Monday, 19 February 2018

Staying sane in the world of writing

I have the magazine Mslexia to thank for what I am about to write. Firstly, for their article in Issue 76 entitled What's the Point and secondly for mentioning a workshop in their email little ms which, when I clicked on it, I knew was just what I needed. I signed up for the workshop, the title of which is the heading to this post!

Since the New Year I have been rather at sea in my direction as a writer and the article What's the Point spouted all the things I'd been spouting recently. It made me feel better to know I'm not the only one (even though I already knew that). This article was a move in the right direction for me and offered some good tips. Even though I am not writing anything new and have felt a little half-hearted about things I have started editing some of the stories I wrote in November during NaNoWriMo.

I have been looking forward to the upcoming workshop (even rather excited!) over the last few weeks and on Saturday I set off to City Lit in London hoping to leave rather saner! I did.

There is much written about how to write, how to look for opportunities, draw up your perfect pitch. Follow the rules of the trade and when you get rejected just keep going. I know how difficult it is and I know everyone suffers in the aftermath of rejection but little is said about how to deal with that rejection, how to cope with those feelings that eat away at you until you feel worthless as a writers. Of course there are those who bounce back time and time again and carry on once a short period of anger and reflection pass. I thought I'd become that person. I thought I'd learned to deal with it and then last year I hit rock bottom. I know I've talked about this before and I think it is important because sometimes (as I learned) these feelings are deeper than we may realise and come from way back in our life.

Our tutor for the day was Helen Cox, a writer traditionally published as well as self publishing her books. She's been through this stuff herself and she had lots of good advice to offer. We were a small group - just five - so lots of things specific to each of us was covered. We began with a short exercise working in pairs (I worked in a three). Each group was given a small piece of sea washed glass and we had to discuss what it might have been originally and where it might have come from. Then we were given two sheets with ideas and background to the North Sea and the River Thames and a poem by E.E. Cummings. With a set of questions to work through we began to write together the journey of the piece of glass. We could use our own location (rather than from the sheets) which my group did. Afterwards we fed back what we had written. Helen then asked us what we got out of the exercise of working together and wrote on the white board what she had heard come out of it like collaboration, ideas, planning, using our experience etc. She advised us to always start with something comfortable to us and then branch out - do research, break the rules. Writing, she said was a joint effort between yourself and the universe (or world). She also said that it was best not to return to new writing before two weeks, then edit. To always write playfully and not to keep reading back and editing as we went as that holds up the writing process and imagination.

We talked about validation of our writing. Why was important to be published? Everyone agreed that it was an approval of our writing ability. We had long discussions about this! It seemed all five of us had similar feelings with not being good enough, that what we wrote might be rubbish and the only way we would think otherwise was to be published. I know it sounds silly and I know this is wrong but deep inside us those negatives feed and that little voice in your head tells you this time and time again when you work get rejected.

Helen took us through a few writing ideas to help us with some recommendations and then asked us to write a sort of autobiography of our writing life after which we either shared the whole piece or a part of it with the group. I have to say it was revealing and quite emotional. Helen also read hers and admitted that what came out was quite different to what she thought she would write. In a small group we bared our souls. We were given three headings - fears, villains and commitments. We had a few minutes to write things under those headings. These were not for sharing. Helen recommended reading author's biographies and particularly Sylvia Plath's Journals.

Tips for writing were similar to those I'd come across before but her advice on backstory I found really useful as one of my novels desperately needs the backstory sorting out, or as Helen says, drip fed into the story through dialogue and/or internal thought.

Getting out of the negative feedback hole was next. This was so helpful as Helen gave us specific ways to deal with this through something she calls Mind Talk which includes acknowledgement, questioning, walking away for a few minutes and talking it through with a trusted friend. One of the great pieces of advice was to write a timeline of all the things you have done to get you where you are today and even to chronicle that rejection in a story using those feelings and experience in a positive way.

We were close to the end of the day as the last long writing session was given. We had twenty-five  minutes to write a letter to ourselves answering the specific questions Helen had written up. The letter was not be opened for six months! In our pairs we talked about the friendly advice to ourselves (the last question on the list). Earlier we had each made a commitment to our writing (during the writing time using the three headings) and we now told the class what that was.

There was a final summing up with ideas of places to find public readings, social media etc. and a short film from YouTube featuring a talk by the author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) which was both amusing, insightful and positive.

There were two other texts we looked at - one Helen had written herself. It's tongue-in-cheek, very amusing about the world of rejection. The other was an extract from Confessions of a Story-teller by Paul Gallico. Asked afterwards what we thought of what he said we all agreed that it was comforting to know that even a famous author still had all the same fears we had. So, if he had them it was something that never went away however successful you are.

This was a wonderful workshop and indeed it lived up to everything I hoped for. It was soul searching, emotional but having strategies to fight against the negatives is a great tool to possess. I think it should be taught in every creative writing course! I am very grateful to Helen for helping me get back my sanity in the writing world.


  1. What a good write-up, Heather! It really absorbed me. And what a good workshop, by the sounds of it. I've never done one before, and never really expected a workshop to focus on the emotional aspects of writing/rejection. I've been feeling similarly to you, recently, so I understand, 100%. It's clear that all us crazed writers are just the same. Incidentally, I read (in Mslexia, I think) about how different male & female writers are in their emotional reactions to these sorts of issues. (You probably read it too.) Men are infinitely more confident than us, more bounce-back-laughing than we are. They submit more readily and have more faith in their work. We need to try to be hardier, but it's frigging hard! I find the closer I get the harder I fall, so it keeps getting worse. I’m now wondering whether to give up and just paint instead. Sorry this is so long. It's an endlessly debatable subject/nerve you've hit. Well done! Let’s believe in ourselves. xxx

  2. Thanks for all your comments. Yeah believing in ourselves would help! Still working on that one. Men and women react differently over many tings so I guess it's not a surprise they are more confident. Incidentally there was one man in the workshop I attended, but then again I find most writer's groups are predominately women. I wonder if men think they don't need this type of thing and are happy to work alone. Considering there are so many male writers where are they all?