S K PERRY ON WRITING IN ‘PUFFS’

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Following feedback from writers across London, Spread the Word has introduced online courses as part of its regular programme, one of which is S K Perry’s Playing with Poetry in Fiction. This course runs from 15 February-28 March and will encourage participants to inject new energy and playfulness into their prose, encouraging the borrowing of poetic techniques for fiction projects. Workshop leader, poet and writer, S K Perry tells us more about her writing process here…

I was working in a call centre whilst writing the first draft of my novel, Let Me Be Like Water. I wrote between conversations on the telephone floor; I wrote on my phone on the journey to and from work; and I wrote into a recording app as I wandered the city in my downtime. Life seemed to be lived in snatches. Our breaks were 30 minutes long, a deep breath of fresh air outside and a sandwich. The staff turnover was high, so friendships spanned five day-long shifts in a row, and then dissolved as someone quit and someone else signed up. I was grieving in that time too, for all sorts of things as well as a person, and I was processing some trauma, finding life hard. I don’t know whether I simply found it too much to hold onto a thought for a very long time, to stay close to it for pages at a length, but I wrote my book in puffs. Three sentences. Seven. Two paragraphs. A single thought. The chapters moved like that, and it became a joy and a relief, to sit with a small thing in my hand, to let it slip away, catch the next.

I love poetry’s way of distilling a moment, an emotion, a voice. For me – sometimes – reading a poem is like looking into a lake, where an entire riverbank is spread, rippling, held for a moment before the wind blows and the scene changes, or a child chucks a handful of bread to the ducks, or a plane flies overhead. My favourite poems are the ones where the picture in the lake is full of an emotion, one that is hard to feel maybe, but the poem lets you dip your toes into the water of it, swim in it if you want to, and the poem just holds you there while you feel it. You float. You look around in the still and take in the view, and you feel how it feels. Then the wind blows, the page turns.

I want to write a novel with that effect. Where moment to moment, the precision of the language holds you still. The rhythm of the world is that close in your ears, evoked by the patter of the phrasing. Back then, I had a go; I started to play, writing poems that became chapters. Turning chapters into poems and back again as a way of stripping the language back. Experimenting with rhyme, with imagery, and being curious about how the linguistic tools I loved in the poetry I was reading could translate into prose. I definitely didn’t always get it right, sometimes the language became too bare or too flowery; sometimes the rhythms just didn’t sit on the page the way I wanted them to. But it was fun.

My book is set in Brighton. While I was editing it, I spent as much time there as I could. I would wrap up warm and sit on the pebbles on the beach, or walk the main character Holly’s jogging routes, or find a corner seat for the day in her favourite pub, resisting the rum menu and chipping away at the edits my agent had sent over. And it was easier sometimes to step away from the manuscript and write something tiny and fresh, a short poem that became a moment in the novel, and helped me pay attention to the language of the feeling I was trying to make clearer in the edits.

I’m writing a new novel now, and working on a series of poems too. I love exploring the ways the different modes of writing feed and fuel each other. The mischievousness of fiction writing, the possibilities of making things up, mixed with the rigour of poetic form, the attention to a single line that it can demand. I’m nervous about my novel coming out next May – it’s my first one, so I think that’s natural, and it will have been 5 and a half years in the making – but it feels like a blessing to be already quite deep into the next one. I have new characters to play with, get to know, listen to.

I have always found workshop spaces nourishing for new work, both the deadlines it creates and the sense of writing in community with others. I’m so excited for the chance to lead this online course in the new year, and to be working on my new novel alongside the writers who sign up. I also have restricted mobility due to chronic illness and really hope that the online nature makes this course more accessible for others who experience this. I’d love to have as many writers involved as possible, if you’d like to join us, you can sign up here.



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