A writing process (around the edges of a day job)

Writing in a blank notebook with a roller ball pen

From the archives … I’m sharing a guest blog by me on my writing process as it was when I worked a busy day job. Actually, my process remains much the same now I’m a full time writer – but there are fewer competing demands on my time, attention and energy.

This piece was originally written for and shared via the Kith newsletter. Kith is the holistic writing community hosted by Jan Fortune, the founder of Cinnamon Press.

Circling back

It’s a winter morning in south-east Scotland, at the cusp of daybreak. I’m watching the shape of the hill gain definition against a steel sky. I’ve been writing for an hour or so already, nudged awake by moonlight.

My urge to write is fierce at this time of day. Which is fortunate – I’m a poet who has an unpoetic day job, and I’ve learned to be bloody-minded about carving out enough space in my life for creativity. I’ve evolved a way to make sure I spend a little time on all parts of my poetry writing process, and so I keep trundling forward.

My foundation is (of course) the generation of raw material. Space and time dedicated to freewriting, reverie, noodling, dreaming, watching how the sunrise plays on fallen leaves, how sunset stains the sky, and cricking my neck to watch stars and space hardware. I sit with a notebook and just write – filling pages of notebooks with screeds of utter rubbish. Except … here’s a glowing ember. I grab that word or phrase, and I write into it.

The second stage, where I review and edit this raw writing, has a completely different energy. I read my notebook with a critical eye, sifting for some spark, anything I can push further. I transcribe longhand, type up, edit, print out and scrawl further edits by hand. Sometimes this stage is repeated multiple times. I have been known to reverse-engineer a poem by re-transcribing it from my laptop back into my notebook longhand. I’ve learned not to overthink and to leave a gap on the page (at least overnight, sometimes longer). Something usually occurs to me when I return.

These iterations can take hours, days, sometimes months. I work in pulses – an intense phase (often focused on a deadline, perhaps a submission window, or a date in the diary when I’ve promised to share work with others). The fallow is also key, like leaving dough to prove, or waiting for compost.

This is also the time to fact check and research, to dip into the dictionary and thesaurus, my trusty writing companions. It suits a short break over a coffee, though it can just as easily engulf an afternoon.

Eventually I begin to let the poem into the world. To understand the sound world and music of a poem, its mouthfeel, it’s essential to read it aloud. Reading aloud to others reveals even more – reactions are crucial to understanding further changes the poem might need. What’s missing, what’s unclear? I’m a member of a poetry collective in Edinburgh, and we regularly read and critique each others’ poems. Grabbing an open mic spot at a spoken word event is another place to air almost-ready pieces, if that’s a space you’re comfortable in.

And then, perhaps, there’s a more formal, final phase, the outward presentation and performance of your polished work. This calls for a different energy again. It’s the lottery of sending poems to journals and entering competitions, or as part of other applications. There are many rejections and with luck and persistence, some acceptances. (I consistently place about 10% of what I send out). I’ve long since learned to put my ego aside and to treat it as a game – some I win, some I don’t.

This promotional stage might be classed as marketing and networking in other spheres, and includes writing blogs, social media (if you do) posts, or reading at poetry and spoken word events. This more public, exposed stage isn’t for everyone. I happen to enjoy it. And yet it’s a real treat to return to the generative stage, raw free-writing in my notebook. Or to enjoy a spot of editing, polishing and whittling.

There’s different enjoyment to be found in all the stages, and the interplay and momentum between them. Too much of one aspect and I feel unbalanced, lop-sided. I’ve come to trust the process, to balance my efforts, to spend enough time attending to each stage.

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