Category Archives: Learning

On Routine and Discipline for Writers

It seems that we hold very firm ideas about writers and writing in our heads. It’s a cultural stereotype. It involves a man (see stats on publishing women writers) who is white and who shuts himself away at regular times in the day to sharpen his pencils and write his 1000 words. Say John Steinbeck (see Journal of a Novel).

And alongside this stereotype people just want to write rules for writers and for writing. There are 43 million rules for writers and 78 million rules for writing thrown up by a Google search. It seems that many people know the right way to write and to be a writer. They can’t all be writers, but they have an influence over what writers believe.

puppet writer

Let’s challenge all of this, and remember there are as many ways of writing as there are writers.

Exclusive assumptions about writers

We wouldn’t need the specialist prizes and lists if it was as easy for women, people of colour and of other minorities to be published as it is for white men.

And if there were a proven way to set about writing, we wouldn’t need those weekly columns about My Writing Day. We wouldn’t be endlessly interested in Roald Dahl’s hut, or JK Rowling at work in a café, or Jane Austen’s tiny writing table with easy to cover writing arrangements. Or a room of our own.

Jane Austen’s writing desk

Discipline and Routine

It is very common among beginner writers on courses to hear about the need for routine and for discipline. Writers, it is assumed, must be disciplined and must write every day, at the same time. In fact those two ideas – routine and discipline – have elided.

So I went looking for advice on routine and discipline among my how-to-write books. Guess what? I didn’t find any.

Admonition

And I’m pleased because I hate the moral tone of this pseudo-guidance. Finger wagging. You are a weak person if you don’t meet your daily quota. You have failed if you did not write every morning this week. You should always have your day’s writing goal ready. This is the path to success and to moral worth.

Phooey. Here are some helpful ideas for writers from various sources about discipline and routine.

The Commitment to Write

Dorothea Brande wrote Becoming a Writer in the 1930s but it has not dated, except in its references to typewriters. She is very strong on the point that if you have made a commitment to writing, you should write. Even if it is difficult. Others refer to this as turning up at the page much as one turns up at the office. She says this:

Now this is very important, and can hardy be emphasized too strongly: you have decided to write at four o’clock, and at four o’clock write you must! No excuses can be given. … Your agreement is a debt of honor, and must be scrupulously discharged; you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it. (77)

I admit this has moral overtones, mostly about what is due to yourself as a writer. Dorothea Brande recognised that it sometimes doesn’t feel like a good time to write, but her prescription is to write anyway:

However halting or perfunctory the writing is, write. (77)

Discipline can be a good thing

Judy Reeves in Writing Alone, Writing Together reminds us that discipline has good aspects. The word comes from the Latin for learning and teaching and is reflected in disciple – a follower. She also points out that we need some discipline as writers in order to achieve our goals, such as the completion of a 300-page novel. (She is an American.)

Her advice is similar.

Just keep working. (10)

She admits that we may need to borrow discipline from time to time (eg commit to a group or to a fellow writer) but only so far as to create the space so that ‘the wild, free mind is set loose to roam’.

Too much discipline/routine may impede creativity

We adopt routines and develop habits precisely so we don’t have to think about these actions: cleaning teeth, washing up, putting one’s keys in the same spot and so on. But writers need to think about what they are doing. We don’t want to go on writing in the same rut because if we do we will continue to produce what we have always written.

And it may not be enough to vary writing practices, such as where and when you write, the font you use, using a pen or a keyboard, and other basic variations. More radical suggestions include taking classes, going to new places and meeting different people, changing the approach to or order of writing (eg not writing a story from start to finish).

In the Writing Group

When we discussed in our group how hard some writers were finding it to get started, other members of the group pitched in by suggesting that it’s passion, not discipline, that fuels writing. Write because you want to.

And we were reminded again of the importance of turning up to the page, of just writing.

I wrote about the un-necessity for rule for writers on this blog about a year ago: Writers, why don’t you tear up those rules?

I think we can develop our own image of the self as writer and it can be as idiosyncratic as suits us. The same goes for how we set about writing, our ’routines’. I’m all for indiscipline myself!

And, thanks for asking, the novel is coming along quite well.

References

Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck. Published in 1969 by Penguin Classics.

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Published in 1934. I used the Putnam edition from 1980.

Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves. Published by the New World Library in 2002.

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Photo credits:

Puppet writer: cuellar on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC

Admonition: Jerry Bowley on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

clock: Photo on <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re/261774″>VisualHunt</a>

Schedule: illustir on Visual Hunt / CC BY

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Imposter Syndrome for Writers

‘It’s only me …’ That’s the first part of imposter syndrome. The second is ‘… and I’m about to be found out.’ This is a recognised psychological syndrome. According to some writing blogs it is especially prevalent in writers. I suspect that’s because they read mostly about writers and their difficulties. It is more likely common everywhere, and in all walks of life, with the possible exception of politicians who often are imposters but have no fears about discovery.

If any group experiences its discomforts more than others I suspect it is women, who, like everyone, suffer from believing they may not be good enough, but have the added experiences of being constantly told that women are not as good.

So there is a lot of it about. What can writers do to mitigate its paralysing effects?

Imposter syndrome and ‘real’ writers

It is clear from a small amount of research that published writers also suffer from imposter syndrome. Maya Angelou was one, despite seven volumes of autobiography, and praise for her poetry. She was asked by President Clinton to recite On the Pulse of Morning at his inauguration in 1993. You can see her performing this poem here. Neil Gaiman is another, but he changed when he met another sufferer – Neil Armstrong – according to his blog.

Imposter Syndrome and less experienced writers

In my writing group recently a member revealed that she wanted to write a book. She said she hesitated to say it in front of ‘real’ writers. And furthermore, when she thought about writing she always found something else to do, had no time available to write in, and no space she could shut herself away in.

Another member of my writing group recalled working for a poet, male, who retreated to his study every morning at 10 and expected to remain undisturbed until lunch was ready. There was some admiration for the man’s discipline and routine, but also the wry acknowledgement that the model was not altogether satisfactory for many women.

And it made me wonder what image of writers, ‘real’ writers, is common in people’s minds. Is it the silence, the closed doors, the removal from the world that our first member seemed to refer to? I mentioned a writer who frequently works in a café, loves the busy-ness of the public place. Perhaps by a ‘real’ writer she had a belief that this is someone who has been published.

A third member of our group reminded us that we can choose to call ourselves writer and that the only thing that makes someone a writer is … that they write.

Since imposter syndrome is not a rational condition, the solution is not to say ‘don’t be so silly, just write,’ but more to acknowledge that to be a writer you need to write.

The first piece of advice is Claim yourself as Writer and it comes from Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves (2002).

Claim yourself as Writer.

Until you name yourself Writer, you will never be a writer who writes (and keeps writing).

Most writers I know, especially those who have not published, say, “I want to be a writer.” Or “I’m a [fill in the blank] and I like to write.” Or “I’ve always dreamed of being a writer.” But they don’t actually call themselves a writer. …

If you announce you are a writer, rather than simply mouthing that you want to be or you’d like to be, you may be transformed. Try it. Right now. Speak your name out loud followed by, “I’m a writer.” Let yourself experience the sensations you feel when you sound out the words. (2)

You can probably tell that this is an American text. Nonetheless, the first step is to claim I am a writer. The second step is to show up at the page. And the third step is to write.

And to support all of this claiming and naming, here are some ways to provide infrastructure for writing to substantiate the claim:

  • allocate time,
  • find a place or places to write,
  • budget money to support your writing (eg courses, tools, research activities),
  • invest in the tools you need,
  • socialise with other writers,
  • and read.

Imposter syndrome means being in danger of being found out

Just for a moment, apply some reason to the fear of being exposed. How often does it happen? Do you know people who called themselves writers and you find out that they aren’t? Or people who are bad writers? Actually this does happen. Dan Brown’s novels are frequently criticised for being badly written, publicly, loudly, and yet … You know he’s made a ton of money out of them?

Perhaps the fear is that you are an imperfect writer. This is true, you are. There is no such thing as perfection in writing, and even if your writing is excellent you still have more to learn.

But many, many writers have a fear that their writing will be rejected. The advice about rejection seems to be toughen up and grow a pair. I find this advice sexist and unhelpful. We do have to learn to accept rejection, and it is possible to argue that you learn through the experience. Writing being such a personal activity, in which writers have usually invested a great deal of themselves, it is not comfortable and to be told that your labours have resulted in something that is not wanted. And dispiriting. And discouraging.

Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer (1934) suggests that every writer goes through a slough of despond. Every thought appears to erode further the writer’s self-confidence. And, she suggests, many writers give up at this point. Only writers who decide to persist manage to crawl out of the other side of the slough, she suggests.

Another classic giver of advice to artists is Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way (1993). Her approach is to practice affirmations, to turn negative thoughts into positive alternatives.

And what do writers say?

In Your Creative Masterclass (2012) Jurgen Woolf includes a helpful chapter on confidence. Checkov advises a version of turn up at the page.

You must once and for all give up being worried about success and failure. Don’t let that concern you. It’s you duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite steadily, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable and for failures. (214)

Joyce Carol Oates, a very prolific writer, reminds us about writers who had to change after failure to become writers of other stuff.

One must be stoic, one must develop a sense of humour. And, after all, there is the example of William Faulkner, who considered himself a failed poet; Henry James returning to prose fiction after the conspicuous failure of his play-writing career; Ring Lardner writing his impeccable American prose because he despaired of writing sentimental popular songs; Hans Christian Andersen perfecting his fairy tales since he was clearly a failure in other genres – poetry, play writing, life. (215-6)

So, what to do?

You may have your own tactics for dealing with that voice saying – it’s only me and I’m about to be found out. We’d love to read them. Meanwhile think on this. What happens when you turn up and write? What happens when you claim it and invest in it? Can you practise persistence and affirmation when it all seems discouraging? Could you read your poems at the next presidential inauguration?

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Photo credit: Maya Angelou at President Clinton’s inauguration by staff photographer, President’s office via WikiCommons.

 

 

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How to Get Published

Such a seductive title that, how to get published. It was the catchy headline for a conference organised by Writers & Artists in Plymouth in December 2017. Was it possible that the answer, the key, the secret to getting published was on my doorstep? Always positive, always hopeful, I paid my money and I travelled to Plymouth University.

My main purpose was to find something helpful so I can make a decision about publishing my novel. Yes that novel, the one that has been going in and out of drawers for several years, and which I am currently engaged in moving from a first draft into a much improved second draft. All that editing is very absorbing, and I have hardly looked up to consider what will happen after this stage. Should I publish or not? I found an answer – see below.

How to Get Published Conference

The day was largely a series of talking heads, people who knew about the business of getting published. We heard about editing and plotting from two novelists (Wyl Menmuir and CL Taylor). We were given guidance on openings from another prolific writer (Joanna Nadin). Two literary agents helped us think about submitting our work to an agent (Kate Johnson and Juliet Pickering). Alysoun Owen, editor of Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, provided information about the current state of publishing and real books. And the CEO of Literature Works, Helen Chaloner, brought us up to date about bookish activities in the South West.

It’s hard listening to seven different speakers, not a great model for learning. The best sessions were those which included activities, the ones in which we worked on opening sentences, writing elevator pitches, evaluating successful and unsuccessful pitches. There were plenty of helpful hints and tips and Q&A opportunities.

Some guidance was not quite so helpful. ‘Always finish everything you start,’ Wyl Menmuir quoted Neil Gaiman. People nod as if the advice is obvious, like proofreading your pitches. It seems crazy advice to me: if I followed this guidance I would still be working on all those teenage novels, formless, angsty, the tone breathless, and still trying to get them into shape. It seems to me that knowing when to leave some writing behind is a skill worth cultivating.

A conference is also about meeting other people, and it is always enjoyable to hear about their projects. Some of the elevator pitches were most impressive, and intriguing, as they should be.

Where next?

Over the years I have come to see that writers need to pay attention to guidance from the professionals to get published. It’s all about the book, we were told more than once. And we saw how despite the solitary nature of most writing, the publication of a book is about the cooperation and complementary work of many different people. The word trust, especially in relation to the agent-author relationship, was frequently emphasised.

Impostor Syndrome

Confronted by those successful writers and agents, and sitting among ambitious writers displaying loads of confidence, it’s hard not to feel that it all applies to everyone else. My work doesn’t follow the three act structure, the MC doesn’t have a clear and thwarted want. My pitch is currently rather tame. In short, impostor syndrome is alive and well even if my inner critic is uncharacteristically quiet. [IC: I don’t need to say anything – IS is doing it all for me.]

TLC have recently been circulating the following rejection letter,

10/4/28

Mr F. C. Meyer,
Wells Street,
KATOOMBA.

Dear Sir,

No, you may not send us your verses, and we will not give you the name of another publisher. We hate no rival publisher sufficiently to ask you to inflict them on him. The specimen poem is simply awful. In fact, we have never seen worse.

Yours faithfully,

ANGUS & ROBERTSON LTD.

TLC is suggesting that such brutal honesty should be accompanied by helpful advice. There now exist many helpful strategies for writers to seek out, including mentoring (see TLC, W&A, Gold Dust and many more).

And if you took a sharp breath on behalf of Mr Meyer, let me remind you (and me) that it is all about the book. The best antidote to impostor syndrome is to repeat: the book is not me, the book is not me.

For my own part, it was a coffee-time conversation that led me to move my decision forward. I shall take the next steps, finish this edit and seek further professional guidance about my novel. I have nothing to lose, and lots to learn.

Go to Artists & Writers website for details of more dates for similar events, mentoring services and so on.

photo credits  Writing by Caitlinator on Visualhunt / CC BY

Pencils Photo by smoorenburg on Visual Hunt / CC BY

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Book Tokens to Change Lives

Every year there are a few people who defy my wide-ranging ideas about Christmas presents. They live abroad so I can’t send them chutney. Or they haven’t finished last year’s jar of chutney. Or they don’t like chutney. And what’s more they are the same people who presented these problems last year. And the year before. And so on. What to do? What to do? [drums fingers]

This year my solution is Reverse Book Tokens.

Book Aid International

Book Aid International supports the distribution of books abroad in places where they are needed. Last year, for example, Book Aid International sent more than 14,000 books to The Occupied Palestinian Territories. More than 8,000 of them were for children. Some of these books went to Alrowwad Centre Library in Aidi Refugee Camp. Some went to Battir Public Library, also in the West Bank, where children who cannot travel have Reading Passports to record the places they visit in books. Children who cannot get to Nablus when the checkpoint is closed depend on books in the Beit Furik public library. More books went to a school library in Ramallah. [Information from Book Aid Newsletter in July 2017]

Books Change Lives

This work is important because books change lives. Here’s the proof. Rahmatu says this:

Before I started going to school and reading books I never had any plans for my future because in my tribe, young girls of my age grow up and just get married. But now that I’m in school I plan to become a lawyer.

If I were to meet the person who helped send books to our school, first of all I would say a big thank you! And plead with them to send many books to our school because children are in need of them. [from the website]

The strap line for Book Aid International is BOOKS CHANGE LIVES. Thinking of reading presents this year? Book Tokens are a great idea to support Book Aid International: you pay the money and someone else gets the books. For only £6 Book Aid International can send out three books. So give a Reverse Book Token to support Book Aid International. You can also join the Reverse Book Club to send a regular donation to the charity. A reader will thank you.

I donated my first new £10 note to Book Aid International

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Imagination and The Operating Instructions

It’s always good to find someone who practises what she preaches, and even better when that someone is a writer. In this case, it’s Ursula K Le Guin, who writes about writing as well as having given readers some of the most imaginative fiction there is. She combines story and thoughtfulness in ways that enthral children as well as adults. And her key word is imagination. What is it? Why is it so important?

What on Earth is Imagination?

Of course, on earth is where Ursula Le Guin’s imagination does not leave us. She takes us to other planets, other times, other cultures and shows us that our world could be other, different, we could make it better. And this difference depends on our imaginations – her imagination as a writer, and ours as readers (and writers).

The word ‘imagination’ is often used interchangeably with ‘creativity’ she notes in The Operating Instructions, her talk in 2002 to a meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts. But it is worth considering why we have two words, and why one might serve writers better.

Businesses and many organisations like the word creativity because it sounds as if it leads to outcomes: there will be creations. As Ursula Le Guin says

In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. (3)

But imagination is not a means of making money. Imagination is a bigger concept than creativity. In her words imagination is ‘a tool of the mind’, the most useful tool we have.

Why is imagination so important?

People we respect make a great deal of imagination.

Albert Einstein: Logic will get you from A to Z. Imagination will get you everywhere. (Twitter meme)

Ada Lovelace: Imagination is the Discovering facility, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science. It is that which feels & discovers what is, the real which we see not, which exists not for our senses. Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds, by means of what are commonly termed par excellence the exact sciences, may then with the fair white wings of Imagination hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live. (From her letters, quoted by Maria Popova)

Ursula Le Guin: I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination. (3)

John Lennon: Imagine.

Ada Lovelace suggested imagination was made of the ability to combine things, facts, ideas, conceptions, in new and endlessly variable combinations. And being able to conceive of things that can’t be seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted – those things that do not ‘exist within our physical & conscious cognizance’. And for Ada Lovelace it was the mathematical sciences, the language of the unseen relations between things that required imagination. She saw imagination as essential to pushing the boundaries of mathematics, and within months she wrote the paper on computer science in 1843 that opened the way for computer programming.

The connection to literacy

Speaking to the meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts, Ursula Le Guin made the strong connection between imagination, literacy, words, cultural stories and hope for the world. I find her short piece inspiring. I immediately want to take imagination for a walk.

She suggests that we need to learn to use the ‘tool of the mind’. This is an important idea for our school curriculum, and for supporting human development.

We need to learn to use it [imagination], and how to use it, like any other tool. … Young human beings need exercises in the imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive. (4)

Literacy, the capacity to use words is central to this learning about and to use imagination.

We are a wordy species … Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. (4)

Stories are the ways that cultures define themselves and teach their children how to be people and members of their people. She has explored these ideas in the fantasy novels, the Earthsea Trilogy. I recommend these for an imaginative quest for the significance of words and naming by a novice wizard as he journeys towards maturity and wisdom.

The stories of our culture, she says in the talk, provide us with a home. And therein lies the importance of reading and the understanding that using imagination is a community activity:

Reading a story, you may be told something, but you’re not being sold anything. And though you’re usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind. (6)

My great-grandfather referred to reading as half an hour’s conversation with a writer.

At the opening of her talk, Ursula Le Guin had referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends with a revision of this view.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6)

So …?

We must never stop using our imaginations. We must never stop training ourselves and younger generations in the skills of imagination. We must feed it with words and stories, with connections beyond our ‘physical & conscious cognizance’, with joy and those of us who write must follow the example of Ursula Le Guin.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

See also my recent review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, for the Decades Project.

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A rant about … a bad beginning

I wanted to chew my fingers in frustration, to gather up my notebook and pens and leave; or cry out, ‘can we please get on?’ But on it went despite this being the worst beginning ever. Has this happened to you?

Writing Workshop

Classroom photo via Visual Hunt

I’d been invited to attend a free writing workshop. I live in the kind of place where the local education authority offers six-week writing courses at times that suit me. But they are frequently cancelled for lack of participants. The offer of a place on a free workshop was an inducement to sign up for a course in September.

So I took my seat at 10.26 am, eager as mustard, keen as a beaver, with my note pad, a supply of pens, and a readiness to enjoy meeting fellow writers and work at our topic – the structure of novels. Six of us assembled in the classroom. It’s actually the room where we hold our writing group meetings so it has a familiar writerly feel to it. I was in the perfect zone to begin learning.

Forms

10.30 am. Our first task was to fill in the forms for the local authority. We had to check the course code, our name, address, date of birth, email, telephone number, level of formal education achieved and benefit status. If you claimed benefits the form required your NI number. You were also required to tick a box about your housing situation: living with another but main earner, living with dependent children, living with partner, none of the above.

And we were all required to produce some form of ID. People offered library cards, bankcards, a promise to bring something to the office later, a passport. Who carries the course code, their NI number and ID with them to a writing workshop?

That was page 1. It was now 10.40 am. Turn over to page 2. Now we move on to targets: targets for the course, your targets and other targets. The tutor said we should write the course target and then score our current level of proficiency on the scale 1 – 5. She had helpfully written them on the white board.

Your own target? She suggested a few, such as ‘learn terminology of novel structure’, or ‘develop a plan for my own novel’. I write ‘gain confidence’ and leave it at that. You must write something, we are told, or the form will reappear for corrections. Martin will be up in a minute to collect the forms and check them.

It is 10.50 am. One of the participants suggested there will be detention for people who don’t do their forms correctly. Someone else suggested the cupboard is full of previous course participants locked in with their incomplete or inaccurate forms. Open the cupboard door and they’ll all fall out. At this moment Martin appeared and collects our forms. We sobered up immediately.

Admin Burden by Pizarros via Wiki Commons

A round of introductions

Now, said the tutor, (it’s more or less 11.00 am) Martin will check the forms and return them at the coffee break. I’d like you all to introduce yourselves and say why you have come to the workshop today. My enthusiasm had drained away. I didn’t want to be there any more. And it wasn’t over yet.

The end

Martin duly reappeared and a few people had to correct their forms. At the end we all had to go back to our targets, and score them again from 1-5. Finally we were given cards for our anonymous learner evaluations.

Two questions leave me speechless with frustration:

Has this course helped you to feel happier or healthier? Yes No

Inner voice says: see above about happiness and frustration.

If you were unemployed when you started your course, has this helped you get a job, start volunteering or go on another course? Yes No Not applicable.

Inner voice says: in 2 hours? I was sat here for 2 and a half hours so of course I didn’t get a job. More silly forms.

What are they used for anyway?

Photo credit: manoftaste.de via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Steam and my ears

It’s not the tutor’s fault. Funding for adult education requires us to complete these ridiculous forms. My learning requires them to stop doing it. One fifth of the designated time was taken up with the wretched things. By the time the tutor was able to engage us with the material we had come to explore I had lost my enthusiasm and gained much resentment and hostility.

And I gained another number: a learner identity number to go with my NI number, my library card number, my passport number and my level of education code. And there I was thinking I had a name.

I detect a conspiracy to create the most enormous barriers to learning and put adults off formal learning as a contribution to austerity.

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Reading Death and Looking it in the Eye

Talking about death, thinking about death, reading about death, these are not morbid activities. Indeed, since the only certainties in life are death and taxes, (Benjamin Franklin, 1817) we may as well find out what we can about it. Perhaps we might find it easier to approach our own end if we consider what others say. As reading is my way into understanding the world and my life, it’s books I have gone to.

I belong to a group of wonderful women, originally eight of us, but Diana died a few years ago. Our group has been meeting for more than 12 years, exploring choices and possibilities in our lives, originally for retirement, but more recently about ageing and death. Some months ago we met to discuss our ideal death. Many of us referred to books in our contributions. I report on these before adding the results of further investigations.

The group’s recommendations

These books prompted us to think about death, good deaths, ideal deaths, and guided us in thinking about what we still needed to think about in relation to death. It was a session that contained as much laughter, as much encouragement and support, and as much help to look at our personal challenges as we always find from our group.

Salley Vickers Miss Garnett’s Angel

Ann Cleves Cold Earth

We know that we cannot easily choose how we die, but these two novels described the quiet and unexpected deaths of characters who were unaware that they were going to die. One of our members hoped for this kind of death. Having one’s things is order was considered part of this ideal death.

Max Porter Grief is the thing with feathers

This is a remarkable book, recommended by one group member who was asking the question ‘ideal for whom?’ reminding us that death affects more than the person who dies.

Another member frequently recommends poetry and she proposed the following:

Neil Astley Soul Food

Mary Oliver Wild Geese

Ruth Padel 52 ways of looking at a poem

In addition she recommended a book by Mark Doty, Dog Years, written by an American poet and telling of his experiences of deaths of partner and dogs.

We talked about people who choose suicide or assisted dying. Another reader mentioned Sweet Caress by William Boyd as it depicts the main character planning suicide but called back to life by suddenly realising she is thinking about what to have for breakfast next morning.

My own contribution was to read Canon Henry Scott-Holland’s Death is Nothing at All, frequently read at funerals.

Death is nothing at all.

It does not count.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

Nothing has happened. …

I told the group that it irritates me because it promotes the idea that separation at death is not permanent. But on rereading I had also found that it captures the idea that the dead remain with us, having influenced our lives and we can hear their voices and still think about them.

We also mentioned in our discussion these three writers and their books.

Diana Athill Somewhere towards the End and Alive Alive Oh

Terry Pratchett Shaking Hands with Death. Lecture on You Tube here.

Jenny Diski In Gratitude.

Books to read

Since then, and because I promised the group a list of books on the topic of death, I have noted these.

Before I say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie was published by Penguin Books in 1998. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ruth Picardie described the progress of her illness in a series of articles in the Observer. They are collected here together with emails to and from friends, and a foreword and afterword by her sister and husband.

Dying: a Memoir by Cory Taylor. Her memoir on dying is ‘a remarkable gift’ according to three of her friends, writing in the Guardian.

Margaret Drabble wrote The Dark Flood Rises. It is a novel about several older people who are trying to live well in their final years. She spoke about death in October 2016, in an article entitled I am not afraid of death. I worry about living.

Katie Roiphe has written The Violet Hour: great writers at the end, published in 2016 by Virago. She writes a piece in the Guardian about her own experiences, and those of great writers. It is moving.

A Reckoning is a novel by May Sarton. Laura is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and on learning this decides to make a good death on her own terms. This intention is thwarted by her increasing dependency upon others, but she finds much to be pleased with in her final weeks.

The novelist Helen Dunmore has recently been diagnosed with cancer and wrote about mortality and legacy in the Guardian in March 2017: Facing Mortality and What we leave behind.

Another resource

Dying Matters website, strapline ‘Let’s talk about it’. This is an organisation that aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement and to make plans for the end of life. Their site is a gateway to information and sources of support.

So let’s read about it, talk about it, plan for it. What do you think?

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Chasing Perfection as I edit my First Draft

I’m still revising my novel, moving from a first draft to something I could get an opinion on from another writer. Writing is a solitary activity for so many of us. Perhaps that is why we like to hear and read about the travails of other writers. Recently I have been thinking a great deal about the wise words of two writers.

The first is Clive James, chronically ill, but still writing in the Guardian Weekend Magazine in a series called Reports of My Death. The second is Neil Gaiman who is passionate about the value of the written word to people’s development and wellbeing, and especially for the young. He has been trenchant in his criticism of library closures, for example in his lecture for The Reading Agency in 2012. It’s worth reading.

Pencils from tree trunks.

Pencils from tree trunks.

Clive James’s Misprint

In April this year, Clive James’s column caught my eye because we were about to look at his poems in my reading group. He described the arrival of the finished copies of his Collected Poems after weeks checking proofs ‘until I was finally sure that it was free of misprints throughout its hefty length’.

Delighted with the way the book looked I sat down to read it. There was a misprint, and it was plausible enough to derail the meaning of an entire poem. … It made me feel that I was contemplating the ruins of 60 years of work.

Was this an over-reaction?

By nightfall I was ready to face the sad but consoling truth. If the upside of being old and tired is that a little thing like a finch’s call sounds like heaven, the inevitable downside is that a little thing like a misprint looks like death. Getting things out of proportion is an occupational hazard for anyone whose occupation is over. [Guardian Weekend 23.4.16]

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Those of us who pour over manuscripts, looking for that last mistake can understand Clive James’s reaction. We want our work to go out into the world on the wings of perfection.

Neil Gaiman’s wise words

What an impossible dream! I do not know the source of my next quotation, although it is included in the Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction (February 2010). Neil Gaiman’s words leapt out at me from a handout I was given at the Festival of Writing, seizing my attention much as Clive James’s dismay had.

Fix it. Remember that sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

Brilliant image! Chasing the horizon. Out on Dartmoor on a beautiful October Sunday, I found myself chasing the horizon up beyond Trowelsworthy Tor. Our landmark, the cairn on Hen Tor, had disappeared as we approached. We had descended into a dip before climbing again. The horizon is a changeable phenomenon, always further away. Its defining feature is its unattainableness.

Trowelsworthy Tor, October 2016

Trowelsworthy Tor, October 2016

Chasing the horizon on Dartmoor is a lot more fun and more beautiful than chasing perfection in writing. Neil Gaiman is right. You need to keep moving.

Knowing when to move on

To write is to try to approximate what we have in our head with some words and punctuation on the page/screen. Before we commit to marking the page, we have an idea to be captured. But as I spool out those words, what I write communicates less and less accurately the image, the story, the ideas in my head. I rewrite, review, revise and rewrite in order to get it closer to perfection. But, like the horizon I cannot reach it. I can get closer, but I never arrive.

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This is not a justification for avoiding revision. Not at all. Just an acknowledgement that I need to take account of the possible delusion that this novel of mine could ever be perfect. It will always only be an approximation of what is in my head. That’s how writing is. Writers need to judge the moment when it’s right to stop, when it’s time to move on, to write the next thing.

Related posts

This is the 9th in a series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015. Previous posts

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

What I write about when I am not writing fiction #6 April 2016

Revising the novel again (and again) #7 July 2016

Festival of Writing #8 September 2016

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Writer’s Treats

Treats for writers? What can they be and why do writers need treats? The answer is quite simple really. Writers spend so much time on their own, involved in their own worlds and preoccupations that they need to replenish their energies with enjoyment from time to time. When I am in need my solution is a writer’s treat. Let me explain.

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You have heard of Morning Pages, I am sure. Morning Pages were popularised by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. Many writers and other artists use Morning Pages to begin their day. It’s a form of free writing and is known to help people get the splurging over with, generate ideas, think through problems, record ideas and passing thoughts, and, for writers, it oils the pen for the day.

Less well known is the companion activity of the Artist Date. My version of this is the Writer’s Treat.

The Artist Date (aka Writer’s Treat)

Like Morning Pages the Artist Date is a ‘basic tool,’ of creativity, according to Julia Cameron – although she warns that you might think it is a nontool or a diversion, a distraction from the artistic endeavour. So what is it, this artist date?

An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers. You do not take anyone on this artist date but you, and your inner artist aka your creative child. That means no lovers, friends, spouses, children, – no taggers-on of any stripe. (18)

And the purpose and form of the date?

Your artist needs to be taken out, pampered, and listened to. … A visit to a great junk store, a solo trip to the beach, an old movie, seen alone together, a visit to an aquarium or art gallery. (19)

More examples: a long country walk, a solitary expedition to the beach for a sunrise or sunset, a sortie out to a strange church to hear gospel music, to an ethnic neighbourhood to taste foreign sights and sounds.

Writing and the Artist Date

Like many people I have read The Artist’s Way, and continue with a form of Morning Pages. I have also adopted the Artist Date, but over the years I have left behind the rules and I call it Writer’s Treats.

The rules for Julia Cameron were

  • Set aside time
  • Set aside time every week
  • Plan
  • Keep it to yourself: no lovers etc.
  • Commit to the date

I don’t have any rules for my writer’s treats. I just do them.

I do them when I feel like it, and especially when my writing is getting a little cramped, rusty, wayward.

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I don’t always plan my treat. If something is bothering me I’ll change my shoes and set out on my favourite short walk, up through the woods on the local common, and out to a bench, where I can sit and look at Dartmoor and the weather. Sometimes I take my notebook. Sometimes my camera. Sometimes I just sits and thinks and …

Some treats I do plan, especially as I no longer live in easy reach of museums and art galleries. In London I could more easily go to a concert or the opera, or drop in on an exhibition, and just look at one picture or object. For example, I am always moved by the display in the British Museum of two people’s diet of tablets throughout their lives (see photo).

British Museum, tablet display

British Museum, tablet display

I am usually alone. Since my teenage years I have gone to the cinema, concerts, theatre, travelling abroad on my own. Not always, but often. A creative focus can do without social distractions, but I also enjoy social interactions like any one else.

Examples of Writer’s Treats

Treats can be small, like a coffee in a local café, with my notebook out and ears open. A short walk by the sea. They can be large, like a trip to Amsterdam, spending a whole day in the Rijksmuseum. Here’s a model that inspired a short story.

Rijksmuseum, March 2014

Rijksmuseum, March 2014

Nowadays they are often associated with visits to London, like the weekend during which I went to the Freedom From Torture Write to Life Group’s production of Lost and Found at the Roundhouse. I spent a morning at Cornelia Parker’s Found exhibition at The Foundling Museum. I used to sing in a community choir at the Foundling Museum, so I also enjoyed some nostalgia amongst the Hogarth paintings. And Georgia O’Keeffe’s show at the Tate Modern. And as I was away from home and on my own I was reading, reading, reading.

Gari Melchers Woman Reading by a Window 1895

Gari Melchers Woman Reading by a Window 1895

Concerts are always a treat, and this year the Dartington Summer School in August featured some talks as well: Jo Shapcott reading her poems, Alfred Brendel talking about Beethoven’s last three sonatas. I noted at the time that I was entranced by the combination of his accent, his intellectualism and how he used words to unpick music.

In September I had a treat with my grandson, a trip out of Plymouth Royal William Dock in a boat to demonstrate marine biology hydrophonic equipment on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning.

I have heard people call this feeding the soul, and they’ve got a point. It also, I reflect as I write, looks like the most enormous self-indulgence. Perhaps it is both. But it is about not getting rusty, enjoying the creativity of others, being exposed to new things. As a result of my treats I often see things in new ways, see and hear things I haven’t experienced before. I can react without worrying about my companions, or any task, such as writing a review. It rests my mind from struggles with writing.

The Artist’s Way: a spiritual path to higher creativity by Julia Cameron, published in the UK by Pan books: first published in 1993.

Related posts

I wrote about Morning Pages on this blog in April 2013 in a post called Do writers really need a routine?

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Festival of Writing

What do you get if you put 400 writers, agents, editors and creative writing teachers together? Lots of talk, lots of notebooks, lots of focused people. This was my experience of the Festival of Writing at York University this September.

What can a festival of writing give to a writer? I don’t mean a literature festival, but a writing festival? The Writers’ Workshop, who organised the Festival of Writing 2016 in York in September say they aimed to do three things given that writing is hard and solitary.

  1. help improve your writing
  2. help you meet the industry
  3. give you an amazing time

I went along mostly to finds ways to improve my writing, but it was also interesting and useful to meet others engaged in the business of book production and of writing fiction.

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What did I learn?

I learned a great deal more about the publishing industry, how the fiction landscape is changing as ebooks and self-publishing have grown. It can sometimes feel that the industry is in opposition to the writer, but of course agents and publishers need good writers, and we heard about plenty of good relationship. Most writers, I suspect, still feel we are somehow on the outside, looking for the magic formula that will allow us entry. Or if not some magic, some helpful guidance and tools that give us the chance of entry.

With a strapline from here to publication, the event went some way to demystifying a process which otherwise can seem like the quest of romantic medieval fiction: an epic journey with riddles and tests, ensnarements, false directions and yet no promise of attaining the goal.

Experiment, Learn, Bounce!

Experiment, Learn, Bounce! was CL Taylor’s message to us and it has merit. She described her very successful career as a fiction writer and extracted these points for us.

  • Experiment and be bold within and across different genres.
  • Learn from it all, learn from feedback, critiques, how-to books and from other published books.
  • And don’t give up, bounce back from rejection, you would miss out if you crumpled.

More than once writers were congratulated on completing the first draft of their novel, not many people in the world have done it. Perhaps they people know something that we don’t?

And perhaps we should be adding Celebrate! to CL Taylor’s imperatives. Celebrate every achievement, because writing is so hard.

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Workshops

There were 40 workshops on offer; everything from ‘First 100 Word Challenge’ to ‘How to Attract an Agent’. My own choices reflected my intentions to improve the first draft of my novel. I went to workshops that focused on specific aspects of the craft of fiction. All six workshops were interesting and useful, and I brought away some ideas and notes for action. Some were better learning experiences than others. It seems a misnomer to refer to a one-hour monologue as a workshop, for example.

The Writers’ Workshop is able to call upon some very experienced people in the business of helping people improve their writing. It seemed that most people attending the workshop were stimulated and challenged by their workshop experiences.

My mistake

I made a major mistake by not preparing well enough for this conference – distracted by the publication of The New Age of Ageing and other activities. I missed the information about booking one-to-one sessions and sending in my work-in-progress for feedback from an agent and an editor. Silly me! For many people present this was a really important part of attending. I know this because they were slack-jawed if I admitted that I had missed out.

Some specific things

Did you know that there is a genre called Reading Group Fiction? New to me.

It seems that post-it notes and coloured pens might be the best aid to rewriting for some of us. This does not just apply to the stationery junkies amongst us. As they are small, cheap and moveable, everything a first draft is not, post-its are a good way of visualising aspects of the novel, such as plot threads, and being able to see where rewrites are needed. Thanks Julie Cohen for the workshop on that: we did some post-it activities.

I enjoyed the generosity of the publishing community and the wannabe published writers. People were friendly, exchanged contact details, recommended books, noted successes, and bought each other drinks. Back in my writing attic I am aware of how hard it is for writers in their everyday lives to maintain the sense of community.

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But …

Half way through the weekend I lost my confidence and it all became a bit of a nightmare. I was confronted, like the hill walker who reaches the brow of the hill only to find there another one beyond, the further you go the more you can see there is to do. The consequence of knowing more about what needs revision is understanding there is more and more to do than I ever imagined. I am not convinced I can do it. I find that Neil Gaiman has expressed this rather more succinctly: ‘chasing the horizon’.

Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

[From the workshop Writing Tips: Rules are made to be broken by Laura Williams.]

I am hoping that this nightmare of lost confidence will soon pass, and that the practical suggestions together with the understanding I gained about different aspects of the writer’s craft, will help me through.

But here’s another useful piece of advice from Carl Sandburg which can apply to life as well as writing:

Beware of advice – even this.

Related posts and websites

During the weekend I tweeted the connection to a post I wrote in July, the 7th in a series on revising my novel. It was called Revising the novel again (and again). A few people read the post, one saying she was glad to find she was not alone.

Here’s the link to the website of The Writers’ Workshop, organisers of the Festival.

This is the 8th in the series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015, also run by The Writers’ Workshop. Previous posts were:

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

What I write about when I am not writing fiction April 2016

 

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