Today I woke up feeling very different to how I felt at the weekend. Saturday was a fabulous day writing-wise. I did a short story for an online flash fiction course, my regular blog post and a weekly flash competition and I went to bed really feeling like a writer! Today, however I have self-doubt. I’m not working for the next month so have planned to devote much of that time to writing yet I’m doubting whether I have what it takes to succeed, even though this year has been relatively successful for me so far.
My main obstacle has always been self-doubt. It’s plagued me in several areas of my life, but no more so than in writing. Writing is difficult – it’s demanding, competitive and it requires a huge amount of hard work, often for little or no reward, so it’s something you have to want to do very very badly in order to have any chance of success. It makes you wonder why anyone even bothers to try! And yet I know that it’s what makes me happy, what makes me tick. Being shortlisted or even long listed in a competition probably gives me more satisfaction than any other thing in life, and completing a good flash fiction piece or short story is such a wonderful feeling. At times like this, my self-doubt disappears and I feel a sense of connection with the world, a feeling that I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing with my life, and remembering this feeling this morning will go some way towards eliminating the doubt.
Another obstacle is procrastination, although I’m managing it better now. I think as writers, we sometimes wait for the best time to write a story, instead of just putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and getting it down. The worst thing about procrastination is that in the act of putting something off, you end up focusing on it even more to the extent that it preoccupies you, so obviously it makes sense to simply get on with the task in hand. I’ve noticed recently, now that I’m procrastinating less, that I’m much more prolific. I can think of ideas more quickly and once I’ve got a story out, I move onto the next one immediately. This approach will (I hope) eventually result in success!
As I’ve become more serious about writing, I’ve started experimenting with new genres. I began with short stories and features and then ventured into flash fiction and I’m currently taking an online flash fiction course with Kathy Fish, a well-known flash fiction writer.
I only started blogging this year and although not a genre as such, it’s a wonderful way to practice different types of writing while providing the opportunity to connect with other like-minded people in the blogosphere.
I’m also halfway through a novel, which I’m going back to next week. This is probably the genre which most overwhelms me, partly because of the length, but also because structure is not my strong point and I must admit to feeling slightly apprehensive at the prospect of organising such a long story.
Another thing I’d love to have a go at writing is haiku. I very much enjoy reading them – love the brevity and the unwritten meaning behind the words, and having spent some time in Japan, the genre resonates with me. In the book, ‘Writing and Enjoying Haiku: a Hands-On Guide,’ by Jane Reichhold, the author aims to show how haiku can
bring a centred calming atmosphere into one’s life, by focusing on the outer realities of life instead of the nagging of the inner mind
I’m hoping that writing haiku will therefore have both a positive effect on my emotional well-being, while helping me to improve skills of subtlety and word choice when writing.
A term coined by Arthur Quiller-Couch in a series of lectures (On the Art of Writing) he gave in 1916. The full quote is above.
‘Murdering your darlings’ refers to deleting every word that isn’t pertinent to the story, even those words or phrases that you’ve grown to love. It’s not at all easy to do, but I do believe it’s all about non-attachment and losing your ego!
I used to read and reread little phrases I’d included in stories, thinking how wonderful they were, but I look back at them now and cringe as they are real examples of ‘purple prose,’ aka navel-gazing rubbish! If I’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s to pare down the message to what really needs to be said. The purpose of writing a story is not to show the world how great your lexicon is, it’s to tell a story that people relate to and by using pompous vocabulary and taking twenty words to say something that can be said in five, the message is diluted and a chance for meaningful communication lost.
Once you’ve written your story, I think it’s important to let it rest for a while. It’s almost as if you’ve planted the seeds and now you have to let them get on with the business of growing. If you try and edit immediately after finishing the story, it’ll be very difficult because at this stage you’re too close to what you’ve written. You can’t ‘see the wood for the trees,’ as it were, (or words!), but by leaving your piece for a few weeks or even months, you will be able to see the story through fresh eyes, so when you return to it, you should have a much clearer idea of what needs to be changed.
I did this with a piece I wrote a while back. It was driving me crazy at the time as I was trying desperately hard to get it right, so I put it on a writers’ forum and absorbed the ideas proffered by the members; but then I started to struggle as I still couldn’t really understand what needed to be changed. I now feel ready to go back to it as my head is clearer.
I’m hoping this is the same with novel writing as I haven’t revisited my novel since I finished 50,000 words in November. There were bits of the story, especially near the beginning that I didn’t like too much at the time of writing, but now I feel it’s time to edit; enough time has passed!
There’s a well-known adage that you should write what you know, and I must admit, I find it easier in many ways to do this than write about something I have little experience or knowledge of. However, where it becomes difficult is where you want the story to deviate from what actually happened but can’t as it feels in some way wrong, as you feel as if you have to stay as close to the truth as possible.
I’m struggling with this at the moment as I’m writing a novel based on a past relationship. In my mind’s eye I see the man I’m writing about, and yet I know I need to develop the character somewhat, perhaps turning him into something he wasn’t in reality. I need to get to know him in a way I never did and I really find this a challenge, perhaps because of the complicated feelings I had towards him.
Writing what you know can also be difficult when writing about a trauma. I recently wrote a short memoir based on something which happened to me when I was a teenager. I realised when writing it that it had affected me so profoundly that in order to protect myself, I’d put up a kind of emotional barrier and it took me a while to get close enough to the MC to be able to produce a meaningful story. There was initially too much psychic distance, and also as the event in question had taken place so many years before, the memories I had were sketchy at best so I had no choice but to invent some. I’d be interested to know how others approach memoir writing.
What i”ve realised since I started writing is that when you get a flash of an idea, you need to write it down immediately. If you don’t it’ll vanish into the ether, never to be seen again. You always think you’ll remember it but you seldom do.
Last night, in the middle of the night, I woke up with an idea. It was a mere seed of an idea but I knew that unless I got it down there and then, it would disappear, so I switched on my light, punched a few words into my phone, forgot about them and went to sleep. I discovered them the next day. It was a nice feeling as I’d totally forgotten that I’d even used my phone.
This harnessing of ideas, tying them down as it were, is merely the first step. The next is to jump straight in and write the story. I’ve kind of come to realise that as soon as you’ve got the idea, you have to write the story and not stop until it’s done. It’s all too easy to stop and correct what you’ve written, or change a few words for others, but if you do this in the early stages, it’s likely that you’ll mess up the flow. I firmly believe that you need to get the story down, as stopping will affect the quality of it. It’s tempting to correct as you go along but I don’t believe it’s the way to do it.
I think that the less you write, the more you wonder where successful writers get their inspiration. I always figured they were just more imaginative and creative than me, until ideas started coming to me and then I realised that it wasn’t so difficult to be inspired if you were curious about the world and if you’d cultivated the habit of being creative.
There’s a fantastic Ted Talk by Ken Robinson called Changing Paradigms where he speaks about the way we are educated. When we are very young, we play and are therefore allowed to express our natural creativity, but this disappears the more educated we become and Robinson puts this down to the effects of standardisation.
I must admit I always hated school, and it was probably for this reason. It didn’t help that I was quiet and shy and therefore misunderstood by most teachers. I found it difficult to learn as part of a group and it was only once I’d left school that I slowly started to be inspired by the world around me and that was when creativity truly began for me. We are all naturally creative but it’s something that can’t be taken for granted. As we grow older, it tends to fade as ‘real life’ takes over and we end up operating in a default mode, which doesn’t allow for ‘out of the box’ thinking.
Last year I did a mindfulness course and one aspect of mindfulness is curiosity i.e showing an interest in life and what’s going on around you. This necessitates fully engaging with the present moment and in so doing, you become inspired as a tiny, seemingly innocuous moment can provide sufficient inspiration for a poem, short story or piece of flash fiction.
I strongly believe that if you nurture your creativity, inspiration will follow and I’d recommend the following:
1/ Read a short story or chapter of a novel
2/ Watch an indie film or short film
3/ Visit an photography or art exhibition
4/ Participate in flash fiction challenges, especially those with prompts or themes.
I’m sure that if you try these things, ideas and words will naturally arise.
The great thing about regularly nurturing your creativity is that it has a domino-like effect. The more you create, the more easily you’re able to do it. 😀
Haruki Murakami is one of my favourite writers and someone who has influenced me a great deal. I’d like to think he’s had an effect on my writing, but I wouldn’t be so bold; however, he has encouraged me to experiment with magic realism a little, as he does in much of his work. In fact, I think it’s due to the magic realism in his books, that I’ve ended up seeing the world slightly differently. He is such a clever writer that he is able to slip in certain details, which although quite odd, for some reason don’t feel out of place.
I used to live in Japan and reading Murakami’s novels enabled me to better understand the people I met there. The Japanese have a tendency to be closed, introverted people but Murakami brings out their quirks – he makes us realise how interesting everyone can be, not just those who broadcast their attractions to the world. I also feel I have quite a bit in common with him; we both love jazz, cats and long distance running, and I can’t help feeling that these seemingly disparate elements are all quite conducive to writing.
Murakami used to run a jazz bar in Tokyo called ‘Peter Cat.’ It’s been said that he’d come home in the early hours then sit at his kitchen table all night writing and this went on until he felt successful enough to leave his job. Murakami compares writing to jazz – the rhythms and sounds seem somehow to be comparable and this is discussed in Murakami and the Music of Words
Cats make regular appearances in his books, and many of them talk, while Murakami differentiates between stripy ones and black ones. Of course you get the feeling that it’s all a bit tongue in cheek, but it’s still pretty heart warming stuff that can make any cat owner feel even closer to their furry pet.
Murakami is also an obsessive marathon runner and runs almost every day. Indeed he wrote a great book about it – What I talk about when I talk about running. Running has always been a form of meditation in that it enables me to clear my head in order to create, and I guess it’s the same for Murakami.
If you haven’t read anything by this great writer, I’d recommend that you start with Norwegian Wood which was also made into a film, and 1Q84 (Q sounds like ‘kyu,’ which in Japanese means ‘9’ – i.e. 1984, only it’s every so slightly different – read it and see!)
My A to Z Challenge theme is rather broad – anything to do with my writing practice really; be it the peaks, troughs or simply the things which have made a difference. Today I want to extol the virtues of having a cat and the effect it has had on my writing!
Last October after much deliberation, I decided to buy a kitten (Polly). I would have got one much earlier but for the fact that I live in a top floor flat with no garden access and I wasn’t sure whether it would be cruel to keep a cat indoors. Anyway, I went ahead in the end and have no regrets whatsoever.
Having Polly has grounded me, fulfilled (in part!) my maternal instincts and also helped immensely with my writing. Before I got her I socialised a lot and spent few evenings at home, and yet I continued to have this aching feeling that I needed to be in solitude as I wanted to develop my writing. I suppose by going out so much, I was running away from what I now feel I was born to do, partly out of fear that I wasn’t good enough and so I’d be wasting my time, and also because I recognised the amount of work involved, and wasn’t sure whether I was up to it. Now, however; I no longer feel that way. When I see Polly sitting all Zen-like on her kitten tree, it makes me want to slow down and spend time with her. Now I like nothing better than to open my laptop and get going on a short story, piece of flash or blog post, with her snoozing nearby.
My way of life has changed significantly over the last few months and even though I’ll never stop socialising, my priorities are definitely different now, and Polly has helped a great deal.