Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?
I’m not creative enough to tell stories. None of my ideas are original.
I haven’t got the right voice to start a blog. I’ll sound like I’m lecturing.
Writing poetry is too difficult for me. I should stick to prose.
That last thought used to be one of mine. I’ve always liked reading poems. But I didn’t think I had the kind of brain to write them.
I put poetry into the same category as music. Not my strength either. As a kid, I never got past the recorder. When we did school productions, my friends played in the orchestra.
I donned black clothing and waited until the lights went out. Then I’d dart across the stage moving sets and props until it was time to retreat into the safety of the shadows again.
To me, poetry was just as mysterious as music. Something that required a deep understanding of the rhythm of language. Finding rhymes. Counting syllables. Figuring out where to put punctuation. It seemed to constrict. A barrier to creativity rather than a way to express it.
It’s only recently that I’ve begun to challenge my beliefs about writing poetry.
I didn’t plan it that way. It started when I was going through an extra busy period in my day job. Although I still had time to write, I didn’t always have the energy to work on my fiction. I felt frustrated that I wasn’t finishing anything. So I decided to begin experimenting with haiku.
After all, they were only three lines. How hard could they be to write?
What is a haiku?
Haiku (singular and plural) originate from Japan. Traditionally, they focus on the natural world. In English, they’re 17 syllables long. The first line has five syllables, the second seven and the last five. And best of all, they don’t have to rhyme.
How I approached haiku writing
I decided to use travel photos as inspiration. When I was living in England, a friend and I went on a four-day camping trip to the Cotswolds. It rained the entire time, but we loved every minute of it. It was all so different from back home. I was especially taken by the stunning historic buildings everywhere. In New Zealand, the oldest house you’ll find dates back to 1822.
My first haiku was about the Chilean flamingos at Birdland Park and Gardens in Bourton-on-the-Water. Such an exotic sight to see in the English countryside! It took a day to write this haiku, but I wasn’t thinking about it all the time. I let the image float around in my mind between tasks. At the end of the day, I jotted down all the phrases that had come to the surface. The words had spent all day in my head. So it only took about 15 minutes to get them onto the page and arrange them the way I wanted.
Spindly legs splashing
English flamingos forage
Highlights in the grey.
My second haiku was about a thatched cottage we came across in one of the villages. Rather than feeling too tired to create, ideas were coming thick and fast now. I looked at the photo and wrote the whole thing on my phone during a tram ride to work.
On tiptoes we peek
over topiary. Wonder
who calls this place home?
When I started my third haiku, I ran into trouble. I wanted to capture my feelings about a ruined abbey that we’d visited. I struggled for two days. Flicking through a thesaurus, I tried to condense my thoughts into 17 syllables. So much for believing that writing a haiku would be faster than writing a story! I couldn’t get anything to fit.
It was only when I stopped and asked myself a question that I started to make progress.
Why does it need to fit?
I wasn’t writing these haiku for publication. I was writing them for myself. To remember my travels. And to experiment with a new form of creative expression.
So I made my last haiku five lines.
In empty archways
Grass threads through stonework.
At sundown, each blade quivers
To the distant toll
Of long-ago bells.
Two ways to change your thoughts about writing
Changing your attitude to writing is all about tricking that little voice inside your head. The one that’s telling you it’s too hard. You can shut it down by making things easy for yourself.
1. Break it down
Instead of writing a poem, try a haiku or a limerick. Or go even smaller and write a poetic caption for a photograph.
Want to start a blog? Begin with microposts on Facebook or Instagram. Not confident about sharing your work straightaway? Change your settings so only a few close friends can read your post.
If you want to write short stories, choose something that happened to you or a friend. Describe it in a single scene without worrying about what comes before or after.
2. Bend the rules
New writers are often told “Don’t break the rules until you know how to use them.”
Why? Because it's best to stick to the guidelines if you're writing for other people. Other people could mean a publication, a writing competition or a particular audience.
But if you’re writing for yourself, bending the rules can give you creative space. It also stops you from getting overwhelmed when you're trying out a new genre.
Haiku are short. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to be quick and easy to write. By allowing myself to use more than 17 syllables, I took the pressure off and finished my last verse.
If you read Japanese haiku in English, they’re not usually 17 syllables either. We're dealing with two different languages here.
Traditional haiku focused on the seasons. But there’s also no limit to the topics covered by modern day haiku writers.
Conventions are constantly evolving.
Creativity comes when we stop seeking perfection. Confidence grows when we allow ourselves to experiment and make a mess.
The results may not always be our best work, but they’re the start of something more important.
They’re the start of a shift in mindset. The start of a realisation.
We’re capable of more than we think.