11am Saturday morning: fear – of what to write, of whether any words will come, of writing well enough; of reading aloud scribbled sentences to a critical audience of strangers. 14 writers are gathered in a room in Ilkley, the top of the moor just visible through the window, on the second day of the Yorkshire spa town’s annual literature festival. OCA creative writing tutor, poet and writer of short fiction Hilary Jenkins is their promise of putting Life to the Page in the writing workshop they have signed up for.
Round the table are a woman who has written four novels and is looking for ideas for her fifth, an former BBC journalist drawn by the possibilities of ‘the defining moment’ as a theme for fiction, the recent (and surprised) winner of a short story competition, an MA creative writing graduate who finds her confidence has been knocked, a school administrator with time to write now that her two oldest children have left home, and a short story writer who would like to writer longer stories.
We all know, without it being discussed, that each of us understands what it’s like to believe you cannot write. Don’t all writers know this? Or are some free of this block, which can shift from being an irritation, convert itself into a fear and become a terror?
11.15am: just 15 minutes later, we all have the page of a notebook covered in words, after five minutes of free writing kick-started for us by Hilary’s prompt: ‘As soon as I’d reached the corner…’. Some of us have travelled back in time, others have created imaginary encounters rooted in our everyday lives. On our pages, there is life: pleasure, rage, anxious anticipation, puzzlement and frustration. In our minds, I am quite certain, is less of fear, and more of flow and freedom.
Five minutes free writing is enough, explains Hilary, 15 minutes is too much. Setting an alarm helps create a sense of urgency, kick-starting the changes in brain chemistry that result from time constraints. It’s a technique favoured by, amongst others, Dorothy Brande (her 1934 book Becoming a Writer can be downloaded free) and Julia Cameron (you can listen to her talking about unblocking creativity on her website).
We are warned against heeding the accusatory voice of the primary school teacher, who still reprimands: ‘Write properly, spell correctly’, exhortations unwelcome but persistent, even after decades. Better would be ‘write now, edit after’ – easy to say, but harder to do. And as we know, the self-critical voice gets louder when you’re on your own, and writers when writing tend to be alone. We are advised to pick our critics carefully: ‘Husbands and wives are not always the best choice,’ warns Hilary. There is laughter but no dissent.
As phobias can seem irrational, so too can the choice of objects that give the writing mind a focus. Buttons are a case in point. The fear of buttons and other small discs such as sequins and small coins, to the majority of people merely everyday objects rarely remarked on, is surprisingly common. Some button phobics find plastic ones worse than metal ones. Others are most fearful if they see or touch four-holed button. A tin of buttons of many shapes, sizes, colours and materials induced no apparent fear in Saturday’s 14 writers. Instead, it swept away restraint, the catalyst for fervent productivity.
11.45am: it’s not yet afternoon, but the table now is papered with monologue, dialogue and memory. From the mouths of their authors, we hear of the wool of a home-knitted cardigan unravelled and steamed in the kitchen to make it straight; an irrepressible metal button cajoling a zip to play its part in holding up a pair of trousers; and the ranting of a distressed mother, incapable of getting a grip on taking her two-year old son to hospital after he swallows a button.
‘Stop going to workshops and start writing’, observes one of our number wittily when we talk about what gets in the way of us writing. Structure does help, though. It imposes deadlines. It puts us in touch with other writers who will willingly act as our readers. Local writing groups offer the best route to writing communities for lots of writers. Online writing groups allow members to connect with people writing in the same genre as them. Entering competitions is another way for writers to give themselves deadlines.
Time for lunch! Making my way back down the hill to the town, I see a lone sheep grazing on a patch of grass beside a row of handsome Victorian terraced houses. She looks up the slope at me as I pass. A tale of a suburban sheep, the chuntering commentator on the odd ways of an eccentric Yorkshire family, starts to take shape in my mind. I could not say if the sheep was there two and a half hours earlier, when I climbed up past the houses towards Ilkley Moor, but then, I was too busy feeling fearful.