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.

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.

The Power of Paper

There’s a magical tool that allows you to focus right in on any problem. Or you can broaden it out and use it to explore the inner workings of your mind. It has endless possibilities and applications. I’m talking about paper of course.

Recently, I have found myself using paper and pen more to work out first drafts and even second and third. In my opinion, there is no finer tool for getting your thoughts down and exploring them. In this increasingly digital world, paper has not died off as many have predicted but has stuck around and even got stronger. A modern office will still have notepads and biros as well as computers, despite the apparent redundancy. A paperless office is rare and probably not desirable. Continue reading

Whiplash and the Dangerous Myth of the Suffering Artist

Spoilers lie ahead.

I finally got round to watching Whiplash. It’s a great film about a drummer, Andrew in a prestigious school who wants to be the best jazz drummer that ever existed. He’s shooting for genius, nothing less. He manages to draw the attention of the best music teacher in the school, Fletcher. Only problem is, Fletcher is a bully and his methods are abusive and dangerous. Continue reading

Creative Anxieties: Fear of not writing enough

This blog post is late. I was meant to write it last week, but life got it the way, as it always seems to do. It’s not just this week’s though; the self-imposed schedule I imposed at the start of the year has slowly slipped away. This, inevitably, leads to guilt and worry. More specifically, I always feel like I’m not writing enough. I need to produce more. When I do write, it never feels like enough.

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Making it up as you go: Twin Peaks and Welcome to Nightvale

Spoilers ahead

I spent a highly enjoyable few months last year watching Twin Peaks, both the original seasons and the revival. Even now, twenty-seven years after the original series debuted, it remains a strange mix of police procedural and occult mysticism. The revival plunges even further into the mysticism and dream elements of the show. It’s not always entirely clear what the story is, but as an experience it is incomparable. Many parts of the show work on a dream logic, with images and moments that only seem to make sense in a subconscious way. The last episode, in particular, is terrifying, even though I could not fully articulate why. Continue reading

Advice to Myself: Writing and Resolutions

At the start of the year, we tend to set goals and resolutions. This year is going to be the year I start eating healthy, the year I finally learn guitar or the year I start running. Then, inevitably, around this time every year, most of the resolutions are discarded or broken. Maybe they never even started.

I’m by no means immune to this. I tell myself I’m going to Do Things Better. I might even do the thing for a week or two. But by the third week in, its often forgotten about until I decide to Do Things Better months later. That’s the downside of habits, it can be easy to fall out of them as it can to fall into them. That’s why I’m writing this blog post, mostly to remind myself of the power of habits. Continue reading

There is No Exit: Flash Fiction

A quick flash fiction written from a prompt from Chuck Wendig once again. This time, the prompt was ‘There is no exit.

Ivor trudged home. It had been a long, hard day. He had got into the office at 7 in the morning and it was past 10 at night now. The office was struggling to complete the audit and he had to pitch in. Still, it was better than previous years, back in The Agency. His thoughts started to drift back to- No. He was stronger than that. Continue reading

Suspend the outside world for a while: Thoughts on Glastonbury Festival

Posts on this blog have been a bit scarce for the last couple of weeks, mostly because I spent a several days in a field in Somerset. I listened to music, watched comedy and saw the odd politician1 I was lucky enough to attend Glastonbury Festival, a cornucopia of delights that I have gone to since I was fifteen.  This was my seventh time at the festival. I have been to others in the meantime, but it remains the original and the best. It is a marvellous tent town where the outside world is put on hold for a while, where the normal rules no longer apply and where art and hope rules above everything else.  I thought I’d write about why it remains so special to me and many others.

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Step Away from the Internet

Every few months or so, an article comes around that reminds me I’m spending too much time on the internet, looking at pointless things and wasting time. This time, it was this article by Craig Mod that caught my attention. It made me realise that I was once again endlessly flicking between the same sites, watching Twitter refresh and reading the same articles over and over. It was an eloquently argued wake-up call.

I spend a lot of time on the computer at work as well as when I’m when writing. There’s an internet connection constantly. If I’m not on a computer, I have a tiny connected device in my pocket. The tech future of It’s all too easy to jump onto Twitter or facebook, even just for a second. Craig talks about this in his article, saying:

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A response to Laurie Gough

In another example of running a controversial story to get clicks, the Huffington Post published an article by Laurie Gough that argues that self-publishing is an insult to the written word. (Of course, they also published a reaction to the original article, so they have it both ways.) As a self-published author myself, I disagree with Laurie’s argument. There has been a few angry responses to this opinion piece, but I thought I’d offer some personal thoughts on why I take issue with it.
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Pulp vs. Perfection

On a long coach journey back from Leeds a couple of weekends ago, I listened to Chris Gethard’s podcast Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People. I was recommended the podcast by Mel and it’s become a firm favourite. Each person calls into the program and has an hour to speak about whatever they want before the call hangs up. The only rule is that it needs to be anonymous, hence the title. It’s well worth listening to. Chris Gethard is a natural host, encouraging conversations to go in different directions and allowing the caller to speak. It’s also fascinating to hear the opinions and stories of ordinary people, as we are too obsessed with celebrities.

This particular episode dealt with a man who claims to have written 18,000 songs, and is aiming for 20,000. He’s quite upfront about his reasons for doing this momentous act- he wants money and wants to retire on the earnings of his music. Every time someone plays one of his songs, he gets $0.02, so with 18,000 songs it adds up. The whole chat is lively and entertaining and worth listening to in full. It got me thinking about the conflict between being productive and taking the time to polish your work.

18,000 is a lot of songs. To write that many, even over a number of years, would mean never censoring yourself. He says he writes two to three songs a day, almost every day. That’s a lot of songs. I would imagine that each song is then published with minimal refinement or polish. It reminds me of the pulp writers, constantly churning out novels without going back to rewrite. Everything just gets published, almost immediately. There isn’t any time to edit or self-censor, as you’re already moving onto the next project. The key with this model is to constantly produce lots of work, so the quality doesn’t matter so much. Eventually, some of what you produce will be great.

So much of the so called struggles of art can be put down to simply not starting. So many things hold us back, fear, worry about starting something new and over planning. This man seems to have found a way around this fear by making it a regular practice, then publishing all of the results. His work ethic is to be commended,  but what you lose by working at speed is the refinement that comes from reworking an idea, smoothing the edge and taking another run at it. In writing, this is having a go at another draft, whereas in other forms it would be rewriting the song, or making a sketch before the painting. In this way, you double down on the original idea. You are able to improve upon the good parts and remove the parts that don’t work. The ideas contained in the first run get clearer and you are able to control the whole process more. It’s often not until the second or third draft of a story that I realise what it is actually about.

As a writer, I constantly feel the pressure to produce more stories and articles, to publish more. This man has circumvented that by producing a lot of content and releasing it all, without any filter. The vast majority of everything I’ve written this year hasn’t escaped the text document I’ve typed it in. I haven’t wanted to publish stories because they aren’t perfect and they will need tinkering with when I get time. This is the opposite impulse than the man on the Beautiful/Anonymous podcast. It’s seeking perfection through refinement, over and over, instead of publishing the first draft. This can go to extremes, with the project never being finished because it isn’t good enough. You can end up distrusting every word and never producing anything.

I struggled with this more before the blog. Generally, I didn’t publish anything. Writing this every week has made me realise that not everything needs to be 100% perfect. Some will be good, others less so. So I write every week and gradually improve I hope. I think it’s generally a good idea to be working on your art constantly. You can certainly up your word count or the works you produce by making it a habit. The difference comes from showing the work to people. Not everything you produce will be gold, so you moderate what is released.

Every artist has to reconcile these two impulses, between getting your work out there and wanting to perfect it. There’s no right answer. Some will settle on publishing everything, like the pulp writers of old and this man on the podcast. Others will prefer to take their time and make it perfect, like Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, written over a period of ten years.

I think it differs for every project as well. Each story, piece or song will have different demands. The newspaper poems I make are a one shot process as the permanent marker is quite unforgiving. Whereas a book will take much longer to gestate and write, and will probably require endless revisions before I consider it publishable.

Personally, I generally like to write at least two drafts of anything, to eliminate any errors and hone the piece. I could never do what the man on the podcast does and endlessly churn out songs. But he works at a different pace to me and I probably work faster or slower than others. Every artist exists on the continuum between pulp and perfection. The important thing is for you to take pride when it’s finished. Only the artist can tell when a piece is ready to be seen by the world.

The importance of a creative routine

my journal, it all it's scruffy glory
One of the most important changes I have implemented in the last couple of years has been a creative routine. I find it helpful to work regularly towards a goal, writing every day instead of waiting for inspiration to strike. Showing up whether I feel like it or not. When I was writing Amber Stars: One Night of Stories, I woke up at six every weekday, wrote for 45 minutes then got on with the rest of my day. I’ve kept it going since and have drafted several short stories, a play and a novella in the past months. A regular time to write, while the world is quiet, has been immensely helpful for getting the words written.
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The Ambiguity of Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic is a brilliant film. Sensitive and compassionate, it tells the story of a family isolated from society, who are forced to go cross country to attend their mother’s funeral. In doing so, they have to enter mainstream society for the first time. It is remarkably beautiful, with an excellent script and nuanced performances, especially from the children and Viggo Mortensen as Ben.

Ben is a dropout from society, obsessed with Noam Chomsky. He has removed his children from society and taken them deep into the woods. There, he raises his children on a steady diet of exercise and books, forcing them to think deeply and analyse what they read. He is anti-society and anti- establishment and forces these views on his children.
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August bits and bobs

We sat on a cliff, watching the sky turn from purple, to amber, to darkness. There was beauty all around us, we just needed to stop and wait for it.
I was away for a large portion of August, with my phone deliberately turned off. I was in the Isle of Skye and saw amazing things, like the sunset above. As such, I don’t have much this month, but there are a few things I enjoyed:

  • I wrote about Free Speech a little while ago, so was interested to read about the group who try and promote it as a big issue. The only problem is, they seem to be achieving the opposite:
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