I’m writing a story.
~No, you’re updating your blog about writing a story. Not quite the same thing.
Yes, but it’s just so dark!
No, the story.
I disturb myself sometimes.
~It means you’re getting somewhere. You’ve hit a nerve.
~Look, the things you write about aren’t a literal representation of you. We all have darkness inside us. We all think horrible things. At least you’re not doing them.
~Now, stop pissing about and get back to work.
~You’re very welcome.
Cinemas are one of my all-time favourite spaces. The feel of plush velvet beneath your fingertips, a dark room filled with anticipation, the whir of long red curtains being drawn back to reveal a giant screen. And then…the music, the flickering lights, the sound and pictures so big, so all-encompassing.
Agata Zielinska-Hryn clearly loves it too, because she’s built one beneath her shop in Forest Hill, South London. Doopo Doopo opened in 2012 and is an independent art gallery, boutique and arts hub. It’s home to the Vortex Cinema Club, creative workshops including film-making, oil painting, guitar classes and life drawing. I’d been in several times before popping the question earlier this summer: Have you ever thought of hosting a writer’s workshop here? Yes! she said, that’s exactly what I’ve been looking for! And so The Forest Hill Writers Workshop was born.
Every Thursday night from 7pm – 9pm the newly developed cinema space will be converted into a writers workshop and I’ll be taking writers through their paces in a supportive atmosphere. There will be detailed feedback and inspiring weekly excercises. Writers will write. And laugh. Because laughter is important in these things 🙂
The new workshop begins on 23rd* October and is strictly limited to 12 places. See the Forest Hill Writers Workshop page for more details.
I studied with Stephanie Goldberg for two terms and found her classes dynamic, challenging and hugely enjoyable. The structure of the class was always reliable, allowing time for free writing and shared responses to students work. Her critical feed back was always immensely valuable. My writing grew significantly under her tutelage and I would not hesitate to recommend her classes to writers of all levels.
TO BOOK, POP IN OR CALL DOOPO DOOPO ON 078 4271 8336.
*This post originally stated that the workshop would begin on 9th October. The venue then changed the date and this was updated on 5th October 2014.
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.
1. Read. Read a lot. Read everything you can get your grubby little hands on. For years, decades.
2. Live an interesting life. Make terrible decisions. Fall in love with drunken idiots. At crossroads, take the path strewn with fallen trees, pot-holes and gnarled branches clawing at your sleeves.
2a. Alternatively, live a life so excruciatingly dull that you are forced to live in your imagination.
3. Be grateful for your fucked-up family. Emotional blackmail, Olympian feats of denial and traumatic get-togethers are literary gold! Whether you write down everything they do as a coping mechanism or merely revenge, all the raw drama of life is here. If you ever run out of material, you could do worse than telephone your relatives for a chat about what a disappointment you are.
4. Remember that the blank page is nothing to be scared of. Remind yourself of this often. Every day, in fact. One day you might even believe it.
5. Write thousands of words of pretentious bilge. Fill a forest-worth of notebooks with future embarrassment. Fail again and again. At some point, fail better.
6. Shut the door. Sit. Pick up a pen. Repeat steps 4 and 5. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
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.
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.