Noticing things differently – why creative nonfiction is like poetry

Apart from the occasional poem, most of what I write is nonfiction.  Creative nonfiction is a genre which is increasingly discussed – hard to define, but including narrative accounts, personal responses, place writing, reflection and imaginative explorations.  This is what I have written since long before I knew it had a name!

I have long thought that the two forms of writing I engage in – creative nonfiction and poetry – are two sides of the same coin.  That statement may make a bit more sense if I take you back to Wales in 1986, when I first started writing in an intentional way.

In a recent blog post I wrote about being fortunate to be part of a pilot for an A level creative writing course.  The exam board commissioned leading Welsh writers to run creative writing residentials for the students in the pilot because, as most teachers were used to delivering a traditional, Shakespeare-and-the-classics English Literature syllabus, teaching creative writing was something quite new to them.  Six of us from my school travelled with the Head of English, Liz Pugh, to Plas Tan y Bwlch (now the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre) for two days with, amongst others, Gillian Clarke.

A word here about Gillian Clarke.  Now aged 82 and something of a ‘national treasure’ in Welsh cultural life, she had at that point recently published her fourth collection, Selected Poems (although I didn’t read her work until later).  With decades of experience of teaching English and creative writing in schools and colleges, she was the perfect choice to encourage young people to explore the process of writing poetry.  From 2008-2016 she was the National Poet of Wales (the Welsh version of a Poet Laureate), and as well as her award-winning poetry she has created a fine legacy in the form of Ty Newydd, the national writing centre for Wales, which she co-founded in 1990.

Back in 1986, it’s a glorious spring day, with sunshine flooding into the big lecture room at Plas Tan y Bwlch. Huge windows offer panoramic views of the valley and the wooded hills beyond, but we aren’t paying much attention, because Gillian Clarke is speaking.  She has seated us – some 30-odd students aged 16-18 – in a large circle.  She has a basket beside her, and from this she takes a small object, about the size of an egg.  I’m going to pass this round the circle, she says.  Take as long as you like when it comes to you.  What I want you to do is notice.  What do you notice about this object?

The object passes slowly from hand to hand, as each student holds it, turns it over, gazes at it, frowns or nods in recognition, maybe runs a finger over a detail, passes it to their neighbour.  I watch them as the object makes its way to me, about two thirds of the way round the circle.  Then, it is in my hands – feather light, delicate yet curiously strong, like an eggshell.  The size of a small egg, and almost the same shape, with a hooked point at one end.  Smooth, with hollows divided by sharp, paper-thin membranes.  Notice, Gillian had said.  How should I notice?  I have looked at it.  I have turned it over and over and looked at it from all sides.  I have used touch to explore its textures and weight.  I’m not going to taste it!  But there are other senses I could use – maybe, if I hold it to my ear it will sing of the sea, like a shell?  No.  But how about smell?  Tentatively, I lift it to my nose – earthy, organic, and yet almost like stone.  I hear a soft hiss from Gillian – yesss.  I look at it one last time, and pass it to my neighbour.

Afterwards, Gillian tells us about the object – it’s a buzzard’s skull that she found on a walk, and she has written a poem about it.  But, she says, that’s not why she brought it today.  It’s just a way, she says, of getting us to notice things differently.  She mentions that one person went beyond looking and touching by listening and smelling (I squirm with embarrassment at this).  She’s delighted – this is what she was hoping we would do.  Now, she says, go away and write a poem.

As we move away, she calls me back, and we talk about the senses, and how important she thinks it is that a writer should notice differently – from a different angle, using different senses, and without what we think we know about the object getting in the way of our noticing.  She is enthusiastic, encouraging.  I take my notebook to a corner of the terrace and start to write – this is the poem.

The Buzzard’s Skull

This ritual is new, and yet
along the distance of my mind
I know that I remember.
The circle is held, spellbound;
the sacrament is passed from hand to hand:
a ceremony of initiation?

Blindfold and afraid, I hear
the holy word approach,
rhythmic, sinister,
along the chain.
The object is in my hands,
stirring a memory that
my fingers cannot grasp –
a forest or a beach?
My life,
or life that lingers in my mind,
beyond (my) memory?
My fingers’ eyes have been in the dark
so long,
they are blinded by this light,
and cannot see.

Although I never saw Gillian again after that residential, I followed her career and occasionally heard her on the radio.  I know that many writers were encouraged into writing by her, and I am always grateful to her for that hissed yesss that made me realise that I was on the right lines in how I observed the world around me, rather than just being weird.  She made me realise that I was starting to think like a writer.

And like a writer, rather than solely a poet – because the nonfiction I write is also about noticing things differently.   Poetry is about precisely that – a good poem leaves the reader thinking “wow, I never looked at it like that before” and can weave magic around the most familiar and mundane subject.  Creative nonfiction, I would suggest, has a similar role – to explore the homely as well as the exotic, looking with fresh eyes and an unexpected perspective, touching and listening and smelling and tasting, and telling the stories of people, places and objects with new voices.

Cover of Selected Poems Gillian Clarke

 

Writing about writing, and why I find it difficult

In the course of research for a recent writing commission, I have been reading a number of writers’ websites, their biogs on their publishers’ websites, and interviews with writers.  In these, they talk about their ‘practice’ (their writing process and rationale), their formative influences, and the philosophy underpinning what and how they write.  It’s been interesting, and was necessary in order to write my piece, but the experience has left me feeling more awkward than ever about something I have long struggled with.

Judging by the feedback I get, a lot of readers of this blog enjoy reading about the writing process.  But I find it so difficult to write about!  Talking this through with my partner the other day, I described it as being “a bit like asking someone to talk about why and how they breathe.  You just do it!”

OK, if you are a singer you will want to do breathing exercises, and learn techniques to manage your breathing and make it work for you so as to be as expressive as possible in your singing.  But, basically, you just do it.  And you can’t imagine life without it.  Writing has always been like that for me – I’ve just done it, and can’t imagine not doing it.  I read books and go on courses to learn new skills and techniques, but I’m not learning how to do it – I just do it.

I know I could read and write in Dutch by the age of 5, because that’s when my English-medium education started, and I was hugely frustrated by the vagaries of the language after nice, regular, phonetic Dutch.  But I know that by 7 I was writing my own books, keeping a diary, and devouring chunks of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary.  I wrote stories, poems, and lengthy pieces on natural history, accompanied by full-colour diagrams of leaves and dissected flowers.  By 8 or 9, I was torn about what I wanted to be – a private detective or a writer.

Although I excelled at English language, it was history I really loved, and which in some shape or form I’ve continued to study ever since.  I did ‘A’ level English, though, and was lucky enough to be able to do a pilot of a very progressive (for the mid 1980s) syllabus which included a large creative writing component.  My work was chosen for inclusion in a collection produced by the exam board to be used by teachers and students as an exemplar.  I got a good grade, my longstanding inability to write a decent literature essay more than compensated for by my facility with writing and practical criticism (the latter now coming in useful when writing reviews!).  But although my teacher was enthusiastic about my writing, the message from home and school was clear – you can’t make a living from writing, so do something else.  Interestingly, not one of us went on to study English at university.

Alongside academic essays and dissertations, I continued to write poetry for some years, and a series of jobs gave me opportunities to write across a range of genres: manuals, reports, press releases, newspaper articles, courses and training materials, strategy documents, and for the last decade or so, web content.  Writing was rarely in the job description, but was always a necessary aspect of the work and somehow I managed to subvert things so that it became a major part of the role.  For the last few years I have also been writing commissioned work alongside the day job, and now I’m writing full time, a mixture of commissions, blogging, and working on my first book.

I have from time to time thought about enrolling on a creative writing degree course, but for a couple of reasons I have decided not to.  Firstly, almost all syllabuses are designed for people who want to write novels.  I don’t want to write novels.  I quite like reading them, especially if they are historical or whodunits, but my mind doesn’t work that way and I can’t imagine dwelling within an imagined, parallel universe for the time it takes to research and write a novel.  It’s not that I don’t have an imagination (I do, a very vivid one, which is particularly visual), but I like to start with something factual, often historical, and maybe give a slightly different slant on it.  What story could this object tell?  How might it have felt to be in that place at that time?  Modules on plot and characterisation don’t seem very relevant to me.  The courses which aren’t about novels are generally about poetry, and whilst I do write poetry from time to time, it’s not my passion in the way that non-fiction is.

Secondly, it would mean a commitment of at least a year, full time.  I’m not sure that I can justify that at my age.  It’s not as if I don’t already have a track record of writing, and of getting commissions.  I’m not saying that I’ve got nothing to learn – there’s always more to learn – but I’m not sure that, even if I could find a course that was relevant, it would be the best use of a year of my life.

I can’t conceive of not writing.  It’s as natural for me as breathing, which is why I find it so hard to describe what I do, my ‘practice,’ and why although I’m rigorous about my structure, use of language, tone, and so on, and edit ruthlessly, I find it difficult to create literary-sounding biogs about how and why I write.  I’m interested in places, things, people – especially, but not exclusively, historical.  I always want to know why (this used to drive my family nuts when I was little!).  And then I want to use words to share what I’ve discovered.  Quite apt for the little girl who couldn’t decide whether to be a private detective or a writer!

It’s a process which is often quite solitary, but where the finished product potentially reaches many, many people, including many whom I will never meet.  In much the same way as I weave – first researching the design inspiration and the properties of the materials, then creating the design, then exploring the technical aspects of the piece, then making it – I craft the words on the page into a shape which I am happy with, and which I hope others will find stimulating, interesting or enjoyable.  Just as not everyone is going to like my tapestries, not everyone will like what I write, but as long as I’m pleasing some of the people some of the time, I’m happy!

Photograph of a woven tapestry of a seascape, entitled Lundy 1 by Lisa Tulfer

Lundy 1 by Lisa Tulfer. Woven tapestry, 3×3 inches.

My notebook habit – confessions of a stationery addict

A few days ago, my friend Cath posted a photograph of a notebook on Twitter, with this caption: ”I know I’m not alone (I’m not, am I): just re-found this, which I bought at the Design Museum in January: it’s the MOST beautiful notebook I think I’ve ever seen…and I’m so terrified of ‘spoiling’ it that I’ve kept it in the bag it came in!”

Her next post included video of her turning the pages of this really rather wonderful notebook, intriguingly entitled Grids and Guides: a notebook for visual thinkers.   It set me thinking: no, Cath, you’re not alone!  I’ve always been ridiculously excited by stationery and I’m totally susceptible to a nice new notebook.

Writers have a particular ‘thing’ about notebooks, it seems.  I often see posts on Twitter about writers and their notebooks.  I recently attended a course at the National Centre for Writing where the joining notes included instructions to ‘bring a favourite notebook’.  The writer Tom Cox’s next book is actually entitled Notebook!  He encouraged people to tweet pictures of their current notebooks, and I responded with this picture.

Picture of three notebooks.

It shows the three notebooks I am currently using.  The dark green one with the coloured tabs is the one I am using for notes for my book.  Each tab relates to a chapter, which I’m hoping will help me to keep my research notes in some kind of order!  It’s made of vegan leather, by a company called Dingbats, and has an embossed deer on the front.  The paper is lovely: thick, cream, and lined, and the endpapers have a funky print of deer hoofprints.

The brown one is by Clairefontaine, a French company which I’d not heard of before I was given this notebook.  Its pages are cream and very smooth, a real pleasure to write on.  It has numbered pages and a contents page, which is very useful as I use this to write down my ideas for various articles and projects, and it’s good to be able to see at a glance where they are, rather than spending ages flicking through the book.  I used to be a Moleskine loyalist, but having tried Clairefontaine, I think I’ll be sourcing more of these in future.

This brings me to the black notebook – an extra large Moleskine soft cover with plain cream pages and a useful pocket in the back for cards and loose papers.  This one is used for ‘professional’ notes – notes from training courses and books on professional and commercial aspects of writing for a living.  Moleskine make nice large notebooks, and these soft cover ones stay flat and open when in use, which is great for making notes in meetings.

All three have elastic bands to keep them securely closed when not in use.  The Dingbats one also has an elastic loop to hold a pen.

Ah – don’t get me started on pens.   I adore pens.  And coloured marker pens for planning and mind mapping.  And fountain pens.  And my latest passion, which is propelling pencils.  I’ve always found them a bit scratchy, but I recently discovered a Pentel which has a 1.3mm lead (my previous one was 0.5mm) which makes a lovely soft, thick, dark mark and is comfortable for taking extended notes.  I’m now using that pencil far more than pens, and am more than a little in love!

And then of course there are notepads, and sticky notes in all the colours of the rainbow and all sizes from postage stamp to A5, and staplers, and paperclips, and polypockets, and folders, and subject dividers, and ring binders, and box files (did you know they come in A5 as well as A4 sizes?!), and index cards (plain and lined, white and coloured, standard and large), and envelopes, and good old-fashioned letter paper, and laid paper and wove paper and handmade paper and mulberry paper and…

OK, OK, you get the idea.  Let me loose in any stationers, or with an office supplies catalogue, and serious expenditure will result.  My name is Lisa Tulfer and I am a stationery addict.  I’m more restrained than I used to be, and I succumb to temptation less often – except when it comes to notebooks.  Granted, they are a tool of my trade.  This is how I justify buying them when I see them – I currently have an entire storage box full of notebooks waiting to be used.  The last twice we’ve been away for a few days I have returned with a new notebook – a gloriously purple one (it’s my favourite colour – how could I resist?) from the gift shop at Tintern Abbey, and a monastic garden themed one from the English Heritage gift shop at Rievaulx Abbey.  I have lined notebooks, plain notebooks, spiral bound notebooks, fabric covered notebooks.  Every new project gets a notebook, so a good supply of attractive notebooks ensures a good supply of new projects!

So, to get back to Cath, I can assure her that she isn’t alone.  Appreciation for a good notebook (and a tendency to buy them even if you haven’t a clue what you will use them for), is a ‘thing’ which many of us share.  And in these difficult times, if we can find pleasure in a simple notebook, that seems like a good thing.

Cath runs the most wonderful gift shop and gallery called Ginger Fig.  It’s in Bath Place, Taunton, Somerset, UK.  You can contact her on Twitter @gingerfig, on Instagram @gingerfig and on her website.

 

What do writers do all day?

What do writers do all day?  Well, obviously, we write.  But we also do a lot of other things in order to be able to write, and to make a living out of writing.

Reading

All writers read.  It’s inevitable.  Most of us are writers precisely because we love to read, because words are our ‘thing’.  It would be truly weird, therefore, if we didn’t devour words at every opportunity.  And if we are looking to be published, it helps to know what contemporary writing looks like.  While we all have our individual style or voice, it wouldn’t be helpful for our writing to sound like, for example, Chaucer or Austen or Wodehouse – every era has its language, and anachronisms don’t generally get published.  A 21st century writer needs to write like a 21st century writer.

Research

Most writing requires research.  At the very least, a writer needs to fact-check.  Fiction may originate in the mind of the writer, but in order for the reader to suspend disbelief and enter into the story, the facts need to be right because if they are wrong, it jars.  Journeys need to take the right amount of time.  Police procedures need to be correct.  Medical details must be accurate.  Characters need to speak and behave in a way that’s authentic to the time and place of the story.  The science needs to be right.

I mostly write non-fiction, so research is a major part of what I do.  Even when I am taking a creative, imaginative or whimsical approach, the facts have to be properly researched.  A lot of my topics are historical, so I am applying the academic research skills I acquired while studying history at postgraduate level, not only exploring the ‘facts’ but also how those facts have been interpreted through time.

Getting out there

The publishing industry – whether magazines or books, online or in print – is a mysterious world which any writer who wishes to make a living simply has to get to grips with.  As well as the necessary but tedious self-employment tasks of invoicing, accounts and tax returns, a writer has to learn the ins and outs of the industry: how to pitch, whom to pitch to, what the protocols are, which avenues are a waste of time and which are worth pursuing.  There are no short-cuts to learning this – it takes time and effort.

A significant part of being a writer (rather than someone who writes) is the publicity and networking which is part of the profession.  In practice, much of this now takes place online, and I need to spend some time every week keeping on top of this.  As well as this blog, I am active on Twitter (and to a much lesser extent on Instagram and Facebook).  I find Twitter is the place where I network with other writers, find out about events and opportunities, interact with literary agents and publishers, follow up research interests, and tell the world when I’ve posted a new blog post.  I have got several writing gigs as a direct result of being on Twitter, and it’s more than worth the 20-30 minutes I invest in it most days.

Yesterday, I attended a professional development event at the National Centre for Writing (which conveniently for me is located just down the road in Norwich).  It was led by Leena Norms, and was entitled ‘Creating an online presence for your writing’.  Whilst it might go against the grain for those writers who wish to practice their art in solitude in a garret or writing shed, aloof from the world and commercial concerns, the reality for a jobbing writer is that we have to be our own publicists in order to get, and sell, work, so it makes sense to learn how to do it as effectively as possible.  Leena’s approach is simple, effective and cuts through the mystique that surrounds social media in the creative industries, and although I was already doing much of what she suggested, I now feel better equipped for this aspect of my work.  After all, writing is all very well, but I want to get my writing out there and being read!

Writing

Ah, yes – writing!  This is, of course, what it’s all about, the one thing I really want to be doing with my life.  However, it will be apparent from everything I’ve just said that it’s not enough by itself.  The reading, the research, the social media work, and the engagement with the industry, and the self-employment tasks all underpin the writing itself.

I will post another time about the writing process itself – my writing process, because no two writers are the same.  But for now, I’ll just say this: I think a lot more than I write.  I call it ‘percolating’ because, like coffee, the slow process of ideas becoming infused with reading and research, and forming something new that is complex, nuanced and interesting, takes time.  I probably think for at least 2 hours for every hour spent actually writing.

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Writer’s block – can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it!

There’s a book by Michael Rosen called We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.  If you have had anything to do with small people in the last 25 years, there’s a high chance you’ll have come across it.  When faced by each new obstacle, the characters sing ‘we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it!’

I have been reminded of this refrain recently.  I usually write fluently and easily (editing is more of a pain for me than actually writing), but one particular commission has been causing me a problem.  Writer’s block is a well-known phenomenon – the curse of the blank page.  Block can take many forms – I refer to my two main ones as ‘research paralysis’ and ‘if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here’.

Research paralysis

I’m one of those people who want to know everything it’s possible to know about a subject.  As a student, I felt very anxious about starting an essay if I didn’t feel I’d read every book and article available on the topic.  This is, of course, unrealistic.  Yes, research is important.  Especially if much of your subject matter is historical, as mine is, it’s vital to understand both the subject and the context, and in particular to avoid the heinous crime of being anachronistic – introducing ideas or objects that didn’t exist yet in the period you are writing about.  And if you are writing about living people, you need to get your facts right, and you can’t do that without research, lots of it, and using your critical faculties about what you are finding in your research.

However, the trick is to stop researching at some point, and start writing.  I find this difficult!  There’s always ‘just one more’ book, article or website that looks so interesting, and which might just yield that extra fact or perspective that would make all the difference to the piece you’re writing.  It takes a fair bit of confidence to say ‘OK, I now know enough about this to write a robust, accurate and informative piece on the subject’.  When is it ‘enough’?

If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here

This is a reference to an apocryphal tale, sometimes set in Ireland or Scotland, where a tourist asks a local for directions to somewhere and is told ‘if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here’.    Mostly I enjoy specific writing commissions, but occasionally it can feel as if I don’t know where to start.  Sometimes it can be about the format not matching the topic (‘write about this huge topic in 200 words’), or the style being inappropriate to the content (‘write about this complex argument, requiring lots of specialist knowledge and vocabulary, in a chatty tabloid style’).  Not doing it isn’t an option – I’m a writer, this is my job, I’m being paid to do it.  I can make lots of cups of coffee, go for a walk round the block, do the laundry, compulsively check Twitter, but the problem isn’t going to go away.

Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, got to go through it!

I’ve developed a few strategies for dealing with writer’s block.  One is to write – anything, not necessarily related to thing I’m supposed to be writing, but just writing – simply to get the writing muscles exercised and moving again.  Often, something will shift and the block will be removed.

Another is to go back and re-read the brief.  Have I understood it wrongly?  Is there some other way of approaching this?  If all else fails, can I get the reader to collaborate with me in wrestling with this topic?  For example, ‘I’ve been asked to write about X, but I didn’t know where to start, so first I tried looking at it from this point of view… what do you think?  Then I tried if from this other perspective… how about this?’

Having a lot of different projects on the go at once is, I find, hugely helpful with writer’s block.  If one article or post is not happening for me, there’s usually something else that’s going well, and it’s amazing how often one project will provide the solution to a block in another.  The human brain is an amazing thing.  And writer’s block must never be allowed to become permanent.  If you can’t go over it, and can’t go under it, you’ve got to go through it!