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Writers and Soundart

I love being a member of the Totnes Library Writing Group because it is full of people who are creative, imaginative and playful. Carole Ellis and Wendy Watkins are both stunning writers, and for some time they have also been creating programmes for Soundart the local community radio, as a kind of local podcast. I enjoy listening to their programmes, and so can you.

I asked them to write about their activities for Bookword, and here is their conversation.

Some practical details

Carole and Wendy: We have a monthly programme on Soundart Community Radio – 102.5 FM within a 7 mile radius of Dartington in South Devon, or online: http://www.soundartradio.org.uk. We’ve uploaded our 15 programmes to https://www.mixcloud.com where you can search for “Life with a Literary Slant”. 

You can also contact us by email: lifewithaliteraryslant@gmail.com

Our two sound artists

Wendy: We’re both volunteers. Amateurs. Which means we love what we do.

Carole: Yes. Payment-free and we do it…  Why do we do it? 

Wendy: (Laughing) Let’s go back to the beginning. What do you remember about how this started?

Carole:  I remember a meeting at the Totnes Library Writing Space. Fiona Green, a group member, organised a guest speaker, Chris Mockridge. He talked to us about the use of radio in writing. We had great fun sitting outside in the sunshine and came away thinking ‘we could do that’. 

Wendy:  Chris showed us all how to use a handheld recorder and recorded one of our writers – Mavis Riddel – reading her own short work, “A Highland Story”.

It’s included in our “Winter Stories” episode.  I think you can hear seagulls in the background. 

Carole: We’re based in Totnes – a small market town in the South Hams area of South Devon, unofficially twinned with Narnia – which gives an impression which isn’t strictly true. But it’s a wonderful centre for art, music, writing and some amazing people are based here.

Wendy:  There’s also the legacy of the Elmhirsts who re-built Dartington Hall in the 1930s.They’re long gone and much of their ethos has been submerged, but something of that adventurous spirit lives on. “Soundart” is also a reference to the fact that we’re on the River Dart. 

Carole: Hence the seagulls.

Wendy: The studio itself is based in one of the buildings on that estate. Some do their programmes live, but we chose to pre-record ours.

Starting out with Audacity

Carole:  Lucinda, one of the founding members of Soundart showed us some very basic skills in the use of Audacity, the free software available for sound editing…

Wendy:  …and that led onto a quite amusing period in our explorations trying to do things. But what do you remember about why we started?  

Carole: (laughing) I don’t know why we wanted to do this. I think it was partly to broaden the number of people who hear our group’s writing. And a love of language and communicating and storytelling… We can cover whatever we want so we just tap into whatever interests us at the time. 

Wendy: That’s what a community radio like Soundart gives  – freedom to create and explore. There’s an engaged listening that happens in a writing group…

Carole: …and by replicating it on the radio we’re able to share that experience with a wider audience. 

Wendy: You’ve been writing for some time. I know you were making a killing at one stage, sending letters to newspapers and also writing short stories. So there’s that dimension – and other things about you, like your identity as a teacher. How does that connect with what we’re doing now with Soundart? 

Carole: Yes, I taught adults to read and write for many years. And this programme enables me to continue sharing a love of reading and enabling other people to express themselves. 

Wendy: You often do background research on subjects you enjoy. I’m thinking of the programme on dialect, or the one about the history of coffee shops and writing. 

Carole: You also have a background which gives you an interest in another field 

Wendy: I taught for a couple of years in my early twenties, but I become a clinical psychologist. That involves listening very closely and deeply to other people’s experience. I have an interest in hypnotherapy where you use language, symbols and metaphor in creative ways. A light trance is a natural state so I suppose you could say we’re all in a light trance while listening to a story. 

Although we may choose a serious topic there’s also an element of play in creating a programme. Spoken language has its own musicality and the fact that we can incorporate music is something I find very special.

Carole:  It’s one element that I enjoy a lot… And finding something that we both like, instantly sometimes, we just know that that’s going to be the bit… that it’ll fit. Also the interviewing and bringing in other people. Some are people we know from the writing group but we do find others, don’t we, from out and about? 

Wendy: I really appreciate the generosity with which people do this. Sometimes there’s a particular person I have in mind, like Dr Stephan Harding the ecologist at Schumacher College, who agreed to talk about imagination. Totnes café owners were happy to be included, bookshop owners, and because of the nature of the community it’s easy to find people. 

Carole: Yes and the Totnes librarians and others have been enormously generous with their time and with their ideas and thoughts. We’re really lucky.

Learning to avoid the orphans

Wendy: What do you remember about the first experiences of putting a programme together? 

Carole: I suppose getting the hang of the Audacity software – that was quite challenging. I mean we’ve had programs where we’ve got everything exactly the way we want it and then it’s just disappeared… 

Wendy: Or it tells you that there are 3056 “orphans”…

Carole: Yes. (laughing) I love the “orphans”. I always feel sorry for them but I don’t want them…

Wendy: We’ve never quite worked out where they come from or where they are being held…

Carole: But there’s a lot of them. That’s always been a challenge – but we’re getting the hang of it and also we know how we work best, which in the early days – it was never a challenge exactly – but it was just us getting comfortable with the working arrangement…

Wendy: It’s more relaxed. I remember that in the early stages it was very clear that you were much more technologically skilled than I am. But what’s transpired over time is that you actually like doing that part. We make decisions together and we sit together selecting music, putting the programme together, but you’re faster and more technologically literate.

Carole: You make a much better interviewer than I do so I’m quite happy for you to go out with the Tascam recorder and make those connections while I can sit in my little room pushing buttons taking out the excess stuff that we don’t need… so yeah it works… 

Wendy: We have different perspectives and life experience, but if you have some shared values it makes collaboration work. It’s the same with what programme to do next. We seem to move quite easily into different ideas. 

Carole: I don’t think there’s ever one of us left thinking, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have done that’. It’s very much a collaboration.

Wendy: Talking of this makes me think again about how much fun creating the programme can be. And the good feeling when we’re in agreement that a programme’s now the right shape, and simply let go of it. Like closing a book, pausing, and moving on to the next.

You can find the programmes in the Life with a Literary Slant series created by Carole and Wendy on Soundart: go to www.mixcloud.com where you can search for “Life with a Literary Slant”.

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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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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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The Craft of Blogging #8 Blogging for Writers by Robin Houghton

If you are a writer who blogs you might want to consider looking at this book. Robin Houghton published Blogging for Creatives in 2012. I referred to it a few times in earlier posts about blogging. Now we have a version specially for writers: Blogging for Writers: how authors and writers build successful blogs.

154 BFW

What’s it about?

It covers some of the same ground as the earlier edition, including retaining some of the important considerations about blogging. For example, Robin Houghton asks writers why they might want to blog. What’s in it for the writer? She notes that before the internet most writers found it hard to get any kind of readership. They had to get through the almost impermeable barriers created by the complications and demands of publishers. Today it is different, Robin Houghton observes.

On your blog, you are the publisher – you are in total control of what you put on it and how you present it. You could use your blog to try out new ideas for writing projects, asking for comments, or calling for contributors. Or perhaps you will post sample chapters, or work-in-progress, or write about the writing process, or about what you are reading and what is influencing your writing. Blogging gives you the potential to reach out to a worldwide audience. (8)

She may exaggerate the group function of a blog when she suggests that yours could become a kind of online writers’ group, ‘a place where you can draw support and inspiration throughout the ups and downs of what can essentially be quite a lonely occupation’. It’s an ideal, and I expect there are places where this happens. But it is not guaranteed.

What are the qualities of this book?

Blogging for Writers shares many of the qualities of its predecessor. It is updated and is more specifically aimed at writers and their blogging needs.

145 old handsIt is very good on the step-by-step processes of setting up a blog, especially for people who don’t warm to technical stuff. It’s not that technical in Robin Houghton’s account, and it’s well illustrated so you can see what should be happening and what other writers have done on their blogs. It is as attractive as many handicraft books, good colour photos and no assumption that you know what is meant by a widget or a plug-in.

It’s also good on the craft of blogging – what makes a brilliant post (headline, topic, photo, length, readability, etc); types of post (lists, interviews, reviews, stories, polemics, etc). And it is realistic about how to manage the practicalities of planning and maintaining a blog. On frequency and length of posts, for example, she has some useful things to say, but is not prescriptive. Instead she suggests the advantages and disadvantages of different pratices.

She’s helpful about how to get your blog noticed, and to keep things going. One of the traps for bloggers is addiction to statistics. She suggests thinking of them ‘as indicators rather than absolute measures’, helpful in setting goals – if you like that sort of thing. And she suggests the tools that can help.

I make no money out of my blog, but I expect that the advice on this is good too.

Throughout the book there are screen grabs of lots of writers’ blogs, and also short quotations about some aspect of their blog.

Do you need copies of both Blogging for Writers and Blogging for Creatives?

154 BFCWriters starting from here would not need the earlier volume. Blogging for Writers is both more up-to-date and more targeted. The examples are especially helpful. I responded to the sidebar that featured Molly Wizenberg and her food and writing blog orangette.

What my blog does is force me to show up. That’s huge. A lot of writers and creative people have said things along the lines of “showing up is 90% of the work,” and that’s certainly true for me. Sometimes, the last thing I want to do is sit down and write. Blogs help us show up, and that’s priceless.

I want my blog to keep me excited about writing. I want it to be a place that forces me to keep writing and practicing, and to be a cattle-prod to me to keep cooking and working. I want my site to reflect what I’m excited about. (161)

I understand this as turning up and writing interesting posts has contributed to my learning as a writer and as a blogger.

Some previous posts in the Craft of Blogging series

#3 My checklist for blogposts

#5 How I write my blog slowly

#7 Finding readers

Blogging for Writers: How authors and writers build successful blogs, by Robin Houghton (2014) published by ilex press. 176 pp

Do you have any ‘how to blog’ books you recommend?

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