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Inside the mind of a writer...

My motto for 2012: Quality, not quantity

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Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Day 2 - Elizabeth Leaper talks about her writing

What is it about poetry that makes you want to write it?
Poetry has always been a part my life. My father loved poetry and would often shut himself away in private where he could be heard reading it out loud to himself. He also encouraged my sister and I to learn poetry, setting us a weekly small poem to learn from when we quite young until homework took over as a more necessary evil, often from Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘A Child’s Garden of Verse’ or similar suitable anthology for children. I have to say this was not a foolproof method of encouraging a love of verse, since poetry is not amongst my sister’s favourite reading matter!

What I love about poetry is the words, the sounds of the words themselves, the rhymes, the rhythms and the sheer musicality of how they are strung together. With just a few well-chosen words poetry can create in the mind great panoramas or can focus in on the miniature, it can speak to the soul, to the sub conscious mind, exposing truths that you slowly become aware you knew all along or bringing to light some new insight. Poetry also has a lot to offer today’s readers. For a start, compared to a novel, it comes in bite-sized pieces; most poems are only 30-40 lines long, often less, to fit the requirements of magazines and competitions. In this day and age when we all lead such busy lives you can read a poem or two when you have five minutes to spare, the whole thing – five minutes of bliss. You can’t do that with a novel, or at least I can’t; turning the next page is always too tempting, another five minutes always too inviting.
From reading poetry, learning poetry, reciting poetry I guess it was only a small step for me to try writing poetry.

Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you distil it into poetry?
This is a hard question. I’m not really sure I can answer it. Inspiration comes out of the blue, you may see something, hear something, be told something, remember something and suddenly a poem begins to form. This may happen many months after the event that triggered it. Occasionally they arrive almost fully formed and seem to need very little revision. More often they are elusive and you have to track them down and capture them – this is truly how it seems to me, I visualise poems floating around already written in the place where dreams come from, just out of reach, and I have to try to catch them before they float away again. It isn’t me who writes them, I just copy them down from that great vast void where everything already exists. Unfortunately I frequently fail to catch them properly and then the struggle begins as I search to find that elusive first glimpse.

Poems choose their own form, shape and rhyme pattern. Once I have that first few lines in place the form is set and the poem begins to happen. Only occasionally will I change the form the poem first chooses. If I am stuck for a word while the poem is flowing I choose a ‘place holder’ word so that I can continue writing it down before I lose it – I can always try to find a better word later. I read and re-read and read again, and again, and again, quietly, out loud, tweaking words or phrases here and there until I reach the stage when at last I think it is done. Even then I will often return and make changes later still! Eventually there comes a time, as with all artistic and creative endeavour, when you have to say ENOUGH and stop.

I don’t often sit down to deliberately write a poem without knowing one is out there waiting, but there are occasions when I do and these poems are the hardest to write. These are the ones that may change their form. An example is my poem ‘To Jack’, which I wrote as a tribute to my uncle. I intended to write a sonnet but it wasn’t working and the poem decided it wanted to be a villanelle. Once I accepted that it began to fall into place.

Prose I write straight on to the computer, reading back over what I have written and making changes as I go along, but I always write poems longhand on A4 paper and scribble my changes all over and around them until I can barely read what I have written. Then I do a typed print out to get a better idea of how they are shaping up, how they are flowing, before making further changes.

The whole process of writing poetry is hard to describe, it almost seems to me as if it is something I have very little control over – they find me and I try to write them down. I just wish I were better at catching them.

Do you have a writing day/days?
Oh dear, I’m afraid I’m dreadfully disorganised. I keep promising myself I will organise myself better. My writing tends to go in fits and starts, when I’m on a roll I can barely bring myself to stop to eat or drink but once I do stop it can be a real struggle to get started again! This is particularly true of writing prose but actually works reasonably well when I am writing poetry, due to the different nature of the beast. I’m almost tempted to say that writing poetry is easier than writing a novel. Artistically it isn’t of course but what I mean is that poems are shorter so take less time to write and re-draft.  When I was preparing ‘Barking At Nothing’ there were times that I would write the first draft of a poem every day for several days at a time and then do nothing, other than re-writes for a week or more. I can go several months without writing a poem at all
I have to own up and say the only disciplined writing I do is my daily ‘small stone’. I used to write daily pages first thing in the morning but this gradually deteriorated into general moans about the stresses and strains of daily life and garbled lists of things that I needed to do, so once I started writing ‘small stones’ I dropped this practise. I do believe it can be a useful exercise though and may come back to it one day.  My resolution for this year is to try to be more productive and in order to do that I must get more organised.

When did you start writing?
I can remember writing stories and rhymes when still at primary school, I can also remember deciding they were rubbish and throwing them out when I was in my teens – I sometimes wish I still had them so that I could see if they were any good or not (probably not!). I remember that a school-friend and I challenged each other to write a novel when we were about 13 or 14. Mine was going to be humorous and was called “William the Corn Curer” – it never got past chapter 2, I don’t know about hers.

I finished my first complete novel when I was at Teacher Training College, but only the first draft, longhand on A4 paper!  I still have it, a children’s novel set in the 18th century, stashed away in a file somewhere. Being basically lazy I have never been too keen on doing re-writes, this is why most things never got beyond the first draft; once it’s done it’s done as far as I was concerned, on with the next, re-writes were boring. I hadn’t really written it with publication in mind anyway, just a challenge to myself to see if I could do it. I also wrote quite a lot of poetry at that time – some of it cringingly awful but some not bad!  Another novel I wrote did achieve a second draft and I entered it into a competition for which the prize was publication. Needless to say I didn’t win! I was short-listed in one competition I entered where you only had to submit the first three chapters. I had my eyes on the prize, not so much the serialisation in a women’s magazine but the beautiful, reproduction, leather in-laid desk they were also offering. I didn’t win the desk and the story never got finished although around that time I had a short story for young children broadcast on BBC Radio’s ‘Listen With Mother’ programme.

It is through writing poetry that I have learned the value of re-writes as you can never get a poem completely right first time. The discipline of writing poetry I hope and believe has made me a better writer. Now we have computers the whole process is so much quicker and less messy anyway so I am happy to embrace the concept of re-writes. I guess the simple answer to the question is that, like most writers, I have been writing both stories and poems for almost as long as I can remember.

What are your current writing projects?
Although I have given up on daily pages for the time being I am continuing with my ‘small stone’ practise which I find to be a wonderful exercise for keeping the creative juices flowing. These are posted daily on my blog. The attention to detail and level of awareness they encourage can only be beneficial to all other creative writing.

Poetry, although as explained in the previous answer, it is not something I set aside time to write in any disciplined way, is always ongoing and a major part of my output.  No specific project is as yet in mind but once the number of ready poems begins to build a project may take shape – as I have already hinted this may be another collaboration, possibly with my son. Also ongoing is the twice-yearly magazine that I edit and produce for a sailing boat owner’s association, which usually requires me to write several articles myself for each issue, as well as reports, fillers and other bits and pieces that any editor of such a magazine will empathise with. For my sins I also edit the association website as well as look after my own ‘Silverburn Publishing’ website and my two blogs and this all takes time.

Last year I began to write a fantasy novel aimed at the teenage market. I have so far drafted about 6 chapters but it got put aside while I produced ‘Collecting Cobwebs, Gathering Brambles.’ My aim is to pick up the thread again and try to finish it this year.  A major concern is that I started it with just a vague idea, allowing the story to take me where it will, although I do have an end of sorts in mind. I am now at the stage where I wonder if I ought to plan it in more detail or continue to trust the characters to tell me their own story as it unfolds! Again there is no clear intention to publish but I would like to think that this could be a possible outcome  - but I need to finish it first. Over the years I have actually written or part-written the first draft of several children’s novels. These are either filed away in drawers or on my computer and I frequently promise myself that I will fish them out, dust them off and see if any off them are worth resurrecting – maybe this will be the year!

What are you currently reading?
This year I have already read ‘The Burning Land’, one of Bernard Cornwell’s series set at the time of King Alfred and your own ‘Dragonscale Leggings’ which I simply couldn’t put down. I have also read ‘The Riven Kingdom’, the second in Karen Miller’s ‘Godspeaker’ trilogy, which began with ‘Empress’.  I am now thoroughly engrossed in the last part, ‘Hammer Of God’. I have previously read her two ‘Kingmaker, Kingbreaker’ books ‘Innocent Mage’ and ‘The Awakened Mage’. Also waiting in the queue is ‘Inheritance’, the final part of Christopher Paolini’s series that began with ‘Eragon’. I’m a sucker for fantasy but I do also enjoy historical novels, especially historical ‘who-dun-its’. The bulk of my reading is probably from those genres but I do dip into others from time to time – with the possible exception of horror, which doesn’t appeal at all.

I’m an avid reader and putting down a book in order to get on with writing can be very hard! I do sometimes avoid starting a new book in order to get some writing done as I can waste an awful lot of time reading – I really do need to get more organised. I can remember going to the library in the school holidays as a child, taking out my allowed three books and taking them back, having read them, only a few days later to take out yet more! I often have several books on the go at the same time, but usually only one will be a novel. 

Currently I am also dipping into a book of folk tales from the North York Moors and another on Norse Mythology by Kevin Crossley-Holland. The latter is in part research for my new novel, which is based on a similar belief system. I am also re-reading a book that I read for the first time some years ago. It is called ‘The Life and Death of a Druid Prince’ by Anne Ross and Don Robbins and is about the discovery of the Lindow Man ‘bog body’, nicknamed Pete Marsh by the press. I confess to feeling a connection with this subject, as he was found not far from the house where I was born, my grandparent’s house, and only a stone’s throw from where my great-grandparents had lived. One of my uncle’s poems is about this discovery. My extended family have lived in this area for many generations and I am considering using this as a background for a series of short stories. One of my as yet unfinished novels is also set in this area, which unfortunately for me, has already been very successfully used as the setting for most of those wonderful stories by Alan Garner (“The Weirdstone of Brisingamen”, “The Moon of Gomrath” etc.), which I have also been re-reading and could never hope to emulate.

Tomorrow Libby will be talking about writing "small stones" and at the end of the week she will be giving away a copy of Collecting Cobwebs. If you would like to read more of her work, please visit Libby To buy her book please visit Silverburn Publishing

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