The Initial Hurdles

As I’ve been writing for so long, I sometimes forget that less experienced writers still struggle with the initial hurdles that I overcame a long time ago.

Earlier this month, my partner sent me a poem she’d written, after we’d spoken about her interest in developing her craft. She’d always been reluctant to revisit and redraft her work, yet that’s arguably the first step to improving your writing. When you’ve just placed something on the page, you’re not reading it fresh like the next person will.

Probably the most important task to undertake before showing someone is to learn how to edit your own writing.

We discussed the sent poem, in which I suggested trimming many words and restructuring the stanzas. It’s not unrecognisably different from the first draft, but it now flows significantly better.

And now a friend has asked me for help. She has no problem redrafting her work, but is reluctant to show it to anyone. It’s a real fear among some people that their work will be disrespected. I’m currently working with this person to encourage her to open up a little.

When I’m asked to look over someone else’s piece, I sometimes ask whether there’s a particular aspect I should focus on; for example, grammar, structure, themes, &c. I also make it clear that whatever suggestions I make are optional. This sometimes means letting go of aspects that break convention: a couple of poets, for instance, like to capitalise the beginning of each line, even though the widespread practice died out a century ago.

When someone has asked me to look over a piece I might not understand it, or it might not be to my taste. But what I won’t do is sneer at, ridicule or dismiss someone’s work when they’ve taken the time to request constructive feedback.

Notes from Neighbours, and Letters to Other Lands

For the last three years, I’ve lived in a block of flats just out of town, and I’ve become rather well acquainted with my neighbours below me and beside me.

Just after the lockdown was announced on 23 March, I recieved notes through my letterbox from both households, offering assistance if necessary. I didn’t require any help, but it gave me an opportunity to write letters back to them.

Since then, I’ve also received notes from two other neighbours that I’d seen en passant but didn’t know by name. One of them apologised for dropping soil onto my balcony, while the other wanted to talk about a noise issue from another flat.

I keep a special notepad for letters, styled as ‘nu:elite‘. The pages are ringbound A5 sheets that tear off along perforations, leaving a smooth edge. It’s also a heavier weight of paper, which I favour, although I do have a lighter weight, styled simply as ‘nu‘. if I’m not trying to impress the other person.

While I had the notepad to hand, I penned one to a friend in Florida, enclosing some commemorative David Bowie stamps that I rediscovered while clearing up. Shortly after that, a pal in California wondered whether I could send her a pen I’d had custom-made for my open-mike Hotchpotch.

Then I had a birthday card returned undelivered from Dublin; this had been posted before the lockdown. I’d bought and printed my postage online rather than visit the Post Office, but I’d messed it up. Reading back the letter I’d originally enclosed with the card, it seems I’d been pushed for time and hadn’t written much. I therefore decided to send it back with a longer letter, as the first had gone out of date because of the movement restrictions. I was sure to learn how to properly affix self-printed postage.

The letter-writing bug must also have hit my Canadian pen-pal, whom I met through National Novel Writing Month. She apologised via a private Twitter message that she hadn’t managed to write back. I, of course, said not to worry about it.

I remember learning at school how to write letters by hand in the mid-1990s. Looking back, it seemed a little dated even then: word processing software was near-universal, though e-mail was not.

In sixth year, however, I learned how to touch-type and to format a document correctly. The teacher was near retirement age, but she’d moved with the times: there were no double-spaces after full-stops.

Despite my love of letter-writing, I’m also doing it sparingly, as we don’t yet know exactly how the current virus is transmitted. The aforementioned neighbours now have my phone number, so as to reduce physical contact as soon as possible.

The Go-To Person

On this blog, I’ve previously discussed the theory that 10,000 hours of practice makes someone an expert in a given field. In particular, I raised the topic first in December, but held off from defining what an expert is in relation to writing.

As there is no objectively good way to write, it’s awkward to apply the word ‘expert’ to anyone. I think it more accurate to use a term such as ‘go-to person’.

Every so often, one friend or another will ask me for writing advice. I’ve recently been asked me to look over a poetry chapbook by one person, while another wanted help to create a workshop about how to perform on stage.

I always feel privileged to be the go-to person in any given matter, even if I make clear that my advice is made up of subjective suggestions and that the writer can implement or reject each one.

This also works the other way around. I have a roster of folks I can ask for help. One might be the go-to person for playwriting, for 19th-century poetry, or for academic writing.

I’m an expert by no means, even if I have a lot of experience in a given area, and neither are the people I rely on. Instead, we are mutual go-to people. None of us know all the answers; instead, we work together to find the answers.

The Benefit of Experience

Last week, a friend sent me a poem she’d written about a recent bereavement, asking for some suggestions. I immediately agreed. I copied the piece into Microsoft Word and switched on Tracked Changes, then looked through the piece line by line.

The first thing I did was check whether she’d followed generally accepted conventions, such as placing a lowercase letter where the start of a line isn’t a new sentence, and making sure a significant word ends each line.

When you read poetry a lot, you begin to build up a template in your head of what you like and don’t like, and what looks ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. So aside from the conventions outlined above, I considered how the piece sounded overall, and omitted or added words accordingly.

I made it clear than anything I wrote was merely a suggestion and could be ignored if she felt it didn’t work. Indeed, the poem was great to begin with, but someone else could easily come along and make different suggestions in accordance with their experience.

I don’t know yet whether this friend took my suggestions on board, but if she does, I believe it would improve the piece.

Surprise, Surprise

On Tuesday of last week, I came home to a parcel. I was only stopping for a brief time before heading out again. I didn’t pay much attention to it, as I was expecting a USB cable.

Just before leaving, I opened the parcel to check I’d received the correct equipment. So imagine my surprise when I found it actually contained the following:

Picture of Good Omens with a personalised gift note

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. There was no sender’s name, only a cat’s face made up with punctuation marks. However, it didn’t take long to trace it to an American friend. Around a week before, she’d heard the BBC radio adaptation from 2014. I’d casually mentioned I’d heard this, but hadn’t read the full novel, so she’d jumped at the chance to send it.

It was an incredibly thoughtful gift, and I’m making good progress with reading it. I’m working on what to send back as I have National Book Tokens that need to be spent before the balance expires.

The One with the Problem

Last week, I made reference to an event called Make / Share, in which four people from different artistic disciplines were invited to talk on the subject of ‘Creativity and Self-Care’.

Each speaker gave biographical account of their practice and how each finds a balance between working and resting. Although each story was unique, they all had one factor in common: the artist had to suffer ‘burnout’ before striking this balance.

Mulling this point over afterwards, I was reminded of comments I made in the summer to some good friends that are believed we should be working longer hours in this country, as is common in places such as Japan and South Korea, and being more productive. My friends are great people, so while they thoroughly disagreed with my view, we didn’t fall out over the matter.

APO headquarters.jpg
A place called the Asian Productivity Foundation by Kwangyun.lee – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

I apologised to them and retracted my comments in mid-November. Looking at said comments objectively, I realised they were right and that I’m the one with the problem. Over the last few months, I’ve read a few articles on workaholism and found I could answer ‘yes’ to many of the questions. I began reading the Helen Russell book The Year of Living Danishly and thought it sounded like a dystopian nightmare.

The trouble is that I don’t feel as though I have a problem. Here’s how I stand now:

As this writerly lark doesn’t pay very much, I also have a full-time office job. I have more than 26 hours flexitime credit, although I have reached the limit of 29 before, and the last time I took annual leave was in August, with no plans to take any more in the foreseeable future. I run a writing group that meets up every Tuesday and I was pleased to find out our venue is open on Boxing Day and 2 January so we wouldn’t need to take a break. I also have plans to continue writing my November novel and a potential sequel, as well as adapt a public-domain book into a screenplay. I have a target of sending 53 pieces to publishers each year, an average of one a week plus another for good measure. I’ve managed 43 thus far, so I’ll add the other 11 to the 2018 target.

Yet I’m far from burning out; I make a lot of time to see friends and I have a reasonable sleep most nights. It’s simply a case that I need to be working in some way, either in the office or outwith; it’s what keeps me sane. Even when I read a book or watch a film, it’s never entirely for enjoyment, but to comb it for structure and techniques.

Thanks in part to the Make / Share event, I now know the signs of burnout to look out for. Unless that happens, though, I’m going to keep doing exactly what I’m doing – even more if I can squeeze it in – because I’ve never been happier.

But I’m Not Creative

A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted her thoughts on LiveJournal about creativity and how she sometimes doesn’t feel as though her imaginative endeavours are noteworthy.

I found it oddly difficult to leave a comment under the entry. I do consider this friend to be creative, particularly in the way she bonds with people she knows well. Yet I’m surrounded by amazing writers, painters, dancers and so forth, and it’s rare to hear the word ‘creativity’ or variations thereof. I reckon that’s because we treat our chosen artistic fields as part of our daily lives, not something we make time for once our day-to-day work is complete.

Why books are always better than movies

The C-bomb does pop up from time to time, however.

For the first time, I attended an event on Tuesday called Make / Share, in which people from different disciplines talk on a specified theme; this month, it was ‘Creativity and self-care’. Had it not been for someone else raising my interest, I probably would have seen the event and dismissed it, believing it was solely for those who work in crafts. In fact, the event featured people who dance, perform music and make films.

I was chatting with people I knew and didn’t know, and I felt quite at home there. Yet equally, I felt I was talking to such great folks that I had to improve my writing game, much like my LiveJournal friend felt about her endeavours.

I also think the intent of any creative project is another important factor. It’s usually easy to tell through someone’s work whether the intent is to express a view or emotion, or whether it’s to make something that looks pretty or sounds pleasant. When I began writing, I was in the second camp, and only later did I begin to express myself far more through my pieces. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but nobody likes a ‘wannabe’.

On Saturday evening, I was invited to be part of a podcast with a small group of people. One of the participants was pleasantly surprised at how seriously the recordings taken, as she’d been accustomed to people who would talk grandly about what they would do but never followed through. The official podcast hasn’t yet been released. However, we did produce a couple of impromptu ones that were streamed live online. I prefer the second, an NSFW show recorded at 2am yesterday morning.

I think creativity is something we all do, whether it’s writing something personal in a Christmas card or helping a niece with homework, even if we don’t always use that term. And if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably not an aforementioned ‘wannabe’. Keep doing what you’re doing and try not to worry about whether it reaches someone else’s standards.