From the archive: Writer's Block and The Beetle

As he was crawling round the kitchen this week, my eleven month-old nephew found a beetle.

With its scarab shape, hooked legs and black casing, it looked like a relic from Egyptian times. He poked it once with a podgy hand, and then steered a straight course directly over it, one knee steam-rollering the poor thing into the lino. It lay there motionless, legs splayed flat under the shell. I was about to sweep the corpse outside, when, in miraculous fashion, it hoiked itself back on to its legs and began plodding away, as if nothing had happened. I remembered that, of course, if a wild creature cannot flee, and cannot fight, its last ditch effort to save its own life is to play dead, in the hope that the attacker will eventually give up and go away. This immobility response is always time- limited in animals, and does not result in any lasting damage.  This is not the case with human beings.

When something comes into our writing environment and threatens our creative process- for example the telephone ringing interrupts us mid-flow- what happens?

Ideally, we freeze momentarily in the shock of the interruption, before taking one of two equally good, pro-active measures. Either, we move to answer it, inform the caller that we’re busy, and go back to work, or, we choose not to answer it and keep working.

But instead, something else often happens- our complex rational mind kicks in and tries to second-guess our way out of danger. Should I answer it? I wonder who it is? If I answer it I might be stuck on the phone with my mother, but if I don’t answer it, Sheila next door might think I’m rude… Repetitive, anxious thoughts cause our fear levels to rise and the flexible, appropriate immobility response becomes a semi-permanent paralysis. Our writing ceases up, sabotaged by our mind. This is the infamous ‘writers’ block’.

The way out of writers’ block is to reconnect with a way of being that is more instinctual, to act more often from an embodied place than from the rational mind. Our body knows what to do. It knows the story we are trying to tell, and how to tell it. We need to trust it.  We need to get out of our own way, to stop tripping over our own feet. This is wild writing.

A Writing Prompt

Look out for examples of animals coming in and out of the immobility response- a cat freezing in headlights, a fly staying still on a wall as the shadow of your hand passes over it…

Then when you’re next writing, notice any times that your body tenses or freezes, and try and ease it back into flow. Visualise the wild animals in your mind- how easily they enter and exit immobility.

This article was first published on August 9th 2013

A Writing Ritual: Allison Symes

notepad in wood.jpg

Highlights are important. I can paper walls of my house with rejection slips. 

It has taken me years to find my voice.  I started having acceptances when I didn’t try to fit my quirky fiction into boxes it didn’t want to go into to try to get published. It was finding a publisher that took quirky fiction which led to my breakthrough but I needed to adjust my mindset first. Another help has been accepting I am “in” writing for the long haul and knowing everyone has rejections.

There are days when the words don’t flow as nicely as I’d wish. I call it being human (!) but if I’m stuck on fiction, I switch to blogging.  If I’m stuck on a blog post, I switch to fiction. Usually the issue that has bugged me is resolved as I write about something else.  I found this annoying at first.  You just get into a piece of writing and then ideas for something else turn up.  These days I have a notebook ready!

My writing ritual starts with writing a Facebook post for my author page and/or book page.  I then work on my current CFT post.  I write by “session” divided into segments.  I finish my writing session with fiction as I find not having to stick to facts liberating!

I’m in transition as there is a lot of writing I’d like to do and I need more time so I am planning to become as full time a writer as possible.  Until recently I’ve thought of myself as a part time writer.  Not anymore!  I’m a writer, full stop. I am working out which rituals to retain and which to drop or change.  It will be an interesting process.

I specialise in 100-word-tales, which are on-line at Cafelit.  In 2017 my first collection, From Light to Dark and Back Again, was published by indie press, Chapeltown Books.  This is easily the highest point of my writing life.  I now have an author page on Cafelit (another lovely highlight).

http://cafelit.co.uk/index.php/meet-our-authors/2-uncategorised/99-allison-symes

http://chandlersfordtoday.co.uk/author/allison-symes/

 

In The Mouth

A talented student of mine sent me this wonderful poem. It’s a response to the weekly Writing Prompt, that mentioned the following quote from the Tomas Tranströmer poem ‘From March '79’ ‘Words but no language…language but no words’

 In The Mouth

 First it was like a mustard grain                                                   in the mouth

Then the size of pea rolling about                                                 in the mouth

Lost your words                                                                           in the mouth

And found new ones                                                                    in the mouth

Rattles on her teeth                                                                     in the mouth

And soaks up her spit                                                                  in the mouth

Their stories                                                                                in the mouth

It’s the boulder                                                                            in the mouth

As big as Dog Tor                                                                        in the mouth

It’s grey and old                                                                          in the mouth

Dressed in lichen and moss                                                          in the mouth

Spitting out a collective noun                                                         in the mouth

For language                                                                               in the mouth

 

Val Shearer

Val’s subject has really resonated with me, as last week I completely lost my voice for two days. I’d been struggling to express myself around a personal issue, when, quite suddenly, it dried up.

It was as if my body was saying ‘I’ve had enough of trying to make myself heard here, so I’m going to stop trying’. As someone who is usually able to mould and craft speech with ease, it was an interesting experience to be voiceless. Initially, there was a sense of peace in not needing to try and influence those around me via the spoken word. Then, my hands took over and conversed with gestures. We human beings are creative in finding routes to self-expression.

I found the silence restful- for the first day, that is. But then I started having to cancel meetings. My computer provided an outlet for my growing frustration as I stamped each word hard into my keyboard. I was suddenly struck, as if I’d never realised it before, by the immense value of being able to write. That ability to express on the page released a sense of relief akin to a mute given a blackboard and chalk (please forgive the stereotype).

Now my voice is back, I’m trying not to forget what the words mean to me.

 

The Weekly Prompt

Our bodies speak in so many more ways that just via our mouths vocalising. Write about a time when your body, or a certain part of your body, communicated to you- for example through pain, absence of pain, movement, stiffness etc… What was it trying to say? You might also find it interesting to write a monologue from the point of view of a part of your body. You might be surprised at what it communicates.

This article was first published on 21st May 2013

Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.

A Day In The Life Of A Writer: Jane Eastwood

My biggest issues with my writing are DISCIPLINE and CONFUSION! 

I have so many ideas/projects swimming about it my head that I tend to let them do just that – “swim” and postpone “I will do it tomorrow”.

This is a BIG mistake on my part.  I write better first thing in the morning. That’s okay you might say but if I go to my solitary confinement room (which is essential to me, I can’t cope with interruptions OF ANY KIND when writing) at that time I end up being there sometimes all day long and nothing else gets done.

Consequently – I have an additional“guilt” factor running around in my mind too.

I think “Must get the hovering/washing/ironing” done BEFORE I write which is FATAL as by the time I have done all the menial tasks I am way beyond wanting to write anything at all.

During household chores I try to simplify the confusion of “where to start” and “categorise” these projects – I want to write a book about my disability which is profound deafness. I am also currently “blogging”.  My youngest son will be forty soon, I have had a family tree made so imminently the PRIORITY is that I MUST write an accompanying history of the family to complete the birthday gift.

I tend to work much better with this kind of “deadline” which comes back to “discipline.”  I know I will discipline myself to complete that project because in my mind I “have to do it”.  I get lazy about the blog and don’t keep up with it regularly enough so when I update that it tends to be an all day project.  That leaves little time for my book on disability.

I benefitted so much from working with Bridget on courses exactly because there were deadlines to fulfil.

I need to make rules and I need to adhere to them for example, I could set aside certain days of the week for writing.

That said I find “spontaneity” is an essential tool for my writing so once again I am confronted with another dilemma, discipline and rules versus spontaneity.  Tricky.

The strangest phenomenon of all is totally inexplicable to me. Writing is the EASIEST PART! When I write it just “flows” and all gets poured on to the page with ease.  Getting my head around all these other challenges is what “blocks” me. 

This Writing Lark

 

                                                         Awww… Shit.

                                                         This writing lark.

 

                                                         It’s like waiting all night in the freezing cold

                                                         eyes glued to the hillside

                                                         Praying for a glimpse

 

                                                         Giving everything

                                                         Everything-

                                                         to stay awake

                                                         to stay still

                                                         to bear the freezing ground

                                                         the rocks that grate my backside

 

                                                       Then suddenly finding I’m awake,

                                                       and it’s light

                                                       and I hadn’t even realised I’d fallen asleep

                                                       and my eyelashes are ice,

                                                       and my vision is blurred

                                                       and there’s a dark line in the snow

                                                       winding away

 

                                                      Until it vanishes.

 

                                                      And,

                                                      heart sinking

                                                      I know.

 

                                                     They’re the tracks of The Cat

                                                     he’s passed by in the night

                                                     It’s all been for nothing

                                                     Fucking for nothing.

 

                                                    That’s what it’s like---

                                                    to look, at these ink marks on the page.

                                                    And be so damn brimful of disappointment

                                                    for what yearns to be spoken

                                                    that I cannot find a way to say.

                                                                                                -Bridget Holding

So, What's It All About, This 'Wild Words' Thingy?

It can feel like it’s about…

…freeing the words that have been trapped inside us for decades, and having that conversation

…writing the novel that has the page-turning quality of a Dan Brown

…attaining guru status like Paulo Coelho  

…proving our worth to our father

…standing on stage at The Apollo Theatre

…becoming financially secure

…the world recognising the master songwriter we know we’ve always been

…writing the dedication

…choosing the text and art work for the cover

 

And, of course, that’s all part of it.

But the bigger thing rumbles underneath.

It’s the yearning to express that we carry round with us, like a wild animal howling through the dark wood.

Our heart aches- for what?

To find the words that can express the strength of our inner experience (imagined or remembered, owned or given to a fictional character) in words.

To feel. To find the channel for the upsurge of emotion.

 

To express it 

To contain it

Perfectly.

 

To be heard.

 

Doing the washing-up, sending a work email, bathing the kids, we sometimes find ourselves inspired by an idea, stopped in our tracks by an image, catching a glimpse of our wild words. The words that want to be expressed, the story that needs to be told.

Like those moments in the forest, on the trail of the wild animal, when we see an amber eye glinting in dusk light, a flash of a tail through the dew-filled undergrowth, a paw print in virgin snow... Tantalising… Calling us to come closer. Warning us to stay away.

 

The Process

There are as many different forms of words as there are creatures in the forest, squeaking, roaring, galloping, crawling, grunting wild creatures all, but whatever the form, the process is much the same.

It has two parts: which must be kept distinct if we are to avoid our human-storyteller-animal freezing (commonly know as creative or writer’s block).

Stage 1: The first draft. Written from instinct.

This necessitates trusting that we are all natural storytellers, and knowing that we’re doing something worthwhile (Don’t believe me? Read this.)

Write the draft straight through, from beginning to end, when you’re feeling fresh, and connected to the emotion of the narrator or lead character. (Struggling to connect to the emotions? Here’s a blog that will help.)

Stage 2:  The subsequent drafts. Here, welcome in the kindly critic.

Bring in techniques that will help you to express on the lips or the page, what you want to express. Use them consciously, precisely.  (Stick with Wild Words for 2017, and you’ll have all the precise techniques you’ll ever need by the end of the year).

After repeated use, the techniques of stage 2 will drop down into the unconscious, and become instinctual. You will find you increasingly use them in the first draft stage.

For those working with oral storytelling and communication:

The process is much the same. Stage 1 is saying what you need to say, without judging yourself. Stage 2 is consciously learning skills that enable you to do stage 1 more skillfully, appropriately and impactfully, the next time around.

 

Block to Flow

We yearn to express ourselves. However, what keeps our words caged is that we also fear it. We are terrified that if all that energy inside is let loose, it will rampage, destroying ourselves, or another.  Think of the tiger in the jungle. He’s such a majestic creature. We crave a sighting, but we are panic-stricken at the idea of looking him in the eye.

At Wild Words we don’t just unbolt the door of the cage. That’s not the way to the best self-expression. 

If we do that, more often than not, the words cower in the back of their cage, terrified by their change in circumstances. Then we’re faced with our stuttering self on stage, or days spent staring at the blank page. Or, we spit words that we regret, often at those we love most. There’s that tiger attacking the person who unlocked their cage.

And in people with a history of trauma, sudden release of energy can result in patterns of trauma being re-enforced. There’s that tiger attacking your very soul.

No, there’s an art to bringing the aliveness that lies within, out and into form. Rather than crank up the resistance, we work with respect for the survival strategies (those metaphorical bars) that have kept those words in, often for years, out of concern for our safety.

There are techniques, mind-blowing ones (start here) for tempting those wild words out, for opening up that pure channel of communication between our self, our character or narrator, and the reader or listener.

 

The Result

Then we find that our words are living, breathing, perspiring creatures, more vivid, engaging and vital than we could ever have imagined possible.

They rise up through our body, dance off our lips, pour onto the page.

They live fully, broadly, and deeply. And so do we.

Then we have, indeed, cleared a path through the woods to becoming the next J. K Rowling, Kate Tempest, or whoever it is who lights our fire.

And you know what we find once we’ve tracked down our wild words?

That the only thing that really matters is the feeling of being a free, roaring creature, more alive than we’ve ever felt before, roaming our vast territory…

 

A Writer's Process: Michael Loveday

I’d like to explore here how we, as writers, might recover when faced with a creative trough.

It involves a confession – about three years ago writing and I had fallen out of love.  

What had begun as an adventure, one that easily seduced me, had now dissipated into a series of irritable, familiar and tiresome habits. I was disenchanted with a writing process that I didn’t relish, and disenchanted with my end-product. In short, I was thinking of giving up. The challenges and highs of completing an MA and my first poetry pamphlet in the same summer had left me, afterwards, wandering in something like a desert sprawling with tumbleweed. I could almost hear the wind blowing past my ears. Is that it? What do I do now? Where the hell is everybody?

What follows is an outline of the remedies I sought. They may not all work for others; but perhaps some ideas will connect if you’re ever going through an uncreative time.

(1)   I loathed the results when I put pen to paper. A voice kept telling me I wasn’t creative enough. The writing I admired most, I realised, was associated with a quality of playfulness – one that I now seemed to lack. Michael Atavar has said: “We have this idea that creativity must be a product – a book, a performance, an event. I believe that creativity is a process. It might result in some of these external things, but its main purpose is to develop an attitude within ourselves.” I decided I wanted to make my process as slow, meandering, playful, fertile as possible – as if I were fermenting some fine wine to sip in the future.  (Later, I encountered the poet Liz Berry’s description of her writing process. I drew huge inspiration from this rich, leisurely experimentation).  https://poetryschool.com/poems/sow/.

(2)   I realised that I associated pure creativity most strongly with the visual arts. Look at kids! – they’re painting before they write. I admire artists for doodling away in notebooks, making preparatory sketches. So I bought an A4 artist’s sketchbook for my drafting – cream paper, unlined. I turned the page to landscape, starting in the centre (forgetting about order and position), and filled the page outwards with my pen. I felt much closer to my creative self. 

 The drafting process.

The drafting process.

(3)   I reminded myself that other writers readily confessed to writing awful stuff. Ann Lamott labels it “the shitty first draft.” https://wrd.as.uky.edu/sites/default/files/1-Shitty%20First%20Drafts.pdf

Raymond Carver talked about how his first drafts “are dreadful”; how he regularly went through between 10 and 30 drafts to get a piece of writing right. 

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3059/the-art-of-fiction-no-76-raymond-carver

I became increasingly fascinated with the way it was possible, through patient drafting, to turn base metal into… if not gold, then at least something more interesting than base metal.

More than ever before, most of the words I wrote were “wasted” – edited out; revised to the point that they were no longer the same; or seemed so embarrassing that they were hidden in a drawer. I followed a new 80/20 rule: the last 20% of a piece of writing, I told myself, takes up 80% of the time.

These three seemed to offer a key. In addition -

(4)   I hunted back through several years’ worth of old, abandoned drafts and experiments from my first few years of writing – I’d been industrious when I first started, burning with enthusiasm, before I realised how awful I was, but I’d kept all my old drafts. I sifted for places where the writing had a touch of sparkle. I didn’t find as much as I’d hoped. But I did surprise myself to see this other person, buzzing with ideas, accumulating reams of material. Had I really, once, been producing so much stuff?

I remembered the deal Julia Cameron urges us to make – Universe, look after the quality; I’ll look after the quantity.

(5)   I started using my iPhone to jot down poem / story concepts the moment they sparked, whether memories of my own life, or fiction ideas. Barely a sentence, or a couple of words each time – without saying “oh, I’ll remember that later”. Gradually the list accumulated until I had a large resource of prompts I could go to when it was writing time – just pick the one I fancied most that day, and go.

(6)   In a topsy-turvy experiment, I started using a computer for editing, instead of my beloved pen. I found I was tougher when I typed things in presentable black and white, and this seemed to push my writing to its benefit (though with drafting, I still rely on pen and A4 sketchbook, where I want access to first thoughts, as free as possible from the inner critic).

(7)   I held my nerve more and shoved first drafts “in a drawer” for longer before tinkering. Maybe not quite the mythical month that some writers argue first drafts should be set aside for. But a couple of weeks, at least. Just to see things genuinely fresh.

(8)   And I started a writing journal. A third one, in fact – to my shame, I am a serial journaller, already possessing a traditional diary (where I wrote twice a week), and a reflective learning journal for teaching (once a week). I nattered in my writing journal whenever it suited me. I babbled about: process; how I felt about edits I’d made; potential new edits to try;  sequencing and structuring of material for fantasised poem / story collections; news of rejections (boo! hiss!) or acceptances (hooray!); books I’d been reading, plays and films I’d seen; creativity generally; quotes from books that I admired. Etc, etc. Anything that nourished and consoled the process.

That uncreative tumbleweed: it’ll haunt you if you let it.

There is a long list of other things one can try (and many I’ve stuck with) to escape from it – walking, jogging, meditating, eating better food, going to see films, spending more time with other writers, time with loved ones doing anything but writing, experimenting with a drastic new haircut, smashing your fists against rocks (er – hang on – maybe forget about those last two).

In the end I have, I think, settled in a better place in terms of process: I’ve decided that being a writer demands a mingling of doubt and faith that is disconcerting to experience, but one that I can live with for now.

If you don’t doubt your work, don’t interrogate your themes and narratives, worry about your sentences, you may never push your writing enough until it is ready to share publically (if that’s what you want to do – admittedly a big if).

If you don’t have long-term faith in what you are trying to achieve, you will falter at hurdles – when obstacles materialise in the writing, or when rejections appear, or when low confidence risks leading you into the desert.

Maybe, in fact, negotiating the intersection of these two opposing forces – doubt and faith – is the mission of the writer.

In other words, if you spend enough time thinking “it’s not good enough”, it has a chance of becoming “good enough”. It’s the kind of logical and existential paradox that will trigger cycles of crisis and recovery. (May all artists and writers be creatively fruitful in the land of their suffering! Ha!) But the reality is more mundane: one step at a time, what if I cut this word here, or change that one, or add this one? Would it read more strangely, more beautifully, more powerfully? Can I at least have some fun trying?

 www.michaelloveday.co.uk