As soon as the weather starts hotting up, we’re reminded that – beach trips and barbecues aside – exam season is also looming for thousands of young people across the UK and beyond. To help you beat the heat of the exam hall this month, we’ve put together a few tips and ideas on how flexing your creative muscles might help you keep calm, cool and focussed – or at least provide a very welcome distraction from endless exams.
Engage your brain creatively
Depending on what you’re studying, revision and exam preparation can feel pretty strict and formulaic. Dates, equations and formulas to memorise, narrative techniques to analyse, irregular verbs to conjugate…it can be difficult to harness the power of creativity for revision beyond creating an elaborate mind map in rainbow marker pen. Scheduling half an hour’s writing time into your day of studying will give your brain a break from endlessly absorbing information. The power of a blank piece of paper to work with after pages of revision notes shouldn’t be underestimated.
Workshop exercise: automatic writing
This is a great way to oil the cogs of your writing brain when it feels tired or blocked and, importantly, will help you to create a piece of work that isn’t going to be marked or judged – something just for you.
Choose a book or magazine at random from a bookshelf. Pick a number and flick through the book until you get to that page, then pick out the first line of text that your eye lights on. Copy out that line at the top of your blank page – this will be the starting point for your poem.
Next, you need to time yourself. You can set an alarm or stopwatch, or if you’re trying this as group exercise, pick one person to be the timekeeper. Give yourself no more than two minutes, and start writing, taking that first borrowed line as your jumping off point. The important thing here is not to stop writing! Don;t give yourself time to think about what you’ve written don;t let your brain catch up, just keep your pen moving and your thoughts flowing. If you get really stuck, simply write the last word or phrase you’ve used over again, or the word ‘and’, until your thoughts unblock. When the two minutes is up, put your pen down. No editing allowed at this stage!
Pick up the book (it can be a different one, if you like), choose a new page, a new line, and set off again. Once you’ve been through several cycles of automatic writing, you’ll end up with a lot of new material. Not all of it will be great, but there will almost certainly be some stand out lines phrases that you want to return to, and which will give you the basis for a brand new poem.
We asked some other young poets how poetry helps them to cope with exams and revision. Here are some of their top tips and recommendations:
“In my experience, homework-heavy times like final exam week can be very difficult. You dedicate all your time to studying, and as a result, you don’t pay enough attention to your emotions. There’s just no time to work through problems in a healthy way. So, personally, I’ve found that writing poetry is a really great relief in these sleepless, stress-filled periods. I’ll often start up a document, and whenever something artistic comes to me I write it down there. Sometimes it’s a beautiful poetic line; sometimes it’s a musing about something a family member said to me that morning; sometimes it’s a page-long ramble about the stupidity of calculator design. But either way, it really helps. I use it like a quick, easily accessible form of self-therapy, one that I can use for three minutes and then return to studying emotionally at peace. And when that stressful week is over and I have more time, I can look back over that complete mess of a document and pick through it, searching for good images or cores of poems that need to be written. Maybe I end up writing a poem about the stupidity of calculator design.”
I use [writing] like a quick, easily accessible form of self-therapy, one that I can use for three minutes and then return to studying emotionally at peace.
An anchoring image
“One writing technique that I’ve recently found to not only be my main method for focussing my poetry, but which also helps channel any stress into a creative outlet, is to use some soothing or cathartic music when both writing and revising. The most recent poem I wrote, for example, called ‘Ode to the street I have twice lived on’ was written whilst listening to Goldmund’s album ‘Famous Places’ – the ambient instrumentals are really helpful in gaining a central focus to my imaginative and creative processes, which has always allowed me to relieve pressure.
Any writing is good writing as an escape from exam stresses, but if you want to really push a state of calm and reassurance, then write a piece which focuses on the positive emotions and aspects of your life, however big or small – write something which, when you can look back on it and reflect, will calm you and bring you back down to earth in these frantic times! I did this quite recently and this was the result:
And how lovely it is to finally live
in a place of light.
Not a prism – that barrage
of life in all its vivid madness – but a single,
untethered whiteness, the locus
of all the happiness that has escaped
into my world. And, of course, there is
sadness here too;
like all light, a shadow must exist
in its brilliant wake, but I do not live
there, do not allow myself
to wallow in any downfall.
We do not run uphill in anticipation
of the journey back down,
but for the view: a valley, sprawling into life,
or the ocean, puffing its chest up to the heavens,
or anywhere the sun may rise,
as it always does,
to bathe the world in such
pure, simple light.
Top tips if you’re wanting to use this sort of strategy is to focus on a central image (such as the light I’ve used here) which makes you feel warm and secure, and build your emotions around that as something to anchor the idea of the poem. Furthermore, try starting your poem like I did here in the middle of a thought (with the ‘And’, inspired by great poet Sharon Olds), so that you can revisit the emotions and security at any stressed moment, meaning this stress relief can be to hand at all times.
write a piece which focuses on the positive emotions and aspects of your life, however big or small
As for any reading which may help calm exam goers, I’ve found Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Poem read at Joan Mitchell’s’ to be of particular help: it reminds me that my friends are always there as a source of support, and brings me a sense of belonging and grounding, even in a world as busy as the one we’re trying to traverse with all of our exam stress! Additionally, Rebecca Perry’s T.S Eliot shortlisted collection ‘Beauty/Beauty’ is another great way to just find a sense of grounding and comfort, with warm, cosy poems like ‘Soup Sister’ reminding us of all the great things loved ones can do for us, and the beautiful things we can achieve in everyday life.
I hope at least some of this helps, and good luck to any and all who have exams coming up very soon!”
Making time for writing
“I’d say that giving yourself an hour a day to be creative is really important. You get to a point where your brain cannot take on any more information! This hour could be reading, writing poetry or writing in a diary. A collection that I have been loving at the moment is the collected works of Stevie Smith. There are illustrations alongside the poems and they are short snapshots of brilliance.”
Stream of consciousness
“When I was revising for A-levels, I took 20 minutes or so at the end of each day of study to just spew words into a notebook – more like stream of consciousness than proper writing, but it felt good to just get some of my pent-up thoughts out on paper! When I’d finished my exams, I went back through the notebook and started shaping a handful of these pages into poems. I was surprised by just how urgent and different some of the writing was – like my imagination had been working overtime to compensate for a fact-saturated brain!”
To everyone facing exams and coursework – we wish you the very best of luck! Do your best. Stay calm. Write poetry.