Hollie McNish

How I Write by Hollie McNish

As a full time writer, I’m often asked to suggest creative writing tasks. In all honesty, I find this very difficult.

I’m sure there are writing exercises I could look up on the internet and copy and paste here and say voila! try these! I thought about doing this and I’m sure they would be useful but I’d feel like a hypocrite. I’ve never done those sorts of exercises myself. I don’t know the effect of set writing tasks and / or the study of poetic technique. I imagine the effect would be that I’d be a more skilled writer! But I can’t change the past! I did study English until A-Level. But then I studied French and German and then Economics at University. I never studied poetry. I think it’s ok that other subjects or interests shape your writing.

So I thought I would write here about what I actually do for inspiration and how I write. In case it’s at all interesting or helpful to anyone.

Firstly, I always carry a notebook with me.

I saw a twitter post last week where a writer I don’t know posted a photo of himself sitting on a veranda overlooking a lushious lake in Canada. The tweet was captioned something like: three months of writing coming up!

This is a lovely thought, but I think, for most people, an impossibility; three months free from social and/or economic duties just to write. If you can do it, do it. If not, carry a notebook everywhere. Scribble when thoughts strike!

I scribble all the time. I tend to think of writing a little like an illustrator (I imagine, though I have no knowledge of this artistry) might practice sketching all the time.

If I think of a line, I write it down. If I think of an image, I write it down. If I think of a theme I’d love to write about but I don’t really know yet how to write about it, I write it down. If I think of a whole idea for a poem. Or just a few words I like the sound of together. And so on.

I call these ‘sketches’ because it takes the pressure off me. It stops me thinking ‘that’s rubbish, Hollie’ every time I write something. It helps me to remember that just as an artist practices and practices their drawings, sometimes in little specific sections, sometimes whole pictures at a time, sometimes outlines they might colour in later – so this is what I’m doing with my writing. I’m practising all the time. And enjoying it. The minute I don’t enjoy writing, I will stop. I ignore the concept of writer’s block. If I’ve nothing to say for a while, I won’t write anything. The only caveat in this rule is when I have commissioned pieces to do but in all honestly, I think these more forced poems are mostly my worst ones!

Secondly, I always carry a book with me. Not a notebook, but a book book; something that someone else has written. Someone whose writing I admire a lot.

Although I’ve put it second here, this is no less important to me than the continuous sketching. Read. Or listen to audio versions if reading isn’t your thing.

I tend to write at very random times during the day. But if I do have a day when I have some actual time set aside to do some writing, I don’t want to waste it, but I find it very, very difficult just to sit down in front of a blank page and write spontaneously. I guess it’s in these sorts of moments where others may suggest doing some creative writing exercises and I’m sure that would work too. But what I do to start any writing time, is I pick up a book and I read a bit.

Undoubtedly, the more I read, the more I write. Fact or Fiction. I tend to choose a book relevant to what I’m trying to write. Not in theme, more in technique. I often choose the same books each time, because they seem to spark me into action.

For example, when I’m working on my short stories, I often read the first chapter of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Or even just the first page. I love the opening of this book. I love the character of the narrator. This is also a favourite book of mine to choose at times like this because it reminds of that magic, excited feeling I got as a kid when finding new stories I loved.

I was given this book by an older woman, who lived down my road when I was a kid, and looked after me sometimes after school. The front cover sleeve is gold (ripped in many places now) and the writing inside it is in that fancy old-fashioned calligraphy style. I remember feeling so damn special when I got given it, and reading it now reminds me of that feeling. I don’t always choose this book, and I often read a few bits of a few different books, but you get the idea!

If I want to work on editing poems I’ve been sketching away on, I most often pick up anthologies like Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive, to stare at all the craftwork involved in writing poetry. For some reason, I find reading poetry by poets who write in totally different ways to myself more helpful. I often pick up Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake.

If I want to remind myself that I think poetry can be very powerful, very practical at times, then I’ll possibly read Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, or listen to the lyrics to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ or Shakira’s song ‘Whenever, Wherever’. This last example isn’t really due to the fact I think it is a poetic masterpiece but more because, growing up with an often teased flat chest, the lyrics ‘my breasts are small and humble / so you don’t confuse them with mountains’ had a greater effect on my self-confidence as a young girl than anything else I read or listened to.

Finally, if I want to work on a theme, I go to the library and take out books on that theme. I research. At the moment it is all First World War and Football related.

That’s it really.

That’s my writing technique. I have no idea if this is in any way helpful to share.

One final thing: when I say ‘I carry a notebook’ with me, my notebook is not always a paper one. It’s often the ‘notebook’ on my phone.

I love writing on computers as much as on paper. I like being able to copy and paste and cut and look up words and search thesauruses online while I write.

At gigs, I sometimes see people reading poems from phones. Every time this happens, they apologise for doing so. They are normally younger readers. I hate this apology. I think we need to get over this idea that anything that doesn’t involve a quill and an inkpot is somehow not as thought-through or relevant as literature. It doesn’t matter to me where or on what you write, or indeed, in what mediums or on which social platforms or in which literary magazines or stages or writing groups you share what you’ve written. What matters is the writing itself.

Anyways, that’s by the by.

Keep on: reading and listening and sketching and editing x 

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