In 1936, when he was nineteen, Charles Causley’s one-act play ‘Runaway’ was accepted for publication. It was his first entry into print and the experience spurred him on to write other plays (not all of which were published or produced), stories and then poems. As a young man, while he worked in a dull clerical job, he established the habit of writing in the evenings after work, and later as a school teacher he would return home and devote himself to his poems.
In Causley’s time there was much more of a literary establishment and the publishing focus was heavily skewed towards London, but today’s new writers are entering a different world, one where the internet has helped democratise opportunity. Add to this the countless writing courses available, the ‘How To’ guides and all manner of workshops, and it may seem the possible roads into print are endless. Yet, the question still arises How do I become a writer? It’s a question I’m sometimes asked at readings or workshops (though it might be couched in different terms), so in this blog I’m putting down a few thoughts, the bits and pieces I’ve learned from the journey so far:
T. S. Eliot said, ‘We learn what poetry is – if we ever learn – by reading it.’ And that’s true – how could a musician hope to write music if they’ve only heard a couple of tunes? Causley was a devoted reader, with early influences including Auden, the First World War poets and John Clare, and by the end of his life he’d accumulated a vast collection of books. The best and perhaps only way for a writer to learn what writing is and how their own writing might develop, is to read, and read widely.
Get the habit
Charles Causley established the habits of a writer, he set aside time for writing, he read, he dealt with disappointments and he kept going. He saw himself as a writer early on, and this business of seeing yourself as a writer (in an essential not self-inflated sense), is key. Causley was a school teacher. Wallace Stevens worked in insurance. You may be a gardener, a secretary, a plumber or nurse and still see yourself as a writer. You may never have published anything but you can still see yourself as a writer – observing, reading and thinking as one.
You don’t have to go on a course, but you do need to look closely at the work of published writers and be willing to learn from it. (If you want to develop your technical skills further, have a look at some of the titles here.)
I learned a lot about versification in a class run by Mimi Khalvati at The Poetry School. It’s necessary and enjoyable for writers to have colleagues, people they can discuss and swap poems with, but try not to become a ‘workshop junkie’, in other words spend more of your time working on the writing rather than sitting in a classroom talking about it – which brings me to the next point…
The most important discoveries you make about writing will be those you make by yourself.
In his ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to Franz Kappus: ‘You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart.’ Writing is essentially solitary. Be willing to dig down, experiment and write without the expectation or hope of praise from others. Rilke again, ‘A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity.’
And in the end it’s your poem, your piece of writing and you have to stand by it. If five other people tell you it’s either marvellous or terrible, how easily persuaded are you?
(Incidentally, in a recent series on BBC Radio 3, five contemporary poets read their own letters to a young poet, inspired by Rilke)
Don’t be afraid of new directions or new forms – children’s stories, magazine articles, drama, plays. Causley only came to write poetry after he’d tried plays and stories. Try to extend yourself because there’s always something new to learn. And if you decide you’re happiest writing poetry, experiment with form and tone and subject.
Attend readings. Think about what you’re listening to and have your ear open to the rhythms of language.
If you’re serious about writing you’ll eventually want to publish something, which means you’ll have to send it out into the world. This is nerve-wracking, but it’s the only way to start the journey. When Causley looked back on that first short play ‘Runaways’ he described it as juvenilia, but that doesn’t matter, it got him on the road.
Rejection is a part of any creative life. Make friends with rejection now because once you’ve published your first poem, it doesn’t go away. But don’t let rejection beat you down. Learn what you can from it and then, to use Beckett’s phrase, ‘Fail again, fail better.’
Don’t submit to magazines before you’re ready, but when you are make sure you’ve read a few issues of your chosen publication and understand the editorial style – each magazine has a different personality. Aim high, but also understand the apprenticeship of literary magazine publishing; it’s a ladder and most people start with the smaller publications first. This is also a useful way to build confidence.
Competitions offer a good outlet for unknown writers because they’re judged blind: you don’t know the judges and they don’t know you. Don’t write your poem ‘for’ the competition or judge (if the judge is fond of poems about sailing it won’t necessarily follow that they’ll privilege any boat poem they read). Send your best work.
There are masses of competitions, from local writer’s group competitions to international prizes like The Bridport Prize. And of course The Charles Causley Poetry Competition offers an excellent first prize!
Pamphlets are often a stepping stone between magazine publication and a first book, and they’re in good health.
Pamphlets encourage you to think about the strength of each poem and how they relate to each other as a group. Are there themes at work in the poems you hadn’t noticed before? Or repetitions you’d like to avoid? It’s better to publish a small, tight collection than ‘pad out’ a first collection with poems that aren’t strong enough, and it’s nice to have your name on something you can sell at readings or offer for review.
Kate White, a talented poet who I met when working as a poetry tutor at Morley College, won the first Pighog Poetry pamphlet competition in 2013. Her collection ‘The Old Madness’ went on to become a Poetry Book Society Choice, and she has this to say:
‘I suppose one test of whether you’re ready to put a small collection out is when poems start to jockey for position: there are more that you’d like to go in than there’s room for. You’re forced to judge yourself. Putting the best to bed can leave you with a feeling of starting from scratch again. A first pamphlet feels like your poetry life so far.’
When it’s not going well, writing can be the most frustrating, dispiriting pursuit imaginable – but ultimately you should experience an underlying enjoyment, or why else do it? ‘If you write things with love, and do it with love, you can’t go wrong.’ (Ray Bradbury)
If you really can’t live without writing, then you won’t be able to give up even if you want to. Feelings of discouragement or doubt are common but don’t let them take you over. All writers are making their way. At the age of 83, Charles Causley was made a companion of literature by The Royal Society of Literature, his wry response, ‘What an encouragement!’