Writing with wu-shih

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I ran a workshop at the Wise Words festival in Canterbury a couple of weeks ago. This is an excellent community arts event with an ambition to “inspire wonder and engage curiosity.”

People were certainly curious about my writing with constraints session. I’d hoped that maybe eight people might turn up. Two minutes before start time I had just one. But then a stream of people flooded in. There were so many that I joked about how we might want to barricade the doors. And then when even more came I thought I might have to start turning them away.

In the end, I counted 23 writers, which was great. Many of them had never been to a writing workshop before, which was lovely.

I read a book about Zen philosophy over the summer – Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen – and some of the ideas I encountered there bubbled up when we started to write some Haiku. Watts has a wonderful chapter about Zen arts, where he discusses archery, kendo and bonseki, as well as poetry. Haiku, he says, quoting the great Japanese master Basho, should be written in the spirit of “wu-shih” – the thought that the poem is “nothing special”.

If you call yourself a poet – never mind a writer – you take on a weighty burden of cultural baggage. I’m inspired by Basho’s belief that poetry – and Haiku in particular – can be written by ordinary people, for ordinary people. Yes, some people are gifted writers, but that shouldn’t discourage other people from having a go and using a form like Haiku to examine their experience of the world. As Watts says:

“The point of these [Zen] arts is the doing of them rather than the accomplishments. But more than this, the real joy of them lies in what turns up unintentionally in the course of practice, just as the joy of travel is not nearly so much in getting where one wants to go as in the unsought surprises which occur on the journey.”

Yep, that kind of sums up the approach I’m trying to encourage with these workshops. Watts also says: “A good Haiku … invites the listener to participate instead of leaving him dumb with admiration while the poet shows off.” People in the workshop participated, wrote words and shared them with each other, if they felt like it. That makes me very happy.

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Constraints liberate

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Bit slow to share my news on this one, but I ran a workshop on writing with constraints as part of the Guildford Literary Festival this summer. All of the 20 tickets for the event sold, which was very pleasing.

It was wonderful to see a room full of writers beavering away with their pens and notebooks, and to hear them sharing their words and thoughts. And their feedback was just lovely:

– Neil Baker is inspiring!
– Wonderful, inspiring facilitator. Would be interested in more workshops please.
– Just to thank Neil for making it so much fun and making us all feel so relaxed and comfortable.
– It was excellent. Well conceived, researched and delivered.
– Very well organised, great value.
– It allowed me to get free from my fear of writing.
– Engaging presentation, well presented.
– The timed writing exercises were a really good way to impose frameworks but allow creativity.
– It would be helpful to have more similar workshops.
– I will now never say again I don’t have time to write – 6 minutes is all you need!
– Thank you for a very thought provoking workshop this morning. May submit myself to the discipline of haiku now
– Went to fab ‘constraints’ workshop run by Neil Baker. Awestruck by how much he crammed in & what emerged.
– Thank you to Neil Baker for a fantastic “Writing with constraints” workshop this morning

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And here’s a tiny video clip of the writers in action.

 

A poem full of holes

home to home

Here’s a quick update about an interesting project I worked on recently.

Writer John Simmons asked me and a few other people to create a collaborative poem on the theme of ‘home’. The idea emerged from a conversation between John and designer Mike Abrahams about a residential property development Mike was working on with Jaccaud Zein Architects.

A big building site would normally be shut away behind a wall of chipboard hoardings. Such a barrier keeps the public safe, but does nothing to engage their curiosity. I know I can’t walk past a development without wondering what’s going on inside. Mike wanted to rethink the traditional screen in a way that would play on this natural fascination.

He came up with the idea of drilling a grid of holes in the hoardings – so people could look through – and then filling some of them with yellow plugs in a way that formed letters and spelled out words. The little plugs are easy to move, which meant he could change the words if he wanted to. Mike and John then decided to create a 12 line poem and to display each line on the hoardings for a month. They then thought of asking 12 writers to produce a line each. At which point I became involved.

There were some interesting constraints. Each line had to be 34 characters so that it fit the space exactly. To give the writing some unifying structure, each line had to start with the word that ended the preceding line, and the whole piece had to start and end with the word ‘home’.

It was great fun to work on. The project attracted some very positive media coverage. Some members of the previously excluded public found the experience so engaging that they moved the yellow plugs to make words of their own – I approve of such anarchic reinvention!

Here’s the poem in full. I wrote the third line.

Home opens up your own vision of possible
Possible dances new beginnings with joy
Joy in your heart tread lightly with love
Love and soft arms that hold us each night
Night rooms of sorrows and ardour speak
Speak dream bright windows to your world
World made divine by the promises we keep
Keep dreams alive and nightmares at bay
Bay of belonging a shared harbour our own
Own part of my restless heart sweet place
Place me in the bosom of this loving house
House me in the heartbeat at heart of home

Apart from myself and John, the writers involved in the project are Faye Sharpe, Sarah Farley, Richard Pelletier, Charlotte Halliday, Tim Rich, Jan Dekker, Sue Evans, John Dodds, Jamie Jauncey and Stuart Delves.

Bespoke stories, written on the spot

A simple question can take you to some very interesting places.


I had my second outing as a writer in residence yesterday. This time I was in Oxford Street Books, Whitstable, writing stories inspired by whoever came into the shop. To make life more difficult, I decided to try and write these stories – brief flash fictions – on the spot. Give me the inspiration for a story, and you can take the resulting slice of literature away with you. Now.

Partly, I wanted to demystify the process of idea generation. I wanted to show people – and myself, too – that ideas can be found anywhere, and that the writing process can be very quick, when necessary. I also felt that I, like many writers, spend a lot of time hanging about in the shadows, eavesdropping and observing, finding small details that could form the beginnings of a character or a story. I wanted to be more open about this process, I wanted to thank the people who inspired me, and show them what I had produced as a consequence – even if it was rubbish.

So armed with my now familiar toolkit of 3×5 cards, BlueTac, paperclips and pencils, I set about my task. I picked customers at random and said something like this: “Excuse me, but I’m a writer and I’m working on a special project here today. I’m writing stories inspired by the people who come into the shop. Would you inspire me please?”

This question tended to generate a nervous laugh, a look of terror or just blank incomprehension, so I quickly followed up with a simple instruction: “An easy way for you to inspire me would be to tell me your favourite word. What is it?”

Now, the answer to this question wasn’t very important at all. But it opened the door to further probing. It was remarkable how quickly I could go from a simple question (“So, why is peace your favourite word?”) to something much deeper (“So, do you feel that your life is in a dark place at the moment?”) I had no idea these brief conversation would be so revealing.

I’d furiously scribble notes and when the conversation seemed to have run its course – and people wanted to talk for a lot longer than I expected – I would ask them to browse the shelves while I wrote something for them. Every time I sat down to look at my notes, I had no idea what I would write. But I always managed to produce something. I would give the result to the customer, and stick a copy to the wall or a shelf for other people to read.

It was an exhausting, but inspiring day. Massive thanks to the great people at ReAuthoring who – yet again – made this all possible. Here are some photos (be kind – keep in mind, each piece of writing took about 90 seconds! And apologies for the handwriting):

This is Anne, reading “Anticipation”, which she inspired

Anticipation, inspired by Anne
Start Counting

This guy had a great attitude. He inspired Start Counting

Brilliant Brian – he owns the shop and makes great tea

Jane enjoying “On the Edge”, which she inspired 

On the Edge

Some of my stuff, pinned in place

The Woman Who Married a Parrot

Wendy with “The Woman who Married a Parrot”

The poster I put up in the window

Poster for inside the shop

I wrote stories on the reverse of these “thank you” cards


Taking literature to the streets, man

It’s good to step outside of one’s comfort zone occasionally, and I will be a very great distance away from mine next week.

I’m “performing” a short story at the Herne Bay Festival. That is not the scary bit. I have done a few readings before and enjoyed the experience. But in the past I was mainly talking to an audience of arty writerly types: they knew what to expect from me; I knew what to expect from them.

It will all be very different in Herne Bay. I’m working with what is euphemistically called a “found audience”; I’m doing my stuff on the pavement, for however many passers-by I can persuade to listen. They might enjoy it. They might stand and jeer. There might be no audience at all.

My piece is called Egg-box Eyeballs. I describe it thus: “A man plans to bake the special cake that will make his girlfriend love him. At the supermarket, shopping for ingredients, he finds a new pair of eye balls in an egg box. He uses them to see everyone’s secrets, but sees more than he wants to.”

I’m working with a group of brilliant local writers as part of the Reauthoring Project. If you’re in the neighbourhood, come and check me out. I need all the support I can get. I’m doing my thing on Saturday August 27 at 12pm, 2pm and 3.30pm.

The photo above shows me at a workshop to devise my performance, pondering what on earth I’ve got myself into. (That’s a tennis ball at my feet. I found it kicking around on the floor and it became the creative spark that unlocked my performance idea)

And here’s me checking out the “venue”: a wooden shelter on the seafront at Herne Bay.