This is my response to a challenge issued by Bryan Hutchinson on the Positive Writer blog, to list 40Reasons why I write. Listing it like this has been helpful in expressing my goals – the expected outcomes of writing. But all my main reasons were not about the results of writing, but the act of writing itself: I simply can’t not write.
Many years ago I deliberately stopped writing because someone thought I was spending too much time on writing and not enough time on him. Leaving aside my sheer stupidity in complying with such a selfish and cruel request, I found after a few months that I was miserable, and not just because of that person. Without my creative outlet, I felt heavy and sick. My mind wouldn’t operate properly. There were lots of symptoms, but basically I was ill. I feel now that if I had not stopped writing, I might have woken up to my (unpleasant and dangerous) situation a lot sooner. But that’s a story for another day. That’s one reason, right there, never mind 40Reasons. So now I write every day and it helps with everything. If I go a couple of days with nothing – because of travel or whatever – I notice it. I feel it. So writing is part of me, the same as reading. It’s not optional, not a hobby. It’s part of me.
Looking at the responses to the challenge on Bryan’s blog, I can see that for most writers, this is the case. No surprise, really. I wonder, though, did anyone write the list and think, actually, I’ll not bother writing? I can’t think of enough good reasons? What happened then? Did they throw their typewriter out the window and stride off to a new destiny? Or just drink coffee until they got their mojo back?
Feel free to check out my list, or write your own. It certainly made me stop and think.
I wrote this out in eight minutes just now, which surprised me. But anyway, 40Reasons why I write:
If I try not to, I feel ill. My mind fogs up.
I love the act of imagination.
I love making readers laugh.
I love making readers cry.
I make up stories in my head constantly and it seems stupid not to write them down.
I am always mentally improving on the stories I see on TV.
I am a massive showoff.
I am a person who needs to talk. Someone once told me this as a criticism, but I think it’s true and I don’t mind at all.
I am a fast typist.
I love a challenge – write a novel in a month, write a poem a day – I love it, cannot resist.
I want to leave a legacy.
I want to earn enough money not to need a day job.
I think writing is what I was born to do.
I can record intriguing things I’ve noticed.
I write to try out ideas about the world.
I love practising different effects that can be achieved with words.
I love the physical sensation of writing and typing.
I like being able to create my fantasies.
Writing is literally making something from nothing – that’s pure magic.
I want to tell my own story one day.
I am in a writing group and at some level some accountable – I have to write and share my weekly piece in The Write Practice’s Becoming Writer community.
I love that writing is a job I can do anywhere.
I write to make some money. Eventually.
Ideas jump at me in phrases and images and I must write them down.
I write to express joy and frustration and love.
It keeps the anxiety off.
It makes people laugh in surprise.
I love the writing community of people who share my dream.
It can make people think.
I like to help people who are following the same path as me, sharing what I’ve learned.
Because I can’t play any sports and don’t enjoy soap opera.
Because I can do it indoors with the curtains drawn and the heating turned way up and nobody expects me to run round a field.
I can’t not write. What would I do instead?
It lets me capture dreams I’d otherwise forget.
I can record my life for my descendants.
I can create giant ideas and scenarios which would be too technical or too expensive to do in film.
It makes me happy and energetic.
I get a physical high from writing. Especially these words: The End.
It’s intellectually satisfying to find the exact right word for a scene.
I just love it.
From tomorrow, 1st April, I’ll be taking part in the April blogging AZChallenge – posting on 26 days of the month, a letter per day, on the broad theme of writing. These will be shorter than my usual posts, but I hope you like them and find them useful. Let me know what you think! -Sef
Firstly, sorry if you saw a bizarre empty blog post email earlier. I pressed a key by mistake… doh! The Poem a Day blog post is coming soon. Meanwhile, onto today’s post:
I spent a week focusing on paper for my creative activities: reading, writing, drawing, learning. Here’s what I found – the good, the brilliant and the rest. I am definitely going to extend PaperWeek into my life in general, because I feel it has helped me loosen up my creative muscles and look at writing, and imagination, in fresh ways. I learned so much about creativity and my overall verdict is – PaperRules!
I gave myself a list of ideasfor the PaperWeek challenge, and tried to tick off as many as I could. I didn’t have much equipment – an old lined exercise book, a Bic biro, and some blank index cards. That was basically it.
I started with reading the Sunday papers, start to finish. That took two days’ worth of creative-time. I read two to three pages, then made notes or comments in my exercise book. Sometimes ideas leapt out at me. It’s not like online news, categorised by topic; in print, the articles are arranged by their supposed interest to the reader – meaning psychiatric crisis in hospitals was next to information about global warming and an exposé of a dating site for older men to meet much younger women. Put those three together in your writer’s brain and ideas begin to flow. Just for that experience, PaperWeek was worth it.
I did skim the sports pages. (I usually just bin them, since I follow no sport of any kind.) The articles were all written in terms of epic battles involving Fury, Attack, Storm, Triumph – whereas the photos showed some men (and a very few women) competing for possession of a ball. Sports not involving balls were nowhere to be found. At the back were four pages of tiny print like the stock market news. It was intriguing. I wonder what else might generate such intense interest, in a fantasy setting?
One PaperWeek challenge was to make a mini book. This I did, aided by instructions from the internet, and found it amazingly easy to create a minibook involving one blank sheet of printer paper, and one snip with a pair of scissors. I wrote a rhyming poem inside, coloured some simple illustrations, and hid it on my daughter’s pillow. She was thrilled, and loved the rhyme and the (extremely sentimental) words. I made her another one, even smaller, for when I had to travel away from home this week. She absolutely loved it and wants me to make more. So that’s a Mum win as well as a Creativity win.
Next, a postcard from an imaginary journey. I made this quickly while having coffee at a service station, en route to Lincolnshire and a customer site. I’d grabbed an index card before I left, and whilst sipping my mediocre £4 Americano, I wrote a plea from an aristocratic beast-hunter to his beloved, requesting fresh handkerchiefs and complaining about the staff. This servant had disappeared when he was supposed to be watching out for Wyverns. I did my approximation of fancy Victorian handwriting (fake calligraphy is a thing!) and drew a stamp. In a very small space, I was still able to invent a scenario, a crisis, humour and an unreliable narrator who has no idea that the servant hates him and has run off, leaving the expedition at the mercy of supernatural creatures. Not bad for a six-by-four-inch space. I’ll be creating more postcards, and letters too, as part of my background project, the Journal of Imaginary Places. More on that another time.
If I’d had more time, I might have roughed out this postcard first, then redrawn it in fancy ink, with a handcrafted fake stamp, postmark, and so on. But in fact, the speed and roughness of my creation was liberating. I already knew it could not be perfect, so I just went for it. That’s a big lesson from PaperWeek.
Next on my challenge list was to draw a map. I am rubbish at drawing maps, and have zero spatial awareness. I have trouble envisaging epic vistas in novels – in fact, trouble with location in general. I cannot seem to hold a big space in my mind. This may explain why I love scenes in cramped rooms, and shy away from vast fjords, plains, and so on. Anyway. I found a video on YouTube to create this simple map, and am disproportionately pleased with it. There are more videos – amazing videos – to create the kind of maps you see in Tolkien special editions – and I will be returning to map making for sure. However, my own fantasy novel does not need a map – or does it??
One source of inspiration which I had overlooked was the purely visual – pictures. I look at a LOT of pictures online, of course – I think humans in 2017 live for pictures – but it was a while since I really looked at pictures in a book. So WonderBook has been an inspiration. (Separate post on Wonderbook coming soon.) I also love the art on these ‘oracle cards’ – a kind of daily inspiration set. The aim is to pick a card and read the little book. It’s similar to the astrology section in the tabloids – today is a day for new thoughts, cast off old ways, unless you already have, in which case, don’t. Basically harmless, and I love the art on this set. I’m not into tarot, but some of those sets have truly surreal illustrations, if you like that sort of thing. I need more fantasy art in my life, and not just online. Holding the art is a different experience. I can’t express that very well. But it may explain my greetings-card habit.
I wanted to create a miniature protest placard but did not have time, so drew one on a blank card. I did not do as much drawing or doodling as I’d hoped this week so I’ll continue to work on it. I doodled my way all through high school and I am convinced it helped me concentrate. I have two kinds of doodle – automatic – repeating patterns of hexagons, swirls or boxes – and pictures of eyes. I’ve no idea if this Means Something. Therapists out there – I’d probably rather not know…
A separate task for this week was to conquer novel structure. For nine months, I have had tremendous trouble holding the shape of a novel in my head. (Not my novel – the theoretical novel as illustrated by Weiland, Lakin and Bell, plus others.) But now, egged on by PaperWeek, I was moved to draw a map of Bell’s structure, and it really helped. I will recreate this, so that it looks better and illustrates the structure. but as an idea and a memory exercise, this was brilliant.
Also on Bell and structure – I wrote my novel’s scenes out on index cards. I had already done this in Scrivener, and again in an exercise book (see the post on Backwards Planning), but putting them on cards has been helpful in matching my scenes to the three act structure. I have not yet laid them all out, but I’m in a hotel room for a chunk of this week so maybe I’ll have some time and floor space there.
My last project was a writing prompt jar. For this, I caved in and puchased some readymade tiny tags, of the kind designed for scrapbooking and card-making. These I simply stuffed into an old Bonne Maman jam jar, and voila! a prompt jar. I have begun to write prompts on the tags – scenes from dreams, mostly, but more inspiration will come from Holly Lisle’s ‘Sweet Spot’ map. (There will be a blog post on the map soon.) Anyway I love the look of the little tags in the jar, because they were made by people with colour printers, and we’ll see if I actually use it when I need a prompt.
I created more than this – but overall, what a blast. I recommend a PaperWeek to anyone, especially if, like me, you spend far too much of your working life in front of a screen, and then continue the trend in your personal life, wrecking your eyes and your circadian rhythms. Working with paper forces you to take a screen break, and also jolts your creative mind into new ideas. PaperRules!
My overall PaperRules findings:
Reading paper books helped me learn. Maybe I was channelling my schooldays, but it really seemed to make a difference when I read it on paper.
Making notes and reflecting on my reading helped with… everything, especially learning and retention.
Reading paper books gave me a lot less time for reading. I do most of my reading on my phone in odd moments, and can whiz through a vast range of fiction on my Kindle app, plus news articles, craft blog posts, etc. I often read, and write, in a dim room while my child drifts off to sleep – not possible with a paper book.
Reading paper books is way more expensive than reading Kindle. If I lived in a big city I would probably be able to satisfy fiction and non fiction with the library, but my town library, while pretty good (you know, for a FREE service), can’t stock the latest books in all the areas I read. And if I want something specific, I have to buy it. So ebooks are still king for giving me most value for least cash.
Reading newspapers again after a deliberate break of about five years, has been great. It’s also an expensive habit though, so I’ll save it for the occasional Sunday, I think.
Related: PaperWeek has made me appreciate the amount of free, quality content which is available online!
Drawing and diagramming is a great way to solidify ideas. I knew this, academically, but it was rewarding to prove it for myself.
Creating in paper was relaxing and freed my mind. I felt more imaginative after I made a tiny book or a map. I gave up so many other creative pastimes when I began focusing on writing, and I’ve been the poorer for it. I will make time for non-word-based creativity from now on.
If you haven’t tried a PaperWeek challenge, here’s what you do:
Commit to reading paper as your main source of news/fiction/nonfiction.
Draw something every day, however doodlish and silly.
I hereby declare PaperWeek. This is a week where I make efforts to do as much of my reading, writing and planning on paper – and generally to engage with paper a lot more than I engage with my phone screen. I’m looking for increased creativity, new ideas generated from time spent with a pen in my hand and no distractions, and less eye strain.
PaperWeek will be hard, as I do all my writing, and most of my reading, on my phone, using Evernote and Kindle. But as an experiment, I want to see how working with paper and pen (paint, ink, glue, scissors) affects creativity and inspiration. I hope the sensory, physical aspect will activate different parts of my creative brain.
There are supposedly other benefits to avoiding screens – reducing overstimulation of the brain (an idea which has been around since TVs first appeared in living rooms as a Dangerous Evil) – and reducing interference with circadian rhythms (from the blue light emitted by phones and tablets). So PaperWeek might give me better sleep and a calmer brain, but those are not my aims.
I’m also going to be trying out various paper exercises to deepen my understanding of story structure, generate fresh creative ideas, and invent new magic systems.
I feel as if PaperWeek might extend beyond a week, but I’ll have to review it and see how practical it is. I read a lot of books on writing craft, as well as for pleasure, and Kindle books are a fraction of the price of paper books. My phone – where I read my Kindle books – fits in my pocket at all times, far more convenient than a paper book. Plus I blog using my PC, and keep up with distant family via Facebook. Screens will remain in my life even during PaperWeek. Nonetheless, I feel a focus on paper activities could help me.
I sat and (handwrote) a list of paper-based ideas for PaperWeek. I aimed for six or seven items and got fifty. Here are my selections from that list, and a picture showing why I currently don’t handwrite much: my handwriting becomes illegible to me if I wait more than a week after writing it.
There were pages and pages of this (see the second pic below) and I felt like I could have kept going forever. That, I think, is the magic of having a pen in your hand and the sound of it rasping over the paper. There is a physical buzz from handwriting. I get this from typing, too, but I rarely type on a keyboard these days – it’s all phone dab dab dab.
Anyway, here is some of the list, and next week I’ll share what I created, and let you know what effects PaperWeek has on my writing and my life.
Buy the Sunday papers and read them. Even the sports pages.
Make a paper plane, or boat.
Write a message you would put in a bottle.
Make a name tag for yourself, with care instructions, like in Paddington.
Write a packing list for a trip to an imaginary land. Think wealthy Victorians. They packed everything. Or think poor Victorians – they packed a lump of cheese, a piece of bread and a knife, maybe a firelighting kit. Include items for the imaginary dangers you expect to meet. Dragon shovel, troll salt.
I’ve been teaching myself SQL – Structured Query Language, for databases – this week, because I have to give a training course on it next week. I’ve become fairly familiar with creating some queries with SQL (which I now pronounce ‘sequel’ like the guys in my technical team do) over the last couple of years. I can muddle through. But if I needed to join tables together, I turned to the SQL experts in my team, to take over. I had no motivation for persistence. SQL wasn’t part of my job, so I could reasonably ask others for help. But now it is part of my job. I need to be able to help other people use it. And the people I’ll be training are my peers, in the new team I’ve just transferred to. These people are experts, not perhaps in SQL, but they are consultants with years of experience in complex systems and high-stakes customer situations. I know from our previous training sessions that they will ask a lot of hard questions.
This SQL business is a little like my situation right now with story structure. I’ve been learning about it for about nine months. Prior to that, everything I knew was based on my instincts as a writer, and of course, as a lifelong reader of stories. So I set out to improve my understanding of structure, because I wanted to measure my own stories against some well-tested methods.
But it was hard. The terminology slid away from me on the page. Threshold. Pinch point. Door of no return. Second plot point. What? I couldn’t hold an entire structure in my head. It all just meant nothing to me.
This was annoying. Because… Well.
I like to think I’m not stupid. Back in the mists of time, I gained a first class honours degree, which I hoped might mean something about my ability to learn and apply new information. But this story structure stuff had simply not sunk in. I could appreciate it at an academic level. But I just didn’t care. I didn’t feel it, as the kids may, or may not, say. And I was doing OK without it. I had no motivation for persistence.
Back to SQL. Derived tables and hand-typed code are way outside my comfort zone. I’m an experienced report writer in my day job, using various software tools, but I never needed to do it this way, line by painstaking line. Every bit must be right or the query won’t run and you get a red warning message. ‘Syntax error near AND.’ What do you mean, ‘near’? How near? Where?
But having agreed to deliver this training, I have to do it. And because it is for my brilliant colleagues, I do not have the luxury of screwing it up. So I have knuckled down and read the books and typed out the code by hand and forced myself to learn SQL bit by tiny bit.
And gradually, over about three weeks, it has become easier. I have been writing a little more of the course every day. Yesterday I typed out an entire SQL statement to achieve a reporting goal, by hand, and it made sense to me and ran without errors and it brought back the data I was expecting.
I still have a lot to learn. I’ll probably never reach the point where I have twenty possible solutions in my head for SQL, the way I do for my usual day job software. But I’m confident in the basic functions. Persistence paid off.
The same must now apply to my knowledge of story structure. I need persistence. I need to knuckle down, study (again) the books I bought about it, buy some more books, and apply what I read. I can’t just wait for a structural edit to sort out the issues.
I have to figure it out for myself.
At uni I found story analysis hard. I had only ever read for pleasure, but suddenly I had to unpick the classics using all the weird ways my tutors showed me, and then apply that methodology to any story they named.
I hated it. I had a massive blindspot to identifying story elements. I knew what worked for me as a reader and what didn’t, and could point to it and describe it in my own terms. But to deconstruct a story in the ways my tutors wanted, was anathema to me.
Also, as far as I was concerned, an author does not necessarily mean something by including a yellow curtain in a scene instead of a blue one, or blinds. Nor did I think that a story’s plot must reflect the author’s stance on the global position of women, or reveal something about sexuality. But I persisted. I learned the wretched Structuralism and Postmodernism and I applied it to Jane Eyre and Miss Marple. I got the grades and I passed my degree. Woohoo.
It was six years after graduation before I read a book with any real pleasure.
Nonetheless, with persistence I conquered my blindspot, and my SQL ineptitude, and I will not allow story structure, which is only another academic exercise, to defeat me.
So I will return to my reading list, some of it from last year, some of it new, and work through it, making notes and applying the new ideas as I go, like I did with the SQL, like I did to get my degree. Because my writing is not worth less than that.
DIY-MFA update. (If you don’t know what I’m on about with this ‘DIY-MFA’, click here.) I started this self-imposed writing-improvement program three weeks ago. I am writing 500 words a day of fiction prose, poetry, blog, memoir or my various works in progress. I am reading a poem every day at poems.com and absolutely loving it. How have I left poetry out of my life for so long? I feel fifteen again. I’ve not done so well on the fiction front – I have read several short stories, but not one per day. I have been studying the writing craft, as detailed above.
I’ve read newspaper article and online articles as substitutes for the ‘essay’ part of the MFA requirements. And thanks to joining two new writing communities, fanstory.com and a Facebook group for flash fiction writers, I’m writing several very short stories every week. I’ve even written a few poems and entered one in a fanstory.com member contest, where it’s received some good reviews. I’ve submitted a story to a small zine and am looking for other outlets.
I’ve also joined two other Facebook groups and become a Patreon supporter for Ninja Writers, because its founder Shaunta inspired this DIY-MFA drive. Those three new groups have given me some great interactions already. There are a lot of us writers out there!
So after just a fortnight, I’m seeing the benefits of conscious self-improvement. I’m reading so much more and trying even harder than usual to squeeze in writing time. What I now need is to create a better record of my exact activities. I’ll work out a method and share that with you soon. Meanwhile, I recommend this endeavour to anyone – and if you want a more formal arrangement and some accountability, check out whatisaplot.com to sign up for Shaunta’s own DIY-MFA program.
What have you learned, or tried to learn, lately? How have you succeeded (or not)? Let me know in the comments!