Category Archives: Creativity

Going away and coming back again: how to refresh your writing

I haven’t been blogging lately because I’ve been away. I was in Arctic Norway for three weeks in June, then home again and away again for a spot of camping on Bodmin moor, then home again and away again to Oxfordshire for the summer gathering of the Scattered Authors’ Society.

I always find it difficult to leave my work-in-progress, so I work right up to the wire and often take some notes with me, half planning to do a bit of writing while I’m away.

That never happens. It didn’t even happen in Norway, although the combination of wintry weather (in June!), bright daylight round the clock and really rugged walking meant I completely overdid it and got worn out by the end of the first week. (Someone on a travel site suggested the guide books should translate ‘Easy’ in the Norwegian descriptions of walking trails as ‘Hard’ in English, ‘Moderate’ as ‘Difficult’ and ‘Difficult’ as ‘Don’t even go there!’)

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‘Moderate’ walk in the Lofoten Islands – sheer drop, massive rock, helpful chain to hang onto

I did hang out in cafes for a couple of days at that stage, scribbling in my notebook, but I was just jotting down random thoughts and ideas that had nothing to do with anything I’d been working on at home.

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Great cafe in Lofoten – the artist makes you coffee in her lakeside studio!
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Cool cafe in the ‘Paris of the North’, Tromso. Strong coffee, Leonard Cohen, everyone reading.

I scribbled some thoughts down in my notebook when I was camping too, but on the Scattered Authors’ retreat, although I took my computer and current work in progress and really thought I was going to crack on with it, I wrote absolutely nothing at all.

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Empty site with fire pits on sunsoaked Bodmin moor
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Children’s authors at play in rural Oxfordshire

I sometimes take work, but I never stress about not doing any, because I know from long experience that going away always means I’ll come home full of new creative energy, enthusiasm and ideas.

I think one of the reasons my trips are fruitful is because I do focus on my work in progress right up until I leave, and hold it in the back of my mind even when my main focus is on the new places I’m seeing and people I’m meeting.

By the time I sit down at my own desk again, I’m coming to my writing completely renewed – a new me, a different me, made up of the old me plus the experience of my adventure. And my work in progress, somewhere out of sight but never entirely out of mind, has been growing and developing too.

I was going to blog about the Scattered Authors’ summer retreat but my friend Sheena Wilkinson has written a great post about it, and I couldn’t do better – you can read it here.

 

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Dreams, daydreams and the writer’s trance

Jung believed the dream goes on all the time, day and night, a constant flow of images and narratives that runs like an underground stream beneath our conscious awareness. He said the only reason we think of dreaming as a night-time phenomenon is because most of us only become aware of it when the conscious mind is completely turned off in sleep.

If you conceptualise dreaming in this way, as a continuous layer of consciousness, you begin to notice how you naturally slip in and out of it all the time, in fantasies and daydreams. What if I go to the beach today? That person I met in the cafe last time might be there, and she might say… and then we might…

What if I hadn’t said what I said? We might have gone ahead with our plan… We might be making lots of money, and then we could…

Lots of us are unaware of our daydreaming mind. It’s like background noise we’re so used to we hardly notice it. But others enjoy their dreams and daydreams so much, they notice and deliberately nurture them.

Many writers report that they daydreamed their way through school – they may have got into trouble for it. But I’d say it was time well spent – they were developing a vital creative ability.

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The ‘writer’s trance’ is a kind of daydreaming. In his book on writing, Stephen King describes his writing sessions as like slipping into sleep, because when he’s writing he’s completely unaware of what’s going on in the household around him. When he stops for lunch, he says,it’s like waking up from a dream and gradually becoming aware of his surroundings again.

Most people assume that the craft of writing – how to construct a strong plot, write convincing dialogue, conjure vivid settings so on – can be taught, but that the inspiration side is just luck. It has to come on its own, if it comes at all.

To some extent, that’s true but in writing as in creative dreaming, we can learn techniques for tapping into the unconscious mind at will, directing it and harnessing its power.

Developing dreaming and daydreaming skills doesn’t only make your dreams and writing more exciting – it makes your whole life more exciting too, because the unconscious mind is made of stories. Its nature is movement – a continuous growing and then dying back of possibilities – in which our conscious mind sits with all its certainties and definitions, limited and fixed.

Do you enjoy your dreams and daydreams? Does writing feel like daydreaming to you?

The key to living creatively

My last post was about the royal garden party, which I mentioned was right outside my comfort zone. When I got my invitation, I didn’t even possess a dress, let alone a hat or fascinator, so the dress code felt quite challenging!

But I like going outside my comfort zone – its expansive. Going outside your comfort zone makes your comfort zone bigger.

Trying new things is also the key to living creatively because creativity is, by definition, making something that didn’t exist before and, when we try new things, we create brand new experiences.

Quite often, we may be reluctant to try new things – a different kind of food, book, activity or TV show – and there is indeed a good chance we won’t like the new one as much as our old favourite. But if that’s the worst that could happen, I reckon it’s worth the risk.

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My current notebook – a gift from my ex husband, who knows me well!

It doesn’t have to be a giant leap into the unknown – shaking up the little things can start a creative wave. When was the last time you parked in a different spot at the supermarket, took a different route to work, sat in a different chair in the evening, went out for a walk at a time of day when you usually stay home?

Living creatively by seeking out new experiences puts energy into all your creative work because you carry those attitudes of openness and adventurousness, and also that buzz of pleasure and excitement, into your writing or painting or gardening, or whatever creative activity floats your boat.

Anyone for a seaweed sandwich?

 

The dreaming writer at the royal garden party

Lots of creative teachers talk about the importance of taking time out from your normal routines and doing new things, to refresh your creative energy. It’s commonly called ‘going down to the well.’

I was way outside my normal routine last week at the Buckingham Palace garden party – frocks and fascinators are not really my thing! In case you’re wondering, my invitation came through the Society of Authors – I’ve been a member for most of my writing career and taught several creative blockbusting workshops for them.

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The afternoon progressed like a well-oiled machine. The queues moved very quickly through the gates, despite the huge number of guests.

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The National Anthem announced the Queen’s arrival and, while the band played and everyone was upstanding, she came out onto the steps, flanked by Beefeaters.

The Beefeaters accompanied her as she walked among the crowds so, although we couldn’t see her, we knew where she was by the tips of their pikes.

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The cakes were divine! After tea my friend and I had a stroll round the gardens, coming back to find staff moving among the guests with trays of lemon barley water and little tubs of ice cream.

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It was a brilliant opportunity to enjoy that most favourite of writerly pastimes, people-watching. A clutch of Bishops, a pair of robed academics, a scattering of groups in African dress, a gaggle of jovial mayors.

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Even the Ladies’ Lavatories were an experience, set as they were beside the big lake, and attended by a woman who checked each cubicle as it became vacant, presumably to make sure the bowl was clean and there was plenty of toilet paper, before personally ushering the next person in.

Very few people actually got to speak to the Queen yet the surprising thing, for me, was that it felt quite personal. Buckingham Palace didn’t feel like a massive public building, but somebody’s home, and the party was just in their garden.

I realise I may be sounding like a royalist, but I’m not. I’m not a republican either.  I think there are good arguments both for and against having a monarchy.

But as a dreamer, it seems to me that kings and queens, princes and princesses do something quite extraordinary. They are like living archetypes, symbolising for us universal qualities, even though they may not, in their own personal lives, be any less complicated, flawed and human than the ordinary person in the street.

I was first struck by this in the outpouring of grief when Princess Diana died. It was so surprising and disproportionate, I felt we were not grieving the person she was but what she symbolised – a quality of caring kindness that seemed to be slipping away in the post-Thatcher era.

It’s the same with the royal wedding last week. We don’t know what Prince Harry and Meghan are like as individuals, whether they row and bicker behind closed doors – but thousands of people enjoyed their wedding because there they stood before a nation as the representing the romantic Hero in all of us, the perfect Princess and the possibility of lifelong romantic love.

Seeing the Queen standing there on the steps of her home, I was really aware of the strangeness of her existence. Through the doors behind her lay her domestic life, where she is just a person like the rest of us, but as soon as she steps outside she is no longer a woman; she becomes absolutely her role, as Queen.

The dreamer in me, like the writer, found the whole experience intriguing.

 

I’ve chosen the best place to launch my book!

Today is the official publication day for my new book, Free-Range Writing: 75 Forays for the Wild Writer’s Soul, and I think I’ve found the perfect place to launch it.

All my previous book launches have been nibbles-and-bubbles parties, with a lot of mingling, a spot of reading and somebody lovely raising a toast.

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Usually, it’s mostly mingling

I’ve held them in my garden, my local library, the back room of the village pub, an art gallery, the Sterts open air theatre… Every book is different, and so is every launch.

When I discovered that the Looe Literary Festival coincided with publication week I really wanted to launch my new book there. It’s a festival that truly celebrates local writing and grass-roots creativity as well as big name authors, and that’s very much the spirit of Free-Range Writing.

There are readings from the Looe Writing Group and the Liskeard Poets, whose book launch I attended recently, having been invited to select the poems for their anthology. Alongside talks by famous authors like Lord Owen, Adam Hart-Davis and Dr Susan Blackmore, there are lesser-known writers of fiction and non-fiction. There are panels and discussions on topics as various as fisheries policy and self-publishing. There’s plenty for children as well.

I’ve been in the green room at the Cheltenham litfest, mingling with TV stars who’ve written a book and hawk-eyed photographers trying to get photos of them, and felt curiously detached from the whole business. For me, writing is about all of us, ordinary people; we all have something interesting and beautiful to say.

Thinking only famous writing is good writing is a mistake, as anyone who has any experience of writing workshops will know. It’s also harmful because it can make us feel discouraged and reluctant to explore our own innate abilities. My new book is about freeing up your thinking, venturing into every area of your writer self and being surprised by what you find.

So this book is all about the writing, and I’ll be launching it in a different way, with a free-range writing talk at 12.00 on Sunday 19th November and then a workshop after lunch, at 2 o’clock.

I love doing these community workshops, partly because they’re a chance to work with writers of all ages. They’re not just for children, or for adults, or for families – they’re for everyone age 8+. We all have something interesting to say and we so rarely have the chance to write together. (Participants under 18 must be accompanied by an adult).

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Looe island

The Looe Literary Festival is a great event in a gorgeous location and it’s the perfect place to hear about Free-Range Writing, so please come along and help me celebrate if you can. I will hope to see you there!

3 steps to being a writer

I was going on tour with my three books for writers. I opened my well-travelled, old-fashioned suitcase and there they were, just the books, looking bright and colourful against the black satin lining. I felt very proud of them.

I had this deeply pleasurable dream a few weeks ago, when I was emailing publications to see if they would like a review copy of my upcoming book, Free-Range Writing: 75 Forays for the Wild Writer’s Soul, and pitching ideas for articles. (I’m happy to report that Mslexia has accepted a copy for review and I’ve placed an article on free-range writing in the Writers’ News Christmas edition).

Usually, I have to put my shoulder to the wheel and get on with it, when it comes to promoting new books, but promoting this one feels joyful. I want to shout about it, partly because it’s my first brand new book in two years, and partly because it gives me a sense of completion.

These three writing books are a set, although I only notice that now, looking back. They cover the whole writer’s process:

  • opening to inspiration (Writing in the House of Dreams)
  • keeping the writing flowing (Happy Writing)
  • extending yourself as a writer (Free-Range Writing)

They also reflect my own coming-to-writing. First, before I was a writer, I was a dream worker – I learnt to come and go across the borders of my unconscious and work with the stories and images I found in great abundance there. To use Ted Hughes’ analogy, I learnt to fish.

There is the inner life, which is the world of final reality, the world of memory, imagination, emotion, intelligence, and natural common sense, and which goes on all the time, consciously or unconsciously, like the heart beat. There is also the thinking process by which we break into that inner life and capture answers and evidence to support the answers out of it. That process of raid, or persuasion, or ambush, or dogged hunting, or surrender, is the kind of thinking we have to learn and if we do not somehow learn it, then our minds lie in us like the fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish.

Ted Hughes

Writing in the House of Dreams it about tapping the mystery of inspiration, the ‘Where did that come from?’ It includes lots of practical writing exercises to help readers open to their own unconscious processes.

Next, at the age of 40, I started my writing career. As well as having to build my writing skills, I also had to develop the psychological toughness this business requires: a thick skin, a willingness to be seen, the ability to set clear goals and the flexibility to adapt them. Authors also have to cope with financial uncertainty, and develop other sources of income – many award-winning authors have to fit their writing in around a day job.

Happy Writing is about the psychology of writing, the ‘How can I keep going?’, whether in a longer piece like a novel, or over the course of a career. It includes lots of practical writing exercises to help readers build their writing skills, such as plotting and redrafting, identify when hidden fears might be holding them back and create writing goals they can pursue whole-heartedly because they come from their core values rather than  other people’s assumptions.

In my early 50’s, I began to teach writing workshops, and I always mixed it up, just as I’ve done in my own writing career. I found people were surprised to be asked to write a poem in a plotting workshop, say, or a magazine article in a memoir workshop – they were surprised, also, by how enjoyable and fruitful a more holistic approach can be.

Free-Range Writing is about inhabiting more of your writer self and growing as a writer, the ‘Yes, I can do this! What else can I do?’ It includes 75 practical writing forays into different genres, with tips and advice to help readers feel confident about experimenting, and a chapter on how to use these exercises to set up a new writing group or pep up an existing one.

Every stage of the writer’s journey is different, and so these three books are all very different from each other. Until I had the dream and actually saw them in my dear old suitcase, all together, they had felt a bit random and disparate. I hadn’t realised that they were a series, each one a necessary part of the whole.

I’m not sure I realised, either, that I do feel very proud them, these beloved children of my other lives, in dreams and writing.

If you would like to help them make their way in the world, please share this post to your fb/twitter/personal blog.

 

 

 

Using creativity to make life better

We were discussing the Senoi method for tackling nightmares in last week’s session of Writing in the House of Dreams, when someone said, ‘We ought to be teaching this to children in schools!’

The Senoi technique is described by Patricia Garfield in her fascinating book, Creative Dreaming – that’s where I first came across it. When you go to sleep, you intend that if you have a bad dream you will confront the difficulty, face down the enemy, and claim a reward.

If you wake before your dream has reached a positive outcome, you either go back to sleep and continue the dream or else complete it in imagination.

You don’t need to be lucid within the dream, so it’s a very easy practice that anyone can begin, and if you always bring your dreams to a positive outcome you set a track in your mind that your dreams will soon automatically follow, resolving themselves before you awake.

It’s obvious that not having unresolved nightmares is a way of making your dream experience better, but the goal of Senoi dreaming isn’t just to make your dream life better – it’s to make your waking life better as well. So how does that work?

When you deliberately face up to challenges and create positive outcomes in your dreams or imagination, you experience yourself as an effective and courageous person. Then when you’re faced with challenges in waking life, that’s the person you know you can be – someone whose first response to difficulties is ‘I can sort this!’

I shouldn’t think we’ll ever see creative dream skills in the national curriculum but I believe children could get the same benefits from learning to write stories.

The Senoi approach is basically the Hero’s Journey. The hero crosses the threshold into the unfamiliar world, meets enemies and falters, before finally facing up to them and claiming her reward to bring back to the ordinary world.

This story is the mythic template for all our stories. Every new experience starts with crossing the threshold into the unfamiliar and making the hero journey, from starting a new relationship or job to small things such as making a phone call or trying a new restaurant.

In the past, creative writing was part of the school curriculum – I don’t mean analysing styles and all that kind of thing, but properly diving into imagination, every child different, every story unique.

Writing stories is joyful, exciting and empowering. I wish we could have more truly creative writing on the curriculum because, in my view, it wouldn’t only make children’s experience of school better – it would, like creative dreaming, make the rest of their life better too.