towards us
smiling as we will do soon.

Streets flicker. Buildings are destroyed
then rubble flies upwards and they are
newly constructed. The moon slams into
the welcoming ocean and the planet grows.
Somewhere we are briefly under stars.

It’s hard to see anything when
we bend the light around us,
cocoon ourselves in the silence
beyond possibility as our bodies
bruise and age and grow younger.

I smile and say goodbye then
we meet. I am walking away and
saying hello while you stand still
but already you cross the street
to shake my hand once again.

Hours become dropped slides
out of sequence, corrupted videos
playing at random. Time was always
optional, causality was always
a sweet lie to keep us sane.

At some point we reach an edge
or so we think. We bend backwards
finding our weary feet at the start
having not moved an inch. Odysseus
is always leaving and arriving at Ithaca.

NaPoWriMo 2019 Day 22

NaPoWriMo 2019. Or National Poetry Writing Month

Ordinary Omens

Thousands of seagulls descended
yesterday on one street corner.
The air was thick with wings,
No-one thought it strange.

We are a cracked river bed
just before it dries out,
water still barely flowing,
leaving rock and rust deposits
snaking down bare hillside.

Lead and mercury storm clouds
appear overhead in seconds.
We dodge and weave between
rains of first generation iPods,
avoid fax machine strikes.

Streams run green with lithium.
We breathe in chlorine and
we are grateful for it.

While we still can, let us lie
in our broken glass gardens and
sing to each other; songs of jetpacks,
cties that float on the ocean
and escalators to the moon.


All the poems I wrote for last year’s Napowrimo are available as a free ebook. Download it here.

NaPoWriMo 2019 Day 19

NaPoWriMo 2019. Or National Poetry Writing Month

Spinning

That morning had the clarity of a story,
we whirled and spun around each other,
hypnotised by the orbits we wove
and the stars above us were [Redacted].

Looking in your eyes, perfect models
of the galaxy, with the central black
hole eating all light, I exclaimed
[Redacted- Harm to Ongoing Matter]”

In that moment, everything made sense.
The closest I have felt to epiphany.
You, [Redacted], laughed and replied “[Redacted]”
as spring blossom erupted around us.

The feeling faded, confusion reigned again,
our separate bodies spun on. Still,
the memories of [Harm to Ongoing Matter]
lingered, even in the gloaming, when
the earth continued around the sun,
light faded down, blossoms closed and
my heart was [Redacted].


All of my poems from #NaPoWriMo 2018 are available as a free ebook. Download them here.

#NaPoWriMo 2019 Day 9

NaPoWriMo 2019. Or National Poetry Writing Month

Demolition

The bulldozers, with unsmiling jaws,
sneak around behind your street.
Their growling engines go unheard.

They lurk until you go to work
then devour your walls and windows,
chew your garden and rooms to dust.

All they leave is a flat facade,
a movie set illusion of your home,
a blue door with absence behind it.


All the poems I wrote for NaPoWriMO in 2018 are available for free as an ebook. Download them here.

#NaPoWriMo 2019 Day 8

NaPoWriMo 2019. Or National Poetry Writing Month

Remnants of Shock

Withered branches, bony fingers,
scrape a sea of forever cloud.
Ash falls in soft snow clumps,
embracing land with quiet tenderness.

Look down, to where knotted roots
erupt from the carpet of grey.
Imperceptible at first, your eyes
adjust: new scattered flecks of green.


All the poems I wrote last year are available for free as an ebook. Download them here.


Making the familiar strange

I though I was a good typist. I’ve written on computers all my life. I type fast. But the truth is half my time is spent correcting errors. I write fast but sloppy. So I started to learn to touch type.

I tried to learn a few years ago but only got half way through learning, not committing to the practice. As a result, my typing is a weird hybrid of hunt and peck and formal touch typing. I didn’t practise enough to embed the muscle memory. So I started again from the beginning. I expect to breeze through the first few lessons but struggled as I relearnt my familiar method. I still struggle with it now, a few weeks in. This skill that had felt so familiar now felt strange and difficult.

It affected my writing as well. The effect of slowing down and making the familiar skill strange meant I thought a lot more about the words I wrote, the construction of sentences and the rhythm of my words. It was a similar effect to writing by hand.

We place too much effort on the routine and regularity of writing. Of course, we need regular times to get the words written. Sometimes it does need to become rote as otherwise long pieces simply wouldn’t get done. bUt I think it’s equally as important to remind yourself that just because you’ve been doing something the same way for ages, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best way to do it. These times between projects are the perfect breathing space to figure out how to change this.

I also think it’s a chance to see the world anew. You make the process strange and in do in doing so, change the way you see the world. Maybe we need more of this. See the world with fresh eyes and make the familiar strange, so we can figure out how to make it better.

Sharp Objects and genre blindspots

Genre fiction is often used to describe science fiction and fantasy, but everything fits into a genre. People tend to dismiss sci-fi as not belonging to the real world and following set formulas. I admit to similar prejudices with crime novels, particularly those with detectives or journalists trying to solve a murder. There are some twists and red herrings, the protagonist gets personally involved due to their issues but by the end of the story it is all neatly resolved and the murderer is revealed. This is the narrow-minded view I have of the crime genre.

Admittedly, I have not read much of it, preferring to focus on other genres. This is perhaps why my view of crime novels is limited in scope and why my view of an entire genre is reduced to the broadest strokes.

However, I did enjoy Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. Well, enjoy is perhaps the wrong word. It’s a relentlessly bleak and grim novel with an oppressive atmosphere that gets under your skin. Even so, it was a book that made me re-evaluate my dislike of crime fiction. Flynn really takes her time to get into the psychology of her characters, so as much as you despise their choices you understand them. Added to a very unflattering view of dangerous small town America, this is a powerful statement that doesn’t so much subvert the crime genre but pushes it to the extremes.

The story of a journalist investigating a small town murder has become a cliche. The town that seems perfect but hides deadly secrets was a trope even before Twin Peaks. But this doesn’t matter in the case of Sharp Objects. Flynn’s writing is powerful and gripping and her characters are seriously messed up. The setting is the perfect place for the story to take place as it has emotional resonance for the characters. We feel the town is a trap and hides dark secrets because we see it through the eyes of the protagonist, who has some very intense issues with the place and with her family. It’s masterfully done.

It’s proven to me once again that’s it’s best to ignore my preconceived ideas of genres and just read books and hope they are good. Good writing and storytelling will shine through in any genre. A good writer will also twist and change genres to tell the stories they want to. Besides, genre is mostly there to find a place for the book to go in a shop. A talented writer can take a repeated, cliched story and breathe life into it, which is exactly what Gillian Flynn does with Sharp Objects.


Thoughts on ‘Annihilation’

For my first book of the year, I sped through Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, the first in the Southern Reach Trilogy. It is classified as science fiction, but in this case it seems to be a catch-all category of “I dunno. Seems weird.” Science fiction isn’t really a good classification for this odd novel. From the very first moments, it is clear that this strange little book is delving deep into horror.

In Area X, the rules of the world we know are discarded. There is only the alien ecosystem subverting every part of nature. Immediately, things go very wrong indeed. The mission is a complete failure and was seemingly doomed from the start. It’s a world where nothing makes any rational sense and what we can perceive is utterly terrifying. People start to die very quickly. Or do they?

One of the delights of this book is how little it explains. We see effects of strange mutations and organisms, and it’s never explicitly stated what is happening. Because the main character becomes part of the system, we can never see it apart from her perspective. For all her scientific rationalism, she has no explanation for what she is experiencing. Words frequently fail her. There’s a huge gap between what is actually going on and what the character perceives and that gap is never explained. It’s the same device Lovecraftian horror uses and it’s very effective.

I saw the film a little while ago and what was striking reading the book is how radical the adaptation was. It has the same basic premise and characters but goes in different directions. It’s a great example of how to keep the essence of a story, but adapt it to a different medium. The film has horrific moments that aren’t in the book, like the bear with a human scream. Similarly, the book has the Tower, which can only exist in the imagination.

Now to read the next two in the trilogy, please.


Recent Published Writing

Stairs
Some funky spiral stairs in Oxford. Irrelevant to my writing but they looked cool.

Recently, I’ve been very lucky to have some writing accepted in a couple of different places.

I am very pleased to have been featured in Neon’ magazines Battery Pack, which features very short stories. I have a story called Debugging report in Battery Pack 3 and you can get it for free here.

I also have a poem in The Martian Wave 2018, called Beyond Darkness. Find that here.