It’s the start of a new year, and the perfect time to take out a new writing magazine subscription. Writing magazines, which these days usually have online communities built around them, are an excellent resource for both building your skills and finding a public outlet for them.
Writing Magazine is the biggest one in the UK, with an active online network and blog (you can see one of my articles on having a creative Christmas here). As well as practical advice about the craft of writing you’ll find readers’ contributions and regular writing competitions. I advertise my workshops and courses in their annual guide.
Like Writing Magazine, Writers’ Forum provides a wealth of information and opportunities for writers at every stage of their writing journey, from complete beginners to published authors. Look out for my article in next month’s issue, called What kind of writer are you? Why it helps to understand your author brand.
As the name suggests, the target reader is women writers. Mslexia has a strong community-of-writers feel, with the articles in each edition being chosen by a guest editor, on a theme, rather than the same editorial team.
Mslexia is read by top authors and absolute beginners. A quarterly masterclass in the business and psychology of writing, it’s the essential magazine for women who write.
So there you have my great writing reads – now, what about the fantastic freebie?
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.
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).
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!
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.
Writing in the House of Dreamsit 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 Writingis 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 Writingis 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.
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.
I came across this quote from Pablo Neruda when I was preparing my workshop for Bridging Arts at the Truro Museum in June, and it was very much in my mind as I watched the writers who came to the workshop engaging on a deep emotional level with the stories in the ‘Heart of Conflict’ exhibition, about the Cornish experience in wartime.
Poetry is an act of peace. Peace goes into the making of a poet as flour goes into the making of bread. Pablo Neruda
Writing is always about connection, whether we’re writing poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction. In stories, we connect with the characters we create; they come alive for us because of the way they make us feel. In non-fiction, we connect with the ideas and experiences that spark our interest and passion; in poetry, we connect with the symbolic layer of the psyche, where meaning is not objective and exact, but something the heart understands.
Every kind of writing connects us with our shared humanity and helps us feel and appreciate the rich complicatedness of our shared human condition.
I’m thinking about this quotation again today because we seem to be bombarded in the news with reports of appalling acts of ignorance and cruelty, from the vicious suppression of citizens in Catalonia to the treatment of the poor and disabled by our government here. The maverick gunman in Las Vegas. Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump… well I really have no words for them.
What we have, on the side of civilisation, is books. Reading, like writing, strengthens empathy, creates connection. It’s frightening to me that communities are losing public libraries, and schools are losing libraries too. Children are not encouraged and taught to read for pleasure, but rather to analyse and imitate, in order to gain good marks.
In my familiar world of children’s writing, the World Book Day list has just been announced. It’s full of books by celebrities, as if books by wonderful authors are somehow of less value than those that carry a famous name on the cover. We are not teaching children to value writing, but only to value fame.
Sometimes in the madness that seems to have the world in its grip, it can feel as if our civilisation is going to Hell in a handcart. Writing and reading are small acts of rebellion against a dominant ideology of greed and division.
I was really keen to teach the poetry workshop in the ‘Heart of Conflict’ exhibition – it felt like a privilege to have that opportunity. It felt like something really good to do, and I loved the ethos of Bridging Arts, which is all about creating connections.
I’m delighted to say that I’ve just heard from Bridging Arts that they would like me to run some more writing workshops next year in the run-up to the centenary of the end of WW1.
Write, read, remember. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s important.
What do you think? Does reading and writing feel, to you, like ‘an act of peace’?
I often think writing is a kind of coming out; we are always revealed in what we write, whether we are aware of it or not.
Simply setting pen to paper is a self-revealing act, which may make us aware of thoughts and feelings moving through us that we were not aware of before. Certain themes that recur time and again, certain characters and patterns of relationship.
Telling other people that you write is another stage in the coming out. I’ve had participants at workshops who have written whole novels and never told a soul, not even their nearest and dearest.
Sharing writing with friends or family pushes this coming out as a writer a little further, but reading to strangers in a workshop situation is another whole layer of boldness.
So how wonderful is it for me to hear from a workshop participant that she’s plucked up the courage to press send on a travel article, and again on a competition piece?
Her article, she tells me, has been accepted for a travel website with a membership of 40,000; her story will be published in an anthology of competition winners.
But as she says in her emails, it isn’t about payment or recognition – though that would be nice, of course. The real buzz is having had the courage to be heard.
I had a crisis point in my coming out as a writer. You can read about it here.
What about you? Have you come out as a writer? How hard was it for you?
I wasn’t going to write any more posts about depression and suicide, but I’ve been thinking this week about a writer I knew, Jonny Zucker, who killed himself last year.
Jonny’s family have just announced the Striker Boy campaign, in which they are donating all proceeds of a new edition of one of his books to the mental health charity, Mind.
When Jonny died, the tributes and memories that poured in all said very similar things. How generous he was, how full of energy and enthusiasm, how funny, and how very loved.
So often, those who take their own lives seem to be bright stars like him, people who have touched other people’s lives in one way or another, but don’t seem to have understood how amazing they are.
So here I am, thinking and talking about suicide again, wishing like everyone must, that there was some way of reaching across the dreadful chasm that can open up around a person and swallow them down.
I don’t think we can convince somebody thinking about suicide how wonderful and loved they are, or how much they matter. Even if we could, would that be enough to reach across the chasm and hold onto them?
Certainly, we can make sure the people around us know we are there for them, and will listen in a non-judging way, if they ever need someone to turn to. We can avoid saying unhelpful things that will make the person feel even worse, such as ‘I don’t know why you’re so hard on yourself’ or ‘Why don’t you just snap out of it?’ But not everyone is actually able to talk about it when they’re struggling with depression.
My feeling is that the biggest thing we can do for each other is be honest and not hide our own darkness. Sadness, feelings of pointlessness, even despair, are all part of the human condition, although that goes against our cultural assumptions.
We think we should be able to be happy all the time and every kind of pain is – or certainly should be – fixable. In our culture, unhappiness feels like failure, and we’re ashamed of owning up to it.
But the golden life is an illusion. We shouldn’t be claiming it while hiding our own darkness, because that make the darkness even more terrifying and lonely for people currently going through it.
What we need to recognise and especially to teach our children is that everyone experiences sadness, fear, despair… it’s natural. Life can be hard, but we can learn to handle it. This is the message in all my kids’ self-help books, including How 2B Happy.
I don’t mean I think we should bang on about our problems all the time, but just be real with each other. Real life stories belong to all of us; they lift us above our own situation and show us our wider human condition. They give us a sense of belonging.
A member of Jonny’s family commented, ‘Mental health needs to be discussed in the open and these personal stories need to be shared.’
I could not agree more.
If you would like to buy a copy of Jonny’s book, the new special edition comes out on October 6th.