Happy New Writing!

Welcome to the new year! Here in the Northern Rivers, we’re getting pummeled by fat, drenching, subtropical rain, and then by riotous, skin-searing sun – in fairly equal proportions. Plant life is springing forth like nobody’s business; lettuces pop up in the lawn from stray seed and then burst into seed themselves just a short time later. It all feels like a recipe for renewal to me.

So, since new beginnings are a good time to make new stuff, I thought I’d share with you my pick of the best writing exercises to start the year. Whether using them myself or with students, the only measure of a good exercise for me is that it makes new things happen: new images, new voices, even new memories you didn’t know you had. Everything we need in order to write is right here. Use it!

My Top 3 writing exercises for making new stuff:

  1. ‘I remember’
  2. Best first lines
  3. Re-sentencing

You don’t need any writing experience to have fun with these. They are designed to bypass what you think you know, and dig into the fertile soil of imagination and association. I’ll be honest with you, when I go to the page to try and write some new stuff, often I never get past doing exercises. Why? I’m kind of fickle when it comes to ideas, I don’t like to commit to them. But when exercising, there’s no role, in fact no room, for commitment. You just open up to what’s endlessly possible.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

– Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s mind

So get your pen ready…

  1. Memory is always a rich source of inspiration, but sometimes we need a nudge to make the most of it. In one of the simplest and most effective exercises I know, we take the words ‘I remember’ as our starting point. Go to the exercise.
  2. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a wife”… and a blocked writer must be in want of a prompt! Try using the best first lines in literature to create something new. Go to the exercise.
  3. In this exercise, new material is generated by re-purposing a piece of found text into an unusual writing prompt. Like all the best exercises, Re-sentencing is both challenging and liberating, and you might be surprised by what comes out. Go to the exercise.

If you have tried any of these exercises and created something new, congratulations! If nothing emerges, keep trying. Whatever happens, don’t throw away your first attempts, even if you see nothing of value in them yet. Just put them aside for later. As with gardening, in creative life we sometimes need to rest our garden beds in order to let the nutrients back in.  If we turn over the soil too often we might disturb the seeds that begin to sprout, unnoticed. So do your exercises, close your notebook, and look forward to the next step – figuring out what to do with the raw material. But that’s another post for another day.

Happy New Writing to you in 2018. And if you liked this post, don’t forget to share!

 

What comes first: rhythm or words?

I had a great question from a punter after my performance at M-Arts last weekend. (You can watch the live performance here).

“When you’re creating a poem, do you start with the words or the rhythm? Do you write something and then make it flow, or does the flow dictate what you write?”

The answer, of course, is not straightforward, and that’s what makes it an excellent question. I have had so much fun investigating this very problem that I wanted to share it with you.

Many of the great slam poets around today, such as Luka Lesson, Omar Musa, and Kate Tempest, came from a hip-hop background. These extraordinary wordsmiths can tell you loads more about ‘flow’ than I can; they have spent countless hours, weeks and years honing their skills rhyming, freestyling, laying words over beats or vice-versa. When they deliver a poem with only their unaccompanied voice, they bring an expert sensibility of rhythm and flow, which makes their work so much more complex and compelling to listen to.

It’s like the difference between plain handwriting and calligraphy:

there’s an extra layer of expressiveness which is just beautiful to immerse your senses in.

I didn’t come into poetry from hip-hop, but I grew up learning music from a young age. I’m sure that has had a big impact on the way I use language to compose poetry. As a kid I spent equal amounts of time every day practising guitar, which my mother taught me to play, and burying my nose in books. So by the time I discovered slam poetry at the age of nineteen, the fusion of spoken language with the qualities of music just made sense to my music-trained brain.

SarahTemporal-notebooks.jpg

Like many writers, I keep copious notebooks, which no one else reads (see Natalie Goldberg for the value of letting yourself write junk, and lots of it). I’ll comb through these when I’m looking for ideas, and often what jumps out is something that has an interesting sound, as well as an interesting sentiment.

There’s sometimes a weird moment when I realise that some little line I’ve written has lodged itself in my brain like a catchy guitar riff, pestering me to make a whole poem so that it will have somewhere to live!

So when I’m composing (and ‘composing’ may be a more apt term than ‘writing’), I’m focusing as much on the sound and rhythm as I am on the meaning of words. When I speak a line of poetry out loud, I’m trying to become aware of the physical sound of the words: the cadence, the tone, whether it seems to burst forth with explosive energy or coil slowly around the tongue; whether the line wants me to take my time or get carried away. It’s not always simple. Sometimes the meaning is clear but the rhythm isn’t working. Sometimes too much rhythm diminishes the meaning. And sometimes the particular mood or energy of the piece just takes a really long time to reveal itself.

The challenge for any poet who performs is to strike the right balance of sound and sense.

There’s no point having lots of verbal tricks if you’re not saying anything meaningful; and likewise, no point in performing a great poem if there’s nothing for the ear to enjoy. It’s a fine balance, challenging, occasionally maddening, but ultimately so rewarding when you share it with a live audience.

If you’re interested in trying slam poetry yourself, please sign up to follow my SlamCraft series. If you’re nearby, watch out for my workshops in the Northern Rivers. Subscribe below or follow me to hear about it first.