Thursday, 9 February 2012

Beware the Squidge! (And the haiku...)

Once a week, I teach a writing class in the village where I live. At the moment I have 11 students; the youngest is 20+, and the oldest is 90-. (The oldest, Phyllis, had a new laptop for Christmas, and she's very excited about the word count tool.) As far as I know, there is only one who wants to actually write a novel, the rest are just delighting in the opportunity to do something they've always enjoyed but have never quite got round to before. For the first few weeks this term, I decided to do some poetry. It's not what any of us likes best, but I felt it would be good to go macro - to focus on something concentrated - rather than going large, which was what we did last term with fiction and a little biographical writing.

As always, the students surprised me. Their natural tendency is to use rhyme, so I asked them to write shape poems. It was just playing, freeing them up: I didn't expect them to come up with anything much. But they did: there were several that, after they'd been read out, provoked that moment of stillness, that sort of 'Oh!' of surprise at a freshly minted thought or image. (I'm sorry I don't have any of them to hand to demonstrate - you'll have to take my word for it.) The following week, we did haikus, and the same thing happened. There was a lovely one by a farmer, where she talked about her favourite time of day on the land, 'in the amber light of evening' if memory serves me well.

The week after that, I began by revisiting the idea of using notebooks. I showed them mine. There are three I use at the moment. Here they are. The smallest one I keep in my handbag, ready for if I have a sudden thought of earth-shattering genius while I'm on the move. I bought it in Brussels at an art exhibition. The other two were gifts. The larger one I use if I'm away, or if there's an idea I want to play about with in the evening, when I'm away from the hut where I usually work. The blue cat one sits in a drawer in my desk: I use it to give myself a stern talking to when I'm faffing, and need to set some priorities or clear my thoughts about what I'm writing.

But as I was thinking about suggesting to my students the sort of things they might want to note down in their newly acquired books, I had an idea. How would it be if, before they sat down to do their 'homework', they limbered up by writing a haiku? I am absolutely not a poet, but it seems to me that what haiku does is enable you to focus on a momentary impression, feeling, sight, thought, and then to reflect on it. It is very short: the commonly used form in the English version has three lines, with five syllables in the first and last lines and seven in the middle one. So you have to be very economical in your use of words; you have to make choices. I like this idea; I think it must be good for the soul, and probably for the writing.

I decided to have a go myself. There was no sudden blossoming of poetic genius, but it drew my thoughts together - it drew some words together which conveyed something of what I was thinking about that morning. Here is the best of my efforts so far.

Rose on winter branch
Nearby, first blossom of spring
And the snow, waiting.

I shall be interested to see if my students had a go too - I'm sure if they have, there will be surprises.

Finally, on the subject of notebooks, here is one I kept when I was a child. It had stories, pictures, pressed flowers - even, bizarrely, a plan for a garden seat. (I never made one. I'm pretty sure I would have remembered if I had.) Below, there is a story with a map to illustrate it. It starts off quite well, but then it just sort of peters out, as do several of the others. So little change there, then... Mind you, there's a jolly good one about an ink-eating monster called The Squidge, which brought civilisation to a halt, until the earth's scientists found a way to send it back to its home planet. (It wept inky tears as it waved goodbye.)  Hm - it sounds rather better than the haiku. Back to the drawing board... or the notebook!


Ria- The Beaucoup Review. said...

Your notebooks are gorgeous. Phyllis sounds really sweet and the exercise seems useful, hope it goes well.(:

Inkpen said...

What beautiful books! Mine are plain black Moleskin with a band wrapped firmly round them. All those wild thoughts must need containing!

JO said...

Ah notebooks - I've just finished a moleskin one. I know it looks tatty now, and some of the pages are unhinged, but it's been with me for so long I'm still carrying it around (plus a new one) I'm not quite ready to commit it to the storage drawer!

Elli said...

How lovely that you've kept your old books. And teaching a class of older people must be very heart-warming. I recently witnessed a class in our local library in which teenagers from the local school were teaching computer skills to pensioners - it restored my faith in human nature.

Sue Purkiss said...

I find if I have a lovely book, I'm more likely to write in it - shallow, but true! I don't use these for drafting etc - I have A4 books for that. But they have to have cheerful covers.

Elli - it is good to have a mix of ages. It's fascinating to hear some of the stories that the older people in particular come out with - an eye witness description of the Blitz and its aftermath, for instance.

adele said...

Loved seeing your notebooks, Sue and the class sounds good fun. Thanks for telling us about it. I have one of those fold-over notebooks, like your cat one. Mine has butterflies and a gorgeous young woman in profile. It was a present when I left Manchester in Oct 2010 and is almost full of stuff to do with the novel I'm writing...I can't get enough notebooks! And I've written haiku too. It is great fun, whatever the result.

Paeony Lewis said...

I used to use notebooks with different coloured sections, but that lead to a lot of wasted paper because I felt the idea had to fit the colour of the paper. I rarely had things like 'dull beige' ideas or 'neon pink' ideas!

Penny Dolan said...

Notebooks - and how people use them - is such a fascinating subject that it's no wonder your writing class were so interested. The haiku exercise sounds a really useful "first thoughts" exercise as well.