It wasn’t until Judith Morris completed The Art of Writing course last fall that she felt able to call herself a writer, despite having written for decades and showing up in Tuscany with 15 brand new poems to workshop. I talked to Judith about her poetry writing process, her Art-of-Writing-inspired foray into short story writing and the lessons she has applied with success in the six months since our retreat.
When did you first start writing?
I have always enjoyed writing but never considered myself a writer. As an educator, reading and writing have been central to my work and purpose. Writing was a means to an end; to communicate, usually factually, something that needed to be taught, learned or reported.
But did you ever write creatively; for yourself; for pleasure?
Yes, but only very occasionally and usually in response to a homework or work assignment or task; in other words, the reason for writing was set or required by someone else. In these moments, I often found a creative spark which pleased me, but I lacked the motivation, time or confidence to pursue it. The craft of writing remained focused on my work.
So when did you consider yourself a writer?
There were times when an incident would so affect me emotionally that I felt writing about it was the only way to respond effectively. I found writing cathartic and I often surprised myself by what emerged; my thoughts and feelings seemed to be clarified. If I wrote when I was troubled, the problems were often eased and solutions found, where no amount of just thinking or worrying would have worked. Writing became a kind of infrequent meditation. On occasions when I wanted, for example, to write to a friend who had lost a loved one, I found that a poem would emerge from my pen if I held the person close in my mind. I learned that writing was, for me, a direct reaction to feelings; a response to my senses. Yet I still did not consider myself a writer.
Do you consider yourself a writer now and if so, what changed?
I signed up for The Art of Writing in Tuscany in 2014 and declared myself not a writer but someone who loved the written word, had experience of writing for different purposes and an individual keen to explore writing and to ‘find the writer within’! This was the impetus I needed. I would not allow myself to turn up for the workshop with no work to share so over the course of a month prior to leaving for Italy, I wrote 15 poems in first draft! Meeting and working with authors and other writers from all over the world and with varying experience and levels of expertise was life-changing. Sharing work, listening to feedback about how to improve it, receiving encouragement, praise and constructive criticism all confirmed I am a writer! I have not looked back!
How would you describe your writing?
I write about feelings and experiences; anything that speaks to me or moves me. It might be a sunset, a landscape, children exploring, a piece of architecture, an animal, an inanimate object or a natural wonder; a world event. I like to experiment with words and phrases that capture the moment, the idea, the feelings. I like the flow of the text; its rhythm. It feels musical and seems to flow naturally in poetic form. I enjoy the power of words and use them to communicate a literal scene but seek to go beyond this and explore something deeper; for example in these stanzas from my poem Healing Star I use the sun trying to push through clouds as a metaphor for a person’s struggle with depression:
Compete with oppressive
Clinging together tenuously
Like teeth of a worn zip
Struggling to hold together
Pockets of blue
Sky’s grey blanket
Frayed stitch work
Worrying at threads
And working them loose
In another called Fabulous Feet, I write about a plain ordinary looking Coot that has amazing peacock blue feet and use it as a metaphor for not judging people by surface features:
You misjudge me
Boring and dull
No magnificent ruff
Or dazzling plume
But should you
Take the time
Beneath the surface
Pierce the skin
Gain my trust
And tempt me
From the lake
You would uncover
A grand design
Of radiant peacock blue
Perfect in form and function
Hidden from view
What about other forms of writing? Have you tried longer pieces, for example short stories?
Here is where the Art of Writing was really challenging. With the opportunity to meet with tutors in one to one situations the suggestion was made that my work might be developed into story writing! This was a complete surprise to me, but I was willing to have a go. I learnt the importance of a key idea, a location, of capturing the reader’s attention in the first paragraph, of building believable distinct characters, of using powerful descriptive language to paint a scene, the importance of a good structure to hold the reader’s attention throughout and of a conclusion with a twist. And so I wrote my first story! Reading it aloud to gain reactions was a challenge but essential to feedback and improvement. With a good deal of re-drafting I felt able to submit it to a competition that I chose because it offered feedback for each entry. I knew my story would not be a winner. How could it be with my lack of experience? Just by producing something that was at least good enough to submit for comment made me feel I had achieved something, and I would encourage any writer to submit their work to this kind of scrutiny.
So have you heard anything from the competition judges about your entry?
Yes, I got feedback yesterday! And of course I didn’t win! But the feedback was really quite encouraging with very helpful pointers for improvement. In the 8 marking categories, I scored at the top of the middle band (e.g. 7 out of 10; 6 out of 8 etc.) except in story structure which was lower (4 out of 8) and showed where I need to put most effort to improve my story writing. Not bad I felt for a first effort! I will take the advice and work on some more stories, but I know my heart and my writing ability really lies with poetry. However, by writing in another genre I have been ‘forced’ to move beyond my comfort zone and I am sure this challenge will help me improve my poetry writing.
How do you begin to write a poem or a story?
The Art of Writing workshop taught me the importance of regular writing. I write quickly by hand, scribbling ideas as fast as I can as soon as I have an idea or a feeling. I do not think about structure or form at this stage. I am just keen to get the words down; to let them flow from the pen onto the page. Sometimes I use ‘Notes’ on my iPad but this is slower so I write by hand when I can. I then begin to transcribe my first draft electronically bringing more shape to the poem; refining the text. I will then return to it later, often but not always, on the same day. At this stage I am usually looking to shorten the lines, tighten the language, improve the vocabulary; to test out the rhythm and flow. I repeat this until I feel the poem communicates what I wanted to say. Sometimes it is difficult not to keep refining; it is important to know when to stop!
What have you learnt about writing in the last 6 months?
So much! The Art of Writing has been life-changing! Here is my list; my aide memoir for becoming a better writer:
- Have fun; enjoy it
- Reflect and meditate
- Be open and observant
- Write often even when there seems to be nothing to write about!
- An initial idea can lead anywhere: it is just that – a stimulus to writing
- Look beyond the literal; use metaphor
- Select language that communicates; is rich and appeals to the senses: taste it, feel it, hear it!
- Share work in a circle of trust seeking and responding to feedback
- Find a reason; a purpose; an audience for writing even if it is just yourself!
- Practice, practice, practice. Write, write, write.