Tag Archives: Simon Armitage

On Cabbages and Trombones – Making Language Strange

The expression ‘cabbages and trombones’ was one used by the poet Ian Macmillan at a recording of a poetry radio show which I went to see with a friend a while back, and the phrase stuck with me.  He was talking about how poets seek to make language strange and startling, how they seek to use it to weave a rich tapestry of image and idea.  That, after all, is the purpose of poetry, to enrich our experience of life with pattern and syllable.

The concept chimed with me again when my husband was wrestling with a writing problem of his own.  Besides being an academic, he runs an online whisky company, and occasionally works as a whisky writer.  He had been asked to contribute reviews of a variety of whiskies for this book.  Little bottles duly began to arrive in the post every morning, and off he went at a rate of three or so per evening.  Everything was fine for the first thirty tests or so.  But then he began to run out of descriptors.  Just how many new adjectives can you come up with when you’ve got 60 whiskies to review?  They can’t all taste of TCP or green jelly babies.  Can each review really be different from the last?

And today, as I busy myself with planning my new writing schedule, and working on new stories, it has come back again.

Experts say those with a college education generally have about 12,000-17,000 words in their vocabulary, but as writers we need to have far more and we need to use them in unusual and riveting ways.  I realise that I have dropped into the habit of reading very little but fanfiction, and if you are a fanfiction reader yourself, you will know that there are a lot of linguistic ruts involved.  Favourite words include laving, ravishing, carding (of luxuriant hair), trembling and so on.  No fanfic is complete without somebody emitting ‘ragged breath’.  If you have read enough of these, you begin to spot the clichés.  If you read too many, they scream out of the screen at you.  (I hold my hands up and say I am as guilty as any of falling into this trap!)

The trouble is that if you don’t read more widely than just what other people write on the internet, your vocabulary stays static.  This is what mine has been doing.  Now I am writing again on a daily basis, I have realised how stagnant my linguistic skills have become.  Of course, its not just words, but metaphors and similes.  I need to polish up my style, make it strange and new.  I need to expand my consumption, and open my mind.

 WARNING:  Incoming Master Plan for Expanding Lingustic Skills:

I’m taking a two-pronged attack:

  1. Widen my reading
  2. Use my notebook at all times

I’ve been reading just fanfics and nonfiction all summer, and its been a long time since I actually finished a proper novel.  You can’t be a writer if you don’t read.  Mostly I just read at bed time, a few paragraphs to help me drift off.  But I need to take Stephen King’s sage advice:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Stephen King, “On Writing”,

Hodder and Stoughton (2000) p164

 Of course, I’ve got a whole pile of books lying around, waiting to be ploughed through.  Top of the pile are ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern, and ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan.  I don’t especially like McEwan, but I am determined not to let this bloody book defeat me.  It’s the third time I’ve tried to read it, after all, and I refuse to be beaten!

I have also decided to follow Ian Macmillan’s advice.  Poetry is the way to go.  I’m not a reader of poetry – I’ve barely read any since my degree – but if you want to know about making language strange, go to the experts.  I went to the library yesterday and got out two collections, one of Ted Hughes, and one of Simon Armitage, because I had heard of them.  I’ll let you know if it works.

The second prong (I love that word, don’t you?) is more nebulous.  Out comes my little red Moleskine.  I need to think about how I am going to get the ball rolling on this particular aspect, but just jotting down a few ideas on what the weather feels like, smells like, tastes like, or overheard conversations, or the colours of shadows, might be a good start.  Again, I’ll let you know how I get on.

In the meantime, here’s to cabbages and trombones.  And whisky that tastes of TCP and green jelly babies.  Both of which have taught me a lot about writing.

(Incidentally, you may like to know that I am currently publishing a new fanfic called ‘A Shadow of His Former Self’.  You can find it here at A03, and here at Fanfiction.net.  I hope it takes your fancy.)

Happy creating,

EF

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The Writing Life: Literary festivals

Finding your tribe as a writer, or in any kind of creative endeavour, is an important thing to do.  Being around other writers provides support and inspiration, and I think it’s a crucial thing to do.  Writing can be a very solitary activity, and its no surprise to find that many writers suffer from depression.  You try sitting on your own every day for six months of the year and see how it affects your mental health!  Its important to get out.

Literary Festivals and author signings are a really good way to fill your well and get affirmation for your work.  Maybe you won’t be able to present what you’ve written to other people, but being around those who are interested in the same things as you, undergoing similar challenges, really helps.

As a writer, you also need to gauge the market and be aware of your contemporaries’ work.  Reading is an important thing to do, and if you really love writing, you will love reading just as much!  Literary festivals give you a chance to be exposed to books you might never pick up otherwise, to hear authors speak about their work, and to ask questions about their writing process.   Think about it – a huge reservoir of inspiration and knowledge out there, just waiting for you to tap into it.  Why would you not?

Your local bookshop will probably have readings by authors scheduled, and these are worth attending because they are more intimate, and allow you more personal access.

Check the culture and review sections of newspapers, and the ads in writing magazines, as well as noticeboards in libraries, for details of the bigger events and festivals.  Some music festivals are starting to have literary strands too, so keep your eyes peeled.

My nearest festival in the one at the University of East Anglia, but its slightly different from a three day or week-long event, in that it studs two university terms with readings by authors, playwrights, poets and journalists.  This gives a wide variety of speakers over a six month period, and allows me to attend where I want, and to absorb what I learn over time.  And because it is such a prestigious centre for creative writing, it attracts some seriously big names.

I have attended events with Arthur Miller, Jeanette Winterson, Rose Tremain, Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney, Iain Banks (need you ask!), Rachel Cusk, Alan Hollingshurst, Isabelle Allende, Richard E Grant and many others.  I went under sufferance with a friend to see Ian McEwan, whose writing I hate, only to be utterly charmed and instantly determined to reread everything he has written.  And I saw Doris Lessing the week after she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  She was feisty, fascinating, and marvellous despite obviously being in terrible pain, and she tore the rather pompous interviewer to shreds, which was very satisfying.  At the end she received a spontaneous and heartfelt standing ovation, and I actually found myself crying.  You can’t find better inspiration than that!

Be warned, however.  Sometimes your idols can prove to have clay feet.  I went to see Graham Swift, whose books ‘Waterland’ and ‘Last Orders’ I had adored.  He read so badly, and was so miserably boring, that I felt insulted enough to vow never to read another one of his books.  And I haven’t.

Brett Easton Ellis was a writer whom I had worshipped since reading his work for my degree.  I clamoured to get a ticket to see him.  And now I can’t remember a thing about him, not even what he looked like, and certainly nothing of what he said.

I generally come away from these events feeling inspired and excited about doing new work, full of ideas and hope for the future.  It can be a dangerous game, however.  Be prepared, if you go to an author reading, to feel insignificant, and that you work is poor and will never be published.  It happens sometimes, though less often the more you write, and it will pass.

The important thing, however, is to go.  Attend events with even the least known authors, since they are often the ones who will inspire you the most.  (And one day, you might be up there too, so it adds to your own karma to support other people!)  Ask questions, and read the books.  This will enrich your own work, as well as introducing you to writing you might never have experienced otherwise.

Challenge yourself.  I don’t really do poetry, but went along with a poet friend of mine to see readings by several poets, and was enchanted.  I’ll never be a poet, but this form has opened my mind to the possibilities of language, and I’m so grateful.

Finding your tribe, and being amongst other writers is important.  It helps you feel part of a joint creative endeavour, but it also feeds your Muse.  There is a whole world of wonderful written joy out there, and literary festivals area an easy way into it.

Happy listening!

EF