10 Reasons for a Prose Writer to do a Poetry Course

Every now and again someone asks me not, "How can I write this story better?" - to which I have a whole Tool-kit-full answers, obviously - but "How can I become a better writer?" Assuming that my interlocutor is already meeting the absolute pre-condition of being a better writer, which is reading more, and more widely, my next suggestion is probably to take a poetry course. That's not because I think everyone should write lyrically - although that is a very honourable goal - but because I think it can help any writer to develop. As Ray Bradbury puts it... Read more →

Life Writing? Travel Writing? Creative Non-Fiction? What are you writing?

At this year's York Festival of Writing I gave a workshop on literary fiction and creative non-fiction, and one of the topics that came up was: "What is creative non-fiction?" Which is a very good question and (like all the best questions) not quick to answer. Creative non-fiction - which also gets called "Narrative non-fiction" and "Literary non-fiction" - lives in a fascinating liminal area, bounded by fiction and poetry on one side, by journalism on another, and by "proper" history, biography, autobiography, travel-, food-, science- and art-writing on the third. So creative non-fiction is narrative: it is an act... Read more →

Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "Everyone says my writing's competent, but I'm not getting anywhere"

There have been two exciting developments: first, I have a new website specifically for my work helping other writers, so if you're interested in my mentoring, teaching, events or appraisals, do click through to This Itch of Writing: The Studio, and have a browse. And then, just as I was recovering from the worst of the website-wrangling, I heard from This Itch of Writing's agony aunt, Jerusha Cowless. She's been busy un-contacting un-contacted peoples in the Upper Amazon, but at last I got a message through, enclosing a plea for help from an aspiring writer, and Jerusha sent her reply... Read more →

Being drunk, being sober: which should you be when you're writing?

At an event recently, the poet Rowan Williams was reading some of his favourite poems by other poets, and he was asked what he looks for - hopes for - when he comes to a poem for the first time. For someone who's so clever and so erudite (not the same thing) his answer was wonderfully simple: "I hope to go into a poem sober, and come out a little bit drunk." And I know exactly what he means. I'm not a poet, and I don't read poetry in an organised, professional way. But there are always one or two... Read more →

Writing outside your comfort zone

A friend, Colin Mulhern, who writes gritty contemporary YA fiction, posted in a Facebook group of writers: "I've got one idea that's been bouncing around for a while, but it's just a bit... predictable. I read a novel right out of my comfort zone while I was away, and loved it." What did we all think about writing outside one's comfort zone? A Good thing, or a Bad one? Some would say Good as a point of principle. Those who have to pay the rent with their writing would say Bad, since the risk is you'll produce something you can't... Read more →

Plain and perfect, rich and rare: what is "lyrical" writing?

A writer friend says that her MA tutor described her writing as "lyrical", and she asked what he meant. He said "something about lyrical writing remaking the world & making the world appear anew", but what does that mean in practice? At the basic level, "lyrical" means that it shares something with poetry: a certain intensity, perhaps, though it might be interior, emotional intensity, or an outward-looking evocation of time and place. It needn't necessarily be about beautiful things: as Sebastian Salgado's photographs of miners show, it's possible to make beautiful art out of ugly things, or out of frightening... Read more →

This Happy Fellow: my year at Goldsmiths

The Royal Literary Fund Fellow's job is simple, on paper. We are professional authors who are paid by the RLF to spend two days a week, in term time, for a year, supporting academic writing across the whole of an academic institution. Most are universities, but conservatoires and art schools also have RLF Fellows, and the students who come range from first years who've never written an essay to postgrads in the very middle of the PhD muddle, and staff struggling with a presentation. Their problems can be anything from "What does "critically analyse' mean?" to "I need a Distinction... Read more →

What I learnt, as a writer, about writing, from A S Byatt's Possession

A while ago I blogged about what's going on, intuitively, when you're reading a really good book, using Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as an example. But, of course, many of us do read a really good book for a conscious, specific purpose. And if you have to write at length about it then you have to read even more clear-headedly. The first time I did that was for my MPhil dissertation, and the book was A S Byatt's Possession. I was writing a novel which wasn't, then, called The Mathematics of Love, and there were things I wanted to say... Read more →

Composting, dreaming and other hard work

I'm contemplating going back to an earlier project. Not, heaven forbid, re-working the text, but writing a new text built on the same ideas and situations. And one of the advantages of doing things this way is that the researched material has mulched down nicely in the back of my head, in the sense I was discussing here. The stuff you found out needs to become stuff you just know, so that there's no longer any difference between them: all compost. But is there anything you do to hurry the process of mulching down? Are there compost accelerators? I think... Read more →

But can you teach Creative Writing?

I get asked this amazingly often, considering that no one ever asks if you can teach the doing of other arts, but, just as I took ages to get on to that other old chestnut, "What is literary fiction?" and my own personal Ancestral Elephant, it's taken me till now to sort out what I think clearly enough to answer the question. My answer, mind you, depends on how long I've got, but it comes from someone who wrote for fifteen years before being taught, (and my thoughts on the pros and cons of writing courses are here) but now... Read more →

Forgiveness, chocolate, and why enough is ... satisfactory

If you're a writer, then you're never really happy just to experience something in its moment: there's always a restlessness, a frustration-in-waiting, until you can get it out of your self and onto paper. And you know the phenomenon I was talking about in Opening the Doors, where you've been reading or listening to something and it seems to skin you - or tenderise you, as Alan Bennet's Queen has it? For a while you're extra-alive to the world round you: all six senses, words, images, things strangers say, ideas for stories, and bits of your own memory, and it's... Read more →

Less, more, and Apollo in his chariot

You don't need to have been reading the Itch for very long to know that when we're talking about prose, I'm usually going to talk about specificity - particularity of experience - precision. It's an aspect of Showing, as opposed to Telling, and a way of making even your Telling Showy. As I put it in that post, "Crudely, They met at the big tree isn't as Showy, because it isn't as particularised, as They kissed under the rotting willow, or They fought beneath the sapling oak". And so much of the power of the paragraph I was anatomising in... Read more →

London Road Calling

Last week I went to see London Road at the National Theatre. It's a verbatim play: its script contains nothing but things real people actually said over two years from the first of the Ipswich Murders, to the conviction of the murderer. And as we discussed it, I remembered the part of the Writing for Radio course I've just done, where we explored the use you could make of pre-existing spoken-word material - news broadcasts, for example, or other kinds of sound clip, right back to the days when you tuned your wireless from the Local or the National, and... Read more →

What time are you talking about?

I've been working flat-out on the WIP, and I can now see the end of the story, in the sense that I know pretty much how I'm going to get to the end which has always been there, though I still need to imagine-out-and-write my way through all the exact moves... So I didn't get out for my statutory walk till after ten last night, and halfway round it I had a qualm. The last few days' writing is quite brisk because there's lots happening; there's not much expansion of setting or atmosphere, nor much in the way of flashback,... Read more →

Reading like a reader, and the best feeling in the world

Back in the summer (remember summer? Difficult, isn't it...), when I was going to present the prizes to the winners of the Frome Festival Short Story Prize 2011 I was asked to talk about what made the winning stories win. And what I found myself saying was that I didn't really know. There wasn't a particular kind of story, a particular quality or technique: even retrospectively I can't see that the stories have anything obvious in common. What made the very best of this very good bunch win was that... I didn't notice how good they were. That isn't because... Read more →

Putting on the Ritz? Try putting the Ritz on

In the days when I had au pairs, they would often ask me for help with their English homework. Most of them were doing pretty advanced work, so I'd have to deal with things like, "Emma, when do you say, try to light the fire, and when try lighting the fire?" As so often with the idioms of your mother tongue, I could usually only work it out by demonstration, and it was all good for the writerly brain. But the thing which they struggled with most is what are usually called phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs, according to [my slightly-edited... Read more →

The Daemon and the Prig, by the man who saw the torturer's horse.

I've stumbled on something that Auden wrote to an aspiring teenage poet, John Cornford: The real problem though for you as for every other writer... is that of the Daemon and the Prig. Real poetry originates in the guts and only flowers in the head. But one is always trying to reverse the process and work one's guts from one's head. Just when the Daemon is going to speak the Prig claps his hand over his mouth and edits it. The idea of the daemon and the prig is of course at the root of the ideas of Shitty First... Read more →

Opening the doors

One of the odder corners of my beloved Radio 3 is the slot for really avant garde contemporary music, Hear and Now. But I love a contrast - I'm a hot chocolate sauce on cold ice cream kind of a gal - so I was lying in the bath last night, reading Georgette Heyer and listening to a programme from Cut and Splice, a festival of electronic music. The piece was as much sound art as music, really, an extraordinary plaiting and weaving of white noise and sound, the fading-in-and-out of the old Medium and Short Wave radio and so... Read more →

Waste not, write not

In Jerusha Cowless's most recent missive from the South Seas, she came close to telling a writer what to do. (Clearly Jerusha is not me: I try never to tell anyone what to do, only to unpick the possiblities as clearly as I can. Honest.) Jerusha hinted that a poetry course might be the best way to go beyond the edges of that writer's own commercial-mum-lit-writing nature. And, having read Jerusha's answer, I'm working on a theory that the thing to do when you need/want a break or have got stuck with your writing, is the absolute opposite of what... Read more →

Hanging on in there

In Denotation and Connotation: enjoy!, I was exploring the connotations of a word in Eleanor Catton's story "Two Tides", where what it denoted was straightforward. But clearly, if you get stuck on the basic meaning of a word, you're less likely to also pick up the connotations of it. That whole first sentence goes like this: The harbour at Mana was a converted mudflat, tightly elbowed and unlovely at any tide but high. But some readers stuck on what, in physical terms, was denoted by the word "elbowed", used as an adjective: they couldn't picture the scene. Whereas for me,... Read more →