When the Muse Calls: Fleur Shepherd

 

Fleur Shepherd

Writer, Actor and Spoken Word Artist

Similar to many, if not most writers, I have been writing all my life. Tatty old notebooks overflowing and poking out of every shelf in my home, and boxes crammed full and not quite closing in the loft are testament to some 30 or so years of processing life and the world through the written word.

Even though now any creative work I write gets typed up on my computer and copied to an external hard drive (when I remember to back up), I still can’t come close to dispensing with the notebook. In fact my preoccupation with always having something with me to write in has lead to a rather lovely supply of gifted-notebooks, given by friends who understand or enable this dependency. However the glorious variety of these gifts, as well as through my own trials and errors, have exposed me to be a typical poseur-writer, who takes her preoccupation with stationery to obsessive levels (I whiled away an intended idle 20 minutes in the flagship Paperchase store on Tottenham Court Road, only to leave an hour later with a bag stuffed with stationery-goodies, a considerably dented bank balance, and a rather euphoric, giddy expression on my face).

There is a particular size and style of notebook for every occasion:

For creative writing (i.e. poetry in my case), it must be an A5 notebook with un-ruled pages, and writing only in pencil, with many scribbles (why I don’t rub the pencil-writing out instead of scrawling over and across it rather defeats the purpose of the medium, but ah well…).

For lists and daily life-admin notes, an A6 notebook is acceptable, preferably un-ruled again and utilised with any writing implement that might come to hand, or be dug from the well of my handbag.

For my Book – the closest thing I have to a journal, and the most sacred of personal spaces, in which I process my thoughts and reflect on the things I may have come across – it is the most indulgent set up of all: a thick, rough leather-sheathed A5 notebook with heavy, creamy paper, and fastened by a long leather strap wound around the book; and in it I like to write with the fountain pen my grandmother gave me for my 16th birthday. The attention and reverence given to these items are not about giving an importance to the words I write within them, rather instead it creates a moment of personal luxury to the task of thinking into paper, giving the occasion of writing the same weight as sitting in a comfy armchair on a quiet Sunday to read a book, going to the cinema to see a particularly good film, or enjoying a long soak in a candle-lit bath… it is a moment of, if not always pleasure, at least self-care. I may re-read previous entries and laugh or despair at what I was thinking or the way I put something, but each entry is significant enough to be put into the Book, and so important enough to me, in that very moment it was written, for it to be recorded. I first came across such a notebook when I was 15 (and as such, utterly romantically-impressionable), in Venice, and have not been able to use any other style of notebook for my Book ever since.

And of course the writing-rituals don’t begin and end with stationery; the first collection of poetry I embarked upon a few years ago developed out of an incredibly complicated period of my life, where everything that I had previously taken as given throughout my three decades, was entirely whipped from under me and turned upside down. After the shellshock subsided, the only thing I was capable of was writing. Eating wasn’t really a priority as I couldn’t really stomach anything, but the bitterness of coffee and the tin-tainted taste of cigarettes were a comfort, and became intrinsically entwined with the writing-rhythm of each day. Once I was up and the coffee was made, the notebook came out and I would wrap myself up in cardigans and coats to sit on my front step and smoke and scribble. It became cathartic and a slow way to process, by finding structure through words in a certain order and beat on paper, and eventually, it became part of my writing ritual.

I also grew up in a rather remote part of North Yorkshire, and as such, feel at my most relaxed outside. Whatever the weather, it seems my being creative needs the physical space of being without walls. Having also suffered with childhood asthma (a piece of information I like to tactically ignore when I have a cigarette in hand…), it feels as though I need the breeze on my face to have the space to breathe properly. The sun in my eyes, the cold numbing my fingertips, rain or even the odd flurry of snow seeping into me until I’m soggy, seems to kick my often-lazy brain into action. Living in London, I often have to make do with my local park, and can get incredibly grumpy when I have to share it with too many other people, so prefer to enjoy it in the colder months or when its drizzly out, and so other, more sensible people, are put off being outside in the elements.

But London, or rather my life in London can be too distracting and provides too many easy ways to cop-out of getting pieces finished, and so I’ve found that if I can, once a year I’ll try and take myself off somewhere, ideally rural, to confront myself into getting things done in one big swoop. A lovely, romantic idea in theory… in practice it involves days of moving between notebooks: deciphering scribbles and incomprehensible scrawls, my Book: to vent, to process, to reference, and the computer: writing things up on a clear, crisp white document page with no distracting scratchings; editing, re-editing, fact checking, spell checking. Its rather a battle of wills: stopping and starting every few minutes, getting up and moving around, sitting down, taking my shoes off, putting them on again to go outside for a cigarette, making another coffee, stretching a stiff neck, suddenly getting an idea of a line or a rhythm and then sitting again to get it down, then squirming in the chair when the inspiration flows only to a line or two.

I’ve had the ideal of something clicking, and then sitting and writing until I realise I’m cold and stiff, outside in the near dark; then again, more times then not I get grumpy and frustrated, and have to take myself off for a walk or to the shops to distract myself, to cool myself off from overheating and yelling at myself, my computer, my poor dog-eared notebook…

It sounds all wondrously artistically torturous doesn’t it?! The more I write, the more disciplined I can force myself to be, but it seems that the best things I write, I seem to have little control over. A line or a verse will come, almost fully formed into my head, as though its been subconsciously formulating, ruminating for who knows how long, before floating forward to my conscious mind. I sometimes feel that I have no active part in those moments at all, and certainly no jurisdiction over when those fragments appear… Somehow it often seems to be at totally inconvenient times: when I’m drifting off to sleep or engaging in an apparently intense conversation about recycling in a noisy pub with someone. It must be when my subconscious can catch me unawares and make itself be heard. The deliberately conscious part seems to come when I’m writing a piece up and editing it, that’s when it feels as though I’m imposing more of myself directly on to it. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know.

That said, as well as inspiration striking at random, from a chance meeting on the tube, to a moment of sitting and people watching in the park, there is a much more considered side to my creative process. My first poetry collection initially seemed to naturally evolve from the place I was in at the time, but when a clear thread emerged along which I was writing, there were key pieces that it became evident that I needed to write and include, to anchor the collection and tie it together. I’ve also recently been commissioned to write work, and the themes and deadlines involved with that creates a framework for the creative process to be negotiated within. At first this could prove challenging, but like with any exercise, the more I do it, the more I am comfortable with balancing creativity within parameters, and I think, hopefully this makes me a better writer.

Whilst all this prescriptiveness over utensils, settings and rituals, makes the process of actually writing sound wildly complicated and stationery-dependent, all of it serves a common purpose creatively, which is actually to be comfortable enough to let go and just get stuff down. It’s all just an indulgent starting point. I’m equally likely to be caught completely short and to use the Notes app on my iPhone to jot down a thought, an idea, an encounter, a line; so all worthy writerly-pretensions go out of the window and bow down to 21st century practicality when you are squeezed between someone’s armpit and a plastic partition on a packed tube train, and the phone is the easiest accessible item to hand.

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