In any Writing From Your Life Experience class of ten people, there may be ten different reasons why students want to use their life experience to inspire writing. One thing's for certain, it's going to be a lot easier to know HOW to write about your life if you know WHY you want to do it, and WHO you want to write for.
Some are writing as a legacy, because their want their children or grandchildren to know them better. Often this can be inspired by the death or illness of a family member. Loss makes them wish they had known more about their loved one before it was too late - because they know that if their mother/father/ grandparents/spouse had written anything down about their life, they would have devoured their words.
Others are writing to teach, or to be helpful. They have a strong feeling that the hard-won lessons of their life would benefit others, if only they could share them.
There are those who are writing as a means of understand situationsor coming to terms with events of their lives. This type of writing can be immensely freeing.
Some students think that their lives would make an entertaining or exciting story that could become a best-seller.
Others just want to learn about writing and are taking on board the advice to 'write about what you know' because it seems a good place to start.
Students may be writing just for themselves.
For close family members.
For a clamouring public.
It depends entirely on what their BIG WHY is.
There are no right or wrong answers, but it is certainly very helpful to have this knowledge fixed in your mind as you start to write about your life, and this is the reason it's one of the first things I ask my students to consider before we dive into creative writing exercises designed to get those memories flooding back.
I have two Writing From Your Life Experience courses starting from January 2019:
I hope to see you on one of them![click_to_tweet tweet="Reasons to write about your life. Your Big Why and Your Big Who. Life Writing classes in Norfolk from January 2019. #memoir #norfolk #creativewriting #autobiography" quote="Your Big Why and Your Big Who. Reasons to write about your life."]
Happy New Year, I hope you had a good Christmas, and a very warm welcome to anyone who’s new to my blog.
I read two extremely inspiring books over the Christmas period – Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. They are quite different books, but they are both about the creative process – what it’s like and how we can get the most pleasure and fulfilment from it. I loved both books, and they were an excellent reminder of why I write and why I’m passionate about helping others to write – because they're such amazing, life-affirming things to do.
It’s difficult to pick one thing out to share with you from them, but I particularly liked Elizabeth Gilbert’s advice in Big Magic to treat your creativity as if you are having an affair with it! Gilbert points out that when people are having a passionate affair, they make time to meet up with the object of their desire, no matter how busy they are, and even if it’s only for a snatched – but passionate – fifteen minutes. She advises us to fall in love with our creativity like that and to see what happens. “Stop treating your creativity as if it’s a tired, unhappy marriage,” she says, “and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover. Sneak off and have an affair with your most passionate self.”
It certainly sounds like fun to me!
While we’re on the subject of fire and sparks, I’ve just released a new e-course called Story Ignitor. It’s a highly practical course based on material I’ve used in my successful day-long workshops. I believe in learning by doing, so you’ll fuel your creativity and start to spark ideas for stories by creating a three-dimensional character and using an innovative technique to help you to plan a story. You’ll also learn about story themes – ways to choose one that resonates with you, and how they can make writing easier. I’m offering the course for an introductory price of £49 (that’s about $60), and all of my students are entitled to join my WriteUP Course Café Facebook group. This is a place to connect with other writers and to find out about writing opportunities as I learn about them. Here’s the link to find out more about the course, or to enrol: http://storyignitor.strikingly.com/
If you’re Norfolk-based, I’m also offering some new face-to-face courses this term. Here are the links to find out more about those.
As I write my first draft of my new novel, my characters are forever doing things like putting their hands into their bags to find their car keys, moving forward to take people into their arms, or crossing the room to look out of the window at the rain.
Sometimes it seems as if they are never still.
I see them doing these things in my imagination, so I describe them doing it all. But it doesn't always make for fascinating reading, and this is something I have to be aware of when I come to rewrite and to edit.
Of course, what a character has in their hand bag, and whether their bag is tidy or not, can tell us a lot about character.
So can the way they hunt for their car keys. Do they up-end their bag? Throw it across the room when it doesn't come up with the goods? Search calmly and methodically? Talk to themselves while they're looking? Shout at the dog? Kick the cat? Scream at the kids?
All these reactions are clues to character, or an insight into the mood of a scene, adding tension or making us laugh.
But sometimes, in fiction, as in life, we just need to get our characters out to the flipping car without all the phaffing around. If they urgently need to head off in pursuit of a villain, then just get them out there. Unless their tendency to lose their keys is going to play a key (apologies for the pun) part in the action .... Hmm, good idea.
Sometimes my writing flows smoothly, like a stream along well-worn channels, curving around obstacles, intent on its course.
At other times, my ideas are like ants in a disturbed ants' nest, scattering in a hundred different directions.
Sometimes my images come out almost as a list on the page:
a glint of a gold tooth
the rhythmic rocking of the boat
red and gold fabrics, gleaming in the midday sunshine
I take what I get, and use it any way I can, pushing aside thoughts of
the right way
the wrong way
There is only what there is, and it helps me to remember that:
Streams flow to the sea.
Every ant has a designated role in the colony.
Lists help you to remember.
This past week has been a disrupted one for me. It can be difficult enough to deal with self-inflicted disruptions to our writing - a tendency to get distracted by social media, or to put our own dreams and priorities last.
But sometimes Life just happens. A two-day headache that divorces you from your imagination. A phone call from the school asking you to collect your poorly son.
That's why I've learnt to take writing - especially the writing I do for a first draft - as it comes, whether it's in the form of streams, scattered ants or lists. However it comes, it accumulates and gets stuffed together. After a while it coagulates and becomes part of something bigger.
I hope you've had a great week. Last time, I told you I was going to be plunging into my new novel this week. Well, I put my diving gear on, and I jumped over the side of the boat. I can hear voices inside my head as my characters speak to each other. I am in the writing zone.
But I'm just emerging for a while to share my thoughts about first drafts with you. Hint - they're the gloop in this message title!
When I first started to write, I didn't know about first drafts. I thought you just sat down to write - and write - until you typed those magical words THE END, and then that was that. You sent your book off to a publisher and you then you waited with baited breath to hear from them.
After receiving the inevitable rejection, I learnt that typically, writers write several drafts of their novel before they submit in anywhere. I was dismayed. What? Do that, all over again? Surely not!
But gradually, I came to realise the freedom of working in this way. Once you accept that your first draft is your raw material - your modelling clay, if you like - it takes the pressure off writing. If your first draft is your raw material that you will lovingly model and carve into something, it doesn't have to be perfect straight away. It just has to be out there.
I'm writing quickly at the moment, because I want to get my ideas out there as they come to me. I have a loose plan, but past experience tells me that when I read back over what I've written, my characters are likely to be speaking to each other in a kind of a vacuum, and the reader won't be able to fully imagine where things are happening, or what characters are doing. But that's fine, because I can go back and add action, description and details that show character and set the mood of my scenes. I can engage my readers' emotions more fully. I can restructure my book, chop it about, add clues and create suspense. What's more, I will enjoy doing these things.
So, if you're writing a first draft at the moment, take the pressure off yourself. Decide not to worry about it being perfect, and enjoy the process of writing and the sheer pleasure of getting your story out there.
Go for it!
Until the next time, and wishing you joy in your creativity,
When we want to write, a fear of what other people think about us can really hold us back from:
Writing the way we want to write
Showing our writing to others (and therefore missing out on potentially valuable feedback, or even publication).
Writing at all!
I suppose, as human beings, we usually want to be accepted and approved of, even if it’s only because it’s much easier than feeling out of kilter and unaccepted.
So sometimes we hide who we really are in an attempt to fit in better.
You can watch a video of this blog post, or carry on reading!
For many years, while I was building my career as a writer, there were times when I wished with all my heart that I wasn’t a creative person. Yes, really!
I was working thirty-seven hours a week in a college of further education at the time – I’d started there as a temporary typist, then worked my way up to the heady heights of Central Admissions Officer, dealing with hundreds of applications to the college within an office of Examinations Officers.
I expect you get the picture. I was bored out of my mind. Frustrated that I had to work in a job I disliked so much, when all I wanted to do was to write my novels.
I was a fish-out-of-water, and I didn’t want be a fish-out-of-water.
I longed to belong, the way everyone else seemed to belong. I didn’t want to be viewed as a single, ex-art-college oddity, even if that was exactly what I was.
I wanted to be:
A relaxed receptionist.
An elated examinations officer.
A contented catering assistant.
I was convinced that people who didn’t experience a compelling need to produce art or literature found life amuch simpler. That they didn’t feel constantly torn and dissatisfied the way I did, and that it was much easier for them to feel contended.
I thought they could just be in a way I often couldn’t. (Even at my father’s funeral, there was a part of me – the writer part – that stood at a distance from events, observing everything and everyone. I loathed it, but was powerless to stop it.)
Back then, I thought everyone but me was content to live in the moment, without constantly wanting to submerge themselves in make-believe or to use their experiences to produce something. That they just were.
I also believed they were critical of me because I wasn't like them.
It was complete rubbish, of course.
I imagine the rest of the college staff mostly fitted in better than I did because they made more effort that I did. That at work, their creativity, or their focus, went into doing a good job, and not into getting by grudgingly until five o’clock.
And far from being judgemental or critical about little old self-conscious me and my way of life, I don't suppose they gave me very much thought at all!
I didn’t really stop worrying about what people thought of me until I was older, and had learnt to accept myself.
And getting consistently published was a large part of that, because with several books under my belt, at least I could think to myself, OK, I may be different, but at least I’m getting paid for it. People are buying my books. Enjoying them too, hopefully.
But the point is, if I’d allowed my fear of what other people thought of me - or in my case perhaps what I thought people thought of me - to completely destroy my spirit, then I might never have written my books. Or, even if I had written them, I may never have found the courage to show them to anybody. Or to take the initiative to ask for opportunities, or to pitch ideas, or any of the other things that can lead to success as an author.
When we first set out on our writing journey, the company and encouragement of other writers and would-be writers who understand can be a vital boost to our self-confidence.
As we start to trust other writers, we feel able to take that first frightening step of letting them read our work. And as with anything that’s frightening or challenging, every time you share your writing with other people, it gets easier to do. Your comfort zone expands, almost without you being aware of it doing so.
So, if you're holding back from writing or showing your writing out of a fear of what other people will think of you, try to take some action to break through that barrier, a little at a time.
Write exactly as you want to write.
Do something that could lead to you finding someone to share your writing with, like joining a writing group, class or forum.
And gradually, gradually, start to belive in yourself and your dreams.
As you do so, your horizons will expand almost without you realising it.
As a multi-published author, there are some questions that I get asked over and over again. One of these is:
"Where do you get your ideas from?"
When a would-be writer asks me this question, I'm often pretty certain that what they really want to know is, "Where can I get my ideas from?" Or, "How do I go about getting ideas for my writing?" So, I thought I'd make some videos about the way some of my ideas for my books have come to me, in case it helps other writers.
The first thing to say, is that there's no "one size fits all" way for me to get ideas for my novels and stories - ideas come to me from many different sources and in many different forms. It's bound to be the same for you.
On today's video, I'm talking about the way work and the various work places I've experienced have given me ideas for characters themes, and even whole novels. (Spoiler alert: it includes the world's largest trifle!)
We came to the marshes on Thursday last week, and it rained.
We watched, pensioner-like, from the car, the hot air blower on full to clear the mist, feeling disappointed. It wasn't just a light rain, it was a full-on pelting. Stair rods. People were returning from the distant horizon with boats and dogs, slipping in the churned-up mud slurries. Comical, yet enviable at the same time, because they'd been where I wanted so badly to go.
I got out of the car with my umbrella, reluctant to be cheated from my own fix, and immediately saw the vibrancy of the purple-mauve sea lavender undiluted by the glass of the windscreen - breath-taking, awe-inspiring, painted out against the dark drama of the rain clouds. So utterly beautiful.
But the rain persisted, and the dog barked relentlessly at the windscreen wipers, fraying three tempers, so we gave up.
Those marshes filled my mind though, returning again and again in the next few days, compelling me to try once more. We returned on Monday, my son, the dog and I. No rain this time, just four mischevious boys from the campsite who asked if they could have our car when we got out to put on our boots. (I didn't get the joke either).
Leaving them - and the car! - behind, we stepped out onto the long-awaited marshes. Funny, without the drama of the dark sky, the impact of the sea lavender was lessened, though still very present. The purple was mauve that Monday; subtle and sweeping instead of breath-taking, but still beautiful. The meandering path wasn't trying to make us slip or slide either - the mud was tamed, or almost so. We could leap over gullies in the safe low tide. Eat our sandwiches on a hummock of turf.
A baby was tapping into the primitive though, crawling and splashing, naked in the marsh mud. Blackened and comfortably content, his mother speaking to me of hosing down at the campsite, ignoring thoughts of cries and protests, or at least putting them aside for the present, in exchange for her son's life-fulfilling experience and wonder.
Any adult would have been envious of that unrestrained mud frolicking, wouldn't they? I know I was. And yet I smiled and made some comment I've forgotten now and moved on in the wake of my son and the dog.
They are so similar, my son and my dog. Without inhibitions, both of them speaking to new people without reserve, both taking the less straight-forward route through the marshes to catch a glimpse of magical, darting fishes in a pool left behind by the tide.
Acknowledging their contentment, I looked back the way we had come, towards the line of woodland crouched beyond the coastal path, marking the border of the campsite. As an oyster catcher hurried past with its urgent cry, ornagey-red bill pointing its way to who knows where, I imagined my characters as I will write them in my novel, making their way from the village hall. Two evacuees - an inappropriately-dressed mother and her young son, escorted by Lilias, the land-owning woman who has just claimed them, making their way back to Marsh House, their temporary home.
"There's nothing here, is there?" says the mother, as her heel turns yet again in the soft turf. "Nothing at all."
Lilias stands to observe the woman's unsteady progress and thinks of the sea lavender, the secret gullies and the oyster catchers. She grew up beside these marshes and loves them with her whole heart, but she says only, "We shall have to get you some boots."
I'm excited about writing my book; the ideas are growing and mushrooming in my mind, but right now I don't know if I can truly walk into it, or whether it will prove to be like last Thursday's marsh - kept just out of reach by life and circumstances for a while.
"I'm going to walk along the pipeline, Mum," my son calls to me, and I turn away from Lilias and her evacuees to make sure he's safe.
On Saturday, I took my son to London for the day, and after a hectic trip to the Natural History Museum to see dinosaur skeletons and to experience earth tremors, I parked him on a bench inside the Tate Modern.
While he happily played Jetpack Challenge on his phone, I toured the exhibition galleries with a good friend and absorbed myself in the paintings of the American artist Georgia O'Keefe.
Georgia (1897 -1986) painted sensuous mountains and flowers, using glowing colours and languid rhythms to show their essence and spirituality. She was passionate about her subjects, but also revealed the core of herself as she painted them.
At times, Georgia seems super-human, living as she did until the age of ninety-eight, dedicating herself to producing pioneering art, her career spanning seven decades. And yet, this straight-talking woman of strong opinions and an even stronger work ethic, longed to have a child with her lover then husband Alfred Stieglitz.
Twenty-four years older than Georgia, Stieglitz's favourite sister had died in childbirth. He also felt too old to become a father again. (Stieglitz had a daughter, Kitty, from a previous marriage). But chiefly, he felt that Georgia's fierce focus on her art would be diluted if she had someone else to think about.
I believe he was right here - although this doesn't necessarily mean he had the right to deny his wife one of the most fulfilling experiences there is in life. Georgia, who craved solitude, and who was at her happiest battling the elements in the deserts of New Mexico in order to paint its mountains, would certainly have had to employ someone to look after any children while she was thus engaged.
But, as any mother will know, whether they were taken care of or not, it's highly likely there would always have been a part of Georgia's brain reserved for her children. Having experienced that overpowering need to have a child myself (happily resulting in my son, Alfie, now eleven-years-old) I can understand how the urge to become a mother takes you over and controls every aspect of your life. Georgia O'Keefe's paintings are filled with emotion, and I've no doubt that her childlessness is built into their fabric, as must be the affair Steiglitz had with another younger woman for many years, and his ultimate death in 1946.
Georgia never had to fit in her passionate work between the equivalents of visits to the park, requests to use the pc to record YouTube videos or trips to Accident and Emergency after stunt scooter accidents, and she has an impressive body of work to show for it.
And yet, if we are mothers and we also want to write, paint, or to create in any way, then it's possible - and necessary both to ourselves and those around us - to find a piece of the creative world Georgia had in order for us to be fully ourselves.
So, I'm spending the summer compartmentalising my life, making bargains and compromises with my son. Unashamedly using YouTube and X-Box as baby sitters to give myself time for Gorgia O'Keefe focus. As my son is extremely passionate about watching YouTube and playing on his X-Box, I'm certain I could get away with leaving him to do this all day, allowing me to work without restraint to tackle my own personal New Mexico mountains.
But I wouldn't do it.
There are crabs to be caught. Waves to be surfed. Trees to be climbed. Adopted Shetland ponies to be adored.
In a few short years, my son won't need me nearly so much, and then I'll no doubt have more Georgia O'Keefe space and spirituality than I can handle.
So for now, I'll willingly juggle my life to embrace them both.
My guest this week for the Write Despite feature is author Emma Rose Millar, a single parent whose inspiring commitment to her work has had her give up watching TV and write through the darkest of times. But I'll let Emma tell you more about it.
What challenges have you had to overcome in order to write?
Hi Margaret, thanks for inviting me. Like many writers, I’d say the main challenge for me is lack of time. I’m a single mum and my six year old is on the autism spectrum. Raising a child with autism is a rollercoaster ride: exhilarating, lonely, joyous and exhausting, but never, ever dull. I’ve also got a day job; I’m a sign language interpreter in further education. At the moment I’m rehearsing with special needs students to interpret their latest drama production into BSL. Again, it’s a hugely rewarding job, but takes up a lot of emotional and physical energy. So I find there’s very little time to write. I only open up my laptop once my son’s gone to bed―any earlier and I start getting that parent-guilt―I constantly feel like I’m not doing enough as a mum. At one time I’d be up writing until two in the morning but that really wasn’t good for me and in the end I started to feel ill. I’ve had to be strict with myself and set a sensible time limit on my writing. These days, before bed I put on some music and do thirty minutes of yoga to try and unwind before I go to sleep. Otherwise my head’s full of ideas and I can’t switch off.
How do you this challenge has impacted on your writing?
Because I’ve reduced the amount I write, it now takes much longer to finish a manuscript, but I’ve come to realise that some things are more important. I’ve taken to writing novellas and children’s stories; they require much less commitment than a full length novel. I do also love my co-writing projects. My last novel Five Guns Blazing was an intricate tale of piracy, slavery and treason, which needed a huge amount of research. Having Kevin Allen as a co-writer meant I could share the workload.
Through our different backgrounds and experiences I think we managed to create a story it would have been very difficult for a single author to write. For my latest project, The Women Friends, I’ve also joined forces with another author. It’s a series of two novellas based on a painting by Gustav Klimt of the same name. Writing can be a lonely business, but writing in partnership with somebody else means you can bounce ideas off each other, share the high points and the low, give constructive feedback and pull each other through at those times mid-story when it’s easy to feel like there’s no end in sight. Marketing’s also so time-consuming that two heads are always better than one.
What was your greatest fear when you first started to write?
When I first started writing I was caught up in a bad relationship. I used to write in secret because I was terrified of my partner finding out. It was an extremely dark time in my life and that came across in my first novel. Strains from an Aeolian Harp was a story of domestic violence and opium addiction in 1920’s Britain where women weren’t allowed to divorce their husbands on the grounds of cruelty alone. I’ve started re-writing it now with a new title, Jezebels! and am hoping to make it more marketable. Of all the stories I’ve written, it’s always been the most important to me because it was so personal. I’m not ready to give up on it yet.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write, but who is feeling held back by circumstances and /or challenges.
I truly believe that if you want to do something enough, there is no obstacle too big. The single best thing I did though was turning off my TV; I haven’t watched it for over four years now and looking back, I can’t believe how much of my life it used to swallow up, or what a negative impact it had on me. Did I need all those soap operas? No. I find writing a much more constructive way to spend my evenings and I love the feeling I get when I finish a novel or short story.
Tell us a bit about something you’ve written that you’re really proud of, or something you’re writing now.
Probably my proudest moment as a writer was winning the Chaucer Award, (Legend category) for Five Guns Blazing last year. The novel tells the story of convict’s daughter Laetitia Beedham who in 1710 is set on an epic journey from London’s filthy back streets, through transportation to Barbados and gruelling plantation life, into the clutches of notorious pirates Anne Bonny, Mary Read and John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham.
Here’s a short excerpt:
“You have been brought before me again, Mrs Beedham!” The magistrate looked at my mother over his spectacles. She must have considered him an idiot if she thought that a flash of her ample cleavage and of her fine eyes would win her any favour. He took the monocle from his breast pocket.
“Theft of a handkerchief, soliciting, affray, the attempted theft of a lady’s purse.”
Her lips twisted at the corner into a little smile, which she quickly straightened, but she looked almost pleased with herself as the charges were read out. I could picture her clear as day, proudly emptying her stolen trinkets out onto our mattress, all shiny and gleaming in the dipping glow of the rush-lights, as a child might present a parent with a painting or piece of needlework. My mother’s eye was as keen as a magpie’s for anything sparkly; she could pick out at ease the glint of a cufflink or a hairpin in the dullest of crowds and would glide her way after it, completely unseen. Later, she would stand back to admire the baubles and bits of finery with her hands on her hips and a look of satisfaction in her eyes, then quickly her face would fall as if she had suddenly noticed they were tarnished or broken and she would snatch them back and wrap them away in her cloth.
Hers was the first case of the day; the beak had seen her at least three times before. Needless to say, my mother was well acquainted with the good magistrates of Holborn; such was her fondness for relieving wealthy ladies and gentlemen of their belongings; handkerchiefs, pocket watches and so on. The magistrate thumbed through a pile of papers on his desk, a history of her sordid misdemeanours, seemingly oblivious to the swelling underclass packing his courtroom, with their poor diction and their sticky fingers. The public gallery was full of them: undesirables and reprobates, sweating, scratching. There were women employed at their needlework, old men dozing, and a girl with some younger children who spread a muslin cloth upon her lap, then proceeded to break up a meat pie and divide it between them. And of course there was me, Laetitia Beedham, the accused’s daughter who had weaved my way through the tangle of legs and crouched behind a man who I imagined might have been a farmer, or gamekeeper. He stood solidly in front of me, cleaning the dirt from underneath his fingernails with a blade.
“Oh, don’t hang me, sir, I beg of you!”
The court seemed suddenly excited by her outburst. It was all entertainment to them; the law after all is only theatre; it did not matter much if one was hanged or not, it was all part of the drama.
“I only did it for my daughter, who was sick and in need of medicine. My husband’s dead, sir, what is a woman to do?”
I felt a blush burning from my collarbone to my temples, and someone laughed and shouted, “She is a liar, sir! The girl is the bastard child of two thieves!”