I was very honoured when my writing mentor John Simmons asked me to guest post on his blog 26 Fruits. I frequently refer to his books on writing, including 26 Ways of looking at a Blackberry in my job as a copywriter, and always look forward to his weekly posts.
So this week, having made a return to writing about running, it feels very appropriate to redirect you to John’s blog, where you’ll find my guest post on the connections between running and writing.
How the different communities I’m part of inspire my writing for business and personal enjoyment.
Writing is often perceived as a solitary occupation, and there are times when all I need is my notebook and a pen. Having worked as a journalist in radio and TV newsrooms, writing copy for the next bulletin against the background of on air broadcasts, telephones ringing and a dozen conversations going on at once, for me, even peace and quiet is optional. Although I do prefer it if I have thinking to do.
But recently I’ve been reflecting on communities and how the different ones I belong to all inspire my writing.
I’m part of the running and triathlon community in the North East of England and beyond. Through doing parkrun, races and by being a member of a very friendly online running site, I can pretty much guarantee that if I turn up at a local race, I’ll see someone I know.
I started to write about local races as a way of recording my own progress, or to remember a particular feature of a race, such as leg-sapping sand or a steep hill, for the next time. So it’s lovely when I get comments from other runners who read my race reports and say they’ve helped them.
Running also brought me back to personal writing after a long break away from it. I believe my professional writing is richer for it.
I’ve felt more part of a writing community since joining 26. The regular newsletters, articles and suggestions for books to read or things to see are a great source of inspiration. As too are the opportunities to get involved in 26 creative writing projects.
I jumped in first as a writer, contributing a piece for 26 Characters as part of a magical exhibition at the Story Museum in Oxford. Then more recently, I co-edited 26 Under A Northern Sky with Sandy Wilkie and got the opportunity to work with other amazing writers to launch a collection of creative writing inspired by a train journey from Newcastle to Glasgow and the music of Nick Drake.
I’m delighted that this project is currently taking on a life of its own, beyond my editorial influence, as writers are recording their pieces and adding them to an online soundscape.
Community is also a theme in John Simmons’ beautiful debut novel, ‘Leaves’ – my current reading material. It’s set on one street in London in the 1970s. The characters observed and imagined by the narrator looking back at events in his life.
I have only just started reading, and admit, I’m trying to ration my time among the pages, as I have a flight and airport time coming up and I know the inhabitants of Ophelia Street will be welcome company.
John has been posting a daily extract from the book on Twitter, which is a delightful tease. Each sentence seems to offer a short story in itself, but has left me wanting to read more. It merits a slow, careful reading to savour every word.
Here’s a taster from the first chapter:
“In January, we used to say, you saw Ophelia Street in its natural colours. Wintergrey hung like a fog; window boxes lay dormant.”
Finally there’s my real community. The place where I live. Within five minutes walk from my front door, I can be among a range of small businesses, from coffee and gift shops, to restaurants, guest houses, food outlets, and an art gallery.
I enjoy a browse and a chance to talk to the people behind these largely independent and local businesses. They provide great resources, for me, not just in the goods that I buy and the contribution they make to the local economy, but also as inspiration for my business writing.
In seeking to de-bunk the jargon of business software, I often think to myself, ‘How would I explain this to the lady that runs the deli?’ Or ‘How would this help in the chocolate shop?’
I may not know the detailed ins and outs of their businesses, but keeping the people of my local business community in mind grounds what I write in reality. And that helps what I write about business sound authentic and human.
I gave blood yesterday. There’s sometimes a bit of a wait, so I grabbed a book to pass the time. Having finished my most recent fictional treat, I picked one off my desk – Room 121 by John Simmons and Jamie Jauncey.
The front cover proclaims it “a masterclass in writing and communication in business”. I say it’s a really good read.
It takes the form of a dialogue, a conversation between the two writers, sharing their thoughts, wisdom and experience of writing for many different kinds of business. And having spent many wonderful hours in their company on a couple of Dark Angels writing courses, I can hear John and Jamie’s voices in my head as I read it.
I opened it at random to find John speaking to Jamie about the joy of writing (page 119 if you’re interested). As a copywriter for a large company, it’s sometimes something hard for me to find. It’s a challenge to keep things fresh when you’re covering the same subjects or writing about the same products over a sustained period of time.
But I find ways. Sometimes I take a sideways approach, starting a draft in a deliberately different style, or with a word chosen at random from a nearby book. Or I begin the assault on the blank page by free writing, just spending 15 minutes or so taking my pen for a walk, writing non stop, banishing the inner editor and seeing where it takes me. There’s usually a phrase or combination of words, a nugget that gives me a way in to the next, more focused draft.
Yesterday’s moment of joy came from using the word ‘palaver’ in a piece I was writing. Palaver – what a wonderful playful word. Doesn’t it just make you smile? Don’t you want to say it? To feel it tumble around your mouth?
It’s not a word you might expect to see in a piece of business writing. But it was a direct quote from a customer, a fish and chip shop owner describing the experience of using his software saying: “There’s no faff. There’s no palaver.” Perfect. Real words. Authentic, natural and robust language. They gave me a small moment of joy. I reckon we need more of that in business writing.
I’ve been thinking recently about how a sense of place influences my writing.
In September I spent four glorious days on a Dark Angels creative writing in business course in Aracena, Spain. My fellow writers all drew on the landscape, the history and the culture of the area to produce some highly imaginative and creative writing. It was truly magical to hear the different voices and interpretations of the exercises we did together during the day and to revel in a final evening of stories and performances.
The first day, we used a passage from Don Quixote as inspiration, and along with the warm sunshine, good company and relaxed atmosphere, it’s encouraged my recent writing to take on a rather lyrical, allegorical tone.
Compare and contrast with a few years ago, when I visited Japan. There my writing took on the style of the haiku. Pared back. Economical. Each word working hard. Packed with meaning. I have a notebook filled with poems and scraps of free verse from my time there. And when I think of Japan, that’s the kind of language that fills my mental landscape.
I’ve also recently written a piece about where I live. For this I drew on both the geographical setting of the river that runs nearby, and the voices of its history. For this is an area of rich voices, identifiable by their distinctive accent. I wasn’t born here, so it’s not my accent; but listening to The Unthanks sing of the shipyards, I can fair see the bulkheads blocking out the daylight or hear the pounding of boots on the slipway.
Professionally I write for one client. One tone of voice. But it has to have something of all these voices. It has to be economical, because I write for busy people who want me to get to the point. But it cannot be too obscure. They cannot be expected to work hard to find the meaning.
So, I look for the phrases that will surprise and delight. The words that show there’s a real human being behind those marks on the paper or screen. Sometimes that means a change of rhythm or pace. Sometimes it’s a colloquial phrase – something you’d actually say.
Though I have to be careful not to be too colloquial. I was recently asked to rewrite a line where I used ‘tea’ in the northern sense of ‘dinner’ or a meal you have in the evening. After all, not all our customers are northerners.
I’ve been asked if writing for one client can get boring. It can be a challenge certainly, to keep it fresh and interesting when covering the same themes. But there’s always a new way of looking at things, new insights from our customers or new influences from the wider world to take on board.
And when I spend some time thinking about my writing, I can see that I do adopt different voices – at work, on my blog, and in my personal writing. They’re all slightly different, but all part of me. And they’re all influenced by people I’ve met, places I’ve visited. To me, it’s a rich source of inspiration.
Does a sense of place influence your writing too?
If you want to know more about what happens on a Dark Angels writing course, tutor John Simmons describes it beautifully in his latest blog post.
That was my favourite word on Tuesday. It sounds like a tree full of chimpanzees with a bowl of trifle.
A perfect word for a day of travelling north on the train. Watching the waves and the rain through the window. Arriving in Edinburgh to the skirl of the pipes and a bustle of excitement at visiting the Book Festival.
Meeting Lesley in a whirl of a hug and setting off walking, talking ten to the dozen. Drifting through the street theatre, finding a warm café and settling down with cake and coffee and more chat.
Dodging the raindrops and ducking into the gallery in search of art and landscapes and portraits that looked freshly painted. Smiling at Vincent’s silver trees and light shadows between the clouds on a hillside.
Parting with plans ready made for another meeting. And then solo, finding my way through the street magic to a quiet enclave of tents, books and stories.
My favourite writer greeted with affection by an appreciative crowd. Remembering the last time we were together in this place when two mischievous authors tested the skills of the sign language interpreter. Mr Gaiman tells his enraptured gathering of short stories that won’t stay short. Of the old country over the duckpond. Of the older country that sank and the even older one that blew up.
Speaking with affection for one of his best loved characters and how she came about. Mixing the inherent sexism of language, with the essence of a myth of the beauty of death. “It’s a great job. It gets you out and about. You get to meet people. You get to meet everyone.”
Of the unprompted applause when he speaks of The Doctor’s Wife and the best ever answer to the question, “What’s your favourite book?”
And stories, stories, stories. Those told and loved. Those waiting for the right moment. The rare one that came dream bound and perfect. Going to Hell in a hot air balloon. Vikings sailing to Jerusalem. A wild head full of dark, bright imaginings and always the promise of more.
And later still, more writers, more words from Dark AngelsJamie Jauncey and John Simmons. Words loved and hated. Words mangled out of meaning. And the clear sharp minds that cut through like a skater on a lake. A reminder that writing should be kind, human. That being a writer is about simply being. Right now in the moment.
When I return home, much later and more weary, a million shades and colours dance in my dreams.