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Session on the Art of Writing

Writing about writing

Complete one of the following:

1) A completely factual account of time in the life of a writer (you!) who is struggling to write.

How do you motivate yourself? How do you generate new ideas? How do you stop yourself giving up? What changes could be made to encourage the writing's flow? How do you know it is time to give up? Can you see a way out? Do you succeed or fail in your writing mission?

2) Describe the most imperfect writing environment imaginable.

Where is it? How do you feel? What are you trying to write? Why is the environment so unsuitable? What can you see or hear or sense? Can you escape?

3) Write a story or poem with the title ‘Writer's Block’ or ‘The Day I Couldn't Write’.

(Guideline length of up to about 600 words)

Where/How/Why do you write?

The more you discover of the writing habits of successful authors, the more you realise that there are as many answers as there are writers.


The author of Charlie and Lola kids' books, Lauren Child, writes in bed. One author (Elizabeth Crane) sits on the couch with the TV on. Emily St John Mandel writes at home after coming home from her part time university job. She sits at her extremely messy desk surrounded by cats and music, or in the university library or on the subway. Alexander Chee writes on trains, where the "anonymity and displacement help me". Nova Ren Suma writes in a cafe at a good table, but can't stay for long because of the crowds and noise. In New York there is a giant loft space called the Writers Room where she also works. Surrounding yourself with other motivated writers can make a sociable writer more motivated but doesn't work for everyone. Fiona McArthur writes medical romances from a small Australian flat with beach garden for two and a half days a week. She can write anywhere but is easily distracted by family and housework. JK Rowling created many of the initial Harry Potter ideas in her head while sitting on a railway station, and a train, without a pen or notebook. If she'd written those ideas down at the time would they perhaps have become stifled? Later, time was spent at cafe tables eking out one coffee...


Location is interesting, but technique is too.

Write first thing in the morning when the house is quiet and your mind is rested. Write from late afternoon onwards with a small alcoholic drink. Write late at night, by lamplight, for more atmospheric prose.

Stephen King - ten pages daily, no matter what. Ernest Hemingway - 500 words a day, never while drunk, and usually early in the day. Vladimir Nabokov - writing on hundreds of index cards (while standing up). Truman Capote - wrote horizontally, with first drafts written in longhand in pencil. Phillip Roth - standing up, pacing, at a lectern.

Try to stick to your preferred location and technique, until they stop working for you. If they do, experiment!

Activity (after the group): Try working in a location you never usually would select - the garden, on the moors, in a crowded pub, on lunch break at work. Does your writing differ as a result of the changed location? Has it improved?

You are a writer - take it seriously

One writing book lists the following as a writer's necessary qualities:

Discipline, Stamina, A love of words and a feeling for them, Imagination, Experience (of life), Observation, Something to say, Dissatisfaction, Self-confidence, Selfishness and a Professional attitude.

Activity: How do you feel about this list of writer's qualities? Are there any further you could suggest?

Dickens would agree - quoted in the Jan 2015 Writers' Forum magazine (pg 36) - "I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time".

If you take yourself seriously as a writer, time can be found for your writing. Personally I have found it necessary to disable my Facebook profile, to write even if it is just for five minutes at the kitchen table while making dinner, or (when really stuck), I set my kitchen timer for 5 minutes between tasks to focus my attention and thoughts.

Quoted from book Writing for Pleasure and Profit - "A professional attitude. Are you one of those who say, 'I write a little,' and say it, what's more, with the self-deprecating modesty of a dabbler? Don't think like that. You may not be a professional in the sense that you make your living solely from writing, you may literally write only a little, scribbling the odd line now and then, but don't think of yourself as a dilettante. Say firmly, 'I'm a writer,' and believe it, and act like it, and be professional in your attitudes. Learn your craft, learn your trade, take pride not only in your work itself but in its presentation, take it seriously (which doesn't necessarily mean without a sense of humour). The more professional your approach, the more likely you are to achieve success. I wonder which of the qualities I have listed you consider the most important? William Faulkner said, 'A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times, any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.' Perhaps those three, then, together or singly, outweigh the others. But I would also put a lot of emphasis on stamina and dissatisfaction" Faulkner was an American writer who placed some emphasis on stream of consciousness passages in his writing.

So, try to write regularity and exercise your writing muscle. Beef it up. Writing isn't always easy - it requires training. The more well trained you are, the more proficient and efficient you'll become. Those writers with the most success are those who write and work regularly to perfect their skill - very few writers 'get it' instinctively.

Where do you get your ideas from?

A writer's most frequently asked question! There are more inspiration sources than could ever be listed. From everyday life to a fantastic dream - don't discount anything.

Write about what you know. And if you don't know about something but would like to know about it, take time and enjoy your research.

Become a fly on the wall at social events or on public transport - then jot down snippets for realistic dialogue.

Join Facebook groups on random topics.

Look in your attic for unusual heirlooms or research your family tree.

Write about your own likes, dislikes, interests, problems, amusements etc.

What you would like to say or do in real life if you weren't fearful of offending someone?

Create a random starting point that can be discarded late. Make up a title, write about children or pets, or find a noun you like, select from a word square, expand existing flash fiction or create a back-story to interesting song lyrics.

Keep a diary and regularly refer back.

Find out all you can about a particular genre or market and try to pitch something directly to it.

Create a piece from a combination of inspirational quotes you may find online.

What if the ideas don't come?

If you can't write, then READ - then consider the aspects of the book that you enjoyed; how tension was achieved; what made the plot so gripping or emotionally catching; what were the writer's intentions, and what made the book special? Use this information in your own work.

Writer's block may be caused by outside events and personal problems which "smother the creative urge", or perhaps because of a vital piece of missing research. Sometimes the block can come and go with no apparent cause. Quoted from the Jan 2015 Writers' Forum magazine (pg 36), author Eva Dane defines writer's block as what happens when your imaginary friends stop talking to you.

"But why have they left you? It's more than likely they're taking a break. That's because they know, better than you do, that you need to ease off for a while. Go and do something completely different: preferably something labour-intensive that will take your mind off your story. Before long, your imaginary friends will return refreshed and you can continue full steam ahead with your writing."

Even if you have to sit and write gobbledygook at first, it is usually more beneficial to write something rather than nothing. Write something OR do something. Staring at a blank sheet is not usually helpful.

Activity: One or two ideas from each member of the group, which may prove of use in finding inspiration and getting rid of writer's block.

Writing tools

And, if this doesn't work, try writing tools such as the Android Story Plot Generator - Search App Store on your phone and install for free. You'll get texts such as: "Two workplace adversaries share an intimate moment at a local bar after work. One of the characters isn't comfortable around children, of which the other character has. Love has no secrets. One of the characters is exceptionally wealthy" or "You live within an arctic empire. You are an archer. A reoccurring nightmare foreshadows an upcoming challenge. A neighbouring city has disappeared along with its inhabitants: find out what happened".

On your computer, try something like in which you're asked a series of questions about a scenario, many of which you wouldn't have previously considered.

Or try a distraction-free writing screen application. Some of these offer background white noise and icon-free blank screens which block email reminders or background computer sounds etc.

Activity: Can group members suggest other tools which they've found to be of use?

Don't be slave to perfectionism

"Certain flaws are necessary for the whole. It would seem strange if old friends lacked certain quirks" - Goethe

"Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything, That's how the light gets in" - Leonard Cohen, Anthem

"Striving to better, oft we mar what's well" - William Shakespeare, King Lear

"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it" - Salvador Dali

"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away" - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

"If I waited for perfection... I would never write a word" - Margaret Atwood

Activity: Select one of the quotes above and continue for a few sentences more. Just write - it doesn't have to be profound or perfect.

Why write?

So, the where and how of getting down to writing is something that changes with each person. BUT, the WHY is even more complex.

Why does a person feel the need to get their thoughts down on paper? Or, even more mystifyingly - why then share something so personal?

If you 'potter about' are you still a writer?

If you don't share your writings are you still a writer?

If you don't take yourself and your writing seriously are you still a writer?

If you don't enter competitions are you still a writer?

What DOES make a writer?

Activity: What makes a writer and why do you write?

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