I’m delighted to welcome the artist, author and creativity coach Val Andrews into the House of Dreams today to talk about her new book.I’ve followed her blog for ages, and feel absolutely in tune with the way she links creativity with wellbeing.
As a part-time visual artist and creative writer with 30 years of experience working in the healthcare sector, I have a keen interest in the impact that creative expression has on health and wellbeing, and on a person’s capacity to be innovative in their work.
For a number of years, I’ve been exploring this interest by delivering creativity workshops and offering coaching to people who are committed to moving through blockages in their creativity. I’ve also been interviewing professional artists and writers about their creative process and sharing those interviews on my blog in the hope this may inspire my readers: https://artforhappiness.wordpress.com
Over the years, I’ve found there are many reasons why people choose to learn more about their own creativity. Sometimes they’re driven by a desire to approach work tasks in a more creative way, sometimes they wish to ‘be more artistic’, or write a book, or invent something the world has not yet seen. Whatever the motivation, unleashing the creative process certainly seems to boost personal wellbeing, and enhance performance at work.
It’s for this reason I chose to write the book “Art for Happiness: finding your creative process and using it”. Freshly published in March 2015, this book explores the some of the contemporary research on the creative process – what it is, how it works and what it does for a person’s sense of wellbeing. I’ve also included a number of exercises which I’ve found helpful in unlocking the creative process and developing ideas beyond their original naivety. Please feel free to look inside this book on my Amazon page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Val-Andrews/e/B00HGG15A0
Sometimes, I look fondly back on my early days as an author, when the whole job was simply writing books, and the wheels moved very slowly indeed.
The act of writing was slower because, in the days of typewriters, even a minor change such as choosing a different name for a character could be a long-winded redrafting task, searching through reams of paper armed with a tippex brush.
When the manuscript was finally finished and neatly packaged up, it made its leisurely way to the agent or publisher via the Royal Mail, and some weeks later, their response would eventually come back.
In those days, I was blissfully unaware of sales figures and marketing, publicity and self-promotion, and I certainly didn’t have anything at all to do with the publishing process.
In many ways, being an author twenty years ago was far less stressful, but there are lots of things I love about being an author now:
Word processing has made every stage of writing much easier and quicker. It means I can make manuscripts that look brilliant and are a pleasure to work on from the earliest outline to the final draft.
The internet means I can have frequent contact with readers who follow my blogs or read my books. Their feedback and ideas are both encouraging and inspiring to me.
Self-publishing means I don’t have to have unsold manuscripts languishing on my shelves, out of print books consigned to obscurity or projects I want to work on having to be abandoned because they’re unlikely to find a mainstream publisher.
The only problem is that, while I positively enjoy all the opportunities this new way of being an author presents, there’s an awful lot on my to-do list, and if I have to take unexpected time out because of illness, as has happened recently, things can quickly get out of hand.
On my to-do list right now, I’ve got:
redraft my YA novel Drift from editor’s suggestions
ditto my next adult non-fiction When a Writer Isn’t Writing
write design and cover brief for Drift and When a Writer for designer
redraft my iPhone and iPad app Get Writing! following testers’ suggestions
plan my workshop for the home educated group
write my commissioned article for The Author
pitch further mag articles in time for the September launches of Drift and When a Writer
write blog articles for writinginthehouseofdreams and girlsheartbooks
In Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande points out that it isn’t only themes and characters that emerge from the unconscious mind through writing. She says the unconscious is also ‘the home of form.’
So as well as trusting the flow of ideas if we open our mind by entering the ‘writer’s trance,’ we can also trust that the ideas will organise themselves into the shapes of books and stories.
I definitely find this in my own work.
When I’m writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I start with a sketchy plan and head off from Start in the general direction of Finish, wondering how on earth I’m going to get from one to the other, until suddenly I begin to see the shape of the whole thing in my head like a geometrical figure or a pattern of numbers.
At that point, I become fully engaged. I dash along like a mad thing, joining the dots to make the beautiful shape of the book I’m creating.
This means all my books have a sort of symmetry in the contents – the four Peony Pinkers, for example, all have 17 chapters. Why 17? I’ve no idea, only that that was the number they needed, and I knew each story was on the right track the moment I could see how it could make 17 chapters.
Today is publication day for my latest children’s book, The Binding.
I started thinking about the idea ten years ago, after witnessing an unsettling incident in a remote part of Scotland.
I was walking past a ruined crofter’s cottage when I heard a commotion inside and went to see what was going on. I found four children, out of breath and flushed with excitement, the biggest one grasping in his fist a baby bird.
They flashed each other a guilty look, before the big boy rallied, took the chick to the nearest window and opened his hand. It fell to the ground.
‘It was stuck in here,’ he said. ‘We were trying to catch it so we could help it to get out.’
We all knew that wasn’t what they were doing, but the bird was free now, and I stayed there watching it limp away to the nearest cover while the children ran back towards their houses.
I got to thinking, how would it be for a child to live in a place where there were few other children, and virtually no adult supervision?
Then, in the wonderful way that fiction works, that little nugget of an idea began to layer up with other ideas. It resonated with memories from my own childhood, particularly the secret club I had with my three siblings, which we called ‘the meeting.’
My big sister was in charge of the meeting. She it was who made the box which contained all the secret business of the meeting. She decided the tasks and set the penalties.
On the less serious side, we had the mischief club, where I was in charge, being the second oldest, but it burnt out long before the meeting because it didn’t have the same magic and I lacked the power to hold it together.
My own childhood memories, stories other people had told me and new fantasies were called into my mind by this seed idea, and transformed in imagination to fit into it.
I love this process. It makes me feel energised and happy. And when, as occasionally happens, it also grows into a publishable book, well that’s just the icing on the cake.
When I read Tzivia Gover’s blog post a few days ago about asking a dream symbol, ‘What is your purpose?’ it felt timely for me because I had just dreamt about an image that recurs fairly frequently in my dreams, so I had an obvious one to try the technique on.
In the dream, I was walking along a cliff path, looking out across the clear blue water. I felt happy and full of energy. As I came down towards the bay, I saw a woman in a bright floral summer’s dress lying languidly in a wide shallow boat, gently rocking.
I noticed an enormous fish, almost as big as the boat, swimming around in the water nearby. There was no sense of danger. It was, as I recorded in my dream diary, simply ‘extraordinary and remarkable.’
I walked on, and saw several more of these huge colourful fish, as I came down onto the beach and crossed a wide rushing stream.
These days, I don’t usually try to interpret individual symbols in my dreams, I just enjoy them, but today I asked the enormous fish, ‘What is your purpose?’
Nothing came to me immediately, so while I was waiting for a reply I pondered, ‘What is it about this enormous fish? It’s not scary, it’s just swimming around in its natural element of water. Yet it is a remarkable fish.’
Then I realised, ‘What is the purpose of this remarkable fish? To be remarkable!’
I feel my life is remarkable, as anyone who has close contact with their dreams and imaginary worlds will feel. I seek the remarkable in my work, always trying to break new ground.
My fish is an ordinary fish in its ordinary element and yet it feels remarkable. My life is an ordinary life but my purpose is to find the extra-ordinary within it. That’s what brings me pleasure, the same as when these enormous fishes swim into my dreams.
You can find your symbol too; you don’t have to wait for a dream. Simply sit quietly for a few moments and take a few slow breaths. Still your mind.
Lower or close your eyes, and move into your inner space. Ask, ‘What is my life’s purpose?’ and let the question float away, as you take a few more slow easy breaths.
Now think of an object, and accept the very first thing that drops into your mind. Don’t judge or rationalise it away.
Examine your object from every angle, noticing its particular characteristics. I notice that my huge fish is always brightly coloured, always swimming in clear water and always on its own.
Ask your object, ‘What is your purpose?’
Again, don’t censor or rationalise; go with the first answer that pops into your head.
If you try this, because my purpose is to find and celebrate remarkable things, please share! What was your symbol, and what insight did it bring?
It’s a common misconception that if your book secures a deal with a major publisher they will organise a lavish book launch and all you’ll have to do is show up in a new frock and graciously accept the toast. This can happen, but only for the chosen few books that get the lion’s share of the marketing spend. The majority of traditionally published authors have to organise their own book launches, although publishers are often happy to make some kind of contribution. If you’re self-published, of course, you’re on your own.
A book launch is a major undertaking and to be honest I haven’t bothered with it for every book but, when I have, I’ve always felt glad I made the effort. After all, a book is a major personal achievement and one that’s worth celebrating.If you’re organising a book launch, here’s what needs to be on your check-list:
Notify your publisher if you have one and ask if they would be willing to help by, for example, providing promotional bookmarks and cards, designing the invitations or contributing towards the cost. Don’t think this is cheeky. You and your publisher are a team, and they’ll be delighted to know you’re making an effort to help promote your new book.
Plan your guest list and send out invitations well in advance.
Choose a venue that is appropriate to the kind of event – small and intimate, big and showy or possibly themed to the book, such as a historic building if it’s a historical novel or a railway station if it’s about travel or a cake shop if one of your themes is food. Be creative!
Set a time and date. Most launches tend to be early evening, say 6-8, during the week, so that people can come by after work and you don’t have to provide a meal.
Think about the catering. As well as sparkling wine for the toast, what other drinks are you going to provide? If a lot of people are likely to be coming by car, remember to lay on plenty of soft drinks too. Can the venue provide a cash bar, to top up your offer?For food, you could get a caterer to lay on a variety of canapés or provide something simple like cheese and olives yourself. Most launches these days seem to involve a fancy themed cake, but that’s still optional. Remember you’ll need someone to serve the drinks and nibbles.
Think about setting out the room. Don’t have too many chairs – just one or two for those who can’t stand for long periods, or else people will not circulate. You’ll want flowers and possibly some kind of display, with posters of the book cover, you doing events or whatever. You could have a colour scheme, such as pink and sparkly for a children’s fairy book, which could extend to the food and drinks as well as the tables and displays.
Arrange for a local bookseller or friend to handle sales of your book on the night (a bookseller will normally charge 30% of your takings)
Arrange for at least one person to take some photos and possibly video your speech/readings (Liz Kessler took mine, including the ones in this blog post – thank-you, Liz!)
Decide whether you’re going to do a talk and/or readings and practice in advance. Check there’s an elevated spot such as a step to stand on, or take a footstool for yourself so that everyone can see you.
Ask someone to propose the toast – this could be your agent or publisher, a fellow author or someone else who has some connection to the book.
The way you tackle these points will depend upon your goal in having a book launch. For example, if you’re having it to get publicity and make lots of sales, your guest list will include local media, any movers and shakers you know and as many people as you can bring in, via leafletting and social media. If you take this approach, ask people to let you know if they intend to come along, so that you’ll have some idea how many you’re catering for.
But publicity and sales are not the only reasons for having a launch. There may be times when something more personal could feel more appropriate. For example, my book launch for Writing in the House of Dreams last week came from a deep desire to thank my family and friends for all the support they’ve given me over the years with this child-of-my-heart book.
I didn’t invite any press and I chose the little cafe at the open-air theatre in my village for the venue. Those of my children who could get time off work and my ex husband travelled from Orkney, London and Brighton to celebrate with me; my friend Liz Kessler came up from St Ives, my friend-and-editor Helen Greathead came from Plymouth.
Among my local friends, there were Cornish Crones, Gospel singers, counsellors and some of the people who have been on my dreaming and writing workshops, all of whom, in some way or another, have been present for me during the often-difficult writing of this book.
I did a speech! I don’t normally do that, but Writing in the House of Dreamsisn’t my normal kind of book. I wanted to explain what writing it had meant to me, and express my gratitude for the help and encouragement I had received. The book was available to buy, but I would not have been upset if nobody had bought it – actually, I might have been relieved. It’s a personal book and a bit out there, and although I’m happy for strangers to read it I was worried what people who know me might think.
Launching it felt like a kind of coming out, and it has been liberating. Before the launch, I had three weeks of technology meltdown, with both my computers and my mobile phone all giving up the ghost, so I couldn’t do the publicity I had planned.
Sometimes the outer world expresses what’s going on inside, and I think maybe I had to announce the arrival of my book-baby and show it off to my family and friends before I could feel really ready to take it out into the world.
Have you ever organised a book launch? Is there anything I’ve missed from my check-list? Is there anything you might do differently next time?
I’m giving you four stars, amazon. You lose that elusive fifth one because of your absolute resistance to removing malicious or inaccurate customer reviews, such as the one that appeared in amazon UK on my bullying book for children which called victims ‘pansies’ and said they should get in with the cool kids by smoking and doing whatever it takes.
Or the one you’re currently refusing to take down on the same book in amazon US, which slanders me as an authority on bullying by stating that I advise bullied children to hit back.
But notwithstanding such a serious shortcoming, here’s why this author still thinks you deserve four stars.
* You make all my books readily available
High Street booksellers are great at selling children’s fiction, but before you arrived, I wrote eight fantastically well-reviewed children’s self-help books which proved impossible for them to sell. If they stocked them, they didn’t know where to display them.
There wasn’t such a thing in the UK as a children’s self-help section, indeed in most shops, there wasn’t much children’s non-fiction at all, except school-type books and a handful of tired-looking hard-backs about animals.
Thanks to you, most of my self-help books are still in print and selling well, and they’re finding their way into the hands of children who need them, which is why I wrote them.
* You keep my out-of-print books available too
This is even more important nowadays because the modern publishing world can be brutal, with books going out of print within a few months if they fail to reach their projected sales.
It’s hard to write a book. Not just in terms of work, but in terms of emotional commitment. So it’s simply heart-breaking if the book you’ve taken years to write and months to sell, and then waited eighteen months to see in print, disappears without trace before it’s even had a proper chance, to make way for ever more celebrity memoirs and novelty books.
* You make it possible for me to write what I want to write
When I was first published, authors were barely aware of ‘the market’ at all. Now the decision to publish is made by marketing people who will not even have read the book, so there’s not much point writing anything that hasn’t got a strong ‘hook’ and pound signs all around it.
But what if you want to write the books you want to write, and would be happy with moderate sales so long as you could pay your bills? My most frequent feedback from publishers recently is that the book is ‘too niche for the market’ or ‘too niche to achieve bulk sales.’
This is especially hard when they’re really positive about the quality of the book, like with my most recent submission, which has so far not secured a contract: ‘this is a very fine novel, so subtle, yet sharply observed’, ‘a sensitive subject, delicately and carefully handled’, ‘compelling’, ‘highly readable’, ‘the writing is very strong.’
I would be in despair at this stage if it wasn’t for your kindle and createspace, amazon, which mean that even the most ‘niche’ book can at least find some readers, rather than ending up a typescript on a shelf.
* You make it easy for me to find any niche or out-of-print book I want to read for research
I used to rely on the library service years ago. My little local branch sought out all sorts of obscure books on dreaming and psychology for me, but it took a long time and wasn’t always successful. Now, thanks to you, I can get any book I want, delivered to my house the very next day.
I still love High Street booksellers, of course – all authors do. High Street booksellers love and know about books – they are people like us. Whereas you, amazon, love and know about money. I deplore the fact that you don’t pay your fair share of taxes; I’m dismayed by your recently well-publicised poor working conditions.
I hate your attempts to force publishers to accept deep discounting by removing their books from your catalogue, although I don’t think it’s much different from what all the major retailers do.
But I personally forgive you all this, because in a traditional publishing environment that has become increasingly difficult for a non-fiction, non-bestselling, niche author to survive in, you make a creative career feel possible.
How do you feel about amazon and the huge online booksellers? Love, hate… or a bit of both?
I like to start every new year with a brand new piece of writing so every autumn I put together a short-list of ideas for my next book and then watch for synchronicities to help me decide which one to go with. This year, as usual, life has given me some prompts.
2013 got off to a cracking start for me when I tutored my first ever Arvon course on ‘Writing for Children.’ I had never previously taught children’s writing because it seemed to me that writing for children was pretty much the same as writing for adults – all the elements of fiction such as plot, settings and characters work in the same way, and whoever you’re writing for you have to target your particular reader.
But being asked to teach writing for children meant I had to really think about not only what is the same but also what is different, and teaching the course turned out to be pure pleasure. I enjoyed it so much that I wrote a new series of evening workshops on writing for children which I taught at the end of 2013.
At the first session, I dug out various books I thought people might like to read, including the very latest book on writing for children, by Linda Newbery and Yvonne Coppard.
Flicking through the back matter for more ideas, I discovered that Writing in the House of Dreams is included in the recommended writing blogs, the only one by an individual among half a dozen group blogs. That felt most affirming!
Then, at the last workshop session, one of the participants mentioned that she’d seen my children’s book, ‘How to be a Brilliant Writer’ in Maeve Binchy’s recommended reading list at the back of her book on writing.
One of the ideas I’d been mulling over for my next project was a book for adults about writing – just writing, not in relation to dreams. But although I’d wanted to do that for ages, it didn’t seem sensible because there were already so many books out there by writers about writing .
I always follow life’s promptings, however, so with a gleeful click of the heels I’ll be up, up and away writing an adult book about writing to go with my children’s one in the New Year. The various other projects I’ve been mulling over will have to wait until their time is ripe.
What new projects are you looking forward to in 2014? Have you felt prompted by life?
My favourite chapter in Patricia Garfield’s ground-breaking book, ‘Creative Dreaming,’ is the one about the Senoi dreamers, whose dream-practice is designed ‘to make life better.’
In this tradition, if you have an unhappy or disturbing dream, you create a happy outcome for it, either by going back to sleep and dreaming it on, or through creative visualisation when awake.
If every time you have a bad dream you bring it to a satisfying resolution, soon your dreaming mind will start to follow the pattern you have consciously created, and difficult dream situations will always be resolved within the dream.
This practice doesn’t only make your dreamlife happier, it makes your waking life better too, because it works as a kind of rehearsal, an empowering opportunity to experience yourself as someone who confronts their fears and finds their courage and ingenuity in difficult situations.
One of my most common nightmares when I was younger was fear of falling from high places, and that fear was reflected in my waking life. First, I learnt to handle it in my dreams and then, building on that imaginative experience, in my waking life, so that nowadays I love the exhilaration of pushing through the fear to reach the heights.
This is exactly what we do when we write fiction. We put our characters in difficult situations and imagine them forward to a place of resolution. These fictional situations emerge, like dreams, from our deep unconscious, and like the Senoi dreamers, we transform them in imagination in order to triumph over them.
Has your dreaming or writing ever helped you to face a deep fear and feel empowered?
Last week, I posted the picture Paul Farrington gave me before Christmas. Somebody else has given me a gift recently that I’ve been contemplating, and that was the dream therapist, Brenda Mallon. She generously read the MS of my book, ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ and gave me some really helpful feedback.
Brenda’s feedback was helpful largely because it focused on what I had said about using dreams therapeutically – which I hadn’t even noticed I had talked about. It’s one of the mysteries of writing that you often don’t see everything that’s in a piece until it gradually reveals itself through other people’s reading.
I had thought my book was purely about using dream material for creative inspiration, because that’s what my workshops are. In dreaming-and-writing workshops we don’t relate the dreams we share in any way to our waking life – that would feel intrusive and be as creatively inhibiting as setting out to write fiction by first trying to analyse where it’s coming from in ourselves and our lives. We use dreams purely as a creative resource.
In this blog I’ve tried to steer away from interpretation and focus on dreams as creative resources too, but Brenda’s feedback has shown me that although I can easily narrow the focus in workshops, I haven’t done it in my book, I don’t do it in my life and I’m not really holding that line here on the blog.
So I’m throwing open the gates. This year, I’ll be writing about dreams from every angle, including some thoughts on interpretation and an interview with Brenda on using dreams in therapy. I’ll be doing some more general articles about writing too.
After all, it doesn’t matter what we write – we’re always writing in the House of Dreams.
Has a reader ever found something in your writing that you didn’t intend or realise were there?