The Scribbler

21 October 2015

Wordstock 2015 – a festival of words and creative fun

Filed under: 26,words,writing — The Scribbler @ 12:46
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Wordstock, the annual gathering of members of 26 is a place where words bubble up into a rich and fragrant stew; where the tick of time inspires the tock of activity. Where we celebrate creativity, learn, laugh and fire up new writing projects for the next 12 months.

I arrived a little late at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon, so missed the opening celebrations of projects that 26 writers have taken part in during 2015, including 26 Pairs of Eyes, 26 Under a Northern Sky and 26 Children’s Winters.

Think like a poet

Thinking poetically

But I was there for the launch of the latest, which I’m also involved in. Over the next 26 weeks, 26 postcodes will reveal a sestude inspired by a postcode together with the story behind it. Gillian Colhoun kicked things off by reading her piece, based on the Gaelic football ground where Seamus Heaney played. My own contribution, based on Dove Cottage, the Lake District home of William and Dorothy Wordworth, will appear next year.

The day was split into a series of sessions, with a choice of workshops in the morning and afternoon. I first opted for Rishi Dastidar‘s session. As head of verbal identity at BrandPie and a published poet, he’s a mash up of Don Draper and Byron and showed us four ways to use poetry techniques in copywriting.

A packed session, full of useful content and some speedy writing. And I’ve already used one of the techniques to inspire a new brand name. Who says you can’t measure the value of inspiration?

Next up, more poetry from spoken word artist and Barnes’ answer to Eminem Charlie Du Pre. He serenaded us on ukulele, and left us wondering why we’ve never heard rhymes like:  ‘I engage with lots of faces pretty much on a daily basis’, before. Fast-paced, funny and rapping genius.

I spent the afternoon session with independent copywriter, author and trainer, Roger Horberry who loves alliteration even more than I do. He demonstrated that the forms of rhetoric pack a punch in modern marketing. And, for this writer at least, brought back memories of studying Spenser, Donne and Pope at university.

Images of the number 26

Celebrating the best in writing at 26

Self-styled biblio-fundamentalist Andy Miller was next, sharing his experience of actually reading the books that he always wanted to and some he even pretended he had. He finished by ‘persuading’ a handful of 26ers to commit to reading their own choice of books. For my part, I’ve signed up to read John Buchan’s 39 Steps, spurred on by another conversation I had during the day.

The final session was a fascinating insight into storytelling from John Yorke, former Eastenders script editor and head of drama at BBC and Channel 4. I love a good bit of story-theory and this so much fired up my interest that I’ve been looking for the mid points and reversals of fortune in every TV drama I’ve watched since.

I learned something new too. Did you know that the acts in Shakespeare plays were determined by the length of time it took to burn a candle?

Last time I came to Wordstock, I was introduced to the music of Nick Drake and on the journey home, sparked the idea that became 26 Under A Northern Sky along with co-conspirator Sandy Wilkie. This time we collaborated again and have put forward another idea that we both hope will be adopted as another creative brief.

I really couldn’t have asked more from a packed day of words, writers and mind-blowing creativity. The train journey north wasn’t nearly enough time to process it all. And the pile of books on my reading list has grown by at least 3 volumes. If you can make it next year, I heartily recommend it.

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13 October 2015

Seeking inspiration

Filed under: words,writing — The Scribbler @ 19:39
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In the world of business writing you’ll find plenty of objectives, measures and rationale. Sometimes they even sit alongside insights, research and objectives. And they always come with deadlines. But I’ve rarely found much creative inspiration.

Little wonder really when you think about how hard it is to measure and quantify. What’s the ROI of a book? How much value did watching that film bring to the project? What’s the cost per idea ratio?

Creative inspiration can’t be easily quantified and defies attempts to render it into the boxes of a spreadsheet.

And yet, it’s that spark, that different way of looking at things, that new metaphor that my marketing customers are searching for and hope that creative teams will supply.

As a writer, its almost as hard for me to quantify its importance in terms of how it makes me feel or inspires me to think and write. Except to say that it is.

Performers at the Edinburgh Fringe festival

Performers at the Edinburgh Fringe festival

And that’s why I make an effort to seek it out, enjoy it and expect nothing from it. Yet it’s proved its worth beyond measure.

My yearly trips to the Edinburgh Book Festival are a liberal dousing of inspiration. The speakers, events and readings a rich seam, along with travelling there to take in the sights, sounds and general hullaballoo of the fringe – a huge outpouring of creative energy.

Art, theatre, cinema, music, travel, nature – these have all supplied inspiration in their time. And when all else fails I’ll read. Stories will never fail me.

On Sunday, I went to hear Simon Armitage at the Durham Book festival. He was talking about and reading from his latest prose work, based on walking part of the South West coast, relying on strangers for food and lodging and giving poetry readings at his stopping points. Themes of journey and return. Of language and experience. Of travelling in the landscape, encountering strangers. Of simultaneously craving company and wanting to be alone.

I filled a page of my notebook with phrases and filled my head with even more thoughts and ideas which may spark and grow. What will become of them, it’s too early to say. Even when I write I may not realise that’s where the idea came from.

But I was able to thank Simon Armitage for helping me find a way in to a piece of personal writing. I first encountered his poem ‘Not the Furniture Game’ http://www.simonarmitage.com/kid.html on a Dark Angels course. It’s a striking, harsh and rich piece in its own right, and when  used as a loose framework for our own creative writing, produced deep, emotional responses. It’s an exercise I’ve repeated on subsequent courses, with different objects, and it’s always bubbled up beautiful, touching and expressive images.

It helped me find a way into a personal piece I was finding impossible to write. When draft after draft nothing fit, everything sounded trite and cliched, I used the structure and exercise to unlock a way in. Sometimes that’s all it takes – a nudge in the right direction.

This weekend I’m off to Wordstock for another dose of inspiration. A journey, the fellowship of fellow writers, and a chance to listen and enjoy a range of different talks and sessions. Last time, it inspired the amazing 26 Under a Northern Sky collection.

Where do you find your creative inspiration?

3 August 2015

Words are part of the landscape

Filed under: words — The Scribbler @ 11:00
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Walter Scott quote: "Love will subsist on wonderfully little ope, but not altogether without it"

Quotations from Walter Scott greet travellers at Waverley Station

I have travel on my mind at the moment. Unlike many, I’m not planning on jetting off on a summer holiday soon, but I am planning a few day trips, including time in Edinburgh.

In a couple of weeks’ time, I’ll be indulging myself at the Book Festival, and the Fringe. I have tickets for a few events and for the rest, will take the approach of turning up to see what I can get into.

I love spending time in Edinburgh. It’s far enough away to feel like an adventure, but not so far that I’m in danger of jet lag. There always feels like there’s lots to see, do and explore, no matter how many times I’ve visited. I generally walk my feet off getting from place to place.

I really enjoy the way the city wears its literature. It’s inescapable. From the Writer’s Museum to the Storytelling Centre; from the book festival to literary walking tours and pub crawls, you cannot avoid the fact that this is a Unesco City of Literature.

Many locations, street names and areas are familiar to me from reading. From Walter Scott to Alexander McCall Smith, Muriel Spark to JK Rowling, it’s been home and inspiration to many writers.

Decorative window poem in Edinburgh

Poetry brought to life in window art

When I step off the train at Waverley, I half imagine I’ll meet some of their characters as I explore. I swear one day, I’ll see Rebus somewhere about town.

Even if you were unaware of its literary connections, words pour out onto the streets. You’ll find them etched on buildings, woven into window frames and hidden among the street furniture. It’s like a secret code that speaks to readers like me. It makes me smile as I encounter a poem that others pass by and never notice.

My last visit there introduced me to a beautiful poem, November Night by Scottish writer Norman MacCaig, that I discovered on the side of a planter. In the height of a Scottish summer, it reminded me of the realities of its winter.

Here is the first verse, which I craned my neck to read on the street:

“The night tinkles like ice in glasses.
Leaves are glued to the pavement with frost.
The brown air fumes at the shop windows,
Tries the doors, and sidles past.”

I wish more cities did this kind of thing. Poetry as part of the landscape is far more appealing than when it’s stuffed into study books. It’s unlikely that I’d have found this verse and its companions if I hadn’t chanced upon it. And I feel richer for it.

As I visit again this summer, I’ll be on the look out for more words on the street.

9 July 2015

Communication challenges

I spent much of the weekend near Ashbourne in the beautiful Peak District this weekend, volunteering as a bike marshal at the Care Construction Challenge.

The event saw more than 50 people assemble as teams and take to Carsington Water in kayaks. Then jumping on mountain bikes for a 21 miles cycle on roads and trails; stopping off for a 5 mile run up and down and up a nettle-filled river path, and tackling mental, physical, memory and teamwork challenges along the way.

Bicyle propped against a stone wall

One of the views along High Peak trail

Everyone was there to support the work of Care International, a charity that currently works in 74 countries helping people find their way out of poverty. They provide immediate life-saving assistance and are often the first on the ground after natural disasters like the earthquake in Nepal and help people rebuild their lives afterwards.

I got my marshal briefing notes via email before I arrived. It was a comprehensive document detailing roles, responsibilities, tasks and timings. With a large team of volunteers and a lot of ground to cover, many of us were taking on different roles in various locations throughout the day. On reading the notes, I remarked that everything had been planned like a military operation. I later learned the writer was a former Marine.

These communications were ideal for me. As a great reader and traditional verbal learner, I was able to retain and repeat the information, even down to the important detail that packed lunches would be available on the day.

The teams took part in a number of communication challenges throughout the day, including one where a team member had to instruct their team on how to construct a model house out of straws and tinfoil without talking to them.

But the biggest communication challenge was provided by our environment. Despite being well equipped with radios, spare batteries and multiple mobile phones, getting messages between the various marshal points was very patchy due to the undulating hills and dales.

I arrived at my first marshal point to find that no one could hear to respond to my radio call, and that with only  minimal signal on my mobile phone, I could only send text messages, and they arrived hours after being sent.

High Peak Trail, Derbyshire

One of the flatter parts of the cycle route

We’d marked out the cycle route the previous day using orange arrows – no text or words needed. These were visible in the misty morning and (mostly) sent competitors in the right direction.

Standing at the road crossing, ready to count all the riders through and direct them onto the next part of the trail, I was able to hear them approaching long before I could see them as they toiled up a series of climbs, encouraging each other and issuing huge sighs of relief when the ground finally levelled out.

The team who turned up wearing dresses over their cycle gear were communicating that they were out for a good time and had a joke and smile at every check point. Those kitted out in team hoodies were well organised and supportive, sticking together, helping each other on the tough climbs and generally being all round good sports. They deservedly took home the trophy for best fundraisers.

Even when no one was speaking, there was communication through touch and body language – a pat on the back after a tough section, a hand up out of the ravine, or a wry roll of the eyes at yet another hilly section.

These very human, simple, one-to-one communications were ultimately the most successful. They were slower paced than modern technology usually allows, but no less effective for it. Messages were relayed along the route, radio to radio, or person to person via bike and car, keeping the communications moving along the line.

After testing endurance, memory, communication and teamwork, everyone made it to the finish, and all had a story to tell.

Watch a video of the Care Construction Challenge 2015

4 May 2015

The mind seeks meaning

Filed under: copy writing,writing — The Scribbler @ 10:45
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Meaning. It’s something our minds instinctively reach out for. I was reminded of this whilst listening to some music as I worked on a piece of writing last week. The lyrics of a familiar song took on a new resonance, because of what I was writing about, and I discovered a meaning in them that I hadn’t noticed before.

As human beings we are supremely adept at recognising patterns and seeking out connections. I once took part in a writing exercise that demonstrates this beautifully.

Basho's house, Japan

The home of Japanese haiku writer, Basho

As a group, we were each asked to write a haiku – a Japanese verse form of three lines, made up of five, seven and five syllables. We wrote the last line separately from the first two, then mixed them up and paired them at random to form a new haiku.

You might think the results would be meaningless. But it was amazing how often the last line, although written by someone thinking of an entirely different subject, fitted perfectly and how it drew out new themes from the ones that preceeded it. That was a result of our minds creating connections, seeking out meaning.

Of course, in business writing, you don’t want to make a customer have to work as hard as we did with our haiku to discover the message you’re trying to convey.

Straight, clear, simple and direct is the best way to ensure attention from busy eyes surrounded by thousands of messages every day. Yet there still needs to be space for the reader to get involved and create meaning for themselves.

I use an example in my writing workshops of a message that, in trying to tell you what a complex product does, actually blurs any kind of understanding, because it bombards you with a paragraph of over 40 words. It ends up being empty verbage, and so difficult to read that people get stuck half way through and have to go back to the beginning to try and make any sense of it.

In its over exuberance, trying to tell you everything you ever needed to know in one go, it loses connection with its audience. It’s not helped by the fact that it’s a single sentence full of meaningful sounding, but intangible words like flexibility, stability and strategic.

Connecting with an audience, is often about helping them make the mental leap to think ‘that applies to me’. Using tangible terms really helps. So, for example, showing how something could “help you work just as well in the office as out of it”, rather than using an intangible word like ‘flexibility’, can really help your readers understand what it would be like to use the product or service.

If, as a writer, I can make someone think ‘yes, that’s just like me…’  or ‘I’d like that…’, then I’ve caught their attention and they’re more likely to carry on reading to discover more.

2 May 2012

The Trees

Filed under: words — The Scribbler @ 21:09
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I was pointed to this splendid poem by Philip Larkin today:

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Larkin’s poem struck me as absolutely perfect today. And it reminded me of something I wrote, inspired by my travels to Japan where I saw the spring cherry blossom or sakura.

Sakura

Joy explodes.
From swollen joints,
Pink and white petals boom
A reminder,
The ancient are still young at heart.
“Come enjoy!”
“Today there is life and beauty.”
“Is that not enough?”
Light-hearted blossoms have no cares
Except being
Living the moment.
Ichi-nichi issho
Within each day is a lifetime.

22 February 2012

Recovery run

Filed under: run,words — The Scribbler @ 19:55
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The wind, clear, cold and fresh. A warning.
A thin ache in my arch, like lumps in watered down milk.
I step out cautiously, willing it to clear.

Stepping through the motions, doing what I must.
Movement calms me
And breathe, relax.

Out along the edges, the wind pushes, challenges.
I welcome its resistance, encouraging slowness.
I run.

A minute flies and I’m earthbound again
Heading into the darkness for another turn
Resisting thoughts of other times, other daybreaks
Just being here, and now.

The path stretches far ahead
I turn back before it pulls me on.
Head over heart this time.

Pale streaks of brightness over the ink black sea.
Lifted.
Barely a murmur in the earliness. Just breath and feet.
And the swish of my hair against a bright nylon collar.

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