The Arvon foundation has just posted a call for contributions from writers on how the writing process works. These contributions may end up in a book called ‘Gists’ , along with pieces by famous writers.
I came across a set of questions and felt compelled to answer the lot in about five minutes. My motivation was not to get into the publication, although of course this would be nice. I really am interested in these kind of questions, and when I looked back on what I had written, it was almost as if this outpouring had been written by someone else. I’ve found this exercise insightful, and have reprinted the questions and my answers below.
It isn’t a polished piece of writing, but in a way it is more honest for not being considered at length. I recommend answering these questions honestly and at speed.
How does a book or piece of writing begin to take shape in your imagination? Do you feel your writing is a process of inventing or discovering?
I write poetry, and my poems may be generated by memories or might triggered by something I read or hear on a radio programme. The material might be outside of my experience, for example, a programme about ballooning in the Ukraine in the 1970’s. I will sit with my pen and somehow enter the space in time until the experience feels personal. In this way a poem will hopefully be ‘true’ even if it is a product of someone elses experience melded with my own imaginative exploration. I belive this to be a process of both invention and discovery. Often, what I feel to be my best work will arrive unbidden, and I will not know the destination of the poem until it is written.
What things trigger your imaginative process (for example, significant personal experiences, particular people, places, objects, dream imagery, myths, history, etc)?
Much of my writing has been about childhood, my own and my son’s.
Having relatives in Italy and traveling there as a child has provided me with a rich seam. My childhood visits appear in Kodachrome colours which I try to translate into words. Also, being born in the 1960’s, I am fascinated with the era and have written several poems which include characters from the time including Richard Burton and Jimi Hendrix.
How do you work – do you plan carefully or explore in the dark, trusting the process?
Some poems are planned in the sense that I will have an idea and work towards getting it on paper. At other times poems will arrive at speed and I will grab a pen and get caught in the flow of words.
Do you feel in control of your writing or are you responsive to the requirements of the work as it unfolds?
When a piece of writing is going well there is a point at which my sense of being on the edge of control and my need to respond to the requirements of the unfolding work are in perfect balance. An analogy might be a motorcyclist who has found a rhythm as he rides a perfectly set-up machine on a challenging track for the first time. It involves total concentration and
is exhilarating . This state of mind is wonderful and unforgettable. It produces a feeling of both excitement and calm.
Do you write a first draft quickly and then revise it, or build carefully from the start?
Generally I will write a first draft quickly. This enables me to capture any ideas or words. I may re-draft and be satisfied with the result a few hours later, or still be re-drafting after years.
How do you deal with blocks in the writing process?
I don’t use the term ‘block’. I regard periods of non-writing as natural and necessary. I don’t panic if I’m not writing, preferring instead to trust that poems will come when they and I are both ready.
Do you write in service of any particular values?
I think all writers are unable to keep underlying values out of their work. Political values, ethical values. More specifically,one of the values explored in my case is the importance of family connection and continuity between generations, for better or worse.
What have you learned from the practice of your craft?
I’ve learnt quite a lot of facts through researching subjects.
My terrible spelling has improved.
I’ve learnt that I value concision and balance in a poem.
Also that an apprenticeship that must be served.
That to be a writer one must write.
That talent alone will not suffice.
That the judgement of others should be considered,
but that one must write for oneself.
What is the relationship between the writer’s imagination and that of the reader?
Readers will bring and invest their own experience to a poem. For example, a reader told me how a poem of mine took her to a particular time and place in her own life. I had created the poem purely from imagination, yet the reader actually had the experience and could remember what I had written about. This is one reason why I write; there is no boundary, no limit between the imaginations of writer and reader and no telling the outcome of their meeting.
Do writers have any moral responsibility in their work, wider than fidelity to their personal vision?
I don’t feel a moral responsibility when I’m writing a poem, but I am pleased when my work addresses political issues, however obliquely. I have once or twice consciously addressed ‘moral’ issues, for example the sending of National Service personnel to war in the 1950’s, which I regard as shocking abuse of the power of the state. I feel that poetry can make a reader reflect and understand the meaning of events better than any other medium. This is why Wilfred Owen’s and Issac Rosenberg’s work is relevent almost a century after it was written.