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Unlocking The Flood

Why writers need other writers

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

For the past decade I have worked as a writing mentor, offering advice to poets at various stages in their careers. It has been, and continues to be, the most rewarding of relationships. I watch writers grow in skill and confidence and have seen mentees go on to realise great success, with numerous publications and prizes between them. I am proud of my mentees’ achievements obviously, but I am also proud of how hard they work, of how dedicated they are to becoming better poets. I get on well with my mentees, but I never set out to foster friendships. I inform, nurture, and encourage but it is important for the relationship to remain professional, and it is not unusual for me to discover very little about the personal lives of the poets I work with. What does exist between us, from the outset, is trust. My mentees give me their poems, often in the raw and early stages. I respect that this can feel exposing but ensure my feedback is constructively critical and honest. It is wonderful to work closely with a poet and see their collection take shape and I have gone on to form lasting, positive connections with a variety of writers.

Despite my belief in this genial way of working, I choose to compose my own books in an isolated fashion. I rarely share work-in-progress with others, instead using sporadic online readings and public literary events to road test new poems. The awkward university undergraduate still lives in me: a girl who was shy in seminars, happier at the library on her own. To date, I have published three full-length collections and two pamphlets and though I may not produce work quickly, or prolifically, the work has always materialised with very little input from anyone else. So, it was a surprise to embark on my next book and soon find myself adrift, heading towards the unforgiving rocks of writer’s block. I had an idea for a collection, I had even received funding to write some of it, but the poems remained steadfastly absent from the page.

My initial attempts to write this collection saw me adopt a different approach, one where I used interview and research to create the poem. I had never done this before and thought the process could only be fruitful. I enjoyed meeting people to talk, observe and take notes, but once I got home my notebook jottings morphed into weak and empty poems. I believe to be a good mentor you must be a good writer. You must practise what you preach: read, write, submit, and publish. Yet it was becoming apparent that I wasn’t doing all these things. I went into an extended period of denial; several years spent knowing I had to address this stasis but feeling at a loss. All the while I was working with my mentees, witnessing them create swathes of new, innovative, accomplished poems. I never experienced jealousy regarding my mentees’ successes, but their respective abilities to consistently write and produce strong work did have an impact. I could feel my own confidence waning, beginning each day shrouded in doubt that I would ever be able to conjure new poems. My block became a festering secret; I felt shameful and worried my mentees would discover it.

I finally realised if I was ever to complete my book, I was going to have to reach out. After years of mentoring other poets, I now needed some mentoring of my own. I thought about who to approach. I have been writing for a long time. I am well published, and I know lots of poets, but I did not want to ask a poet I knew well. I wanted the same professional distance I offer in my own mentoring. I wanted to work with a writer I admired but was not looking for a mentor who wrote ‘like me’. I believed gaining insight from a poet whose books were different to my own might add an interesting dynamic. What I did want was someone who was hugely knowledgeable about poetry, and who had supported my work in the past so that my approach would make sense. I had someone in mind and sent the email, in slight trepidation, asking if they would take me on. To my delight the mentor said yes, and an initial meeting was booked. I spoke to a good (non-poet) friend about it, shortly before that first meeting. She had recently received some work coaching herself and found it helpful but offered me a warning. It will be emotional she said. She went on to say I should be prepared to be upset when talking candidly about my work, and for things to be revealed that I had never considered. I rebuffed this. Laughed it off. How ridiculous! I had been a mentor for years. I knew the possible outcomes of opening up about one’s poems but considered myself to be hugely aware of, and experienced at, such an exchange. So, on a warm June afternoon, sat in front of my laptop, waiting for my mentor to Zoom in, I never, for one moment, expected to find myself crying some sixty minutes later.

Ahead of our meeting I had sent my mentor everything I had written for the new collection so far. My own set of raw and early poems. I also included some background information on my ‘map’ for the book — my intent for its theme, shape, and title. During the meeting my mentor and I discussed my chosen creative methods, including the process of interviewing people to write about their lives. My mentor made me see that when conducting such ‘research’ for new poems, it was not a notebook I carried with me, but a clipboard. I was doing no more than recording what I saw, refusing to allow room for any emotional impulse. I was resolutely keeping myself out of the poems, documenting my way around the manuscript and its material, refusing to feel any of it. And that is when the crying started. Not a loud sob that was embarrassing for both of us, but a discreet weep at the screen, listening to a poet I respected tell me that this was always going to be a personal collection of poems. Suddenly I faced the root of my denial. It took another writer to help me see that the pre-plotted map for my book was not meant to explore one path. There were other richer, darker, more revealing paths to be turned down. My mentor took my hand and led me there.

There is a line in one of my past books about the birth of my daughter when I refer to ‘her instigation of the flood’. My waters are breaking, her body is coming, and I cannot stop it. After that first meeting with my mentor, I saw the potential body of my new work. I could visualise it in its new and shining state. The poems started to come, as a flood. I had been completely freed and unlocked, given permission to write poems I thought did not belong in the book.

I met with my mentor a further four times and embraced having a structure, the deadline of our next meeting to work towards. I relished too, the alternative perspective on my poems. My mentor and I are very different poets and the dynamic I was seeking became apparent when she shared her own knowledge but could relate it to my experience. She understood me, and the poet I am. Most importantly, she could see the buried poems I was struggling to reach and provided me with the tools to excavate them. Having written nothing for two years, once my own mentor was in place, I went on to write thirty poems in six months. It felt thrilling.

I no longer want to keep myself locked away. I strive to provide insight and advice to other writers, but now realise I need that interaction for myself. There is so much to be gained from writers working closely together including a genuine delight watching other writers thrive. What a marvellous thing you have done, my mentor exclaimed, shortly before I was to submit my finished manuscript to my publisher. But you enabled it, I said in return.

Rebecca Goss’s second collection, Her Birth, was shortlisted for the 2013 Forward Prize for Best Collection, won the Poetry category in the East Anglian Book Awards 2013, and in 2015 was shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Writing and the Portico Prize for Literature. She is winner of the Sylvia Plath Prize 2022.

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