Developing Ideas

It’s impossible to know where some creative ideas come from,when they intrude into one’s thoughts. It’s like those earworms that wriggle into your brain,where you become a jukebox singing out a catchy song that’s beamed in from nowhere.

We all have plans for stories,poems or lyrics,and make notes about them,but sometimes a phrase or an imagined ‘what if ?’ situation won’t go away. Like a squeaky wheel,they get the most grease and jump the queue of work that you are already doing. I try to be virtuous and jot these intrusive ideas down,so that I won’t forget them,but sometimes they need dealing with immediately.

There are times when I wonder if I’m turning into a robot,such as when I catch myself using the same phrase repeatedly. For instance,I’m in the habit of sighing “ah,that’s good,” whenever I have my freshly percolated coffee after dinner. I noticed I was saying “I didn’t realise how cold I was,” every time that I lowered myself into a hot bath. Living alone,I tend to utter these phrases almost as a comforting mantra,but this one struck me as inspiration for a poem.

We often don’t appreciate how a situation has deteriorated until things change suddenly. It’s easy to adapt to circumstances that alter very slowly. I composed most of the poem about transformation as I sat in the bath water,and wrote it down afterwards.

You Don’t Know How Cold You Are

You don’t know how cold you are,

Until you have a hot bath.

You realise how thirsty you feel,

When you see running water.

The aroma of cooking food

Stimulates your hunger.

I didn’t know how lonely I was,

Until I held your hand.

My thirst for life was sated

By the river of your love.

You feed me all that I need,

As I consume you heart and soul.

Sometimes my poems have been the seeds from which short stories grew. I wrote a poem called ‘In The Graveyard At Dawn’,which was based on my experiences as a child. I used to walk my dog Micky in the fields,taking a route through a churchyard of an ancient site of worship set high above the town. This place had a special atmosphere,which I tried to capture in the poem : it was where I first became aware of my own mortality.

In The Graveyard At Dawn

A green lad out walking his black dog,

through potato-rotten fields

in the half-light of dawn,

enters the graveyard

of his local flinty church

through the back gate.

The farm track continuing

over hurdles of beech tree roots

that lance into baby graves,

tiny markers tilting – the boy

hadn’t known that infants died

until his father told him so.

Nervously scanning the shadows

of a yew-shaded corner

for a grief crazed elder

who lies out on his wife’s grave,

praying to join her

by exposure and osmosis.

The boy sees no raincoat shroud,

and turns down the sandy path

to the church,his dog,

his best friend,

spiritual reinforcement.

A barn owl kewicks

dissent at light’s approach,

as it ghosts away.

Rain sodden grass,

from overnight storms,

shows ski-drag tracks

of feeding rabbits,

which the boy hopes

his dog doesn’t see.

An empty grave beckons,

right by the path,

a place long occupied

by Civil War dead.

So,not empty then,

it’s soil-tanned

warrior’s bones lay

among rotted coffin shards.

Hard to tell which is which,

as boy and dog gaze down,

taking care to stay away

from a rain weakened edge.

A deluge shaft to history

that neither reveals

or shelters any more.

Mist burning off grave grass,

the boy rattles a church door,

locked tight against evil.

Vicar roused from sleep,

tousle-headed,gazing down

from bedroom window,

blinks owl eyes towards graveyard

as he hears the boy’s tale.

Overtime for the grave-digger “,

he mutters,carping at new demands

from a long-dead guest,

as he aims a blessing

at the departing boy,

who journeys into bright light

down Rectory Lane.

I expanded the poem into a short story,of the same title. It’s autobiographical,so conforms to the old adage about ‘writing what you know about.’

Writing poetry means concentrating one’s themes,which is useful when broadening the content into prose. My novella ‘What Would I Do Without You ?’ grew into 18,000 words from a 170 word poem. It’s the story of a middle-aged woman who rebuilds her life,after an unexpected end to her claustrophobic marriage. What happens to her is loosely based on the experiences of some female friends,who found themselves faced with having to reinvent themselves in their forties and fifties. 

What Would I Do Without You ?

We’ve been together longer

than I was alive before we met.

We’ve become an amoeba

that floats through life

and will never divide.

You pull that way,

I pull that,

and we stay as one.

We’re happy,I suppose.

Got used to one another,


I still wonder sometimes,

what I’d do if I was on my own.

I’m not wishing you ill …

It’s just day-dreaming,that’s all.

Your parents both died young,remember,

and you won’t go to the doctor,will you ?

I’d wait a decent interval,of course,

but this house is way too big for one,

and I’ve always fancied a flat by the quay.

There’s wine-bars there,

quite a social scene.

I could try being trendier,

make a few younger friends,

just for company,you know.

I’d join a gym,

go on a diet,

lose some weight.

It’s sensible to be healthy.

I could get a sports-car,

scrap the old banger,

which we kept for the dog,

who’s not long for this world –

surely ?

If you are contemplating creating a story,it might help to adopt this approach,by condensing the plot into verse. This stock-cube could yield a rich sauce.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was a much loved poet,and rightly so – he was a real sweetheart and so skilled. His death in 2013 was one of those which made me go “oh no”,when I heard of it. His text message to his wife,shortly before he died is moving – see in the Wikipedia entry.

I always think of his poem ‘Rite of Spring’ at this time of year,when the temperature dips below freezing in Cornwall. Having lived on a remote sheep farm on a high part of Bodmin Moor,I know what it’s like to be at the mercy of the weather. My water supply pipe once frozen for several days,so this poem resonates with me,and its suggestive sensuality seems to be saying more than just a struggle to restore the pump to working order :

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 Rite of Spring

So winter closed its fist
And got it stuck in the pump.
The plunger froze up a lump

In its throat, ice founding itself
Upon iron. The handle
Paralysed at an angle.

Then the twisting of wheat straw
into ropes, lapping them tight
Round stem and snout, then a light

That sent the pump up in a flame
It cooled, we lifted her latch,
Her entrance was wet, and she came.

Seamus Heaney

He wrote evocatively about ageing and continuity,including this poem ‘Digging’ from his first published collection of work ‘Death of a Naturalist’ :


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests;snug as a gun.

Under my window,a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father,digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low,comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug,the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly
He rooted out tall tops,buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By god,the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it. He fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly,heaving sods
Over his shoulder,going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The colds smell of potato mould,the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat,the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney

Heaney’s powers of observation were acute,as shown in this two line verse which perfectly captures a moment in time :

The riverbed,dried-up,hall-full of leaves.
Us,listening to a river in the trees.

Songs Lyrics as Poetry

I recently woke up with this song going through my mind. ‘Millworker’ is written by James Taylor,and the lyrics are like poetry – which the best ones are. I love its sad,reflective observations.
I vastly prefer the version sung by Emmylou Harris,to James Taylor’s original. The song works better,and it’s seen through a woman’s eyes anyway. Lovely stuff ! 
Now my grandfather was a sailor, he blew in off the water.
My father was a farmer and I, his only daughter.
Took up with a no good millworking man from Massachusetts
who dies from too much whiskey and leaves me these three faces to feed.

Millwork ain’t easy, millwork ain’t hard, millwork it ain’t nothing but an awful boring job.
I’m waiting for a daydream to take me through the morning
and put me in my coffee break where I can have a sandwich and remember.

Then it’s me and my machine for the rest of the morning,
for the rest of the afternoon and the rest of my life.

Now my mind begins to wander to the days back on the farm.
I can see my father smiling at me, swinging on his arm.
I can hear my granddad’s stories of the storms out on Lake Erie
where vessels and cargoes and fortunes and sailors’ lives were lost.

Yes, but it’s my life has been wasted, and I have been the fool
to let this manufacturer use my body for a tool.
I can ride home in the evening, staring at my hands,
swearing by my sorrow that a young girl ought to stand a better chance.

So may I work the mills just as long as I am able
and never meet the man whose name is on the label.

It be me and my machine for the rest of the morning
and the rest of the afternoon, gone for the rest of my life.