If you’ve read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, you’ll be familiar with the idea of Morning Pages. Briefly, she recommends that all artists start the day by writing three full pages of a journal. The writing must be done without stopping to think, without criticising what you’re writing, and if you can’t think what to write, you write ‘I can’t think what to write’ over and over again until your brain jumps the tracks and finds something to say. Many people swear by Morning Pages, particularly if they’re having a tough time, as the writing enables you to let go and release everything that’s worrying you. It clears the pipes ready for the day ahead. Some writers report that they spend months writing drivel about the minutiae of their day until one glorious morning a character steps onto the page and enchants them.
I’ve tried morning pages on various occasions, and tend to return to them if I’m feeling unsettled or uncertain. When I write them, they’re more moaning pages than morning pages. For me, they don’t result in characters tripping blithely onto the page, but they help me to understand and release the stuff that’s holding me back or keeping me stuck. When I have a bee in my bonnet about something, I use the moaning pages to whinge on about it, digging into layer after layer of gripes, hurts, and frustrations until I’m so sick of writing about it I say, “Enough!” and let go. For me, moaning/ morning pages are a way to work out what I want to do, how I want things to be, and how to get there.
Morning pages are great discipline – you must fill three pages a day, every day. The routine preps your brain that it’s writing time and creates a writing routine. It’s not meant to result in publishable prose, though you may come up with an idea that you later rework. In fact, Cameron recommends that you don’t look back at what you’ve written for several months. When you do, you may be surprised. The pages offer a window into your subconscious – they show you your obsessions, your dreams, and what’s holding you back.
When I want to find a new character or a new story, I don’t use morning pages, I use free writing. The techniques are similar – you write for a set period of time, or decide to cover a certain number of pages, you write without stopping, and if you get stuck you repeat the last few words over and over until something new comes to mind. I use free writing most days as a warm up. They’re the equivalent of practising scales or jogging round a running track – giving my creativity a bit of a work out. When I look back over my writing, I see themes appearing, images and ideas that attract and intrigue me. Ideas that I then go on to explore in fiction.
Do you use morning pages, and if so, are they for creativity or for getting the gripes out of your system, or both? I’d love to know what works for you. Tell me about it in the comments below.
A year ago, my writing buddy died. He was my cat, Wimsey. I’d had him for over 14 years. This post isn’t going to be filled with sentimental reminiscences or cute cat stories, though there will be a few of those; more, it’s going to consider what happens to your writing when you experience trauma, loss or serious illness.
But to start, how can a cat be a writing buddy? Like this. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that I write first drafts in the same way that I’ve written since I was a child: sitting up on my bed, writing longhand in a notebook. Wimsey would curl up beside me on the bed, sometimes batting at my pen as it moved, occasionally knocking a hardboiled sweet around the skirting boards for my entertainment. As I often tell my coaching clients, it helps to think of writing as playing, and having the cat charge about after a boiled sweet certainly stopped me taking myself too seriously. Later, when he was an old, old cat, he’d press himself full length against me, his hot paws on my leg, his head positioned so I could feel his breath on the back of my hand and within easy stroking range.
When I transferred my handwritten draft to the computer, he lay on the floor under the desk with his paws on my foot, or positioned himself on the chaise longue in my study, occasionally emitting gurgling noises to remind me he was there. And as for printing out material ready to send off? I often had to reprint the title page because there was a paw print on it. Quality control, cat style.
Writing is an up and down business, and us writers have a tendency to gloominess, so having someone who’s always thrilled to see you is essential. My husband loves me, but he doesn’t fling himself on the ground and writhe around in pleasure that I’m home (maybe I should speak to him about that?). When everyone hated my story, the cat didn’t care. Equally he wasn’t that fussed when everyone was raving about my latest novel. He helped to smooth it all out.
When he died, I was recovering from whooping cough. It was a serious infection and I was physically very weak and rather depressed. I’d just started writing a new novel - ironically about grief and loss - and Wimsey as usual had been there, assisting with the writing and it was flowing nicely. I keep a spreadsheet with my daily word counts on it, and at the point he died, there’s a month’s break in the writing when I didn’t write a single word. How could I? I didn’t know how to write without him there. It felt wrong. And, frankly, I was so grief-stricken that I couldn’t care less about the wretched novel.
When I coach other writers, I emphasise the importance of routine: writing in the same place, at the same time, with the same writing rituals. It prepares your mind for writing. Now my usual rituals and routine were broken, and I didn’t know what to do. How could I create a new writing routine that would get me through to the end of this new book?
I admit, for a while I considered just jacking it in, but then I realised that this was just another writing challenge in a long line of challenges that I’d overcome over the years, and that were waiting for me in the years to come. Life is littered with setbacks, griefs and disappointments, the trick is to learn how to come bouncing back after them. After a month of not writing, it was time to find my way back. This is what I did.
I had elements of my routine that hadn’t changed: writing longhand, on my bed, with a coffee, and with the TV chuntering in the background. Keeping those bits took me half-way to my usual writing conditions. The problem was he’d left a big hole in my life and my mind kept on saying, ‘This feels weird without him’. I needed to quiet my thoughts so I could write. I did this by taking a few minutes at the start of each writing session to simply focus on my breathing. Just breathing, I could do that. After a few minutes, my mind had stilled, and I set a goal for the writing session ahead – to write the dialogue in a scene, to write a description of a character, to feel excited about what I was writing, to discover a new aspect of a character. Then I wrote.
What I wrote wasn’t as important as the fact that I was writing; I knew I could sort it out afterwards. But setting down words, when I didn’t really want to, when it felt wrong – that was the key thing. I kept a note of my word counts, and the first day I managed 300 words. The next day I did 250. Two days later I wrote over 2200 words in a sitting and it took me just over an hour. After that I kept at a steady 1200-1500 words each sitting, written in around an hour.
Yes, it was painful, and it was also fascinating. Grief has a strange energy to it. It’s strong and furious and overwhelming, and it’s not constant. It came in waves that I could feel building. I watched as it crashed over me and bashed me about, then watched it recede. I couldn’t write about it, though. My grief-stricken characters had to wait for the editing process to have their emotions properly attended to.
Is it still difficult to write without my writing buddy? Yes, but then it’s still odd to do my Pilates exercises each morning without him licking my eyebrows, and it’s weird doing the gardening without him filling in the holes the moment I’ve dug them. Life is constantly changing. Us writers, us stuck-in-the-mud, wedded-to-routine scribblers, aren’t immune to it, and the ability to be flexible, to find a new way, is ultimately our strength. Over a lifetime of writing, we’ll all come up against obstacles – ill health, looking after family, changes to jobs and homes, changing what and how we want to write. Raging against it all won’t help; we need to find gentler, more nurturing ways to get back to writing. Sometimes that means tweaking what we already have; sometimes it means being brave enough to create a whole new approach to our writing.
And now over to you. Have you overcome challenges to keep on writing? Tell me what you did and what worked best for you in the comments below.
When we think of writer's block, we tend to think of the obvious manifestations of it: all out of ideas; not knowing what to write; feeling the muse has deserted us. It can also present itself as procrastination - anything is more interesting and compelling than writing the next scene, even doing the ironing or putting our socks into alphabetical order. And these other tasks can seem urgent - they must be done now and we can't concentrate on writing until they're complete.
Then there's perfectionism: wanting to write something perfectly first time round, and unable even to start writing as we're convinced that:
1. It won't be perfect first time round (correct - it never is, and actually shouldn't be perfect. The first draft is all about discovering the story you want to tell) and
2. Rewriting and making it perfect is a sign of failure (incorrect - writing is 90% rewriting).
And then there are the blocks that don't look like blocks. Writer's block in disguise. These can be tricky ones to spot, because they seem to have nothing to do with writing at all, but their function is the same - to stop you writing. And, like all writer's block, the reason they need to stop you writing us because deep down you're afraid. Of failure, of success, of writing something that's rubbish or shocking or that reveals who you truly are at heart.
Let's have a look at some of the ways writer's block comes in disguise, and what you can do to address it.
We all live busy lives, and tiredness seems to be a feature of modern life. When tiredness is writer's block in disguise, it shows up at times you've set aside for writing. Up till that point you're bright eyed and bushy tailed, then the moment you think about writing, you slump. This can be the case particularly if you're trying to establish a writing routine. You've decided you want to write for half an hour each day, and have marked out clear spaces in your day to accomplish this, but whenever it's time to write, you feel worn out.
The reason you suddenly feel tired at these times is because humans are naturally wary of change. Setting up a new writing routine, like establishing any new habit, is a change, and subconsciously you rebel. Sometimes the rebellion takes the form of tiredness. Your mind regards change as unwelcome, so sets about finding a way to prevent it.
To overcome this block in disguise, try this technique. Use tiredness to overcome perfectionism. Accept that you feel tired, and decide that you'll write anyway, but because you feel tired, any words at all class as a victory. This means that you're free to write absolute rubbish and that's OK - you're doing the best you can despite feeling tired. It's very likely that once you start writing, your energy levels will rise and the writing will get easier.
2. Being a little bit poorly
I'm not talking about having the flu or a stomach bug here, but that niggly not-very-well feeling when you think you might be about to get a headache, or might be about to come down with a cold, or are just not feeling 100%. Like tiredness, this is also resistance to change. Perfectionism can rear its unhelpful head, too, as being a little bit poorly makes it unlikely that you'll turn out a perfect first draft.
Overcome this by firstly checking that you're really only a 'little bit poorly'. Are you still able to go to work, look after the kids, go for a walk or read a book? If so, this might well be writer's block in disguise. Like tiredness, you might find that once you start writing you experience a miraculous recovery. Actually, writing can help you to feel better if you're ill. I write when I can feel a migraine brewing - it often helps.
But how to start writing when you're feeling poorly? The trick to use is 'just ten words'. Commit to writing just 10 words. They have to form a coherent sentence, you can't just write 'blah blah' ten times. If you haven't spontaneously combusted after 10 words, commit to writing 10 more. Keep going in this way for 5 minutes. If you've hated every single second of those 5 minutes, stop writing. If you're feeling a little more settled, write in the same way, 10 words at a time, for another 5 minutes.
3. Other people
This is a sneaky disguise because it appears that the block is completely outside your control. It manifests in this way: you've set aside some precious time to dedicate to your writing, but then a friend rings you up, having a minor crisis such as needing someone to pick up her kids while she waits in for the boiler repair man, or she's had a bad day at work and can you come over for a chat?
You've got a choice here: to yourself and your writing, or to your friend. Depending on the crisis, you might decide your friend needs you and ditch your writing to go and help her. Sometimes this is unavoidable. In these cases, reschedule your writing date immediately.
But sometimes the 'crisis' isn't urgent. It doesn't have to be dealt with right now, and if you were ill or on holiday your friend would cope. You have the option to say, 'Sorry, I'm not free right now' and get on with the writing session you had planned. The question is, are you a bit relieved by your friend's cry for help, because it gives you a valid excuse for missing your writing session? If so, this is a block in disguise. It's a block, because it's stopping you from writing.
Overcome this by learning to say no. It's a lot easier to say no if you've made an appointment with yourself in your diary and have committed to it. If you find it hard to say no, ask yourself if the appointment was a hot date, would you be so willing to forgo it?
When you've said no, approach your writing session by using the 'just 10 words' technique, as there's a good chance you'll be squirming with guilt for daring to put yourself and your needs first, and that can make concentration difficult.
Writer's block can be sneaky and manifest in ways that seem to bear no relation to your writing. How does your writer's block come in disguise? Tell me about it in the comments below.
Wishing you happy and block-free writing!
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words in your life?
Think about it. You probably start the day by checking your phone for messages and emails, and maybe you'll also have a look at social media, just to find out what's going on and what you've missed while you've been asleep. Then you might go onto a news website and catch up on the headlines.
Next it's off to work. Reports to read, reports to write, emails to read and respond to. PowerPoint presentations. Staff appraisals. On and on those words go. And lunchtime is probably spent on your phone or tablet surfing social media.
Back home and there's more social media, and then you get to write your own stuff - the novel or poem or short story you're working on. A whole day full of words.
It struck me recently how full of words my life has become, and I've added to the volume of words by returning to study. Lots of books to read, seminars to prepare for, and lots of essays to write. Don't get me wrong - I love words. Words are my bread and butter. But sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing.
So at New Year I decided that instead of writing a list of everything I wanted to do, be and have this year, I'd cut pictures out of magazines and make a collage in my bullet journal. Not only was it fun to play around with scissors and glue, and deciding on the arrangement of the pictures, but seeing the pictures gave me a much more powerful emotional attachment to what I want from this year.
It's said a picture paints a thousand words, and that's true, but it also creates an emotional response. You can write out what you want and why you want it, but making a picture of it so that you can spend time gazing at it and reconnecting with those emotions, is a powerful way to remind yourself of what it is you want in your life, and what's important to you.
Writer’s block – that feeling of being so stuck and uninspired that doing anything else, even the ironing, seems more appealing than trying to write – can be caused by many things, and sometimes the cause is that you’re writing the wrong thing.
What do I mean by the ‘wrong thing’? It could be a project that’s simply unachievable considering your current lifestyle and circumstances; it could be writing something in the wrong form or genre; or it could be a project that’s quite simply lost its gloss. Clues that you might be writing the wrong thing include:
• A sinking feeling every time you think about it
• You’ve been working on it, off and on, for a period of years, and the end seems as far away as the moon
• If it suddenly vanished, you’d feel relieved
• Your characters aren’t talking to you
You might start out writing something that was the right thing at that time, but over time, it can become wrong for you. This can happen if this is your first large writing project, and you haven’t been able to commit to a regular writing schedule. Over the months and years, you pick it up, do a bit, and then put it aside again. And the longer this goes on, the more stale it becomes in your mind, and the more likely you are to have had a new, fresh idea that’s much more appealing.
When this happens (and it’s happened to most writers, believe me), it’s tempting to say, “I’ll finish this and then write the new idea.” But we’re not talking about having to eat your vegetables before you get your pudding, here. It’s your writing and you can write whatever makes your heart sing. It’s fine to leave the first project for a while, or even abandon it altogether, while you pour your energy and enthusiasm into your new project. The benefit of doing this is you are more likely to get into a regular writing practice if you’re writing something you love, and this can then be used to complete the original project, if you decide to go back to it later.
Sometimes, the idea you have doesn’t fit the way you choose to express it. You might have a great idea and instantly decide it should be a novel. Hold your horses! At the planning and exploration stage, it pays to spend some time thinking about how the idea would develop in different genres or in different forms. How would it work as a play? As a short story? As a narrative poem? Make sure the form and genre you choose are the right ones for the ideas you want to express.
If you’re stuck and a writing project is getting you down, put it aside and ask yourself these questions:
• If I lost it, how would I feel?
• If I wasn’t writing this, what would I be doing?
• What if this idea was written as a play/song/sketch/poem/short story?
Have courage, and make the changes your writing needs to get back on track – you won’t regret it when you’re happily scribbling away on a project that thrills you.
It’s that time of year when the magazine and newspaper supplements are full of things you should do/ should stop doing in order to have ‘your best year yet’. Top of the list is always some sort of detoxing – foods to avoid, foods to eat in abundance, and good health habits to cultivate.
But what about your writing? The start of the year is a good time to review your writing practice, and identify what’s working for you and what could do with tweaking. So how do you detox your writing? Let’s look at how you write, and what you write.
Detox the Way You Write
Take a few deep breaths to clear your mind, and then go to the place where you do the majority of your writing, whether it’s your study, the sofa, or a cubbyhole under the stairs. If you normally write in a coffee shop or library, then imagine the place.
What’s your immediate reaction? If it’s anything other than ‘Oh goody, let’s get writing’, your writing space could do with a detox. How cluttered is it? How sparse? How warm and inviting? Over the past few years, we’ve heard a lot about decluttering – stripping back everything that you don’t absolutely love and have to have in your life, and now the trend has flipped the other way and I’ve noticed a trend towards re-cluttering. But before you rush out to restock on junk, remember that what is sparse to one person is untidy to another. What’s important is what you need to feel comfortable and creative.
Can you easily put your hand on the right notebook, outline or character sketch? If not, rearrange things, discarding and refiling as necessary until everything you need for your writing is close by. This might well be a tidying up exercise, but not necessarily. If you work best with music playing or with a scented candle burning, you might need to move your i-pod dock and candles into your writing space.
My own desk has a scented oil burner, an array of notebooks in bright colours, a mug full of pens, a box of index cards, a light, a radio and a salt lamp on it. Not so bare I feel inhibited, and not so cluttered (for me) that I can’t find what I need. But that’s me – you will have different requirements for your writing, so gather what you need and set up your space so it works for you. If you normally write in a coffee shop and it’s not quite as inspiring as you’d like, shop around trying different places at different times of the day until you find one with the right level of busyness/ peace for you.
Detox What You Write
We all have bad habits when we write. Metaphors and similes that we’re too fond of; words we don’t quite know the meaning of but use anyway; and words we get muddled up. For example, I’m far too fond of describing shock as ‘her heart turned to stone’. The first time it was probably OK, but now I’ve overused it and need to find a better way to describe what shock feels like. I have a bad habit of using ‘like’ instead of ‘as though’ (‘it was like her heart turned to stone’ vs ‘it was as though her heart turned to stone’) and I’m not all that clear on the difference between might and may. But knowing these weaknesses means I take more care when I use them in my writing, and (hopefully!) get them right.
Look at your own writing and seek out your bad habits. Do you use visible words when writing dialogue? For example, instead of simply using ‘he said’, do you tend to write, ‘he bellowed/ cried/ screamed/ expostulated’?
Not sure about the difference between effect and affect, or between perspicacious or perspicacity? Continual and continuous? Knowing that you have a blind spot when it comes to these words is helpful, because you’ll know to double check every time you use them.
Editors, agents and publishers will point them out, or you can ask a trusted friend to read your work and highlight your writing bad habits.
It can be hard to spot bad habits in your own writing, but here are a few tips:
1. Change the font and font size before re-reading and editing your piece. This shifts the line breaks and makes the writing appear ‘new’ to your eyes, meaning you’re more likely to spot mistakes.
2. Change the size of the viewing pane – if you normally write and edit with the screen at 100%, change it to 150%.
3. Read your piece from the bottom up – this takes away the meaning and flow of the piece and means you can concentrate on the actual words.
With your writing space optimised for happy writing, and an awareness of where you need to adjust what you write, you’ve set yourself up nicely for a year of productive writing.
Happy detoxing and writing!
All the best,
Many years ago, I read an article about the joys and perils of writing groups. I can’t remember the name of the author, or where I saw the article, but it has stayed with me, because it illustrated its point using a story.
It goes something like this. A writers’ group met every week; each week they were given a theme to write about, then they brought their work for comment and critique to the next session. One week they were given the theme of ‘a chair’. They all wrote a story about a chair and read their work aloud at the next meeting. All but one of the participants wrote a story about a rocking chair on a porch: stories that were sentimental and twee. One person wrote about the electric chair, and the story was full of compassion and redemption. The other members of the group turned on the author and castigated him for writing about such a horrible topic, but it was the electric chair story that went on to be published, not the rocking chair stories.
This anecdote was told to warn people that writing groups can have their downsides, but to me it has two further messages for writers:
• Stick to your guns
• Be different
There are many writing competitions that ask for submissions on a theme. How do you avoid the twee and hackneyed (the rocking chair) and find the original and bold (the electric chair)?
Write then Discard
Firstly, write down everything that comes to mind when you think of the theme. Chuck away all your first ideas, as they will be the obvious connections and the ones that the majority of people will write about.
Keep on brainstorming, looking at the theme from different angles, asking questions, and turning the obvious on its head. Keep going until you’re out of ideas.
Quieten the Chatter
If you find it difficult to do this, it could be that your conscious mind (the bit that’s coming up with easy, obvious ideas) is holding sway and needs to be quietened down so your subconscious can come up with more tangential ideas. There are a few ways to let your subconscious come forward:
• Sleep. This technique was used by Milton to write Paradise Lost: he would awake in the middle of the night and dictate 30 or 40 lines of poetry to his wife and then go back to sleep again. If you value your marriage, I don’t recommend his technique, but you could set an alarm for 20 minutes in the afternoon and have a catnap. Start writing the moment you wake up, before the conscious mind has time to interfere.
• Meditation. This isn’t about thinking about nothing, but about quieting your mind so you can calmly watch your thoughts and let them go. Even simply sitting still and counting your breaths will help to numb the chatter.
• Doing stuff with a rhythm such as walking, swimming, cooking or sewing. These activities provide a space where your subconscious can do its thing and push original ideas to the front of your mind.
Go For It!
Once you’ve quietened your conscious, brainstorm as many ideas as you can, digging deeper into the theme until you find an angle that makes you stop and think, “Hey!” Explore that idea from different angles, playing with character, voice and setting, until you get a fizzy, excited feeling and the urge to start writing. That’s your story.
Once you’ve written the story, check that it still reflects the theme. Stories can go off in directions of their own sometimes. If you don’t think you’ve captured the theme adequately, simply send the story to an open competition and have another go at the theme.
Judges often comment that story entries are very dark, and that few humorous stories are entered in competitions. If you can write humour, your story will stand out from the pack. And if you can dig a story out of everyday situations, even better. It’s tempting to throw yourself at the big themes (cancer, miscarriage, death, war), but these get repeated time and again, so find the story in something ordinary and make it extraordinary.
How To Do It
Here’s an example of how I might tackle a short story on the theme of ‘death’.
My first thoughts would turn to the hackneyed and (dare I say it?) done to death: cancer, suicide, World War I. After that it might be widowhood, murder or euthanasia. Notice that these are all ‘big’ themes, and over-represented in competition entries. So digging a bit deeper, I might think about the people who deal with death every day: undertakers, morticians, florists, stone masons, and nurses. And does the death have to be of a person? What about the death of a pet? What about pet cemeteries or taxidermists? Could it be about the death of a language or a way of life?
How would humour work in a story about death? Again, try to avoid the obvious and the temptation to make it blackly humorous, and explore instead if there is a way to tell the story with gentle humour and compassion.
A unique slant on a given theme, told in a compelling and original way – that’s the ‘electric chair’ way of storytelling. Give it a go and let me know how you get on.
This month I’ve got an article out in Writers’ Forum magazine. It’s the first installment of a two-parter that looks at what resources are available to writers when they hit a block – whether that’s writer’s block or losing momentum in your writing.
To write the article, I contacted several published authors to ask if they’ve ever experienced a block in their writing, or a time when they felt their writing career had stalled, what they did about it, and what advice they could give to other writers who found themselves in a similar situation.
What astonished me was the number of writers who responded by saying they didn’t feel they could help because:
- They were struggling themselves
- They had no authority to offer advice
The second group was the one that flabbergasted me. Firstly because so many of the writers I contacted responded this way, and secondly because I’d contacted them because I considered they had absolute authority to comment: they were writers who have published lots of books, stories and poems; were bestselling authors; have won literary competitions; and teach writing.
It seems that as writers, however much we publish, however successful we appear to the outside world, we never quite feel as though we’ve ‘made it’. And I wondered if there's ever a point when we can look at what we’ve achieved and feel a sense of satisfaction, or will we always compare ourselves to other writers and wish we were better.
In one regard, this is depressing as it suggests we’re never contented with what we’ve achieved. On the other hand, if all writers experience this sense of ‘Don’t ask me, I’m not good enough’ then we’re suffering self-effacement along with all our literary heroes.
Reviewing the woes other writers confessed to me of crippling writer’s block, lack of time, lying to publishers and agents about how much work had been done on a new novel etc, I started to wonder if as writers this is ‘business as usual’? Is feeling stuck, unimaginative and sluggish the normal state of affairs for writers? And are those days when the words come flowing from the pen to be celebrated because they’re so rare?
Again, knowing that fellow writers are staring at the page with despair can be consoling, even if not encouraging. A sense of ‘we’re all in it together’ if you like. So if writing is so difficult and we never stop to acknowledge what we’ve achieved, why do we do it? Is it a form of addiction, or is it because of the rush we experience when a writing project suddenly falls into place?
And do we become writers, not because we have written, but because we have faced periods of not-writing and have persevered none the less?
I was looking through some old writing course notes the other day, and came across this advice: find the darkest place in your mind, and write about it. The advice continued: what's the darkest thing you can think of? Make it happen to your characters.
It set me wondering - what's the darkest thing I could think of, and is it wise to spend so much time dwelling on the dark side?
I'm currently writing the third Eden Grey mystery, and it starts with an almighty shocker of a first chapter. Rules of the game are if you start high octane, you have to maintain it - you can't slip into a gentle, cosy pace - so I needed a plot that would live up to the opening. I asked myself, "What's the darkest thing one person can do to another?" and I wrote a list. Then I found myself thinking, "If I take that and that, and combine them, I get something that's really dark."
Question is: should I?
In recent years there's been a trend in crime fiction towards ever more sadistic and violent crimes. Books that start in the murderer's mind and show you exactly how they're torturing the victim. Or that are in the victim's mind, and you experience the torture with them. I can't read this kind of material. It's too nasty and gratuitous, and I feel like a voyeur reading it. But could I write it? Probably.
When I'm writing, I find myself simultaneously caught up in the characters' heads, and at a remove from them. I can make terrible things happen to them, and be able to stand back from it all and consciously determine how to craft it. Graham Greene described this as 'a splinter of ice in the heart' - the writer's ability to take a tragedy and turn it into entertainment. Because however literary or artistic our writing is, on some level we're always aiming to entertain our readers, otherwise they'll put the book aside.
The splinter of ice in my heart enables me to write dispassionately about proper nasty stuff - child abuse and people smuggling and murder. And it's only later that I look at what I've written and wonder if maybe I need psychological help. The first time I met my agent, she said to me, "You know, if you writers just got yourselves good psychiatrists, you wouldn't have to write all this crime." Where's the fun in that?
So my challenge is to go as dark as I dare, but be careful not to fall into the trap of writing nasty scenes just for the sake of it. A scene that explores the dark side must have a point to it. In crime fiction, the darker the crime, the more there is at stake, and the more that's demanded of the hero. There's normally a resolution - the baddy gets caught and brought to justice - so the reader is relieved that no matter how much the dark side of human nature upsets the social order, there's always restitution. Society is stronger than evil.
Lurking with my dark side makes me confront what scares me most about human nature, but because this is fiction, it's a safe place for me and the reader. And unlike real life, I get to make it better - my protagonist Eden Grey will face evil and overcome it. The greater the evil she faces, the greater the relief for both me and reader that the thing we fear the most can - ultimately - be overcome.
About a year ago, I heard an item on the Today programme talking about a phenomenon called ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Now call it synchronicity if you like, or simply put it down to my being aware of ASMR, but since then, there's been a lot more discussion of ASMR, what it is, and whether it helps the creative process.
For those of you who don't know, ASMR is a relaxing, tingling sensation in your scalp, that can spread down your neck and arms. Some people call it brain tingles. I like to think of it as human purring. If you've ever experienced ASMR, you'll know it feels delicious, and that it is set off by certain sounds or sensations:
People who experience ASMR may have different triggers, but there are enough common triggers to spawn a whole ASMR video industry. Search for ASMR on You Tube and, if you have ASMR, that's the rest of the afternoon gone for you. From crinkly bags to soft voices to binaural role play, there's an ASMR video to match your trigger.
Some people say that the deeply relaxing sensation of ASMR is great for tackling sleeplessness. Others claim that it might help the creative process, as the sensation is so relaxing it can overwhelm the critical, logical part of our brains (the bit that stifles creativity before it even hits the page) and make a space where creativity can flourish.
I'd love to know how many other creative people experience ASMR, and if they actively use it to encourage and promote their creativity. ASMR is likened to 'flow': that sense that you're beyond time and completely in the moment, and that whatever you're doing is happening effortlessly. I find that a routine helps me to get into a flow state with my writing, but there are days when churning out the words is, frankly, hard work. And I wonder if a few minutes of ASMR would help unblock my thoughts and get those words pouring onto the page again.
And then I think, why have I never come across this sensation described in writing? Is it because we all assume that we experience life identically? And if so, what else are we missing?
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.