Creative writing – how to begin

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The last few months have been a difficult and unsettling time. But it has also been a time of positive change and reflection, prompting people to be more creative. 

Writing, be it poetry, song writing or short stories, for example, has given many a way of making sense of this time, of sharing their feelings and looking after their mental health.

For those who have found it difficult to know where to begin, Seil author Kenneth Steven offers this advice to help you start your creative writing journey.

For me, there are two essential ingredients when it comes to setting out as a creative writer: time and space. By creative writing I mean poetry, short stories, novels and children’s writing: everything involving the use of the imagination.

When someone claims they don’t have time to write, I don’t believe them as it’s a question of making time.

PD James started writing when nursing a dying husband: he needed care all through the day. There was a part of the night when finally he went to sleep and she had the chance to put pen to paper, so that was what she did. If we are serious about wanting to write, we will make time.

For many years I lived in Dunkeld, close to the entrance to the cathedral. When friends heard my address they would roll their eyes and say: ‘What a place to be. And you’re lucky enough to be a writer.’

Except it wasn’t that easy. The truth is the modern world invaded even that idyllic corner of Scotland.

First, there were thousands of pilgrim feet and voices. I was driven mad by not being able to find sufficient quiet. My former wife watched a great deal of television. It was a tiny flat and the distant murmur of low voices maddened me because I couldn’t concentrate.

It was she who suggested – probably to stop the grumbling – that I should have a cabin built in my mother’s garden in Aberfeldy, a place where I could hide away to write. After considering the idea for a few days, I realised she was right.

When finally I sat down to start working in that simple shed among the trees, the words poured from the pen. I will never forget those first days. Poem after poem appeared as though by magic on the page. For me – and after many years of leading creative writing sessions, I would suggest for the vast majority of others too – finding real quiet makes all the difference.

But it doesn’t have to be a hideaway in a garden; it can be a living room or a bedroom or an attic – just at a time when others in the household are asleep or absent.

There are few rules for creative writers, but one I have discovered is that we are all larks or owls. We’re either attracted to early morning or late evening.

I have yet to meet anyone who has said they’re drawn to the mid-afternoon – what I term – hammock time, though that’s when I wrote in the Aberfeldy cabin. I’ve come to believe strongly you will use the time you are given. If that’s what you have, you will adapt to that rhythm.

But I quickly came to realise in my cabin that I couldn’t simply turn on good writing like a tap. We go into our creative space weighed down by the modern world. We live lives beset by emails, phone calls and text messages. We are all expected to respond quickly.

I think creative writers are generally poor when it comes to practice writing. The creative lives of visual artists, actors, singers and musicians are dominated by practice. Why should it be different for those from the writing community?

What do I mean by practice writing? Describing the view out of the window; going back into memory to capture a moment as evocatively as possible; imagining a dialogue between two characters. There’s no end to the possibilities. What practice writing provides is creative grounding. It brings us from being all over the place in our minds to give us creative focus.

What this practice allows us to do is to start, then to pour ourselves into what I like to call deep writing. It creates a kind of doorway so the real writing can begin.

Kenneth Steven is best-known as a poet. Sixteen of his collections have been published and he writes and presents poetry-related programmes for BBC Radio. He is also a Scottish novelist and children’s author. He’s written two handbooks on writing and led workshops and worked as writer in residence at home and abroad.