Thursday, 23 June 2011

Writers, Give Yourselves a Break!

A couple of weeks ago I spent a fantastic weekend holed up in an ancient cottage in the Yorkshire Dales. My companions were five other writers - talented, funny, warm and thoroughly good company, every last one of 'em.

Our mission was simple: write stuff, critique stuff, gorge ourselves on cake and excellent home cooking, wash it all down with lashings and lashings of wine, and then launch into a nightly no-holds-barred, to-the-death "Articulate" grudge match.

It was great fun, and I got a lot out of it in terms of finding proper focus for my writing. The pieces I submitted for critiquing were old, and in some ways I felt I was doing both them and myself a disservice by not offering up something a bit fresher. The problem is that with very small chunks of free time available, I have struggled to produce much in recent weeks (if not months), so I've been digging up old stuff to edit and buff up - in the hope that it will at least keep whatever part of my brain generates fiction ticking over for the time being. Getting together with fellow writers has reminded me that we all have our obstacles in the way of sitting down and bashing out words, and that the only person who can do anything about it is me.

I drove back home with a much more determined head on, and I have so far written a couple of new, short pieces that I'm pleased with. So, if your writing could do with a boost, and you know of a few like-minded individuals, then round them up and get yourselves off to somewhere remote. You won't regret it. Unless they turn out to be axe murderers. You should probably check that before sending out the invites, actually.

The thing that really struck me during the critiquing sessions was how stupidly self-deprecating we all were about our work, almost apologising as we handed our stories around for what an appalling burden the others were about to receive. Which was nonsense, because - elbowing group modesty aside for a moment - we're actually reasonably good at what we do. Between the six of us we've got somewhere around 100 stories in print or online, we've notched up placings in highly regarded competitions, and have won hundreds of pounds in competitions. So we can't actually be as crap as we tend to think we are.

I've noticed a kind of contradiction in the world of writing - at least in the realm of online forums and writing classes - in that those who regard themselves as good writers, who feel they have learnt all they need and are simply waiting for the world to wake up and acknowledge their genius ... are, almost without exception, unspeakably awful. On the other hand, those who agonise over their words, who are never satisfied with what they've done, who are embarrassed by the gulf between what they wanted to say and the words they've managed to get down onto the page, are usually pretty good, or at least well on their way there.

It's good to question, to challenge your own work, and to strive for better. But that can be at the expense of looking back once in a while and thinking, "Yeah, actually, I can do this. I'm better than I was yesterday, not as good as I'll be tomorrow. I'm not perfect, but I can write."

Take pride in your achievements, but see them as stepping stones to where you want to be, not badges of honour to wave in people's faces. The inevitable rejections and those stories that sink without trace in competitions are steps on the journey, too. That's all, they're not a judgement on you as a writer or a person. So keep moving and don't beat yourself up about them.

In short, writers, give yourself a break.


Teresa Stenson said...

You're right: I AM warm, and I DID have lashings of wine.

Seriously though, good post, good points. I've thought something similar before about how we kind of have to be a mix of big headed (sending our work out to be read/published/judged) and then ready for/accepting of the knocks and rejections, and then able to take and use criticism to make the work better, and ready to get our big heads on again to send it out. Even though, a lot of the time, we don't 'expect' it to get anywhere. What ARE we doing???

Oh but I followed the link to read your Guardian story again just after we got back, I remember it really well anyway, but after chatting about it felt like a re-visit. It's excellent.

Oh yeah, we do it for those moments when The Guardian says 'YES' and likewise.

That's very cool that you came away focused and that you've written new stuff. I felt a boost too.

Dan Purdue said...

Cheers, Tree. It's definitely an odd balancing act we find ourselves doing, isn't it? I'm always surprised at people who enter competitions and say they don't expect to get anywhere. I don't think I could send an entry without being convinced on some level that I was going to win. That feeling lasts right up until I drop the envelope into the post box, or click 'send'.

Thanks for revisiting the "Street Corner" (sorry, that sounds more dodgy than I intended). I live in fear that The Guardian will take that page down sometime. It's seen me through many a crisis of confidence, that one.

Diane Fordham said...

I enjoyed your post. You've made many good points and I'm feeling a little more motivated now. Mmmm I do need to get out more. Thanks again.

Dan Purdue said...

Many thanks, Diane, and welcome to the blog.

Good to hear you're feeling motivated, too - even if it is just to leave the house!

Ric Carter said...

Hi Dan,

A good bit of chest-beating, I think we can all do with that sometimes. There's nothing better than coming away from something feeling like you do know what you're doing.

I think it's true that there is an odd mindset - full of doublethinking and second-guessing, bursts of confidence and feelings of complete incompitence - required of anyone who is in the business of creating something from nothing.

I tend to feel better about it now that I have resigned to it being a permanent state. And that as long as there is that feeling of moving vaguely in the right direction, then there is nothing to worry about.

Well, there's always something to worry about... But not that.

Anyway, also to say that I enjoyed your book - especially 'Are "Friends" Electric?' Good work.

Dan Purdue said...

Cheers, Ric.

I'd say you've hit the nail squarely there - acceptance of the idea that you're never going to feel entirely sensible about your writing is a big step forward. Just ride out the mood swings and focus on lining up the words in the best way you can.

I'm very pleased you liked the book - I really wasn't sure about including "Friends" because it's that much longer than the other stories and is a bit of a sudden lurch into science fiction. But from the feedback I've had, it's looking like the surprise hit of the anthology.

You never can tell...

Sarah Duncan said...

As someone who has listened to hundreds if not thousands of students read their work for workshopping I 100% agree with you - the more arrogant and self satisfied the writer, the worse the writing.

My favourite comment - one student said when I suggested changing the sentence order: 'I am completely satisfied that my work is perfect.' Which did make me wonder why he bothered to come to a creative writing class in the first place.

Dan Purdue said...

Ha - that's brilliant, Sarah. Why, indeed, would anybody enrol for a class if their work was already faultless?

I can't help thinking that if I wrote even a sentence that I genuinely thought was "perfect" I'd never be able to pick up a pen again.

Lisa Derrick said...

I discovered your blog today Dan, and am very much enjoying your posts.

This piece is particularly helpful and a timely read for me. The dreaded day job takes up most of my time (which is in fact, a fairly fun and interesting job, but my heart yearns to write full time!) so there are few hours left for writing. I'm studying part time for an MA in English and Creative Writing as I wanted the discipline of having to submit words by deadlines, and also to be surrounded by other writers. The course is fulfilling both wishes but I'm often plagued by thoughts of self-doubt. Am I writing as much/as well as I could, why am I sleeping when there's writing be done, am I actually any good at all, who do I think I am for believing I could be a full time writer...etcetera!

It's quite difficult to be in a sort of limbo situation I think, when you're en route to where you'd ultimately like to be. I took from your post that humble belief is key.

I can't imagine not writing. The writer's notebook is percieved as a cliche, but my world is in there. I feel as though it keeps me alive, gets me through the rigmarole of routine when I'm feeling a bit grumpy on the train, having to go to work at a dictated time again! In short, I'm in this for life, despite current distractions and demands on my time. So, you're absolutely right, we ought to give ourselves a break and fill our writerly journies with more kindness than criticality.

Thank you for the inspiration and reassurance!


Dan Purdue said...

Hi Lisa, and welcome.

Great to hear you've found this a blog worth stumbling across - I'm pleased to "meet" you!

Good luck with the MA - I've often thought about signing up for a course like that, it must be a real pleasure to be able to immerse yourself in your writing and the atmosphere of being surrounded by plenty of other like-minded souls.

I think it's all a question of managing those doubts - pay enough attention to them so that you're always striving to do your best and improve with each story / poem / article, but don't let them get out of control and undermine your confidence. True, it's easier said than done, but it's well worth finding that balance.

Glad to see you've also discovered Teresa Stenson - a writer to watch for the future. FACT.