The art of making things up

I’ve come to the realisation recently that I don’t know how to invent stories or characters. I can’t remember ever writing a story about something made up, except for the time I was told off at school for writing a story where my invented character swore – which was unnecessary and inappropriate.

When I’ve written things in blogs or poems or songs, it’s been things that have happened to me or that I have observed happening to other people or that I know to be true. Recounting yes. Inventing no. I just don’t think I have the imagination required to invent. How does anybody know what a character would do? Any fictional character I invented would be immediately identifiable by anyone who knows me and the person that I had (even loosely) based them upon. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Here’s looking at you, Raging Bull.

I’m not sure whether this makes the sting of rejection more potent. Because I am writing myself and my experiences into my poetry, a rejection of any of my poems feels like a rejection of me personally and my experiences. And most recently, in writing about my daughter, a rejection stings even more.

And then I came across a free workshop called ‘It’s your time to write with Ollie Charles’ designed to get participants writing by using some ‘fun, practical writing exercises’ as part of the Stay-at-home! Fringe Literary Festival. The workshop description sounded really good but then also mentioned character, which I’ve previously never really considered and it occurred to me that a) writing is not just poetry and b) we would be expected to make things up.

I decided to push the boat out and sign up, after being reassured by the workshop leader that nobody was obliged to share anything and the idea was to create a relaxed space and time to just write.

With the words of one of by closest friends  (‘For a poet, you are very literal-minded’) still ringing in my ears, I sat down to a 7am writing workshop this morning armed only with an old pad, a pen and a litre of coffee I made last night.

One of the exercises involved starting a piece of writing using the words from line 8 of page 8 of the nearest novel. That was tricky. Thankfully I could turn the video off on the call and nobody could see me hobbling to the little room still filled with still-to-be-sorted moving boxes. A few boxes in and I managed to unearth Daggie Dogfoot. I doubt anybody else started their piece with “forefeet sticking out above his curled fingers”. Thank you Dick King-Smith.

The writing exercises took me from my head to a Cornish pigshed, to my bedroom and then kitchen in Brazil with a quick detour to the Peruvian Andes, before finishing off in a pub in Camden.

I’ve never done a writing workshop before and I’m very glad I didn’t duck out of this one even though that crossed my mind on a number of occasions. I even imagined other characters (somewhat one dimensionally, but it’s a start) and I Made Things Up.

I don’t know if I’ll be making up anything else just yet, and any characters I do invent will probably always be based on somebody I know but it was very freeing to discover that I am not bound by what I know and maybe I do have an imagination after all, I just need help to set it loose!

So now I just need to work on dealing with rejections – I’m up to nine rejections of seven poems by four journals – and I’m about ready to stop submitting any more. Twitter tells me other writers have submitted around 120 poems and had each rejected before receiving their first acceptance, but I definitely don’t have that level of resilience.

Thank goodness for Nikki Dudley’s workshop on Writing Resilience coming up tomorrow, also part of the Stay-at-home! Fringe Literary Festival. See you there!

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