How to achieve your writing goals: the power of developing a writing practice

by Helen Kenwright

It’s that time of year again, when people set goals and resolutions for the year ahead. For writers, that often includes ‘write more’, or ‘write a novel’, or ‘get a book published’. We head off into January full of optimism, with a clutch of shiny notebooks and good intentions, convinced that this will be the year it happens. 

Except, then it doesn’t.

All too often by February our notebook is gathering dust on the pile on our desk devoted to well-intentioned projects, while our lives are once more consumed by responsibilities and other demands on our time. If we do get as far as opening that notebook, we are met with a blank page which gives us no more than an accusatory glare. That sinking, deflating, ‘I told you so’. 

And so it goes on.

I’ve had my fair share of writer’s block (or paralysis, or anxiety, or resistance – all are very accurate terms, in my opinion). I once took someone’s criticism of my burgeoning Dungeons & Dragons based fantasy novel way too much to heart and abandoned writing fiction all together for nearly two decades. This was terrible for my mental health, and represents a lot of wasted learning time – because only by writing do we truly learn how to write. I’m glad to say that since I did pick creative writing up again I have never had a dry spell that bad, and I’ve got a lot better at using feedback constructively (and knowing whose opinion to trust)! But every now and then I do find myself staring at the screen or the notebook, convinced that I’ve completely forgotten how to so much as string a sentence together. Or a phrase. Or even to find a word I actually like the look of. It happens to nearly every writer I’ve ever met.

I won’t go into potential causes of writer’s block here, because I honestly believe there are as many as there are writers, and for each writer it can be a different reason every day. What I’m going to suggest works whether the cause is imposter syndrome, brain fog, second-book anxiety, low self esteem, lack of ideas or broken plots. It works in nearly every situation. 

It’s freewriting.

I feel this is the most important tool I can give any of my students, and it’s the one I always fall back on myself. (Such is the impact of depression and anxiety that sometimes my friends have to remind me of this, but once I remember, and do it, everything gets better.) I see freewriting as the equivalent of sketches or doodles for visual artists; it’s the musician’s scales and noodlings. It’s the improvised dance, it’s digging your fingers into cool, wet clay and squelching it around. It’s play.

Writers are so rarely encouraged to play. But we need to. Play is the essence of the creative spirit. It’s what drives us to think of new, amazing things. To express ourselves. To put aside all the shoulds and musts of adulthood and let us believe that in this, our world, anything is possible.

Freewriting reminds us that we are writers. We have only to trust our own imagination, let our own words emerge, and we can do this.

Routine freewriting is the basis of our practice as writers. It’s like scales for a musician, stretches for an athlete. It’s the basis of a good writing habit. And it doesn’t even require skill. Just you and your writing materials of choice, and ten minutes a day.

In Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, Natalie Goldberg says writing practice is like:

“… moving one foot in front of the other when you walk. The problem is that we don’t notice that movement of one foot in front of the other. We just move our feet. Writing practice asks you to notice not only how your feet move but also how your mind moves. And not only that, it makes you notice your mind and begin to trust it and understand it. This is good. It is basic for writing. If you get this, the rest is none of my business. You can do what you want.”

Once you have that trust that you can keep the words coming, you can let it happen. Later you can shape and mould and polish those words into the form you want. The hardest part is done. You’ve generated the clay. Now you can make your pot.

Sometimes this works in a literal sense: your freewriting generates an idea that might grow into a story, a novel, a script, a poem. Sometimes it’s just about building that trust with yourself so that when you get the idea, the writing will just happen. 

Many new writers start with the plot, or the structure, or the research, and find the writing so intimidating they never leave that stage. Their research grows, their outline grows, they may even have an impressive cast of characters. But without the writing, it goes nowhere and they end up feeling like failures, unable to convert this incredibly imagined thing into a living, breathing story. Because you can’t build a house if you can’t lay bricks, no matter how good your design.

How to Freewrite

My advice is this: freewrite every day, for at least ten minutes. You can write about anything. Pick a random sentence from a book on your shelf. Write about what’s in your fridge. Write about a memory. Write from one of the daily prompts on the Writing Tree Twitter. Write a letter to your past or future self. You can write anything. Just remember the three rules: don’t censor, don’t censure, don’t stop. 

I teach my students two freewriting methods. The first is to write whatever comes to mind in a stream-of-consciousness style (sentences and paragraphs optional). This is the traditional freewriting method as recommended by Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron and Peter Elbow, among others. If you get stuck, just write ‘I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck’ until you think of something else to write. (It’s amazing how quickly the brain will get bored of that and offer you something else to write about!) 

The other method is to start with a single prompt, and free associate words from it. When you’ve got a dozen or so words down, take a few of these and free associate from them, too. Then take half a dozen of these words and for each, write a sentence including it. Then for each sentence write a paragraph. And so on.

The key to both methods is to keep writing. Don’t let your hand stop moving your pen or keyboard. Don’t cross anything out (if you really find this hard, underline ‘mistakes’ instead – but please try not to). Don’t stop yourself from writing anything that comes to mind for fear it might be ‘wrong’, ‘silly’ or ’embarrassing’. This is play. It’s learning. It’s supposed to be experimental and silly.

Opinions vary as to whether you should read your freewriting back or not. My rule is to leave it at least a month. By then I will be able to detach myself from it and mine it for any goodies I want to use in further writing, without self-criticism. Your mileage may vary!

So go on. Crack open that notebook. Open that file. It’s 2020. This is the year you do it.

Write.

Festival season is here!

by Helen Kenwright

This Friday, 16th March, the Writing Tree are delighted to be providing a ‘Writing for Fun’ workshop at York Literature Festival.

I’m feeling a great sense of excitement –  and not just our event, but because the Festival is one of the highlights of my year.  There are over 350 literary festivals held in the UK each year, and I always look forward to York’s Festival, which takes place from 15th to 26th March at various venues across the City.  This year there’s an added sense of excitement for us, as the Writing Tree not only makes its debut at the Festival with the workshop, but also with a spot at the HUB Bookstall on 19th,  where we will be officially launching the paperback of ‘Forest‘.

As writers it’s easy to become isolated and invisible, and a festival is a great opportunity to see that we’re not alone, but part of a thriving creative community. For a couple of weeks each spring, I do my utmost to tap into the opportunity to be inspired, to learn and to find new friends in the world of local writers.

The Hay Festival (referred to by The Guardian as “the Glastonbury of literary festivals“) is now regularly televised for its interviews with famous authors.  I’m looking forward to York’s headliners, including TV historian Lucy Worsley talking about Jane Austen, local MAN Booker nominated writer Fiona Mozley and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, author of ‘The Enemy Within: A Tale of Muslim Britain’. But what inspires me even more are the ‘fringe’ events: the workshops, the stand-up poets, the open mic events, the opportunity to hear from the small indie publishers and self-published authors who one might not discover otherwise. I always come away with new ideas, new skills and a refreshed appreciation of how many talented writers there are out there. We may not all have that top spot at Hay in our sights, but we share a love for our craft, for books and writing, and the opportunity to celebrate that each year is precious.

If you can’t join us in York, I hope you have a similar event you can get to in your own locality. Or if not, we will do our best to inspire you here at the Writing Tree all year long!

Journalling

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by Helen Kenwright

Most of the writers I know have a stack of notebooks that live a quiet life, sitting on a shelf or in the deep darkness of a drawer or chest. Doomed to be unwritten in, simply because they’re ‘too pretty to use’. I confess I have this problem myself. I can’t resist a pretty notebook, and generous friends buy them for me, too. But then I buy a stack of cheap, plain ones to write my drafts in. Workhorses. Ordinary enough that I won’t mind crossings out and bad handwriting and all that messy stuff that happens when you’re crafting something. Continue reading

The Writer’s Cooldown

by Helen Kenwright

So, how was Nanowrimo for you? Or perhaps there’s another big writing project you’ve recently finished?

One of the criticisms sometimes directed at Nanowrimo is that it can cause writer burn-out. Hopefully if you’ve followed the advice in Ekaterina’s blog post last month you won’t have succumbed to total mental and physical exhaustion. But there can be an aftermath to be dealt with, and in this post we give you some advice to help move forward from the experience, however it went, and keep writing into the future. Continue reading

Why Write? Thoughts on writing for fun, health or wealth.

by Helen Kenwright

In this, the first of a series of guest blogs, Writing Tree Tutor Helen Kenwright takes a look at the different reasons people might choose to write, and how to keep motivation going.

When students first come to my classes I ask them what it is about writing that interests them. It’s a question they’ve usually been asked before, and they often find difficult to answer, unless they are hoping to write with a view to publication. It’s a strange phenomenon, when you think about it. Artistic pursuits form the basis of lots of common hobbies: writing, colouring books, salsa dancing, knitting, singing in the shower… but all too often we feel as if we’re daft for doing it, unless we’re really good. And there’s the paradox: like other skills in life, we’re unlikely to get really good unless we do it a lot.

So why bother? Here’s a few ideas. Continue reading