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SNAP: the first Writing Circle anthology

Three years ago, I started a writing group for students at the university where I teach, Canterbury Christ Church. It started as a place for students to get extra support with their work as well as a supportive environment where new work could get written.

Jump forward to the pandemic, and I moved the group online. In the only space where year groups could mix, we wrote together weekly. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can make intimate digital spaces – and the Writing Circle online has proved to be one such place. It’s been the joy of a rotten year to see the courage, resilience, and creativity of students and colleagues.

To celebrate the fact that we were able to keep writing together, I’m pleased as punch to announce our first anthology of work: SNAP! The title refers to the short, punchy nature of the work as well as its impetus – individual responses to the idea of a “card”.

When you think of a card, what do you think of? In SNAP! you’ll find stories about postcards, Valentine’s, and credit cards. You’ll find Tarot and Loteria and sentient playing cards. Mostly, you’ll find dazzling new fresh work made by students of all ages. What do you think?

SNAP! features work by BA and MA students: Helen Atkinson, Alexa Barrett, Bethany Climpson, Stephen Daly, Nicholas Huggett, Amanda Jones, Jessica Joy + fellow lecturer Sonia Overall – and me

On Hope

Two weeks later, we watched that same Capital building and felt nothing but pride and possibility. We watched people – politicians and their families and those who were working there – treat each other with dignity and kindness. It didn’t blow all the memories away – nothing could do that – but it reminded us that there were other ways to be and live. I sobbed my way through the inauguration, and I say that without apology.

I feel like we got given a lot of things with a new president. But most of all, for me, it’s hope.

Waking up, out of America

I’m having a little trouble with equilibrium this morning, trying to settle thoughts and feelings with the news. This America isn’t what I grew up saluting, slack flag in the corner, stars and stripes a little faded in the hot, dry California sun.  We aimed ourselves at it each morning, slapped our hands on our hearts and parroted allegiance because they told us to. 
You know how it goes:  
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
We all had a little trouble with indivisible.  It came out invisible, often enough.  
One nation, invisible. 
Or invisible, liberty and justice.  It isn’t for all, is it?  
I am appalled by the awful privilege of white racism.  
I am shocked by the complicity of police and politicians, who we were raised to respect.  
I am sickened by losers who feel entitled to win.   
I have lived in the UK for more than twenty-five years – yet, I am American.  I remain an American writer.  
My America is Melville, and Hawthorne, Dickinson and Steinbeck. My America is Baldwin, Morrison, Angelou, Langston Hughes. But my America is also Faulkner and Thoreau, O’Connor and Ingalls Wilder – and there are issues there, increasingly hard to overlook.  (There are issues with Melville and Hawthorne too, come to think of it, which sends me spiralling backward:  what is there within myself that I do not see clearly?). My America is so many writers: Jesmyn Ward and Terry Tempest Williams and Joan Didion and Leslie Marmon Silko and Scott Momaday and Louise Erdrich and and and.   

When I was a teenager, I saw a Native American man crying on a sidewalk, clearly drunk and suffering.  “They took my country,” he said, repeatedly, and I thought I understood his pain.  I did not. When I went to a school dance with a classmate from Korea, my grandmother said white girls shouldn’t do such things, my Midwest grandmother born in 1902 who’d had Black servants and Black maids in uniforms serving canapes at her card parties in Pasadena.  More than likely, I only rolled my eyes at her outdated view. When I dated a Black man, I didn’t tell my mother, so that I wouldn’t have to hear or acknowledge her thoughts.  That shames me now. When I used to produce concerts, I found myself alone in my office paying a bandleader, a Black jazz pianist several decades older than myself who decided to kiss me, without invitation or consent, and stuck his tongue into my mouth with force and entitlement.  I didn’t tell my mother – or anybody – about this either, for shame. That shames me now as well.    

My country ‘tis of thee:  a song I sang.  A song we sang together. They sing that same tune here, though it has new words:  God Save the Queen. After I’d been living in the UK for a while, I found myself back at my old primary school, where my mother also taught – first grade.  I found myself at the flag ceremony, students gathered around this tall pole in the spring heat and this flag, flying freely.  Few of the students were white.  The catchment area has become increasingly Latinx.  I watched those little bodies, those little hands on those little hearts, and found myself crying.  I had no idea why.   

America is an idea, but today I can’t remember what it was about. Maybe the idea will come back to me. Or maybe the delusion that sent armed invaders into the Capital to loot and take selfies has cast its net wider.  Maybe we were all deluded that we could stand beneath one flag and feel the same. 

Lockdown Pages

Another lockdown.  I wake in a spin.  Half-heart, half-headless chicken, I beat myself against these morning pages, trying to figure out what to do – what to do – what to do.  

 At the end of a long and much-needed break from the university, I throw myself back into my teaching, full of big plans that I hope – I want – will make a difference to anxious students who feel let down by life. A new year, but January throws me headlong back into old fears and feelings – what is happening – what will happen – what should I be doing to help others to cope?  And how will I cope myself? 

Where do you put your fear?  I believe that writing can help.  Finding a container for our thoughts and feelings – to document them, record them, bear witness to them – can hold them for us as well as separate them from us, to give us some distance between ourselves and these thoughts and feelings.  Once written, we can turn the page, find a new clean place and to keep going, to write beyond the churn and loop of questions and concerns.  My own morning pages confirm the desire – the need – to offer that practice, somehow – here and to my students.    

I have been tinkering with a morning pages workbook, and this third lockdown convinces me that it is more essential than ever.  Fear works on our minds and bodies in a number of ways:  we freeze, we stick, we want to run.  I work with bright, young writers of all ages – and their fear is palpable.  They’re afraid they’re missing opportunities and running out of time; they’re afraid their learning is being compromised.  And while I seek to reassure them that their engagement need not change, even though the delivery system has, I can feel their disappointment and their disaffection.  

I want to fix everything – but all I have are words.  I can write my own to them, full of support and encouragement for their upcoming assessments; I can listen to theirs and seek to understand.  And I can urge them to offer their own words up, to place their fears in their own containers – as well as one I’ll hold for them.  Most of my ideas come through morning pages, and in today’s, I realise I want to create an anthology of student writing – Lockdown Pages, for lack of better words. I am so busy – we are all so busy – but I plan to pitch it as a project to my students on Monday: wish me luck.   

Creative Writing in Practice

Sometimes – and it feels like more often than not these days – I’m a lecturer in creative writing. As a writer, I bring my practice into classrooms and online workshop spaces for graduate and MA students. There are a lot of events and resources for students in creative writing – and I’m happy to be participating in one upcoming symposium – Creative Writing in Practice – with the University of Westminster. Here’s the schedule for all the events, including mine: I’ll be talking about how I write – and how I’ve worked with writers through the pandemic to keep words coming – for them and for me. The symposium is free: here’s a link to the Eventbrite site to learn more:

Morning pages thoughts…

I want to write, but I don’t know why sometimes. I lose track of it. The world gets busy and I get in a spin. My mind chases solutions. I tell myself if I can only clear the decks first – get rid of this task, clear the items on the to-do list, that I will have the clarity to write. I tell myself this a lot. The fact of the matter is that every time I clear the decks they manage to fill themselves. A gust of wind from the world blows to-do leaves straight back on. The list gets ever longer. There is always something that needs doing. There is always something or someone who will call for our attention. How to find balance in this?
Some days, I spend all day trying to clear the decks, and find at the end of it that there is not enough time left for me. Or if there is time, that I feel spent. I am spent. There is no clarity then, even with the tasks all marked to done. There is only a ragged tiredness and the sad, slow feeling that I have let myself down somehow, particularly on a day spent trying not to let others down and trying not to let myself down where others are concerned.
There are times when I tell myself I will write first. I will attend to my needs before anyone else’s – other than the dog’s, obviously, who has no need for writing – how can that fill his dish? I tell myself that I will begin as I mean to go on – and sometimes I do. For days in a row I can start with my own work, particularly when it is already formed. Particularly when I am clear about the way forward with it, when I can see it already as the thing it is or will be.
What comes harder is the early work, the dream-state I need to be in to see the strange and tenuous links that will make something new from my questions, my desires, my research, my worries, my reading. This is, of course, what morning pages are designed to capture – and they do a good job of it, if I can keep my pages from straying into to-do list terrain.
During the pandemic, when the work load kept increasing, I began to write at the ends of days, as the emails were slowing, as the days were still long and bright. It was easy to keep working in the spring and summer when the nights were far away. Now it is autumn and the nights are drawing in. I stumble home from my writing shed in the dark. In this method, I can squeeze another couple of hours into my writing day – but the energy is different at the end than the beginning. Here, I use morning pages to draw a line under the work and try to give myself a fresh start, turning the page from one aspect of myself to another. It works well, but is there clarity? Sometimes. Sometimes there is just relief and exhaustion and another sad, slow feeling of regret. Is this how I spend my days?
How we spend our lives is, of course, how we spend our days. And we have a lot of demands on our time. We carve our precious 24 hours and 52 weeks into smaller and smaller parcels of time to be spent or sold or saved. It changes how we use our time, but it can’t make more of it. We can’t plant time-seeds. Or maybe we can. Maybe we can use the creative time we have, trying to figure out how to make more of it. I would like to.
There are days when this is all the time I have to write. These words. These morning pages. I can rattle through them in 12 minutes – 10 minutes at a pinch. Or I can savour them, as I did this morning. I can look up between paragraphs or phrases. Notice the sun through the window, how it casts shadows in triangles across the shed. Notice how the sunflowers are drooping. Notice that the tree I planted when my dog was a puppy is already turning orange. It is autumn, and I am in danger of missing it.
Maybe these pauses in morning pages can plant time-seeds. I notice time is passing. I check in with my old desires. Another season is coming. Will this be one in which I’m able to find more balance? Will this be one in which I save a little bit more time for me, like a seed I can still plant?

Morning pages and writing for the long haul

I’ve been talking about morning pages on Twitter all month, and some days it makes for long threads. Yesterday’s was particularly long, and I know today will be long as well, so I’m parking the content here instead. On Twitter, I’ve talked about “how” we might do morning pages as well as “why”; I’ve offered lots of ways in to the practice and given prompts for how to use them more creatively, to generate and develop new ideas. Morning pages are a big part of my writing life, particularly when I’m working on long-form projects – work you have to try to sustain over months. And sometimes it can be hard to keep a piece of writing going, particularly when your life and your head are very busy. So I’m particularly invested in this process of using morning pages to break long-form writing down into morning-sized chunks, because it’s how I’m going to have to work for a little while. Maybe it’s how you’ll have to work too, once we turn the page into September and new sets of priorities and challenges beckon.

Here’s what I do. As I start a project – or another draft – I use one set of morning pages to tell myself the story. I just type out what happens, however much or little I know at the time. In a first draft, I might just be telling myself what the big story is – who my characters are and what they want and what happens to them to make them respond – to change. (I try to remember to focus on how the story develops “because” something happened, rather than just “and then this happens. Once I’ve written that very rough version of what I think the story is, I cut and paste it into a new document. I use Scrivener, but you might use anything else you prefer.

Whenever I have the headspace, I start to break that story down into smaller chunks – scenes, if you will. This is easy to navigate in Scrivener, as you can have as many documents in a folder as you like – and it’s an easy place to cut and paste into – but Word will work as well. From that scrappy document, I use morning pages to approach each chunk, each scene, one morning (or whenever I can manage it) at a time. In 750 words I can flesh each scene or each idea out, cut and paste it into its own new document, and get on with my to-do list and whatever the day requires. Later – or when I have headspace – I open the scene and find what feels like a very rough draft or a treatment of a scene, but it’s enough to get me writing – to flesh it out, to finish it off. Those first 750 words might be scene setting, using sensory details that I think are there but also ones that affect me as I’m writing, but there’s usually emotional temperature there as well. I’m usually writing with a sense of where characters have been and where they need to get to. This also means that, in a first draft anyway, I don’t have to work logically or in a linear fashion. I can jump around. And sometimes that jumping imposes itself on the structure of the story I’ll tell – in a good way – as I’m following the heat.

To the right is a screenshot of how my scenes look in their binder in the first draft. Right now, I’m rewriting a rough first draft banged out during lockdown. I am looking at the structure and order of what I wrote and jettisoning a lot that I don’t like. That’s OK. I’m approaching the rewrite in morning pages, telling myself the story again, as it has evolved, and then I start the process again in Scrivener, breaking the story into bite-sized scene-chunks, using a print out from my rough first draft as a guide for setting, time, emotional temperature etc., but writing with a clearer sense of what’s going on and what’s at stake. Building on these little steps of words means I rarely face a blank page and it reassures me that I am making progress, even when it feels slow. It will organise my thoughts and what I have to accomplish, with a goal to finish the rewrite by the end of half-term. Can I do it? Watch this space, as they say.

If you struggle to stay on top of longer projects, why not change your tools? Using software, time, planning and morning pages might just make a difference. Whatever keeps you writing – write on.

Morning pages prompts

This week on Twitter, I’ve been talking about how morning pages can be used creatively. Using prompts and sets of words that you wouldn’t ordinarily reach for can help your writing move in new directions. This can be especially welcome when it feels like our own words are stuck in a rut or repeatedly circling old issues.

We use this same practice in workshops, introducing simple, open prompts – such as “I could see it from here” or “it had never been so cold” – to get new stories started or playing a game of “word cricket”, whereby writers write as quickly as they can and “catch” words as I throw them out. (I learned this game from Vanessa Gebbie – thanks, Vanessa!).

Want to play a game of word cricket? Here are 10 words for you. Set a timer for one minute. Every time the timer goes, grab another word here. It isn’t quite like me chirping in the room with you, but in these days of social distancing, it will have to do. Let’s play!

Set a timer and start with: The door was open.

Minute one: Fox

Minute two: Mirror

Minute three: Shoe

Minute four: Candle

Minute five: Knife

Minute six: River

Minute seven: Milk

Minute eight: Key

Minute nine: Moon

Minute ten: Window

How do the words work? Did they take you in any new directions? They may have been the kinds of words you would ordinarily reach for – or they may have been an unusual set. I like them because they’re simple nouns that can also (many of them) work as verbs. Maybe you played around with them and used them as you saw fit – I hope you did. Prompts are only there to be played with. If this system works for you, you might make a jar of words to guide you – which is something friend and author Claire King does.

If you like the idea of using morning pages more creatively, come find me on Twitter @Peggy_Riley – tomorrow there will be new ideas!

Morning Pages

Over on Twitter, I’ve been inviting people to experiment with morning pages and to consider how they might work for them. There are daily prompts looking at “how” to do morning pages – when and where, how often and how long. (Hint: there are no rules except for maybe this one from Natalie Goldberg. Keep your hand moving.) Dorothea Brande did her pages on the typewriter, Julia Cameron does hers longhand, and I rattle them out online at 750words.com – there are no rules.

Screenshots from Twitter

This week, we’ve been talking about “why” we do morning pages, how they work to make a bit of room in a busy head. Because it is hot – so hot – many of us aren’t sleeping, and sometimes dark unsleeps become opportunities for self-torment, for me. On waking, I feel brittle. All resilience is gone. And on these days, I need morning pages all the more to talk myself around.

Next week, I’ll be moving on to creative applications for morning pages. If you’re particularly worried about morning pages being nothing more than naval-gazing, this week might be for you. (But I say, what’s wrong with naval-gazing? Who else is going to look at it with such curiosity and compassion?)

Do you do morning pages? What works for you – and what doesn’t? And if you haven’t tried them, what would help you to start?

The Listening Post in your Living Room

The Listening Post has been invited to join The Wandsworth Arts Fringe – in your Living Room!
Follow this link to listen to a “curated aural exhibition” of thirteen short stories (one of them by me!) read in the authors’ own voices set to sounds by composer and musician Lucy Claire. Authors include: Jess Kidd, Christina Lovey, Owen Lowery, Sonia Overall, Peggy Riley and Philip Whiteley, Helen Atkinson, Susan Emm, Amanda Jones, Sue McClymont, Elizabeth Scrase.

Listen in! There’s a new story each day of the festival at 3.30pm – or you can binge on them anytime from the website!

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