Putting Creativity Out There

Over the last couple of years I have been writing fiction. This has mainly been in the form of short stories along with the first draft of a novel. The words have been growing slowly, building up in the background.

Some of the short stories have had an airing in my writing group, and this has been invaluable in a number of ways. Following constructive feedback, I have usually come away with a couple of areas to rework. I’ll admit that there are times when the feedback has been a bit challenging to hear, but usually once I digest the suggestions and revisit aspects which were confusing, the work feels stronger. I have been filing away the updated pieces, satisfied with the knowledge that they were as good as I could get them at this time.

There are lots of writing competitions out there, but I have been a bit reluctant to send these pieces out into the world. Late last year I read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert which made me think that perhaps it was time to let some of my work go, to see if it could stand up on its own. In my writing group there was encouragement to get our work out there with a clarion call to collect rejection slips as we set our stories free.

I had been keeping an eye on competitions through a free weekly newsletter from the NSW Writers’ Centre and had printed out an entry form for a writing competition in Victoria. The form was filed and promptly forgotten until I discovered it, a day or two before the closing date. Fortunately submissions were online and I picked a story that met the competition criteria and sent it off before moving on to my next thought. When I came across the competition form a month or so later I tore it up, thinking that was the end of it but at least I’d tried.

Then I received a phone call. From Victoria. A phone message to let me know that I had won first place. I listened to the message a couple of times, stunned. The judge’s comments on the website said my story was charming and well-constructed. I felt giddy with delight. My story, inspired by a podcast about the vital role played by memorial halls in small country communities, had been good enough. You can find the story here.

So I will continue to create and dream and polish and put my work out there. I have recently come across the following in Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves. It sums up how to behave as an ambitious writer:

The ambitious writer doesn’t hide her short stories in a drawer when she completes them, she sends them out. She starts with The New Yorker and works her way down. She doesn’t hesitate to approach a successful writer and ask questions, or follow an agent into the elevator so she can give a pitch. Even if she’s shaking in her Hush Puppies, she goes after what she wants. Being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, getting lucky, a chance encounter, a fortunate happenstance – all these might play a role in getting what you always dreamed of, but the ambitious writer is the one with energy and fortitude and stick-to-itiveness that the Elmer’s folks would like to patent.

Do you let your creative work go out into the world?

[Photo: three green owls]

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A Creative Checklist

Recently I came across a section called ‘How to Build a Sustainable Writing Practice’ in the Daily Appointment Calendar for Writers by Judy Reeves (pp 147-150). A Writer’s Book of Days, also by Reeves, is one of my favourite writing books, and below is a summarised version of a checklist on building a writing practice, but it could be applied to any creative endeavour.

  1. I identify myself as a writer. When someone asks me what I do, I answer, ‘I’m a writer’. Or at least I always include it.
  2. I give myself affirmations, claiming myself as a writer: notes in my notebook or journal, in my writing space or by saying them out loud.
  3. I have a writing space. Even if I actually write all over the place, I maintain a sacred space for my writing.
  4. I have the tools and materials and support I need for my writing. I buy or borrow books about writing and subscribe to literary journals and writing publications.
  5. I have writing friends with whom I write or talk about writing or do writing things with.
  6. I do writerly things: I’m a member of a writing group, I go to readings. I read interviews with writers and listen to what they say about the craft and life of being a writer.
  7. I write to writers whose work has impacted me, and thank them. In these letters I claim myself as a writer and tell the writer what their work meant to me, writer to writer.
  8. I make time for my writing on a regular basis.
  9. When I can’t keep my writing date, I acknowledge why and reschedule.
  10. When I see that I’m consistently breaking my appointments, I review what might be the cause – chosen time isn’t right, life is too busy right now, goals too high, ___ – and make changes where necessary.
  11. I put my writing time high up on my priorities list. Not some vague ‘when I can’ or ‘if I have time today’.
  12. I set aside enough time to build consistency; if not daily, at least five times a week.
  13. I also create special times for writing – a long weekend or a retreat (with other writers or by myself) or to participate in a conference or seminar where I’ll actually write.
  14. I write. When I go to my writing space, when I set aside the time, I don’t just think about writing or talk about writing. I write.
  15. When I’m stuck, I find out what’s holding me back. When I procrastinate, I acknowledge that’s what I’m doing. When I’m afraid, I face my fear and write through it. And when all is said and done, I write.

How are you travelling with your creative checklist?

[Photo: Cowra Japanese Gardens]

How many books on writing are too many?

I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn’t have a fortress of books. It has only been through a gradual embrace of the electronic age that I have stopped leaving home without at least one book. What if I was stuck somewhere for more than a minute without something to read? Unthinkable. It is a relief now to carry a stack of them on my phone.

Lately I’ve been doing a half-hearted tidy of my books. They are sprinkled throughout most rooms with elaborate stacks on the shelves of a hallway mirror, and the coffee table needs a regular decluttering as it is the first point of call for all new books. But the piles are getting unwieldy and some sorting is now overdue.

I did go through a phase when I stopped buying books on writing as bookshelves were already groaning under the weight of various tomes. But a few crept in, then a couple more, and it’s time to revisit and see if there are any that aren’t earning their keep.

The reference books are non-negotiable. There are several dictionaries and thesauruses, including a centenary edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary as there are times when I want to look up an older meaning of a word. There are style manuals, dictionaries of phrase and fable, and books on reading like a writer. I have a couple of editions of Pears Cyclopaedia – one old one new – again for the contrast in words and life in general over time. There are books on writing mysteries as I love to read them and have started a novel on this genre, as well as books containing a plethora of writing prompts.

So far all I’ve managed to do is shuffle spaces and create enough room to accommodate my existing collection, spread across several shelves, as there isn’t anything I’m prepared to cast aside as yet. They contain a wealth of knowledge and conflicting viewpoints and often contradictory information but there is a comfort in knowing they are there. If I had to choose five to keep, the current winners would be:

1. Macquarie Dictionary, concise edition. I love the mix of dictionary entries and encyclopedic information touching on Australian life.

2. Macquarie Thesaurus, also concise. I do prefer to have a couple of backup thesauruses though, as I often know what I’m looking for and won’t stop until I find the word that is taunting me from the sidelines of my vocabulary.

3. A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves. The joyful mix of daily writing prompts, tips on writing and general guidance on how to have a more creative and fulfilling life.

4. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The ritual of the daily pages has been an important aspect of creativity for me in recent years, but the book covers so much more than that. I revisit the exercises from time to time to see how I’m travelling in a creative sense.

5. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. The encouragement to write past the initial barricade of self-criticism and doubt has stayed with me, years after reading this book. When I start a new project, sometimes it is only Natalie’s voice encouraging me to write through the dross that helps me get to the glimmers of gold. And I’m not hearing things – the book is also available in an audio version.

What books encourage your creativity?

[Photo: apples ripe for picking]

Power Prompts

There are times when writing prompts can seem a bit twee. I mean, who has time to sit down and write or tap out words for 15 minutes based on a randomly generated thought or idea?

But there is something about the process itself that makes it worth the investment of time and energy. Sometimes it is just knowing that it is for a short timeframe, or that what comes out of your mind in response to the prompt is probably of limited consequence and may in fact never be used at all – this can be liberating. What does it matter if you write nonsense, as long as you are writing?

Years ago whilst travelling through Daylesford, I stumbled across an excellent bookshop. It had a mixture of old and new books, stashed in various rooms and cubby holes. It was a delight to wander around and in a spot wedged between two rooms I found the writing reference section. There were a couple of books that took my interest but the one that I left with was A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves. This book has a writing prompt for every day, interspersed with lots of suggestions around how to incorporate writing into your life.  There are also insights into the habits of famous writers and lots of great suggestions on how to connect deeper with your work.

Some of my best work has emerged out of writing prompts. A writing exercise completed with my local writing group included an unidentified tool, writing from a randomly assigned genre, and the challenge of writing from another gender. From this prompt emerged a short piece which I have significantly expanded upon. It is hard to imagine how else I would have come across such an idea.

It’s all in the power of the prompt. Do you have any favourite prompts?