When I can’t really be arsed to write, or I want to write but haven’t thought about what, I do little challenges. Most often that’s Slow Writing, which you may have seen from me before. Six sentences, each of which must contain a proper noun, a question, a semi-colon or any other GCSE English titbit. You can find my first foray with it here.
I also write poems from lists of found phrases; the magical, accidental positioning of words next to each other in Words on hellpoetry.com, for example. Sometimes the randomly generated strings of words are more beautiful than anything I could come up with alone, but combining them fills me with the resonating joy of loving curation.
When I was young, I had a set of magnetic words from Waterstones. They weren’t your usual nouns, verbs, funny words and punctuation. They were words like dream, shine, wonder. I used them to generate poems and here’s one from memory:
Let the silent waters lap.
And the love of angels fly free.
Building with a set of words that are not your own is so oddly freeing; I’ve always found my creativity flies with restrictions. I’m sure some purists would say that poetry jigsawed together from crumbs of other people’s work is not poetry. But you know, no words are your own really.
I have always written poetry provoked by books. My earliest attempts (excluding the era that saw very down-to-earth poems about writing on bananas and washing paint down the sink) were inspired by – copied from – White Oleander by Janet Fitch. Stolen phrases from disparate chapters, stitched together into how I felt about the book’s SOUL.
The one I wrote the other day was about Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I found so incredibly affecting. That’s another thing I do: I write as someone else. That one, I’m pretty sure I was an old (male) guide who was showing British journalists around an abandoned compound after the Nigerian civil war in the 60s. The poem I wrote about the funeral, I was me but I was me if Phil had just died.
This is it: we don’t write as who we are, not usually. I always write with ‘What if?’ in my mind. These funny little writing exercises are the warm-ups and shake-downs I do when I need to stretch. They’re small and they’re quick; they make it so easy to imagine and not worry about how things will turn out.