Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A peek into my processes*:

(Kinda-part 1 here). With thanks to James for this fun tag.

What am I working on at the moment? I work as a social media and marketing manager and also as an English tutor and workshop instructor, so commercial and editorial-style writing is part of my daily life. The real dream, however, is fiction. So when people ask me about my words, it’s stories that I think of. After I completed my Master of Arts last year (and finished up a work placement of two years just a month later), I fell into a period that felt a lot like creative paralysis. I was frozen. It wasn’t even that I had things to say but didn’t know how to say them; I was truly empty. Ideas weren’t floating in, and words weren’t flowing out.

That season lasted more than six months, and I found it terrifying. Finally I had been set free to do the thing I cared about – and it felt as if the thing no longer cared about me. I’d talked about writing since I was a kid. I didn’t know myself without that dream, without that work happening on the sidelines. And I couldn’t really do anything other than hold on and hope that whatever I’d lost would somehow return to me.

This year has been more about inching back towards that fragile creativity. I’m certainly not at the place where, as a teenager, I thought all writers lived: a flurry of words pouring out in a feverish rush, pen at the ready for ideas to strike out of nowhere. (Gosh I miss those days. The feeling of it all, I mean, not the rubbish I wrote). Rather, there’s a sort of steadiness to where I'm at with words, along with a slight sense of frustration at the constant pull between work, family, community, and creativity.

So what am I actually working on? I’m working on a screenplay treatment for a friend who works in the independent film industry. I’m in the very tentative early stages of a new story that I think is going to be novel length. And there’s a little short story that’s been simmering for two years but is close to being done. I’m writing lots of thoughts about what I’m reading lately, too, and there’s a novel first draft sitting on the backburner while I work out how to take it from A to, if not Z, then at least B, C, or D.

How does my work differ from others in my genre? My last few published pieces have been for children, some other recent stories have been a little speculative, while still another is a piece of adult fiction that is bit (a lot) autobiographical. So I’m no longer quite sure what my genre is. But my heart is with young adult fiction, always and forever.

Something that I find myself exploring, often not realising it until the work is finished, is the idea of otherness. Being other is often viewed with some awkwardness or perhaps even shame. We tend to blame ourselves for our otherness, thinking that “If I was more [whatever],” then maybe I’d belong. But otherness can have great value. It’s healthy to be able to step back from the crowd occasionally. It generates a sense of wonder. It allows us to form our own opinions. And it builds compassion within us for those who may not learn, work, look, speak, or live like ‘everyone else’ does. What’s more, I suspect most of the great men and women of history could be counted as quite “other” in one way or many. The jury’s still out on whether otherness actually turns you into a genius (or a sociopath, for the unfortunate few), but I definitely think it can help.

Of course, there’s nothing unique about exploring the other within literature. One could argue that all literature is about otherness, to some degree. So how does my work differ from others in my genre? I guess one way is that my stories tend to be light on the romance side of things. I enjoy romance, but show me friendships, too. Show me families, show me communities, show me diverse relationships that go beyond high school sweethearts. As I read or write young adult characters, I can’t help thinking that the all-consuming crush that’s occupying the character’s heart and mind might not be there in a couple of years or even a couple of months. But I hope the best friend will still be around, and I’m more interested in his or her feelings about the main character than I am in the feelings of Bad-Boy-With-A-Heart-of-Gold McSpunkypants.

Why do I write or create what I do? It recently occurred to me that I might not actually like writing. It’s really hard work. I’ve never been the sort to be able to churn out thousands of words a day, and it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that whirlwind frenzy of feverish inspiration and had words just fall from my fingertips. Instead, I slog and yank and tug and grimace and fight to get the words out of me and onto a page, and I’m even not sure why I do it. I only know that words are incredibly important to me, and this is the thing I want to do, even when I’m not quite certain what it’s all for.

How does my writing/creative process work? I love boundaries and feel like my creativity thrives under them. Briefs and deadlines and word limits are great. When they are in place, the scope of possibility narrows to something within my vision and, instead of being overwhelmed by the vast expanses of whatever that stretch out before me, I can look just a little way ahead and start to think. I like having themes or content requirements or specific prerequisites imposed upon me. They don’t feel like an imposition; they feel like a starting point. And when such limitations don’t exist, if I’m left with something formless, I have to impose the limitations on myself so I don’t shrivel up or drown under the weight of all that could be.

So my process begins with examining my creative boundaries or inventing some for myself. I’m a fan of pulling out a notebook and scribbling down anything relevant on an open double page spread, then examining the work for links and ideas and a proper starting place. If I can’t start at the beginning of the story, I’ll start with a scene that I know that I know, a moment that’s real for me, that reveals my characters, that might even be an instrumental moment in the story. It doesn’t matter where it comes chronologically; I can write away from it or up to it later on. The important thing is to start.

A couple of years ago a friend introduced me to the idea of the writing sprints, and, quite seriously, they've really changed how I write. Now, when I have a project to complete, I set a timer for 15 mins and write fast and furiously just for that fifteen. I don’t pause to look up words, to self-edit, to ponder the decisions I’m making for my characters. I just write. If I’m unsure of a word or a direction to take something, I can fill in that space with nothing words. (I have written BLAH BLAH SOMETHING HERE more times than I could say). After the fifteen minutes is up, of course there’s time to go back and tweak things or check the outline to see if the story is on track, but it’s amazing how many words one can spout when the timer is going. And it’s inspiring to just hit reset and go for another round. I can’t tell you how much easier it is to write in four fifteen-minute bursts than it is to write for an hour.

The primary advantage to this is that words get onto paper. Then there’s the fact that I don’t waste time self-censoring or overthinking my writing decisions. Finally, it’s a way to write even when I think I don’t have time for writing. One of my projects lately is being written in ten-minute snatches, just a few days a week. You can’t do a lot in ten minutes, but you can do something, and it keeps the story (and the hope) alive.

*not a double entendre. 

So... that's a little peek into my creative process. Now I'm going to invite two writerly ladies, Jodie and Katie, to answer these questions for themselves. I'm looking forward to hearing more about what makes your wild mind bloom!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Rock pools and sketches and notebooks, oh my.

As a kid, I loved to read books that were about people making books. There were two in particular that I read a lot, one in comic-strip style about the building of a picture book from start to finish, and another about the actual manual work of collating and binding a book of your own. I borrowed these books from the local public library so often that I’m sure a little part of me felt that the librarian should just take pity on me and give them to me for keeps. 

These days we’d say that reading books about writing, illustrating, and making books is kind of meta, but childhood me had no such word for it. I only knew that these books provided a peek into a process that was like drawing aside a magical curtain and opening up the world beyond, like lifting the lid of an upright piano and seeing the intricate innards of the instrument, like peering past the surface of the water to the microcosmic life of the rockpool beneath. Looking at the processes behind books was mesmerising.

I still feel the same sense of fascination with these backstage tours. I have a small but serious collection of books that each explore someone else's creative processes. One of my favourites is about the writer andillustrator Eric Carle; it has a giant fold-out page that shows the step-by-step process Carle uses to create his trademark collages. Another book shows pages from EH Shepard’s childhood sketchbook, with annotations in a scratchy, childish hand. I can’t really explain their fascination for me; I only know that processes are delicious. Show me your first drafts, your sketchbooks, your outlines, and I’m a little bit in awe.

For that reason, it’s been fun to follow the trail of bloggers passing along the Blog Tour Award and talking about their creative processes. (And gosh, reading about how people write is so much easier and more fun than actually writing.) I was nominated to take part in the fun by James Cooper, chief editor of the author.docx blog and lecturer at Tabor College in Adelaide (you can read his answers here). I took several units under James when I was studying my BA, and loved them all. In fact, James’s recommendation introduced me to Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, one of the best books about books I’ve ever read.

The idea of the blog tour is to answer a series of questions about my own creative processes, and to nominate up to four other bloggers to do the same. I was supposed to post my answers today, but I have a busy house full of local and interstate guests so I’ll be back with my answers tomorrow.

In the meantime, though, I have a question for you: are you a process person? What processes inspire you with a desire to create, do, or become?
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