Category Archives: Writing

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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Is Literary Fiction in decline?

Is literary fiction in decline? And if so, is the decline terminal? In the market place, where literary fiction meets commercialism, literary fiction is coming off very badly, at least in England. Don’t take my word for it. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, and now The Arts Council has published a research report it commissioned called Literature in the Twenty-first Century: understanding models of support for literary fiction. Notice, in the subtitle, the emphasis on action to support literary fiction. The Arts Council has developed a series of supportive actions. The situation is largely bad with a few bright spots.

The state of literary fiction is a sad reflection on our cultural situation. It also means the unique social value of literary fiction is lost: increasing empathy levels in readers. The same social gain is not found in popular genre fiction. (See Claire Armitstead, link below).

Literary Fiction vs Commercialism: What’s the problem?

Old Bookcase by Friedrich Frotzel, 1929

In the long-term the following have all contributed to the depressed sales of literary fiction: the end of the Net Book Agreement, the arrival of the internet, on-line book-selling, proliferation of competing media, the attack on libraries. Since the bankers’ crash of 2008 literary fiction sales have not recovered. Authors receive less income. This is what the Arts Council report found:

  • That print sales of literary fiction have fallen over the last decade, particularly after the recession. Today, despite some recent positive indicators, they remain significantly below where they stood in the mid-noughties

  • There is only a small ‘long tail’ of novels that sell in sufficient quantities to support an author; all bar the top 1,000 writers (at a push) in the country sell too few books to make a career from sales alone

  • The price of a literary fiction book has fallen in real terms over the last 15 years. Not only are book sales down by both volume, but, crucially, publishers are receiving less money for every copy sold

  • While ebook sales have made up much of the fall in print sales elsewhere in the book market, this does not appear to be the case for literary fiction. Genre and commercial fiction predominate in ebook format

  • Large prizes have become even more important to literary fiction

  • Advances are very likely to have fallen for most writers

  • Literary fiction is dominated by ‘insider networks’; breaking into these still proves tough for many

  • Not-for-profit support for literary writing is unable to fill the gaps created by the above [from the Executive Summary, my emphasis]

What are the outcomes for literary fiction?

Fewer authors are able to make a living from their writing. (40% made their living from writing in 2005, but by 2013 it was down to 11.6%.) Only the top 1000 books are commercially strong, the rest see low sales and low prices.

Diversity in literary fiction has not improved.

Publishers have increased their reliance on film tie-ins and books series (proven sellers), the ‘continuity imperative’ identified by Claire Armitstead (see link below).

Self-publishing is an area of growth and, according to the report, is ‘increasingly upending the entire publishing industry.’ (p49) But self-publishing (especially electronically) means books are priced lower than ‘real’ books and as a consequence writers earn less. Moreover attitudes to self-publishing are largely hostile, including for the main ways in which literary fiction receives endorsement and sales: through broadsheet reviews and literary prizes and festivals.

The reader finds more homogeneity and less experimental fiction promoted by the dominant publishers. Their profits have increased, by the way, but this has not been passed on to authors.

Any other hopeful signs?

The report noted some positive aspects

This, then, is not an easy time for literary fiction. Nevertheless, there are a few bright spots:

  • New independent publishers continue to emerge
  • There is no conclusive evidence that publishers are reducing their marketing, even if this is a common feeling among writers
  • Film rights, translation rights, audiobooks and new crowd-sourcing models are all on the rise as ways of supporting literary fiction
  • The growth in creative writing courses offers teaching opportunities for writers, but also creates a more competitive landscape for authors

… As the above suggests, though, our research indicates this is emphatically not an easy time, and that models to support literary fiction are stretched thin, more than at any point in recent decades. [Executive Summary]

via visual hunt

And what can readers do?

Buy more books. Preferably at full price.

Buy and read more adventurously.

Support Indie Publishers: subscribe, promote, buy their books, remind others about this vibrant and growing sector.

Encourage initiatives to support BAME writers, as diversity in literary fiction is not improving. This means buying books by BAME writers, and supporting events and other promotions, such as prizes, workshops and so forth.

Support libraries. Support libraries. Read more books.

Links

You can find the full text of the report and the Arts Council’s response on the Arts Council Website.

A New Chapter must begin for Literary Fiction by Claire Armitstead in the Guardian 15.12.17.

I wrote about the premature announcement of the death of real (print) books in a post in August. Here’s the link.

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Some Recommended Books for Writers

So what books about writing do you recommend to other writers? Our writing group recently pooled titles they found useful. A book that was mentioned by more than one writer was The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Many beginner writers follow her recommendations to get started.

Establishing a Writerly Routine

I must admit that the advice to establish a routine, to find your best time and always write in it, to always write 500 words a day and so forth does not fit the life of an ordinary mortal. Nor is it necessarily good advice. Sometimes routine is just what you don’t want. However, I have adapted Morning Pages, but it’s the only bit of routine I have. I wrote about it here.

Virginia Woolf noted that she used her writing diary to loosen the ligaments.

‘… the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and stumbles … I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my causal half hours after tea.’ (A Writer’s Diary, April 20th 1919)

More After Tea Pages than Morning Pages. Many writers benefit from writing to get into the zone and to work out their glitches and never show it to anyone.

Reading for Writers

The most succinct advice to writers of all levels of experience, and perhaps most frequently quoted advice too, comes from Stephen King:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way round these two things that I am aware of, no short cut. (On Writing)

Specific advice on how to read productively for writers comes in Reading for Writers by Francine Prose. Putting the advice into practice was the subject of an earlier post on this blog called Reading for Writers.

Some specific recommendations

For help with story structure I was advised (by a published author) to read Into the Woods by John Yorke. It was excellent advice, and Yorke’s book has helped me with the revision of the first draft of my novel.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is an excellent and realistic book for many aspects of writing, especially about going on going on. The title refers to her father’s advice about completing some homework. You just tackle it bird by bird.

A few months ago I recommended Ursula Le Guin’s collection of essays Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016. We have much to learn from our most experienced writers. I especially warmed to her thoughts on imagination and how you must learn to develop it.

Currently I am dipping into Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling, full of interesting observations from a craftsman.

Resources for publishing

The Writers & Artists Year Book.

And Mslexia’s Indie Press Guide, now out in a second edition.

The poets amongst in our writing group recommended these:

Writing Poetry by Peter Samson

An Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry

Of course you could just follow this:

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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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A Birthday for Our Writing Group

There’s nothing like a good celebration for reminding us how much we have achieved. Our writing group decided to turn our performance project into a celebration for our fourth birthday. It is always good for a group to celebrate. And for a birthday party we needed cake.

Celebration

Founded four years ago in September 2013 by the librarian, a group of writers have met every fortnight, on a Saturday morning, to read our work to each other, receive critical comments and discuss issues and challenges we face. The writers are a diverse lot. They include a gardener, care worker, home tutor, counsellor, IT expert, bowls player, theatre producer, artists, teachers, psychologist, editor, journalists, filmmaker. Some are established writers, others are beginners.

Two years ago we published a collection of our writing, Gallimaufry, covering our costs by selling copies, suggesting they made good seasonal presents. We could have repeated the success and produced Gallimaufry2, but we wanted to get our work heard in a different way. We like to stretch ourselves to see what we can learn from different experiences.

We chose a live performance, but many in the group did not have confidence to read to the public, so we limited our audience by invitation. And then we set about arranging the event.

Organisation

Our group prides itself on its loose organisation. We have no leader, no secretary, and any decisions are made by whoever is present at a meeting. Action is taken by volunteers, who scope out venues, bring equipment, agree to take on roles, and to undertake tasks.

When we reviewed the event, one of our writers reflected that we organised the Birthday Celebration much as we write. There is an initial idea, we explore it further, perhaps taking a turn around a short deviation, revisiting the ideas, and then moving forward tweaking and polishing as we go.

And so it was. Someone found the function room above the local pub, we all brought something to read up to a limit of 10 minutes, we drew up the programme together. By email we ensured that it said what people wanted it to say. We worked out that we needed to pay £3 each to cover the cost of the venue, but we didn’t want to make a profit. What would we do with it?

One of our technical experts provided a sound system, I brought a music stand, someone else provided a light to clip to the stand. Our radio experts have recorded the event to draw on for their local radio programme. And Thelma provided the cake. We set about inviting our audience.

Celebrate!

And on the night it was all a great success. We had loaded for success, by asking Thelma to launch us with one of her Tasteless Verses.

And we were off! Poems, short stories, memoirs, all steered by our two MCs. My own contribution was a section of a long short story. We pride ourselves on the variety of our writing. Thelma was also our closing star reading more verse before we did a round of story tag involving willing audience members (aged 9 – 93). There was plenty of laughter, intense listening, nervousness and sense of achievement. The evening had a delightful air of playfulness and lightness. We did it! We entertained about 40 people for an evening.

And what did we learn?

Performance is different from reading within the group. It needs more polish and practice.

We realised that the attentiveness of the audience was partly due to the close listening we practise in our normal sessions.

And we thought perhaps we might go on tour next: to village WIs, church tea or coffee concerts, libraries, schools, any one who will have us really. Or do something else new to us. Or both.

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A Writer trains her Imagination

There are many reasons to admire Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, not least her novels, such as Americanah, but also her stance on feminism, We Should All Be Feminists. Recently I read this from her:

Imagination doesn’t fall from the sky. You have to work with something.

[quoted in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On How to Read and How to Write, in Lit Hub 15th Sept 2017, from interview with Salon]

And as I have been thinking about imagination and writing since I wrote about it earlier this year I began to think about the ways in which I find those ‘somethings’. These might be ideas for this blog, or for my creative writing activities, or for non-fiction work.

And I love the idea that the word inspiration is linked to breathe, we should breath as naturally as we take in air to our lungs. And that the word imagination links with the visual stimuli, having the same root as images.

The central question is What if …?

Imagine memorial to John Lennon. Designed by Bruce Kelly.

Writers need to ask ‘what if …?’ again and again. Most frequently it is what if I lived in a world that was different from mine in some significant way?

  • What if dragons were real and living close by?
  • What if Mr Rochester already had a wife?
  • What if Mr Darcy had no money and a modest nature?
  • What if the ugly duckling were just an ugly duckling?
  • What if women had all the power?
  • What if I wrote the story backwards?
  • What if I made the characters into animals?
  • Imagine …

There are so many ways of asking this question. Pantsers are especially good at creating wild and elaborate plots. I have just read Swing Time by Zadie Smith, and the world she conjures seems to want to escape the 450 pages of the novel.

Ursula le Guin is justly renown for creating worlds that contrast with ours but also reflect aspects of our own. In The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, she asks what if gender difference was periodic and inconstant? Writers can suspend normal rules and see what happens, as in Orlando by Virginia Woolf, in which the protagonist lives for centuries and changes gender. Or writers can create a book to be read in one order or another depending on which copy is bought, as in Ali Smith’s How to be Both.

That’s the beauty of writing and reading fiction. It takes you to places you might not have yet imagined. And so it can be very subversive.

Finding sources for imagination

Murmuration

It is apparently one of the most common questions that published writers get asked – where do you get your ideas? Some writing groups I have tried focused exclusively on prompts. But having had an active imagination since I could speak, I am practised in using my imgaination. Here’s what I do:

  • read
  • notice
  • listen
  • respond
  • use prompts
  • walk
  • travel
  • write

In each of these ways there are a myriad of sources in which imagination can be piqued. Writing in the style of, or paraphrasing a noted writer’s text are ways in which imagination can become unblocked. Noticing, noting the world around us: on the bus, in the news. I wrote a story called The Welcoming Committee after a prompt from a writers’ groups and found I was asking what would have happen if a group of English people had met American soldiers in the Second World War. The prompt was too many cooks.

Writer’s Treats are a great way to help see the world anew or even differently. I favour art galleries and opera. It helps me think about how other people see the world. Some time ago I described how I Write One Picture – a strategy to practise writing. The source of this idea was a project for primary schools. I wrote a short story, called Paintpot, about a war artist who witnessed the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, inspired by a drawing I saw in an exhibition. What if I had been present at that dreadful scene?

I have been lucky to travel for professional as well as personal reasons, and in 2009 I wrote a story about Roaring Billy Falls in New Zealand. It was about the restorative power of landscape, but I think the title was its best feature.

Recently I have been working on a short story about a Conscientious Objector in the first world war. Here are the gates to his work camp.

Dartmoor Prison Gates

Training the Imagination

Ursula Le Guin’s suggestion in The Operating Instructions that we need to help people learn to use imagination bears repeating.

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)

To learn to use imagination well there are many things I do:

  • Practice using it – all the above activities
  • Review the effects of these activities and their outcomes
  • Learn from the exercises
  • Consider how to put the learning into effect in my own writing, or not.
  • Collaborate with others in imaginative activities.

And in writing as in other art forms there is no limit. No limit. We can use our imaginations to take us anywhere, everywhere.

Over to you

And what do you do to keep your imagination topped up? To find those somethings?

I wrote on the topic of imagination three months ago: inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s essay The Operating Instructions, which you can find in Words are my Matter.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016.

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Photo crredits:

Murmuration: biggles621 via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Imagine: Chris Parker2012 via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-ND

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Rebecca Solnit and How to be a Writer

Rebecca Solnit is a writer I admire very much. She writes beautifully and she writes about important things: walking, hope, distortions in public life, feminism, and above all about the importance of having a voice. This theme runs through all her writing. You will find links to several posts that refer to her work at the end of this one.

About a year ago Lithub.com published How to Be Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit. In every one of her 10 tips there was some wisdom and wit. If you are a writer you might do no better than read the original: here.

How to be a writer

I like to read books about writing, and books for writers. I like to read the advice of writers I admire, including Rebecca Solnit even if they say the things I have heard before, seen everywhere. Here are my responses to her tips:

Write and read

To be a writer you must write and you must read. Thanks also to Stephen King (1999) On Writing, Anne Lamott (1994) Bird by Bird, Francine Prose (2006) Reading Like a Writer and to many other writers. To write well you must write, write lots, write frequently, write more. And you must read, read recently published books and read from the past, read in your field and outside it, read for pleasure and to critique. Read.

Writing is more than typing

I love Rebecca Solnit’s claim that writing is more than typing because it gives me a reason to walk on Dartmoor or by the sea, to visit places, to talk to people about my writing and to practice my developing skills as a writer.

Remember that writing is not typing. Thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, composing in your head and in sketches, maybe some typing with revisions as you go and then more revisions, emendations, additions, reflections, setting aside and returning afresh, because a good writer is always a good editor of his or her own work.

All those actions – 12 of them listed above – are necessary. I was involved in all of these this morning as I grappled with redrafting the opening scene of a short story. I related particularly to emendations, additions, reflections, and now the draft sits waiting for the next time I work on it, set aside.

Pay attention to your own feedback

Listen to your own feedback and remember that you move forward through mistakes and stumbles and flawed but aspiring work, not perfect pirouettes performed in the small space in which you originally stood.

Pirouettes indeed! But yes, and this is difficult, learning to listen to your own responses to you writing.

I read the sentence again and note the perfect rhythm of the sentence. And also that it perfectly captures the difference between learning to develop capacity and skill and learning to perform for a test or for popularity.

You need some time, some passion and a little joy

All writers know this, but it’s good to say it out loud, or to write it down:

It [writing] takes time. This means you have to find the time.

And you need to believe in what you are writing, so this requires passion and joy:

If you’re not passionate about writing and about the world and the things in it you’re writing about, then why are you writing?

Good question. And you need to bring the joy to bear when you might not feel up to the writing, when inspiration is lacking, and around you everything is depressing.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, and referring back to the importance of voice she says:

The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency.

The artist produces meaning rather than consuming it.

Thank you Rebecca Solnit.

And I shall be I the audience when you visit Bristol on 1st November 2017. Rebecca Solnit will be in more places in the UK around that time.

Some links

How to Be Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit on Lithub.com

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit in January 2017

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me and other essays by Rebecca Solnit (2014) Granta. I posted on Bookword about this book and mansplaining in May 2015

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit, published by Granta, September 2017.

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Must Writers live in Beautiful Places?

The association of writers and beautiful places seem boundless: Jane Austen in Bath, the Brontes in Howarth in Yorkshire, Wordsworth in the Lake District, Elizabeth Bowen in Bowen’s Court in Ireland and Elizabeth Taylor lived beside the Thames near Reading. One of the pleasures of moving to Devon is the wealth of lovely places to visit. On a recent trip to Greenway in South Devon I mused on the connection between writers and their homes.

Greenway

Greenway May 2017

On the heights near the mouth of the River Dart is the house that Agatha Christie built for her summer holidays, referring it to the most beautiful place in the world. Now a National Trust property, Greenway is an impressive place to visit. And the house is more or less as it was in the 1950s.

Hall in Greenway, May 2017

What this offers the writer

For the writer’s leisure the following delights are on offer

  • Tennis counts
  • Croquet lawn
  • Boating on the river
  • Garden walks
  • Local archaeology
  • Piano playing
  • Board games

The Greenway house is full of boxes, collections of decorative boxes of all sizes from snuff boxes in display cases to other boxes in all styles. This seems fitting for a writer of mysteries. Without the boxes Greenway would seem quite empty.

And for inspiration?

The house itself would have been a pleasure to write in; the library, the sitting rooms, the tables and chairs set up around the house, the gardens in fine weather, all these would be a delight.

Then there’s the view, the gardens and the sea less than 2 miles away.

Agatha Christie used the house in 1956 as the setting for one of her Poirot mysteries: Dead Man’s Folly, in which a local girl is found murdered in the boat house on the eve of the village fete.

Being a best-selling writer Agatha Christie enjoyed considerable wealth, which meant she could afford this level of luxury.

Other houses

Jane Austen’s Writing Table, Chawton

Few writers receive the rewards from their writing at the level of Agatha Christie. For example, Jane Austen lived off her brother’s charity in Chawton, Hampshire. It is pleasant, but not on a grand scale.

Elizabeth Bowen held her house in such regard that she wrote a history of Bowen’s Court in 1942. It featured in her early novel The Last September, which I reviewed.

Home of Emily Dickinson, Amherst, Mass in 2007

No writer was more closely associated with her home than Emily Dickinson, largely because she rarely stepped out of it. Now a museum, I visited the house in Amherst, Mass and was charmed.

For a collection of photographs of writers’ houses see this Guardian feature: Temples of Literature by Nick Channing.

I’m a bit of a romantic and like to imagine writers in garrets and humble rooms, suffering for their creative talents, penning their works of art, making beauty in difficult circumstances. But I can see that inspiration and creativity are fed by living in beautiful places, or just from the writer’s imagination.

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Mass Observation and the writer

Mass Observation sounds like something George Orwell invented for 1984, but actually it is an invitation to pro-social writing. In the last 80 years people have been providing their observations of everyday life, what they hear, see and experience in their own worlds and writing it down it for the Mass Observation Archives. You write and give it away, yes, for free. It’s like a combination of blood donation and planting saplings. You don’t benefit, and indeed the outcomes of your donation might not be seen for years.

A Brief History

Mass Observation was set up in 1937 by Tom Harrisson (anthropologist), Charles Madge (poet and journalist) and Humphrey Jennings (film maker) to support ‘anthropology of ourselves’. They set out to collect material about the everyday life of British Islanders. The Worktown Project, for example, collected material in Bolton.

We are studying the beliefs and behaviour of the British Islanders … the function of Mass-Observation is to get written down the unwritten laws and to make the invisible forces visible … [From First Year’s Work by Mass Observation 1938]

In the Second World War civilian life was studied using surveys and observations. But after the war the organisation moved more into consumer research.

The Archives were transferred to the University of Sussex in the 1970s and Mass Observation was re-launched in 1981, continuing to add to the archives of everyday experiences and making them available for research.

A panel of volunteers have been answering specific questions every year since 1981. These have ranged from questions about Being Overweight, Using the Telephone, Body Piercing and Tattooing, responses to General Elections, and most recently to the EU Referendum one year on. Applications to become volunteers are only accepted in particular categories.

Since 2000 Mass Observation has made 12th May its special day by inviting anyone to send an account of their day.

Books and Mass Observation

Not surprisingly many academic publications are produced from this rich resource. While writing The New Age of Ageing, the authors attended research conferences, including one where a researcher drew on the archives to explore how attitudes to the old had and had not changed.

And there are also publications for a more general market. Here are two.

Nella Last’s War: the Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife, 49’ (1981) Edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming. Published by Profile Books. Living in Barrow-in-Furness in Lancashire, Nella Last documented her war-time daily life for Mass Observation. It is touching, moving and at times very funny.

Victoria Wood brought Nella Last to a wider audience in 2006 with her adaptation for tv: Housewife 49.

The second book is A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt edited by Simon Garfield and published by Canongate in 2015. I posted my review on this blog here.

There is nothing especially remarkable about Jean Pratt, except her diaries which she began when she was 15. She was born in 1910, died in 1986 (aged 76). The diaries lack hindsight. We know what happened, but those living through those times did not know how their world would change. It’s a long book, but full of wit, humour and humanity. Lovely. Just what the historian ordered.

For more on this splendid resource, making the invisible visible, writing down the unwritten laws visit their website at www.massobs.org.uk

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