What is the single most important thing that you can do to improve your writing? It’s a question that many aspiring writers ask … and, in my experience, if you ask this question, then you are likely to receive one of two answers.
The first answer is this: Write, write, write … and then write some more. The thinking is that if you write a lot, then inevitably the quality of your writing will improve. But is this necessarily true? I think the answer here is yes … and no. There is no question that if you don’t write then your work won’t get better. But I’m not convinced that increased quantity necessarily produces a rise in the quality of the work.
The second answer is this: Read, read, read. The idea is that by reading widely you will in some way learn lessons about the writing craft which you can then apply to your own work. Again, we need to ask, is this necessarily true. And again the answer is yes … and no.
At school I remember being fed a steady diet of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen … and Chaucer and Shakespeare, of course. But we also read John Steinbeck, Harper Lee and Seamus Heaney, amongst others. Why was there an insistence on almost forcing us to read writers like these? Looking back, I can now see that the idea was that by reading quality writing, we would begin to learn what it is that makes some writing better than the rest.
But in English Literature classes we were not only given quality books to read, we were taught how to read them. We learned to ask questions about what we were reading, questions like: What emotion is the author trying to elicit in her/his reader? What techniques are they using to achieve this? How convincing/successful are the similes and metaphors that the writer is using? In short, we were being taught the basics of critical reading.
It seems to me that the answer to the question what is the single most important thing that you can do to improve your writing is a combination of both writing more and reading both well and critically. I’m hoping to come back to the question of critical reading in the future, but today I’d like to think about reading well, that is reading quality writers.
Almost all of us are aware of the classical poets; Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Robert Burns, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Rumi, Basho … the list goes on. But what about poets who are active today? And as soon as we ask that, we run into difficulties. The biggest problem is this; there are probably more poets active and being published in the world today than ever before. So how can anyone hope to keep up? I can’t keep up with all that is going on in Scottish poetry, let alone in the whole UK poetry scene, so I have no chance at all of keeping abreast of developments in world poetry.
This is where a community like dVerse can help. I have no clue about who is writing quality poetry in New Zealand, Australia, India or South Africa today. I don’t know who is writing quality poetry in Swedish, Spanish, German, French, Hindi, Urdu or other languages, nor whether any of this work might be available in translation … but perhaps you do.
So let me ask: Whose work are you reading? Whose work is inspiring you? Who are you learning from? Whose work do you find yourself returning to again and again? Is there a poet from your part of the world that the rest of us might not have heard of, but that you think we would benefit from reading their work? Please use the comments to answer one or more of these questions, but be aware that you might be asked to write an article about them. (Don’t worry … help will be available … smiles)
By way of kicking things off, I’d like to introduce you to a young contemporary English poet whose work I really admire …
Helen Mort was born in Sheffield and has lived most of her life in Derbyshire, England. She is a five time winner of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award, and her first published, full length collection, Division Street, was shortlisted for both the T.S Eliot Prize and the Costa Book Award in 2013, and won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize in 2014. In 2010 she was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere, England … the youngest poet ever to have received this honour.
Her poetry is full of character … and characters. There is humour and self-aware honesty, a strong sense of place and the importance of community. There are sharp observations about relationships, politics and society, striking images combined with a lightness of touch that enables her to approach difficult, even controversial, subjects as in her poem Thinspiration Shots. Overall there is a richness in her work that keeps me coming back to it again and again … and each time I read one of her poems I find something new in it.
To end this post, here’s one of the poems from Division Street to give you just a flavour of Helen Mort’s work:
You shut the door, drove me to the all-night shops.
I was three weeks late. The air was damp and hot.
Our pale reflections on the black windscreen,
the local radio DJ playing Dancing Queen
and the checkout girl at the superstore
who didn’t look at me, just what I bought.
You pointed out each lit window in town.
Take notes, you said, one day you’ll write this down.
It’s true. Most days, I plunder what I see,
play deaf unless a poem answers me.
When I nod absently at what you’ve said,
I’m thinking of that night instead −
me in the bathroom, long before time,
already squinting for the telltale line.
© Helen Mort
As you might have gathered, Helen Mort is one of my current favourite contemporary poets. Who are your current favourites, maybe from your part of the world? Are there poets from your country whose work could inspire the other members of the dVerse community? And would you be prepared to write a short article about them?
This is Tony Maude signing off for now … with an apology for being late to the Pub tonight; I have to attend a choir practice this evening.