Inspiration and practicalities are opposite poles of the writing process, with writing itself occupying the space in between. Being open to inspiration requires time and space, and the practicalities of publishing require structure, focus, and lots of interaction, so it’s an ongoing dance between modes.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, at any time; it can begin with a sensory prompt, or from something you read, listen to, or overhear. It evades chronology, and can be a response to another place and time. Textiles present a good analogy for the writing process, with the writer moving shuttle-like between warp and weft, creating a fabric out of different coloured threads and textures, but there always has to be a starting point – that one colour or pattern that demands your attention.
My first two books had quite specific starting points. Undercurrents, a psychogeography of Irish rivers, began with a memory of a river. I wrote a haibun and submitted it to an international journal, and the editor accepted it with a note that it would work well as part of a sequence. So I jotted down a list of rivers which represented ‘spots of time’ to me, and started to write haibun about them. The rivers I focused on were in Dublin, Limerick and Mayo, so I was able to revisit many of them, but for others I found YouTube to be a brilliant resource – for example when I was writing about a flood in the Clare River in County Tipperary, I found a clip of white water rafting which gave a vivid sense of being there. I showed the complete collection of haibun to Kim Richardson of Alba Publishing, and he suggested interspersing them with haiku sequences to form a spine through the collection, which was a brilliant suggestion. I’ve been very fortunate with my publishers and editors, and also with the writer friends with whom I workshop my writing – members of the Hibernian Writers and the Pepperpot Haibun Group. It’s invaluable to have people you trust to give you a good steer on your work, both in terms of individual pieces and when structuring collections.
My children’s book, The Lost Library Book, also had a concrete starting point: it’s a true story about a volume that my husband found in a curio shop – it transpired that the book was a priceless medical tome missing from Marsh’s Library, and the coincidence of it turning up after almost a century was so extraordinary that I decided to turn it into a children’s story. Again, I was lucky with my editor and publisher, Mathew Staunton of The Onslaught Press, who put the story together with beautiful illustrations by Alice Durand-Wietzel, and a foreword by the Keeper of the Library.
The inspiration can also be an existing text. When I did a transcreation of Gabriel Rosenstock’s Sasquatch, the primary text and the eponymous sasquatch were already there. My main focus in that case was to place myself in the mind of the sasquatch, and try to recreate the world of the book through a female lens.
No matter what the genre, it can be prompted by a single image. Last year I had a novel shortlisted for the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair. I’d been redrafting it over several years, but it had a very specific visual starting point – an image of a father and child walking down a frozen path to a lakeshore, and that prompt drove the momentum for the whole novel.
The process of writing fiction or nonfiction is a lot more about turning up at the desk, and committing to a certain word count every day or week, but poetry is a different animal, and in my experience the one sure way of not writing a poem is to set out to write one, so it’s like a constant process of tricking myself – creating the conditions conducive to the writing of a poem, but never sitting down with the explicit intention of coming up with one. For me, it requires a lot of head space, so internet, phone, and social media in particular are anathema. The best way to create the space for a poem to present itself is often through an activity which switches off the thinking mind: swimming, walking, cycling, or some form of art, craft, or making. I tend to have a poem drafted in my head before I commit it to paper, or will put one draft down in my journal and edit it in my head before attempting a second draft.
Structuring a poetry collection is an interesting way of looking retrospectively at the main sources of inspiration. In the case of Riptide, there were three main areas: the sea, the paintings of Edvard Munch, and gardening, as well as more diffuse family experiences. The pandemic has been tricky from a poetry point of view, because of constraints on activity and travel, but also because of the constant low-level stress that blocks those snatches of inspiration from getting through. But what I’ve lacked in inspiration I’ve been able to compensate for in practicalities: redrafting, editing, structuring. And now I’m looking forward to the next phase: there is truly a time for everything.
(c) Amanda Bell
Riptide explores the zeitgeist using the art of Edvard Munch as a counterpoint, delving into the ecological and spiritual anguish informing his paintings, finding parallels in the world we live in today.
Riptide by Amanda Bell is published by Doire Press and is out now.
Order your copy online here.