Continuing my occasional articles for beginners on the art of writing, taken from the pages of Writing Magazine and the subsequent compilation called 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' (see below)
There’s a well-known poem which has been around for some time, known variously as ‘The Ages of Woman’… or simply, The Purple Hat poem. It deals with how a woman sees herself throughout her life. Starting at age 3, she sees herself as a queen, then as Cinderella… and runs all the way up to 80, when, after a life of living by the rules, she puts on a purple hat and says 'To hell with all of you, I’m off to enjoy myself!'
Now, I know a lot of you out there are of the hairy male persuasion, and wouldn’t dream of putting on anything purple unless you were (a) aspiring to the priesthood or (b) pushing your luck on the fashion front. But bear with me, because this applies to you, too.
Writing is all about rules, and mostly, if we want to be proficient writers, we follow them carefully; use commas here, speech-marks there, write for the market, double-space your manuscript, use one point of view at a time, etc and so forth. All good stuff and not to be ignored if you wish to be taken seriously as a professional writer.
But every now and then, don’t you think you should let go a bit or, as my dear old mum used to say, let out your girdle (or belt, if you’re a guy) and live a little?
There are solid reasons for doing this. Firstly, rules can sometimes stifle our inner creativity. Yes, they’re important in the normal course of events, but every once in a while, foregoing them is like walking onto a beach, kicking off your shoes, rolling up your trousers and flexing your toes in the water.
Another reason to kick the rules into the long grass occasionally is to see what we’re capable of when we’re not following them. I don’t mean Lord of the Flies kind of stuff – we’re civilised, after all, not a bunch of beasts. But have you ever tried writing something… daring? Something you wouldn’t normally write?
I remember once being on Dartmoor with school friends at the age of 12, and being aware that nobody else was about. By nobody, I mean ADULTS. (We were on summer camp and the teachers had left us to put up the tents while they went to the pub). And there was all this vast space and no-one filling it who could tell us what to do.
Best of all, there was an absolute blinder of an echo, which we only became aware of when knocking in the tent pegs and finding the tock noise coming back at us.
So we started shouting. And whistling. And making daft noises. Hell, we were boys – what do you expect - polite applause?
Then someone came out with a swear-word.
Cue giggles and scanning the horizon to see if anyone in authority was about, and within seconds, the harmless rolling slopes of Dartmoor - and a few hairy cows - were being roundly showered with every rude word a bunch of 12-year-olds could hurl at them… and quite a few we only thought were rude but weren’t entirely sure about.
And the best bit? Every word came winging straight back.
Have you ever been sworn at by your own echo? It’s brilliant!
Anyway, the thing was, after weeks and months of following rules of every description, we were suddenly free to do what we’d always wanted, but had never had the time or the opportunity to do.
However, back to writing. Have you ever tried writing something you wouldn’t normally entertain? (And I don’t mean taking a spray can and writing I WUZ ‘ERE all over the nearest railway carriage). I mean writing something you don’t even read. Wedded to Romance? Try Crime. Chuckling at humour? Take a walk on the Dark Side. Thrilled with mysteries? Let your mind go off into Sci-Fi. Grounded with the everyday? Take off into Fantasy.
A case in point recently was when I met a librarian friend who admitted she had tried writing erotica. Just to see if she could. She confessed it was difficult at first, purely because it wasn’t something she’d ever dreamed of writing. She even felt a bit… naughty. But liberated.
She didn’t show me what she had written, but when she went back to her usual writing style (relationships and crime), she felt as if she had taken a real break, and was able to launch herself back into her normal genre with renewed enthusiasm.
I usually swap between non-fiction, features, relationship fiction, crime thrillers and occasional letters to our local Member of Parliament, just to keep him on his toes. And that, for me, offers a broad enough scope which lets me ring the changes and get a fresh perspective on whatever comes next.
And I know through experience that dipping the writing toe into uncharted waters can unleash a whole new approach.
So, if you’re feeling a little constrained, why not put on your purple hat (real or otherwise) and go ‘out’ there once in a while. Defy convention and write something completely different. See what happens.
You never know, you might just surprise yourself.
· Choose a genre you don’t normally write – and go for it.
· Take a cue from television or film, and write something in the same style.
· Don’t worry about your usual locations or characters – get wild!
· Try writing with a smile on your face.