“Unlocked in Lockdown: Slouch to 5k (for writers)” is a 10-week blogpost series (started in response to the COVID-19 crisis) aiming to support you if you have stalled with a writing project, by rekindling your connection to it.
Each week, I’ll post about an unusual/creative activity (it may not even involve writing), with the idea that, by doing the activities, you’ll overcome blocks, resistance, apathy and struggle, and feel enthused again so that you restart your project, making more progress.
Your writing aims can relate to fiction, non-fiction, poetry, scriptwriting, songwriting – it won’t matter, as long as you do have a project you’d like to work towards – a tangible creative goal/output.
We are going through unusual times and many of you will have had your lives already affected by restrictions imposed as a result of national and international Coronavirus health concerns.
In these circumstances, I am taking the liberty of writing an extra “Loveday’s Letter”, to share my thoughts about one good, creative thing we can start to do while we are self-isolating or unable to connect with our friends and family face-to-face. I hope this extra email in your in-box will be welcome. Please forward it to people who might find it helpful.
That one good thing is to start writing a journal.
It doesn’t have to be in a proper book – scraps of paper will do. There’s no need to stop yourself writing because you don’t feel you have “perfect” materials.
The secret of journal writing is to keep reframing things into the positive. Remember this, especially. It’s so easy for us to end up “venting” and slipping into negative spirals, especially when times are difficult.
So – below are some useful journaling techniques that can keep your journaling creative and positive in difficult times. Several of these come from the International Association for Journal Writing which you’ll find is a wonderful organisation full of resources and I thoroughly recommend that you look them up – https://iajw.org/
Eleven Journaling Prompts For Staying Positive
1) Use the following Sentence Stems then write a paragraph each time: “Right now, I’m feeling…” / “What I want today is…” / “The best thing I can do for myself is…”
2) Write about blessings, what to be grateful for, what to celebrate, what to be hopeful about, things that bring joy – to train your thoughts towards the positive
3) “The Pivot”: (1) Vent about whatever you need to vent about; then (2) answer the following: “If I’m prioritising wellbeing, what do I need?”
4) Write for 30 minutes (about whatever you want – personal life, work or creative life), then add a reflection: “When I read what I’ve written, what I notice is… / what surprises me is…”
5) Clustering – do a “spidergram”/mindmap of words and brief phrases – based on what took place yesterday / what you did yesterday (or today if writing in the evening). Find a moment(s) that is positive in this mindmap, even if it is only a tiny thing. Cherish it and write about it in more detail.
6) After a period of general journaling, move into Lists – “what’s important” OR “what to let go” OR “next action steps” OR “things to remember”
7) Draw pictures & doodle images / Combine images into your journal e.g. photos and collages and cut-outs. Relate your words to these images
8) Listen to a piece of music then journal (it can be music with or without lyrics, up to you)
9) Write a dialogue (like a screenplay or playscript) – for example between you and your body / a body part; you and an older (or younger) version of you; you and your “inner brilliant boss”; between dominant hand and non-dominant hand (=> i.e. the “strong, competent” part of you vs. the “weaker, less competent” part of you)
10) Expand beyond your own life / the immediate concerns of daily life – for example, witness the (past/present) experiences of your family and friends; aspects of culture that you’ve encountered; landscape descriptions and places you’ve visited; communities that you have encountered; favourite or inspiring artists / creatives (and what they represent). Reach out imaginatively into the world. Connect to it through the journal.
11) Write about your current creative projects – progress / successes, challenges / obstacles, opportunities, new ideas, research discoveries, how you’re currently feeling about the project etc. Keep your creative projects alive even in difficult times. Especially in difficult times.
Journaling can be an important part of your armoury (along with good food, phonecalls, meditation, walking (if you’re able to), watching films etc etc) in responding to the challenging times we are going through.
Sending positive thoughts across the internet to you all.
For fans of Mary Shelley / Frankenstein, and any literature lovers curious about this masterpiece of Gothic / Romantic literature / science fiction in its 200-year anniversary:
If you’re within reach of Frome, Somerset, on Saturday November 17th, I’m teaching a workshop on Mary Shelley’s novel, at the Cheese and Grain from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
We’ll look at the new ways in which the novel is being interpreted 200 years after its first appearance, with the help of LOTS of informative handouts and discussions. This will include feminist, psychoanalytic and political readings. The class will be taught in a very accessible way, and all are welcome.
Please share and spread the word to anyone you think might be interested….
At the recent Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol, I had the pleasure of co-presenting a short workshop with the writer Carrie Etter about the relationship between flash fiction and prose poetry. It’s a topic that fascinates me – two forms that are close to my heart. During our presentation, we talked about some of their differences, some of their connections. Carrie Etter, for her ‘Sudden Prose’ undergraduate module at Bath Spa University, draws a very clear line in the sand between the two forms. That line helps her students write better prose poems and better flash fictions, knowing what’s expected of each form. I was interested to find out, in recent conversations, that from the start Carrie knows whether a piece of her own writing is going to be a poem, a prose poem, or a flash fiction, something that speaks of a clarity of process to be marvelled at. By contrast, I often don’t know – pieces go back and forth between prose and verse, are imagined in different contexts for different purposes. I find I’m often writing pieces that exist in a fuzzy, grey area in-between story and prose poem, deliberately ambiguous about their identity, reluctant to define themselves.
I’m not alone in this. Some useful and relevant links and quotes by writers defining prose poetry and flash fiction can be found at the Page Chatter website. For example, this by the American writer Denise Duhamel: “Prose poetry and flash fiction are kissing cousins. They are kissing on Jerry Springer, knowing they’re cousins, and screaming “So what?” as the audience hisses.”
Here is an extract from what I said at the joint workshop, in which I put forward an idea that Flash Fiction is at the mid-point of a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles that can be labelled Short-Short Story and Prose Poetry:
“I think of the relationship between flash fiction and prose poetry being a bit like a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles. At the extreme on one side you have a short-short story with a beginning, middle and end, one, two or perhaps three characters, conflict and briefly rising action towards a crisis with a resolution. And on the other side prose poetry, at its extreme it’s revelling in the play of the language, the music of the sentences, there’s no story as such, it’s maybe more about an idea or has some philosophical purpose or it’s provoking a feeling or mood. It may demand you to read it several times before you can extract everything from it.
“And in the middle of the Venn diagram you have this huge overlapping area of the two circles where you can’t tell what it is – there might be a character, something might happen, but may not, the language is beautiful or noteworthy, but probably quite accessible, there’s music in the shape of the sentences, and you don’t know how to categorise it but you know you really like the writing, whatever it is. Here I find Louis Jenkins, Ian Seed, pieces by Tania Hershman and Meg Pokrass, pieces from Robert Scotellaro’s Bad Motel, Russell Edson, Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars, Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, parts of The House on Mango Street, parts of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, Vanessa Gebbie’sEd’s Wife and Other Creatures and so on.
In this Venn diagram, for me, flash fiction includes the possibility of prose poetry, whereas the short-short story does not.”
When aiming to publish in magazines, nowadays I often avoid labelling submissions as prose poems or flash fictions (because some editors don’t like one or the other!) and just call them “pieces”, leaving it to the editor(s) to decide. There are magazines such as Ambit, Stand, Under the Radar, The Frogmore Papers, Prole, Brittle Star, and Ink, Sweat and Tears that publish both poetry and stories, and I’m hopefully not wildly wrong in my impression that editors at these magazines seem more likely to tolerate stories that are closer to prose poems (and prose poems that are closer to stories). Quite a few of these magazines don’t use the Submittable system, so you don’t have to identify an online submission through a particular genre / form pathway (as many of you will have found, magazines using Submittable often filter their story and poetry submissions separately).
Something that does, for me, identify a piece as a flash fiction, is that it foregrounds a character, or maybe more than one. Whereas a pure prose poem, typically, foregrounds language, calls attention to itself as language. But there is much writing that foregrounds both character and language. So how else can we sift between the two forms?
Paraphrasing Charles Simic, for me there’s something about a poem that demands that it be re-read for it to work. A poem or prose poem demands a kind of double-take, builds a double-exposure into the reading experience. For me, that means that there’s some enigma at the heart of a prose poem, some sense of mystery to be savoured. It’s certainly not a story with a plot that resolves. Something remains unexplained on first reading, and must be lingered over, even at the risk of not being easily or immediately grasped. This degree of mystery, of lingering double-exposure, might correlate to the degree to which something is a prose poem rather than a flash fiction.
Some of the “pieces” in Three Men on the Edge were originally published as prose poems in poetry magazines. I’d suggest that the longer form of the novella-in-flash, especially, allows scope for individual pieces where the focus is music, image, metaphor, or description rather than story, allowing “narrative” to accumulate more gradually – rather than requiring it from every chapter. (Although many other novellas-in-flash that I love are deliberately novel-like in style throughout, consistently foregrounding the narration or the events / plot.)
The twelve-part sequence ‘The Invisible World’ in the middle of Three Men on the Edge focuses on a character grieving a death, but there is very little action in this section. I wanted to try a different approach to character, relying on description, symbol, metaphor, and the atmospheres of landscapes to suggest states of mind. At the end of this post is one piece (prose poem? flash fiction?) from this sequence.
Hybridity is built in to the DNA of the novel-/novella-in-flash, and I love the diversity of the works that appear under its label, from Kelcey Parker’s Liliane’s Balcony, to Alex Garland’s Coma, to Heather Cousins’s Something in the Potato Room, which range significantly in how plot-driven they are, or how closely they resemble something like poetry. For me, this diversity is part of the reason that the novella-in-flash form is so vibrant, and why it has a bright future.
You can find out more about Three Men on the Edgehere.
ii. Bury Lake, February
His wife’s voice accompanying him, he circles the lake, breezes dragging shadows over the surface.
The water is troubled by a motorboat; waves lap at the land’s edge, nudging rotten branches lodged in the dregs of leaves, pulling, calling them back.
Honour me now I’m gone – companionship’s the cure. Don’t fashion yourself an abyss, don’t spiral within.
Sailors scurry across the lake, answering the winds. One dinghy flips, the pilot disappears beneath, only – as the vessel spins – to emerge, breathless, hugging the upturned keel.
The third section of Three Men on the Edge (I’ll get to the second section next time), is a sequence of 36 micro-fictions called ‘Chewing Glass’, and it revolves around the life of Martyn.
Martyn is a young, melodramatic and impotent artist in love with his best friend Anja, and probably too her husband Rob.
He struggles to reconcile his love-hate feelings towards them, barely keeping a grip on the violent impulses that shadow his day-to-day routines: even at the supermarket checkout, he’ll daydream about stabbing people in the eye. In his love-sickness, he swings between depressed inertia and manic productivity.
At night, he uses one of Anja’s leotards as a mask to help him sleep; he studies yoga and breath-exercises with her, beguiled by the other lycra-wearing participants; he dreams up non-existent ex-girlfriends to bolster his public reputation.
When he’s not arm-wrestling or bear-hugging Rob, he’s sickened simply by the noise of him eating, or talking, or walking. (The man is insufferable, despite his physical charms, and it makes no sense for Anja to be married to him!)
But when out in Rickmansworth with Anja, Martyn lives in dread of being greeted by other members of his community therapy group – such is his lack of self-acceptance; he lies to his doctor, because he doesn’t want to be sent back to hospital; he fantasises that he’s Odysseus – and Anja Penelope, fending off suitors as he travels homeward – all the while not realising that Anja is perfectly content in her marriage.
A self-deluded fantasist then, and hardly coping with life; but Martyn is intensely creative too, and all his neuroses feed into a rich seam of art projects – watercolours of the Grand Union Canal, oil portraits of Anja, an Olympian project to document the local lakes throughout the seasons.
Will Martyn keep it together long enough for his artistic career to take off? Will he confess to Anja his passionate admiration? Will he try to break up her marriage to Rob? Or will he lose his nerve and be provoked into violence?
Below is a Superman-themed micro-fiction from the sequence, first published in Funny Bone: Flashing for Comic Relief (Flash: the International Short-Short Story Press, 2017)
Sometimes Anja praises Martyn so highly she makes him feel like Superman. He has the Superman dream always the same way: not the caped crusader saving the civilised world, but Clark Kent the reporter wearing preppy spectacles and befuddled by Lois Lane—except Lois is Anja—and Anja’s nipples are made of kryptonite. But this is a dream and Lois-Anja is also somehow Lex Luthor at one and the same time—looking like Gene Hackman with his big-collared 1970s shirt—and Lois-Anja Hackman takes off Clark Kent’s glasses, kisses his brow sadly, then draws his head closer to her deadly, trembling chest.