What keeps us going as writers? Staring alone at the blank page doesn’t always work; sometimes it’s about targets and teamwork. Christine Cochrane and Divyam Chaya Bernstein are two writers who recently completed the daily writing challenge NaPoWriMo. They tell us how they supported each other along the way.
First there was NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), an annual extravaganza each November where participants post their work, track progress and meet fellow writers online. Then, along came NaPoWriMo, the poetry equivalent – a poem a day for 30 days every April. A suggested daily prompt for your poem is given on the NaPoWriMo website, but many use it to gain the impetus for their own particular projects. To do these challenges, you simply sign up on the websites and post your work on your own blog or website. And then you keep at it!
Why is NaPoWriMo such a great challenge?
Christine: It’s a daily mental workout! Poetry is great to share; it’s a nugget of distilled thought to which a reader can quickly respond. You can’t operate at this speed with a novel or short stories. The public presentation really spurs you on; I aim to get the poem up on the website by the end of each day. And, by the end of a month, I find I’m a bit more relaxed about the public stage. I’ve also met a few poets along the way and shared my poetry with the entire planet. Result!
“There is something amazing about taking part in a worldwide creative project.” Divyam
Divyam: The main thing I love about NaPoWriMo is the energy and intensity it can bring to your work. There is something amazing about taking part in a worldwide creative project. And it’s free! You really do learn so much about writing by sitting down each day and … writing! It’s also a great opportunity to read a wide variety of poems from around the globe.
What was the biggest personal challenge about NaPoWriMo?
Christine: I flagged at certain points, as you do when running a marathon!
Divyam: The most challenging part is to keep going. There were days on this adventure where I felt happy with what I had written. Often, however, I had to face the voice that says, ‘You really can’t write poetry’ or, ‘You keep going on about the same thing.’ Fortunately, even if you’re convinced it’s terrible, you don’t have long to think about it. The next day brings a fresh page. And when I reread what I’ve written it’s often much better than I remembered!
Christine: And then there is the prompt you just don’t like. Usually I found a way round those and was often pleasantly surprised by the result. The dreaded ‘poem based on a fan letter to a celebrity’ on April 3rd finished up being a lot of fun! The other thing I find challenging is the ‘write a sestina’ type of prompt; I’d prefer to be given a theme along with the suggested form. Form can be challenging but is great word-suduko and, when the final syllable or rhyme slots into place, there is a huge sense of satisfaction. I enjoyed ‘getting inside’ the tritina and the san san.
“when the final syllable or rhyme slots into place, there is a huge sense of satisfaction” Christine
How did you support each other?
Christine: We learned things about different approaches when we did the same prompt. Sometimes Divyam didn’t do the official prompt and taught me some interesting writing exercises which I’ve still to try out. There was a lot of creativity about, and it flourished when it was shared.
Divyam: I was inspired by Christine’s approach to prompts that seemed daunting to me. I tend to shy away from forms that have complex rhyme patterns, for example. Also, after I had posted a poem, Christine would often ask questions like ‘How did you go about that?’ or ‘What inspired this one?’ and this helped me to reflect on what I had actually done.
“it flourished when it was shared” Christine
Christine: I also knew that Divyam was going to get her poem up by midnight, so I’d better do it too. I think it might have been easier to rest on wayside laurels without each other’s support.
Divyam: I really valued our shared interest in what we were exploring. This support was crucial on days when midnight was approaching and the poem had not yet been finished or during those slump points when it felt like there were no more poems left. The comments we sent each other were like beams from a lighthouse: ‘See you in the late lounge!’ or ‘I feel like I’m dragging my poetic bones towards the finish line!’
“I’m dragging my poetic bones towards the finish line!” Divyam
What surprised you about your own work?
Christine: I was surprised that I could jump from one theme to another quite easily – I wrote about whale song, the month of March, Scottish thistles, the wicked stepmother’s mirror in Snow White and heritage vegetables. I travelled to Dresden, Norway and Africa and back to the Fifties and Sixties. I made a poem out of the titles on book spines. I wrote about my experience with cancer – I hadn’t intended to, but it popped up twice and prompted a lot of feedback; gritty topics pull people in.
Divyam: Writing poems day after day can feel a bit like you are peeling away surface layers. The things I write end up revealing images and themes significant to my inner world. I wrote about fairy tales, seal-women, Batman, and The Forest of Bones. I played around with opposites: darkness and light, questions and answers. Many of the pieces were found poems; it’s always exciting when you excavate a poem from a recipe or reference book. The biggest surprise was the day I wrote a song and recorded it with musical accompaniment on my iPad. I’m neither a songwriter nor a singer so this was a bold move!
Christine: When we finally crossed that finish line on April 30th, it was fantastic to celebrate our achievement together!
Divyam: See you next year?
Divyam Chaya Bernstein is a writer, storyteller and cartoonist in love with stories of all shapes and sizes. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at Middlesex University, specializing in fantasy and science fiction. She won 3rd prize in the NAWG 2014 Open Short Story Competition, and was shortlisted in the 2015 Exeter Writers Short Story Competition. Based in London, she continues to love writing on the borders between fantasy and reality. She regularly publishes her poems, cartoons, and other explorations in creativity on her blog, Follow the Brush and on her Tumblr, Divyam’s Doodles.
Christine Cochrane is a writer of short stories and poetry. After retiring from a career in language teaching, she studied Creative Writing with the Open University and won 3rd prize in the Mslexia Women’s Short Story Competition 2014. She lives in Cumbria but is drawn particularly to writing about her native Scotland. Christine’s first short story collection, ‘Shifting sands: Tales of Transience and Transformation’ was published by Lumphanan Press in 2015 and is also available on Amazon Kindle. Her poetry is published in ‘Watershed’, an anthology by Cumbrian poets, and on her website and blog, Harping On.