Poetry writing workshops
A series of three writing workshops to generate (and revise!) material for poems you might consider submitting for our 2017 Women’s Poetry Competition.
Your terrible first draft
Those who trust in the integrity of the first draft, stop reading now. Or prepare to have your beliefs severely challenged. There is no such thing as the sacrosanct first draft, which must under no circumstances be changed, for fear of losing something precious and irrecoverable. Writing is a process, and during that process any number of decisions, conscious or otherwise, are made before a single word is written. There’s no mystery about this. Your initial choices may be instinctive, but they are washed through filters of arrogance, influence, self-censorship, experience, fear, understanding, partiality… The list goes on.
Nothing we write is ‘pure’. So let’s disabuse ourselves of that myth and get on with the difficult task of writing. Which means, essentially, rewriting.
Two methods of drafting
There are two basic methods of writing a (terrible) first draft. First, there’s John Braine’s famous white-hot draft approach – or ‘mindspill’, as a young writing student put it during a recent workshop. Forget about punctuation and making sense, and just spill yourself onto the page. Remember: no one else need ever see the result.
Then there’s the slow-mo highly critical rewrite-on-the-go approach, where each word or line is weighed and worried at before the next can be put down. This takes more time than the white-hot approach, but at least your end result should be more polished.
The point is that they are both almost certainly still (terrible) drafts, and still nowhere near ready for submission or publication.
Mindspill and landfill
Whichever drafting method you use, be prepared to adapt it partway through the drafting process. Sometimes a too-fast draft drifts into gibberish: mindspill becomes landfill. Here you need to slow down a bit. Go back and pick out a few lines that play on your imagination and develop them instead. Stay vigilant for unexpected changes in theme or diction; there may be more than one poem in the mix.
Bloodaxe poet Helen Ivory says this about first drafts: ‘I will write snips of things and then arrange them around the screen/notebook in a collage-making way till I find some kind of narrative or thread’.
Rescuing abandoned drafts
Have you ever abandoned a difficult first draft that was going nowhere? One way to retrieve enthusiasm is to copy the original draft into a new file, or write it out again on a fresh piece of paper – and then splurge. Throw down anything you can: phrases, odd words, images that spring to mind, snatches of dialogue, real stream-of-consciousness material. At this stage, it doesn’t need to make sense. A brand-new perspective is your goal.
Don’t rely too much on the screen or tracking changes when revising. Use hard copies (aka paper) where possible. Be messy. Scribble in the margins, circle key phrases, link sections with arrows.
Don’t let uncertainty take hold of you during this process. If this draft isn’t working, what will it matter what you do to it? Remember that you can always return to your original draft if the compass starts spinning too wildly.
Devised for Mslexia by Jane Holland