Why aren’t *you* writing?

I’ve been writing more in the last couple of months than I have done in recent memory (although, to be fair, my memory is absolutely shot thanks to the joys of not sleeping properly for the last seven years so there could have been some really prolific months in there and I wouldn’t have a clue) but I still need a massive kick up the arse some days to drag my hands to the keyboard before everything else gets in the way.

Here, for instance, are the things I have lost time to today: preparing macaroni cheese for later, taking the car for a service, supermarket shopping, laundry, mopping up cat wee, watching videos of Tom Hiddleston dancing. All arguably fine and necessary pursuits, but not writing.

So it helps to have a couple of tricks up your sleeve to make yourself sit down. Doesn’t it? Yes, it does.


Sand Timer

Yes, that picture is of my actual sand timer. I like the pomodoro technique, which advocates concentrating fully on one thing for 25 minutes, and then having a break. It’s a good thing to use when your brain has been fried by too much telly or time with a toddler, because it will encourage you to learn to concentrate again. (It’s a skill. It needs practice.)

Pomodoro devotees use a kitchen timer, or an app. I found out that I’m not a fan of ticking, so instead invested in this rather lovely 20 minute sandtimer. (Really, I wanted the yellow one from School of Life, because I’m easily marketed to, but the price! My god, the price!) The thing I like most of all about the sand timer is that there’s no audible way of telling that the time is up – if you’re really lost in something, you just carry on doing it.

Yes, it’s sneaky. Yes, it works. It’s the whole reason I’m managing to write this blog post.


No, not in a Mel Gibson sort of way (though if you have the urge to yell out in a bad Scottish accent, don’t let me be the one to stop you).

Freedom is a nifty piece of software that effectively locks you out of the internet for a time, the length of which is specified by you. I have the old version on my laptop, but it seems to work online now. I have no idea how.

Let me tell you, the first time I used it, I was a bit freaked out. “You mean, my laptop is now just a computer? I can’t look up new chairs on Ikea? I can’t look at twitter? What can it do then?” What it can do is just be a computer – let you input and store words in a word processing program. It’s so 1995.

Incidentally, my solution to things I want to research while I have freedom enabled is very old school – I write them down on a notepad, and look them up later.

The list of reasons not to is really really long.

This is my last, but most important, practical tip. You can go back to the beginning of this post and see the kind of things that I lose time to. In reality the list is longer, much longer. We all have a list like this.

Try ignoring it.

If you ignore it for just twenty minutes, and do some writing, you will have so much more time to do everything else. This is partly because you’ll free your mind from thoughts like ‘I haven’t done any writing today’. Kill your resistance right at the beginning, and you’ll find you magically have more time for everything, including more writing.

Don’t dread, do.

A Common Spot Of Bother: dealing with endings

I’ve taken to writing short stories lately. Perhaps I should always have been trying to write them, I don’t know, but they suit where I am right now, as a writer, and as a person, and, strike me down for saying so, but I’m enjoying the play again.
The story under consideration the last couple of weeks has been tricky. I only felt comfortable with the voice after rewrite four, and then had to change a million other tiny things to make it sit right. I read it aloud, I read it on paper, I read it on the screen. I fiddled with tenses, and commas, and words. In the end I was mostly happy. It felt mostly right.
So I compiled it as a pdf (nothing says ‘finished’ like a pdf) and sent it to a writer friend, and then another, and then some non-writer friends, and listened to their responses. For the most part I’d managed to convey what I wanted to convey, and left them with thoughts, and images that lingered. So far so good.
But it niggled at me still.
It’s the ending. In a short story you don’t have room to bag out, and bring the ending slowly into view. Like a snake eating its own tail, the ending feeds the reader’s understanding of the beginning, and the title is the tongue that can pull the one into the other. And the writer can often (and I think in short stories should) leave a little work for the reader to do, even if the ambiguity can prompt more questions than an author might expect.
So what to do?
I re-read the story. I read it with the original ending, and then again without the last four sentences. Part of me is ok with it as it is, but there’s another part, saying that yes, I should cut those last sentences, and then rewrite that new final sentence.
I open the file again. Read it. Close it again.
I do this for three days.
This is the fourth day. I’ve had insomnia this week, the kind where I fall asleep fine, but then wake up four hours later, jaws clenched together, grinding myself a hefty dentistry bill. And then I’m awake for two or three hours, so what else to do but wonder about those last few sentences? I turn it over and over in my mind: end it here and it is one thing, or end it there and make it another.
Even if I do decide to change it, I’m not convinced that will quiet my mind entirely. All I can do to stop the circus is compile it once more, and send it off somewhere, for someone else’s consideration. When it comes back to me in a few months, maybe then it will be clearer.
But I’m not counting on it.

Broken Things

The day before I was due to pack up the car and leave Hay, I went browsing in a little shop I love. I’ve been going in for years, and have bought lots of lovely things. I was very aware of the enormous rucksack on my back, and trying not to break things by spinning round too fast.

So instead I dropped a small ceramic pot and lid straight out of my hands, onto the floor, where the lid snapped cleanly, sharply in two.

broken thing

The nice shop man came up the stairs to see what had happened, and I promised to pay for it, and he said no problem, and I should still look around, and so I did. I had a little cry while I was at it, because of the shock I thought, but then I went down to pay, and started to weep. I cried so much that the nice shop man wondered if he should offer me a cwtch, and I paid, and he wrapped it up, and I continued to cry, and I took the bag from the shop and walked to a bench outside the library, and I continued to cry.

For half an hour.

For half a fucking hour.

I wept on a bench, with my broken thing in the bag next to me.

I’d say I’m not given to weeping but that’s a bit of a massive fib.

This was something else though. This last year has had its fair share of stresses, and my week away was something just for me; the other me that does the being, and noticing, and thinking. Not the me that does the laundry and the wiping and the paying of bills. I would be free of everything but myself for one week. I chose my events, I packed all the shoe types, I mistakenly wiped my playlists off my phone so the car journey wasn’t as fun as it could have been.

Anyway. Like one of those mystical things I don’t have much truck with, all the talks I went to, the books I was drawn to, the people I spoke to, the book I read daily (A.L.Kennedy, On Writing), everything and everyone seemed to be bringing me back to the same things: kindness, generosity, openness. Love.

Not one thing in isolation but all of those things at once. After a year of holding everything together so tightly, every day gave me another hint, a nudge that now was the time to let it go, and open up again.

Yes, I know how it sounds.

But I also know how it feels, and you can’t write anything worth reading while you’re bound up like a golf ball.

What am I writing for anyway? To step into the mind of another person, to transmit my idea of what it’s like to be a walking, breathing, feeling human directly into someone else’s mind. How do I do that? I pretend to be inside the mind of another, made-up person. I try to understand the things they do and why they do them, why some things matter, and others don’t, why, how and what it is like to love, or be rejected, to be lonely, to lose, to win, to survive. But why do I want to do it? Why make this effort? Because in doing that, if we do it well, we’ve said to our reader, “I’m here. I know what it’s like. We’re not alone.”

I’m fending off my own loneliness.

I’m fending off yours.

It’s what all art is an attempt to do. Send out little tendrils of pure human experience, hope that they touch someone else, and make that connection. We feel the same. We love the same. We hurt the same. It’s the best we have, however we feel driven to express it – words, pictures, song. Spending a week opening up that part of me that is capable of attempting this connection to all you other humans was bound to end in tears, if only because it reminded me how lonely it is when you stop trying.

And so I wept. I’d wept the day before over my book. I wept over broken things. I wept later on that same day at Amanda Palmer, singing about art. I wasn’t sad. I was less alone.

Waving, not drowning

When is not writing actually writing? When it’s a raven.

(I’ve been trying to solve that riddle since I was five. It worms its way out at odd moments.)

Over the last few months, while I haven’t been here that much obviously, I’ve been over at my other site, PracticeWriting, rolling along in regular practice. I was also taking a short story course online, and wrestling with the novel idea that took hold of me. Around about November time I’d successfully carved out enough of a routine for myself so that when it collapsed in December (sewing nativity costumes, present wrapping, major dentistry) I missed it.

A lot.

When writers are not writing, they’re a little bit weird. Weirder than they are normally. They get snappy and irritable, and are prone to moaning about the inadequacy of their jobs, clothing, lunchtime sandwich, choice of life partner, none of which is really at fault.

It’s the damned uncomfortable urge to write. That’s what’s doing it.

It’s like a magnifying glass held over your brain, burning a small, non-destructive but painful hole in your everyday life. Every day spent not writing, the hole gets a little deeper, and the writer gets a little more unpleasant to be around.

Doesn't this look satisfying?
Doesn’t this look satisfying?

The only way to move the glass, to scratch that itch, is to write, but without a project, or even a regular routine of practice, it’s sometimes hard to justify the time, and the effort it takes. Why sit at your desk uselessly staring at a screen or notepad, when you could be pairing socks, whitening the grout in the bathroom, or rubbing beeswax into the banister*?

But the words don’t write themselves and you have to write sometime, so you might as well just shove the pile of socks in the drawer and deal with that little ordeal every morning. It is better than having the itch.

So January came along, and I really haven’t done much writing. But I haven’t had the itch either.

I’ve discovered research.

My project is historical, and so I knew there would be some research involved, but I had naively confined this in my mind to the scientific things at the centre of the novel. I read about them. I made some timelines. I sketched some bones of a plot. I wrote twenty thousand words.

And then I found myself googling wigs.

And what I found out about wigs at this specific time in history made me laugh out loud with joy. I could see how it fitted in with my characters, and served me, the writer. I made a note of it. Then I thought of something else I’d quite like to know, and so the day went on.

This is how January has been. A little research, a little note making, a little planning, a little shaping. I’ve never written in this way before, and I find I like it. I’m creating a net for myself, and hopefully it will support me a bit better than “the seat of my pants”, which is what I was using before. You know, for those days when it feels like the entire project is DOOMED.

It feels as if it might be a back and forth process. Research a little. Write some more. Identify holes in research. Research a little more… I’ll let you know how it goes. I’ve got a shiny new pass for the British Library and I’m not afraid to use it. Daunted, maybe, but not afraid.

*In the bizarre world of writers’ logic, these will become legitimate procrastination techniques once a project is underway and being a bit difficult**

**In searching for a suitable image I was completely distracted by a tutorial on making your own beeswax polish. I can do this! I have beeswax in my cupboard! No. Best not ask.

A little vibration at your core


This rather splendid article in the NYT puts its finger on one of the problems of being a modern author – the itty bitty problem of voice. Now that we’re not all writing omnisciently like Dickens or Austen, the aim is to capture the authentic voice of a character, to paint a word portrait as close as possible to the person we’re trying to depict, as they might paint it themselves if they were chatting to you in the pub. The danger is that we try to be too real and just end up writing like ourselves, time after time. This is especially troublesome for first person narrators, who can end up being either too like the author, or oddly like not very much at all (see abandoned novel number one). The best writers can find their characters’ voices without abandoning their own, or over-seasoning with authorial comment. They make you feel they’re in control.

The analogy the article made with method acting is about as close as it gets. We’re trying to write Truth while still capturing a person that is ‘other’. For me, the key to this is to let go, and find those parts of myself I’d rather keep hidden. I let go of my social inhibitions, my shame at some of my emotions and thoughts, and then the writing runs clearer. It’s not always easy, never pretty, and it doesn’t mean I just bash at the keyboard in an angry fashion. You know the feeling when you’re doing it, just as you know the feeling when you’re reading it. Something chimes within you. That’s the best way I have of describing it. A little vibration at your core.

That’s what we’re aiming for. Guess what? Most of the writing day, we miss.

(Thanks to Vanessa Gebbie for the link.)


Colouring In – working through the block

For the last few years I’ve struggled with the daily practice of words, so much so that it’s often been monthly or yearly practice. It coincides precisely with having a child, and being pulled inside out to live in the physical world, and so discovering that I am not one of those people who can effortlessly slip from the timetabled daily experience of feeding a baby into the frothy netherworld that is my imagination. No sir. I’ve been searching for ways and means to grease the wheels and unexpectedly found another one: colouring in.

And when I say colouring in, I really mean colouring in. (Or if you prefer, coloring in. I can cater for that.)

colouring in

I was reading the inspiration issue of Poets & Writers, which includes an article on the science of the writer’s brain, and the way our perceptions of failure and threat can cause excessive stress hormones, and these in turn cause us to sit staring at a blank screen. There’s a whole book on the subject, if you’re interested: Around The Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance, by Roseanne Bane.

One of the solutions is to cultivate a habit of ‘process’, which means doing something that gets your creative blood flowing without consequence. Something you don’t have to share, work on, or edit in other words, and if you’ve ever done Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, that’s exactly the idea behind them. Bane suggests using other kinds of artistic activities, like sketching, dancing, listening to music or drawing mandalas as well.

Which is how I found myself colouring in thirty or so sakura flowers last week.

We already had felt tips bought from the Tate, and a Dover colouring book given to us by friends, and so I sat down and started to colour. It’s a book of Japanese illustrations, and so is full of intricate patterns and fiddly bits, and after about five minutes my brain stopped screaming about when I was going to do something “useful” and instead started thinking about which colour I was going to do next. For fifteen minutes I was lost in the drawing. You know, like a kid. You remember that feeling, don’t you? Colouring in pattern wheels, or painting by numbers, just enough for the hands to do, but not too much brain involved.

It’s worth a try if you’re having a tough time getting to the words (or whatever creative pursuit you do), and if you have any other way of greasing your wheels, I am utterly open to suggestion.