Archive | creative

26 Steps part 4 – journeys through the physical and mental landscape

Black and white photo of a bay

Stoke Fleming to Torcross – photo by Caroline Lodge

One of the ideas of the 26 Steps project is to take you on a journey. It may not be same physical journey that our writers enjoyed (or endured) on the walks they undertook for this project, but I hope they will be an inspiration for your own wanderings and writing.

Using a combination of photographs, maps and writing in the form of a 62 word sestude, we created a series of virtual postcards. We invite you to read them, to see something of the places depicted and to trace the routes on the hand-drawn maps.

We hope you will be inspired to get out and explore your own landscapes, and to use them to create your own writing, art, photography or other creative opportunities.

Enjoy the photographs, maps and writing inspired by these walks which take us from Belfast to Northumberland and from Devon to a far off Scottish Isle. This section also includes the second of my two creative pieces.

Step 17: Pirrie Park to Queens University, Belfast by Therese Kieren

Step 18: Quaking Houses to Rowlands Gill, Tyne and Wear by Michelle Nicol

Step 19: Rock to Seahouses, Northumberland by Irene Lofthouse

Step 20: Stoke Fleming to Torcross, Devon by Caroline Lodge

Step 21: Tolmachan to Urgha, Isle of Harris by Clare Archibald

Follow the journey on twitter #26Steps.

26 Steps part 3 – how constraints encourage creative thinking

Black and white photo of the sea and beach huts

Overstrand to Paston – photo by Merryn Henderson

The 26 walks that provide inspiration for 26 Steps start at a place name beginning with each letter of the alphabet and take the writer to a place starting with the next letter in the sequence.

Each writer took a black and white photograph and drew a map as a visual guide to their journey as well as recording their thoughts, feelings and observations in a sestude – a form that requires 62 words exactly.

26 Steps logoAs a writer, I enjoy a constraint. Despite their name, they actually open up creative processes and often give me a way of tackling the terror of a blank page. Having a reason to write and a framework to do it in helps me to focus in on ideas and encourages me to think in new ways as I seek to fit the brief.

Meeting the brief is what I do professionally for my copywriting clients too, meeting their requests for writing for different formats, audiences and purposes. Short copy, long copy, writing for video, writing for an advert, writing for a website – they all have their constraints.

For 26 Steps, the constraint of following the alphabet from place to place meant that writers took in a range of landscapes; rivers, woods, farmland, coastal fringes, urban areas and mountains. The writing has a similarly varied theme, from lyrical wanderings, to urban humour, from physical geography to the landscape of the mind via history and memory.

The third section of the journey takes us from Wales to the Scottish Borders, through the industrial history of North East England to a Norfolk pilgrim’s path, through the alphabet from K to P and includes the first of my contributions (more of that later).

Step 11: Knighton to Lower Harpton, Powys by Sandy Wilkie

Step 12: Llandegla to Moel Famau, Denbighshire by Ed Prichard

Step 13: Morebattle to Nisbet, Scottish Borders by Joan Lennon

Step 14: North Shields to Old Hartley, Tyne and Wear by Michelle Nicol

Step 16: Overstrand to Paston, Norfolk by Merryn Henderson

Follow the journey on twitter #26Steps.

Going with the flow – how writing is like paddling down the Tyne

On Saturday, I went on an adventure, kayaking down the River Tyne with three of my friends. The spur was to be fearless, to do something we hadn’t done before. It was a brilliant afternoon.

Today it has me reflecting on watery phrases, and how they can be used as a metaphor for the writing process.

Kakaks paddling beneath the High Level Bridge on the TyneOur guides for the day were the Cullercoats Bike and Kayak crew, making sure we were safe, helping us navigate the river and coaching us on paddling the route. We began at Derwenthaugh, getting into the river opposite the Vickers Armstrong factory – a reminder of the long industrial heritage of this busy, working river.

We had waited for the tide to turn, so we would ride with the flow out towards the sea. But on first entering the water in our unfamiliar craft, the tide was slack. At first, getting the hang of paddling and steering had some of us going round in circles, and progress was slow.

Figuring out port and starboard

Slack water is where you have to put some effort in to move forwards. It’s like the start of a writing project, where I’m learning new things about a client and their business, about their customers and what they want and need. It’s about taking on board new information, trying things out, getting a feel for the project.

At this stage, I’m learning new terms and language. Like getting to grips with my paddle, this might feel clumsy or cumbersome at first, but soon it starts to feel more natural. I might try out a few phrases, and find I’m steering the tone of voice too far towards the informal, so I get feedback and correct my course.

As we got used to our craft and more confident in abilities to control our direction, we began to feel the river flow faster, and as we paddled it felt like we were cutting through the water, picking up pace.

Floating down river

Travelling with the tide, going with the flow is what it feels like when I’m writing in the zone, when the words come quickly and easily. It’s the first draft, when I don’t think, don’t judge, just write and let the ideas and thoughts take shape on paper. Progress is quicker and there’s a sense of excitement and exhilaration.

Kayakers approach the High Level Bridge on the TyneSoon we approached the Tyne’s iconic bridges. Always a sight to stir my heart, and never more so than on this adventure, seeing their familiar lines and arcs from a new perspective. Paddling beneath the seven bridges that span the great river as it travels through the heart of the city is something I will never forget.

New perspectives

From water level, the Tyne’s bridges take on a new dimension. Their scale is epic. The engineering impressive. Their stanchions deep in the river narrowing the navigable route.

Seeing things from a new angle is useful tool for writing too. Sometimes I have to get into the detail to discover the small clue that unlocks the heart of the story. At other times, it’s the broader sweep, the wider view of how a business fits in its landscape of customers and community that will give me the right perspective.

If I find myself stuck, taking a physical, or mental wander around, drinking in the experience of sights, sounds smells, tastes and feelings is a sure fire way of generating new ideas, phrases and insights. Looking at objects from a new and unfamiliar perspective gives me a new angle for writing about them too.

Smooth waters

Beneath the magnificent bridges, the river was glassy smooth. In the heart of the busy city, gulls flew overhead and there was silence apart from the odd rumble of a car or a train passing by overhead. This gave us time to slow down, admire the view and enjoy the sensation of having part of the river to ourselves.

In writing, that’s like the polishing and editing process. The time when I slow down and look at the words on the page carefully, weighing each one, considering its place. Like the river, sometimes this can be a choppy process and it can feel like I’m being buffeted to and fro. The goal is to navigate the chop, using my skills and experience to turn the finished piece into smooth prose that sounds naturally as though that’s the way it’s meant to be.

Thanks to Cullercoats Bike and Kayak for looking after us, supplying all the equipment and being excellent guides for our river tour. Special thanks to my friend Sue for saying she wanted to have a go in a kayak; to Roger and Tove for being the right kind of daft to go along with it; and to Penny for taking some excellent photos of us on the river.

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.

Memories of a visit to Hiroshima

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

Hiroshima. A place name that can stop you dead. As dead as the watch whose hands forever point to 8:15 – the precise moment when the atomic bomb shattered thousands of lives and changed history.

A-bomb dome, Hiroshima

I first visited Japan in the spring of 2007. On the train to Hiroshima, a young man smiled and approached with his hand held out. Nestled in his palm was an origami crane and over the course of our journey, he showed us how to make one.

Taking a pad of patterned paper from his back pack, he began to fold it into shape, slowly, deliberately, taking great care of the creases. He introduced himself as Tsetsuo and thanked us for allowing him to practice his English.

When we got off the train, he walked us over to a tram stop and made sure we reached our destination.

The A-Bomb dome, the building that marks the epicentre of the bomb blast remains a ruined shell. Damaged, but still standing. A marker that held its ground as everything else around it was atomised into dust. Its distinctive shape casts a shadow on the skyline.

It stands at the entrance to the Peace Park, gardens, memorial and the Peace Museum. The museum tells the history of the city and its people, describing the worldwide events that lead to the bomb through a series of panels depicting letters, documents and photographs from world leaders at the time.

The initial blast killed 700,000 people, but in the following weeks and years many more would die from the effects of radiation, from being crushed in damaged buildings, trapped by fire, or simply desperately, desperately thirsty, with only black irradiated water to drink.

A model shows the city before and after the blast. Figures show the desperate human suffering. Eyewitness statements speak of a blinding white flash and then searing pain like hot needles as the shock wave ripped through buildings and bodies.

Memorial in the Peace Park, Hiroshima

There were only five photographs taken in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. They were taken by newspaper photographer Yoshito Matsushige, who was a couple of miles away from the centre of the blast. He later wrote: “I fought with myself for 30 minutes before I could take the first picture. After taking the first, I grew strangely calm and wanted to get closer. I took about ten steps forwards and tried to snap another, but the scenes I saw were so gruesome, my viewfinder clouded with tears.”

That phrase, “My viewfinder clouded with tears” has stuck with me. More powerful than any photograph.

The final section of the museum displays objects recovered from the debris. Beside them sit museum cards with details of who they belonged to, where they were at the time of the blast and what they were doing on that day.

A twisted metal lunch box, a tattered uniform, a child’s tricycle. I found these objects and their stories almost unbearably moving. They brought the unimaginable destruction of a thriving city back to a human scale.

There’s a special space for the story of Sadako Sasaki, a girl who died from leukaemia, caused by the radiation 10 years after the bomb. She folded thousands of paper cranes in the hope she would get well. The tradition continues with a monument in the park where children hang colourful paper cranes in a message of peace.

It’s not unusual for westerners in Japan to encounter great kindness. I have heard many travellers tell of being given directions, or even taken to where they wanted to go by local people. As a visitor, you are a most honoured guest, in a country which sets great cultural value on respect.

Japanese garden

But I think that Tsetsuo, who showed us how to make the paper cranes, was acknowledging more than the usual Japanese hospitality. When we told him we were visiting the Peace Museum, he said his grandfather was one of the many thousands killed in the atom bomb blast.

He knew his city was a hard place to visit. And that was why he took such care to welcome us. To honour our interest in his home town and help us see beyond its sad history.

As we learned in the museum, only a few days after the bomb obliterated the city, the trams began to run again. And despite all the fears that nothing would ever grow again in that irradiated earth, lilies bloomed between the tracks.

Hiroshima now offers a peaceful and friendly face, whilst paying respect to and remembering the past.

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.”

Making connections – 26 Under a Northern Sky

Connections. That’s what a group of writers were making as we travelled north this weekend.

photo of rail tickets

Tickets for 26 Under A Northern Sky journey

The reason for our journey was to launch the latest 26 project, 26 Under A Northern Sky – a collection of creative writing inspired by the music of Nick Drake and a railway journey between Newcastle upon Tyne and Glasgow.

We were making real connections with trains and timetables, to get where we needed to be at the appointed time and make our way back again. But through the creative writing process and the journey itself, many more connections were revealed.

Each writer was given a brief. Take the name of one of the 26 stations along the line and the title of a Nick Drake track, chosen at random and write something in response. The final constraint was that the piece should be able to be read aloud comfortably in 3 mins 44 seconds or less – the duration of Nick Drake’s Northern Sky, which provides the title for the whole collection.

The resulting pieces were wide ranging in style and tone. We had poems and short stories, a sonnet, folk tales, histories and ghost stories. Each one was read along the journey. And each writer had found a different way to connect to their brief.

Some responded to the place, its location, history or a claim to fame. Others took the songs, their lyrics, form and rhythm as inspiration. And many combined the two, to come up with something that touched on both, but that was made new and different by being reflected through the prism of each writer’s own experience.

It’s the same in business writing. There is a brief from a client, that often comes with rules and constraints. As a writer I have to find a way to connect to that brief and interpret it in a way that will connect with a customer. That may mean digging deeper to discover how a customer thinks and feels and finding the words that make that connection. And the final creative piece is always a collaboration between writer, designer  and client.

Woman reading on a train

Faye Sharpe reading her contribution to 26 Under a Northern Sky

The 26 Under a Northern Sky project similarly came with deadlines and timetables, with writers asked to submit first and then final drafts after feedback from a small team of editors.

As Editor in Chief, I had the privilege of being the first to read the entire collection. And it was a joy.

In this project I acted as both client and creative; contributing my own piece, while making sure the whole collaboration remained on track. It’s taught me a lot about setting a brief and then allowing creative people the freedom to explore it in their own way.

Each piece in 26 Under a Northern Sky is unique, but each writer has found a way to connect to the brief and through that created a piece of work that connects with a wider audience.

I’m very proud to have been part of something very special.

26 Under A Northern Sky will be published on www.26.org.uk later this week. But you can enjoy the beautiful introduction to the collection, written by Anna Jauncey right now.

About 26

26 is a diverse group of people who share a love of words. Many of us work with words for a living, as writers, language specialists, editors, designers or publishers, but anyone who cares about words is welcome to join. Together, we hope to raise the profile and value of words not only in business, but also in everyday life.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to all the writers, editors and readers of 26 Under A Northern Sky:
Anna Jauncey, Sue Evans, Fiona Thompson, June Mong, Sharon Jones, Joan Lennon, Tony Balazs, Laura Waddell, Faye Sharpe, Simon Parsons, John Simmons, Kenneth Stirling, Justina Hart, Stephen Potts, Alastair Creamer, Colette Davis, Jo Matthews, Stuart Delves, Aidan Baker, Irene Lofthouse, Mike Benson, Marianne Powell, Elaine Gibb, Sophie Gordon, Martin Lee, Tom Collins and especially to my co-editor, Sandy Wilkie. Thanks also to Rachel Marshall and Elen Lewis for promoting the project through the 26 website and newsletter.

Special thanks to Michael Burdett of The Strange Face Project for introducing me to the music of Nick Drake and providing the initial spark that lead to this crazy writing project.

Appearing at the Oxford Story Museum

There’s a place in Oxford called The Story Museum. It’s just re-opened after a bit of a break, with an exhibition called 26 characters, which features 26 famous authors dressed as their favourite character from childhood, photographed by Cambridge Jones.

The list of writers is like a who’s who of children’s literature and includes some of my contemporary favourites. There’s Neil Gaiman as Badger from Wind in the Willows, Philip Pullman as Long John Silver, Terry Pratchett as Just William, Malorie Blackman as the Wicked Witch of the West; Julia Donaldson, Holly Smale, Francesca Simon (of Horrid Henry fame), Benjamin Zephaniah, Michael Rosen and many others.

And thanks to my wonderful writing mentor, John Simmons, a piece of my writing features there too. I’m a member of a writing organisation called 26 (after the number of letters of the alphabet) ideally linked to the theme of this exhibition. So, I was invited  to contribute a poem, to accompany one of the portraits.

The 26 writers were matched completely randomly with an author and a letter of the alphabet. We got to see Cambridge Jones’ splendid photographs of our author and were set the task of writing a sestude – a literary form of exactly 62 words (26 in reflection).

I positively squeaked when I discovered that my author, Steven Butler, had chosen The Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as his favourite character. I love Alice in Wonderland and the characters have continued to inspire some of my creative writing.

Michelle reading The Horse and His Boy

Enjoying one of my favourite books from childhood again. Photo by Mike Tulip

I didn’t know Steven Butler’s work, so I quickly read a couple of his books and found out a bit more about him. He’s written a fabulously funny series called ‘The Wrong Pong’ which tells the story of how Neville Briskett is mistaken for a young troll and sucked down the toilet to Underland.  And more recently, he’s written ‘The Diary of Dennis the Menace’.

I loved ‘ The Wrong Pong’ and think it’s a great series for children to read for themselves. It has the right mix of disgusting, yuckyness to put off most adults as well as being a cracking adventure story that rips along  at a fair pace.

It’s been great to discover a new writer who I wouldn’t normally come across too. I really like the way he creates his characters, especially the troll family who adopt Neville and absolutely love the special language they use. I was delighted to be able to include one of Steven’s brilliant made-up words in my sestude which you can read on the Story Museum’s website.

I’ve also written about one of my favourite childhood characters, Aravis from the Horse and His Boy for the museum’s digital gallery. Thanks to Mike Tulip for taking the accompanying photo.

It would be enough to have a poem in an exhibition alongside some of our most brilliant writers, but to have the chance to pay tribute to one of Lewis Carroll’s most memorable characters in the city where he first created Wonderland is a real honour, and a little daunting.

But Carroll wasn’t just an Oxford man. He has connections with the North East of England, where I live too. He visited members of his family who lived at Whitburn, and according to his letters, wrote the first verse of the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ while he was in the area. So there’s a nod to that in my poem too.

I studied Carroll at university and later researched the influence of the North East landscape on his work for a feature I produced whilst working at the BBC. You can see what I discovered about Lewis Carroll’s connections with the North East on this archived website.

I haven’t seen the exhibition yet, but thanks to stalking the story museum on twitter, I’ve seen a few glimpses. It seems each room becomes the setting for a different character, so I look forward to stepping into Narnia, Neverland and Wonderland when I go to visit in May.

It’s been a brilliant project to work on. The only difficulty has been keeping it secret for so long. And now I can’t wait to see it for myself. The exhibition lasts until December, so if you’re in Oxford and go to see it, I’d love to hear what you think.

Writing with a sense of place

La Finca

Our outdoor classroom in Aracena

I’ve been thinking recently about how a sense of place influences my writing.

In September I spent four glorious days on a Dark Angels creative writing in business course in Aracena, Spain. My fellow writers all drew on the landscape, the history and the culture of the area to produce some highly imaginative and creative writing. It was truly magical to hear the different voices and interpretations of the exercises we did together during the day and to revel in a final evening of stories and performances.

The first day, we used a passage from Don Quixote as inspiration, and along with the warm sunshine, good company and relaxed atmosphere, it’s encouraged my recent writing to take on a rather lyrical, allegorical tone.

Compare and contrast with a few years ago, when I visited Japan. There my writing took on the style of the haiku. Pared back. Economical. Each word working hard. Packed with meaning. I have a notebook filled with poems and scraps of free verse from my time there. And when I think of Japan, that’s the kind of language that fills my mental landscape.

I’ve also recently written a piece about where I live. For this I drew on both the geographical setting of the river that runs nearby, and the voices of its history. For this is an area of rich voices, identifiable by their distinctive accent. I wasn’t born here, so it’s not my accent; but listening to The Unthanks sing of the shipyards, I can fair see the bulkheads blocking out the daylight or hear the pounding of boots on the slipway.

Professionally I write for one client. One tone of voice. But it has to have something of all these voices. It has to be economical, because I write for busy people who want me to get to the point. But it cannot be too obscure. They cannot be expected to work hard to find the meaning.

So, I look for the phrases that will surprise and delight. The words that show there’s a real human being behind those marks on the paper or screen. Sometimes that means a change of rhythm or pace. Sometimes it’s a colloquial phrase – something you’d actually say.

Though I have to be careful not to be too colloquial. I was recently asked to rewrite a line where I used ‘tea’ in the northern sense of ‘dinner’ or a meal you have in the evening. After all, not all our customers are northerners.

I’ve been asked if writing for one client can get boring. It can be a challenge certainly, to keep it fresh and interesting when covering the same themes. But there’s always a new way of looking at things, new insights from our customers or new influences from the wider world to take on board.

And when I spend some time thinking about my writing, I can see that I do adopt different voices – at work, on my blog, and in my personal writing. They’re all slightly different, but all part of me. And they’re all influenced by people I’ve met, places I’ve visited. To me, it’s a rich source of inspiration.

Does a sense of place influence your writing too?

If you want to know more about what happens on a Dark Angels writing course, tutor John Simmons describes it beautifully in his latest blog post.