Monday, 30 January 2012

Tired and emotional writers - the rollercoaster of writing retreats

I stared at teasels a lot at Totleigh Barton

 Why is going on a week-long residential writing course always such an emotional experience? Every time I go on one of these, I return home feeling as though I have been turned inside out, and then the skin put back on the bones slightly differently from how it was before.

This isn’t anything like the feeling of being flayed by criticism of your writing. Even if the key moments on a writing course have been elation, revelation, epiphany; light bulbs pinging brighter than ever before and sudden, joyous glimpses of the way through the forest, there is always a strange settling of the dust afterwards that unsettles the soul.

Perhaps it is to do with shock. Your writing trajectory turns from a plod to a hurtle, there are too many realisations to process all at once, and the brain goes into lockdown while it deals with it all. In the end this will result in better writing, but the waiting phase is hard.

There is also the sense of having been plunged for five days into a writer’s paradise of likeminded people, attentive tutors, a bottomless biscuit tin and a room where the only disturbance is birdsong or rain spattering the windowsill. It’s not sustainable; any more than a working week and you’d be turning fast into a pastry-dependent ball with trench foot and repetitive strain injury from typing. But even after five days it is a horrible wrench to leave that place. The aspects of life that are normally acceptable evils, such as work, shopping, and navigating non-writers, become affronts.

Having just returned from Arvon’s Totleigh Barton, I am in that uneasy purgatory, going the wrong way from writer’s heaven to real life. I know I am a better writer as a result, but I am too busy reeling to be able to apply what I have learned just yet.

I went on what Arvon call a ‘tutored retreat,’ during which two writers give each of their temporary disciples a half-hour tutorial each day, and in between we all write, drink, wander about talking to ourselves and take turns to cook enormous dinners. It’s astonishing what you can achieve with that kind of attention to your writing, in terms of insight; but it also makes you realise that time is an absolutely fundamental factor in progressing with your writing.

For example, a piece of constructive criticism may be spot on, articulating a problem in your work that deep down you had already recognised; but it is not always possible to make the required changes straight away. It’s as if your story has to rearrange itself in your subconscious, like a person turning in sleep, and once it has settled and the bed has adjusted around it you can write the new shape.

With only a few precious days to write, all the walking, staring into space and regular naps can feel like time-wasting, but they are just as vital a part of these courses as the tutorials. Leaving this haven feeling exhausted, it is a consoling certainty that your story will be turning, and the bed of your brain making its adjustments, for months afterwards.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

The river at Ty Newydd, National Writing Centre for Wales

There’s a Monday around this time of year that’s supposed to be the gloomiest day in the calendar, the day when the most people take sickies, worn down by the weather, alcohol withdrawal and the ocean of time before the next bank holiday. So, a Monday in January is a great day to be running away to a writer’s retreat, as I am doing.

Residential writing courses and retreats, as run by Ty Newydd in Wales and the Arvon Foundation at various locations, are wonderful things for lots of reasons. They’re not cheap, but easily justified when you compare the cost to a creative writing MA and consider what you can get out of them. The effects of a week with other writers, tutors, and the inside of your own head, uninterrupted by work, children, chores and a decent internet connection, are profound and long-lasting.

First of all, there’s the joyful shock of being surrounded by people who are as interested in writing as you are. You can talk about your passion, and those around you actually want to listen. They are sincere when they ask about what you write, how you work, may they read a sample, and you are feeding each other by having these conversations. In the company of people who care about writing, doubt about your path drifts away. Instead of imagining yourself a lone ranger in a world of people with more ‘grown-up’ priorities, you perceive the world as studded all over with as many hidden writers as there are stars in the sky; you just can’t see them in daylight. You are one of many, and that is immensely reassuring.

Then there’s the surprise at the range of individuals who are there with you, and the work they produce. Every time I go on one of these courses, I find my expectations dashed, and my faith in people’s imaginations restored. There are high flying careerists writing side-splitting humour, put-upon mothers churning out biting satire, little old ladies creating dark, violent fantasy worlds. It’s amazing, and again it works to remove worries about the disparity between your daily life and the world of your writing. You think, if they can do it, so can I; just get on with it.

And of course there is the invaluable input from the tutors themselves. You can’t guarantee you will find yourself being taught by your ideal mentor, but regardless, an experienced writer of any stripe has much to share, and without fail tutors on these courses have been incredibly generous with their time and wisdom. Months afterwards you will still be processing their lessons, finding ways to apply their suggestions, or just realising that your own way of writing is working for you and every writer is different. This latter is one of those slow-burning lessons that writing courses can bring, and it is just as good for you as any teacher’s tip. Having faith in your methods when they are working for you is a vital step in the move from being a wide-eyed pupil to feeling like a fledgling writer.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Writer's CV for beginners

Picnicking and writing your CV - both time well spent


I made a resolution somewhere around September 2011 – not conventional I know, but the New Year’s ones get broken so easily – that by the end of 2012 I would have a writer’s CV with some stuff on it that actually counted.

It’s a shame that you can’t list the number of words you have churned out, or the total submissions you have made, since these are achievements in themselves – especially when you are starting with a blank page. So I went at the submissions hammer and tongs and, along with a sprinkling of luck and willing, it did pay off. 

While I waited for rejection letters, I thought, beyond all the pieces produced that don’t get published, what about all the ideas a creative person has? My father says (and I believe him) that he has about ten times more ideas for sculptural work than he can actually produce, which is surely a good sign. However, listing the unwritten novels and short stories in my head would look pretty insane on a list of writerly achievements. As would pointing out that I don’t believe in writer’s block (yet) – something that might matter to an agent if they were hoping for a steady stream of work.

I’m still at the early stages, with only a few bits and pieces published or forthcoming, which makes me wonder about how much ‘other’ information to include on something like a writer’s CV. If you are only just breaking into the world of published words, should you include a few sentences on what else you have got up to in life? Should you mention pieces that have been long-listed but not made the final cut?

There aren’t that many writers amongst the millions who can claim to make even half a living from just writing, so there’s a lot of other earning activity going on, probably largely unglamorous. But then a writer’s CV isn’t about proving an employment history; rather it’s meant to demonstrate that you mean business with your writing, and at least a few people in the world are taking you seriously.

Agents and publishers aside, it’s immensely satisfying to compile a list of more than two when it comes to pieces of writing that have made it out into the big bad world. Nobody has asked me for my writer’s CV yet, but updating it spurs me on. Each added line feels like a vindication of writing in the first place, and that’s a valuable thing to have.

So, good luck to everyone trying to get published, or doing it themselves, in 2012. Also a big congratulations to my friend Mark at Views from the Bike Shed, whose first book will come out later this year. That’s a gold star at the top of your writer’s CV!

Friday, 6 January 2012

The imp of creative self-sabotage

My brother kindly acting out a scene in my novel

Surprise, elation, apprehension, distress, profound inebriation, acute hangover. That was pretty much the order of internal states for me, the first time my creative writing was published. I’m over it now, but it wasn’t the smug fun I thought it would be.

The surprised feeling was sustained throughout. I was startled by the sinking feeling that engulfed me, and by the abject horror I felt when I saw my words in print and pixels. Why wasn’t I happily directing all and sundry to read my stories, now they were out there? After all, I blab away on this blog regularly and even filled up every day of November with an often hastily produced piece of creative writing, without giving it a second thought. I was excited when I got my first acceptance email. Something went wrong, not in the process of getting into print, but in my head.

The prime suspect in this mental fray is the internal success-avoider. Many creative people seem to have one of these invisible imps lurking behind their apparent desire to get their work out into the world. It’s that undermining force that makes you forget to contact people who would be interested in, and useful for, your artistic progress. It’s the curse that you believe holds sway over you, preventing you from ever completely finishing a story, sculpture or sketch, lest it then be ready for inspection by others. It’s the wheedling voice that persuades you to give up on something because it’s not good enough, even though time and editing could turn it into something powerful.

When I whinged pathetically to a friend about my misery on being published, she theorised that it was a bit like letting a child go off into the world that you have nurtured, and the pain of relinquishing control. The published story (in my case) takes on a life of its own, and with each different reader, becomes a slightly different story depending on how they interact with it. If you can’t determine any longer who sees your work, you can’t even begin to guess what your story is becoming in the hands of strangers.

It didn’t feel quite like that to me, though I have no children with whom I might blithely compare my stories. Anyhow, I have cut the apron strings thanks to the realisation that nothing much happens when your work gets out there. People (possibly) read it, have some thoughts of their own, probably forget it, and you can get on with writing something else.

This was a very round-about way to state somewhere other than in my head that on Saturday 7th January an excerpt of my unpublished novel The Tarney Scalp will be in The Times online, along with chunks of the fifteen others shortlisted for The Times/Chicken House children’s fiction competition. It’s the ultimate in letting go: I have no idea which tiny section of my novel will be out there for all to see, how it will reflect on the rest of the book, nor how it will compare to the other candidates. It’s terrifying, but I know it’s good for me. Fingers crossed it isn’t that bit about the raw chicken, or the bit about the headmaster, or the bit about the mermaids... Well, I’m trying.