Aaaaargh!!! Staring at a blank screen, writing something, deleting it, wondering how you ever managed to complete anything before when the drivel that is coming out of you now is so rancid, the prose so decrepid and puerile that you should be taken in front of the Judge of Writing, court martialled and then shot. You are that judge, of course. The nasty little voice saying nasty little things about what you’re getting down on paper, on screen. You are the “Creative devil” laughing at any attempts you make.
You set yourself a challenge last week to write a blog every day for the month of May. Already you have failed. This is no reason not to get back up and carry on anyway. You have learned this, over the years.
This morning you write three lines about a trip to the Rivoli Ballroom on Saturday night, decide it’s crap, look at Facebook, watch every interview of the entire cast of The Crimson Field on the BBC website and then an interview with the scriptwriter, Sarah Phelps, which leads you to procrastinate further on the BBC Writersroom blog, where you find this: Getting through Writer’s Block: Established television writers share their strategies for getting through writer’s block.
Your favourite tip from this video comes from Toby Whithouse, writer of Being Human and No Angels, who says
What you need to do is to book a room above a pub for about two months time, tell all of your friends there is going to be a reading of your script and I guarantee you, you will get that script written. Because sometimes the only way to overcome writer’s block is to literally push through it.
This tip speaks to you because you are driven by deadlines and fear. Specifically the fear of completely humiliating yourself in front of an audience. It’s the reason why writing workshops are so great – just the idea of reading your work out in front of others forces you to work harder on it, to make it less shit. More importantly, to finish what you start.
As the self-proclaimed Queen of Procrastination, you can sniff out every excuse, every trick, every lie people tell themselves in order to get out of what they’re actually supposed to be doing. When you run the Queer Writers Retreat for example, the first thing you do is get the writers to hand in their mobile ‘phones. You all chat and laugh and eat during the breaks, but when they sit back down in the Writing Room, a hush descends and the gentle tapping of keyboards and scratching of pens takes over. They’ve already agreed their goals for the day, they are there for one reason only. There is no distraction, no escape. It works.
There is of course, what you like to call “Productive procrastination”. Would you get any cleaning done if you weren’t putting off doing something else? The scarier the task, the cleaner the home. In fact, most of the boring chores you do seem to be a result of putting off doing something else. Sometimes you write stuff to avoid writing the thing you feel you’re supposed to be writing. And sometimes that avoidance writing turns out to be far more satisfying. This entire blog post, for example, has been an excercise in procrastination (you were supposed to be writing about Saturday night, remember?).
Be stubborn (you were born that way, you might as well utilise it). Force yourself, allow yourself, to write any old shit. As long as you’re getting something down, it is never a waste of time. You can make it good later. Remember the maxim: Don’t get it right, get it written.
Then get it right.
I finished my 30 Day Challenge on 30th November. It was exhausting, exhilharating, inspiring. My Queer Writers Retreat is up and running (and there’s an earlybird discount if you book before Christmas Eve), this blog is growing steadily and I now have the confidence to play, experiment, have fun with ideas in a way that my perfectionist self warned me against in the past.
And yet. The fear. It’s always there. Lurking.
I teach people free-writing*. I have abseiled off the top of a 500m building, done stand-up comedy, performed to a 200-strong rowdy audience wearing little else but my underwear and a long velvet cape, stood up to bullies. So why does a blank page hold such horror?
I have been re-reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I love this book. Love its humour, advice and wisdom. It’s candour. But most of all, I love the intimacy King creates, as if he is speaking only to me, as if this is just a relaxed conversation between us two. It is simply a joy to be in his company. (Hell, if he was writing about corporate tax law, I’d still lap it up.).
There are a couple of lines, near the end, that I want to screen-print onto a large poster, frame and hang on every wall in my house. To remind me. To remind me what you, and I, and everyone already knows deep down:
The scariest moment, writes King, is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.
Oh Stephen, you speak the truth!
So. Sit. Pick up your pen. And start.
*the art of just getting the fuck on with it
- How To Use Stephen King’s “On Writing” Advice (millieho.net)
Or at least, this is just one of the topics covered during an afternoon break at the first ever Queer Writers Retreat. We are giggling in the kitchen: the playwright working on a new play, the literary agent who’s got her own book to deliver in January, the comedian creating a brand new set, the blogger working towards a book and the host – yours truly. The novelist couldn’t make it. The novelist missed out on other conversational gems such as “M_’s nut milk”*, “the fanny grooming shop” and “the proper use of coasters”. I make a pot of strong coffee and we eat biscuits and chat. The conversation becomes more animated and threatens to last a while. I gently interrupt and usher everyone back upstairs, to continue what they started.
Earlier that morning…
It’s 10:10am, ten minutes after the QWW is supposed to begin, and I’m struggling to clear a blocked sink that was perfectly fine just five minutes before and no-one has turned up. There’s a problem on the trains and four writers are running late, one has given up trying to get here altogether. The place is sparkling clean and fragrant with oils of bergamot, lime and peppermint. There is freshly baked lemon polenta cake sitting pretty on a cakestand in the lounge, coffee and a gazillion types of tea at the ready. The writing table is poised for action. The roses in the hallway stand to attention. We wait. And we wait. All we are missing is some writers. And an unblocked sink.
Five minutes and some heavy duty sink unblocker/ prodding with a metal curly wire/ plunging + a lot of swearing later, and the sink is satisfylingly empty and the first guest arrives. The kettle goes on, two more writers turn up, a pot of tea is made. We sit in the lounge and I give them tea and cake and paper to pledge their committment to what they will achieve today. This fixes a goal in their minds and they work harder for it. They are nervous. Of course they are – they’re spending the day with a bunch of strangers and a monstrous expanse of empty white page. I know this feeling. That’s why I soothe them and offer them cast-iron tips for how to get writing. Because if there’s two things I am bloody good at it’s this: feeding people and getting them to just write.
Once all four are safely at the writing table, I tiptoe upstairs like a parent checking on a sleeping baby and peek into the room. The nervous chatter is gone. All I can hear is the scratching of pens. They are lost in whatever worlds they are creating. It is beautiful to watch. With a happy heart, I return to stir the hearty soup I am making for their lunch.
At the end of the day, they are rewarded with wine, sparkling elderflower juice, crisps, olives, personal satisfaction, a little debrief and some wonderful new friends. And pages and pages of words. Lovely, delicious words.
What they said:
“Thank YOU. It was such a brilliant day. From the start you took care of everything: from gentle prodding on the writing, to a comfortable space and wonderful food and drink all day. And the unexpected bonus, the funny and open-hearted fellow writers. We did chat but it was mostly about writing and only a little about hair…”
“The view is just magic”
“Stephanie creates a wonderfully warm and relaxed environment where writers across disciplines can come together to work. Support is available at all times, be it in the form of tea and cake, or a sounding board for an idea. Having writers from mixed disciplines is great for fresh perspectives and new techniques and the atmosphere of creativity and mutual respect is really quite special.”
“I cannot recommend this enough for anyone looking to refocus and give real time to their work away from everyday distractions.”
*Because M could only drink almond milk, of course.
I received the loveliest message today:
STEPHANIE. You have unblocked or unleashed something inside me and I am all spilly over with words, like sick with them, grrroooo. I had to get up at 5.45am to write. Goddam you!
This made me so happy! It’s one of the reasons I’ve started the Queer Writers Retreat – a whole day of writing with no distraction. It trials this Saturday and I’m excited, nervous and planning what cakes to bake*. It’s the time and space to nurture your writing, because in turn the writing will nurture you.
Let us all be “spilly over with words” 🙂
*lemon polenta and coffee & ginger, since you ask
I’m sitting in my spare room, or “Writing Room” as it is sometimes known to me (depending on how active I am and how much washing is drying in here). I’m at a rosewood table and in front of me, a little to the left, is a window with a view of the City – I can see St. Paul’s, Guy’s Hospital, The Shard, The Gherkin, Canary Wharf in the distance. There are trees immediately outside, yellowing with autumn, some already undressed for winter. It is grey, misty, quiet.
You may not know it, but I have been talking to you for over an hour now. Like a lover getting ready to greet her beau, I have been practising what I am going to say over and over in my mind. While I ate breakfast, while I lay in the bath, while I dried myself off and put cream on my face, I was, in my head, already writing, composing what I was going to say to you. And like a lover, I felt that excitement in my skin as I dressed and made tea and got my laptop out and unwound the battery cable and plugged in and switched on and shut the door.
Then, the blank page.
And now here we are, you and me. You may be reading this minutes, days, weeks, years from now. You may be reading it from anywhere in the world. I don’t know you. But you know that right now at 11:49am on Wednesday 20th November 2013, I am typing this on a white laptop from my spare room at a rosewood table. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?
And you know what? None of what you just read is what I wrote earlier in my head. It’s all very well thinking up ideas, but if you don’t get it out on the page, it’s just going to wither and die. That brilliant line, that awesome story, that piece of beauty sculpted from words will never see the light.
And yet. Sometimes I don’t write. I have realised it is a cruelty to myself, a punishment, of sorts. And that giving myself permission to write is a kindness. It’s always better to be kind. In no particular order, here’s just some of the reasons why I write:
- If I don’t empty these thoughts in my head onto the page I will explode and make a mess all over the ceiling
- I have to get this bile out of me because if I don’t it will eat at me like acid
- I’m so happy
- I’m desperate
- Something hilarious has just happened
- Something important just occurred to me
- I need to make sense of something
- I don’t understand
- I have to capture the beauty
- There is a picture in my head
- I want to know what happens next
- These characters are waiting for me to give them something to do
- These characters are doing something unexpected
- I have a deadline
- People are paying to hear me tell a story, so I better bloody well write it
- I want to win that competition
- I just remembered something interesting
- I feel I should
- I feel guilty
- I feel creative
- Some words just popped into my head
- I wonder what woud happen if…
- I have something to say
- This story needs to be told
- To communicate
- To help others understand
- Because I can
- To express what my characters can’t
- To express what I can’t
- I JUST HAVE TO
(Incidentally, that view of the City I mentioned? Completely obscured in fog now. The wind is up and raging outside, leaves flying quick past my window, the door banging, trees threatening to snap. I just had to tell you that. Nothing like a bit of apocalyptic weather to inspre a story…)
So. Why do you write? Come on, I want to know. And just as importantly, why don’t you? What stops you?
So. Eight days ago, I started the Screw Work Let’s Play 30 Day Challenge. I’d signed up impulsively some time ago, forgetting that this month was already full of a demanding full-time day job, a weekly teaching gig at the Finchley Writers Workshop, devising and leading a Queer Kink Writing Workshop with Wotever World and performing some of my stories at LATES @ Flat Planet. I felt overwhelmed.
I had an idea, a fantasy, that I’d been nurturing in my mind for some time: A Queer Writers Retreat – a week-long retreat in a big grand house somewhere remote and beautiful. I had a vision of sitting in the sunshine looking at orange groves while listening to the scratching of pens, the tapping of keys and the crackle of creative minds coming from inside the house. In the evening, the pens would be laid to rest and the laptops closed as I served a lovingly-made dinner to the group at a big wooden dining table. Wine and conversation would flow, appreciative noises made as I served yet another delicious course and laughter would ring across the room. Later, we’d sit in the lounge by an open fire and read each other the stories we’d been working on that day. Sturdy friendships would be made, queer networks forged, projects begun. And the delightful noise would be replaced each morning with the sound of writing, writing, writing…
But grand houses overlooking orange groves are expensive, aren’t they? And how could I guarantee I’d break even after such a big layout, when no-one even knows who I am yet? “Why not start small?” suggested Selina, official “Play Guru”. And so I changed my immediate plans to something I could actually achieve, for little cash, within 30 days. This blog is part of it. And this is what I am offering:
“Picture this: A calm and cosy flat with two good-sized rooms for writing, for up to eight people. A relaxed but focused atmosphere. A lovely selection of tea, coffee and homemade cake in the kitchen whenever you feel like it. Gorgeous views and interesting things to look at, should you need a little visual stimuli. Essential oils to help you focus. A talented sounding board available all day, should you get truly stuck. An opportunity to relax at the end of the day with your peers and discuss your work over a glass of wine or a cuppa, should you so wish. And that warm satisfaction that comes from being utterly immersed in your work for an entire day and meeting, or even succeeding the terms of the pledge you made eight hours before.”
The basic elements are still there: the nurturing and taking care of people; giving people the time, space and encouragement to write; creating community; feeding them lovely stuff (you may have noticed I like to feed people – it’s my Jewish genes). But now it’s a one-day retreat, local and accessible.
I’ll be posting here to let you know how I get on. I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions. Encouragement is always nice too! And if you’re interested in coming along to the retreat, then be sure to leave me your email address and we’ll chat.