Preparing to Write

by Victoria Madden

Most of my day is spent trying to clear things out of the way so that I can get on with what it is I’m actually trying to do; and I’m coming to the conclusion that the only way I’m going to achieve anything in the writing line, is to get up before the day’s obstacles have a chance to get going. I’m not sure I can emulate Honoria Plum, who’s settled down at her writing-table at seven every morning, to get an hour or so in before work – not until the clocks go forward anyway – but I definitely do need to find an uncluttered space in which to write.

Wodehouse was a noted slogger: McCrum’s biography describes ‘formidable powers of application’. When working at a London bank, in his late teens, Wodehouse wrote all evening after work instead of socialising, only going out and about in search of copy, and in his first freelance days he was producing enough to receive up to eight rejected manuscripts each day. Even as a schoolboy working for a scholarship his dedication was remarkable: ‘I sprang from my bed at five sharp each morning, ate a couple of petit beurre biscuits and worked like a beaver at my Homer and Thucydides.’ The dawning lesson is: if I really do want to write, I have to be serious about making time for it.

It’s just over ten years since my last attempt at writing, which resulted in a script I spent the next few years on. I worked on a series of poems, about six years ago, from the perspective of someone completely different from myself – a very interesting experience! – during time spent with an extremely creative acquaintance but I’ve written nothing since I’ve been here. The exercises in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (another failed attempt at book reviewing – I think my notes for this ran to 16 pages) would probably be a good way of getting back into the creative mind-set – I’ve used them on a number of occasions in the past, most memorably when trying to tackle (avoid) my dreaded Mills and Boon project and they’re an excellent way of ‘limbering up’ before launching into ‘proper’ work.

I recently found my notebook of these exercises for that last attempt ten years ago and reading it was both funny and encouraging. Goldberg is very big on not editing your thoughts or ideas in any way, and just seeing what comes out, and I’d used a book with blank pages to further prevent any slipping into ‘editorial mode’. These are peppered with random words such as ‘bicycle, neatness, smile’ and ‘basket, cat, apron’, that soon become made up words: ‘hutter, glemer, glet, glom, memmer’, ‘jebby, nottle, farthrum’. After a few days of this potential sentences emerge: ‘drop, dray, drer, drat’, ‘scupper, schooner, collage’, is followed by ‘sunshine and stars’ and then ‘sea serpent seeks substitute’, ‘beach rippled sand’, ‘born silver and shining’.

After about a week of this, the random words each session begins with start to form little nonsense poems:

murtle myrtle mumble pie
see it in a blackbirds eye
if you see you’ll drown forever
see it in a blackbirds feather
see it not and then they say
you’ll live to drown another day

and the sentences have a crossword clue slant to them: ‘elephants hang in the sycamore tree’, ‘a puzzle with pieces scattered’ and ‘exuberant eyelids heavily hanging’.

After about a fortnight the creative juices have loosened up nicely and though I’m still not pausing or editing at all, the poems have moved to only slightly nonsensical, with a nursery rhyme feel:

Thrommet, thrommet
Wherefore do you sing?
To find a cold alliance
and stop the yammering?

No, to hinder Lackland
That is why I sing
There and back by daybreak
To feed my stuterin

and the random sentences now seem like possible openings to stories or titles:

‘A kind of glamour hangs about him, conjured in a sentence. He has the knack’, ‘Time ticks away in the rose garden’, ‘She sometimes saw herself as sitting on an island around which the world flowed ceaselessly’, ‘sense without reason, rhyme without sound’; and ‘Chimney Pots and Forget-me-nots’, ‘Petals and Poppycock’.

A longer exercise, in which you write a short story without pausing for a better word or to plan what happens next, keeping going until you simply run out of steam, was tucked inside on a bit of paper. It’s slightly bonkers and made me laugh when I found it:

Once upon a time in a wood full of toadstools lived a man and a dwarf side by side in houses next to each other. The man had built his house first ane the the dwarf had come along and taken advantage of his preliminary work, clearing the site and so on. Dwarves are like that, opportunists. That’s why so many of them get on, particularly in the grocery and plumbing fields. They’re very good at architraves too. Anyway, one day when it was sunny the man who worked part-time as a wood-cutter and part-time as an accountant had to go away on holiday to the Algarve so he asked the dwarf whose name was Jerimiah Mingo III if he would answer his phone and water his snails while he was away and the dwarf said he would so he left him his key on a big long string and off he went.

Little did he know that he would be hit by a typhoon not two weeks into his holiday and be holed up in hospital with his nose in plaster and quite unable to contact the dwarf to let him know what was going on as he was only getting melons for breakfast and it had turned his brain to mush along with his innards.

So the dwarf waited and wondered and wondered and waited and in the end he let out the man’s house to his nephew as he had a congenital dislike of living so isolated. Alas, the nephew owned a cat who ate all the snails and I don’t know what happens next

After several weeks of these exercises the germ of an idea for the script I later took to a writing workshop is scribbled down and slowly develops – at which point I obviously moved on outside the notebook.

I’m starting to feel quite keen now to begin again and see what I can come up with this time around. Exercises like these are a great way of stopping you getting hung up on producing Something Good and should help to break through this book-review engendered block I currently seem to have.

The idea, too, of using the short story format as an exercise towards finding a way into writing more easily is starting to take hold. I’ve noticed that a number of blogs adopt reading challenges, to help them get out of their usual comfort zone and read more widely, so I’ve decided to give myself a Writing Challenge. Exact details are still to be worked out but it will involve producing a piece of creative work every day and posting my collated attempts at least once a week, in an effort to keep myself up to the mark.

More on this later.