I was delighted when Cheryl Moskowitz agreed to be the first guest in my Writers’ Insights series. I love her poetry, have had the privilege to see her in action as Poet in Residence at Highfield Primary School, and admire her philosophy when it comes to running workshops and bringing out the best in people. Here, she talks to us about that mysterious ingredient ‘inspiration’ and about her passion for pairing poetry with music.
Q. First of all, I’m keen to know, what do you love most about writing?
A. I’d say, surprising myself with what’s possible. I love it when writing reveals something unexpected. Take a word or idea that you thought was mundane, put it next to another idea and suddenly it takes you in an unexpected direction. It unleashes something you’ve needed to express.
When you put pen to paper and surprise yourself with what comes, it’s so exciting. This happens most when you can pull back from any expectations about what the end result is supposed to be. If there’s an objective that you or someone else has set, then it’s harder to get those moments of surprise. It’s harder to find the unexpected when you’re holding a tight rein.
Freedom to write, finding the unexpected – this approach informs how I do workshops. I want to help people create those moments of surprise. I want to inspire and wake people up to the possibilities of writing.
Q. What’s the most fun you’ve had with writing recently?
A. I’ve been involved with such a variety of writing projects these past few months, but perhaps the most joyful recently was being called in at the last minute to run a day of spoken word/poetry workshops with Turtle Key Arts for young adults on the autistic spectrum. Though high functioning and intelligent, many of these young people struggle to use language to communicate in a non-literal way, so their surprise was palpable when writing poetry presented them with new possibilities.
It sharpened the surprise when they realised what they were capable of. Their writing revealed insights about themselves and their lives, which was rewarding for them and it was incredibly moving for all present.
I believe a piece of writing isn’t finished until someone has seen it. And if you get that intake of breath ‘ah!’ response from your audience, it’s incredibly affirming. Inspiring. From the Latin ‘inspirer’, inspiration literally means to inhale, inflame, fill with exaltation.
Q. So what’s your top tip for finding inspiration and getting that ‘ah!’ moment?
A. You can’t manufacture inspiration, but you can be open to it. As an example, I was recently trying to locate something in my computer files. Sometimes when I’m out, without a pencil, I jot down thoughts and ideas on my iPhone. As I went through my computer, some of those old notes just popped up. Random things, quite off-the-wall. I was so intrigued! I couldn’t place the context for many of them. The notes were just tiny fragments, but I knew they came from me and now I can’t wait to use them as starting points for new writing.
That’s the key, I think. It’s like looking through the attic of a great aunt or grandparent. You find things that are part of them and their experiences. Those things are rooted in the self. Just as my iPhone notes were. It’s not like going out and picking a random road sign and trying to write about that. There’s a personal connection. I believe, at its heart, that all the writing you end up feeling satisfied with has started with something very real to you.
So I recommend that people revisit fragments of their own writing. Letters, shopping lists, reminders, diaries… anything that’s in your own hand, that has come from you – from another time, when you were another person.
Revisit a fragment and use it as a springboard. Then just write. I love the freedom of scribbling ideas as they come, either on a whiteboard if I’m facilitating a workshop or on a large bit of paper… I’m a hands-to-paper person. Keeping the freshness and excitement that comes with new ideas is what writing is about.
Q. I know that one of your passions is combining spoken words with music. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
A. For the last few years, I’ve been exploring poetry with my husband, Alastair, who is a musician. This hasn’t just been putting a poem and a piece of music side by side. It’s about that conversation between the two. Alastair is particularly interested in experimenting with technology, so he’ll lift fragments of sound from everyday life or electronic sounds and we’ll work with those. It’s making me open up my writing, ‘unfixing’ poems that I thought were already fixed. I’m very excited about what we’re doing.
I am increasingly more open to, and excited by, the idea of collaboration. There is the cliché of the solitary writer, and it’s true – to some extent. Finding ways to be alone with oneself is key to being able to write anything in the first place but I’m learning to recognise, and be inspired by all the things that I can’t do and, in turn, what someone else can. Together we can be something bigger.
See Cheryl and Alastair perform with special guests ‘The Complete Works’ poet Denise Saul and cellist Ian Burdge at a Candlelit Music and Poetry session at All Saints’ Church in Edmonton on December 7, 2017. Find out more about the event here.
Writing Prompt: ‘In Your Own Words’
- Search for some examples of your own writing. You could flick through your diary, look around your home for shopping lists or notes you’ve scribbled down, explore your computer for things you’ve written, whether fiction or non-fiction… When you’ve gathered a selection of these fragments, choose the one that most intrigues you. Then just write. Jot down all the ideas, feelings, images, words and phrases that come to mind. Use these as your starting point for a piece of creative writing.
Give it a try, and see what you find…
Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet, novelist, translator and a facilitator of writing for children and adults. In the new year she will be co-convening with Martin Weegmann a conference at the IGA on Psychotherapy and the Literary: Exploring Literature as an Imaginative Resource, and she is co-editor, together with Stav Poleg, for Magma poetry magazine issue no. 71 with a special focus on film and poetry. Visit her website: http://www.cherylmoskowitz.com/ and follow her on Twitter @cherylmoskowitz