Creative Practice

Writing, Pressure, And The Things We Don’t Talk About Enough

Since I’ve updated my competition and subbings list I’ve been musing on a few things.

A few weeks back, I attended a workshop about resilience in the writing life. It was packed, and most of the attendees were women.  I got chatting to some of the other writers about the fact that difficulties  – emotional challenges due to the highs and lows – in the writing life are part and parcel of the whole thing. We all know it’s true. But somehow, we agreed,  these are things we don’t seem to talk about openly enough .

Then, the other day, someone I know shared a great list on twitter of self-care tips for writers that really hit home (I shared them on my timeline). It started me thinking about the deep-seated issues and beliefs that were driving this  and realized just how many self-defeating myths we subject ourselves to.

Often, I think, it’s because writing is so personal. In fact, the better we are doing it, and the more honest we are, the closer to ourselves it will seem. But at the same time, the writing world is not an easy one. Writing, particularly when you are starting to get published and get your work out there, can be incredibly competitive. It can be harsh and unforgiving, and we can be overly hard on ourselves.

Here are some of the pernicious myths that can get under our skin as writers and do damage if we don’t take steps to question them, and give ourselves a little bit of self-care.

 

Myth 1: Our Writing is Us and We Are Our Writing

Because writing is so personal, and often what we write about is in some ways a reflection of ourselves, it can be very hard to separate ourselves as people from the work. Now, when we are actually writing, and digging deep for our truths, this is often an advantage. When we send our writing out into the world, however, it is a different tale.

It’s important to try to detach ourselves from the work.

A story is not “us” – it is merely from us and is ultimately, just a piece of writing.  It is part of our artistic development, whatever happens. The truth is, it may do well out there in the world; equally, it may not. Yes, we can do what we can to prepare it as best we can, but it is no reflection on our worth as people if it does eitherwell or badly.  Set too much store by it, invest too much of your ego in a piece of work and you can end up either a raving egomaniac, or a quavering fruit-loop. I’ve certainly done both. Easier said than done, I know, but best to aim for neither.

Send work out, and once that’s done, try to forget it – and work on something else as soon as you can.

 

Myth 2: Our Value as a Person = Our External Success as a Writer

 “Who are you? Are you an important writer? Are you someone I should’ve heard of?”

You may know this drill, or have seen it happen to others

And then there’s  “Ahh, you’re THAT person who did that great thing! I’ve heard of you!”

No pressure, then!

It follows from what I was saying above, really. Of course recognition of our achievement is great. We should be proud when it happens and own it. But don’t let it take over. Don’t become a legend in your own lifetime. (That said,  isn’t it a satisfying feeling to reveal oneself after a very obvious underestimation?  I’ve seen it happen to women writers a lot, especially the older ones.)

I really do think it’s important not to come to rely too hard on getting that external approval. You need to be able to carry on without it. And trust me, a bad review can crumple anyone to the floor, including bestselling authors. Times change; writers have their peaks and troughs. We have to find a way of keeping on whatever happens and remind ourselves we’re playing the long game.

Likewise, what if we worked really hard on something that didn’t get anywhere – have we failed as a person? No. We live to write another day. We tweak it, perhaps, and see if we can send it somewhere else. We rest it for a bit and come back to it with fresh eyes. And you know that old thing about  your last minute emergency back up being “the one that brings it home?” – well. Think on. So no, your value as a person does not rest on your external success as a writer.

We are not in charge of the outside world. We can’t control others’ opinions or preferences. We are not what other people think. We are not in control of Acts of God or the bizarre quirks of fate that get in everybody’s way sometimes.  All we can do is keep the focus on what we’re doing. The work itself is the bit that’s up to us.

 

Myth 3: Our Writing’s External Value Is Its Only True Value

A writing tutor I know of apparently told their students that if their writing wasn’t published, then the writing didn’t mean anything. As if it was only “real’” when others – him, presumably, or someone he deemed sufficiently important – saw and approved its existence.

I hate stuff like this. Such bullshit.

I understand and agree that the world won’t know us if we don’t share our work, and so we should, when we decide we are ready. But you can’t rely on other people to tell you your work is Important. And should you stop writing completely if you and your work are never going to be deemed Important by some arbitrary measure or decree? Should you give it all up if you never win the Booker, or don’t become a millionaire?

Of course not.

It’s that external validation thing again.

I’ve always cringed when I hear that word “important” being referred to either work, or artists, of any stripe. It smacks of pomposity to me.  “Interesting” yes. “Groundbreaking” yes. And it’s good to have ambition – the ones we set for ourselves, although as I said above, we should avoid having ambitions where we have no control over the outcome.

Written work in all its stages has value. We may not even send it out into the world, but creating it, shaping it, making it something we want it to be, can still be profoundly satisfying. I’d think less about “out there”. I’d think more about “here, this, now.”

 

Myth 4: Productivity is Everything

Look, some people are designed to churn out thousands of words at a rate of knots. And some people aren’t. Don’t beat yourself up. I know loads of slow but excellent and careful writers. I know highly talented writers who send out two stories a year. And then there are writers who whip out book after book after book super-quickly and I’m amazed at their efficiency. Not to mention jealous.

Also – it’s not all about wordcount. I appreciate that sometimes we get held up by procrastination, but there is nothing wrong with projects that you just noodle along with for the love of them and that you just do for you. You don’t have to do the Protestant-work-ethic whip-whip-whip thing.

We are allowed to play sometimes. We are allowed to take a break. We are allowed to do things just for fun. Everything doesn’t have to be professional,  everything doesn’t have to be published. And remember we’re allowed to give ourselves a rest.

 

Myth 5: Perfection is Everything

 As above. Everything can’t be perfect all the time. It doesn’t have to be. A need for perfection is one of the biggest causes of writer’s block. What we do doesn’t have to be perfect. The first draft of anything is shit, as Hemingway said. Don’t get it right, get it written. Have fun. Lose yourself in the project itself, not where it might be going and who might eventually be looking at it.

We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t even have to be good.

 

Myth 6: Write Every Day

OK, so in fairness, I do prefer to do this. And I often feel tetchy if I don’t, although my “writing” doesn’t have to be wordcount-increasing necessarily. I just like to put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – on a daily basis, or I feel like it’s all building up and I find myself annoyed.

But it’s one of those ‘”rules” that gets decreed everywhere and honestly – we don’t have to. Some people write every day. Some people a bit here and there on the train, or at the weekend or on their days off from work. Yes, time can be a factor.  You’re not a useless failure if sometimes life gets in the way.

Nor if we get stuck. There are various ways to get around this, but you are not a quitter if you give it a rest for a few days. Sometimes – and you will know what your own patterns are – it helps to consciously do no writing at all for a day or so. Stick your story or novel or project under the bed, go and have a few days of life and see people and do things. Forget the pressure you put yourself under. Leave it for a bit. Return to it when you are fresh with your batteries and creativity recharged.

 

I hate Decrees-From-On-High about how we should think and feel,  and it’s pernicious myths like these that we internalise and allow to stop us in our tracks. But we can make our own writing lives by noticing when these kinds of myths come up for us, challenging them, and creating a writing life that works for us.

 

 

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My Journal Writing Creative Practice

I’ve had a regular journal habit since I was in my teens. Journaling is the way I work out problems, get things out of my system, discover what I really think about  the world. But my journal writing creative practice,  in the deliberate sense , has been a long time in development.

At first, possibly inspired by Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, it was just the usual teenage diary. It mostly consisted of my day-to-day woes, major news headlines , friend and teacher sagas, longstanding and hopeless crushes. OK, so I didn’t write to the BBC as Adrian does with embarrassing frequency, but these ancient records of my former self are no less cringe-worthy.

As I got older, I found I just couldn’t stop putting pen to paper in one form or another. At college, pre-internet and email, and when I travelled, and worked all over the world, I was well known among my friends  for my epic letter-writing. A 12-side probably unreadable letter from me was not at all unusual.   I also made the discovery that whenever had a problem to sort out, putting pen to paper and “writing through it” privately often seemed to lead to a solution. The process of journaling itself  seemed to have an almost magical effect, a path through any problem.  Little did I know then that these unofficial scribblings would turn out to be one of the most effective creative practices there is.

Types of Journaling

Obviously, there’s a distinction between “recording the external in detail” and “self-expression”. Both, of course, are hugely useful for fiction writers.

Reportage 

Detailed note-taking – about places, things, people, events. The aim is to capture exact detail, much like a photograph. It is factual, although the ways you record and what you pick up on can often be revealing about your own writing territory, preoccupations and truths.

Try taking your notebook and pen to a particular place to observe and describe exactly what you see, what stands out to you. People-watch and eavesdrop and write down what you hear. Deliberately try to capture the essence of a particular place, or building, or backdrop, focusing on all the detail. You can journal for detail wherever you go, as long as you have something to write on and with.

If you want to go deeper, there are some fantastic writing exercises you can do that directly tie the reportage of place to the personal; the exercises in Julia Cameron’s Right to Write, for example, or Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography. (I’ll be reviewing both of these books soon.)

Diarising

Old-school and essentially linear, driven by date, just as I did as a teen.  Your thoughts about your day-to-day, news stories, anything on your mind. These entries can seem quite unremarkable at the time – they don’t have to be Art – but are often fascinating to look back on.

I actually have in my possession my late grandmother’s diary from 1936,  which was the year she got married and moved  into the then newly-built house that she would live in for the rest of her life. It’s a pocket-sized burgundy-coloured Letts Diary, the endpapers printed with details about postal rates to the various countries across the-then vast British Empire. Train timetables up “to town” , measurements for hats, gloves and shoes. The entries probably seemed quite mundane to my grandmother, detailing her wedding preparations, her cinema dates with my grandfather, and their numerous spats. But these are interspersed with the news events of the day. The funeral of the King, the saga of Edward VII’s abdication crisis playing out on the wireless, and of course, ominous signs of the impending war.

Diaries can provide important details and nuances about a particular time or era, either for ourselves or others. They can be great prompts for pieces of fictional work. It’s interesting, too, to note the formalities – what people choose to reveal and convey of themselves or exaggerate in their “official” diaries – and what they don’t.

Project Journaling

 This is something I do regularly now. It involves gathering material and thoughts on specific projects or topic areas, and keeping them together in one place. I often keep entirely separate journals for different projects. These are great when you are in the research stage of a project, allowing you to make detailed descriptions of settings, characters and so on. You can write about related news stories, or your own personal thoughts about the issues and themes at hand. When I start a big project, I also like to track my project progress in a journal. The things I am thinking and worrying about at different stages, the problems to resolve, what I feel is succeeding and isn’t. Currently for example,  I am journaling about the novel I am working on.

Free-writing

A completely different type of journaling, freewriting is entirely about self-expression: whatever comes out, unedited will come out. The best forms of freewriting, I’ve found, rarely involve going back and looking at what you’ve written ; writing perfect descriptive prose is not the purpose, although you may find the odd gem if you do go back and look. I often use freewriting as a “warm up” before starting my writing proper, with the purpose being to completely turn off my inner editor. The most common form is to write for a certain number of minutes (it could be on a topic, from a prompt, starting from a first line etc) without stopping, and without taking the pen off the page.

Morning Pages

A form of daily freewriting, as advocated by Julia Cameron in The Artists Way and a very similar idea by Dorothea Brande before her.

Essentially, it is three A4 pages of freewriting, to be done every morning as soon as you wake up, and it’s a central part of my creative practice. Again, you write without stopping, you write anything that comes into your head, and you don’t take your pen off the page until the three pages are done.. The purpose, again, is to completely turn off your inner editor and critic and reconnect you with your creativity. Which all sounds very woo, but I can honestly say that including regular morning pages in my daily practice substantially deepened and improved the quality of my work. I have about thirty notebooks now, all filled with my unreadable scrawl, most of which I’d never reread, but which I know are responsible for most of my writing successes so far.

It’s certainly a method I can highly recommend.

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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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