Writing Life

Review: The Artist’s Way

 The Artist’s Way   Julia Cameron

 The definitive book for reclaiming the creative self. Cameron’s 12-step programme (which follows AA methodology & structure) takes you on a week-by-week journey giving you the essential tools to reconnect you with your own creativity.  The most well-known of these are Morning Pages and Artist Dates.  Each chapter contains practical exercises for the week, and commentary on that week’s theme. It gives  Cameron’s guidance, and relevant biographical details of her personal journey of creative recovery after alcoholism and a harrowing public divorce (she was formerly married to director Martin Scorsese).

I can certainly vouch for this one. Originally published in 1992,  it’s maintained its popularity for a reason. I found  the focus on personal creativity, even in the simplest ways, and doing morning pages first thing worked amazingly well and improved my writing tenfold, although the commentary and methodology may be a bit hippy-dippy for some. Having first read it more than a decade ago, I still do my Morning Pages religiously, and I’d recommend it for anyone struggling with writer’s block.

Use if you:

  • Are struggling with writer’s block
  • Want to reconnect with your creative self
  • Would be keen to begin a regular creative practice but aren’t sure where to start
  • Are looking for something holistic with practical exercises
  • Have personal stuff to work out and process
  • Need  some creative self-care

Don’t use if you:

  • Run for the hills at any mention of God or spirituality
  • Come out in hives at anything new-agey
  • Are looking for a writing craft or structure book
  • Want a how-to-write book or one that gives you tips about editing
  • Need something to help you with a specific writing project

 

 

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Becoming A Writer – Dorothea Brande

Becoming A Writer  Dorothea Brande


I took, and I still take, the writing of fiction seriously. The importance of novels and short stories in our society is great. Fiction supplies the only philosophy that many readers know; it establishes their ethical, social, and material standards; it confirms them in their prejudices or opens their minds to a wider world.

So writes Dorothea Brande in the introduction to her 1934 book, Becoming A Writer.

It seems to me that there is comparatively little written in the now hundreds of writing books about the psychological aspects of “being a writer” – about things that hit many of us, like lack of confidence, for instance, or the underlying anxieties that lead to writers block. (See Writing, Pressure, and the Things We Don’t Talk About Enough for more on these issues.)

And it’s interesting that, nearly 85 years after the book’s publication, despite the changes in technology , in spite of all the MFAs and books, the problems writers face are the same as they always were, and require the same basic solutions. These are what Becoming A Writer provides. It is essentially a guide to building for ourselves the good habits that form the foundation of a productive writing life.

You can see how later creativity books like The Artist’s Way have been influenced by Brande’s thinking and exercises – Becoming A Writer can be considered a precursor to those. She uses the language of the then-new psychoanalytic approach, and writes a great deal about the power of the unconscious, as well as what would later be popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as  “flow” .Her advice – she was a writing teacher – displays a  genuine psychological understanding  of writers and creative practice, particularly around building good habits and the sources of resistance.

The purpose of the book is to ‘”train” the burgeoning writer via a series of musings and practical exercises, such as writing first thing in the morning, agreeing with yourself to write at set times, viewing yourself objectively as a character and so on,as well as exercising your “non-writing” self.. She takes what we would now call a “holistic” approach– but there’s certainly no “woo” about it.

One particular strength for me is how the book encourages the writer to take ownership of their writing practice. Far too often, we look outside ourselves for the answers – to course qualifications, to self-declared ‘gurus’, to fixed interpretations of what constitutes good literature. Brande encourages quality, but wants her readers to know themselves well as people and what they think of the world and the big life questions,  so that they may strive for honesty in their writing, to familiarize themselves objectively with their own quirks, style, strengths and weaknesses and then use that to improve and build on that knowledge and skill.

In all the books I’ve read on writing, I still don’t think I’ve found a guide to daily practice as common-sense and practical as this. In terms of content, it is every bit as relevant now as it would have been 80-odd years ago. As a result, I would highly recommend.

Use if you need:

  • Guidance on building your regular writing practice
  • Practical exercises to build up good writing habits
  • An approach that encourages you to observe and take ownership of yourself as a writer, and that you can tailor to your own needs.

 

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Becoming a Writer: Create Your Own Path

How do you create your own path as a writer?

It is easy to get sucked into the belief that to give yourself permission to call yourself a writer, there is a rigid set of external steps that you have to fulfil. The fiction writing world, at least here in the UK, can be a small one, demographically speaking. Much as I love all the writers I know, it is, in my experience, an overwhelmingly white, middle-class, university-educated crowd (and yes, that goes for me too). That means that for many writers,  the “officially-sanctioned path” – with its inherent assumptions about cultural background and income – can seem rather limited and exclusionary.

For instance, it is not enough to just sit down every day and write; it has to be literary fiction. It must be in the form of a novel ( you have to pick one form) and has to be traditionally published. You must have done – and paid for – an MA or MFA or one of the publisher courses specifically set up to rival these, or you are “ not doing anything”.  Or you must have studied English Literature at university and have gone to university in the first place. You must be under 40. Blah. Etcetera.

This, of course, is all bollocks. There’s nothing wrong with these things (well, apart from the under 40 focus), they can indeed be helpful for many – but they are categorically not the only ways to develop your writing, nor the only path to follow. It is perfectly possible to “become a writer” while missing any or all of these, and to create your own path yourself.

Five Ways To Create Your Own Writing Path

Know Yourself Well

Be honest. Think about the things you really like reading. What are your guilty pleasures? How do you see your writing dreams? What genres do you love? When push comes to shove, would you rather win the Booker, be a performance poet or make millions with a commercial bestseller? All of these make a difference to the decisions you might make on your writing path. The books to read, the authors to study, the courses to consider.

Learn Your Strengths & Weaknesses

It’s also worth getting clear about your writing strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps people have told you you’ve a knack for suspense, or you do a great line in sharp character observation, or your plot twists are sublime and your writing zips along. This is the stuff you champion and build on. On the other hand, your editing might need work, you might be rubbish at endings, you might struggle with structure or story. Nobody likes to be anything other than marvellous, but knowing your weaknesses means you can concentrate your learning efforts on trying to bridge those gaps.

Study The Greats

Your greats and my greats might be different – and that’s fine. I’m a short story writer and lover of dark, off-kilter literary fiction. You might be writing gritty urban YA, century-spanning family dramas, murder mystery spoofs, zombie sci-fi. I’m assuming if you are serious about your writing that you are already a voracious reader. But this isn’t just about reading for pleasure, although that too, of course. You need to actually study the best work in your chosen genre. Read a little around it too, explore the boundaries a bit. Compare and contrast different writers and forms and look at the patterns. Examine how the work is constructed; see how it has been put together, consider what the effects are on you, the reader and how those effects have been achieved. Make notes.

Don’t – ever – copy in the plagiaristic sense, but can you try out some of the structures in your own work? The effects? How might you improve on them?

Find Your People

No writer is an island – even for an activity that tends to involve so much isolation. It’s great to have like-minded people to connect with. I myself found a huge network of short-story lovers, first from joining a small short story book group close to my work, plus independently going to events and running into the same people, from there to a regular spoken-word night and joining a writing group with some of the attendees, connecting with new people over Twitter and by following blogs that interested me. If you take action, such as attending readings based on the stuff you genuinely love, you’ll soon start to connect with others doing the same. And who knows what can follow from there?

Seek Out Resources That Will Help You

 The better you know yourself as a writer, the better you can target the learning experiences you need. You may be someone who works best by yourself, using exercises from books and online and setting your own pace. Or you might benefit from the classroom atmosphere of a good course, or the silence of a writing retreat – or a one-to-one with a supportive mentor. You may want a critique group. You may want writing exercises targeting on one or two of your weaknesses. Personally I’ve done in-depth courses in screenwriting, playwriting, script-reading, short fiction. I’ve been to hundreds of author talks and spoken word nights. I have a ton of online resources I use and shelves full of books, many crossing over between screenwriting and fiction, which I happen to find useful. I’m in two critique groups. I do also have an MA, though seem to do my best work when setting my own pace and supplementing with short, targeted courses when I can afford them. That’s just me. Everyone is different, after all.

Truth is, there is a wealth of information and resource out there for you already – you just have to decide what you need to take your work forward and go out and find it. And yes, you are allowed. You might find that all of the listed “official channels” are right for you, or only some of them are, or only aspects of some of them that you can source yourself. Chances are if you want to, you will be able to find your own alternatives as and when you need to. Creating your own path may well empower you – and improve your writing, too.

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How To Maintain Confidence in Your Work When Things Get Tough

Who do you even think you are to say you are a writer?

Herein  lies the rub.

So much in a writer’s life can seem to be about confidence and permission. I have had real trouble at times with “lack-of-permissionitis” . This can stem from things like the inevitable rejections, periods of frustration and the odd belittling comment.  I know my sense of myself as a writer can certainly plummet as a result.  Annoyingly,  if this leads to stalling and analysis paralysis,  it can end up affecting the work itself – a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So much can seem to rest on others’ judgements and decrees, barriers and rules. Blocks that come from putting all our focus on things outside ourselves can end up being pretty deep-seated.

It’s a common problem, and one that I’m seeing a lot in my writer friends just now.  I wanted to share some of the things I personally – through trial and error –  have found helpful in ploughing through my most difficult writing times.

Take A Step Back and Take Ownership

For me, this is the key to it all. Ownership of your interests and ideas, your territory, your writing practices and ownership of what works for you in terms of producing your best work and what you know doesn’t.

You are allowed.

Ownership of what the problem, if there is one, feels like to you, and where you think it’s come from. The better you know yourself, the more you can ensure you are giving yourself what it is you need, and discard anything unhelpful. Even if the unhelpful seems to work for someone else.

This may just be a personal quirk of mine, but I’ve often found that it’s the very Things That Everyone Says Are The Surefire Ways To Succeedthat turn out to be the exact things that don’t work for me at all under any circumstances and that flop when I attempt to force myself into using them

As I say, this may just be a feature of my own contrariness, a natural rebelliousness that I turn against myself as a form of self-sabotage. (That’d probably be the official party line.) But I think it should be reframed as self-preservation rather than self-sabotage , When it happens, it may simply be that I’m trying to fit myself in to something, a methodology or rule, that genuinely  doesn’t suit me at all. It pays to know yourself.

 Don’t Give Up – But Keep Writing. Anything.

It’s perfectly permissible to take a break from a particular writing project if you are getting nowhere. Sometimes a break is exactly what you – and it – needs. Deadlines are great for focusing the mind but they can also induce panic. I often find that ‘resting’ a piece for a couple of weeks rather than ploughing on to try to meet this deadline or that, results, after it’s had a chance to ‘brew’ a bit, in the answers to seemingly insurmountable problems suddenly becoming clear. You can always come back to it (and should try to).

But sometimes it helps to move on for a bit to less pressured writing. More personalized stuff. Journaling, for instance. The things you don’t have to show anybody else, but that could easily end up as the roots of future work. I’m a great fan, for example, of Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages from The Artist’s Way as well as the exercises in her book Right To Write, and if I’m having a ‘bad day’, am sure to work on exercises from the latter.

 Develop your own routines

How-to guides and writer seminars can be fantastically helpful for giving you tips and ideas. And it’s always worth finding out what other writers do (e.g. check out the author interviews in the Paris Review). As you’ll discover, writing and art are broad churches. No one method is suitable for everyone, so don’t be afraid to try things out, and to pick and mix. If something doesn’t work for you – ditch it, try something else. I’ve created lots of templates now, for my own use, mixing up methods and ideas I’ve tried from various places. I don’t follow one single methodology; I’ve put together a toolkit for myself of the stuff I’ve personally found works and is useful when I’m faced with particular problems.

Protect your work – don’t share it too early

I do think it’s really important to share your work with others at some stage – whether with a writing group, a trusted like-minded writing friend, an online group or a critique service such as the one I offer here. No matter how good you are at getting distance from and assessing your own writing (and that’s a skill worth learning in itself) there is always  additional understanding to be gained from others reading your work from their own perspective. There are things that you just aren’t able to see when it’s your own writing, although of course, you often find that some feedback you get will turn out to be more valuable than others

That said, I think sometimes that writers pressure themselves to share their work too early – first rough drafts in particular – and so don’t always end up receiving feedback that is appropriate to the stage the work is at. A very first draft, for instance,  is likely still a seedling; letting others hack at it, going mad for strict editorial rather than big-picture changes, treating it as if it is a hardier later draft that is ready to be gone to town on, may well just kill it dead.

In particular, if you are in a bit of what we could call “ a sensitive period”, I’d highly recommend “caving it” – working by yourself and not sharing at all for a while. Write for yourself only. Go back to experimenting, doing basic exercises, exploring, making your writing art, rather than “a thing of excellence to be consumed by other people”. Make writing fun again – this can often seem to disappear when you are after external approval in some way; the acceptance by an editor, the competition win, the good mark from a tutor in a creative writing class, the awe of your writing group at your brilliance. Often, good art is worth doing for its own sake. That doesn’t mean that you should never share, of course – but let it find its own time, when you – and it – are ready.

 Ask for – and make sure you get – the right kind of feedback

This is why I prefer to take a development approach when I’m reading others’ work rather than acting as a gatekeeper, or a teacher with a red pen, saying yes or no. If you want to use a Writer’s Journey analogy (see Christopher Vogler), you’re looking for people in the Friends and Allies camp rather than those standing at the gate, arms folded, doing the whole Threshold Guardian bit, trying to stop others coming through. Think about what you what to know about this piece of writing at this particular stage – and share that with whoever you are asking to read your work. One size does not fit all – try to get feedback tailored that’s useful to where you are at, so you can make the best use of it.

Stop Competing, Start Looking At What Makes Your Work Yours

It’s hard, I know, but – there is room for everyone, honestly. OK, sure, in certain situations, only one person can win first prize, maybe only one will get the award, or the bursary, or the free place on the course. It might be you. It might not. What are you going to do if it isn’t? Seriously – give up? Really? Again, this is another problem associated with focusing too much on narrow measures of external approval. Sure, you might have to work hard to get your work to a good standard; that’s a given. But not everybody writes in the same way or in the same genre and it is not a requirement to do so. Instead of thinking about how everybody else’s work is better than yours, start thinking about how it is different and similar. Think about the other writers you know – what about them? What are the features and peculiarities of their work? What sort of style do they have, what are their common themes and concerns? How do they differ from each other’s and your own? If you had to list some features unique to your work, what would they be?

 

Above all,  you need to look after yourself and protect your writer self and your writing. Nobody ever said it was easy and it can be a  tough old world out there.

Don’t, whatever you do,  let them get you down.

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What’s the point of feedback? Isn’t it all subjective anyway?

Praise and blame alike mean nothing. No, delightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers, the most servile of attitudes. So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair on the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery…

 Virginia Woolf,  A Room Of One’s Own
(1929)

 

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