‘It is quite hard to maintain a world of words in your head, especially when all sorts of other things might be pressing in.’
Do you struggle with motivation? Does it feel like your everyday life leaves no space for writing? Read these five tips for building a writerly lifestyle from our Imagining the City virtual writer in residence Vahni Capildeo, and discover how adapting your daily rituals can benefit your productivity and help you write better. Whether that’s turning your thermostat down a few notches or switching up your journals for a fresh stack of A3 paper.
Imagining the City brings together five writers from UNESCO Cities of Literature across the world to explore connections between Norwich and their cities; link up with local writers; and work on a range of commissions.
1.Writing is a bodily experience as well as a mental process.
Be aware of your sensory self. What kind of noise or silence do you like around you, when you’re writing? What can you do to immerse yourself in it? If sound is not a primary medium for you, what other aspects of your environment help you to concentrate? What’s a comfortable body temperature for you when you are crafting a piece of work? I know that sometimes I like an edge of cold, for example, if I’m working on non-fiction.
At other times, especially when writing poetry, I need to feel cocooned and warm. It is quite hard to maintain a world of words in your head, especially when all sorts of other things might be pressing in. You might want loud music playing, or a swatch of textured fabric to hand. It doesn’t matter how silly or indulgent it seems. Try to make whatever small physical adjustments keep you in the imaginative zone.
2. Know what relaxes you; streamline your relaxation.
This tip is one I find useful when in the middle of a long or challenging writing task. It is tempting to say ‘I’ve finished another 250 words. I can’t manage any more right now. So, I’ll catch up on the news online, binge-read three poetry collections by my friends, and watch a bit of that series…’ That could keep you away for a long time or distract you.
Instead, how about picking just one or two things that interest you, but don’t interest you in the same ways as writing and editing? For me, these might be gardening books (I don’t have a garden) or comedy clips. I find that this means I take shorter, more frequent breaks, but some deep part of my mind turns itself over like soil in a field. I go back to writing, and all sorts of things come to the surface.
‘Hang on to stuff. Do more things with it, if it feels as if something is there.’
3. Change something about the way you present the work to yourself.
I work with pencil and paper. Sometimes I change to pen and paper. Sometimes I use tiny notebooks, or large sheets of A3. Using the larger A3 sheets, instead of my standard A4 journals, I found it easier to map multi-vocal poems, collage poems. I also found it better to use A3 for small poems that needed a lot of space around them for me to ‘see’ them as if they were made of moving parts, not just words on a page. Switching to A3 is how the Muriel Spark-inspired playlets in Skin Can Hold (Carcanet, 2019) took shape for me, and the tiny calligrams of Simple Complex Shapes (Shearsman, 2015). What materials do you work with? What happens if you change the format?
4. Edit individual works ruthlessly.
However, do not discard (almost) anything. Sometimes you will find the way to write something only after leaving it aside for years. Sometimes it changes itself during that time. I used to keep a paper file marked ‘Bad Poems’. It contained poems I would never want to try to publish. However, I used to go through it now and then, because there were lines reaching towards something else that I still wanted to write. Now I tend to start writing in my A4 journals from the back as well as the front. The front has ‘official’ notes for my projects. The back has experiments, distractions, and discards. The two often cross-fertilize. The delete key is not your friend. Hang on to stuff. Do more things with it, if it feels as if something is there.
5. Keep reading, especially writers who do not write like you.
Make friends with writers who do not write like you. Swap books. Show each other work. Take the long view and the wide view. Writing adds your lifetime to the lifetime of everyone else who has written or read, or who will read or write, including non-‘literary’ folk. All sorts of people work carefully or lovingly or effectively with words. You may find inspiration in a law report (ancient or contemporary) or a tide chart, or in an ‘unplayable’ play…
Vahni Capildeo, Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature
Vahni Capildeo join us from Edinburgh. Their background in medieval studies, lexicography, translation theory and culture for development underpins their non-fiction and poetry. Capildeo is interested in collaborative and immersive experiments; Skin Can Hold (Carcanet, 2019) and Odyssey Calling (Sad Press, 2020) offer participatory texts for readers to re-work. Capildeo’s work has been recognized with awards including the Forward Prize (Best Collection) and the Cholmondeley Award. Their ongoing research on silence, and their concern with the ecopoetics of place, are reflected in their eighth book, Like a Tree, Walking (Carcanet, 2021) and their seventh pamphlet, The Dusty Angel (Oystercatcher, 2021).
Vahni says: ‘As a writer of non-fiction and poetry, I have a longstanding concern with techniques for layering of time, place, and memory. Norwich and Norfolk have been a core part of my imagination throughout my entire writing life, both via personal connexions to local residents and writers and via creative and professional engagement with the literature and sites of the city, university, and county. I am committed to continuing to explore this inhabitation by place that is my relationship with Norwich, and should be grateful of a forum, community and resources in order to develop this relationally. Twinning UNESCO cities of literature Norwich and Edinburgh, the project I will work on will be titled ‘Lighthouse and Anchorage’.’
Looking for some inspiration?
Join us this February for Imagining the City: a series of daily writing prompts inspired by the hometowns of our UNESCO Cities of Literature Virtual Writers in Residence. From bookshops to beaches, our writers have devised a series of images and written prompts that reflect the concerns they’re exploring throughout their virtual residency. Get your writing prompts >>