Category Archives: Finding your Creative Tribe

Inspiration Monday: Friends

You see familiar things differently with a friend - I'd never noticed how beautiful the light on these arches in Norwich Cathedral before I saw them with my friend Helen.

You see familiar things differently with a friend – I’d never noticed how beautiful the light on these arches in Norwich Cathedral was before I saw them with my friend Helen.

I’ve had such a wonderful few days, full of laughter and fascinating conversation.  I feel so grateful for the people I have in my life, people who stimulate and support me.

On Thursday, old friends arrived on a flying visit from Queensland, Australia.  We hadn’t seen them in several years, as you can imagine, but as soon as they walked through the door, it was like they had never left.  We introduced them to ‘Cards Against Humanity’.  This probably makes us very bad people, but we had a hilarious evening as a result.

On Saturday, I met up with a dear writing friend.  We had a delicious summer lunch on her verandah, overlooking the river, sitting in the sunshine with fresh flowers on a crisp little table cloth, talking about life and writing.

On Sunday, we met up with one of my Sherlock fandom friends and her husband, over from the US for a holiday.  They were kind enough to trek up here to Norfolk to see us, and we had a wonderful day, walking around the sights of Norwich, and talking about whisky, history and writing.  And laughing.  A lot.

Old friends, and new friends.  I feel so lucky to have them, and so inspired by them.  Each one has a fascinating story to tell, life experiences that fill me with awe and admiration.  Each one sparkles with wit and intelligence, and a deep, compassionate love for their fellow beings.

Of course, I am now knackered!  But in a good way.  I have laughed myself hoarse for days running, and thats better therapy than anything the NHS can offer.  I have enjoyed sunshine and fresh air, and my brain has been stimulated so much.

And I am inspired.  Talking with my creative friends has made me feel so excited about my novel.  I’m ready to go.  The world has opened up again. Its full of possibility.

When you are deep in a creative project, or struggling through a creative drought, it is easy to neglect your friends.  You may feel you don’t have time to hang out with them.  In actual fact, the reverse is true.  It is imperative to see your friends, and not just for their cheer-leading capacities.

Conversation spikes your interest in whole new areas.  You learn things from others you never knew existed, and these little morsels dropped into a chat over coffee or supper can take your writing or painting in an entirely new and exciting direction.  Walking about a familiar neighbourhood with a friend, you might see details you never knew were there, just because they see the world in a different way to you.  They might share their struggles in life, and inspire to acts of bravery in your own that you had no idea you were capable of.  And you, in your turn, will ignite new fires in them with your off-the-cuff remarks, and tales of your own life.

People are so exciting.  Connect with them.

I feel so grateful for the friendship of Justin and Val Debuse and their daughter, Sophia;  Nina Robertson; and Helen Todd and Mike Magruder.  Thank all for so generously sharing your time and your laughter with me this week.

Happy Creating,

EF

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Creativity Tip of the Day – Positive People

Supportive Friends

Supportive Friends

One of the best ways to enhance my creativity that I have found over the years is to surround myself with positive people who support my work.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

When it comes to actually doing it, though, we often struggle.  Sometimes it is hard to let go of friendships with people who are unsupportive of our creative dreams.  So often, I have heard people say to me:

‘Oh, its so hard to get published, and there are so many people out there trying to do it.  Why bother?’

‘There’s no money in the arts.  You have to get a proper job.’

‘You need to get serious and grow up.’

‘Are you still writing your little stories?’ (This one is the most patronising I’ve had!)

None of these remarks have anything to do with your creativity, or mine.  They are all excuses from people who are afraid to take the plunge and do something creative for its own sake.

Truly supportive friends are enthusiastic.  They want to hear about your work.  They offer helpful and supportive comments.  They will offer to read your writing in a loving and constructive manner (rather than just telling you how they would have done it).  They will take your efforts seriously, and understand that you are doing what you love because you love doing it.  They will never point out how there is no money in it (not true) because they know thats not why you do it.  They will joyfully share your dreams.

Keeping positive is difficult enough in these dangerous and depleting times.  Keeping positive in the midst of a gruelling creative project is even harder.

Yes, we need to be part of a creative community of fellow practitioners of our chosen arts.

We also need to surround ourselves with friends who are willing to cheer us on.  They don’t necessarily have to be people who pursue the same creative arts as we do.  Their creativity may lie in the sciences, applied crafts or in the natural world, or in any other area.

What supportive friends do is share our enthusiasm.

Take the time to cultivate the people in your life who make you feel good about your creativity and yourself.  Find friends who are willing to get out there and cheer you on.  Cheer them on in your turn.  You will find so much creative energy in this simple lifestyle change, and I guarantee that it will enhance your world and your creative practise.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

Inspiration Monday: Creativity is Catching

Top.BMPToday we had the pleasure of attending the opening of an art exhibition by a friend, Martin Battye FRSA.

Martin is a pal of my husband’s from the cricket club, but he is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Art, and his paintings are vibrant, vigorous and exciting.  It is always a delight to get to see his work, and today’s opening was no exception.  Martin is using oil colours on paper at the moment, and his pure pigments, textures and abstract designs are fascinating.  Scattered around the gallery were also a selection of his recent sketchbooks, and for all the wonder of the major pieces, I found these the most inspiring.  They show an artist’s process, the act of creativity itself, caught as if in aspic.  They contain the genus of the bigger paintings, as well as scribbled thoughts, poignant quotes and articles cut from newspapers and magazines.

I came away aching.

I want to do that, my heart said.

It’s been so long since I used my paints, since I dared to draw.

Lately, I have been remembering the two years of my art ‘A’ level course, when I started discovering other artists, the revelation of abstract art, the earthquake of Modernist artists, architects and designers like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, Matisse and Rothko.  I felt so excited, so fascinated by their ideas and the pared-down beauty they created.  I was never able to liberate myself from the tyranny of the figurative, though, as they had, nor from my own self-abusive perfectionism.  I couldn’t, and still can’t, make a mess, try things out, paint outside the lines.

But what would happen if I DARED?

What would happen if I could BE MY OWN HERO?

The truth is that I want to create abstract art.  I want to make paintings that please me as much as Martin’s do.  I want to have his exuberance, his extravagant variety and colour, his sense of fun.

I keep thinking of Jamie Ridler’s exhortation to not judge the art you are called upon to make.  To just do it.

So I have decided to try and find out if I can recover that sense of adventure I had went I was 18 and reading about Modern Art for the first time.  I want to know if I can finally overcome the Nigel voice in my head that says I can’t get messy or paint outside the lines.  I want to find out, one tiny baby step at a time, if I can be the artist who lives inside me, safe in the knowledge that that artist will feed the writer, and vice versa.

Inspired by Martin’s creative process, EXPLORATION is my word for March.  I’m going to explore my creativity and have some fun.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

(If you are in Norwich, do visit Mandell’s Gallery in Elm Hill to enjoy Martin Battye’s wonderful work, open Mon – Sat, 10am to 5pm.)

Happy Creating,

EF

Preparing for a Writing Retreat

I’m so excited.  I’m going on a writing retreat!

This weekend, my writers group is convening at a nearby conference centre for a weekend of writing and eating and talking about writing and eating some more, and maybe a little bit of dozing or walking, and then some more writing.

We normally do this once a year, but this year, we enjoyed ourselves so much we thought we’d do it again at the end of the year.  So here I am, thinking about a weekend spent solely with my friends and the Work.

Over years of doing this, I’ve found I need to do a few things to prepare myself so that I get the most out of the time:

Plan:

I usually like to sit down with my writers notebook or my journal, and think about two things:

  • where I am, and
  • where I want to be.

This year I am thinking about the goals or intentions I have set myself for this website, for my publications, and for moving my writing on to the next level.  Its one of the few truly extended, uninterrupted periods I get to just write, so I like to choose a project that I can get my teeth into, but also one that really needs to be tackled.   Something pressing.

This year, I am toying with the idea of doing NaNoWriMo, because I want to crank out a novel as fast as possible.  So I have decided to lay the groundwork on this new idea, and throw myself into it, immerse myself in it as much as I can.  In previous years, I have redrafted novels or short stories, polished specific sections of a novel, worked specifically on character, or redrawn a dodgey plot.

My goal this year is especially fuelled with the knowledge that I need to be writing something original, something other than fanfiction.  Nothing wrong with fanfiction.  Its given me marvellous confidence in my work, and I love writing it.  I just think I need push myself, to do something new.

Manage expectations: 

I’m not going to finish an entire novel in a weekend.  I may even get no further than writing 500 words.  And I am okay with that.

When I first started going on retreats, I had HUGE expectations of myself and what I could achieve.  I thought I could crank out 20,000 words in two days, a third of a novel.  I thought I could create publisher-ready prose.  The truth is that even on retreat, there is only a limited amount of time, and making really good prose takes time.  A lot of time.  I have only learnt this with experience.

There have been several retreats where I have slept badly on the first night, or felt ill, and as a result have really been unable to do anything much at all apart from eat, sleep, talk with my fellow writers, and be.  Sometimes that is what a retreat is for.  I have gained from those experiences.  These days I am ready to allow my retreat to be whatever it needs to be, and to trust that whatever happens is part of the process.

So I make plans, but I don’t get too attached to them.

Be present:

Being aware of my physical wellbeing is very important on retreat, and not simply because I suffer from chronic illness.  I need to be present in my body, so I do yoga and meditate, go for walks, stand in the shower and feel the water on my skin, and take naps.  (One friend uses the annual retreat to undulge in long, hot, scented baths because she doesn’t have a tub at home!)  This might all seem time away from writing, but it is crucial.  Self care is part of retreating.  Doing these things allows me time to think about the writing, to form scenes and sentences in my head.  But it also allows me to come to the laptop refreshed afterwards.  So it is an investment in my writing, as well as my body.

Packing: 

As a result, packing right is really important.  I always make sure I take warm, snuggly clothes, my yoga mat and yoga clothes, a hot water bottle, walking boots and, on occasion, even a teddy bear for cuddling purposes.  And because I have weird dietary issues, I make sure I take an extra supply of good, healthy foods and my favourite herbal teas too.  The centre staff are really great in catering for my diet, but there are those in-between-meals moments, when what you really need to fuel the Muse is your own favourite brand of chocolate!

Be absent: 

I get very anxious when I am away from home.  I need to be grounded in my safe environment in order for my imagination to work properly.  It helps that we have been going on retreat to the same place for years, and also that it really isn’t very far from my own home, so I feel like I am on home turf.  Other people find their imagination is stimulated by unfamiliar territory.  Mine just shuts down so that my emotional system can cope with the panic attacks.

To counter this, I take music and listen to it doggedly in order to transport me to safe psychic territory.  I put on my headphones, close my eyes and fly away.  And then I can write.

It is a major diffence to how I normally write, which is in silence.  So part of my preparation ritual is to gather music around me.  I make playlists for different characters, delve into iTunes and my CD collection,  choose music that evokes particular memories or landscapes for me, or none at all.

Allow it: 

Going on retreat is supposed to be calming, an activity to feed your soul.  Its supposed to be downtime from your usual life.  As a result it is easy to get really wound up about how good it is going to be, and then find yourself disappointed.  To feel like you just aren’t calm enough, or getting enough done, or maybe even that you are wasting time that should be spent looking after the kids, doing the washing or writing that sales report.  This harks back to managing expectations.  But it also has a deeper meaning.

you are allowed to have time to yourself

You aren’t being selfish.  Leave all your SHOULDS and OUGHTS at home.  You deserve to have this time spent solely with yourself, doing something you love.  I continue to struggle with this.  I tend to make retreat a time which is about productivity rather than identity – about being myself and giving myself what I need.  When you accept retreat as a gift to yourself, managing expectations becomes easier.  And that precious dimension of writing that no one seems to talk about – moodling – becomes possible.  Have a weekend’s moodle.  Because you are worth it.

I heartily recommend going on a retreat if you can manage it.  Maybe for a day, or even overnight.  Maybe just for an afternoon.  If you are looking for ideas and guidance, I also recommend Judy Reeves’ wonderful ‘A Writers Retreat Kit:  A Guide for Creative Exploration and Personal Expression’, which I ordered recently from Amazon in preparation for this weekend.

Now I had better get back to my packing!

Happy writing (and moodling)

EF

The Writing Life: Literary festivals

Finding your tribe as a writer, or in any kind of creative endeavour, is an important thing to do.  Being around other writers provides support and inspiration, and I think it’s a crucial thing to do.  Writing can be a very solitary activity, and its no surprise to find that many writers suffer from depression.  You try sitting on your own every day for six months of the year and see how it affects your mental health!  Its important to get out.

Literary Festivals and author signings are a really good way to fill your well and get affirmation for your work.  Maybe you won’t be able to present what you’ve written to other people, but being around those who are interested in the same things as you, undergoing similar challenges, really helps.

As a writer, you also need to gauge the market and be aware of your contemporaries’ work.  Reading is an important thing to do, and if you really love writing, you will love reading just as much!  Literary festivals give you a chance to be exposed to books you might never pick up otherwise, to hear authors speak about their work, and to ask questions about their writing process.   Think about it – a huge reservoir of inspiration and knowledge out there, just waiting for you to tap into it.  Why would you not?

Your local bookshop will probably have readings by authors scheduled, and these are worth attending because they are more intimate, and allow you more personal access.

Check the culture and review sections of newspapers, and the ads in writing magazines, as well as noticeboards in libraries, for details of the bigger events and festivals.  Some music festivals are starting to have literary strands too, so keep your eyes peeled.

My nearest festival in the one at the University of East Anglia, but its slightly different from a three day or week-long event, in that it studs two university terms with readings by authors, playwrights, poets and journalists.  This gives a wide variety of speakers over a six month period, and allows me to attend where I want, and to absorb what I learn over time.  And because it is such a prestigious centre for creative writing, it attracts some seriously big names.

I have attended events with Arthur Miller, Jeanette Winterson, Rose Tremain, Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney, Iain Banks (need you ask!), Rachel Cusk, Alan Hollingshurst, Isabelle Allende, Richard E Grant and many others.  I went under sufferance with a friend to see Ian McEwan, whose writing I hate, only to be utterly charmed and instantly determined to reread everything he has written.  And I saw Doris Lessing the week after she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  She was feisty, fascinating, and marvellous despite obviously being in terrible pain, and she tore the rather pompous interviewer to shreds, which was very satisfying.  At the end she received a spontaneous and heartfelt standing ovation, and I actually found myself crying.  You can’t find better inspiration than that!

Be warned, however.  Sometimes your idols can prove to have clay feet.  I went to see Graham Swift, whose books ‘Waterland’ and ‘Last Orders’ I had adored.  He read so badly, and was so miserably boring, that I felt insulted enough to vow never to read another one of his books.  And I haven’t.

Brett Easton Ellis was a writer whom I had worshipped since reading his work for my degree.  I clamoured to get a ticket to see him.  And now I can’t remember a thing about him, not even what he looked like, and certainly nothing of what he said.

I generally come away from these events feeling inspired and excited about doing new work, full of ideas and hope for the future.  It can be a dangerous game, however.  Be prepared, if you go to an author reading, to feel insignificant, and that you work is poor and will never be published.  It happens sometimes, though less often the more you write, and it will pass.

The important thing, however, is to go.  Attend events with even the least known authors, since they are often the ones who will inspire you the most.  (And one day, you might be up there too, so it adds to your own karma to support other people!)  Ask questions, and read the books.  This will enrich your own work, as well as introducing you to writing you might never have experienced otherwise.

Challenge yourself.  I don’t really do poetry, but went along with a poet friend of mine to see readings by several poets, and was enchanted.  I’ll never be a poet, but this form has opened my mind to the possibilities of language, and I’m so grateful.

Finding your tribe, and being amongst other writers is important.  It helps you feel part of a joint creative endeavour, but it also feeds your Muse.  There is a whole world of wonderful written joy out there, and literary festivals area an easy way into it.

Happy listening!

EF

The Writing Life: Go On Retreat

DSCI2692It’s getting to that time of year.  The sun is out, schools are breaking up, and the beach is calling.  You may have already enjoyed a holiday, or you are preparing to join friends, your significant other and/or family for a week or fortnight chilling out.

I love annual holidays, believe me.  These days, though, my system won’t handle hot weather anymore, and money is thin on the ground, so we don’t do the foreign holidays like we used to.  A week in the Inner Hebrides, surrounded by fantastic scenery (and enough whisky to entertain the husband) is the most we occasionally manage.

Holidays are great, especially if they include sun (we don’t have unreasonable expectations when we go to Scotland, put it that way!).  You can spend a week by the pool reading and relaxing, visit a few local sites, enjoy slow evening meals in a tavern while you watch the sun sunk into the azure sea.  Bliss.

But have you ever thought of taking a holiday with your creative passion?

And no, I am not talking about one of those great holidays where you go painting with a tutor in the South of France, or take tutorials with a famous poet at Arvon, although I have no doubt they are fantastic!.

I’m talking about just you and your muse.  One on one.  Taking time out for what may be the most important romance of your life.  Your relationship with yourself.

Once a year, our writers group gathers at a local conference centre in the South Norfolk countryside.  We arrive on Friday afternoon and leave on Sunday afternoon.  Three hot, delicious meals a day are provided, together with morning coffee and afternoon tea.  We each have an en suite study bedroom with bed and desk, and views across the fields.  The welcome is friendly, and you can practically hear the collective sigh of relief as we all turn inward, away from our busy lives, to concentrate on our writing.

Imagine that.  An entire weekend, just you, and your stories.

No having to food shop, cook meals, prize your angry children from each other’s throats or soothe your spouse’s ego when their team lost at whatever sport they are obsessed with.  A whole weekend where you can sleep, soak in the bath, so some yoga, walk through the countryside, listen to the birds, and pick up your pen when the muse strikes you.  There are familiar friends from the writers group to discuss your work with, to talk about writing and reading and the ideas that fill your head.  But there are no everyday worries to distract you from your work.

It doesn’t have to be expensive.  Our retreat costs around £140, which I think is pretty impressive for full board for two and a half days.  We don’t have luxury, but we don’t need it.  The luxury is being able to spend time with our stories.

Each evening, we gather together after supper.  On the Friday night, we are still settling down, orienting ourselves within the space we have set aside to be with our work.  We bring bottles of wine and soft drinks, and snacks to share.  We also bring pieces of writing by other writers from books and poetry collections that we have recently enjoyed, and take turns to read to one another.  This provides a cross-fertilisation, and a chance to reconnect.  During the weekend, we meet for meals and coffee breaks, but mostly we spend time alone, working or moodling, feeding our souls, communing with our creativity.  On Saturday evenings, we gather again, to read and workshop what we have written through the day.  And we always gather for afternoon tea on Sunday, about 4pm, to finish off and say goodbye.

Sometimes, when someone is going through a difficult time in their lives, this retreat is simply time spent with themselves, refilling the creative well.  It doesn’t have to produce anything in particular apart from a chance to ground in one’s own needs and interests, to find a bit of peace.  At other times, we come with a sense of what we specifically want to achieve, meaning to address some particular aspect of a current work, or a precise task, such as preparing a synopsis for an agent.  Having a plan is good, but its better to go with your creative season.  If you just need to down tools from a busy life and immerse yourself in creativity, that’s the thing to do.  Each of us seems to find her own need for every retreat, and we look forward to each new one from the moment we leave the last!

Even if you can’t find a group to go with, you might have a friend who could join you.  This weekend, I had the pleasure of greeting two of my fanfiction writing friends who came up to Norwich for a weekend, shared a cheap hotel room, and enjoyed a break for writing, creativity and fun.  We got together, had a meal, and shared our interests.  It was so refreshing!  Making time to go somewhere different allows you to depart from your everyday cares, and concentrate on the art form that you love.  This more informal approach might be a good way of managing a retreat for you.

I heartily encourage you to find a way to take time out for a writing or creativity retreat.  It is a practise that I think every creative person should incorporate into their process and their life.  It revives and stimulates.  It also reminds me that I am part of a tribe, however hidden we are.  It stimulates new ideas and new interests, and above all, it gives peace of mind.

So if you are planning a hectic family break right now, why not take the time to dream up a way of escaping on your own, however you do it, just you and your muse, as part of a group, or alone, to feed your soul.

Happy retreating,

EF

The Writing Life: Writers Groups

DSCI2689

I belong to a writers group.  And it’s great!

It all began years ago, when I started the Diploma in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.  It was the first writing course I ever went on.  I walked into the room and found myself surrounded by people like me.  It was the first time I ever felt like I wasn’t different and strange.  I had found my tribe.

Writing is a solitary occupation, so it is crucial for both your mental health and your work to socialise.  And what better way to do that than with other writers who are going through the same trials and tribulations as you are?

As part of our diploma course, we went on a weekend retreat, involving taught sessions, visiting speakers, workshopping and private writing time.  It was a huge success and we bonded.  Many of us went on to study for the Advanced Diploma in Prose Fiction, which was primarily a workshop-based course, and that further cemented the group.

Since then we have continued to meet, once a month, to share our work, our experiences, problems and interests.  And an awful lot of tea and flap-jacks!  Members have come and gone, buts okay.  There is a core group who have stuck together for over a decade now, sharing life experiences, supporting one another through MA courses and publication.  We go on annual retreats together, about which more in future.  We meet at each other’s houses, planning dates ahead and each offering to the host nights most convenient.  Hot and cold drinks, nibbles and cakes are provided to lubricate the conversation.

Based on the old course model, each member brings a piece of new writing that they have done, and we try to keep it to around 1,000 to 2,000 words in length – any longer and it takes up too much time.  You can read your own piece, or ask someone else to read it.  (It is sometimes really helpful to hear another person read it in order to pick out the parts where the writing is less fluid.)  Then people comment.  Helpful and empathic criticism is offered.  We always make sure we start by pointing out what we like about the piece.  Often, if it is part of a larger work, people will ask questions about plot or backstory.  Because we know one another’s work so well, we can refer back to earlier stories, or earlier parts of the work, and kick around ideas to find out what might be a useful improvement for any problems.  At the end of every participant’s session, they are asked how they feel about what was said, which gives them the chance to say anything that has been missed in the discussion.  We usually manage to workshop about three pieces of prose in a 2.5 hour meeting.

Not everyone may have something they want to read, or will have had time to write that month, and that’s okay too.  They contribute by commenting on and supporting the work of others.  We have prose writers and poets.  We share news of any courses or day schools that may have been attended, and often discuss what books everyone is reading too.

And of course, we do a lot of nattering and gossiping too.

Outside the regular meetings, we have been known to circulate work and meet informally for writing sessions.  We even do writing sessions over the phone.

I encourage you to find your own tribe.  You can do it online or in person.  Libraries and publications such as Mslexia and the Writers Digest often have small ads for writers groups.  Or start one yourself, as we did.  Make sure you are happy with the atmosphere and ethos of the group you join, however.  There is no point in sharing your work and then having it brutally cut to pieces.  Gaining confidence in dealing with confidence is one thing.  Bullying is quite another.  There are pitfalls with joining any group, but the advantages with a good one will outweigh any glitches.

My pals in the group have stuck by me through thick and thin and seven novels, and I am eternally grateful to them for their kind support and criticism.  And for banning me from using the word ‘massive’.  Sometimes you need that kind of pal.

Dear Bridget, Clare, Heidi, Nina, and Sally, I love you.

And now I had better get myself together and go and put some flap-jacks in the oven, because they’ll be round tonight and I haven’t written anything yet!

Happy creating,

EF