A moment of writing zen by a babbling brook #trythisathome

For anyone needing a moment of writing zen, here’s a bit of nature to get you in the mood.

Having recently discovered Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books, I’ve been ignoring the world in airport departure lounges in favour of battling demons and teen angst. I’m a massive fan of YA books and I think they’re one of the best ways for any fiction writer to think about the importance of a strong plot as well as a strong story. Due to travelling up and down the country to see friends & family for early autumn weddings, I’ve also been thinking a lot this week about finding quiet moments to write, think and read.

For anyone else trying to channel a moment of calm to focus on their writing, here’s a recording of a babbling brook taken in the grounds of The Hurst during a recent writing retreat. Perhaps imbued with the memory of John Osbourne tramping around with his dog, or simply the clarity that time in nature brings, stick it on a loop and block out everyday life while you lose yourself in writing (or reading) a book.

*It’s a low quality recording taken on an iPhone so if you’re listening in a loud environment, stick a pair of headphones on.

How to fill the first 10 pages of your writing notebook without panicking

I love researching and I love thinking ideas through. Sometimes this means I get mired in my own head: getting thoughts onto paper becomes a chore because they’re never going to be as good as they are in my head. If that chimes for you, scroll to the end of this post for a quick fix.

I love researching and I love thinking ideas through. Sometimes this means I get mired in my own head: getting thoughts onto paper becomes a chore because they’re never going to be as good as they are in my head. If that chimes for you, scroll to the end of this post for a quick fix.

When I’m starting a short story I usually have something that’s brought me to the desk: an opening line, an overheard phrase that suggests a character, a strong concept. I write and think and walk until I’ve got the skeleton of a plot and then I dig in to develop and edit it.

This week I’ve started a non-fiction project that’s not narrative based: without a plot to work towards or characters to get to know, I wanted to make sure I didn’t get in that awful stuck position where nothing gets done and I become more and more frustrated until I want to run away and train to be a productive member of society and run an all-female plumbing company or learn to drive a train.

I’m at the very beginning with this project: I’ve written nothing towards it, researched nothing towards it. I haven’t even done a google search to see if someone else has already written a version of what I’m planning to do. All I had at the beginning of this week was a title that summarised the area I’m interested in, a loose concept of what kinds of writing might be included, and some space in my timetable while the first draft of the novel sits and cools its heels pre-editing.

Normally I’d spend a lot of time on the internet and then a lot of time reading. I’d tell myself to do the research first and the writing second. But that wasn’t how I wanted to approach this project: I wanted to spend the next couple of weeks writing, keeping up the good habits I’d been practising with getting the novel draft done. The last thing I wanted to do was stare at a computer screen and fall into endless-scroll mode.

I was in a good starting place because I’d already identified the problem. Wanting to make the most of the adrenaline rush of energy that starting something new gives me, I thought I’d break unhelpful patterns of behaviour by trying a different approach.

Here’s what I did:

  1. Cut two A4 pieces of paper into long strips. I used an old story draft that had only been printed on one side of the paper for added environmentally-friendly, thrifty value.
  2. Wrote one-sentence starting points that asked me questions about the project from a variety of angles. As well as thematic questions, these included what I thought about the project, how I’d feel if I never finished it, where I saw it being in 1/5/10 years time, what I imagined the blurb on the back of a book about it would say, what my ambition for it was, what I’d be doing instead if I didn’t do it.
  3. Kept going until every strip of paper had something written on it. Even if I thought it was a slightly foolish question or a sentence that wouldn’t elicit anything interesting from me.
  4. Folded each piece of paper over three times and mixed them about. Then I put them in a satisfyingly wide glass jar with a metal lid I found in the swap-pile in the shared studio I write in.

Next time I sat at my desk, I opened a new page on my notebook and picked one of the folded pieces of paper out the jar. I wrote the sentence at the top of the page, set a timer for 6 minutes and wrote whatever came into my mind in response to the sentence until the timer went off.

What I’m really doing is giving myself space to understand the project better

I’m now about halfway through the jar and I’ve already decided to change the title. I’ve got a clearer idea of the timespan I’m wiling to focus on the project for, which parts of it interest me most and what creative need I’m filling by doing it in the first place. What I’m really doing is giving myself space to understand the project better before I put my energies into doing the research. By taking this time to think it through in writing, I’ll know how to pinpoint my research into the areas that really interest me and save myself from being tied up in sticky knots.

A quick fix to try at home when you’re stuck

Set a timer for 6 minutes then answer each of these questions in turn, moving on to the next questions when the timer goes off.

  1. Originally I wanted to write this because I knew it would…
  2. Right now, the thing I want to change is…
  3. At the end of today’s writing session I want to feel… and in order to achieve that I will…

 

Writing exercise for a bride-to-be (or groom)

A quick writing exercise for a bride or groom in the run-up to their wedding.

While summer may be seen as peak wedding season, I know three fantastic couples celebrating their nuptials at the beginning of October. From my own experience last year, I remember how amazing and frenetic the final weeks are and how special it can be to take a pause and focus on how you’re feeling and what you’re looking forward to most. After a conversation with one of the brides yesterday, here’s a quick writing exercise for anyone wanting to capture some of their thoughts on paper in the run up to their celebrations.

WRITING EXERCISE

IF YOU HAVE  30 MINS SPARE: For each of the following in turn, set a timer for 6 mins and free-write without editing yourself. When the timer goes off finish the word you’re writing, reset the timer and move onto the next sentence-stem.

IF YOU HAVE NO TIME AT ALL: Do one per day while the kettle boils for your morning tea/coffee.

1. My favourite thing about the preparations so far has been…

2. This time next year, the first thing I will remember will be…

3. On the day of the wedding itself I want to feel…

4. If I were my best friend, i’d tell myself to spend the next week…

5. If I could whisper something in my partner’s ear the night before the wedding it would be…

 

*As with any free-writing exercise, keep your eyes and your pen on the page and remember that you’re writing for your eyes only, not to share with anyone else. Enjoy losing yourself in the flow for a few minutes and appreciate the moment!

 

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My own favourite piece of pre-wedding prep: checking the ring cushion fit on the surprise wedding pony and reminiscing with my mother about the pony my grandfather used to ride

 

Our Associate Artists & the questions they raised #spreadsheetsandmoxie

Introducing the Associate Artists for Spreadsheets and Moxie, alongside an exercise for you to try at home.

For those of you who haven’t come across it yet, Spreadsheets & Moxie is one of my current projects: a year of R&D (funded by Arts Council England- thanks guys!) working alongside the inspirational and talented writer Sarah Salway to take a rounded approach to professionalism for women in the creative arts. More details here. Skip to the end of this post for an exercise to try at home.

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Viccy & Sarah in the middle of a silent walking (& silent selfies) exercise in the grounds of The Hurst, Shropshire

Over the coming months I’ll be blogging some of the exercises and approaches we’re taking, and soliciting views and experiences from the wider creative communities (FYI men: your thoughts are very welcome) via an online survey. Today I wanted to introduce a layer of the structure we’re working within. As you’ll already have gathered, the project is led, jointly, by Sarah and myself and feeds off the coaching sessions we’ve been swapping with each other since we met four years ago on an Accredited Coaching Skills for Writers course run by the National Association of Writers in Education and Arvon. The next layer we’re working within is an invited network of five women creative arts professionals based in the North East of England and five based in the South East of England: our Associate Artists.

The Associate Artists are a sounding board for Sarah and I to challenge our ideas, get directed feedback on our work in progress, build a wider picture and think things through differently. We’ve hand-picked women who approach the world in interesting ways, are generous to others and who produce high quality artistic work. They are (in alphabetical order): Clare Best, Vanessa Gebbie, Kris Johnson, Helen Limon, Lisa Matthews, Juliana Mensah, Ellen Montelius, Susannah Pickering-Ronnie, Catherine Smith and Kay Syrad.

 

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Tackling some of our Associate Artists’ questions in a glorious, outdoors setting

While Sarah and I were at the Arvon Clockhouse last week setting out the backbones of Spreadsheets & Moxie (it’s lovely there BTW, I highly recommend it as a writing retreat option), our Associate Artists each gave us a short activity, prompt or discussion point to consider over the six days. These ranged from keeping appropriate boundaries in collaborations to taking decisions on when to stop working on a piece and start a new one, from standing up for ourselves in public situations to considering alternatives to commercialisation. What I want to share with you today is the blanket approach Sarah and I developed as a way of making sense of the different questions in the context of the project.

With so much to cover in the six days we had working together, rather than trying to set ourselves up as Agony Aunts or the definitive last word on what’s ‘best’ and ‘right’, we did a 6 minute freewriting exercise to get down on paper different ways in which we might approach answering the question. After the 6 minutes were up, Sarah and I would explain to the other what we’d thought up and discuss ways of expanding or refining them. It was fascinating how many varied pathways this offered us, and even more surprising how little overlap there was in the techniques suggested. It made a great starting point for thematic discussions. It also helped us keep our responses to the questions/prompts/discussion points linked firmly back to the project. I found that my responses normally started by unpacking the language of the question or re-phrasing, for which I blame my background in research academia, but which became my route into understanding the question better before trying to work out how it might be answered.

DO TRY THIS AT HOME:

Take a blank sheet of paper & write your question/prompt/discussion point at the top. This might be set by someone else, it might be something you’ve been stuck on with your writing, it might be an area you want to know more about.

Set a timer for 6 minutes.

Freewrite as many possibilities as come to mind how you MIGHT approach answering it.

When the timer goes off, if working as a pair/group then share your approaches. If working solo, set the timer for 3 mins and freewrite on ‘when I read this back I notice…’

* If you work professionally as (or with) a writer or creative arts practitioner & want to help us out by filling in an online survey about your experiences later this year, sign up to the Spreadsheets & Moxie mailing list*

 

 

Spreadsheets & Moxie: the project begins

I’m writing this post on a train, heading for a week at the Arvon Clockhouse with fellow writer Sarah Salway. We’re launching ourselves with enthusiasm into a year of R&D, funded by Arts Council England, on what leadership looks like to women in the creative arts. My bags are packed with paper, crayons, literary card games and temporary book tattoos: all important working tools alongside the yoga mat and notebooks.

The full name for our project is ‘Spreadsheets & Moxie: a rounded approach to professionalism for women in the creative arts’. Sarah has blogged a beautiful introduction explaining what ‘moxie’ is in the context of our work together (I also love the definition suggested to me by @elyzah via Twitter that it means ‘a kind of charismatic bravery‘). We’re spending the next week in retreat together and will be broadcasting snippets of our activities and discussions on Periscope so keep an eye on our Twitter feeds – @Viccyiswriting & @SarahSalway – if you want to learn more.

Do you have a strong opinion about leadership development for creative writers? Is there an amazing person or organisation you think we should have a conversation with as part of this project? Leave me a comment or email spreadsheetsandmoxie@gmail.com

‘Default Settings’ at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2016 #Storyshop

Broadcast live from the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2016 on Friday 19th August as part of the Unesco City of Literature #Storyshop series. Watch the replay online & remember to check out the readings from the other storyshoppers while you’re at it.

The comfort of stories: in memoriam Hilda May

I’ve always believed that stories are powerful, complex things and over the past couple of weeks that has been brought sharply into focus for me as my gran suffered a severe stroke and, after 20 days in hospital, passed away peacefully on Friday morning.

What can you do when there is nothing to be done? You can tell stories. It started with the family sitting round her hospital bed in the ward, the first of a series of emergency call-ins at unsettling hours of the day and night. We told each other stories about gran, including her in the conversation as she was responding to sound although we had been told it was extremely unlikely she was processing and absorbing the meaning of our words. We talked about her own childhood, through the stories she’d told us about her life in Andover before and during the war. We talked about how she came to Scotland and met my grandfather. My father and uncle talked about who she was when they were children and my mother and aunt talked about the woman they met when they were first introduced to the family. We shared memories of things gran had done, said and loved. As these sort of stories do, they branched off into stories about wider lives. How my aunt and uncle started dating. What happened in other people’s childhoods. Where those people had ended up. We made ourselves laugh, we passed the time, we shared. We focused on the women we knew for the majority of our lives rather than the changed circumstances and personality that we had lived alongside for the past few years due to gran’s dementia.

As gran’s condition deteriorated and she was moved into a side room, that gave us the privacy to not talk. To sit and count the seconds between each breath. To escape from the eternal background noise of TV, radio, chairs and other people that came through the thin privacy curtain on the shared ward. The question mark over how long gran’s death would take (never if, always when) stretched out and stretched us out. Respite, for me, came through stories. I played gran the short audio recordings of the openings of the stories myself and the other Storyshop writers were going to be reading at the Book Festival this month. Seventeen 3 minute excerpts, with pauses in between some of them when myself or one of the other people in the room wanted to say something about what we’d just heard, either to say how we liked the character or the reading voice or that we were cross not to be able to hear the whole piece. Or to laugh again because the stories – like everything we heard on the radio or read in the paper or saw on the street – seemed to be about gran and this unending, repetitive waiting and the pain of losing someone you love.

The stories helped us find ways of talking about the disconnect between our grief and the normal things everyone else kept doing. How every day before this we will have been walking down the pavement next to someone in their own private world of turmoil and never realised. The cashier at the supermarket. The man with the dog. The blank face of the woman in the car at traffic lights. When I was alone in the room with gran I read her poems and short fiction from the two back issues of Mslexia in my bag. On my next visit, with my parents, I bought a poetry anthology and we spent the whole visit passing the book round and reading a poem in turn. It passed the time differently. My mother and I performed a script-in-hand reading of a sitcom episode my husband wrote, with my uncle joining in halfway through to play the starring role of The Policeman. After that we sat for ages and talked about who we’d cast in it. We laughed, we passed the time, we shared, we learnt about each other’s lives more minutely.

I am full to the brim of stories about and from my grandmother. She’s the only one of my grandparents to live long enough for me to have an engaged, separate adult relationship with. We have shared so many comedy moments in the past that the only feasible way for me to deal with her long death has been through humour: describing her as a medical mischief maker when she held on, grimly, long past the point the (always compassionate and just brilliant) nursing staff at St John’s, Livingston expected her to. I was so glad to have stories to hand in my life – family stories, but also the made-up stories in books, magazines and online – to draw strength from.

I had originally planned to write a post today to highlight two readings I’m giving this week- 1pm on Thursday at Wordpower Books with Helen Sedgwick and Jane Alexander where we’ll be talking about using science in our fiction (free, unticketed) and 3pm on Friday at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Charlotte Square as part of the amazing Storyshop series (daily, free, unticketed, lasts 15 mins, in the Spiegeltent). I’m too sad right now to promote them with the vigour they deserve, so instead i’ll leave you with a tweet from back in 2012 which tells its own story about why I loved spending time with my gran and why I miss her so much.

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11D open studio this Saturday

We’re having an open studio at 11D this Saturday between 2pm & 8pm. Come say hi!

These days I do my writing mainly at a desk in a artists studio just round the corner from Gorgie City Farm. This Saturday we’re hosting a free Open Studio event as part of Annuale 2016, a grassroots festival of contemporary visual art in Edinburgh. 11D Studios is home to eight of us at the moment – 2 writers and 6 artists from varying disciplines – all sharing the open-plan studio on Murieston Lane.

Our free Open Studio runs from 2pm to 8pm; as well as the art on display round the studio we’ll all be there in person to chat with. As we’re so excited to welcome you to look around, we’ve printed an 11D Studio zine and organised refreshments (on a donation basis). There will also be readings at 3pm & 6pm, and music from 7pm.

Hope you’re able to come and say hi!

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Storyshop 2016, Book launch broadcast & some bookshelf porn

Good news for August as I’m selected as one of the writers for Storyshop 2016, Samantha and I launch the printed edition of Recollections with a live broadcast from Brooklyn, and pictures of my new bookshelves.

As the summer sun makes a prolonged appearance and buskers strut their funky stuff within earshot of my desk, my thoughts always turn to booking up shows at the Edinburgh Festivals. This year I’m very excited that my mother will be dancing with Prime, and also to have myself been selected to read one of my short stories as part of Storyshop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August. My reading will be free & unticketed, I’ll blast you with time/date closer to the event itself. In the meantime i’m looking forward to meeting the other Storyshop writers and practising my reading.

On Sunday Samantha and I launched a limited edition printed, bilingual version of our award winning app, Recollections: 12 vignettes from Lashihai. We broadcast the launch on Periscope and Facebook Live, and you can see the video of the latter on the two.5 Facebook Page or embedded below, including me Facetiming in my reading to Puerh Teashop in Brooklyn from Edinburgh. Which was kind of meta.

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My reading was taken from my creative non-fiction collection about the residency in China, There & Now, and I’ve posted the text in the comments for the video on our FB page. If you’d prefer to read the whole, novella-length collection it’s available for kindle. If you’d like a copy of our printed book, Recollections, then get your order in fast (shipping is free to UK & US) as I believe there are only 40 copies left.

In other news, I’ve finally got my glorious bookshelves up and my books have now been alphabetised and are no longer covered in dust or being used to make Christmas trees. You can see them in the background of this picture of me enjoying the Book launch on Sunday.

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… and a cheeky little composite of the alphabetising process, which was much more fun than doing actual work for an entire afternoon.

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For the love of letters: my 5 stand out moments

My five stand-out moments from sorting through three decades of correspondence.

Having been housebound this week with a chest infection, I’ve ended up sorting through the large stack (one picnic hamper, two storage boxes) of correspondence I’ve accumulated over the past three decades. 72 hours later I’ve finally run out of lemsip and I’m coming to the end of my stocks of rubber bands.

I didn’t re-read everything, just opened envelopes and took gut decisions on whether it was a keepsake or binnable, sorted wedding invites, christening orders of service and funeral cards into a separate folder, put my husband’s cards (no letters! Not a single one!) into a separate pile and tidied everything to be sorted by sender at a (long distant) time. But it was enough to get a poignant overview of the highs and lows, bring back to light things i’d completely forgotten and to make me think as well as giggle. Here are five stand-outs:

  1. The first letter: a card from a friend on a writing retreat who received the letter i’d posted for her to find on arrival, saying that this is the first time she’s ever seen my handwriting. The impact of digital on new friendships…
  2. The handwriting: almost always distinctive and personal, with exceptions: i) all teenage girls, ii) my cousin and my uncle, ii) two of my university friends, who i think share many other similarities.
  3. The sadness: reading cards sent as support for tough times (illness, bereavement, break-ups) brought those times back. And they were often from surprising people- people who’d heard from other sources and who reached out to cheer me up. Thank you, for making that effort – I hope i’ve managed to pass on some of your kindness during my good times.
  4. The teenagers: All letters from teenage girls are about who they fancy, who you told them you fancied, lists of what they got for birthday/christmas presents, protestations of affection and begging for you to write back soon. I apologise to everyone who knew me during my teenage years.
  5. Cats can’t write: as a pre-teen I had a prolific series of pen-pal discourses on behalf of my cat. With other peoples’ cats. In fact, mainly with stranger’s cats through personal ads. There is probably a good reason I’d suppressed these memories but, alas, they are now all flooding back.

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