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?
explore and gain mastery in our inner worlds of emotion and imagination
develop, organise and share our ideas
satisfy our natural yearning to create beautiful objects
make our own entertainment and never get bored
The way children learn to write at school completely ignores all these wonderful benefits and that’s why, ten years ago, I wrote my children’s book,How to be a Brilliant Writerfocusingnot just on the nuts and bolts of how to do it, but also why you might want to, and what writing can do for you.
I knew I’d want to write some books for adults about writing one day too, because I’m a bit of a maven – when I’ve found something great, I just have to share it.
After Writing in the House of Dreams last year, which is about dreams as much as writing, I started work on a new book just about writing, no dreams – writing as a hobby, a spiritual path, a career – the psychology, the process, the question of publication – a distilling down of what I’ve learned from a lifetime of writing and twenty three years of being published. I called it When a Writer Isn’t Writing: How to Beat Your Blocks, Be Published and Find Your Flow.
I didn’t offer the manuscript to my agent or traditional publishers, but decided instead to go straight to self-publishing. The main reason was that I wanted to get a second book out fairly quickly after Writing in the House of Dreams, as I thought two books on different aspects of the same theme might support each other in the market – if someone read one and liked it, they might take a punt on the other.
Writing my book about writing was relatively easy because I’d been thinking about it for several years before I sat down to start. Sending the manuscript out to beta readers – which is really important when a book isn’t going to go through the traditional agent+publishers vetting process – also felt unchallenging, because I was confident in the material.
Working with the editor and then the designer felt like part of the creative process of the book, so I enjoyed that too, but then I had to get to grips with some promotion and pre-publicity, and that certainly didn’t feel like part of the creative process to me.
When the focus lifts from writing to sales, my interest always dips, and with this book I began to sabotage my promotional efforts by thinking ‘what’s the point anyway?’ which made it even harder to feel motivated.
One of the things that got me thinking that way was that my experience with Writing in the House of Dreamshad been mixed. I had struggled to find my elevator pitch, because that book straddled two areas of interest, dream-working and writing, so it didn’t fit neatly into either. (My thanks again to Susan Price, who described the book perfectly in her review of it, and so helped me reframe how I describe it myself)
Not having a clear enough concept, all my efforts to get some pre-publicity for it hadn’t achieved very much, and had felt like a waste of good writing time.
I was on the point of deciding to just press publish and let When a Writer Isn’t Writing sink or swim without a shout, when I had this dream:
I’m thinking about my app Get Writing! and I see that the tasks could be represented by people sitting on a wall, and you could click any one, and they would all take you to a writing task. Just writing, so you could click with confidence, knowing what you were going to get.
When a Writer Isn’t Writing is like that, which means it will be easier to pitch and sell than Writing in the House of Dreams. That book could take a writer places they don’t want to go, but When a Writer Isn’t Writing only takes them into writing.
This dream gave me the energy and confidence to stop messing around and do some promoting, and I managed to place articles in Mslexia and The Author. Mslexia have subsequently approached me to ask if I’d like them to feature the book in their October competition. Er… yes please!
There will be reviews on the book analyst and awfullybigreviews, which I’ll link to here when they go up (if you’re a book blogger and would like a review copy, please get in touch!) I’m also organising a launch party in September.
It’s been a tough couple of months, not because self-publishing, writing press releases, pitching articles and organising events is hard and horrible work – I actually quite enjoy it – but because it takes up so much head-space that it stops you getting stuck into new writing.
My daily dose of writing – every stage from pondering and note-taking to drafting and redrafting – is what normally keeps me feeling happy and grounded. Writing isn’t just amazing – it’s addictive.
A non writing writer is a monster courting insanity | Franz Kafka
Dreams are my therapist when not writing makes me feel a bit crazy – what helps you?
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.
Just across the road from where I live, there’s a piece of woodland where I often walk. This morning, when I reached the stile, I found warning notices that tree-felling was in progress, to clear diseased trees.
I was shocked when I saw the extent of the devastation, a long section of beautiful woodland around the path reduced to an ugly scar.
Something about the angle of the felled tree trunks reminded me of the Tower card in tarot, and that made me feel better.
The card traditionally shows a tower being burned, destroyed or blown apart, with figures tumbling from the top. Angeles Arrien, my favourite tarot commentator, says, ‘Because this card looks so violent, it has often been misinterpreted.’ She says the Tower is actually ‘the universal principle of healing, renovation and restoration.’
I’ve been experiencing the Tower lately in my writing, with a story I wrote and submitted over a decade ago. Back then, it went as far as acquisitions with several publishers and was only rejected on grounds that they had already taken on new books on similar themes.
So coming back to it, I knew the book was of publishable standard, and I wasn’t planning to do anything radical, just prepare the text for kindle. But on re-reading, I had a strong sense that I could write the whole thing better now, after this long delay of time.
I copied the file and started chopping out the dead wood and carving up the action; then I started all over again, strengthening the voice, deepening the characters and restructuring the plot.
For a while, I wondered whether I was actually just destroying a perfectly good story, but what’s grown from the wreckage is a far fresher, stronger and more satisfying novel.
Hopefully the woodland near my house will soon begin its own regeneration.
Have you ever had to ‘kill your darlings’ as a writer? Or been through a Tower time, when things have fallen apart but ultimately made way for something better?
I met Brenda Mallon at a conference of children’s authors and she kindly agreed to read the MS of my book, ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ and to be interviewed for this blog.
Brenda has over thirty years experience of working with dreams as a researcher, teacher and therapist. She has written 18 books on the subject, presented a Channel Four series ‘In your Dreams’ and sat on the board of directors of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.
Could you tell us a bit about your own personal journey in dreams, Brenda? How and why did you start to remember them, and how has your relationship with dreams developed over the years?
I can recall dreams from my childhood that have stayed with me. I was probably influenced to some extent by my mother. She talked about her dreams and had dreams which were precognitive. She didn’t call them that but would say, ‘You watch, it will happen.’ I think she was psychic in many ways and dreams were just one aspect of that ability. So, over the years I was fascinated by dreams . When I was completing my Diploma in Counselling I based my dissertation dreams. I recorded and worked on my dreams over a sixth month period and was amazed by what they revealed. After that I wanted to focus on working with and researching dreams and to find out what other people’s dreams meant to them, so when I wasn’t working in my full time job in the Child Guidance Centre, I was sending out questionnaires and interviewing woman about their dreams. Over 900 woman took part and the findings were covered in my first book ‘Women Dreaming’ which was published by Harper Collins.
I greatly enjoyed your Channel 4 series, ‘In your dreams.’ Could you talk about how you work with dreams as a therapist?
Thanks, I enjoyed working on the series and meeting such a variety of people who were not coming for therapy but to discuss their dream life in general.
As a therapist, my role, I believe, it to accompany people as they seek to find a way to resolve issues that are distressing and to help them find their own way forward. I generally ask clients to write down their dreams when they recall them and to bring them to the sessions. I should add here, that not all clients do remember their dreams so I work in other ways if that is the case. When a client talks about a dream I ask them if they can make a connections to their waking life and explore the emotional aspects of the dream as well as the symbolic significance of the content. Sometimes, I ask the client to draw their dream and use that as a basis for our work. These techniques, including recording your dreams, using metaphors and symbols, taking the dream forward and dream amplification are detailed in ‘The Dream Bible’ (Godsfield/Octopus)
I like working with dreams because they empower the client to work on their own dreams once they get used to the techniques. This can take just a few sessions and it is something they can access on their own for the rest of their lives, if they wish to. Also, I have specialized in working with people who have been bereaved and, in many cases, dreams can bring great comfort. They form part of the continuing bond we have with those who have died. In ‘Dying, Death and Grief: Working with adult bereavement’ (SAGE) I show how valuable such dreams can be.
As a children’s author, I’m interested in your work with children’s dreams. What would you say are the main differences between talking with children about their dreams and talking with adults?
I think younger children are more open to talking about their dreams and less concerned about how others might view them. I remember, one four year old I spoke to told me that dreams were ‘pictures in my pillow’. His dreams were in his pillow which came into his head when he slept. (In fact, I later used it in ‘Children Dreaming: Pictures in my pillow’ (Penguin). So, small children feel they have little if any control over dreams and their content and are less defensive than adults sometimes are.
Children are usually happy to enter into the playful aspect of dream work. For example, a girl whose brother had died, had a distressing dream in which a lion came into her bedroom and wanted to eat her and her brother, who was alive in the dream, She talked about what frightened her and how she was sad that her brother no longer came into her room to play. She drew the dream, including the fierce lion. I asked her what she would change in the dream if she could change it. She thought for a while and said, ‘The lion could turn out to be nice and then it could go away. I could play with my brother again and that would be lovely.’ So, we talked about what they would play and games they used to play. She then did another drawing of herself and her bother playing as they had done in the past. She knew her brother was dead and would not return to her home and family but talking about him and playing with him gave her comfort and a chance to recall happy times in the past, which is part of the grieving and healing process.
Working with adults is also a pleasure. Adults however may have more pre-conceived ideas about dream interpretation which may lead to being more guarded about what dreams they share. However, once they understand dreams are powerful tools to help them through their crisis or distress, they truly value them, even those nightmare ‘wake up’ calls.
This blog is mostly about using dreams as a creative resource. I know you also teach creativity and writing workshops – do dreams feature in that work as well?
Artists, writers, scientists, musicians and actors speak of the importance of dreams as a source of creativity. I use dreams in my own writing and many members of the creative writing courses I teach use dreams as the springboard for their writing. Sometimes an image will be so vivid that the dreamer cannot get it out of their mind. This kernel of an idea then grows to encompass characters, plot, further imagery and a developed story line. In other cases, the whole story or song appears in the dream. Robin Gibb, of the Bee Gees, told me his song ‘Stayin’ Alive’ came in one of his dreams as did Paul McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’.
I include sections on creative writing and creative dreaming in ‘A Year of Creativity’ (MQ Publications) as I think dreams are central to our creativity. The more we pay attention to our internal treasure trove of dreams the more enriched we are.
Who is your favourite author on the subject of dreams?
I like the work of Kelly Bulkeley, Robert Van De Castle and Patricia Gardfield. All members of the International Association for the Study of Dreams who have made vitally important , accessible contributions to the understanding of dreams. Also, Carl Gustav Jung, who could leave him out!
And your favourite book?
This is a hard one to answer. Probably because it is one of the earliest books I read that introduced me to the significance of symbolism in dreams is ‘Man and His Symbols’ by C.G. Jung.
As an author yourself, which of your own books are you most glad to have written?
Another difficult question! As a therapist, I think ‘Dreams, Counselling and Healing’ was an important book because I was able to put down my experience of working with clients and to show how powerful working with dreams is and to share techniques so others could use them. My latest dream book ‘The Dream Experience: Your complete dream workshop in a book ‘, which includes a CD featuring exercises and inspirational music, is interactive and is, I hope, a guide to deepen awareness of the creative heart of dreaming.
Last week, I delivered a children’s book to my agent which I first conceived more than ten years ago. It had been through several complete versions, one of which a previous agent had actually sent to a publisher, as much as anything in the hope of getting some useful feedback, as she and I agreed that it probably wasn’t quite there, though we couldn’t see what was missing.
It wasn’t quite there, but it didn’t go away, and when I had flu before Christmas, it re-emerged quite unexpectedly, to announce that it was ready.
I had lost all my previous notes and versions, but I knew the story, and this time the planning and writing came easy and complete, like a jigsaw falling into place, all the missing pieces found.
Now, starting work on another new book, I’ve discovered that this story also took root in me more than a decade ago, and the same thing is happening. Where it once felt stuck and abandoned, now it’s emerging fully-formed, and all I’m having to do is write it down.
Last night I dreamt I was at a Scattered Authors conference, talking to other authors about this moment in a piece of work, when the book is inside you, fully-formed, like a shadow book, and your task is to bring it out, not harming or disturbing it, but as whole, which it already is.
You change yourself, your face, your mouth, stretching it wide, until gradually the book emerges out of your mouth, transforming from shadow to solid and real. I demonstrate it. I say how exciting this is, knowing the book is there, then opening yourself up and allowing it to come into the world so that everyone can see what it is.
I thought, ‘What if a life is like a book? Already complete in shadow form, and gradually emerging into the world, a little misshapen in its birthing, perhaps, a few edges knocked off in its early years, but still… when nature is ready, the matter inhabits the shadow.
Then I woke up and saw the book I’d been reading before I fell asleep, ‘In Search of Mind: Essays in Autobiography’ by Jerome Bruner, which begins with his thoughts about whether it is our history which shapes us or our destiny, and I smiled.
I love this layering-up of daytime activity, dreams and ideas. The material, the imaginal and the rational, playing alongside each other; themes and variations, music of the mind.
Have you ever had a book or story that took years between the first spark and the final realisation?
A few weeks ago, I heard author Matthew Johnstone talking about his experience of depression on the BBC World Service, and it got me thinking about the link between depression, dreams and the creative life.
Strikingly, Matthew said he would not change anything – his depression was part of him. Rather than try to kill the black dog, he had learnt how to tame it.
In the West, we treat depression as an illness, a malfunction in the brain which needs to be cured with chemicals or brought under control by psychological explanations.
Depression challenges all our cultural values. It makes us antisocial in a world where naturally solitary types are labelled ‘poorly socialised’; it makes us still, in a world of manic activity.
Depression stops us from having what we want – which boils down to happiness – and we believe we should always be able to get what we want, because this is a secular world. Without God/fate/mystery, we expect to have control over our own lives.
Nobody would choose to feel depressed, but that is precisely the opportunity depression brings. It brings us to a standstill on our chosen track and, by stopping us from having what we think we want, it opens us up to something new and unexpected. It makes our life bigger.
It’s a well-documented fact that people dream more during periods of depression. Often these dreams are particularly vivid and memorable; they release a torrent of new images which, if we pay attention, can open doorways into new places of the mind, and inspire new directions in life. The loss of these life-giving dreams may be one of the most harmful side-effects of antidepressant drugs.
Many writers label their depression as ‘writer’s block.’ Suddenly the story they thought they had all planned out is stalled, or they can’t find any ideas for the next one. But this is the gift of the black dog for writers – it forces you to be still and receptive, so that new insights and inspirations can come in.
Writer’s block is simply impatience, which means literally the inability to tolerate suffering, delay, toil or vexation (from the Latin word meaning ‘to bear’)
Depression can feel dark and frightening, like a big black dog, but kicking him will make him mean. Don’t try to kill him, but don’t underestimate him either – if he hangs around your house, you need to tame him.
I think the black dog is a special danger for children and young people, before life has given them the perspective of time or put support systems in place. That’s why I wrote my children’s book, ‘How 2B Happy’, in which the very first principle is that we can’t be happy all the time; we have to accept unhappiness. But we can deal with it, and discover what gifts it brings.