Author Anne Walsh Donnelly on how her experience of writing poetry informed the writing of her new book, He Used To Be Me.
Who am I? Well, I’m definitely not the line dancer of Irish writing, I’m more of a drunken disco dancer throwing shapes, out of sync with both the other dancers and the music.
When I started writing twelve years ago, I dabbled in poetry then wandered into short stories and plays, then back to poetry and then back to fiction again. I tend to go from one form to another depending on the story or idea or character that’s mooching around my mind. I’m going through a creative non-fiction phase at the moment.
When I get an idea, I ask myself what’s the best way of telling this story? A poem or play or prose? Sometimes a piece starts off as a poem but evolves into something else. One poem I wrote ended up turning into a one act play, another became my new book, He Used To Be Me.
I can see a big difference from the prose I wrote before focussing on poetry and the prose I write now. Why? My experience writing poetry has taught me the importance of using sensuous language, images, metaphors and similes in my writing as well as rhythm and listening to the sound of a piece. I used these techniques when writing He Used To Be Me, to create a vivid, lyrical and immersive piece of writing that did justice to my character, Daft Matt.
Are you a poet who wants to write in other forms, maybe a play or novella or even a novel? This is what I’ve learned and hopefully there might be something here that will help you.
Experiment, experiment, experiment
He Used To Be Me has been put through the ringer, first I wrote it as a poetry collection, then as a play and finally I wrote it in prose. So, it became a story told in fragments using poetic and lyrical language. And even then, I wasn’t happy with it. The poet in me was obsessed with how it looked on the page, so I played with the layout as I wanted to show the character’s state of mind not only by the language I used but also in how the words were laid out on the page. Don’t be afraid to try out different forms for one idea or story and see what works best.
Mine your poems
Don’t know where to start? Could you develop one of your poems into a prose piece? I ran into a roadblock recently. My creativity came to a standstill, so I went back to some of my old poems and used them as a gateway into writing a creative non-fiction piece called, A Marriage in Metaphors. Maybe one of your poems could be the start of something else. It might even be your way into writing a novel.
Don’t put yourself into a corner
When I started to write poetry seriously, I nearly convinced myself that I wasn’t writing real poems and that I should stick with fiction. But I preserved with encouragement from writing peers and mentors and to my amazement some of my poems got published. When I was published in New Irish Writing in the Irish Times, I thought yes Anne, now you can call yourself a poet. So just because you are a poet, doesn’t mean you can’t write in other forms.
Stay true to your voice
Don’t try to be who you’re not. This applies to all writing. When I started writing I noticed that my rural background heavily influenced my work, and I wasn’t happy about using metaphors such as combine harvesters, jackhammers and old hay ricks in my poetry.
I wanted my writing to be more urban, sophisticated and elegant. But when I strayed from what was natural to me, what landed on the page was stiff and staid. All my best writing happens when I get out of my own way. Stay true to your voice and your character’s voice.
How to avoid overwhelm
A novel is a long-haul flight not a short one. You need to get a lot of words onto the page and that takes time. But some writers seem to be obsessed with writing x amount (usually in the 1000s), of words every day. For someone used to writing short form that may seem daunting. If the thought of writing 1000 words a day sends you into a tizzy, then don’t aim for that. Aim for 100 words instead.
Write every day, seriously?
Yes, there are many benefits in writing every day as I am sure you know. I don’t. I’m a single parent, I have a day job as an editor and various medical ailments. I don’t have enough energy left to write every day.
Go easy on yourself. Try out various writing tips and see what works for you, your life and the story you want to tell. If you can only write once a week then do that. He Used To Be Me is relatively short, written in fragments, and straddles prose and poetry. It probably won’t be a best seller and that’s ok. I enjoyed writing it, I’m proud of the end result and I didn’t burn myself out in the process.
Don’t do what you should, do what you can
Someone once told me that I should focus on one form, that no publisher would take me seriously if I didn’t. I pondered on that advice for about ten minutes. My writing is better because of my drunken disco dancer antics* and I’m a happier person. Thankfully New Island did take me seriously and published He Used To Be Me.
To adapt a Henry David Thoreau quote, write to the beat of your own drum, however measured or far away. Now discard everything I’ve said, get your butt on the chair and write your way and most importantly be gentle with yourself.
*I don’t drink any sort of alcoholic beverage. I hope you got that, that was just a metaphor!
(c) Anne Walsh Donnelly
To find out more about Anne please click here.
About He Used to be Me by Anne Walsh Donnelly:
‘I sit on the stone that will mark the bed of my bones. You’ll find the used-to-be-me, soon, flat body, washed up, wrinkly skin. No silly grin. You’ll say, What a waste of a life. Tut-tut sounds jump out. Dangle like worms from your crow’s mouth …’
Meet Daft Matt, the Mayo man at the heart of this astonishing, form-bending story, as he wanders the streets of Castlebar in search of Devil’s feet – the claw marks of the cága, or jackdaws, who have spoken to him since he was a boy.
Yet Matt is anything but daft. In lyrical prose, Walsh Donnelly explores the complex workings of Matt’s inner life: how he deals with the loss of his twin brother as a child, navigates the carefree days of early manhood and copes with the aftermath of the horse-riding accident that would see him incarcerated in the care system for the next thirty years. Richly imagined and beautifully written, this is a story for anyone who chooses to look beyond the surface of things.
‘I used to think those claws were the only things that kept me above sea-level.’
Order your copy online here.