Poetry News – Scotland, January 2016

An unsullied new year is the perfect opportunity for new poets to pick up a pen or punch a keyboard. Here's some key advice for those in pursuit of their literary intent, and how and where in Scotland to take things forward.

Article by Clare Mulley | 06 Jan 2016
  • Scottish Poetry Library

January isn’t the easiest of months to enjoy. All over the world, people are dieting, self-hating and joining gyms that they then hate even more. The best ways of self-improvement are sometimes the most savage. However, a good, sharp sting definitely beats that duller, longer-lasting ache of feeling something isn’t all it could be. Now you’ve made all your other resolutions, it’s time to give your literary intentions a proper health check. There are many programmes designed to advance your writing, including one-off talks and classes, through the Scottish Writers' Centre in Glasgow and the Scottish Poetry Library (more information below). But before any of that, take a look at our friendly advice. 

The first cut is the deepest: objective editing

One of my favourite pieces of writerly advice is the Quiller-Couchism, ‘Murder your darlings’ (often wrongly attributed to Wilde, Ginsberg and Chesterton) which I think just about says it all. Unlike a lot of hobbies, writing is such a personal endeavour that you can’t help bias sneaking in. Once you begin a piece and start to get excited, it does have a nasty habit of turning into a sort of creature in its own right, growing flesh and bones which you are scared to maim by over-editing. There’s always that suspicion that if you start cutting or tweaking you might lose the x factor which defines the piece and makes it matter to you… but then again you know in your heart of hearts that there can be no progress without a little destruction. 

So go ahead – commit murder. Obviously not in a ‘soak your papers in petrol, throw in a live critic and dance around the pyre naked’ kind of way (although who am I to judge if the Wicker Man approach is your thing?). See it as a naked eye view with no bits tinted; try to look at the work as if it were someone else looking for the first time, someone who has no history or sentimental attachment to go on, but can only judge at immediate face (or page) value. Chances are you’ll start to notice certain howlers in a way you didn’t let yourself before. Is that adjective clumsy?  Perhaps I can do without that line.  Would it be more vivid if I structured it differently? 

Take the plunge: get a second opinion 

Now you’ve made that first step of thinking as a reader, it’s a great idea to actually get another pair of eyes involved. Choose someone you know who also writes, or is at least a frequent reader – that way you get the truth, not just compliments. Even the knowledge that someone is reading your stuff can change the way you read it yourself, because you suddenly become aware of how and what they might read. My best critic barely says a word; as soon as I’ve handed the paper over I become aware of things I’ve been keeping behind a self-protection barrier, a bit like 1984 double-think, and before he even starts talking I’m the one explaining the pitfalls! 

Onwards and upwards: show your writing to others 

Get a wider perspective by joining a writing group. Just as you are able to be more honest with yourself with one critic, think how much that ability grows with numbers. Putting your work in the spotlight is always better when others around you are in the same position of vulnerability, and the kind of people willing to step forward in order to self-improve are generally appreciative of the fact that you’re all there to provide constructive feedback, not score points.  

If you prefer weekly sessions, try the ESU Scotland writers group in Edinburgh, Stirling Writers’ Group, or Alistair Paterson’s weekly classes – ‘Discovering the Writer Within’ – at the Charlie Reed Centre, Glasgow. Otherwise, The Lemon Tree Writers group in Aberdeen meets fortnightly (as does New Writing Banff), The School of Poets in Edinburgh provides monthly sessions and the Edinburgh Creative Writers Group run Rogue Writers Sundays each week at Patisserie Floretine in Stockbridge.  

Treat yourself to a writing holiday 

Now the fun begins – try to remove yourself from routine, even if only for a few hours, and visit somewhere relaxing where you can re-read and write new material in peace. Find a new park or café. Sniff out pubs with open fires. If you have some cash going spare, why not actually book a short course and make work a holiday? The newly-dubbed Scottish Creative Writing Centre, Moniack Mhor (previously of Arvon), has an exciting programme lined up for this year with the likes of Carol Ann Duffy and Jay Griffiths on the tutors list, and the highland scenery is as idyllic as any writer could wish. Course prices begin at £325, or you have the option of an untutored retreat for £300. If that still sounds like a lot, you can always apply for their grant scheme. 

Finally, it will help to read the work of others and experience it live. Our event pick for January is the Shore Poets Quiet Slam on 31 Jan in Edinburgh (venue tbc). This is a slam where volume is not neccessarily a benefit. There is also a callout for performers with the event billed as the perfect place for emerging poets cutting teeth.

Moniak Mhor has multiple creative writing courses throughout the year, including poetry with Tim Clare and Christine De Luca

The Scottish Poetry Library list their tips and events on their website

Shore Poets are looking for performers for their Quit Slam on their website