Routines

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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Freedom: The Best Writing Tool Ever!

Oh Freedom, I have found you again!

I was delighted to see how one particular service has upgraded since my ancient  laptop gave up the ghost and with it, aside from the laptop itself, one of the best writing productivity tools I have ever had. Even if it was, in the early days back when I first learned of its existence, a little basic.

So what was this miracle tool? What was I genuinely aghast to find had been removed from my desktop when I switched from my cranky old machine to my lovely sparkly new one?

Well, sometimes the simplest things really are the best. It is:

The ability to switch off my internet completely for fixed periods of time

Yup! And that’s what this Freedom app thing does. Crazy, no? And yes, “freedom” really is the right word for it. I’d almost forgotten what that felt like.

And alright, so you may be a whizz at self-mastery and able to focus like a pro for long stretches of time, but I, I’m afraid, with my little creative jump-about-everywhere brain that goes “ooh, look!” at anything that seems new and bright and shiny,  especially when I’m bored, am somewhat prone to distraction.

I find when I have major work to do, or I am slogging through a difficult draft, or my writing speed is about half a word a minute or fewer, there are a million ways I can find to do – well, just about anything else online. For example, I can:

  • Go and browse through threads full of crazy and less crazy people on Reddit
  • Go and browse through other forums and/or post and get into an argument
  • Read loads of writer’s blogs
  • Look at other people’s lovely Instagram or Pinterest pics.
  • Watch clips of shows I love on Youtube
  • Browse for books I don’t need – but might one day
  • Googlestalk a celeb crush (or two, or five. Yes, I still have them). Plus all my also supposedly grown up friends’ crushes, just to check. Learn said crushes’ entire imdb histories plus those of all their co-stars. In case I need this info later
  • Read celeb gossip sites and find self saying things like “See? Knew all along that xxxxx was a wrong-un”
  • Play pointless online games. For hours. I’m not sure it counts as writing just because it’s a word-game. It definitely doesn’t if it’s e.g. Candy Crush
  • Check my Facebook feed
  • Check my Twitter feed
  • Check my emails
  • See what new stuff is out on Netflix. Ditto Amazon watch, BBC iplayer, iTunes Curzon Cinema…(should point out I am in the UK and do not own a TV). Start watching anything interesting. ‘Cos it’s art, innit? All art counts!
  • Read reviews of anything interesting. Books, movies, exhibitions….
  • Follow a random internet trail of general interestingness in the name of supposed “research”, except not really when you end up at Reddit again and three hours have gone by.

Seriously, just being able to turn the frickin’ thing OFF for a bit has changed my writing life. I look back at my pre-internet days now (the net wasn’t even around back in days I was first a student) with a kind of stunned wonderment at a life free of all these  – devices and screens and “things” popping up all over the place. All the bloody time. Sure, I know it’s great to have easy access to all and any info at the hit of a button and I do love it but sometimes – it’s just too much. And it’s not what you need to get your writing done when you hit a rough spot, trust me.

OK, then. What are the best things about Freedom?

You can set the timing of the session where your access to the internet is blocked.

So if, like me, you are a fan of timed focus sessions like, for instance, the Pomodoro Technique, you can just set up the exact number of minutes or hours you want to be offline – and away you go. When the session is over, you can get back online again quickly and with no fuss whatsoever.

You can pre-book time slots for yourself to be offline

A great new addition to the Freedom tool, this – the ability to set up your offline time slots in advance. You can also set them to recur. Get you, you super-organised little thing, you!

You can choose what programmes and apps to block and not block

What’s your poison? It might be the whole internet you need to free yourself from. It might just be your Facebook, or Twitter, or Reddit that distracts you when you need to be Doing Other Stuff. Freedom now gives you the option of choosing exactly which of your personal distractions you get to block – and when.

You can choose which devices to block

Yeah, yeah, I know that old trick. My laptop’s blocked – ah, but I have the urge and I just have to just check and read this thing right now and – oh yeah, so I can check my phone, I can check my iPad… Ha! Well, not so fast there, missy. With Freedom, you get to shut off all your devices if you need to, in order to keep yourself productive and focused for your session. Thus giving yourself – no excuses.

So who’s it for?

It’s worth taking a look at Freedom (which you can try out for free, btw) if:

  • You’re struggling with focus on your projects
  • You are getting distracted by net-surfing and the various online rabbit-holes you can dive into
  • You NEED to focus for fixed periods of time in order to get things done – but just aren’t and are wasting time
  • Other members of your household will have spectacular tantrums if you so much as hint at switching off everyone’s internet connection at the source for a while so you can “work”.

Freedom mightn’t be necessary for you if:

  • You are already smugly self-disciplined and are never lured away from the task at hand by the tempting delights of the internet and all it has to offer
  • The idea of being removed from your constant stream of info, communications, and cute kitten pics fills you with existential dread. You couldn’t create without all that stuff flying around you, quite frankly.
  • You are the kind of person who “doesn’t believe in email” or “those bloody computer things” and still handwrites all your invoices and gets their personal secretary to type up anything that cannot be handwritten.

So – if the former sounds like you and you want to get some serious work done – check this out for a sec  (yeah, instead of that argument going on on your Facebook timeline) – and give yourself the choice for once. Switch it off – and GET PRODUCTIVE!

Whoop!

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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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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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