Students taking Tips, Tricks & Techniques seminars with me this term, here are your first three weeks handouts:


Handout for Seminar 1 ‘Playing with Words’

Beware of formal logic & mechanical thought/reactive thought

Man has a fundamental need to assimilate all his experience, both of the external environment and of his internal psychological process. Failing to do so is like not properly digesting food.

Man’s discovery of the rules of formal logic (eg: a thing is either A or not A) constitutes an important step forward. Such rules were necessary in a wide range of contexts in which they were appropriate (i.e. those in which simple and sharp distinctions can consistently be made).

Reactive thought is necessary because without it we would have to reflect on every step. Very often this would be much too slow (eg: driving). And besides the totality of steps is generally so great that we could not reflect on all of them at once. So even though it is basically mechanical, reactive thought is an essential side or aspect of the process of thought as a whole. David Bohm On Creativity

Example of mechanical thought:

When you drop a coin on a highly patterned carpet. It is hard to see it. But when you see a glint of metal, the coin suddenly stands out, and is clearly visible. What you actually perceived is the difference between the previous state of the carpet and the state with the glint in it. This causes one to recollect similar differences in past experiences, when metal objects caused such glints to appear against a non-metallic background. Now you can see the coin because the pattern of differences between it and the carpet fits into an already known pattern of similar differences. – this is mechanical perception in the sense that the order, pattern and structure of what is perceived come from the recorded of past experiences and thinking. David Bohm On Creativity

Tip 1:  the word ‘theory’ in mathematics comes from the word ‘theatre’ (think of your eyes and brain as a theatre that stages the world but does not represent it exactly.)

Looking at the world through the mind is not knowledge of the what the world is. David Bohm On Creativity

Example of mechanical thought in creative writing:

When we refer to a woman as ‘housewife’ (…) Using this word is accepting ‘ready-made’ language, the ‘near at hand’. We pick the most convenient term and it stops us thinking and exploring (…) People can be lulled into a cliché-ridden world whereby they are even more easily manipulated by images and slogans from ‘above’. Now it’s clear we can’t all the time stop and replace and undo these reductions of what a person can be. In the practical, utilitarian world we need to use the most convenient, easily accepted terms of reference – for quick identification, for emergency, for commerce. We are busy. Nicki Jackowska Write for Life

In your writing practice:

Tip 2: (Instead of ‘housewife’ say she is a person) who is in intimate contact with walls, linen, china, wood (…) who watches how the light changes as sunlight shifts its channel across floor and cloth. Nicki Jackowska Write for Life

This is fighting fragmentation (fixed sets of categories) through transparency of form

The process of thought is getting caught in fixed sets of categories.

Fragmentation = thought and language have developed in a form that is mainly fragmentation. (…) (Fragmentation) interferes with proper attention by preventing us from seeing how things are interrelated, in ever-broader contexts. David Bohm On Creativity

Taking it a step further – can I turn off my logical brain?

Tip 3: Turn off your logical brain that says 1+1=2. Open up your mind to the possibility that 1+1 can equal 48, a Mercedes-Benz, an apple pie, a blue horse.

There was an article in the newspaper (…) about a yogi in India who ate a car. (…) A man had eaten a car! Right from the beginning there is no logic in it. (…) This is how we should write. Not asking ‘why?’, not delicately picking among cadies or spark plugs, but voraciously, letting our minds eat up everything and spewing it out on paper with great energy (…) if you think big enough to let people eat cars, you will be able to see that ants are elephants and men are women. You will be able to see the transparency of all forms. (…) It is not saying that an ant is like an elephant (…) it is saying that ant is an elephant(…) Don’t ‘make’ your mind do anything. Simply step out of the way and record your thoughts as they roll through you. Writing practice (…) helps to keep us flexible so that rigid distinctions between apples and milk, tigers and celery, disappear. We can step through moons right in to bears. You will take leaps naturally if you follow your thoughts, because the mind spontaneously takes great leaps. Natalie Goldberg Writing Down The Bones

Tip 4: we are in time

The problem is we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp us forever. That’s not true. We write in the moment. Sometimes when I read poems at a reading, I realize they think those poems are me. They are not me, even if I speak in the ‘I’ person. They were my thoughts (…) and the emotions at that time of writing. Natalie Goldberg Writing Down The Bones

Tip 5: humanise through familiar to be provocative/disarm & deceive with your writing

Many (World War 2) bombs were given names (…) ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy’ were the names given to the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (…) ‘nuclear warhead’ is replaced by ‘Fat Man’ (…) the death-dealing quality of the weapon is obscured by the familiarity and affection contained in the name of a person or an affectionate nickname (…) our relationship to the weapon, obscured in this way (…) To humanize and personalize the inhuman and devastating is language used for the purpose of maintaining or creating a lie. Nicki Jackowska Write for Life

Tip 6: write junk!

When you write, don’t say, ‘I’m going to write a poem’. That attitude will freeze you right away. Sit down with the least expectation of yourself, say, ‘I am free to write the worst junk in the world.’ (…) (if you decide you’re going to) write the great American novel (…) that expectation will keep you from writing. Natalie Goldberg Writing Down The Bones

Key terms: formal logic, mechanical or reactive thought, mechanical perception, ready-made language, fragmentation, perception, mechanical results of past conditioning, conceptual abstraction, transparency of form, humanising the inhuman.



Handout for Seminar 2:  Powers of Observation

Dialogue Tip 1: Following our dialogue exercises, try dropping your ‘he said’ ‘she said’ from your dialogue. Can you still tell who is talking? If not, you might need to find ways to make your characters more distinct and vivid.

Creativity & the Creative Process. The following stages have been identified as a key route of creativity:

  • First Insight
  • Saturation
  • Incubation
  • The Aha!
  • Verification

The Author does not only write when he is at his desk; he writes all day long, when he is thinking, when he is reading, when he is experiencing; everything he sees and feels is significant to his purpose and, consciously or unconsciously, he is forever storing and making over his impressions. Somerset Maugham quoted in Caudwell, H. The Creative Impulse in Writing and Painting.

Writing often begins from the spark created when two or more things collide or interact (…) The ignition key can be turned by any number of factors (…) a collision or conjunction of apparently unrelated happenings, whether ‘idea’ or ‘thing’. (eg: watching a TV show & remembering something about a family member.) (… this is) an act of vigilance, a state of preparedness to catch the connection. (…) hunting for ignition points is itself part of the enterprise. Nicki Jackowska Write for Life

Tip 2:  Don’t Marry the Fly! (Plotting / Staying in the story)

Watch when you listen to a piece of writing. There might be spaces when your mind wanders (…) often the problem is not in the reader but in the writing. These are places where the writer went back on himself, became diverted in his own mind’s enjoyment, forgetting where the story was originally heading.

A writer might be writing about a restaurant scene but become obsessed with the fly on the napkin and begin to describe, in minute detail, the fly’s back, the fly’s dreams, its early childhood, its technique for flying through the screen windows. The reader or listener becomes lost because right before that the waiter had come to the table in the writing and the listener is waiting for him to serve the food (…) loses the reader’s attention because it makes a little gap, letting the readers’ mind wander away from the work.

A responsibility of literature is to make people awake, present, alive. If the writer wanders, then the reader, too, will wander. The fly on the table might be part of the whole description of a restaurant. It might be appropriate to tell precisely the sandwich that it just walked over, but there is a fine line between precision and self-indulgence (…) know your goal and stay present with it. If your mind and writing wander from it, bring them gently back (…) don’t be self-absorbed, which eventually creates vague, muddy writing. We might really get to know the fly but forget where we are: the restaurant, the rain outside, the friend across the table. The fly is important, but it has its place. Don’t ignore the fly; don’t become obsessed with it (…) recognise the fly, even love it if you want, but don’t marry it.’ Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Technique: Nietzsche’s Theory of Perspectivism. I am a multitude of perspectives and I live amongst another multitude of perspectives.

All evaluation is made from a definite perspective: that of the preservation of the individual, a community, a race, a state, a church, a faith, a culture – Because we forget that valuation is always from a perspective, a single individual contains within him a vast confusion of contradictory valuations and contradictory drives (…)in contrast to the animals in which all existing instincts answer to quite definite tasks (…) The wisest man would be the one richest in contradictions who has antennae for all types of men (…) The subject as multiplicity. Will to Power by Friedrich Nietzsche

Physicists believe in a ‘true world’: a firm systemization of atoms in necessary motion (…)– so for them the ‘apparent world’ is reduced to the side of universal and universally necessary being which is accessible to every being in its own way (accessible and also already adapted – made ‘subjective’). But they are in error. The atom they posit is inferred according to the logic of the perspectivism of consciousness – and is therefore itself a subjective fiction. This world picture that they sketch differs in no essential way from the subjective world picture: it is only construed with more extended senses, but with our senses nonetheless – and in any case they left something out (…): precisely this necessary perspectivism by virtue of which every centre of force – and not only man – construes all the rest of the world from its own viewpoint (…) They forgot to include this perspective-setting force (…) Perspectivism is only a complex form of specificity. Will to Power by Friedrich Nietzsche

Tip 3: Use Nietzsche’s theory of perspectivism to have fun with perspectives in your writing. How would another species see this? How would someone from another time experience this? You can use this as a creative exercise anytime if you are stuck or looking to view things from a different viewpoint.

How should the artist convey his or her perspective?

Tip 4: Exaggerate, highlight and fade to say what you want to say. Turn your characters into cartoon versions of themselves. You can crank them up and then tone down later if you need to.

A painting by Rembrandt is not just an image or symbol of the person who appears in it, but rather by heightening certain features and simplifying others, the artist brings out a typical aspect of character having a broad or even universal human relevance. (…) art need not represent or symbolize anything else at all, but rather that it may involve the creation of something new. David Bohm On Creativity

Tip 5: Beware of Monkey Mind!

‘The mind is a trickster. It seems that when I write, a hundred pleasurable activities come to mind that I would rather do (…) there was a period last fall when every time I began to write, I went into a perfect blank-minded euphoria, where I stared out the window and felt a love for and oneness which everything (…) I thought to myself ‘Lo and behold, I am becoming enlightened! (…) I asked Katagiri Roshni about it. He said, ‘Oh, it’s just laziness. Get to work.’ Natalie Goldberg Writing Down The Bones

Key terms: First insight, saturation, incubation, illumination (the aha!), verification, ignition point, plot, the subject as multiplicity, perspectivism, subjectivity, specificity, viewpoint.



Handout for Seminar 3: Poems about Writing Poetry

Tip 1: What is poetic honesty? Honesty of feeling is different to honesty of thought. Billy Collins is a skeleton with a pen.

‘I was walking through the woods (…) It was there that the idea came to me (…) it would appear that the period of gestation (for the book) was 18 months. This period of exactly 18 months might suggest (…) that I am in reality a female elephant.’ Friedrich Nietzsche Ecco Homo

‘Some poems which I wrote and, unfortunately, published, I have thrown out because they were dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring. A dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained (…) Boredom is a subjective reaction but, if a poem makes its author yawn, he can hardly expect a less partial reader to wade through it.’ W. H. Auden, Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957

Tip 2: How to root the fantastical in the ordinary? The power of the everyday detail, a trick from journalists used vividly by poets eg: Fleur Adcock.

‘Learn to write about the ordinary. Give homage to old coffee cups, sparrows, city buses, thin ham sandwiches. Make a list of everything ordinary you can think of. Keep adding to it. Promise yourself, before you leave the earth, to mention everything on your list at least once in a poem, a short story, newspaper article.’ Natalie Goldberg Writing Down The Bones

Technique 1: Poetry is image writing without Logic

‘The writing of poetry is an activity which makes certain demands of attention on the poet and which requires that he should have certain qualifications of ear, vision, imagination, memory and so on. He should be able to think in images.’ Stephen Spender: The Making of a Poem in The Creative Process Ed. Brewster Ghiselin

‘Although I have no memory for telephone numbers, addresses, face and where I have put this morning’s correspondence, I have a perfect memory for the sensation for certain experiences which are crystallized for me around certain associations. I could demonstrate this from my own life by the overwhelming nature of associations which (…) carried me back so completely into the past, particularly into my childhood, that I have lost all sense of the present time and place.’ Stephen Spender: The Making of a Poem in The Creative Process Ed. Brewster Ghiselin

‘When a doctor looks at literature it is a question whether he sees it: the sea boils and pigs have wings because in poetry all things are possible- if you are man enough. They are possible because in poetry the disparate elements are not combined in logic (…) they are combined in poetry rather as experience, and experience has decided to ignore logic (…) art (…) freezes the experience as permanently as a logical formula, but without, like the formula, leaving all but the logic out.’ Book title? Author? Page number? How annoying not to have the correct details here (see ref tips below)

Technique 2: Poetry is about cutting, recycling & editing

‘Sylvia Plath (…) never scrapped any of her poetic efforts. With one or two exceptions, she brought every piece she worked on to some final form acceptable to her, rejecting at most the off verse, or a false head or false tail. Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.’ Ted Hughes introduction in Sylvia Plath Collected Poems.

‘When you’re dreaming it up the first time, you are using the side of you that looks out your eyes when you wake up from a nightmare and for an instant don’t remember what species you are. (…) Then when you’ve dreamed it up, you go through it again and again and again, using more and more the side of you that figures out how to open up the gate when you’ve got two bags of groceries in your arms and you don’t want to put them down.’ Off the Page Edited by Carole Burns

Tip 3: Example of how to edit & cut: Haiku poems by Matsuo Bashō: An old silent pond. A frog jumps into the pond, splash! Silence again. & The first cold shower – even the monkey seems to want a little coat of straw

 Technique 3: Thought experiments for poets writing about the self

  • Solipsism / Narcissism
  • Brain in a vat (Descartes)
  • Idealism (Berkeley)

 ‘That poem is ‘about’ solipsism, a philosophical doctrine which says that we create the world in the act of perceiving it; or about Narcissism, or any other ism that denotes the failure of the human personality to function objectively in nature and society (…) I use Narcissism to mean only preoccupation with self; it may be love or hate.’ Allen Tate, Brewster Ghiselin (Ed.) The Creative Process (1952)

‘I perceived many things during sleep that I recognised in my waking moments as not having been experienced at all (…) I find here that thought is an attribute that belongs to me; it alone cannot be separated from me. I am, I exist, that is certain (…) What then am I? A thing which thinks. And I have certainly the power of imagining likewise; for although it may happen (as I formerly supposed) that none of the things which I imagine are true, nevertheless this power of imagining does not cease to be really in use, and it forms part of my thought (…) since in truth I see light, I hear noise, I feel heat (…) these phenomena are false and that I am dreaming. Let it be so; still it is at least quite certain that it seems to me that I see light, that I hear noise and that I feel heat. That cannot be false; properly speaking it is what is in me called feeling; and used in this precise sense that is no other thing than thinking (…) Perception is neither an act of vision, nor of touch, nor of imagination (…) but only an intuition of the mind, which may be imperfect and confused (…) or clear and distinct (…) according as my attention is more or less directed to the elements which are found in it, and of which it is composed.’ Rene Descartes Discourse on the Method

‘The table that I am writing on exists, that is, I see and feel it; and if I were out of my study I would still say that it existed, meaning that if I were in my study I would perceive it, or that some other spirit actually does perceive it (…) There are those who speak of things that unlike spirits do not think and unlike ideas exist whether or not they are perceived; but that seems to be perfectly unintelligible. For unthinking things, to exist is to be perceived; so they couldn’t possibly exist out of the minds or thinking things that perceive them.’ George Berkeley Of The Principles of Human Knowledge

Key terms: Solipsism, haiku, narcissism, brain in a vat (aka: mind body dualism), idealism vs. materialism, the ordinary, poetic honesty, image writing.


 Bohm On CreativityWriting Down The Bones Cover


These are my handouts for the weekly sessions as part of the Creative Writing BA at Portsmouth University.




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