On Being a New Writer or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the ‘Block’
By Aiko Harman
Let me make it perfectly clear that I am no writing expert. I am only doing what comes naturally to me, writing what I feel like writing, for little-to-no profit besides personal satisfaction, for better or worse, till death doth part me from my personal computer. I write for the most part at my desk, in the living room of my second storey flat in Edinburgh. I am alone; it is quiet; in this room are just me, my thoughts and the prospect of hours upon hours of uninterrupted writing time.
A lot of writers would probably give their first chapter for time like this to sit down – pencils sharpened, no distractions – and write. I, unfortunately, do not work this way. And so I have over the years developed a laundry list of tricks to get myself writing and built habits into my regular life to prepare for the inevitable writer’s block. I’ll share a couple of them.
First, I got a notebook. Being a student up until last year, I’d usually have a schoolbag with something to write on in it, but now I make a point of always having a notebook on me. It doesn’t matter what type you use (I go for the Moleskine with blank pages), but don’t get anything so fancy you’ll be afraid to write in it. I’ve got a small one for my ‘party purse’, and another for beside my bed. You never know when inspiration will strike, so be prepared.
Second, I got organised. I’m halfway there with the notebooks. After they get a bit full, I sit down at my laptop and write all the good bits out into a computer sticky-note or a Word document. This way, they’re searchable and all in one place. If I’m luckily at my computer when inspiration ‘strikes’ then they’re already easily accessible and I just tack on whatever I’ve written to the existing list. New words, nice turns of phrase, friends’ Facebook status updates with interesting grammar, things from my childhood that have suddenly come to me, memories of my time in Japan, anything goes in the list. Anything is useful, if not for a final piece, at least for getting me into the zone for writing. You never know when you might find a good place for: amanuensis, agony aunt, bon mot, costermonger, crèche, dandelion clock, magus, moonboots, popinjay… and on and on.
Then, I studied. I’ve only in the past year or so begun sending my poetry to magazines and journals for publication. However, for far longer than this, I’ve admired and bookmarked and scribbled notes to myself about magazines I am interested in, and I try to always keep tabs on their deadlines and themes. See, magazine themes are a great source of inspiration. For example, when Fuselit put out a call for writing on the theme of ‘Mars’, I started straight away squirreling through my old notebooks and lists for anything Mars-related I might use. I found a few good nuggets – links to red things, links to Roman things – that set the ball rolling for me mentally. I used all the resources I had at my fingertips (Google-search everything, wiki-search everything) until I found something interesting to me to latch onto. I made a couple poems that I was pleased with on the topic and sent them off. Whether the magazine chose to use them or not (they did!), it had allowed me to write something new. This tends to work quite well for me, as I like a deadline, am interested in learning new things, and work better under pressure and with parameters.
Another trick is form. Surely most people these days can write a haiku or do a sonnet, and others are masters of the limerick or Standard Habbie. In my MSc course at Edinburgh University, we spent a fair amount of time studying different verse forms – sestina, pantoum, villanelle, even concrete poetry, ballads and odes. If I’m stuck for a jumping-off point when I want to write, I’ll sit down with a sestina in mind. I’ll mark off the lines, choose the repeating words, and try and see if I can’t make it come together. Usually I can get a good stanza or two in before petering out, and if I’m lucky, I can develop what I came up with into a poem I like. Or perhaps I’ll get inspired mid-way and the poem will evolve into something completely new.
A dry spell is inevitable though. The best mentors I’ve had have always encouraged me to read when I can’t write – to really gorge myself on the writing of my contemporaries and predecessors until I’m full up. This both keeps me focused on language and words, and either up-to-date on what people today are writing or helps me to stretch a canvas for myself on the frameworks of what people before me have written.
Likewise, here are a couple more quick tips and things to do in the meantime:
– Take your headphone off. There are tons of great sound-bites in real life happening all around you. Write them down for later.
– Practice your hobbies. Get some exercise. I like to bake. (Emily Dickinson baked!)
– Travel. I spent a whirlwind year in Japan. Worked full-time in Los Angeles. Moved to Edinburgh. Each place has its own quirks and style, its own sounds and smells and colours. Even if it’s just to the corner shop or your grandma’s house, getting outside and moving about is a great stimulus.
– Try not to get discouraged. With writing, perhaps especially with poetry, try not to get down on yourself if your poems aren’t published straight away or winning huge prizes. Take time to let your writing rest, come back to it later when you can see it in a new light. Simmer.
– Get involved. Look for literary projects, online or in your area, where you can volunteer. Go to readings, support local talent. Join a writing workshop. Take a creative writing course. Visit the library. The Scottish Poetry Library (http://www.spl.org.uk/) in Edinburgh is an excellent and friendly resource. The Golden Hour at the Forest Café (http://forpub.com/) is a great friendly and free monthly reading.
– Remember why you write. I write because I can’t help it, because it allows me to collect my thoughts, and because I love writing. If writing is not making you happy, take a break.
About the author:
Aiko Harman is a Los Angeles native living in Scotland. She recently completed an MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh. Before moving to Edinburgh, Aiko lived in Japan, teaching English to high school students and spending time with her maternal Japanese family. Her poetry is published in Anon, the Human Genre Project and The Glasgow Review, among others. She was winner of the 2009 Grierson Verse Prize and a recipient of the William Hunter Sharpe memorial scholarship in creative writing. Visit her online at: http://www.lionandsloth.com
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