Writing Tip: Start Writing

When I used to teach classes to beginning writers, it was good.  It forced me to think back to the beginning to when I first put pen to paper.  The thing is, every time we sit down and face the blank page, it’s the same.  Every time we start a new piece of writing, we doubt that we can do it again.  A new journey with no map – like setting off towards the horizon alone in a boat and the only thing another person can do to help is to wave from the shore.

So when I used to teach a creative writing class, I had to tell them the story all over again and remember that this is the first time my students are hearing it.  I had to start at the very beginning.

First up, there’s the pen on the page.  You need this intimate relationship between the pen and the paper to get the flow of words happening.  A fountain pen is best because the ink flows quickly.  We think faster than we can write.  It needs to be a “fat” pen to avoid RSI.

Consider, too, your notebook.  It is important.  The pen and paper are your basic tools, your equipment, and they need to be with you at all times.  Choose a notebook that allows you plenty of space to write big and loose.  A plain cheap thick spiral notepad is good.

After that comes the typing up on the computer and printing out a hard copy.  It’s a right and left brain thing.  You engage the right side of the brain, the creative side when you put pen to paper, then bring in the left side, the analytic side, when you edit the print out as you settle back comfortably with a drink (a cup of tea, even) and read what you’ve written.

Patrick White said that writing is really like shitting; and then, reading the letters of Pushkin a little later, he found Pushkin said exactly the same thing.  Writing is something you have to get out of you.

typing writing on a pink background

Whether writing a story or writing a blog, start writing, no matter what.

Writing Tip: The Bigger the Issue, the Smaller You Write

A quote: the bigger the issue, the smaller you write - Richard Price

A fantastic example of this writing advice is Kurt Vonnegut’s  Slaughterhouse-Five.

Poignant and hilarious, threaded with compassion and, behind everything, the cataract of a thundering moral statement. – The Boston Globe

book cover of Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse-Five'

Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

Don’t let the ease of reading fool you – Vonnegut’s isn’t a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”

Slaughterhouse-Five is not only Vonnegut’s most powerful book, it is also as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author’s experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut’s other works, but the book’s basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy – and humor. – Goodreads

Highly recommended. A masterpiece.

Writing Tip: Taste Life Twice

quote by Anais Nin against a night sky

“Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life, are as fast as anyone in the grocery store, crossing the street, getting dressed for work in the morning. But there’s another part of them that they have been training. The one that lives everything a second time. That sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and the details.”  – Natalie Goldberg

My Flash Fiction, Sober Sixty

Libby Sommer and 'Grieve" anthology

Have a read of my flash fiction ‘Sober Sixty’ first published in the August 2020 Grieve Anthology, Stories and Poems of Grief and Loss.

Sober Sixty:

Samantha’s single women friends were envious, although she assured them Johnny wasn’t perfect. Mood swings, challenging stuff like that.

Nobody messed with Johnny. Nobody knew better than he did, he was always watching YouTube and learning new facts and figures. Also, he rode a motorbike and practiced shooting at weekends. There were Facebook groups for bike riders and a rifle range nearby. Johnny was proud of being a rev-head and a good shot with his gun, and not many people could disagree that he had unusual interests for a man his age.

‘Sober since forty and counting,’ he said about his sobriety. They didn’t talk about his twenties and thirties.

There’s a photograph of the two of them from Christmas day. Johnny had tried to lower himself to Samantha’s height for the photo so they’d be on the same level. ‘Stand up tall,’ she’d said. ‘Stand to your full height.’ ‘That’s right,’ he’d said. ‘You like things big.’

‘What does ATP in ATP Cup stand for?’ was the type of thing Johnny would call out while she poured him a glass of water before setting out on a stroll around the block.

Samantha thought she knew the answer, but didn’t want to risk being wrong. She’d learnt to tiptoe around his wildness and dreaded the fighting when she wasn’t attentive enough to his needs. Dry drunk, AA called it. The unpredictable rages were doing her head in. She knew she needed the courage to walk away.

Now she’s getting by a day at a time.

Her friends say she’s one of the lucky ones. She’s dodged a bullet.

Copyright © Libby Sommer 2020

Grieve 2020 Anthology available from Hunter Writer’s Centre website or Booktopia https://hunterwriterscentre.org/bookshop/

Writing Process

 

One of my favourite books on the writing process is The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, a small and passionate guide to the terrain of a writer’s world.

Dillard begins:

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins. The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.

Annie Dillard has written eleven books, including the memoir of her parents, An American Childhood; the Northwest pioneer epic The Living; and the nonfiction narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek winner of the 1975 Pullizer Prize.  A gregarious recluse, she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

“For non-writers, The Writing Life is a glimpse into the trials and satisfactions of a life spent with words. For writers, it is a warm, rambling, conversation with a stimulating and extraordinarily talented colleague.””–Chicago Tribune””A kind of spiritual Strunk & White, a small and brilliant guidebook to the landscape of a writer’s task…Dillard brings the same passion and connective intelligence to this narrative as she has to her other work.”– “Boston Globe””For her book is…scattered with pearls. Each reader will be attracted to different bright parts…Gracefully and simply told, these little stories illuminate the writing life…Her advice to writers is encouraging and invigorating.”– “Cleveland Plain Dealer””The Writing Life is a spare volume…that has the power and force of a detonating bomb…A book bursting with metaphors and prose bristling with incident.”– “Detroit News”

Which books on writing process have you found to be inspiring?

Writing Tip: Use Declarative Sentences

 

 

speech bubble: I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse

This declarative sentence was spoken by Don Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) in the movie The Godfather (1972).

We don’t always make declarative statements. It is not uncommon for women and other minority groups to add qualifiers to their statements. Such as ‘Parents need to stop organising every minute of their children’s spare time, don’t you think?’ ‘I loved that movie, didn’t you?’ In our sentence structure we look for reinforcement for our thoughts and opinions. We don’t always make declarative statements such as:  ‘This is wonderful.’ ‘This is a catastrophe.’ We look for re-enforcement from others.

Another thing we do without realising it, is use indefinite modifiers in our speech:  perhaps, maybe, somehow. ‘Maybe I’ll take a trip somewhere.’ As if the speaker has no power to make a decision. ‘Perhaps it will change.’ Again, not a clear declarative sentence like, ‘Yes, nothing stays the same.’

It is important for us as writers to express ourselves in clear assertive sentences. ‘This is excellent.’ ‘It was a red dress.’ Not ‘The thing is, I know it sounds a bit vague, but I think maybe it was a red dress.’ Speaking in declarative sentences is a good rehearsal for trusting your own ideas, in standing up for yourself, for speaking out your truth.

When I write poetry I read through early drafts with a critical eye, taking out indefinite words and modifiers. I attempt to distill each moment to its essence by peeling off the layers until the heart of the poem is exposed. We need to take risks as writers and go deep within ourselves to find our unique voices and express ourselves with clarity.

Even if you are not 100% sure about your own opinions and thoughts write as if you are sure.  Dig deep. Be clear. Don’t be vague on the page. If you keep practicing this, you will eventually reveal your own deep knowing.

What about you? Have you noticed this tendency to qualify in your conversations with others, or in your creative writing, or in your blog posts?

Ground Your Writing In Place

person holding silver retractable pen in white ruled book

Here is an important writing tip:  ground your writing in a sense of place, whether landscape or cityscape.

How often have you heard someone say of a book they loved:  ‘I felt like I was there’?

Even if you relocate the poodle tied to a fake-cane chair, the sound of a game of tennis, the table of older men after their regular Sunday match at the café overlooking the tennis courts at Cooper Park that you drank a lemongrass and ginger tea at in Sydney into a café in a story in another state and time, the story will have originality and believability.  ‘But that café was in Sydney, I can’t transport it to Adelaide.’  But you can.  You can have flexibility with specific detail.  The mind is able to transport details, but using actual places that you experienced will give your writing authenticity and truthfulness.  It grounds your work in place, giving life and vitality to your writing, rather than a whole lot of exposition that floats in the air.

 If you don’t create evocative settings, your characters seem to have their conversations in vacuums or in some beige nowhere-in-particular. –  Jerome Stern

Creation of the physical world is as important to your story as action and dialogue.  If your readers can be made to see the hand-knitted socks or the row of vitamins on the kitchen benchtop, the scene becomes alive.  Readers pay attention.  Touch, sound, taste, and smell make readers feel as if their own feet are warm under the cold sheets.

Place situates the story in your reader’s mind.  Fiction that seems to happen in no particular place often seems not to take place at all.’ –  Jerome Stern

Do you agree?

Writing Tip: Use Your Obsessions

woman reading a book in the bed

Every once in a while, when I’m scratching around for something new to write, I make a list of the things I obsess about.  Thankfully, some of them change over time, but there are always new ones to fill the gap.

Recently, of course, all I can think about is the pandemic and the changes to the world as we’ve known it.

It’s true that writers write about what they think about most of the time.  Things they can’t let go: things that plague them; stories they carry around in their heads waiting to be heard.

I used to get my creative writing groups to make a list of the topics they obsess about so they can see what occupies their thoughts during their waking hours.  After you write them down, you can use them for spontaneous writing before crafting them into stories.  They have much power.  This is where the juice is for writing.  They are probably driving your life, whether you realise it or not, so you may as well use them rather than waste your energy trying to push them away.  And you can come back to them repeatedly.

I’ve been working on a suite of quarantine poems. The first of the series will be published in Quadrant magazine.

One of the things I usually obsess about is relationships:  relationships in families, relationships with friends, relationships with lovers.  That’s what I tend to write about.  I think to myself, Why not?  Rather than repress my obsessions, explore them, go with the flow.  And life is always changing, so new material keeps presenting  itself.

We are driven by our passions.  Am I the only one who thinks this?  For me these compulsions contain the life force energy.  We can exploit that energy.  The same with writing itself.  I’m always thinking and worrying about my writing, even when I’m on holidays.  I’m driven.

But not all compulsions are a bad thing.  Get involved with your passions, read about them, talk to other people about them and then they will naturally become ‘grist for the mill’.

What about you?  Do you find yourself writing about the same things over and over again?

Writing Tip: Critiquing

woman lying on green grass while holding pencil

In the Saturday feedback group, we began talking about the ‘off with his head’ or ‘out-it-goes’ part of writing.  We acknowledged that as a group we’d always been very supportive and encouraging of each others work.  That was because we were all in it together.  Our critiquing was not telling lies; it was from a place of open-hearted acceptance.  Everything you put on the page is acceptable.

Sometimes someone says, ‘I want a rigorous no-holds-barred assessment of my work.’  But what do you say to them when the writing is dull and boring?  Don’t give up your day job?  It doesn’t sit comfortably with most of us to be directly critical of someone’s writing.  It’s like telling someone how ugly their baby is.  All of us find it hard to separate our writing from ourselves, and are prone to take criticism personally.

The feedback sandwich is a widely known technique for giving constructive feedback, by ‘sandwiching’ the criticism between two pieces of praise or compliments.

 

hamburger with cheese and two beef patties

Yesterday, as we passed around copies of our work (just a page or two) we started to address what William Faulkner famously said:

‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’

First of all, we looked for the juice in each piece.  Where did the writing come alive?  ‘Get rid of the rest,’ we said.  ‘Off with his head—out it goes.’   It’s very difficult to be this honest, and not everyone wants to hear it.  ‘I simply want gentle support and a few corrections,’ some of us might say.

Be willing to have the courage to look at your work with truthfulness.  It’s good to know where your writing has energy and vitality, rather than to spend a lot of time trying to make something come to life that is dead on the page.   Keep writing.  Something new will come up.    You don’t want to put your readers to sleep by writing a lot of boring stuff.

Do you have a writing group? Do you find it useful?

Poem: Between the Islands of the Pacific

sky, clouds, rising sun over Pacific Ocean

Not that most of us are in a rush to sign up for a cruise any time soon … but here is my poem, BETWEEN THE ISLANDS OF THE PACIFIC, first published in Quadrant magazine June, 2018. It’s sort of relevant to the current situation. Hope you enjoy it.

 

Between the Islands of the Pacific

 

Because by now we know everything is not so blue

out here.

 

The cities had tipped rubbish into the sea,

and we let them without even noticing.

 

Not even feeling our breathing clear

as gusts reaching ten knots cleaned up our days.

 

Not even. Today pure blue sky, blue sea,

out there the horizon drawing a line

below the clouds, the absoluteness of it. Nights

of diesel engines shuddering beneath us.

 

We lounge on chairs side by side on the deck.

At dusk, we stand at the railing of the ship as the sun

slips into the ocean. In the fresh sea air, their backs turned,

some raise a selfie-stick or light a cigarette while others

stand holding their breath.

 

Where can we go from here, and how?

 

Copyright © Libby Sommer 2018