The art of brief writing

Sunset over Bristol Channel
Ogmore by Sea Sunset

I’ve always found writing really easy, which is just as well because I’ve been doing a lot of it just recently.   I’ve been taking notes at seminars, mentoring a creative writing student on her memoirs, doing critical reading for someone writing a crime novel, working on the drafts of my own book and then got invited to take part in the Interior Monologues exhibition at Oriel y Bont , University of South Wales.  I mentioned this venture in last month’s blog but since then I’ve been to the opening night and, along with the other writers, I had the opportunity to read my work to an audience.  It was an interesting project to be involved in not just from the creative point of view but also because there was a strict limitation on the amount of writing which could be submitted – just one A4 sheet of paper.  This got me thinking about the techniques writers can use when their work is brief in length or as a brief, in content.  Here are some of my suggestions:

Choose your words carefully

School photograph
Me at 11

At Secondary school I had an English teacher called Mrs Evans.  This is next bit is not me being deliberately insulting but I need you to get the picture of her – she was fat, grubby, had unruly white hair, nicotine stained fingers and she wore shapeless dresses bound around the middle with mismatched belts.  The worst thing about her was that she sucked toffees as she was marking homework so exercise books were often returned with dribbles of syrup sticking the pages together.  The best thing about her was that she was a brilliant teacher.  One day she set us the challenge of writing in praise of someone who we liked but without using the word ‘nice’ anywhere in the composition.  It was a word, she said, which had been so over-used that its contribution to expression was redundant and that if the world wasn’t careful, nice as both a word and a concept would become meaningless.  Hmmm – watching the febrile shenanigans of politicians in this country at the moment, she could be right.

Understand and respect the context 

Based on Gone with the wind
Rose drew this in 1946

Yesterday I was sorting some stuff out and came across my late mother’s sketchbook.  The drawings inside were made in 1946, when she was 20 years old.  They are colourful, simplistic and not very good technically speaking.  More interesting to me is that they are naive to the point of being immature, almost as if they had been drawn by a child.  I think there’s something about them that speaks loudly about the way in which a creative outlet can shape the way in which we deal with unpleasant experiences.  As a girl of 14, Rose was sent into service to an aristocratic family in England; at 17 she returned to Port Talbot to nurse her ailing father and for the last two years of the Second World War, she worked as an usherette at the local cinema, running the two miles home every night in blackout with German bombers flying overhead seeking out the docks and industries of nearby Swansea.  As my teenage years were spent in a slump of sullen laziness punctuated by the occasional tantrum, I am in awe of young people who suspend their childhood to deal with a ravaged reality and can still draw pretty pictures.

Transport the reader to another place

Frog on trail
Frog in danger

I fell out of love with running last December and just recently I’ve been trying to rekindle my enthusiasm.  How better and where better to do this than by returning to one of my favourite places in South Wales, the gorgeous Afan Forest Park.  In my twenties I applied to become a voluntary ranger here but changed my mind when the other interviewee turned up wearing army fatigues, a bullet proof vest and with handcuffs dangling from his belt.  In my thirties I orienteered in and out of the woodland glades, sun rays dappling the pine strewn tracks.  In my forties I remember one fabulous experience of running on the trail from Abercregan to Pontrhydyfen in heavy snow that blanketed all of the familiarity out of the world.  Sadly there’s been precious little of the white stuff around here this winter.  On the February day I pulled on my trainers and set out to follow the track up towards Cymer before coming back on the other side of the valley, the weather was gloriously spring like.  My plan worked and as I listened to my footsteps on the coarse gravel track and the plaintive mewing of Red Kites overhead, I slipped back into a cosy affection with running.  The relentless rhythm of moving forward under your own steam strengthens your senses and heightens your power of observation.  How else on a 5 metre wide stony track could I have spotted this tiny frog in enough time to avoid squelching him underfoot?

Find a phrase

Exhibition work at USW
Interior Monologues

I was very lucky to work with the artist Mererid Velios for the Interior Monologues exhibition.  Lucky not just because she’s a talented individual but also because she let me see the notes which underpinned her thought process – what she called ‘a brain dump’.  Her starting place was to consider the decor of an abandoned 1940s interior, musing on the people who had once lived there and wondering about why they had left.  From there she thought about they way in which we are all the product of the generations who came before us and after that she began to consider the effects of the way in which poverty was once faced with heroism but is now labelled as almost a failure.  Her artwork was constructed out of forms used to apply for Universal Credit and used figures based on Sisyphus to make her point.  I had one A4 sheet of paper to convey all of that.  For me everything centred around one phrase (Here is my hand) which I repeated to connect the different aspects of her idea.  You can read what I wrote here .

Be gentle and know when your work is done

Daffodils
RIP Steven