Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Writing in response to death - some suggestions

I was asked by St Christopher's Hospice in Penge, London to talk about responding creatively to death. This sent me to look at my own writing to see how I responded to hearing about the fact that I had a baby brother, born before me who died; how I responded to the fact that my father told me that he had uncles who were killed in the Holocaust; how I responded to the death of my mother; how I responded to thinking about the fact that I nearly died in 2020.

I'll leave out the areas to do with responding by trying to find out more about each of these - trawling for facts, if you like; and I'll leave out here the ways I thought or talked about these things. This blog is specifically about responding through writing. The request from St Christopher's sent me back to what I've written to look at the 'how' of the writing rather than the 'what'. In other words, what methods or styles did I find helpful or suitable? 

Broadly speaking, I can talk of four main ways. I'll call them: 'transparent', 'phrasal', 'symbolic' and 'mythic'. Overarching all four on occasions is the influence of an old school of poetry known as 'imagism'. 

1. Transparent: this is what I describe to myself as 'talking with the pen'. I write as I would talk. I adopt a spoken voice, with as little of what you might call poetic, figurative (metaphor/simile/personification) language or obvious literary techniques like alliteration, assonance. It's a style of writing that tries deliberately to not draw attention to itself. That's why I'm calling it 'transparent'. 

More importantly, it's easy to write down events or moments as you saw them at the time and to mix that with reflections looking back. I talk of this as writing from a) being in the water swimming along and b) walking alongside yourself, looking at yourself swimming. D.H.Lawrence developed this with his poems eg 'Snake' and 'Man and Bat'. 

The example from my writing where I do this is 'Going through the Old Photos' in 'Quick Let's Get Out of Here'.

I find it helpful to arrange the words on the page according to what is called 'free verse'. This works according to the 'phrases' or words that feel complete before you pause or take a breath. The end of the line, indicates a pause. You don't need to punctuate it according to the 'rules' that I'm using right here in this blog that you're reading (capital letters and full stops for example). The end of the line is called a 'line break'. You can make these line breaks wherever you want in order to help the reader get the rhythm of what you're writing. 

2. Phrasal: here  you start with a word or several words (a 'phrase')  that connect with a moment or a feeling. Maybe it's a word/phrase that you feel expresses something that has happened or how you felt. You write it down. You think on, daydreaming. Another phrase occurs to you. You write it down, underneath the other phrase. You think on, along comes another word or phrase, you write that down underneath the one before. You are 'unfolding' words or phrases on to the page and putting them down under each other. This may sound trivial but I promise you it isn't. Putting them down under each other gives them space for you to think about it. It may include a phrase that someone has said to you or that you said to them. Put it down. No need to explain it or give it 'context'. Just unfold these thoughts down on to the page one under the other. Don't worry if it's just a few words or phrases. Stop when you feel like stopping. Keep the bit of paper. Do it again the next day or the next. Keep the bits of paper. 

You can leave this writing as it is or you can change it by repeating one or more of the words or phrases. This will give it a rhythm. 

Useful questions to ask yourself in order to 'find' the words or phrases are: 

'what did I see?' 

'what did I hear?' 

'what did I think' 

'what did I say?' 

'what did someone say to me?'

3. Symbolic: this involves thinking of something that you think 'represents' an event or feeling that you have. I felt that we couldn't hang on to my mother as she died. We reached out for her but we couldn't keep her. A scene came into my mind of a van pulling away with her on board and us running after trying to reach her. I wrote a piece that described this scene without saying who was in the van or who was trying to reach. I used the words 'she' and 'we' without saying who we were. I didn't say where the van was or when. It's called 'Gone' and it's in 'Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy'. 

4. . Mythic: this is where you use the words, phrases or the whole plot of another poem, song, proverb, book, film,  TV programme - or any other 'text' you know. You  can think of this as 'sampling', grabbing bits of what already exists to help you say what you want to say. Or you can 'inhabit' a story and re-write it to suit you. I did this with a poem where I imagined that I had travelled to the 'Land of the Dead' when I was in a coma in 2020. I was taking the plot of the 'Odyssey' where Odysseus travels into the Underworld and gets out again. I saw myself doing that too. In a way it's a 'parody'. 

Note on Imagism: the 'rule' of imagism is you tell your poem, story or song using as few 'emotion' words as possible. You're going to indicate how you feel through what you 'see', through the 'images' of the poem. For hundreds of years, writers have been indicating things like sadness using the image of the weather: rain and mist, for example. Others have used things like a leaf falling off a tree into the water and floating away to indicate regret that time is passing. (I've done this as a poem-game with children, where I get them to write a few lines about something that they imagine they can see in order to convey an emotion. Then the other children have to guess what emotion it was eg anger, happiness etc. )

The power of imagism is that it 'shows' rather than 'tells'. It leaves the reader (who is you at first) to 'fill' the poem with the emotion. This can sometimes be more powerful and more effective for you and your readers. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because you don't feel as if someone is trying to put words into your mouth, or that they are trying to tie up all the ends of what might be complicated, ambivalent feelings. Poems can suggest. Poems can leave questions unanswered. 


 I'll add: writing about dreams.

I've often dreamt of disasters, near death experiences, remembering my mother, father or Eddie (my son who died). Sometimes I wrote about these, as with 'Nightmare' in 'Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy' or with 'Eddie Dream' in 'Michael Rosen's Big Book of Bad Things' or several dreams in 'Many Different Kinds of Love'.

I often use the same principles of 'Transparent' writing combined with 'Imagist' methods that I talked about in the previous blog. 

Sometimes though I use the 'Phrasal' method too. 

I often write the dream as if I'm actually in it now - in the 'present tense'. This helps me re-imagine it. 

Writing down dreams can be a way of 'freeing' you from the dream. You feel less trapped by it.