Sunday, 19 August 2012

How does inspiration work?

I’ve been following a discussion thread on Goodreads recently and it made me think about the link between an idea and a process. We were talking about what works for us in terms of planning our writing. There were some really interesting methods people use, a lot of which I had never come across before and some that are more common. I remember when I was studying for my degree in literature I read many examples of how several famous and successful writers work, past and present, and it was quite an eye opener, you would be amazed at the variety of processes. I think I have talked about how I work before and I’ll probably blog about it again too but this week I thought I’d talk about what comes before the process and planning, how the idea emerges and how sometimes the process of writing can create the idea. The well used phrase of 1% inspiration / 99% perspiration is pretty true as far as my experience goes.
            I’ll take you through a list of how inspiration has worked for me and I bet most will apply to everyone who reads this. Actually first I’ll say this, if you expect to be creative and you want to be inspired then you’ll be open to suggestion, you will consciously and unconsciously allow your mind to form ideas and remember things that you may not necessarily have taken notice of otherwise. A simple thing for me and you can’t get more basic than this, was to always make sure I had a pen on me, the amount of times I would be on a bus, in the bath or out for a walk and something would spring to mind and I wouldn’t be able to note it down and sure enough as much as I’d convince myself I’d remember it, whenever I got home I would be blank (now with smartphones it’s not so much of a problem but it still happens). So already the process of writing is part of the inspiration, having an idea means you have to record the idea and being able to record the idea means you are ready to have the idea. I remember when I was sixteen or seventeen deliberately going out for a bus ride to a town thirty minutes away or so and spending a few hours walking around the place trying to make observations and seeing if anything was of interest. It was the first time I set out to create (or force?) inspiration, I had a pen and notebook and would look at people going past and see if anything came to mind, I wrote down several little passages and I remember realizing afterwards that sitting in my bedroom just waiting for storylines to pop into my head wouldn’t always work. I think that was the first time I understood that writing wasn’t just an art form, or a hobby, or for people who were naturally gifted. I remember understanding that it was a formal job that needed hard work, routine and process.
            Anyway, what inspires me? I’m not sure saying what inspires me is the same as saying where my ideas come from. I don’t know why I think they way I do, why I want to explore the ideas I do, why I write about the subjects I do…I just do, and the inspiration comes in many different ways. I’m sure many of you are saying out loud that I am getting inspiration mixed up with motivation and I think you are partly right. I sometimes do feel that getting in the mood to write is a task in itself and that isn’t the same as having the inspiration to write something.
            So…music, putting on an album can change my mood and I know that certain types of music are what I need to write. I can listen to something to get myself in the mood but then I’ll need to put on classical or jazz when I actually start to write, it really helps me keep calm and the lack of singing helps me to focus. I’m a big fan of film and like music I may put on a certain type of film to get me excited about the challenge of writing but watching other types of film are the ones that flick something inside of me that says, ‘I want to make people feel emotion like that’. I know we could all list a thousand bands, directors, etc. and discuss for hours but as time is running out I’ll give just one example. I am a fan of Ingmar Bergman, not everyone likes his stuff and I can understand people when they say his films are boring or repetitive and so on, but I love them and there is something about his films that really inspire me, they make me want to create, to express, to tell a story. What about places? Visiting historic sites, homes, country houses, graveyards, parks, woods, beaches, lakes, the sea…they don’t have to beautiful, more interesting, unusual, exotic or strange…they all have the power to make the brain whirr. Of course the obvious thing to say is other writing, usually it only takes a couple of paragraphs of reading before I’m thinking up ideas that I’d like to write about. Then we have the triggers, I could sit down and set myself the challenge of writing something new and the difference having a single cup of coffee makes is incredible. The energy you feel when you are in love, when you are depressed, upset, sad, happy and so on all open up your mind to think about subjects that you wouldn’t think about otherwise, you want to explore emotions that may have been hidden from you up to that point. So inspiration can come from happy and sad feelings or occasions, you can see a terrible accident or a couple walking hand in hand and it moves you to write.
            What is difficult to handle is the false paths it can take you. You watch a film, you want to make a film. You hear a song, you want to write a song. You watch the Olympics, you want to take up the pommel horse. Some things are just never going to happen and it’s difficult to stop yourself from wasting too much energy on passions that are pointless and that has to be said about writing. You come up with an idea and you attack it and after a while you realize it’s going nowhere and all that energy that felt so good when you originally had the idea dissipates and you are left with something that you hate and have no idea why you started it. However, you come to learn to channel and direct that energy because you never know where that idea may go, it may become something great so you have to try, you have to spend time on it, you have to attack it otherwise you will never know, sure most of the time it maybe wasted but you can’t risk losing those gems when it works. That’s the frustration, that’s the bin full of wasted paper, that’s the spilt ink.  Inspiration can really hurt you and make you feel terrible at what you have or haven’t done. You can’t be afraid though, it’s something you have to accept and free yourself to allow. You will never be as good as what inspires you but don’t hesitate to try because what you produce may inspire someone else.

I’ve found it tricky this week as there is so much I wanted to express and I think I’ve digressed too much but I’m not breaking my rule on time so this will have to do. Feel free to tell me what I have missed!

Hour’s up.


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Sunday, 12 August 2012

What do I think about people reading my work?

I’ve been dreading writing this weeks blog. It’s such a hard question and it creeps onto so many areas that I don’t know where to start and I know I’m going to miss something hugely important but here we go. Over the last six months I have come to really enjoy hearing peoples feedback and the thought of someone sitting down and reading something I have produced is actually quite nice. It wasn’t always that way!
            I have been writing down ideas and making jottings since I was in my early teens but with one exception I haven’t shown my work, never mind letting someone read anything, until the winter of last year. That one exception I still shudder at as I was around nineteen or twenty (I’m 32 now) and I read out a few paragraphs of some vampire story I was attempting. Now any friends reading this, or people who have read my short stories may be wondering, ‘Vampires? Really?’ and you would be quite right, I’ve nothing against them and I love Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ and that genre and anyone my age who doesn’t like ‘The Lost Boys’ I don’t think I could have a beer with, but as for writing them, it’s just not my thing and I look back wondering what the hell I was up to, I haven’t written a vampire story since and how that person who was listening didn’t run away in terror, ears bleeding out of sheer bad language (I used the phrase ‘my love’ a dozen times in one sentence I think, it was bad, really bad…) I’ll never know. So that was a bad experience but I don’t believe that was why I haven’t shown people since, I have always been a private person and the belief that I was writing for my own enjoyment rather than any expectation of doing anything with it has been the over-riding factor. When that moment came, the idea of self-publishing, everything took on a different level of importance, it suddenly becomes a business, it’s not me anymore, it’s my name, it’s my brand, it’s my reputation, it’s my pride, it’s so many things at once that the simple act of reading becomes a hundred separate tasks. When I asked a friend to read my first draft of ‘The Silent Spaces’ I was no longer the person simply looking for a mate’s positive response, your average, ‘Well done.’ ‘It was good.’  ‘I enjoyed it.’ That wasn’t good enough any more (regardless if it was true or false!) I needed in depth analysis of the language used, the plot, pacing, believable characters, truthful settings…in short, every response became a review.
            That’s when things change because as I have said it was all about writing for my own enjoyment before and coming up with things that I found interesting, but now it has to be polished, I have to look at it with a professional eye. The interesting thing about writing, as with so many artistic fields is that the message you put out is not necessarily the message that is received, in fact most of the time people take from your work something that you either didn’t intend, or wasn’t the main objective; a minor part in your eyes can become something very important in someone else’s, so it is fascinating to hear peoples responses.  Then what happens is that my idea of what it is for someone to read my work, whether it is a draft or the finished product, changes. It is not just about me anymore, it is a connected, mutually beneficial arrangement, I want them to enjoy it, but I don’t necessarily want it to be an easy ride, I want them to be challenged and tested, I want them to struggle with it, to be upset by it and frustrated by it, because I want my work to say something. So if they don’t simply ‘get it’, then that’s fine because I understand not everyone will appreciate what I am trying to say but I can still get so much from them explaining why.
            So after a while the emotions I feel from people reading my stories changed. They went from plain fear and nerves about whether they would hate it and think I am the worst writer they have ever read questioning my sanity, to a sort of interrogative curiosity, I ended up not having a fear of whether they enjoyed it or not, but a fear of whether or not they thought it was ordinary, meaningless, forgettable.
I remember the first day of ‘The Silent Spaces’ going online, that moment when I typed my name into Amazon and it popped up, it was real, it was there and it was public! I went into work thinking that at any moment I would throw up, the train journey was hell, I was sweating, I was shaking, I thought any second the Who-The-Hell-Do-You-Think-You-Are-Police would storm the carriage, drag me out and give me a beating. The whole day was spent convincing myself I had made the biggest mistake ever. Then bit by bit I calmed down, spoke to colleagues, friends and family and over the course of a few days I was back to breathing normally. Then of course the feedback started and that was the beginning of understanding the importance of letting people read your work. Now of course I wish I had started years ago, doesn’t everyone! It’s just part of the process, putting yourself out there, the sooner you understand that, the quicker you open up, the faster you share yourself, the better. It is hard and uncomfortable for sure, no one likes being criticized, or maybe even ridiculed and insulted, but actually after a while you find an appreciation for it, you may never get to like being torn to shreds but you understand you can’t do without it and it’s actually very important, so the fear remains but the cause of the fear changes, I now welcome debate and discussion on my writing at every opportunity, it’s part of learning and developing.
            I look back at that moment around twelve years ago or so when I broke my cover and allowed my secret life to emerge, when I took my notepad and read aloud to someone, and I still cringe and shiver, not just for the terrible writing, but for the missed opportunity, the moment when I could have carried on telling people, the moment I could have started putting myself out there. What if I had started this blog then? What if I had spent the last ten years developing my writing publicly? Who knows, there are no should-have’s in life, you can’t think that way but I can tell you now that I am happy for people to read my work, painful as it maybe, because I can tell myself in ten years time I will be better, and because I didn’t tell myself that ten years ago, I’m making sure I’m telling myself now.

Hour's up.

Enjoy the Olympic closing ceremony everyone!

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Tuesday, 7 August 2012

On writing a novel

Okay, the big one. The ultimate. The dream.

Well maybe not. I used to think that way but never interrogated why, it was simply an intuitive thing, from school, if you are a writer then you write novels. I had no idea then about anything else, poetry, short fiction, journalism, copywriting, editing, ghostwriting, advertising and countless others. As you grow up and learn about the world your perspective changes and gradually you form views, hopefully based on education and experience, and you mature, but some dreams stay with you. Amongst the many dreams that have stayed with me is writing a novel. I’m going to use my hour this week to question why that is.
            For me, early memories of magic tend to be from books, children’s literature was amazing, I would love to get caught up in the worlds of Roald Dahl for instance, and the impact of The Secret Garden stayed with me for years. Although I read a few in my later teens I was never an early reader of comics, and whether it was conscious or not maybe that was where the form of a book was established for me, there has to be a setting, a plot, a protagonist, obstacles and drama, overcoming the odds, conflict, perhaps a twist and then a happy(ish) ending. The sudden impact a comic book strip gives didn’t make an early impression on me, perhaps I may have leant towards more visual arts if I had been exposed to comics, who knows. Then a few years later Tolkien came along and the marathon reading sessions of Middle Earth began, the same form but on a grander scale, more pages…lots and lots more pages. If a book wasn’t able to double up as a footstool, bludgeoning weapon or neon shop sign that I was so obviously a gifted intellectual then it was discarded for something bigger, perhaps a Clive Barker tome would do, or a Tolstoy number, something more suitable for a discerning ten year old. I did get through them but I have a feeling the nuances of Anna Karenina weren’t appreciated. Then the encyclopedias came about, my mum spending far too much of the little money she had on helping me understand the differences between frogs and toads, I remember the feeling of danger at being crushed while attempting to take them off the shelf.  So by the time I reached secondary school I think the idea of the novel being a serious, important and big ‘thing’ was already implanted into me. Fast forward twenty years and even though I have completed a degree in Literature, have read many different styles and forms of the written word, have a love of film and theatre, and have been surrounded by art and design in my workplace, the base notion of the novel being the ‘thing’ a writer aims for is still with me. The interesting change in my perception of my own skills and ambition is that I genuinely do feel like I may never write one, I have been focused on short fiction for a long time now and can’t see that changing, however even though I do not feel I particularly want to write a novel and may never write one, it is the hardest thing to say out loud and admit…in fact, I won’t! Writing for its own sake is unknown territory for me, I am still a beginner storyteller, I do not write for money, I do not write to dictated deadlines, I write because I feel I have something to say, to contribute and because I enjoy it. For me to say I want to write a novel for the sake of writing a novel seems to go against everything I have tried to make myself comfortable with over the last few years, yet it lurks there. The easiest ‘get out’ is to say, maybe one day I’ll start writing and before I know where I am it will suddenly be a novel, unintentional and accidental but a novel nonetheless. This then leads into methods of writing, which I’m sure I’ll blog about another time but the process I have for developing a short story may have to be adjusted, I may turn to other practices once the depth of complexity reaches a point where it is required, but that’s the point I’m trying to get at, does writing a novel necessarily mean that the text has to be deep, complex, entangled…why am I putting my childhood impression of what a novel is on my future before I am even attempting anything! I have to remind myself to keep going back to the question, ‘What am I trying to say?’ why have I created this page of words, is what I am doing an artistic endeavor to communicate my thoughts or am I using someone else’s template and filling in the blanks so that I can say I’ve done it too, I’m part of the club? It’s a tricky one for me because no matter how many times I say I don’t…I do want to write a novel one day. There is something that takes me back to the magic of a library bookshelf with the hidden tucked away gems lying in wait, or the newly bought beautiful hardcover, the clean untouched pages being first turned and of course the mystery of how words can move you to tears and laughter, how you can fall in love with imaginary characters…I wouldn’t mind being responsible for a bit of that.
I’ve gone past worrying myself about how good I am compared to this or that person, I’m content that I will improve as a writer no matter how long that should take, I am confident I will always want to write and will always have a message to convey, I am happy that I am writing short fiction now and can’t see past that. I understand how much time and commitment it would take and all the strains such a large project (there I am again, presuming it would be large) would impose. It’s one thing to admit that I like the idea of writing a novel (ego) and another to say that I like the idea of achieving a goal but I wonder how honest I am about that goal.
            So, so, so, will I ever attempt to write a novel?

Hour’s up.

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