Archive | 26

A gift behind door number six

As I mentioned last week, I’m very proud to have a piece of my creative writing featured as part of the 26 Children’s Winters exhibition at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood. Today’s the day it appears in the online advent calendar.

Picture of a nativity scene and poem at the 26 Children's Winters exhibition

Open up door number 6 and you can read my sestude inspired by a nativity scene. A sestude is simply a piece of writing, poetry or prose that’s 62 words exactly. It’s a condensed form, but I really enjoy the challenge of putting thoughts and themes into such a short piece. Making every word count makes each one the richer.

I was also asked to write the story behind the piece, how I was inspired by the object and what directions my thoughts took as I was writing. Even here I was restricted to just 100 words.

But constraints offer a freedom. Often with writing, the possibilities can become overwhelming. Prose or poem? Reality or fantasy? Voiced by a character or first person? Historical or contemporary? What kind of genre? Science fiction, murder mystery, fairy tale, gothic horror… The choices are endless, and that in itself can become a barrier to writing anything at all.

So constraints become a way in, offering a framework to start the writing process. The constraint may be to write about an object, as I did in my winter sestude, or to adopt a point of view. A constraint can be a word count, or a format, or starting with a specific letter of the alphabet. The key is to give the writer a starting point.

In my professional life, the constraints are to write for a specific audience, usually with a clear brief to share information or encourage them to consider a particular product or service. But even there I’ll have fun, trying out different forms of language.

If I’m looking for a headline I might try a heap of alliteration, putting word after word that starts with same letter together to find a pleasing combination.

Or if I think something is dull and cliched, something I’ve heard before, I might try writing it in the form of a poem, or a haiku.

The daft and demented drafts and the potty, pretentious poems will rarely bear any resemblance to the final polished piece, but they will contribute a thought, a phrase, a connection that leads me there.

My 26 Winters piece began when I overheard part of a conversation when I was visiting the exhibition. That put the thought in my head that it should be a dialogue. A real challenge for me, as it’s something I don’t write very often. But the constraint of 62 words gave me the confidence to try it.

The dialogue form gave me characters – who was talking and what is their relationship? What are they doing here, looking at a nativity scene? Suddenly there’s a whole back story and just 62 words to give a sense of it.

My piece changed as I was writing. The characters began as a mother and unspecified child. But as I settled on a title, and thoughts of special occasions and limited time, they became a father and son. A couple of nudges and suggestions from my editor, Neil Baker, helped make this clearer.

I loved having an editor on this project. It’s a privilege to have constructive feedback from someone I trust and admire.

I don’t want to explain exactly what I was thinking when I wrote, or what it means to me. A published piece of writing always has an audience, and I believe you, the unseen readers, contribute just as much to the creative process as the writer.

You bring your thoughts, experiences, memories and imaginations to the words I chose, and you may read them very differently. But I hope you will read them and consider them my small Christmas gift to you.

The 26 Children’s Winters calendar will display a new object and sestude every day until 26 December (that’s at least one day more than you get from your typical advent calendar. With the exhibition and online calendar, all 26 writers and the museum are helping to support It’s Good 2 Give, a charity  that supports young people and their families affected by cancer.

26 Children’s Winters

Seeking out scarves, gloves and boots to go and play in the snow. Writing cards under twinkling lights, and covering everything with glitter. Hunkering down indoors, lights against the dark shortening of the days, or heading out dressed as though for an arctic adventure. Winter brings new behaviours and old traditions together.

Christmas tree angels in the 26 Children's Winters exhibitionIt’s a season celebrated in 26 Children’s Winters, a new exhibition at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood, which uses objects from the museum’s collection that reflect the experience of winter.

It includes a wide range of old and new – from jigsaws and board games, to crackers, chocolates, woollen jumpers to ice skates and a spectacular wooden sleigh.

Each object is accompanied by a sestude – a piece of writing that explores the emotions, memories and stories they’ve inspired in exactly 62 words. Exploring the exhibition, these invoke a rich depth of feelings, from wistful to laugh out loud funny and cover a range of themes drawn from personal family history to flights of fantasy.

As a member of the writer’s group 26 I was invited to contribute my own 62 words to accompany a traditional nativity scene. I was delighted to see them both together at the exhibition’s launch event this week and to hear three of the writers read their pieces. From marbles and spinning tops, Halloween decorations to a range of children’s medicines, their inspirations were as diverse as their responses.

Writers at 26 Winters ExhibitionMy eyes were drawn to the Christmas tree angels, so delicate yet beautifully preserved, their story brought to life by writer Sara Sheridan, who initiated the idea of the exhibition with the museum.

I also enjoyed the poem that accompanied the old leather skating boots, written in Scots vernacular, that captures the rush, the exhilaration, and the coming down to earth with a bump after gliding along a frozen surface.

The exhibition and the museum itself on the Royal Mile are well worth a visit if you’re in Edinburgh between now and January. And you can now see all the objects and sestudes in an online advent calendar.

Why be inspired to a greater love of words, in business and in life?

Why? It’s always a good question to ask when you’re trying to understand something. Why do words matter? Why are they worthy of love, thought and respect?

As a member of 26 I was asked to provide my answer, which is now included along with the thoughts, wisdom and humour of other 26 writers in ‘The Book of Because.’ Here’s my contribution:

Because words connect.

Photo of the Book of BecauseWords we love roll round our mouths like
ice cream on a hot day.

Because words conduct business.
Words on stone tablets saying “Pay this
soldier a pig and four sacks of grain”.

Words that fly through the ether to appear
on a screen.
Words link to our past and shape our future.

Because words can be as sharp as a blow or
as near as a whisper.

Words are a gift our bright blue planet
bestows on only one species.
Because, above all, words are human. 

 

Thanks to the editorial team at 26 Characters, Faye Sharpe, John Simmons and Neil Baker for bringing this project together and to Rodney Mylius for the elegant and tactile design.

Wordstock 2015 – a festival of words and creative fun

Wordstock, the annual gathering of members of 26 is a place where words bubble up into a rich and fragrant stew; where the tick of time inspires the tock of activity. Where we celebrate creativity, learn, laugh and fire up new writing projects for the next 12 months.

I arrived a little late at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon, so missed the opening celebrations of projects that 26 writers have taken part in during 2015, including 26 Pairs of Eyes, 26 Under a Northern Sky and 26 Children’s Winters.

slide with the caption 'Think like a poet"

But I was there for the launch of the latest, which I’m also involved in. Over the next 26 weeks, 26 postcodes will reveal a sestude inspired by a postcode together with the story behind it. Gillian Colhoun kicked things off by reading her piece, based on the Gaelic football ground where Seamus Heaney played. My own contribution, based on Dove Cottage, the Lake District home of William and Dorothy Wordworth, will appear next year.

The day was split into a series of sessions, with a choice of workshops in the morning and afternoon. I first opted for Rishi Dastidar‘s session. As head of verbal identity at BrandPie and a published poet, he’s a mash up of Don Draper and Byron and showed us four ways to use poetry techniques in copywriting.

A packed session, full of useful content and some speedy writing. And I’ve already used one of the techniques to inspire a new brand name. Who says you can’t measure the value of inspiration?

Next up, more poetry from spoken word artist and Barnes’ answer to Eminem Charlie Du Pre. He serenaded us on ukulele, and left us wondering why we’ve never heard rhymes like:  ‘I engage with lots of faces pretty much on a daily basis’, before. Fast-paced, funny and rapping genius.

I spent the afternoon session with independent copywriter, author and trainer, Roger Horberry who loves alliteration even more than I do. He demonstrated that the forms of rhetoric pack a punch in modern marketing. And, for this writer at least, brought back memories of studying Spenser, Donne and Pope at university.

Images of the number 26

Celebrating the best in writing at 26

Self-styled biblio-fundamentalist Andy Miller was next, sharing his experience of actually reading the books that he always wanted to and some he even pretended he had. He finished by ‘persuading’ a handful of 26ers to commit to reading their own choice of books. For my part, I’ve signed up to read John Buchan’s 39 Steps, spurred on by another conversation I had during the day.

The final session was a fascinating insight into storytelling from John Yorke, former Eastenders script editor and head of drama at BBC and Channel 4. I love a good bit of story-theory and this so much fired up my interest that I’ve been looking for the mid points and reversals of fortune in every TV drama I’ve watched since.

I learned something new too. Did you know that the acts in Shakespeare plays were determined by the length of time it took to burn a candle?

Last time I came to Wordstock, I was introduced to the music of Nick Drake and on the journey home, sparked the idea that became 26 Under A Northern Sky along with co-conspirator Sandy Wilkie. This time we collaborated again and have put forward another idea that we both hope will be adopted as another creative brief.

I really couldn’t have asked more from a packed day of words, writers and mind-blowing creativity. The train journey north wasn’t nearly enough time to process it all. And the pile of books on my reading list has grown by at least 3 volumes. If you can make it next year, I heartily recommend it.

A tale of postcodes and poets

I’ve been writing a lot of articles recently. It’s felt good to return to skills I learned as a journalist – researching, fact finding and checking and then constructing and structuring a story to a set word count and deadline.

It’s great to have the time to go into some depth. Learning by reading, following links from news stories through to deeper, considered and scientific research.

Rural postbox

I enjoy gathering facts and theories, scooping widely at first and then, as my pieces begin to take shape, becoming more discriminating about what to include and what to leave out.

The skills of assimilating, sorting and representing information in an engaging manner are pretty much my stock in trade as a copywriter.

But, just as I like to mix up my reading between fact and fiction, news and fantasy, I also enjoy stretching my skills, by taking on creative projects that encourage me to write in a different way.

My next will see me wrestle my brain from 1,000 word plus researched and referenced articles to a very much shorter form for the latest 26 project.

I’m one of 26 writers who have been paired with a postcode. Our mission is to use the coded shorthand of letters and numbers as inspiration to write a sestude – 62 words exactly.

I didn’t know what postcode I would get. I was sort of hoping for one that related to a made up place (but I don’t think Narnia, Neverland or Hogwarts have one).

But I got a real one – LA22 9SH, Dove Cottage, home of William and Dorothy Wordsworth.

Despite living only an hour or so away from the Lake District until I went to University, I’ve never been. And for an English Literature graduate, I’m sadly under informed about this writer, beyond what’s generally known.

So, today I started my research – dipping into poetry, journals and websites related to the Lakes poet and his sister. It’s proving a rich seam, and I’ve already taken in many times the 62 words that will eventually be published.

Thoughts are starting to spin around themes of nature, place and a community of writers, but I haven’t yet committed to a single word.

Dove Cottage is a little further away these days, but still easily reachable. Deadlines are tight, but I hope I may be able to pay it a visit and find inspiration in its landscape and surroundings, just as Dorothy and William did.

Follow the project as it develops #26postcodes, and I’ll keep you posted.

How a little support goes a long way in writing and training

I had a moment during the triathlon I was taking part in this weekend when I thought I couldn’t go on. The wind had whipped up waves in the lake as I was swimming. Instead of a lungful of air when I turned my head to breathe, I got a face full of water. For a few seconds I thought, “I can’t do this.”

After a pause, treading water and giving myself a bit of a talking to, I managed to overcome my flight response, drew on my training and race experience and continued to swim, cycle and run my way to the end of the course.

It’s a feeling I’ve had as a writer too. That I can’t do this. That somehow, I’m  just pretending, and one day someone will challenge me on it.

From what other writers have confided, I’m not alone in this. We all have our moments of doubt. As professionals, we question our worth. 

Just as in my athletic pursuits, it’s not just training and experience that makes me a writer. There’s also a strong element of self belief too. Of believing I can do this. I have the skills, the knowledge and talent. 

I finally started to really believe in myself as a writer after spending some time with John Simmons. 

John was director of verbal identity at Interbrand; has written for companies big and small and is a founder of 26. His books include, We, Me, Them & ItDark AngelsThe Invisible Grail and 26 Ways of Looking at a Blackberry, as  well as Room121: a masterclass in writing and communication in business co-written with Jamie Jauncey. When it comes to copywriting – he literally wrote the books.

So when John Simmons tells you, you are a writer, it’s good sense to believe him. I can think of no greater compliment, or anything else I’ve been prouder to hear. In triathlon terms it’s like finishing first in the World Championships, winning gold at the Olympics and qualifying for Kona all rolled into one.

cover of Leaves by John Simmons

Through John, I’ve developed confidence in my skills and voice as a writer. Felt more assured about asserting the creativity that feeds into the commercial work of a copywriter and opened up opportunities that allow me to explore that creativity beyond the office walls.

It’s a special day for John today, as he launches his first novel, Leaves. A story he began 45 years ago, now published by Urbane. It’s sad, elegiac and so beautifully written, there are sentences in it that I will read again and again.

I heartily wish I was in London tonight to celebrate with him, but distance and demands of my working life mean I can only be there in spirit.

Through spending time with John, discussing writing, meeting fellow writers on Dark Angels writing courses and reading his regular, always thought-provoking blog posts, I feel privileged to call him a friend as well as a mentor.

On today’s blog he offers three pieces of advice, which all strike me as absolutely true. But the one that really resonated was this:

Writers need people to show faith in them, to express confidence in their writing

A shout from a supporter, or a spectator in a race can make me smile, encourage me to keep going, or stop me from giving in. 

It’s the same with writing, although generally a little quieter in tone. A simple thank you, ‘nice work’ or even better, a ‘wow’, can really lift my spirits, and encourage me to give my best every time I put pen to paper.

I’m very grateful to John, for showing faith in me, and for introducing me to a wider network of wonderful writers. I raise a virtual toast to us all. May you look each person in the eye and say with confidence “I am a writer. I write.”