Tag Archives: resources for writers

Na-nu Na-nu. Writing resources for you.

HEMINGWAY

I’m not one for Nanowrimo – that’s National Novel Writing Month. In truth, it’s been a mystery to me for some time. I only got the acronym correct because I googled it, and previously to that I was confusing it with what Mork used to say to Mindy.

But in light of the feverish fecundity of what is often the dreariest month, I wanted to share some online resources I recently located and have been finding useful.

National Theatre’s Discover More section on their website have all sorts of lovely videos on a plethora of things. For dramatists they have Roy Williams on political   playwriting, with other videos giving advice on writing characters, building a plot and writing dialogue.

For those heading off into the month of furious novel writing, my old favourite Mslexia have reproduced some workshops originally featured in the magazine, including Jenny Newman’s ‘MA in Novel Writing.’

Writing, we know, is all about rewriting, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the choices writers make in redrafts. Mslexia’s Inspirations asks a writer to compare the first draft with the published version, and fascinating reading it makes, too, for literary geeks. Deborah Moggach discusses her prose editing choices here, whilst Wendy Cope compares poetry drafts here. Finally, in this little gift of interesting reading on process, poet Polly Clark is interviewed about a specific poem.

Whatever your preferred form, or your plans for November writing, I hope it’s a creative month and that these links prove stimulating. I’m off to teach Dramaturgy in Singapore and so escape this dark month, but I won’t be escaping the writing – as ever, I have a deadline to meet.

 

 

 

On the dangers of believing in ‘writer’s block’…

I’ve just been asked by a magazine to give my thoughts on the terrible condition called writer’s block. I’m afraid I gave them short shrift.

I don’t believe in it. I’m frustrated when this excuse is peddled as a way of excusing poor preparation, or tiredness, or the need to do further research, or rest, breathe, look at the landscape or generally put more ‘food’ in the ‘cupboard’. We need stimulus, we need new experiences and sensations, we need change and to be active, and we also need to rest. This is natural, and I believe all humans need it. What I get perplexed about is when this malaise is wheeled out to explain why someone is not working. I have seen people grind to a halt (or not even start) and remain there for months and even years, saying ‘writer’s block’ as though that’s it, the end, and there’s nothing to be done but wait until it unblocks itself in its own sweet time, if ever….

This is not to be confused with burn-out, or lack of confidence, or an overly-active critic in the head who murmurs endlessly about how crap you are, or a host of other debilitating conditions we also have to get over in order to do what we do… And after blasting the poor editor with my thoughts about how we indulge notions of writer’s block to the benefit of a burgeoning self-help industry, but to the detriment of the profession (it adds to the fantasy of the tortured, suffering artist and lets lazy writers get away with it), I became superstitious and wondered if I was inviting hubris….

I have never had writer’s block as I see writing as a craft and profession, as well as one of the greatest joys and solaces of my life. In the past when I have failed to write it was because I needed rest, or stimulus, or discipline, or a few quiet nights in and less out on the tiles – I needed to research more, to plot better, to be more spontaneous, or less jaded – I just needed to get on and do the bloody work. I started seeing the difference between a writer and a would-be writer as the latter talks about it, endlessly, whilst the real thing just applies the seat of the pants to a chair and gets on with it.

When I teach I have a series of timed exercises I encourage writers to do at home to start afresh, or change direction, so instead of falling into that big hole in the manuscript they are making bigger by boring their eyes into it, they might find it less intimidating by approaching from a different place.

I have never found a problem with writing that couldn’t be solved by writing.

And then I found other writers felt similar to me – wonderfully successful and talented writers, whose words might make be feel less superstitious about inviting hubris when I write ‘I don’t get writer’s block.’ I can’t afford to come to a stop with a show going into tech’ in Taipei art Festival and another starting rehearsals in the UK this week, and a short monologue to write for Agent 160’s Fun Palace…

So over to Philip Pullman….

“Writer’s block…a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word WRITER, that word was taken out and the word PLUMBER substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?

The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don’t want to do it, and you can’t think of what to write next, and you’re fed up with the whole damn business. Do you think plumbers don’t feel like that about their work from time to time? Of course there will be days when the stuff is not flowing freely. What you do then is MAKE IT UP. I like the reply of the composer Shostakovich to a student who complained that he couldn’t find a theme for his second movement. “Never mind the theme! Just write the movement!” he said.

Writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.”

Fabulous. No-nonsense and to the point. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Now I’m off to write that monologue….

Henry Miller’s Writing “Commandments.” Be reckless and joyful. Keep human.

I know I’m not the only one endlessly fascinated with writers’ processes, rituals, ‘rules’ and superstitions. There’s been a whole spate of books lately analysing the daily traits and routines of successful artists and writers and although I haven’t yet succumbed to buying them, it may just be a matter of time…

It’s not that I think these books will give me a formula for success (whether magical or scientific),  it’s because when I’m not writing myself, or reading other people’s writing, I love reading about other people’s process when writing… Every time I do so, I learn something new, or am reminded of something I’ve forgotten.

I’m reminded today of JOY. PLEASURE. BEING RECKLESS IN OUR CREATIVITY. BEING HUMAN!

In 1932, the famous writer and painter, Henry Miller, created a work schedule that listed his “Commandments” to follow as part of his daily routine. This list was published in the book, Henry Miller on Writing and I reproduce a few of my favourites, below:

  1.    Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2.    Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  3.   Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  4.    When you can’t create you can work.
  5.    Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  6.   Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  7.   Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  8.   Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  9.    Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  10.    Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

The “commandments” seem very human, generous, and knowledgeable of process. They are precise and clear, yet not draconian. We all have days when the words refuse to flow, or the ideas feel stilted, and no matter how hard we try, we just can’t kick-start our creativity. What I liked about Miller’s rules were the emphasis on pleasure along with the hard work – and the flexibility allowed in giving up on a day when it’s just not happening… Where this really works for me is the understanding this is a temporary state and for this day only. It’s very easy to feel cursed, or that the mojo has left us – writers are notoriously superstitious and fearful about long periods of non-productivity. Miller’s “commandments” ensure confidence in tomorrow being if not a better day, then another fresh start and the failures of today will not linger into the next.

That’s really worth being reminded of.

Why do you write? Understanding purpose.

Why do you write?

As a form of self-expression, an aide-memoire, to forge a possible career, to expose a wrong, to make money, because it’s fun, to try and leave a mark: ‘I was here’? Or perhaps to engage with the imaginations of others, to explore a central question about what it is to be human, to make others laugh, to meditate or self-analyze, to tell a really good story in order to entertain yourself in the making and hopefully others in the telling, you do it for fame? Or do you write to change the world, to save a life or community, to right a wrong, to ignite a campaign? Or is it simply a compulsion you can’t control, a question you need to answer, a private practice you share with no-one, an art form you wish to master, or a pleasurable means of passing time? Is it an ambition to achieve, an impulse to create, a desire to be ‘heard’, a business to forge? Is the reason you write a mixture of some of the above, or more likely, one I haven’t listed?

Knowing why we write (or create) is central to the practice, and often overlooked. Whether writing is a means to give thanks, or to remember, or to be economically independent, understanding the reason why we write – our purpose – is important and can lead to a more satisfying and successful output – (that’s ‘success’ defined in your own terms).

It’s a question I often ask participants at the start of a course, and one that saves time and energy in the long term. When we know the purpose for doing something, there is a clarity and understanding that can impact on the process. If someone in truth wants to be a bestselling romantic novelist, perhaps attending an experimental post-dramatic playwriting module isn’t immediately the best use of their time. If someone writes in the desire to reach an audience and to achieve a long-held ambition of being published, perhaps it’s time to send some of the poems out to publishers and accept writing is more than a private means of self-expression (this also works the other way). If writing is a means of personal growth, we can enjoy it more without the pressures of feeling we ‘ought’ to try and get published, or give a reading, or have a production. Being clear about the reason why you are writing is a way of being clear and truthful with yourself. It may sound obvious, but so many of us write and create in a fog. In my teaching and writing experience I’ve found we seldom ask ourselves what it is we like to read, what is it we want to write, what kind of writer we want to be, what our relationship is to our creativity….? Understanding this can effect the direction we take in future projects, saving energy and increasing our productive outcome. So go on and ask yourself these questions…

  • What kind of work do you enjoy reading/consuming?
  • Why do you write (or create, make, etc)?
  • What do you in truth hope to achieve?
  • What is standing in the way of you achieving the above?
  • What could you do to get closer to achieving this?
  • What kind of writing/making do you enjoy doing most?
  • Define ‘success’ in your own terms…..

There isn’t a template we all need to follow. There isn’t one career trajectory, just as there isn’t one reason why any of us write, or make, or create. I find the reason(s) for writing changes project to project and the knowledge of this shift encourages me to keep asking these questions, for the process and my connection to what I’m doing will therefore also change.

But understanding why we write or create allows some self-knowledge and this can lead to an adjustment in the direction we are taking, or inspire a new commitment to the practice, a freshness to our work and our relationship with it.  There are always benefits from increased wisdom.

starting to write…research, creating materials and scratching out the territory

It’s that exciting time – researching, imagining the territory, scratching out the first traces of what may develop into a character’s voice, journey, temperament, discoveries… I’m starting out on a new play, creating the anarchic, formless, sprawling mosaic of half-monologues, author’s questions and asides, indications of dynamic and interaction in snatches of dialogue, hastily written notes about place and action which eventually come together to create an image of the world of the play…

As a playwright, I’m not a planner. I know all the tricks and approaches, the theories and proposed practices. I’ve read the books, been to the seminars, taken and led the workshops. I know how it’s done and am known for my skills with dramaturgy and structure, yet my own process at the start of a new play is deliberately chaotic and to a planner’s eye, undisciplined. I give myself free rein to follow any wild association that pings in my head, to research in unlikely places so long as there is a chord resounding in me, to scrawl pages of notes and questions and one liners and ‘what ifs’ and scratching outs and a) b) c) d) versions of what may happen and whose emerging voice it may be and what this might really be about…

I read widely and eclectically – a medieval Welsh myth in translation, a misery memoir on abduction and a Victorian botanical primer (with delicious, delicate hand-painted illustrative plates) in the past four days alone. I’ve read about stamens and ovules; the flora and fauna of the New Forest; an American Survivalist’s blog on going off-grid and an Austrian’s guide for surviving trauma. I’ve seasoned this with playlists of new-to-me musicians and composers selected by my nephews and images from photographers’ blogs on remote places and abandoned buildings.

I’m immersing myself in whatever snags my interest or resonates for the perceived journey ahead. I’m not being selective or critical. I’m dipping in like a swift tips the surface of a lake, sampling, trying, flying on, keeping moving. I’ve learnt how seductive research can be. I know how it can engross you, consume you, and become either yet another form of procrastination, preventing you from getting down to the job in hand – writing – or it can weigh you and the project down, words research-heavy, too dense to soar.

I carry my diverse and immersive research lightly, although I abandon myself to its pleasures for a short time. This I think is where experience comes in – knowing when to stop both the task at hand and the whole process itself. It is also important to learn how to notate, to skim off what is of interest and potentially of use to your project, keeping always a little distance from what you are engaged in, however addictive. It is also essential to capture the thoughts that flit across your imagination before they dissipate in the air.

Have always a notebook or computer nearby. Don’t con yourself. You will not remember. Jot it down, and now, and see if the thought can be expressed in the character’s voice – the character not yet invented, nevermind realised – this is our paradoxical task but one which can’t be avoided or put off. Send away any inner critic and don’t worry how and what you write so long as you let the impulse flow through you and into the pen/keys; shake yourself out of research pleasure, which ironically often manifests in idleness. Try shaping into scrawled notes that shapeless thought clouding your mind. Get it down and keep moving – you can come look at it again, later. Travel fast, travel with curiosity and an open mind, travel well.

More on my process of starting to write will follow….

Enjoy.

Start now.

Start now. Start from where you are. Don’t wait for the muse, or the magical moment, or the light shining on the lake viewed from the perfect writing spot you’ve never looked for but just know it’s out there and when found (although you don’t look) will make everything fall into place and the words onto the page or screen. Start now. Don’t wait for a new book or computer or pen which will make the work effortless. The work is hard, always is, always has been, always will be, although there may be those few moments when  the components line up like the mechanism in a chiming clock and the words are precise and striking: a state of grace, to be savoured. But mainly work will be filled will struggle and frustration and disappointments where there is never enough time or quiet or space to formulate ideas, never mind actualise them. And despite the rejections and the occasional sense of failure, we must keep on, for this is what we were made to do – to write, to express, to create, to imagine, to communicate, to think, to explore, to elucidate, to embody. And never forget how fortunate we are to be doing what we do.

It’s New Year and that time for new beginnings or encouraging words. Here’s more from Debbie Millman:

I recommend the following course of action form those who are just beginning their careers or for those like me who may be midway through: heed the words of Robert Frost. Start with a big fat lump in your throat. Start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, or a crazy love sickness and run with it. If you imagine less, less is what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.

Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design. Debbie Millman. Quoted on http://www.brainpickings.org

Happy new year and courage, energy and fortitude to all…..

when mind is dull and words fall heavy

Sometimes it’s just not working…. Sometimes the words fall heavily and awkwardly, if at all…. Sometimes the mind is dull with no thoughts or ideas, or too excited, ideas crowding, making you unable to focus… Sometimes you are intent on a specific project or genre and you need a little guidance from others who have gone ahead successfully….Sometimes it’s good to know you’re not alone…. Sometimes a prompt or exercise is what you need to get kick-started in the morning, or to rein you in, give you purpose in a stolen hour at night….

Here’s some online workshops by terrific writers including MJ Hyland, Pascale Petit, Deryn Rees-Jones and others, courtesy of Mslexia.

Workshop on the novel, devised by MJ Hyland:

http://www.mslexia.co.uk/magazine/workshops/workshop1_ncomp13.php

A conversation with the possible, poetry workshops devised by Deryn Rees-Jones:

http://www.mslexia.co.uk/magazine/workshops/workshop1_pcomp13.php

Beginnings, workshops for short stories devised by Katy Darby:

http://www.mslexia.co.uk/magazine/workshops/workshop1_scomp13.php

Poetry from art, devised by Pascale Petit:

http://www.mslexia.co.uk/magazine/workshops/workshop1_pcomp12.php

Further workshops, prompts and exercises are available on the Mslexia website.