Tag Archives: writers

The Divil in Displacement

Interesting displacement activity…

 

Sit at computer, bring up blank page, make a cup of tea. Sit at computer, look at blank page, do the washing up. Duration: 1 hour. Word count: 0

If this sounds like your typical writing pattern, you’ve got plenty of company. The sudden urge to do housework, rearrange books, check your bank statement- when you really ought to be writing is known as ‘Displacement activity’.

Displacement activity is the bane of a writer’s life. It’s the phrase writers have for all the stuff you do that is not the stuff you are SUPPOSED to be doing. Avoidance is probably a more readily understood term, but doesn’t sound half as writerly. What happens is a little ‘displacement monkey’ in your mind distracts you from the task at hand, by urging you to ‘make another cup of tea/check the TV guide/your bank account/ebay/post on this blog : ) rather than crack on with that difficult piece of dialogue you’re trying to get down.

I don’t believe displacement activities are wholly bad. I feel they sometimes happen for a reason. Perhaps what you’re working on needs time to settle, or percolate in your mind and after you’ve bought those gloves on ebay, it will all come together. However, I admit, I think I’d get a lot more writing done if I didn’t have an Internet connection in my office… I know a few writers who keep their displacement activity on hand – as another creative hobby such as painting, and they believe one such activity complements and feeds the other. So, they may start painting and then half way through THAT activity they’ll turn back to their writing as a displacement activity for their painting and so on…

As with everything in writing, if you find your displacement activity works for you, then go knock yourself out with it. If it is a hindrance, then find a way to stop it distracting you such as getting a room with no internet connection…


I won!

Flying high

If you’ll indulge me… a quick boast post…

This week, my story ‘Grapefruit’ placed first in the Meridian Autumn Competition, and another ‘Two Trees’ was shortlisted for the Wells Literary Festival Prize. And…. another radio drama I co-wrote, ‘Berlin to Balaton’,  has been shortlisted by the BBC… so all in all, it’s been a pretty full on, flying high week. They don’t come around that often, so I’m sure as hell going to enjoy this floaty feeling while I can… : )


Basic Instinct

Budapest chain bridge lion and moon

My gut has never lied to me. I might ignore my instinct (often do). But I know I shouldn’t, and time and time again, it shows me it knows what it is talking about. I’m in Budapest this weekend, in a farce – which I should have known better than to get myself entangled – my instinct had me well warned. But that’s what you get for not listening to your gut. Nevermind, at least I get to see my Budapest people, the greatest friends that ever walked the earth.

Instinct. Writers tap into something akin to instinct when we write. We usually do so via a freewriting exercise. Freewriting is what you write when there’s no one looking. Freewriting is instinct in control, sending words all the way down to the tips of your fingers. Freewriting is where you’ll find the most brilliant story ideas, if you look hard enough.

To freewrite, just write. Write the first word that comes to mind and then follow it with another. Set an alarm if you can. Don’t worry about grammar, structure, character development – just write. And when you’re done, stand back and take a look. Is there anything in there you can use. I’ll say there is!

Here’s an example:

‘Right now I’m sitting at my computer and the coffee cup is on the edge of my desk. It looks a little like an iceberg, as it is white and chipped and cold because the coffee has been in it since the morning as I didn’t do the washing up last night and the sink is full of plates and saucers. All those plates look surreal sitting unwashed in the sink like that. All at different angles like a Picasso painting with ketchup instead of paint dribbled over the plates. I wonder if Picasso got his ideas from waking up one morning and seeing his jumble of washing up in the sink I wonder if all the museums in the world actually have pictures of Picasso’s washing up and not his mistresses and Guernica and does that mean the joke is on us?’

The above freewrite might seem silly but it’s also an example of how freewriting could, potentially, inspire a proper piece of writing. This daft thought about Picasso’s washing up could easily be worked into a comedy radio play where a hung-over Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse wake up after a night out on the town and dare each other to paint a picture of the mess of washing up in the sink. Thus, the modern art movement is accidentally launched. Another possibility you could take from this freewrite is the concept that something generally considered ugly and in need of repair or attention (washing up) can lead to tremendous artistic inspiration – and this idea could form the kernel of a short story or a poem.

Here, chose one of the prompts below and let it lead you into a three minute freewrite.

I wish I had said….

It was no use pretending….

A long time ago…

For the first time ever….

It was the day the pumpkin appeared on the chair…


Streets Ahead

The Oldest Street in England, Wells, Somerset.

I received a phonecall during the week to tell me that I’d been short-listed for the Wells Literary Festival Short Story Award. I was shortlisted for the same last year, and though I didn’t win, I had a very groovy time down in Wells. Definitely worth a detour if you ever get the chance.

I’m often asked what ‘kind’ of writer I am. The truth is, I don’t see myself as a ‘novelist’ or a ‘short story writer’, ‘playwright’ or a ‘poet’. I see myself as a writer and believe that a writer should be able to (at least) try all written forms.

I write and enter short story competitions for the following reasons and it is good for me to have this list at hand – in case I ever question myself.

a) Being shortlisted encourages and motivates – when such stuff is difficult to come by in the writer’s life.

b) I can get published in literary magazines.

c) Money, if I win.

d) It keeps me on my toes and hones and polishes my craft.

e) By writing stories I build up a portfolio – ready to go in case I’m ever offered a collection.

f) It gives me an edge when applying for bursaries, residencies, funding etc..

g) It might bring  the attention of publishers.

h) Short stories are something I can work on when time is limited.

i) An agent once told me that it is important to build up your writing ‘credits’.

j) Agents are human and sometimes don’t trust their own judgement, so wins and commendations give you that ‘seal of approval’/credibility.

k) Short story writing is a better displacement activity than making a cup of tea.

M) Having good writing credits help when applying for writing jobs.

p) Writing short stories reminds me that I’m a writer.


Hey Waiter!

Clear that table!

 

I’m sitting in a cafe on London’s Sauf Bank – because I’m an idiot…. I came down to see a fellow Waterfordian Jamie Beamish perform in the Taming of the Shrew at the Globe – but only found out on the train that it is a matinee. So, I’ve missed it… Ah well, looks like Jamie and a few other Waterford thesps, including my cousins Michael Power and Des Healy, will be along to the bar soon and it’ll be a Deise arts reunion of sorts… For now, I’m sitting here watching the wheels, or the waiters, go round. And I’m thinking about all the waiting on tables jobs I’ve had in my life.

A wise writer once said to me that it’s not so much the pram in the hall that’s the impediment to a writing career, but the bills on the door-mat. Money worries are the bane of creativity. And unless independently wealthy, the emerging writer will have to make a living while waiting for that book/film deal (and probably for a while after that fact too). Writers need to work; the question is what kind of jobs are out there?

Many will consider other (more lucrative) forms of writing to bring home the bucks. Journalism is an obvious  choice and is still, probably, the most common second career for many creative writers. Moreover, a journalistic background provides marvelous training re editing and brevity of approach. Copy-writing, particularly website copy, is also a popular income booster for writer but both copy-writing and journalism are less satisfying forms of writing for the creative writer and spending all day writing on the day job can make it difficult to come home and do the same at night.

Teaching English and/or creative writing is another common earner for writers. My TEFL training and experience has given me a sound grip of grammar and the intricacies of the English language – all of which is of great practical use to a writer. A TEFL teacher also (usually) travels and such experiences can feed into your work. Teaching creative writing allows you to deconstruct the tools of creative writing, which may benefit your own writing. However, you usually need a track record of publication before you begin to look for work in this area.

It is not uncommon for writers to work a mundane job such as on a factory line or as a manual laborer. Such tasks sit quite well with a writing career as they give the writer time to think, to let ideas bubble and boil ready to write down after the shift has finished. Also, with a job so utterly removed from writing, you will be fresh and eager to sit at your laptop of an evening. The downside of any brain numbing, repetitive work is that it has no status. This fact should not be important but it is because writers are human, so for a writer to stay in a lowly job, s/he needs determination, focus and confidence in their reason for doing this type of work.

Writers, of course, come from all walks of life and all career backgrounds. For those of you who may be considering giving up your job to write full time, you need to remember that you’ll (most likely) still need to make a living. Maybe the job you have is not glamorous or interesting, but these are often the best complementary jobs for writing. So, if you really want to be a writer, the greatest sacrifice you make may be NOT giving up the day job –  but staying with it.


The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Me at breakfast, Ireland, September 2012. Am I good or bad?

 

Probably the most common question a writer gets asked is ‘Where do you get your story ideas from?’ Well, from everywhere. From newspapers, from life, from events that upset, move you or fill you with passion, or anger. You can get a lot of good material from bad situations.

As a writer you have a built in advantage over non-writers in that you can put bad events in life to good use. A broken heart can (with some distance from the event) give plot and substance to a short story – as they say, no tears in the writer, no tears in the story. Ditto a betrayal or some such extreme circumstance.

These difficult personal experiences, often awful, also lend opportunity to observe human behaviour in its rawest form – a crucial study for any writer. Take note re who behaves in an altruistic manner (and does that even exist) in the circumstance? Who looks for the easy option? What type of person sticks their head in the sand and hides behind others? Who makes a stand despite risks of personal loss? The answers are often surprising. The meekest are often the bravest, the erstwhile idealistic often less so when faced with a truth that is inconvenient to their own life and circumstance. Bad situations make for rich people study material.

Alternatively, another story prompter is to use the ‘what if’ question. The ‘what if’ question prompts you to consider alternative endings to a real situation. A good example of this question is Stephen Fry’s Making History, in which he explores a world where Hitler was killed in WWI but an even more dastardly figure comes to prominence, and wins. Apply the ‘what if’ scenario to your personal difficulty and see where it takes you storywise…


Wonderwall

My Wonderwall for ‘Sheila-na-Gig’

I recently blogged about feeling blocked. I had lost my productivity and inspiration and the realisation spun me into a six-week panic attack which was pretty horrible. Nonetheless, I got through it and a lot of pent up creativity burst through with me – coz, Reader, I’m creatin’.

It’s hard to say what pulled me through that scary time. There were a few ‘angels’ around me , but certainly one of the triggers was putting together  a ‘ Wonderwall’. My wonderwall is based on an exercise passed to me by a fellow artist who works in performance and uses the wall method to structure, hone and shape his thoughts when devising a new piece. The Wonderwall (my label, not his) is akin to a spidergram, but poster size, allowing you to lay out your thoughts visually, using text, images, colour, shape and form. The Wonderwall particularly appealed to me, coming as I do from an fine art background.

I began my own Wonderwall by pasting up names of characters, themes, titles and phrases and also sketching images that I felt were somehow intrinsic to a play I wanted to write. With these words and images before my eyes, rather than in my head, I began to see structure and connection where I had not seen any previously. I also noticed recurrent themes in my work that I had not deduced before and I realised I was most frequently writing about the role of women, belief systems, chance, and this knowledge  helped to clarify and solidify the main pull through themes in my new piece.

So, for those of you feeling a little blocked right now, I’d highly recommend this approach because…. after all….  you’re my wonderwaaallll… : )

PS: The house is being renovated at the moment, meaning there are builders in and out of my room every day – I can’t help musing re what they think on my ‘Wonderwall’ – I’m sure they’ve got me pegged as some sort of paranoid conspiracy theorist with a scary ‘thing’ for naked people with goats’ heads…. ah well…


Quite a Character

Name her. Now answer the questions below about her.

If you want to hook your readers, you’ll need a character that leaps off the page. A good character is believable and interesting. Firstly, be careful your character is not of music-hall-cliche stock (dumb blonde, greedy banker, uber-organized German, upper class twit etc…) – the problem here is that the reader will have met your character far too many times before to find them interesting now. As usual, turning the cliche on its head can be a good place to start getting ideas (chess-master page three girl, a banker who secretly gives away money etc…)

Also, don’t focus on describing what they look like from head to toe. In fact, their general physical appearance is not so revealing – the key is often in the interesting quirks and blemishes. Moreover, you ought to climb inside your character’s skin, get to know them intimately and let the reader see how they tick. It  is  good if there is something unusual about them. Here’s a sample list of questions you could mull in order to give your character depth:

Rather than describe the colour of their hair and eyes, write instead about their height.

What about their gait, posture and walk? Does he flutter, jerk, flap or glide?

If you first met this character, what would strike you most?

Does s/he resemble an animal?

What is their natural scent?

What sort of diet do they have and what has been the physical impact of this regime?

What does their best friend think of them?

What happens when your character gets drunk?

What does your character have in his/her pockets/handbag/beside table?

What is your character’s favourite joke?

Also, to make your character particularly memorable, give him/her/it a singular physical attribute your reader will long associate with them. Think of it this way, if you were going to a costume party dressed as Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Havisham or Liesbeth Salander – what would you need? My guesses are, respectively: a lightening bolt scar, a deerhunter hat and pipe, an old wedding dress, and a dragon tattoo. Try to imagine what you’d need to be recognizable as your character.


Hirst Impressions

Herself and Himself – me in conversation with Damien Hirst’s work, outside the Tate Modern, Southbank, London, April 2012. – Photo Amelia Nunes


Art begets art. A meeting between like-minded artists often results in a cross pollination of ideas which inspire, progress and crystallise art projects. Such an exchange can be an intended collaboration, or it can be an ego driven ‘anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better’ brandishing. And it hardly matters which,  so long as art ultimately benefits.

Likewise, great inspiration can be found in complementary art forms. A poet can conjure new ideas from a dance; a musician can be moved to compose by a script. I a primarily a writer of prose fiction but as an Art College alumna – when I’m looking for inspiration, I go to an art gallery.

I went with a housemate on a field trip to London last week to see the Damien Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern, the Picasso at the Tate Britain and the Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. All three were fruitful visits but, it was Hirst that had me stunned and flushed with ideas.

I’d seen Hirst’s ‘Shark’ before and was struck then by the concept that the creature did not know he was dead. The retrospective examines death in more detail. Death, an inevitable aspect of life, is not morbid in Hirst’s world, however. Rather it is presented as a beautiful  climax (Diamond Skull). Dead butterflies are arranged in stunning giant mosaics reminiscent of great stained glass windows. Even a grand wall-size black circular ‘sun’, composed of a million dead flies has all the elegance and plush luxury of a carpet fit for the feet of kings. Life/death – this complementary nature of opposites runs throughout the artist’s work. The mundane, even ugly are elevated to beautiful objets d’art. A classically sculpted marble angel reveals insides weird and devilish. A dead, fly infested cow’s head celebrates life cycles. Hirst’s work tells us that opposites need each other to exist. Opposites are each other. Rock it, Damien.


Through the Looking Glass

There are writers feel story and character ideas are fed to them from “somewhere else”, a parallel universe perhaps, where these characters and stories truly exist.

 

 

Image

My no. 1 flat in Budapest – photo Nannette Vinson

Clearly, that “somewhere else” is a very vague concept and means different things to different scribes. Nonetheless, writers who hold such beliefs say it is very important to allow your mind to be open to receiving these ideas – wherever they come from.

Personally, I’ve had moments when I felt plugged into a conduit, receiving stories, characters and ideas- though I hesitate to say if this was a spiritual event or just the  way the brain works in creative mode.

And it is a rare enough event – I can never conjure ‘the writing rapture’ but if I write often it’ll roll around every now and again. And when it does, it’s a  magical moment when stories and characters come swimming to me, all done-up, pre-packaged and ready to go.

All we can do is sit down to write every day- most days you’ll get coal but if you keep at it, the diamond muse will show up sooner or later.