This much I know about…the writing process

I have been a teacher of English for 24 years and a Headteacher for 9 years and at the age of 48 this much I know about the writing process.

When I write I am in my element. If you haven’t read Ken Robinson’s book The Element, I cannot recommend it enough. It’s a great read: it explores how people find the one thing they were born to do in their short time on this earth, the thing for them that makes time fly, their Element. When I write a calm descends until I have finished.

Blogging has been revelatory. I have never been sure whether anyone would be remotely interested in what I have to say, and I feel too inexperienced to know anything yet. Beginning a blog has been a great way to test out whether there is a readership for my reflections. I would encourage any embryonic writer to begin a blog.

The space between sentences is fascinating. When I write I spend most of my time reading what I have written in order to shape my next sentence. I give a talk to A Level Biology students about how to write an extended writing answer (see attached). Whilst my science isn’t A* standard, I explore the space between sentences with them, the thought processes which help decide what to write next. Then we realise together that what they have to do if they are going to know what to write next, in a time-limited examination, is re-read what they are writing as they are writing it. It’s a highly sophisticated process and deconstructing it helps them understand what they need to work on to improve. And, of course, they realise that you can only write at the speed required in examinations if you know your stuff!

Tony Ward was an old-style Shakespeare lecturer at York in the mid-eighties. I’m not sure if I’ve ever met a greater bon viveur! His tutorials lasted as long as his supply of red wine. He despaired of the new breed of undergraduate who was more concerned with securing a 2:1 and the forth-coming Milk Round than discussing the Bard. He often threatened to move to Switzerland to escape Thatcherism. Once he asked me to write two sonnets rather than an essay; I thought it was because he hated marking, but I came to realise that one of the best ways to understand how the dynamics of a sonnet work is to write one yourself.

Robert Frost once said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” I like the reassurance of a poetic form. It makes decisions for me and I have to work harder to find the right word. It’s fun to break the rules too.

I am really interested in the creative process. I bang ideas and phrases down and then shape lines, couplets, quatrains, until the whole thing emerges. My presentation for a talk I gave at Bootham School recently explores the drafting process of three sonnets I’ve written, Mothering Sundays, Summer of Love and Different Strokes (see attached). The presentation includes lots of sonnets by well-known poets: the key to writing is, of course, to read.

My wife’s grandmother died the day after we got married. She went to bed in the hotel at midnight where we had our Reception and never woke up. A couple of months later, her daughter, my mother-in-law, came to stay and ironed for her daughter, my wife Louise, just as her deceased mother  had done for her. I know Mothering Sundays is a bit clunky, but I think it works. Sue Hackman published the drafts of Mothering Sundays in her 1991 A Level text book Re-reading Literature which is now number 1,583,086 in the Amazon Bestsellers Rankings.

I went up to Sutton Bank last month with my youngest son to watch the International Space Station cross the skies. It was exhilarating! It reminded me of a couplet I wrote years ago on holiday in rural France which, whilst not a strict Imagist poem, has echoes of Pound’s In a Station of the Metro:

Small Wonders
For Polly and Rebecca

They pierced the black of a moonlit night;
French diamonds in a bracelet sky.

Ideas for my writing come from having my radar on, picking up things I hear and see, storing them away and then, when I have space and time, laying them down on the page. I rehearse many of the lines in my head for weeks. The radar thing happened with Mothering Sundays and with The Summer of Love. When I told my mother-in-law I’d spotted her replicating the ironing ritual she wept and said she couldn’t believe I’d noticed what she was deliberately doing. I spotted the family on the beach in Greece; you couldn’t miss them really. Different Strokes came from a story my friend Kate told me about her dad.

The way my poems are shaped has many parallels with a colleague who paints. Richard Gray teaches Art at our School and his latest blog entry contains the drafts of one of his paintings, stage by stage  http://richardspainting.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/last-few-days.html ….

The move from scratchy draft to the textured finish is genius.

I sometimes think Larkin had it right. Being a Headteacher in the current climate is not conducive to the creative process. My predecessor said, when he retired, that he was, “Going to reclaim his true self, after what this job had done to him.” I was maybe happiest being a greenkeeper at the local golf course in the summer holidays when I was at university. Up at six and finished by two; in these fraught times carefree grass-cutting would do for me quite nicely.

Thinking between sentences – Biology

The Art of Writing

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
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