By Ray Miles
My name is Ray Miles. Following a recent submission to Pen to Print, I was asked if I could do a piece on the writing process. I will confess now that it is a difficult subject for me, as my writing tends to happen ‘when the muse is upon me’; there is no real defined process!
I will see something that catches my attention, or hear a snatch of conversation on the radio, television, or in the street, or on one of the WhatsApp groups to which I belong, and it will inspire me. An example of this is the following:
Alice: The mouse has disappeared! 🐀😱
Ray: But the sun is glorious in the West
Ray: I couldn’t resist. It sounded like a spy code! 😂😂
Ray: Just in case you weren’t able to follow my convoluted train of thought. Picture the scene: A small café in a Berlin backstreet. A man in a mackintosh sits at a table at the rear, reading a newspaper. Another man wearing a fedora sidles in, looking nervously around, and approaches the first man. He coughs and says, “The mouse has disappeared.” The first man doesn’t look up and says, “But the sun is glorious in the West.”
Alice had said earlier in the chat that she had found a mouse in her chest of drawers. Then came her message above. I instantly had the image of two spies in the pages of a Le Carré novel in my head and jotted down the response and the scenario. It’s just the way my brain works.
A similar thing happens when I write poetry. It can be the smallest thing, and a couple of lines will come into my head. I have to write them down at that time, or they are gone, like fragile gossamer in a strong wind. I have notebooks and pens scattered liberally around the house, with fragments of verse that can be revisited later. I also have a voice recorder for emergencies!
These fragments can just lay dormant after they’ve been written down or recorded, but sometimes I feel the urge to work on them immediately, which is often inconvenient but has to be done, or I can feel no peace. This is happening less frequently now as my writing is maturing.
I was subject to a traumatic personal event in February of 2021 and, for me, writing has been a huge emotional release. When I write, I tend to write from the heart. We all know the saying about wearing your heart on your sleeve. Well, mine is on paper. My work is often intensely personal, but it seems a lot of readers can identify with the emotions I express, because my experiences are not unique. The difference is that I have discovered I have a talent for being able to commit them to paper in a form that makes them accessible.
I greatly admire the work of William Wordsworth, so I recently went on a pilgrimage to visit his home, Dove Cottage, in Grasmere. Being in the same room where he composed some of his memorable works was hugely inspiring to me. In his Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), he wrote the following insightful words:
Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.
He tended to write in rhyming couplets; one of the easier forms to write in. I’m not a fan of free verse, because I like my lines to scan properly. It’s all about the rhythm of the words. To me, it lends readability to the poem; it makes it easy to read and, because of the rhyme scheme and scansion, it makes it acceptable to most people.
When I start a poem, there is rarely a plan. I have no idea how long it’s going to be in terms of the number of lines or line length. I let the words find me. I do frequently get stuck for rhymes, though and have discovered an amazing resource on the web at rhymezone.com, which enables me to fine-tune the work after I have the bare bones down on paper, be it literal or virtual.
As a contradiction to the previous paragraph, I have just completed the first year of a two-year course at the Open University (OU). I’m waiting nervously for the final mark to make sure I’ve passed! However, during the module, after a short section on Shakespeare and his contributions to the English Language, we were given an exercise to do. We were presented with a choice of six first lines and invited to write a sonnet in the Shakespearian style, which is 14 lines in total, with alternate rhyming lines and a two-line volta at the end.
For someone who rarely has any kind of plan, working within these constraints was quite hard. I was pleased with the results, even though it was almost accidental. It’s been published by Pen to Print, since. I have to say, my admiration for the Bard has gone up tremendously, because it really is pretty difficult to write like that. I’ve concluded I’m a rhyming couplet kind of guy, like Wordsworth!
But what of prose, I hear you ask? Before February 2021, I regarded myself as an aspiring author of novels, for both adults and children. While I was still working, I wrote a children’s book during my breaks. My colleagues were a little bemused by the fact that I could usually be found in the corner of the cafeteria, pen in my hand, scrawling furiously. I had an opening and an ending in mind, but the journey between the two points was unscripted. I was pleased with the end result. My beta readers liked it, but the literary agents I sent it to all disagreed. Undaunted, I commenced a second effort, but when I was halfway through, the words ceased to flow and seemed forced, so I abandoned the work and it remains half complete, gathering dust in a drawer.
I freely admit I was more than a little downhearted by all the rejections, but in 2018, while on holiday on Zakynthos, I found myself with some unexpected free time and suddenly an idea for a detective novel came to me. Where the idea sprang from I have no clue, but I started to get the words down, and before I knew it, there were four full sheets of A4 paper and an empty pen! I had to go to a local supermarket and buy an exercise book and some pens so that I could continue.
I really enjoyed writing the book and was able to just let my imagination run riot. Once more, I had no clear plan, which will probably horrify some readers, and the characters appeared as necessary. I was able to keep the thread of characters in my head, and over the next two years, picked up the work and added to it when I could. I am on my second jotter now after using up the first exercise book.
Once again, though, circumstances have conspired against me and the work is unfinished, although never far from my conscious mind. I will pick it up again before too long and breathe new life into the pages. I’m quite pleased with it, though, and took the somewhat ambitious step of submitting it to the Crime Writer’s Association Debut Dagger awards, unsuccessfully on this occasion, but there’s always next year!
In the meantime, I have my poetry. As an example of the tortuous path my mind takes, I had an idea recently for a poem to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the local Carers organisation which has been instrumental in saving me and my sanity. The first two lines came and went over the last couple of weeks, like a reservoir filling up. Then, two nights ago, the dam burst, and I had to sit down with a pen and pad. I wrote the poem, all 32 lines of it, put it on the computer, and sent it to the organisation, all in just over two hours!
So, while I’m not perhaps the best role model for someone to base their literary career on, I hope this has given you a small insight into the almost accidental way things can happen. I’ve had seven pieces used by Pen to Print, which is hugely satisfying. I’ve had one poem published in a small booklet for a local mental health charity, and I performed my poem, 17th February 2022, live at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 15th August.
You can hear great new ideas, creative work and writing tips on Write On! Audio. Find us on all major podcast platforms, including Apple and Google Podcasts and Spotify. Type Pen to Print into your browser and look for our logo or find us on Anchor FM.
If you or someone you know has been affected by issues covered in our pages, please see the relevant link below for information, advice and support: https://pentoprint.org/about/advice-support/
We all know the saying about wearing your heart on your sleeve. Well, mine is on paper.