This is such a difficult question! There is no definitive answer.
All that I can say is that both of my books, all of my (as yet unpublished) short stories and all of my poems would never have come into being without some hook to hang them on. Some germ of an idea. That may sound obvious, but I mean to say that I cannot manufacture an idea and work it up, it has to slip into my mind unasked!
I find it impossible to start with the idea that today I will write a poem. Or a short story. Instead, something will trigger a thought and I will know that I need to be at my desk. The Dark Trilogy came into being because, I began to feel after rereading it post publication that one of my poems – an obliquely autobiographical poem – Retrospective, published in Mostly Welsh – needed some explanation; and my current work began after I read a sentence that resonated with me in an article about James Joyce!
I rarely plan a story line or a plot – or indeed a poem – I allow them to grow symbiotically, naturally. Lots of revisions and editing, of course, but the story or poem writes itself – almost without any conscious thought. I once wrote a piece, Kamel Daoud, Black Dogs and Writing…
It’s so right and yet so wrong! Kamel Daoud, the French-Algerian writer and journalist – describes perfectly the experience, his experience of writing and I instantly relate to it but at the same time his imagery upsets me because somehow for me it just doesn’t work – the idea of a dog inside my head pushing my thoughts – my unthought, subliminal, subconscious thoughts – out through my pen or keyboard onto the page is a little disturbing; I think, because of the association of dogs running wild, running amok, with madness. Is there such an association or is that just me? I don’t know. I’m not going to look it up. It is what is there for me.
So how would I put it. I think it is one of the more difficult things to describe. I rarely plan a piece of writing – even this piece of writing – beyond the initial idea, the hook on which the piece – or the poem – hangs. And beyond that I have to treat prose and poetry separately – although the same lack of consciously planned structure or planned plot is true of both. Perhaps it is just more true of prose. Often the hook is no more than the title and then a first sentence or line, and we’re off. I type as fast as the words come to my mind and somehow know when I have mistyped and return to make the correction before plunging on. Of course there are pauses for thought, but they are rarely for planning or story construction. And of course when I come to the end of a section or the end of a poem, I re-read it, go back over it and make changes – a better word, a reversal of syntax for better emphasis or for a smoother run of words as it is read. But the body of the work just ran onto the page through my fingers at the keyboard.
I do not know what is in my head throwing words at my fingers as fast as they can leap over the keyboard. Like Daoud’s dog, something leaps across the world collecting ideas and facts – and let’s not pretend there is no Internet, sometimes I check on facts or the correct usage of a word that the dog – let’s call him that for the moment – has sent me. But so far in this piece I have paused at each paragraph and once mid way through the second paragraph for my dog to catch his breath, otherwise – without pause for conscious thought – I have just typed. I do not understand the process, I suppose, any more than Daoud does – inspiration from a divine animal, he says, and I can live with that idea although suggestions of the divine are perhaps a bit heady for me! I think I prefer his image of being a translator, an instrument, of my head being someone else’s fingertip. There are of course more pauses with poems, particularly if they are to rhyme – a perfect rhyme doesn’t always come easily – and there are far more changes – for balance, for sense, even just to make a rhyme work. As I approach[ed] the end of a long work of quasi-fiction, a Trilogy, which I began without any real idea of how the story line would mature, I have to confess that the third book is taking more thought, more conscious thought, and there have been moments of editorial correction to the earlier volumes to ensure continuance. But my uber-dog, ubermensch maybe, still has control! The fingertip is still pressing down gently. (I just went back and changed the word ‘arrogant’ to ‘heady’.)
Anyone who has read my poems will have come across nautical imagery, so perhaps I can suggest that the idea – the hook – the anchor – gets dropped into the waves and the disturbance immediately causes a splash – the first sentence, line or verse – and then an endless flow of ripples back towards me to splash onto my empty beach. Each ripple another set of words – I use that phrase to avoid the word, ‘thought’ – that flow out onto the page. Other ripples reach the other bank and come back to me at an angle slicing across my wake to disturb the flow.
So there we are: I have a pond in my head. Is that better than a black dog. I think so!
Actor, Emily Blunt – interviewed by Robin Parker in the Radio Times (5-11 November 2022) – said: “It’s interesting how Hugo [Blick] writes. He doesn’t start out with a clear roadmap – the story sort of reveals itself to him as he writes.” (Speaking of the writer-director of the new BBC2 Western, ‘The English’).
So perhaps it is not such as unusual way to write!