Category Archives: the joy of writing

keeping it fresh

pink tulip flowers under white clouds blue skies at daytime

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On the weekend, I joined an online workshop run by Caoilinn Hughes (author of Gathering Evidence, Orchid and the Wasp & most recently The Wild Laughter) as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. It turned out all participants, myself included, were emerging writers at most; several participants hadn’t yet started writing, but were hoping the workshop would get them motivated. When I heard this, I thought perhaps the content would be too basic. I wondered if I would learn anything new, since I’ve been writing and attending workshops for several years now.

I was completely wrong. The workshop sparkled with new information and advice, and I found myself scrambling to write it all down. But one tip stood out above the others.

Avoid cliches.

I thought I’d learnt this already. But when Caoilinn gave a few examples, my toes curled in recognition (hmm, is this a cliche too?). She warned against the old, hackneyed ways of showing what our characters are feeling – he bit his lip, she clenched her fists, he raised his eyebrows. Caoilinn Hughes suggested we try something different. Steer away from familiar, well-worn phrases.

And I realised that eliminating cliches, as much as possible, is what I need to do next to become a better writer. And that after that, there will be something else that needs addressing. And then another way to progress. And though I’ve known this a long time, I was reminded yet again that the writing life will be a constant process of learning and levelling up.

I find that daunting in some respects. It’s exhausting to think of always striving, never quite reaching a goal. But in other ways, the thought is exhilarating. To know that writing is a lifelong pursuit, that there is no ending besides our own deaths, that we will forever be discovering, examining, imagining and improving. It seems a thrilling and remarkable way to spend our days.

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writer’s block – causes and treatment

typewriter

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Let me preface this by saying I just liked the medical sound of that title. I’m not a writing doctor. However, I am an expert in getting writer’s block.

Writer’s block seems to arrive on my doorstep with such regularity that I’m much calmer about it these days. Instead of freaking out and thinking ‘I’ll never write another decent story again’, I now sigh with recognition and say ‘Heyyy, maaaate’ as writer’s block pushes past me and into the house.

I’m currently stuck mid-story (what a surprise and how unusual), so I decided to brainstorm all the reasons I know for writer’s block. I hope you’ll find something here that helps.

Reasons for writer’s block/Possible solutions:

Our health needs attention.
We need sleep, food, exercise, or fresh air. We need to take time off until we’re over an illness or injury. We need to slow down because of a chronic illness or disability. We need interaction with others, for our mental health. We crave the comfort of writers who understand and can suggest solutions.

We’re distracted.
We’re scrolling this, skim reading that. We sit to write and then get up two minutes later for a snack, a toilet break, anything but keeping bum on chair. If we don’t focus on our work for a decent amount of time, we can’t explore the work in depth.

We’re too impatient.
We want the entire chapter/poem/story/essay to emerge in two or three sittings. But our minds don’t always work like this (mine almost never works like this). A piece must unfold at its own pace. It might reveal itself day by day—as we shower, walk, sweep the kitchen floor. Contemplation is writing.

We’re trying to shove a pumpkin into a cocktail glass.
The fit isn’t right between idea and form. That powerful blast of emotion might be a poem, not an opinion piece. The space station comedy might be a novella not a short story. A painful memory might be best expressed through fiction.

The idea needs more.
It needs strengthening, modifying, layering. We’re writing about an older woman who keeps 33 cats and plays Elvis Presley all day but it’s lacking something. We haven’t revealed her hidden past, or introduced the young neighbour blasting Amyl and the Sniffers, or sent a flood that isolates the woman and her cats.
I sometimes use paper and pen to write a question in big letters, then draw arrows from the question, spouting multiple answers. Outrageous, sensible and plainly stupid answers. Just lots of them is key. One will often point the way forward. (Credit for this strategy goes to Jaclyn Moriarty, who described it in a workshop I attended a few years ago)

We don’t know our characters well.
What are their quirks, how old are they? What’s their occupation? Who are their loved ones? And of course the big questions—What’s their secret fear? and What do they desperately want?

We don’t know the setting well.
This is one is easy to neglect. When I need clarity, I use Google Earth, read about the place, look at images online. For places that exist in my imagination, I might draw mud maps and sketch floor plans so I can ‘see’ the places as my characters move about.

Our self-critics are poking up their ugly heads.
It’s important to banish that tall, sneery, pasty-faced inner critic (okay that’s my inner critic, feel free to picture your own) as our first draft emerges. We need to tell our inner critics to piss off (a technique I first heard from Edwina Shaw at a QWC workshop). For now, we’re just getting down words. We can add, cut, rearrange and refine later.

Forgetting joy.
We write because we love it. We choose and order words and ta-da!—we’ve created a poem, an essay, a novel, a play. A short story, screenplay, memoir piece or work of non-fiction. What a magical and powerful act.
It helps to remember joy. ❤️

 

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Obsessions

It occurred to me the other day that my writing is fuelled by obsessions.

I read about the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79AD, and was fascinated by the stories revealed in Pompeii digs. How plaster casts made by filling up holes in the solidified volcanic debris show a man protecting his pregnant wife, the folds in her robes still distinct. The discovery this year of several skeletons huddled together in the central room of a newly excavated house in Pompeii, possibly a family hoping to escape the pyroclastic flow. After reading extensively, I wrote a story about a man with the same fascination.

Last year I watched a documentary about a Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints community in Utah, where each man had more than one wife, and I became obsessed with finding out more. How did these families work? What did the wives really think about this?  I read multiple articles and interviews, researched a specific community and used Google Earth to ‘roam’ around that town. I read more about FLDS beliefs. Then I wrote a story about a second wife getting ready to meet the third wife.

It seems to me that curiosity is so important in any writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, fantasy or realism. What happened? What might have happened, in such a place or time? Who is that person, and how would they act? And if we develop brief preoccupations in the process, I think these are good—powering our writing and imbuing it with the bright sharpness of our excitement.

Current obsession—caving. Tight squeezes, some underwater.

 

 

 

 

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breaking the drought

I read this morning that Jacob M Appel won the 1998 Boston Review short fiction prize with a piece that had previously been rejected by 75 literary journals. 75! I don’t know if I’m more amazed his story won the prize after such a chequered history, or at the fact Appel had the determination and conviction to submit his story so many times. He must have had faith in his own writing, and really believed that rejections often come down to a matter of taste.

I’m not going to lie, 2016 has been a lean year for me, writing-wise. Not in terms of the actual writing. I’ve been inspired, had ideas, and stories have come streaming out in various shapes and sizes, but I’m talking external validation here. Competition wins, or publication. I kept wryly telling friends and family who asked that I was ‘having a bit of a dry spell’. I told them I was writing plenty, but had no exciting news. I began to be impressed by my lack of achievement.

I received a few rejections, including a couple of pleasant, personal ones, but most of my stories are still with the journals I submitted to earlier this year (3 months ago, 5 months ago, 7 months ago, 8 months ago, even one piece that has been sitting comfortably on Submittable for an impressive 11 months). All of these stories are ‘in progress’ and most have been for a few months. I wondered if that meant anything good – the fact that the stories had been ‘opened’ and not rejected yet – but when I googled the topic, it seems a number of literary journals, being swamped with submissions and understaffed, don’t ever actually get around to ‘rejecting’ the piece you send. So ‘in progress’ on submittable may just mean no one has found time to send you the form rejection email. Gulp.

But last week, I finally had an email from a fiction editor, asking if a story was still available. The journal wants to publish it.

I may have cried. I may have done a little shuffling dance in my pyjamas. I may have felt that finally, finally, after a year of thanks but no thanks and a year of waiting and waiting for replies that may never come … that finally one of my stories will again be going out into the world.

I’ve said it before – writing is a mug’s game. We toil and doubt and wait and are rejected. But we do it because we love it, and because we want to share our words with others. And when we get an acceptance, even just one in an entire year of writing, it’s all worth it. Every heartbreaking, exhausting, exhilarating moment.

 

 

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owls that come from nowhere

I realised today that birds almost always appear in my stories. Birds call, hop and peck, or even swoop past in the night (like the owl in my latest story). But I never plan it. I never think to myself, ‘O-ho, I might just stick a bird in here. Yes, perhaps a magpie.’ It’s not like that at all. The bird just appears.

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Thinking about the birds got me pondering just how much I love writing (when I’m not hating it, that is). I love the fact that I sit down with only the vaguest idea what I’m going to write about, and then characters appear and do things, and even birds arrive and do birdlike things. It’s like a movie the way it all pans out. And once I’ve worked on a story for awhile, it becomes so real and true in my head, I almost believe it all actually happened (I don’t truly believe it; I’m not crazy. Or so I tell myself).

So I’m wondering if other writers have recurring creatures or objects? I don’t mean themes or topics, I mean the weird mouse that’s always in the corner or your characters forever eating cheese. What is your ‘bird’? I’d love to know.

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