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From the Mslexia Workshops Collection
New Writing Exercises for the Mslexia Women's Poetry Competition – Workshop #1
Devised by JANE HOLLAND
First Drafts are not Holy relics
Try the first in a series of intensive weekly workshops designed to help you with your poetry competition entries.
The 'Pure' First Draft Does Not Exist
Those who trust in the integrity of the first draft, stop reading now. Or prepare to have your beliefs severely challenged. There is no such thing as the sacrosanct first draft, which must under no circumstances be changed, for fear of losing something precious and irrecoverable. Writing is a process, and during that process any number of decisions, conscious or otherwise, are made before a single word is written. There’s no mystery about this. Your initial choices may be instinctive, but they are washed through filters of arrogance, influence, self-censorship, experience, fear, understanding, partiality…the list goes on.
Nothing we write is ‘pure.’ So let’s disabuse ourselves of that myth and get on with the difficult task of writing. Which means, essentially, rewriting.
Two First Draft Methods
There are two basic methods of writing a first draft. First, there’s John Braine’s famous white-hot draft approach – or ‘mindspill’ – as a young writing student put it during a recent workshop. For poetry, you forget about punctuation and making sense, and just spill yourself onto the page. Remember: no one else need see the result!
Then there’s the highly critical rewrite-on-the-go approach, where each word or line is weighed and worried before the next can be put down. This takes more time than the white-hot approach, but at least your end result should be more polished – though still nowhere near ready to show.
Mindspill to Landfill
Be prepared to adapt your method partway through the drafting process. Sometimes a too-fast draft drifts into gibberish: mindspill becomes landfill. Here you need to cut the pace. Pick out a few lines which play on your imagination and develop them instead. Stay vigilant for unexpected changes in theme or diction; there may be more than one poem in the mix.
Bloodaxe poet Helen Ivory, on first drafts: ‘I will write snips of things and then arrange them around the screen/notebook in a collage-making way till I find some kind of narrative or thread.’
Rescuing Abandoned Drafts
Have you ever abandoned a difficult first draft that was going nowhere? One way to retrieve enthusiasm is to copy the original draft into a new file, or write it out again on a fresh piece of paper, and then splurge: throw down anything you can, phrases, odd words, images that spring to mind, snatches of dialogue, real stream of consciousness stuff. At this stage, it doesn’t need to make sense. A brand-new perspective is your goal.
Don’t rely too much on the screen or tracking changes when revising. Use hard copies where possible. Be messy. Scribble in the margins, circle key phrases, link sections with arrows.
Don’t let uncertainty take hold of you during this process. If this draft isn’t working, what will it matter what you do to it?
Remember that you can always return to your original draft if the compass starts spinning too wildly.
JANE HOLLAND is an English poet, novelist and editor, born in Essex, 1966. She won an Eric Gregory Award for her poetry in 1996. She lives in Warwickshire with her husband and five children, where she was Warwick Poet Laureate in 2008. She has published one novel with Sceptre, five collections of poetry, and is currently working on a rather lengthy Tudor historical. Her latest poetry collection is Camper Van Blues (Salt). She is the editor-in-chief of Horizon Review.
These workshops have been devised especially for the 2010 Mslexia Women's Poetry Competition, judged by Vicki Feaver. This competition is now closed, though you can enter our Women's Short Story Competition, judged by Jackie Kay.
Plunder our selection of writing workshops for inspiration:
The Mslexia MA in Novel Writing – Character, led by Jenny Newman
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