Don’t write before you can read
Well, actually, do write, always. Write whenever and wherever you feel like it. But reading a range of literature, whether that is books, poems, magazines, newspapers, the back of cereal boxes, the scribbles on toilet doors, the terms of conditions of a Netflix subscription, will help to inform your writing in so many ways.
Do you ever get those moments when you’re reading when you’re like, wow, what beautiful writing – this makes me want to start writing right here right now? I frequently get this when I’m reading literature on my course but I don’t always act on my urge to write because I’m under to pressure to finish reading and then find that by the time I sit down to write the moment is gone. This also happens when I’m reading on holiday – if the book is really good I don’t really want to put it down so I often lose the moment of creative inspiration.
Of course, a lot of what we learn from reading goes into our subconscious and comes out naturally in our writing. However, reading like a writer and thinking about how it is the writer phrases that so well, or makes you feel that way, or reveals something to you in a way that you’d never thought of before, is the best way to learn. This isn’t copying either. It’s a borrowing process which all the best writers are savvy to.
Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ book also recommended that writers should read badly written literature to see what doesn’t work too. This might be a good way to learn from other people’s mistakes! (This is an excellent book if anyone is interested in writing, whether or not you’re a fan of his).
So in our Mouthy Workshop session, we were given a selection of books to choose one from to read for five-ten minutes. Then we did a five minute free-write.
I picked up Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’, because I love this book; but having studied Morrison in quite a lot of depth, I couldn’t really see it as just a piece of writing. All my preconceptions were getting in the way a bit. I’d recommend that if you are going to try this exercise that you pick up a book that you’re not familiar with. Then your response to the writing will be fresh.
A poet told me that he often buys random magazines that he would never be remotely interested in normally and reads them front to back, just to have his mind opened up to a whole field of vocabulary that he wouldn’t otherwise come across. You might never want to write a poem about knitting, or gardening, or fishing (just picking random hobby-related magazines I’ve seen in the newsagents), but gaining knowledge in places outside of your interests may help you write less autobiographically and get you creating some interesting, convincing, “rounded” characters.
Looking for some inspiration? Maybe a map can show you the way!
The next writing exercise at the workshop involved a bit of map reading. At least, we opened up some maps, had a look at them and did another free-write. I looked at one of West Wales and besides enjoying the fantastic names of the various Welsh towns and cities and reconnecting with my Welsh heritage, I found a place I’d visited with my family years ago. Having never seen it on a map before, it was interesting to see its geography represented on the page in front of me. A beach walk I’d taken with them in a drizzly November sparked up some poetry ideas. Having a strong sense of place and an understanding of the geography of the world can be useful in creating a convincing and colourful setting in writing.
Writing against the grain
I apologise about the puns – they are awful… But for our next exercise we paired up and explained our favourite meals to each other, going into great depth about the ingredients, the recipes, what we liked about them. We each took notes on what the other person was saying and used this information to create a piece of writing. This was a good way of working against the tendency to be autobiographical in writing.
There is, of course, nothing wrong in writing about ourselves. Writing can be great therapy, a way of writing our way through bad experiences and learning more about ourselves. However, it’s also good to write about things that aren’t from first-hand experience. I’m now going to be working on a poem about Spaghetti Bolognese. This just reminds me how much freedom there is in writing!
NB – It is advisable not to do this exercise on an empty stomach as it may have peckish effects.