Two precision tools for writers in 2020
After the bells and the indiscriminate kissing, millions of people all around the world bring in the New Year by singing Robert Burns’ ‘Auld Lang Syne’ with the immortal opening lines “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind?” It’s a wonderful thing ‘to tak a cup o’ kindness yet’ and remember old friends and new. In the cold light of a new dawn it’s important to take that warmth into our writing as we resolve to hone our skills.
1. Observe minutely
Whatever you have to write on a daily basis, commissioned work or the demands of the job, try and spend five to ten minutes on what one might call ‘pure writing’ – writing for the sake of it. It keeps that muscle pumping: a kind of mental gym. The best way to do this is to observe minutely — what’s happening in your garden, in your thoughts; observations out and about – on the street, in the bus/train; eavesdropping; images that come to you – capture them. Keep a notebook, diary or journal. As much part of a writer’s practice as a painter’s. Here’s Victoria Crowe, one of Scotland’s leading contemporary artists, on what a sketchbook means to her.
“To me a sketchbook can be all of these things: A personal symbolic language; a place to play; a place to question; an interpretation of the world; a book of meanings; a memory trace; a gathering of information; an aid to understanding; a source of laughter and experimentation; a place of poetry and association; a creative journey. The dictionary definitions seem bizarrely inadequate!”
Two Scottish writers I admire tremendously are nature writer Nan Shepherd and poet Norman MacCaig. Both observed minutely.
Nan Shepherd’s ability to describe weather was remarkable. Here’s a short extract The Living Mountain set in the Cairngorms in the Scottish Highlands.
“The coming of snow is often from a sky of glittering blue, with serried battalions of solid white cumuli low on the horizon. One of them bellies out from the ranks and from its edge thin shreds of snow, so fine one is hardly aware of their presence, eddy lightly in the blue sky. And in a few minutes the air is thick with flakes. Once the snow has fallen, and the gullies are choked and ice is in the burns, green is the most characteristic colour in sky and water. Burns and river alike have a green glint when seen between snowy banks, and the smoke from a woodsman’s fire looks greenish against the snow. The shadows on snow are of course blue, but where snow is blown into ripples, the shadowed undercut portion can look quite green.”
There were two places in the world that Norman MacCaig loved in particular: Edinburgh and Assynt (an area of outstanding beauty on the west coast of Scotland).
The opening lines of November Night, Edinburgh:
The night tinkles like ice in glasses.
Leaves are glued to the pavement with frost.
From July Landing:
…the road hemstitched on the skirt
of a mountain
…the Minch*, that
keeps casting up and withdrawing
a rinse of soiled lace infested
(*The Minch is a strait in North West Scotland)
2. Use constraints
“Constraints liberate.” That is a mantra from John Simmons, colleague and co-founder of the Dark Angels creative writing for business programmes. It’s certainly what I’ve observed time and time again during the workshops and courses that I’ve run over the last fifteen years.
Copywriters are all too familiar with word counts. They’re excellent constraints. Poetry is built on constraints. Writing for five minutes a day is both a commitment and a constraint. At the other end of the scale, don’t over-write in any one day. A lot of novelists set themselves a limit of say 1000 words per day.
James Robertson - another Scottish writer! Well we started with Burns after all but this one is still with us – set himself a challenge back in 2013. That was, to write a short story every day of the year. Each story was to be 365 words, he instructed himself: no more, no less. The collection of fairy tales, memories, keen observations and bold provocations was published online, one story per day, through the course of 2014, then as a volume by Penguin as 365:Stories.
A year or two later, Aidan O’Rourke, Scottish fiddler, composer and one third of the folk super trio Lau, decided to write a tune every day in response. What an inspired mingling of constraints! From 1st January 2020, if you subscribe via this link, you’ll receive a story and a tune in your inbox every day. Now there’s a warming thought for the New Year. And it’s Scot free.