Tag Archives: Creative nonfiction

The Writer’s Toolbox (3)

I’m not a cat person, but these ladies look pretty curious.

Curiosity may be fatal for felines but it is essential for writers.

If you’ve been following this series of blog posts up to now, you are hopefully writing regularly in a writing journal. At this stage, be curious not critical about what your work. Instead of judging your writing – this is good/bad – wonder what brought me to write this? If you choose to bring your writing to an audience at some point, there will be plenty of time to garner critiques, for now let curiosity and compassion for your words be your guide.

Writers also need a voracious curiosity about the world around them. What you see, hear, taste, smell, feel, experience, are all essential inspiration for a writer. In her seminal book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about taking artist’s dates. These are trips taken by creatives to feed the imagination. It could be as simple as going to a local museum or visiting a part of town you’ve never been to, perhaps a park, a graveyard, a church (or another place of worship). It could be going further afield. Everywhere is redolent with stories.

Go on these trips of discovery as a writer. Possibly alone or with another creative person, certainly not with others who will constantly need your attention. Then notice, notice, notice. Notice the external, but notice also what is going on for you, how the external is impacting on the internal. Stop frequently to write in your journal. Personally, I find stopping frequently for tea and cake also aids the creative process!

It may be that you have already decided on something you wish to pursue in your writing. Of course, these days, it is easy to sit at our desks and research with Mr Google etc. However, there is nothing like experience as research.

Go to places you want to write about. Find the little niche museum which covers the subject you are interested in, speak to the volunteers/staff about their passions. Visit the historical sites which are connected to what you are interested in. Put yourself in the environments which are inspiring you. It may not always be possible to do this in actuality, so see if there is a way of replicating it. Perhaps it is the rainforest which is stimulating your words and a ticket to Peru is beyond you, then a visit to Kew Gardens may not be.

I was listening to crime writer Ann Cleeves on the radio yesterday, she said, ‘People make a mistake when they separate setting from plot and character. People grow out of where they are born and live.’ (Desert Island Discs, Radio 4, 17th February 2019, Presenter: Lauren Laverne. Producer: Cathy Drysdale.)

Stories also grow out of place, out of environment, out of setting. Open your curiosity to the world around you and your internal landscapes and allow the words to tumble onto the page.

A Writer’s Toolbox: the self

If you’ve read the first post in this series, https://bit.ly/2RqqBKn, then hopefully that has encouraged you to write regularly. You may have adapted the sprints to suit yourself, all well and good. The point is to be writing regularly without critiquing and without too much concern over what is the point, apart from enjoying yourself.

Now we come to the most important implement in the Writer’s Toolbox: the writer themselves. Everything that comes from the writer is mediated through the self. So let’s consider how the self might work for the writer.

We have five physical senses: touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. We may favour one of these senses. If I say the word ‘tractor’, do you see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, feel the texture of it? This little exercise gives an idea of which sense you may lean towards. A writer encourages the development of all the senses. Try these explorations:

  •      walk (preferably through a bit of nature) with all your senses opened. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Once you have worked out which sense you least favour, go for a walk and focus on that sense. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Take an image (a photo or a postcard or a picture or a painting), imagine yourself within the picture, what would you be seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling? What textures could you touch? Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.
  •       Imagine that one of your senses has gone. Take a short walk without that sense working. Write for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.

You may discover your own ways of opening up your senses. Keep exploring what your five physical senses can tell you.

Writing is about imagination, inspiration, that’s what people commonly say, which all sounds very head-based. Poet William Blake likened the imagination and inspiration to a grinding millstone and a blacksmith’s forge. If we continue with his analogy, then we need the grain, we need the base metal, for the millstones or the fire in the forge to produce anything. We need the raw materials for the imagination and inspiration to feed on. These raw materials come through the senses, but also through the body as a whole. The body is the receptor by which we experience the world as we pass through it, then the mind puts language and interpretations to this experience. Working in concert, the two enrich our writing.

The self can be a tuning fork, resonating with the environment and finding the individual note for the individual writer. One of the things I have found which encourages the mining of the resources of the body is mindful walking. Mindfulness is a word which is used in many different contexts with a myriad of meanings. I like this definition from psychologytoday.com (accessed 5th October 2015): Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience. Try walking mindfully and then writing for ten minutes, uncritically, letting the words drop onto the paper.

Writing creatively means engaging emotion, both for the writer and for the reader. We don’t think emotions, we feel them. Philippot et al. (2004) suggest that emotions are primarily experienced though bodily sensation and then translated into feelings and brought into consciousness. Writers connecting with their bodies are more aware of emotion, more able to capture them and find ways of communicating them which will touch a reader. However, writers are in the business of engaging with a plethora of emotions, not just the ones which we might think are nice or respectable or allowed. This can be hard, can be painful, can be distressing. Be sure you have supports in place to help you through.

The self may also be the spanner in the works, which jams the creative wheels. Another part of a writer’s toolkit is a small but resilient core of self-belief. This is usually difficult to hone and maintain. Writers need to experience a full range of emotions to put them into their writing, some, such as shame and anger, are not conducive to self-belief. Writers might lay themselves open to criticism and rejection – generated by themselves or by others, or (even harder) imagined others.

It is worth remembering that both the creative practice and the construction of self-belief are iterative. There is a back-and-forth to the process. ‘Onwards and upwards’ is an oft repeated phrase, as if going forwards is always what’s best. Writers can feel they are going backwards or round in circles. Remembering that this is an important part of being creative may help this become less frustrating.

Take your time exploring your senses and mindful walking and see where it takes you. I’ll be exploring further tools in the writer’s toolbox in the next post in the series in the coming weeks.

 

Philippot P, Baeyens C, Douilliez C, & Francart B. (2004). Cognitive regulation of emotion: application to clinical disorders. In: Philippot P, Feldman RS (eds.). (2004) The regulation of emotion. New York: Laurence Erlbaum Associates.

A Writer’s Toolkit: Getting Started

However much I ignore it, the New Year does bring with it the idea of new possibilities and opportunities. It feels like a time to reassess, perhaps, and try new things. Maybe it is the moment to start or re-invigorate your writing?

This year, I plan to do a series of posts called A Writer’s Toolbox which aims to give anyone the impetus to get on with the writing they want to do. These posts will be interspersed by my usual musings on being a writer, plus some posts by guests. I have some exciting ones already lined up. But if you are a writer and would like to contribute a post, please do get in touch. There’s no money, no glory and it won’t change your life, however, if you would like to give it a whirl, email me on kateevans@tinyonline.co.uk

Igniting or re-igniting the spark
At the risk of sounding un-empathic, it sometimes bemuses me when people tell me they want to write. I wonder why they are not doing it. On the face of it, writing is one of the easiest creative arts to ease into. There’s no need for any special equipment or even much space. If you can put one word in front of another down on paper, then you can write.

So if you want to write, and you are not doing so, then the first question to ask yourself is what is getting in the way of me writing? Perhaps spending ten minutes writing about this should be your first piece of writing. Over years of writing, running writing workshops and being around writers, the general things which get in the way of writing are:

  •     Finding the time within your life. To start with it doesn’t have to be a lot, perhaps as little as ten minutes a week. But, like doing anything, it’s about carving out the space to focus on what you want to do.
  •      Other pressures, such as earning money or looking after children/other family members. This is obviously a tough one, but needs to be negotiated and balances and boundaries found.
  •       Giving yourself permission. Sometimes it is ourselves which get in the way. Negative thoughts such as: ‘I’m not good enough’; ‘what’s the point in this?’ ‘Everyone will laugh at me.’ My advice is, as far as possible, don’t get too hung up on the why or the end product or on what you might imagine other people thinking and saying. Writing is first and foremost a pleasure for ourselves. If it becomes something else – something to share with an audience, for instance – that is a bonus. It is not necessary to start out with the idea of what you are going to write. The first exercise is to put one word down on the paper and then another while setting your critical voice(s) to one side. It can be a struggle. So don’t beat yourself up if at first you don’t succeed.
  •       What is your motivation? If it’s to make money, then these posts are not for you. If it’s to explore your world through writing and develop your creativity, then read on.

My writing journals

Getting Started
Buy a writing journal, this is a pad of paper or notebook which you will only use for writing creatively in and no-one else will use or look at. Personally I prefer something with strong paper, a decent cover and no lines. Make sure you have some pens. Decide on an achievable amount of time that you can put aside for writing and write a positive statement in the front of your journal: ‘I will spend xx minutes writing every xx.’

Take a walk, preferably somewhere green and open. Sit down for ten minutes and write as freely as you can. Do this on a regular basis.

Begin to collect inspirational prompts eg postcards, images of different kinds, snippets from the paper, music, pebbles, buttons, scraps of material, flowers, herbs, small objects…. Take one of these up, examine it, and write for ten minutes as freely as you can.

After each ten minutes, close your writing journal. Do not re-read. Do not critique. Leave what you have written to ferment and marinade.

As far as possible, keep to a schedule of these ten minute ‘sprints’ from prompts (such as a walk or an object or an image or a piece of music) for a month. Then review. Is there anything in what you have written you feel particularly fond of? Then underline it. Was there a particular prompt which worked better than others? Perhaps use this more often.

Continue with a similar schedule for another month and review again. By this time, you may be getting a clearer idea of something you want to develop further. Or perhaps not. If not, continue with the sprints until something emerges.

NB: writing in short uncritiqued sprints from a prompt to get started in writing is a method used by many writer. I first came across it in ‘Writing as a Way of Healing’ by Louise DeSalvo and ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron.

Experimentation in Writing

I have begun my read through of novel #5, No Justice. I put it away several months ago, so I am coming to it with a relatively clear head, in preparation for re-writing. I had set out to write a straight forward crime novel, but it seems I am incapable of straight forward. I break several ‘cardinal’ rules: there are many characters; there are many narrative voices; there are ‘poetic’ descriptions; we’re several chapters in and there is no crime to investigate.

On the other hand I enjoy writing (and reading) it, and since I may be its sole reader, isn’t that the point?

I admire writers and artists who break the rules and stick to their own creative vision. We would not have most contemporary prose without Virginia Woolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’ approach. Yet she had to self-publish as she could not cope with the rejections she got from commercial publishers. She and her husband Leonard set up the Hogarth Press to publish her novels in 1917 with a hand-press in their dining room. The hand-press cost them £19, the equivalent of £900 today. Hogarth press is now part of Random House publishing. Ironically perhaps, RH is one of the big conglomerates which currently so dominate the market that they can dictate what books we find on shops’ shelves and what reviews we find in the media.

I have written elsewhere about trends in experimenting with the narrative arc (https://bit.ly/2yTSX6Q). I recently read Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor and boy does he knock around with our expectations of story-telling. Each chapter is a year, there is no traditional paragraphing, human tales are given the same value/space as nature’s tales, there are no speech marks (this last, I personally found rather confusing). Not to mention the unresolved resolution. I had some complaints about the ending to my first novel, The Art of the Imperfect (for me the clue was in the title, it’s going to be imperfect). I would suggest these critics would hate McGregor’s finish.

I understand that some readers want an easy ride, they don’t want to be pushed or challenged, but I like it, and I want greater daring to come into my writing. In my last post (https://bit.ly/2xinR5B) I said I was entering a piece into a novella competition. I made the deadline and my submission included fictional prose (which moved between centuries), literary criticism and poetry. Maybe the judges will merely see it as a mish-mash, however, I was pleased to have attempted something different.

Currently I am wondering how to pull apart the timeline in No Justice without losing pace. Or, given I’m already transgressing various ‘cardinal’ rules, maybe it’s OK to lose pace?

How do you experiment in your writing?

 

Beyond the First Draft: the re-write

We all have our own creative process. What I am sharing here is what works for me, it might not work for you. I understand some writers re-write as they go along. For me, this is like trying to go forward in reverse gear. It may be different for you. Experiment for yourself. However, if you are re-writing as you go along, just take a moment to reflect. Are you self-sabotaging by making sure you will never finish anything, by continually going over and over the same section of writing trying to get it perfect? Are you squashing your creativity? Many of my most creative ideas quite frankly look pants when first committed to paper. My first impulse would be to re-write them out. But left to ‘stew’ and then crafted, they become something else.

‘I do a lot of rubbish, you have to work through the rubbish. If you are doing rubbish you can’t go away and say, OK, I’ll come back when I’m cleverer because it doesn’t work like that.’
Author, Judith Kerr (‘Pink Rabbits and Other Animals’
Radio 4, 14th June 2018, producer/presenter Jessica Treen)

So this is my method:

  • Write a first draft, relatively quickly, with no looking back. For me this is joyous, I am only pleasing myself and playing with words and ideas and characters.
  • Leave it for several weeks in a nice folder (always value your writing by keeping it safe and well shod).
  • Re-read. Try to put on a reader’s head at this point. For poetry you might be looking at rhythm, word choice, consistency of images, form on the page, voice. Would a stranger understand it or, at least, take some meaning from it? For prose, perhaps ask yourself about the narrative arc, research, narrative voice, character development, conflict/crisis, pace. Write notes for yourself on the manuscript, on a separate sheet, at 3am in the morning.
  • Re-write using your comments.
  • Leave it for several weeks in a nice folder.
  • Second re-read which might lead to some re-writing, but don’t over do it until you have some feedback. You don’t want to ‘bake’ your ‘cake’ until you’ve got some input on the ‘ingredients’. Many a time I’ve been asked to give feedback on a piece which the writer considers finished and is unlikely to alter. It’s a waste of time and energy for the both of us. Choose your readers carefully. For me, they should be writers or intelligent readers, people whose judgement I trust. Ask your readers specific questions, pointing them at the parts you want to work on and protecting the bits you know (in your heart of hearts) you will never change. Ask for positive feedback as well as a critique. Your readers should not be proofreading (unless your writing is unreadable because of grammatical or spelling errors). Proofreading comes right at the end of the process.
  • Read your feedback, then put it away for several weeks and read it again. Remember to thank your readers and buy them tea and cake (or similar). Make a list of the parts of your work which you are going to work on. Re-write. Re-read.
  • At this point you could well be ready to self-publish or submit. If you are self-publishing, and can afford it, pay for a copy editor and a proof reader. If you have to choose, pay the proof reader, it’s nigh on impossible to proof read your own work. If you are submitting, you can probably do your own proof read, and the copy editing will come once your manuscript is accepted.

Here is some further advice from author Lisa O’Donnell on the Curtis Brown Creative site: https://bit.ly/2OBR4Pw

I believe in my method. However, there are times when needs must. I am submitting a novella to the Mslexia competition and the deadline is the 1st of October. I am re-writing as I go and I can smell the burning of crunching gears.

What’s your advice for re-writing?

The Writing Journal

Writing in my journal by a Norwegian lake

I have been keeping writing journals for over ten years now and recently I spent many happy hours reviewing them. The result is a list of ideas and kernels of pieces of writing which should keep me going for the next ten years!

I’ve been writing since I was 19, so I’ve had the habit of writing regularly for over thirty years. oftentimes in notebooks and/or in diaries. I didn’t commit to the idea of a writing journal until I returned to the UK after a spell working abroad for an anti-poverty non-profit. In many ways, I can see the commitment to my writing journal as also a commitment to accepting myself as a writer – rather than waiting for some kind of external ratification of me as a writer. I began to say (when asked) ‘I am a writer’. I dedicated time and space to writing and further developing my craft, even though there was little endorsement from the publishing industry.

During the last ten years I have taught creative writing (for the University of Hull) and run numerous workshops. The first thing I always encourage people to do is to start keeping a writing journal. For me, this is a special notebook. It is 15 by 21 cms, so relatively portable. It has no lines to cramp my writing into going in a particular direction or being of a particular size. The paper is relatively thick (the notebooks I use are sold as sketch books) which means I can sketch if I like, use watercolour pencils and oil pastels and stick things in without spoiling the page surfaces for writing. I date every entry. Entries might include: very personal reflections on how I am feeling or what I’ve been doing; musings on being a writer; scrappy thoughts on writing pieces to be developed; beginnings, middles, ends (in no particular order); observations on the world around me; quotes; poetry (written by others and me); images such as postcards; cuttings from newspapers and magazines; bits of information gleaned from the TV, the internet, radio, other people….

I am wedded to a writing journal and hand-writing. It works for me. I do believe there is something exceptional about ‘free writing’ – which I have written about elsewhere eg writing the therapeutic journey – done with a pen. I think it is a way of unearthing what is below the surface of conscious thought and of circumventing the many ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ which a lot of us carry around.

However, I could see for other people a writing journal might be, for example, a folder on the computer; a box file; or a filing cabinet drawer. The main thing is that it should only be used for gathering inspirations for writing, it should be added to regularly and that it should be away from prying/judging eyes.

Over time the writing journal will become a treasure trove to be mined, especially, but not only, when a writer is feeling depleted and de-motivated.

I am currently reading Deborah Levy’s essay Things I don’t Want to Know. I was charmed to find her mentioning her writing journal. She notes how descriptions she had written of the cabin crew on a LOT fight to Poland in the late 1980s ‘morphed into nurses from Odessa’ in a novel she was to write a decade later.

Nothing written in a writing journal is ever lost, it will always pop up somewhere or become a scaffold for some piece of creative work.

Which is why, whenever I am asked by someone about where to start with writing I suggest a journal. If a person can commit to writing in one of those habitually, then there is a chance they will realise their ambition of writing stories or poetry or a novel or a non-fiction book or even a series of blog posts.

What is your experiences of keeping a writing journal?

Memoir

This is not where it starts….
I have always enjoyed reading biographies and allowing life to inspire my fiction writing, but recently I have begun to explore more deeply what might loosely be termed life-writing.

Biography, autobiography and memoir are all developing forms which intersect and interweave. Here are some of the aspects I’ve noticed in my recent reading. Firstly, the biographer coming more prominently into the biography. There is often an explanation about why the subject of the biography was chosen and about the connections between the lives of biographer and subject. It is probable, in my opinion, that knowingly or unknowingly a biographer chooses a subject which holds up some kind of mirror to the biographer’s own experiences.

Technically a memoir focuses onto a contained aspect/theme within (rather than the whole of) a life, and the autobiography does the opposite. It’s occurred to me at this moment that I don’t actually read a lot of autobiographies. This genre appears cluttered by those from celebrities which can err on the sycophantic and name-dropping. Memoir on the other hand seems to be more open to the quirky and the off-beat. It also strides hand in hand with nature writing, travelogues and books about walks and journeys, which feeds into other interests of mine (see posts: https://bit.ly/2sEHamp & https://bit.ly/2JGfZyD).

A recent article in The Guardian by Alex Clark (23rd June 2018) suggests there is a new genre of autofiction. This purports to do two things:

  • bring the writer’s life into a novel.
  • Disrupt the idea of narrative and realism in the novel form. For example, by playing around with the narrative voice and the timeline and by speaking directly to the reader (thus making obvious the artifice of the novel).

I’m not convinced either of these are new, but perhaps putting them together is. Clark mentions in particular Crudo by Olivia Laing and Rachel Cusk’s Kudos. Clark suggests this ‘new’ approach to novel writing is trying to ‘find a new way to describe reality at a time when, as Kathy says in Crudo, it is “hard to talk about truth” and perhaps even harder to write it.’ As well as attempting to echo the ‘now’ of social media and also its propensity to encourage its users to ‘present’ an image of themselves.

Clark also suggests autofiction ‘speaks to the idea that to capture 21st-century experience writers must breach borders – blend fiction, memoir, history, poetry, the visual and performing arts.’

This is where it starts….
I’ve recently read Charlotte by David Foenkinos, a novel based on the life of the artist Charlotte Salomon. It is written in narrative verse, quite terse and without the descriptive passages which punctuate most novels. It took a while to get used to, but in the end I found it very moving. Charlotte herself created her own autobiography, Life? Or Theatre?, an artwork of over seven hundred scenes mixing images and text. It finishes with the words, ‘I was all the characters in my play. I learned to walk all the paths. And in that way I became myself.’

As she knew she was about to be picked up by the Nazis, Charlotte handed over her artwork in a suitcase to a doctor who had helped her. As she did so, she said, ‘It is my whole life.’ The suitcase was not opened until after the Second World War ended. Charlotte was killed in 1943 aged twenty-six within an hour of arriving at Auschwitz.

I think maybe Salomon knew about autofiction before the rest of us.

Or maybe it starts here….
A sculpted pair of arms made of bronze in a glass case in an art gallery in a small seaside town and the accompanying explanatory label. This led me to read A Great Task of Happiness. The life of Kathleen Scott by Louisa Young. Or a painting in another provincial art gallery of a woman of Asian origin, who was both goddaughter to Queen Victoria and a suffragette. This led me to read Sophia: princess, suffragette, revolutionary by Anita Anand.

Maybe this is where all writing starts…. curiosity.

Meanwhile here is a memoir by a fifty-three year old woman: