Sunday, 7 September 2014

What Am I Doing Here?

It's a question I ask myself more often than I'd like to admit, especially at this time of year - trying to get back into some kind of routine after the summer holidays. In the supermarket, in meetings, finding myself at a desk gazing at columns of data wondering about the characters behind the numbers. Not to mention arriving at the top of the stairs, KNOWING there WAS a reason for the climb just not quite able to recall what that might have been. Just me? I'm guessing not ...

About the only time I'm thoroughly safe from this existential angst (or age related short term memory fail) is when I'm in my writing groups. There I am so thoroughly immersed ... So completely and utterly absorbed in the fun of being creative ... Liberated.

We had our fist JustWrite session in Chorlton a couple of weeks back. A taster session, through which we hoped to generate some interest and enthusiasm and capture a few interested people to sign up to the monthly sessions. Reader, we were overwhelmed. People, wonderful writerly people just kept arriving. I always take at least twice as much stuff as I imagine I might need when I'm leading anything ... But fast thinking to adjust plans was required when we realised just how many there were. 28 of us in total. The fabulous staff at the Cafe who had stayed to join in didn't get the chance to sit down once. By the time they'd served free coffee and cake, danced around me to clear it away, served break time refreshments. There just wasn't time for them to think. They were VERY gracious. The success of the night definitely down to team work ... ALL the team at the cafe and all of the enthusiastic writers who came willing to give it a go. And with all the activities, and refreshments, and getting to know each other - there wasn't time for any of us to wonder, or even care WHAT we might be doing there, we were simply too busy - too busy doing writing, being writers.

The only way to get better at writing is to WRITE ...
'Exercise the writing muscles everyday, even if it's only a letter, notes, a title, list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes, without that exercise, the muscles seize up.'  
Jane Yolen
BUT, as anyone who has ever seated themselves with a blank sheet of paper, a pen/keyboard, and writerly ambitions will appreciate - Knowing what to write can be really hard.
'The root problems of the writer are the personality problems ... The writer's demon is imprisoned by the various ghosts in the unconscious.'
Dorothea Brande
Brande's argument that the aspiring writer must, over and above everything, invest time into building confidence as a writer, build respect for themselves as writers and thereby become liberated TO write, is as compelling today as it was when her book was first published in 1934. It doesn't sound quite so original now of course, there's LOTS of compelling arguments made to bully encourage writers to write. #JustWrite! 
Some people don't need this, of course. Some people do JustWrite, confidently, successfully - I am both fascinated and a little jealous of such people in much the same way as I am about people who are naturally slim. 'Oh you can eat anything, how lovely ... No, you don't think so? You think that's normal? Oh ...' Meanwhile I manage to catch fat from cake by walking past it ... Reader, I never walk past cake ... BUT since I've been writing everyday, since I've been building my confidence as a writer, given myself permission to have-a-go, my writing is better.
What I'm doing at the writing groups is making sure we all have lots of ideas for our writing. Our sessions are all about trying out lots of exercises to spark our writing brains into action, to inspire our creative ideas and enthusiasm so that when we sit down to write on our own we have more confidence to get us across the page, so that we build respect for ourselves as writers and feel liberated to write.
'The different ways inspiration occurs is a constant source of wonder, but it comes from engagement of one form or another, not from fretting over a blank page.'
Trish Nicholson
Happy writing ... 

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Reflection, Revelation, Resolution

It's that time of year again ... I am stocking up on beautiful note books, establishing pen reserves and neatly putting dates in my diary (and in my electronic diary ... and on the family calendar ... IS IT JUST ME?) Despite the *turn* in the weather it is (most definitely) still very much the summer but thoughts of September and the Autumn and the new school/work/university year are seeping in (*pledges to be MUCH more organised this year*)

This time last year I was thoroughly excited, if absolutely terrified, about starting my Creative Writing MA. Well I did start and I have (thus far - there's still a year to go!) survived. You don't need a formal academic qualification to be a successful writer, and having one is absolutely no guarantee of success, but for me the journey through the MA is giving me the structure I need to move forward with my writing:
  • deadlines I absolutely have to meet
  • regular required writing and sharing of that writing with other writers
  • regular feedback opportunities
  • access to writers, including a whole range of writers I might well have *missed* both in terms of my reading and the sessions at the University. 
It's the being part of another community of writers that I value most. There's something about being around other writers - be that in an actual room in an actual place or in a virtual space by way of a screen 
 - it's empowering, liberating, enriching. 

The MA has given me more confidence in engaging with different writing communities and no more so than earlier this year when, much to my surprise, they gave me a prize (Edgehill MA Short Story Prize) ... Reader, I was STUNNED!!!

Given that I LOVE being part of writerly-communities (you KNOW it makes sense to MAKE writerly-friends ...  LOTS of them) I'm very excited to be setting up some more. The Real-World groups I tried out in the Summer term are all set to continue. I'm particularly excited about the regular Sixth form group which will be part of the School's enrichment programme. I see LOTS of opportunities for fun with this one, and trips ... I definitely see the chance for trips!

I am also setting up a Teachers Writing group in collaboration with the Teaching School I work with. We're linking up with a National project - more on this soon. And I'm setting up a group at a friend's cafe - JustWrite in Chorlton. If you're anywhere nearby I hope you'll call in and say hello. 

There's a lot to think about ... a of dates for my diary ... now which pen should I use?

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Communication Conundrums

I recently completed Diploma in NLP. Neuro-Lingustic Programming is all about language and communication and the brain, how could I resist? The opportunity to study was presented as a development opportunity related to my Real-World-Job, and progression from a Leadership course I studied a couple of years ago. Basically NLP is about learning how to build rapport with people which is helpful when working with LOTS of different people. It is also VERY useful when writing stories - another fabulous thing about being a writer, as I am sure you will agree, is that almost anything we do in the world outside of writing feeds our writerly life (and not just the using of dull meetings as an opportunity to character sketch and establish victims of torture for your next story ... Oh I KNOW how you people work!).

NLP theory is contested by some and thoroughly embraced by others, I have really enjoyed my study and I've found it useful. As well as teaching us strategies for working more effectively with people, we have also explored a lot of different ways of understanding how different individuals see the world and themselves in it. It's fascinating stuff. When I was younger I thought it was just me that was a bit *odd*, as I've grown older and more confident I've decided it's not me it's everybody else! After studying NLP I realise it's all of us. The mantra used by our Instructor and key strand in NLP is 'We're all making it up, so we might as well make it up good.' This, of course feeds into the idea of there being no fixed points, especially in communication, everything we understand we do so because of our own perspective. 

The NLP model of communication states that all information we take in from the world passes through our personal 'filters' and is either Deleted (because it doesn't fit with what we *know* or want to know about the world), Distorted (because we take the bit of it we're interested in, the bit that's relevant for us and make it fit with what we *know*), or Generalised (because we like it and want to *know* it more). These 'filters' are essential to us. There is quite simply far too much information coming at us (at all our senses) for our brains to manage, thus our brain filters the input according to what's familiar and comfortable and matches our personal map of the world, and ignores the rest. Our personal map is made up of all our experiences and learning in the past. The map may change slightly with some of the new information coming in but in order for it to do so we have to be open to it. It's why people learn best when they've got a reason to learn. Students (of any age) learn better when they *buy into* why they're learning what they're learning. My most successful lessons on punctuation with any age group have always been based on having them write something for someone first and then re-craft the punctuation to enhance the message they are trying to get across to their reader. 

This NLP model helps us to understand why some people find the prospect of change so difficult. Some people are more comfortable with 'evolution' than 'revolution' - it means if we're introducing a new way of doing something, a new process, to our teams we probably need to stress how it's the SAME as what we already do, for some people to be open to it; and how it's completely DIFFERENT from what we already do, to get the other people to buy into it. 

I didn't say it was easy ... I just said it was interesting!

There are LOTS of these filters but what the course taught us was strategies for listening carefully to what people say, and how they say it, so we can quickly work out how they're making sense of the world (essential snooping ... research skills for any writer) and adapt our own language and behaviour to make them more comfortable with us. 

As ever with these things, the first (and not always comfortable) step is being honest about how we see the world personally and being open to change ourselves. NLP actually offers some really useful personal development tools - should you wish to try them. I already have some very effective tools for that - cake/wine/coffee but it has given me more strategies for thinking about my writing and my possible readers.

I struggle (as regular visitors will be all too aware) with conflict in my writing and tend to fix things before they become an issue (which is how tend to operate in the Real-World) but if I have two characters; a husband, who loves DIFFERENT and a wife that loves SAME - reader I have a conflict! 

It also works for thinking about how readers might respond - some readers will sympathise with one character, some with the other, depending on where they're most comfortable on that spectrum. 

The thing that has struck me most from studying NLP? I am amazed any of us manage to ever make sense of each other given the range  and complexity of the filters at work. It's also made me more cautious. You know when you get feedback on your writing, about that REALLY OBVIOUS BIT, that someone claims doesn't work? It might not for them ... you just need to work out if the person giving this feedback is in the minority or majority of your ideal readership ;@

Happy writing. 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Seeking Out Other Writers

Whilst trying desperately to stay focused on my own writing (and mostly trying to FINISH stuff I've started on the MA), I am also working on a new venture. I am very fortunate that my 'Real World job' (messing about in Secondary English teaching) affords some cross-over with my writing-life, and at the moment I am setting up some projects that will allow me to build on this.

This is all very distracting ... Or is it?

I've set up two writing groups so far. One with group of very enthusiastic yr8 students and one with an eager group of yr12 students. As most of you will realise, we're in the last few weeks of the school year but this is a great time to try things out with a view to establishing something more permanent in September. The groups are at different schools, there's no additional money to make this happen, it all needs planning for, and I still have time-consuming commitments related my key role ... But it's something I've thought long and hard about and I think I can make it work - got to be worth a try at least ...

The best bit? The VERY best bit? Gathering together with other writers and writing, of course.

What a thoroughly egalitarian activity writing is. How wonderful that when you get a group of enthusiastic writerly types together, regardless of age, experience or expertise - they enrich each other. As with any good teaching-type experience, I know I am benefiting as much from them as they are from me. I've got lots of ideas to get them writing, and I'm writing alongside them in every session.

My priority in the first instance has been to convince them to make a commitment to their writing. To write everyday. I know this was my first critical step into thinking of myself as a writer, and writing. I've shown them some of my (messy) notebooks. Of course I've not let them read them and I've promised them I will never read theirs. A writer's notebook is a private space.
'A notebook can be a clearing in the forest of your life, a place where you can be alone and content as you play with outrage and wonder, details and gossip, language and dreams, plots and sub-plots, perceptions and small epiphanies.' Ralph Fletcher
They're all very busy people of course but I've suggested that even just ten minutes everyday with their notebook will make a HUGE difference to how they think and feel about their writing and themselves as writers. In case they get 'stuck' I've given them some writing activities to try out. You can access this resource here: Being a Writer Prompts - you may find some of the ideas useful. I'm still wondering why I was so certain in the session on Friday that 'Love is orange'? I'd love to know what colour you or your writing buddies think it is.

We've got four packed sessions to go and in each group we are working towards publication. We are working towards having a finished piece of writing by the end of our brief diversion into writing to spur us on to making a longer term commitment. I did say I was learning as much from them as they are from me!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Although I have been VERY distracted from writing here, I have been very busy writing for my MA. I'm studying my Creative Writing MA part time, which means I will study over two years. The first of those 'years' is now finished - a university 'year' passing much more quickly than those outside of it

Certainly having an MA in Creative Writing is not a prerequisite for being successful writer, and no guarantee of it either, but it has given me a framework within which to explore my writing, and I've benefited hugely from the very generous support of my tutors and fellow students. I've had a fantastic time and I'm already looking forward to starting again in the Autumn - although I am most definitely looking forward to the rest of the spring and the summer in between

When I started out on this writing ramble, I worried I wasn't creative enough to generate enough 'interesting' ideas to actually write about. I now realise that having the confidence to play around with ideas is just the first step, one I've become really quite good at. However, it's not the ideas themselves but what I do with them that really makes a difference, and studying on the MA has helped me start to understand how I might shape my ideas, and it has forced me to actually commit and actually complete work on a number of them. 

I'm not heading for any kind of fame and fortune any time soon but I do feel like I'm making progress in my writing.

That first step - the generating ideas, was one that actually took me an inordinate amount of time. I think it's been about developing the confidence to have a go. It's also about starting to accept that playing around with pens and words is a legitimate activity, not only legitimate but one that must be prioritised. 

The next step? Knowing what to do with the ideas. Here's my biggest stumbling block *considers endless possibilities and never really executes a plan to the finish*. This is where the MA is definitely paying off. One - there's lots of exploration about how other writers shape their ideas; the choices they make and the impact that has. Two - because it has presented me with deadlines. We have had almost as many workshop sessions as 'input' sessions and we MUST submit for workshop. Further, a significant part of the formal assessment is based on our creative writing pieces. I have simply had to make choices, execute them and complete. It's not always been pretty but it has galvanised me into action and the pay off has been that it has allowed me to peek into my possibilities.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Mandatory Application

Greetings patient reader. I can assure you this past few weeks I have most definitely not been distracted from writing. The Creative Writing MA is working its magic demanding my focus on my writing, thus Mandatory Application (see what I did there?!).

Stephen Covey sums it up I think, and since spotting this (I'm always on the look out for an apt photo-quote) I've held it in my mind; used it to help me stay on track.

I think there are four different aspects to keeping focused on my writing - as well as NOT being distracted by other things:

1 - Reading as a Writer
This is something we get a lot of direction on during the MA. It's the BEST bit really. Obviously we writers LOVE reading, right! My favourite *work* right here. I still get to read LOTS, and widely.
Perhaps the downside is, the more I read the more I realise HOW MUCH there is TO read!
In order to get the most out of the MA study, my tutor advised me to focus on short fiction - giving me more opportunities to experiment. Also giving me lots of opportunities to discover works by my favourite writers that I haven't seen before because, before starting the course, I wasn't a big short fan.

2 - Reading to Inspire Writing
This covers a range of activities: reading my monthly subscription to Writing Magazine; reading blogs/books/posts about writing; reading books about writers; reading (and responding to) writing as a craft.
It's also about engaging with writers about their writing. The MA workshops mean I get to read and comment on the work of my fellow students and I'm more confident in reading the work of writer friends and giving honest feedback (and very grateful to get theirs on mine).

3 - Writing to Inspire Writing
I write everyday. Seriously, I STILL do this, I mentioned it to you just over a year ago here  and it absolutely works. I make notes, I play around with ideas. Sometimes I just make lists but whatever I am doing, I am WRITING and it works!

I know, talk about stating the obvious but I've had to draw this out as an aspect all of its own to stop myself doing anything but. This, for me is about actually writing the stories, getting them from ideas, through plans, to actual narratives. Getting better at this aspect has been about developing confidence. The MA has really pushed my hand in this - it requires the Mandatory Application of aspects 1 to 3 to make this work but it also takes a leap of faith in ourselves, and support from others.
Of course, along with confidence it takes motivation which is why I'm carrying this photo-quote around with me!

Of course there are no guarantees whatever we do ... but I'm thoroughly enjoying the *training*. 

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Battling Butterfly Brain

Greetings dear reader, if you've been here before you will know that my posts mostly concern discussions about the things that distract me from writing. Today I am happy to report that over the past few weeks I have not been distracted from writing; I've been utterly consumed by it.

Studying on the MA has really galvanised my thinking about myself as a writer and is keeping me VERY busy writing. The problem is THERE IS SO MUCH TO DO ALL OF A SUDDEN and I am so giddy about all of it, I struggle to focus on one thing without being distracted by all the other things.
We have a three hour session one evening a week. I spend at least another three hours going over my session notes and following up the notes I've made to myself during the session on points where I need further clarification or additional information. This worked out ok in the first few weeks but now we're getting down to serious business and the first assignment is due mid December - I have A LOT of notes for this but I'm not sure I have much of a clue on how to get from notes to something that looks anything like an academic essay.
This is where my butterfly brain kicks in.
There are three other assignments to complete for mid January, and there are regular workshops for which we each submit a piece for discussion. I am awash with legitimate busy writerly things to do and I flit and flirt from one to another, taking the best bits of what's there before moving onto the next.
What's that you say? Procrastination? How very dare you! I'm writing, I'm so busy writing, and thinking and writing about writing I'm NOT being distracted by other things - check out my recent activity on Twitter if you don't believe me! Talk to my neglected family and friends ... Give them my regards!
Sorry? A different kind of procrastination you say? Well ... Yes! *guilty as charged*
I have a strategy though, I'm treating each of the assignments as a 'project', including each of the MANY half finished potential workshop pieces. Obviously I've bought new folders! Each project is in its own folder and BEFORE I leave anything for something new (or to get on with my 'real' world stuff, which I APPARENTLY still have to do) I write myself a note of what I've done and what I need to do next. It's kind of working...
I have also had a VERY exciting *win* - I finally FINISHED a short story and I submitted it to my workshop group and I got GREAT feedback on it. This is THE FIRST PIECE OF ACTUAL WRITING I HAVE EVER FINISHED! It's also only the third time I've handed my writing over to be read (previous times were for York Festival and my MA application), I've even let some friends and family read it! This is a HUGE step for me, I know lots of you reading this will have LOTS more experience, and confidence, in your writing but for me, I feel like I've been through a metamorphosis ...