Message awaits moderator approval
Blog Entries

The Creative Penn

In August of 2009, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Joanna Penn, author and producer of The Creative Penn blog and podcast. Her blog, books, and podcasts are highly recommended resources for budding as well as published writers.

The author of two how-to books, she is now publishing her first novel, Pentecost. February 7 is the official launch of Pentecost as an Amazon e-book and I encourage my readers to view her website for more information on the release and her brilliant promotional campaign.

Link to interview and podcast.

Link to The Creative Penn Blog.

There is no writing – there is only re-writing

There is no writing – there is only re-writing.

I don’t recall who said this, but how true it is.

Gone are the days I could sit at the word-processor and type whatever came out expecting it to be print-worthy. Re-reading my first book after an interval of two years was embarrassing. Clunky constructions, some rather purple prose and even a spelling mistake!

It’s disheartening to write a beautiful piece of work then return to it after a few days to find that the imagined magic has leaked away, leaving a woeful piece of hackneyed junk behind. Better be disheartened on your own though, than have an editor point out all your shortcomings in a red pen, in your margins.

The sequence of good writing starts something like this…

4/Write more
5/Leave it alone for a few days

Repeat steps 6 to 10 as many times as it takes to produce work that’s worthy.

The leaving is important – it’s like giving yeast time to rise, or gin time to work its magic. These things can’t be rushed.
In the leaving pet phrases tart themselves up, becoming more obvious. Repeating words that aren’t so apparent in the first flush of creation reveal themselves. Better to spot these errors yourself than have them pointed out by a critic.

If writing something of emotional import, FEEL the emotion – if the author doesn’t feel it, the reader sure won’t. You don’t have to describe every nuance – readers are excellent at filling in between the lines, and would rather do this than have what feels like a glaring error thrust at them by an over-inclusive writer.

I’ve found that I write heart-felt pieces more effectively longhand in a notebook than on a keyboard. The act of handwriting feels so much more intimate, and more connected to the words than plunking them into a computer stroke by stroke. The pieces I have written by hand turn out to be the least-edited parts of my books.

How do you write a book? Word by word, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter. I began my books by imagining a dear friend sitting with me, and listening to the tale. She became my ‘ideal reader’ and my story was an explanation of my life to her. I started by asking ‘Who am I?’ and answering that question became my autobiographies ‘Bent Not Broken’ and ‘Life on the Line’.

Writing and re-writing those books took two years. Ten months writing, fourteen months re-writing. Each time I read one of them I rewrite it some more.

Because there truly is no writing – just like there is no quilting – only unpicking and re-quilting. Or so I am learning.

The enduring power of words

Jeanette Winterson in ‘Sexing the Cherry’ spins a wonderful tale about the enduring power of words. Cleaning women ascend into the sky each evening in baskets slung beneath hot air balloons. They scrub from the world’s ceiling all the words that once spoken, rose during the day. The women rid the atmosphere of the passionate purple pantings of lusty youth and black venomous spewings of hatred and nastiness that threaten to pollute the air. Each word leaves a trace – for good or bad, but all must be removed or the sky will be suffocatingly full of them. Beware any whisperings below a roof that will not let words ascend: their weight may crush you…

Sometimes the cleaning women illegally trap the sweet sighs of sonnets in small boxes, which if later opened just a crack, will continue to whisper their words of beauty.

Words endure. Used wrongly they can wound deeply. ‘Sticks and stones can break m bones but names can never hurt me.’ Wrong. Some of the most indelible words are the smallest ones. ‘Stupid’, ‘fat’, ‘ugly’, ‘slow’, ‘retard’, ‘faggot’. Words of beauty can be twisted to cause hurt ‘baby’, ‘black’, ‘girl’, ‘gay’.

Ted Kennedy’s death brought a replay of his words at his brother Robert’s funeral. Words of strength and love, delivered with such conviction that they could not help but endure. Who can forget ‘I have a dream…’ or ‘We will fight them on the beaches’ or ‘Vini, Vidi, Vici’….
A maxim of medicine is ‘to cure occasionally, relieve often and comfort always’. Perhaps we could extend this maxim – apply it to our words. Try always to relieve and comfort, and occasionally to heal.

Five short phrases I have learned working in Palliative Care. Healing words, finishing words, enduring ones.
“I forgive you’, ‘forgive me’, ‘thank you’, ‘I love you’, ‘Goodbye’.

The first four are healing statements, the final a finishing one – leaving no relationship dangling. Oh that we could feast ourselves on these phrases, that we could offer them when needed, and mean them. That we could each hear them when we need them.

These words would leave no stain on the sky. They would be trapped by the sky-cleaners in their little boxes and listened to in the dead of the night when their lack feels most great; they could be sold for enormous sums, such is their rarity.

Let’s make them common.

Time for exercises, children

“Time for exercises, children”. I groaned. I hated running round the school. Hot, red-faced, puffing – even at six years old, I hated that look.

Miss Bedingfield – who looked to be at least a hundred years old – didn’t mean running though. She probably hated running as much as I did. She could probably run as well as a kiwi could fly.

“Get your pencils and writing books out.” This was something I could do.
“I want you to write a story using one-syllable words only”. Wow!

Last week we had to write ten sentences where all words started with a vowel. Another time we had to write a poem where the spoken words had the rhythm of a running horse.

Writing exercises concentrated our minds on the structure of our writing; on the sound it made when read aloud, and in the shape our words created on the page.

When I began writing again as an adult I channeled Miss Bedingfield in a series of warm-up ‘writing games’. Just as I later trained to do an Ironman, I trained to write. A favourite exercise was to read a few chapters of an author I admired then write a few paragraphs in their style. This requires dissection of another’s work to identify where the magic lay. When we dissect to the soul of a collection of words we find the author’s elegance, or her panache, or his grit. We then have a rough template to construct dreams around.

John Steinbeck has beautiful sequences where he writes like a cinematographer. He sets a scene with an extreme close-up of rabbits grazing in the dusk then widens the view gradually to widescreen and the action of men escaping pursuers through a canyon. This cinematic eye draws us in, capturing our attention, setting a mood, and then walloping us with the bigger picture. Masterful.

Stephen King’s metaphor is so fresh, so visual, so stunning. I recall a sky he wrote of where one could reach up and smudge the chalky blueness with a finger.

Look and learn, ‘write in the style of’, but don’t steal. In trying out other’s methods, it is possible to gain your own sense of style. All writers have a unique fingerprint and are identifiable within a few sentences. Work on your own; others may one day try to write in your style if you take the time to find and hone it.

Writing groups on the net offer a chance to experiment with story style, structure and genre. Google ‘writing groups’, ‘writing starters’, beginning writers’ for a selection. Good groups offer a critiqued chance to dance with words, to compose symphonies with a pencil or keyboard, and to be coached through blind spots.

Now take out your pencil and exercise. Let’s try fifty words describing a pumpkin.

Write What You Know

I wanted to write about spaceships. Tell of the view from the window as our shiny blue world receded behind and new ones rushed forward. Evoke the smell inside a rubbery new spacesuit, the feel of weightlessness, my curls floating past my vision, my breakfast hitting the ceiling of the space capsule. How much more weightless could a cornflake be? I wanted to write of new planets, to test the limits of my burgeoning imagination. I wanted to write.

‘Now’, said Miss Bedingfield. ‘Write about what you know.

What you know? Wasn’t writing supposed to be creative? To open the mind, to let the lanky birds of imagination stretch their legs and fly?

I wanted to write about spaceships, not about home, or mum and dad and my sisters and the Labrador who chewed my doll.. My page wasn’t ready for ORDINARY. I huffed at my desk and chewed the end of my pencil. All around me other children were doing the same. There was nothing exciting or glamorous about what we knew, just the grittiness of life in council housing. Who wanted to write about things they knew?

Miss Bedingfield echoed the wisdom of generations of teachers of writing.

Who can write well of chocolate having never licked it from a spoon, cracked it with their teeth, poured it steaming over ice cream or held it in their mouth as it melted stickily over screaming taste buds? There is no need to be a chocolatier to write of this gift from the gods, but acquaintance is essential. A diabetic who has lost their health to sugar may write an entirely different tale – their experience colouring what they know.

Write what life has taught you, through home and family, through education and adventures, through terrors and toils.

There is sill room for imagination. Tolkien wrote what he knew – that there is good and evil in the world, and that little folks can triumph over giants with tenacity and teamwork. Pat Barker, a woman who wrote of love in the trenches during wartime knew about love – perhaps illicit love. She wrote what she knew, embroidering the edges to tell a story she had never lived with absolute authenticity.

Autobiography is the ultimate in channeling the familiar. Even here, authenticity is almost impossible. Memory is an unreliable scribe, and time may either dull or hone the edges of events long past. I have one very strong memory from my early teens. My recall is photographic. I lie on the floor of my bedroom, my mother kneeling astride me a she closes her hands round my neck and tells me she never wanted me, and I ruined her life. I can smell her anger, and see that the carpet is dirty. I feel the floor pressing up against my back as my mother’s weight presses me down. My younger sister Tracey was a witness. She clearly recalls me being throttled by mum as I stood in the bedroom. We both claim perfect recall; we both speak of what we know – yet one of us is wrong in the detailing.

Miss Bedingfield sat behind her big desk, the clock on the wall behind her ticked slower and slower as she sun slanted through the big windows and illuminated Enid Blyton’s ‘The Faraway Tree’ open in front of her.

I was inspired. ‘Today we have to write what we know. I know there is no such thing as a faraway tree but I love it when our teacher reads it. I know I will be at least twenty before I ride in a spaceship, but when I do, this is what it will look like out the window’…

Seduced by Words

From the moment I met the alphabet I’ve been seduced by words. A bona fide word nerd at age six I played with words, loved them, read and wrote, whispered and SHOUTED them with a fever that burns me still. Even then I was in awe of the power of words to wound and heal; to build and destroy; to calm and inflame.

I can’t recall the first author I feel in love with, but I know that she made words jump and sing like the children her pen created. Magic escaped with each turn of the page, and my love for her words inspired my only act of plagiarism.

Miss Bedingfield called for her class to take out pencils and paper. I had sharpened my new pencil to a fine point; the story I was about to transcribe needed excellent tools. I opened to a new white page, with a fine red margin and wide blue lines. The page smelled of newness. My heart galloped as I set my chair just far enough from my desk to allow the precious storybook to balance on my legs. My face – and I hoped, my cheating - screened from the teacher by my curtain of hair, I copied word after golden word from the precious book.

Miss Bedingfield collected our stories, commenting on the neatness or otherwise of our work. I had rushed a bit – there wasn’t enough time for neat printing when there was secret page turning and word-worshipping going on.

The teacher flicked through my offering. At four pages it was my longest story yet. I scanned her face for commendation, but there was none. ‘Not your tidiest work, Lauren’. She moved to the next desk, a kind comment for this pupil, and the next, and all the others. Miss Bedingfield was democratic with her praise.

The bell rang for playtime. We were dismised for ten minutes – to bolster alliances, empty bladders, and refill our small bellies with raisins and cordial. I sat on a bench outside our classroom, watching the teacher read our stories at her big desk at the front. I was sure it was mine she read with a smile, and a belly laugh, and then a sad shake of her head. Words, words I had written had inspired emotion! Well, perhaps I hadn’t really written them, but the teacher would believe that it was I who had moved her.

Miss Bedingfield looked up, saw me at the window and beckoned with a finger. I entered and approached her desk, my manuscript open before her.

‘This is a lovely story my dear. I enjoyed reading it to my great-nephew last week.”
“Last week? But I only wrote it today.”
“Lauren, my dear. You have written fine stories before this one.
You have imagination and flair. Don’t copy. It’s not fair, and not necessary.”

I defended my position briefly, then saw the sadness on her face that I had compounded one lie with another.

“Will you please sit with me at lunchtime dear, and write your own story, then I can mark it with the others. I wont tell anybody this time.”

Then the ancient schoolteacher pulled me in for a hug. ‘Don’t be in a hurry to grow up, dear. You will write your own beautiful stories one day, I am sure.”

Words of comfort where harsher ones could have scalded: words of advice that have lingered since age six: don’t nick other people’s words, marshall your own. Trust your instincts and


Trust the empty page, trust the flow of letters, as one by one you line them up together to form new words, new worlds. Turn off the internal editor that wants you to erase, backspace, rip and burn and get your words out there, where they can breathe, and jump, and shout, and dance.