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Are Money and Comfort Necessary for the Writing Process?

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An Essay based on A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf 

I first met Virginia Woolf at Mrs Dalloway’s party. She was a stranger – an aloof, sharp, beautiful woman with whom I didn’t feel an immediate connection. Relationships with books and authors are the same as relationships with people. With some, it’s an instant connection, recognition of a kindred spirit. But with others, it takes time. Virginia and I are still growing. The more I learn about her, the more she fascinates me. That’s why there are three of her books on the Kaizen Reading Challenge list.

 A Room of One’s Own seems an apt place to start, with its focus on what a writer needs to be able to write. Woolf comments upon various interconnected issues, but the undercurrent running throughout the whole book is the importance of money that provides for one’s basic needs so that one can focus on writing. That is as relevant today as it was in 1928. Except that today, this is no longer an issue for just women.

We have come far enough in gender equality that this issue applies to both sexes. If there are any fortunes to be inherited, it is no longer only men who inherit them. When Woolf said,s interconnected issues, but the undercurrent running throughout the whole book is the importance of money that provides for one’s basic needs so that one can focus on writing. That is as relevant today as it was in 1928. Except that today, this is no longer an issue for just women.

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

[Kindle Location 37, Chapter 1]

she wasn’t talking about the importance of money for its own sake. She didn’t say a woman must have thousands of pounds, a big house and a bunch of servants if she is to write fiction. It’s about what money gives you. A sense of comfort and security of knowing you have a roof over your head, bills are paid, and you have somewhere to write.

The physical comforts cannot be overrated. However lofty heights your soul may aspire to, it is framed in a corporal body. As such, it has basic human needs like every other person.

Woolf was right when she said,

The human frame being what it is, heart, body, and brain all mixed together and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

[Kindle Location 237, Chapter 1]

We have not yet gotten to a stage where science can separate heart, body and brain in different compartments. However inconvenient it may be, it’s probably a good thing for our writing, enabling us to tap into not just intellectual but also our emotional capacity. However, attempting to tap into your inner muse when you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from is rarely successful. The image of a starving artist may sound romantic, but in reality, it has no more romance than the lives of millions of other starving people.

Woolf asks,

What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?

[Kindle Location 329, Chapter 2]

Necessity is too definitive, for it would change from person to person. Some people are able to bear discomforts more than others. Yet, it would be logical to say that comfortable conditions of living would be more conducive to the creation of works of art, and the availability of that comfort is dependent upon having money. Even if the impact of gaining some money is not as momentous as it was in Woolf’s times.

The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women…of the two – the vote and the money – the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important.

[Kindle Location 486, Chapter 2]

Woolf was an intelligent, socially conscientious woman. She knew the importance of being able to vote, the tide of change it represented for women, yet it was the £500 per year that she found more valuable. For it was the money that bought her independence, without which, political rights mean very little.

Food, house, and clothing are mine for ever.

[Kindle Location 503, Chapter 2]

These basic needs were her security. They gave her the freedom to be a writer. These are the very basic needs that prevent people today from blossoming into their inner artist.

Woolf raises this in a reflection about women who lived during Shakespeare’s time. 

For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.

[Kindle Location 541, Chapter 3]

It wasn’t a puzzle. Woolf knew the answer to that too.

What were the conditions in which women lived, I asked myself; for fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached  to life at all four corners…But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.

[Kindle Location 543, Chapter 3]

That is the same concern we face today. The environment nurtures creativity, but it can also distract. There is a reason people pay small fortunes to attend writers’ retreats. The reality that was true then, is true now.

Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them.

[Kindle Location 676, Chapter 3]

Art available in abundance is not perceived as necessity, and yet take it away – every book, every film, every painting, and every play – and the world will mourn its loss, and be changed forever. However, until that happens, complain about being a struggling writer, and people will tell you to get a real job.

The very people, who look down upon and give “practical” advice to the struggling artists, hero-worship successful ones. Just think about a mile long queue for book-signings, midnight book releases, and intensity of fans for success stories such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or Eat Pray Love. As Woolf said,

Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.

[Kindle Location 845, Chapter 3]

She is not the only one who’s being honest about importance of money and comfort in a writer’s life. She references Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who said,

The poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance…a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.

[Kindle Location 1406, Chapter 3]

In today’s society, we are not absolutely ruled by the circumstances of our birth. Education is available to people of all backgrounds. With the long reach of the Internet, more and more opportunities are available for those with a vision and a drive. While a poor child in England today does not have as hopeless existence as a child of an Athenian slave, he also does not have the ease with which opportunities are available for the rich child. Intellectual freedom is still difficult to achieve, for it requires time to study, and to reflect. One can only find that time once the bills are paid, and there is a place – a room of one’s own – to sit down in.

 

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NaNoWriMo 2017 – Let the Madness Begin!

 

Honestly, I had no plans to do NaNoWriMo earlier this year. Until September, I hadn’t thought about it. After all, my life is so crazy busy right now that even considering it was silly. But then in September I went to Milford Writers Conference and got this huge injection of writing mojo. That was a really good thing because I really needed that injection. After that, writing momentum has been going in full force, and I am really keen to make some solid progress on my novel. So enter NaNoWriMo.

At first I thought I would just do it without joining in officially. I figured I will do about 30,000 words and even that will be solid progress. But one thing led to another, and I ended up officially signing up to NaNo, and so of course now I have to try to do the whole 50,000. 

The madness has begun. 

I know I have some very busy days coming up when I will be lucky if I manage to do 500 words a day, so I wanted to get off to a really good start. On the first day, I’ve managed to 5485 words, which was way better than I was expecting. So the first day of NaNoWriMo2017 has been a success. And hopefully, I will hit that 50,000 mark. 

 

Milford Writers Conference – Journey so far…

 

I am currently in gorgeous Nantlle Valley in North Wales. It’s a week of utter privilege as I am here to attend Milford Writers Workshop for one week, for which I won a bursary. It’s not just the bursary that makes it a privilege, but also the sheer luxury of being able to spend one week thinking about nothing but writing. For this one week, I have given myself permission to park all the other areas and problems and priorities of life aside. 

So here I am. Really excited and happy to be here. I arrived here on Saturday morning, with a fellow Milford participant Susan Oke who kindly gave me a lift from North London. We took the time to settle down on Saturday, met one another. It’s 15 of us in total. Some people I knew before, others I only knew online, and yet others that I didn’t know at all. But by Saturday night we were all at least acquainted, or getting better acquainted.

My room is a charming single room on the first floor of the Plas (the main house). From my window, I can see the grounds of Trigonos centre, the lake, and the mountains. It’s both “A room of my own” and “A room with a view.” 

One of the best things about being here is not having to worry about mundane life stuff. Food is served at fixed times. 8 am is breakfast, 1 pm is lunch,  4 pm is cake’o clock and 7 pm is dinner. You can have tea and coffee all day long, and there is also a fruit bowl if you do somehow manage to be hungry despite all those meal times. You turn up, and you eat what’s there. Major dietary restrictions have already been noted and catered for in advance. 

From 2 to 6, or rather for however long it takes to get through the day’s schedule, we critique each other’s work. This is why we are here. To have other writers critique our work, and to offer our opinions for their work. Submissions are all high quality. I have now attended critique sessions for 3 days, and together we have critiqued 16 stories – and not counting 2 of my own – all 14 have been worthy contenders. There are great ideas, great executions, great characters. Of course, all of our stories need work. That is also why we are here. But no one’s work is utterly basic, or terrible. It is a group of professional, supportive people. Critiques are done very professionally and in a very encouraging manner. 

Liz Williams and Jacey Bedford who organise everything take great care to ensure that Milford remains supportive and inclusive environment. Trigonos is a beautiful venue that helps soothe the spirit and offer a recharge of creative energy. It is just the perfect place for this retreat. 

Many of my fellow attendees are returnees to Milford. They too are extremely supportive and encouraging. They also share their wisdom and experience both about the work itself, as well as the local area. At meal times discussions around the table range across the spectrum of humanity from serious to totally hilarious. When we are at meals, there is suddenly this loud hubbub, where everyone is talking, and the excitement and enthusiasm are being shared. We are all happy to be here. We are all pleased and appreciate that we are fortunate to be in this position to take our writing seriously enough that we can do this. 

The range of writing experience is also extremely diverse, and it’s a great thing because we all learn different things from one another. Listening to other people’s critiques is a valuable experience because it teaches me many different perspectives, and many different ways of doing a thing – not just writing, but also critiquing. It expands my mind about ideas and makes me interested in topics that I may never have thought about before. 

Outside of writing, as I get to speak to my fellow attendees more and more, I learn things about them that brings out even more of their interesting personalities. They are a curious mix, and each in their own way, uniquely interesting. 

All four days here have been interesting, but today has been my favourite so far. First because today I finally got to visit Mordor. Seriously! It’s been raining pretty much whole week, which does make going out and about in the country a bit tricky. All day’s incessant rain stopped just for a bit to let me tour Mordor with the expert human ranger, Vaughan Stanger. (Elves were busy.) Mordor is a slate quarry, which was christened thus by this lunatic bunch of SFF writers who attended Milford in 2005. Apparently for its often gloomy, ominous feel. What’s fun is how casually this reference is now made, not just by returnees to Milford, but also us newbies. It was muddy, and a lot of puddles to navigate, but I really enjoyed it. Great views from the top, and just nice to stretch my legs a bit and explore the area.

Writing retreat is great, but I do spend most of my time reading, critiquing, writing or eating. So the body needed some movement. The morning hike woke me up and made me feel great. 

Today, we had a more intensive critique session, as we did six critiques. Again, the quality was amazing and made me feel glad to be in this company.

 

Work was followed by fabulous dinner, where I did end up taking food from Val Nolan’s plate. But hey, a girl’s gotta eat onion rings. Then the post-dinner conversation which led me to put Tiffani Angus and Liz Williams in my “Kick-ass women I admire” category. 

I may have temporarily crushed Philip Suggars’ spirits by implying I was calling him boring – which wasn’t true – I was calling other people boring, while I happened to be looking at him. He, on the other hand, is really quite good fun.

And Matt Colborn has agreed to lead a workout session tomorrow morning – so I am really looking forward to that (though during the session I expect to swear at him because he has plans for Planks and Burpees). 

So after yet another full and fun day, I have retired to my room to write this blog post, and do more readings for critique and also hopefully some writing. Time is flying too fast, and I know already that this is a place I would like to return to. I know why these people come back. It’s not just the place. It’s not just the people. It’s the perfect combination of both that makes this productive and enjoyable for all of us. And it gives us that spirit of community, which as writers is nice to feel. Not just for camaraderie, but also on a professional level. To know that there are many of us who take this seriously, want to do as well as we can, and are willing to learn and grow. It is this atmosphere of growth that Milford fosters well. 

 

 

 

Post Event Write-Up: Great Writing Conference – Imperial College, London

 

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Last weekend, on July 1st and 2nd, I attended my first ever Great Writing conference at the Imperial College in London. This was the 20th anniversary of this event, and I found out about it late last year, so I am a tad behind. But better late than never.

The fact that it was in London was a massive plus point for me. Conferences, especially due to hotel bills, can become very expensive. Especially as I don’t have a university behind me, footing the bill. So it was great to just attend the full conference, but still be able to go home in the evenings without much hassle.

So about the conference:

In a nutshell, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Arrived at 8:30 am on Saturday morning to register, and then after the 9 am introduction, the conference was in a full flow, with multiple streams of panels running at the same time. As is always the case with these events, it’s difficult to choose because there is so much interesting material. 

It’s also about the people. Sometimes you go to panels because you are familiar with someone’s work, or they are your friends or good acquaintance. Sometimes you just happen to get chatting to people at the conference and go to their sessions to support, as well as learn more about  them. 

My panel selections were a combination of all of the above. 

On Saturday, I attended panels that included topics as wide ranging as a permaculture travel memoir, finding authentic voice, writing and performing identity, transmedia storytelling, a paper on interplay of text and images in contemporary essay, as well as exploration of real-world choices in the movie Arrival. 

I chaired a session of three panels, which were:

The Teacher-Effect: Poets who took, borrowed and stole from teachers of influence by Jen Webb

Articulate Walls: Writer’s Block and the Academic Creative Practitioner by Marshall Moore

Teaching the Wisdom of Uncertainty by Karen Stevens.

My three presenters were from different countries, bringing in different perspectives. That’s one of the most fascinating things about an international conference, that you do get a true mix of people, and a range of perspectives. There were people there from the UK, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Northern Ireland…and these are just the people I spoke to. But even that covers a considerable geographical ground. 

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On Sunday, I took advantage of living in London and made my leisurely way, joining from 10:30 onward. One of the first sessions of panels I attended was one that created a bit of a discussion, because it included a paper on Writing about Sex, by Malachi O’ Doherty, a journalist and a writer from Belfast. 

After lunch, I presented my paper, “Miss You’ve A White Name” which was well received, and also got me into some wonderful discussions, including an issue of cultural appropriation and I ended up making new acquaintances. 

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After more chats, and more thoughtful presentations, and closing brief by Professor Graeme Harper who organises the conference, the 20th Great Writing Conference officially came to an end. Some people would stay on to go to the pub. I chose to make my way home, talking to one of the other attendees at the conference, as we made our way to the tube station by walking through the gorgeous Kensington Palace Gardens on a beautiful, sunny day in London. 

It was the perfect end to what had been a quite stimulating weekend. 

I am already looking forward to attending the Great Writing Conference next year.

 

Feeling Like a Writer

It’s a strange thing, being a writer. On the one hand, you just are. I’m always writing something. It’s who I am. I can’t not write. It’s as simple as breathing. 

But you know how sometimes even breathing isn’t simple? You get a cold, and a blocked nose. Or the pollution is so high that your nose gets full of gunk and you can’t breathe properly. Well, sometimes that happens with writing too. You know it’s simple. You know it’s who you are. But sometimes, it just feels complicated.

I’ve been feeling that lately. But more specifically, towards “professional” writing. I can still write. I can still fill pages of my journal, or write beautiful letters and what-not. I can still write stuff that doesn’t need to be finished, or stuff that doesn’t need to judged. But what about all the things that have to be finished, and have to be judged? What about stories that must meet a certain criteria, or pass through individual judgement? What about a novel that needs to meet my vision of what it should be? On that side, there have been stumbling blocks. 

And that led me to conclusion that I need to do more things that make me feel like a writer. 

Life gets in the way. There are jobs to be done for money. There are hobbies and interests. Crazy challenges that take over my life (I’m walking London to Brighton non-stop, 100km/62.5 miles in May). Personal relationships. And after all that if there is actually any time left, my energy level or mental reserves are too low for me to be as productive as I would like with my writing. 

A part of me resists this. A part of me thinks of all the writers who had full lives, woke up at crazy hour every morning and wrote before going to work. A part of me wants to be able to do that no matter what. Another, more realistic part of me is becoming aware that it is not sustainable. I’ve ups and downs with writing, as with most things in life. Sometimes words just flow. Sometimes it’s bloody hard work. Sometimes it fills you with elation. Sometimes it depresses you. That is the inevitable nature of creative endeavor. But it is also the inevitable nature of pursuing dreams. 

However, there are ways to feel like a writer. I’ve joined a local critique group, a writer’s group, and may even do more of those depending on suitability and availability. That gives me people and accountability, so that writing comes with a deadline rather than just something hovering in the background. I like deadlines. I like having something specific to aim for. It also feels more professional somehow. And more “doing” rather than “wishing.”

So today, I had to remind myself again that it’s okay. Sometimes you feel down in the dumps, and question everything. It’s okay. Feel it in the moment. Then get back up, dust off your pants, and start again. Because that’s all it is. One word after another. Sometimes it’s crappy words. Sometimes it’s torturous words. But they come. Because they are in me. Patiently waiting. When I stop obsessing and worrying about being a writer, underneath it, I already am. When I remember why I wanted to do this – for the pleasure of creating my own stories – it suddenly becomes such an achievable thing. It is there, waiting to be unearthed, to be moulded in my voice. Because I am a writer. 

 

Giving Time and Space to Ideas

 

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Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.

– Steve Jobs

 

Steve Jobs makes it sound so simple, but for anyone who spends most of their time doing creative work, you would know that while Jobs’ quote is accurate, the process is anything but simple. Connecting experiences and synthesizing new things often results in false starts, and roundabout routes.

I’m productivity obsessed. Usually it’s a good thing, but sometimes it’s not. When you are productivity obsessed, you measure things by the end results. It means you achieve goals. However, not everything is measurably instantly by end results. Sometimes, simply going through the process is important. 

This is particularly the case when coming up with an idea for a new novel. A novel is a huge undertaking, and even if you are not an outliner (which I am mostly not) it still requires some thought, some percolation of ideas until you are set on writing that particular story. This requires brainstorming.

Different people do it differently. If you are really really lucky, a story arrives, all set and ready with main framework. However, more often than not, it’s a small germ that grows and grows. Some people may brainstorm while running or walking. Others, like J. K. Rowling, may end up doing it on a train journey. Some people, like me, write things down to figure them out. 

I brainstorm by writing. It’s not a bad thing. But, it does mean that brainstorming session, in which I may end up writing thousands of words, may or may not be of any use. I may think about a story, write whatever comes to my mind, and decide at the end that it’s all actually rubbish. So from the productivity perspective, that’s wasted 3,000 words that I could have written for something far more useful. For something that would have resulted in a finished product.

But there is another way of looking at it, and that is creative perspective. Now, just to be clear, I don’t believe that it is productivity vs. creativity. They are not enemies, nor mutually exclusive. However, one does take priority over the other at times.

When brainstorming a new novel, without a particularly concrete idea in mind, creativity takes priority. That means that yes, there is a risk that what you end up scribbling or thinking about for hours, may not get used at all. But eventually, you will find things that become foundation for that new novel, or indeed any new project. Even for the material that you may not end up using, it may not be wasted. Some of those ideas may be used later. But even if they are not, it is still an exercise for your brain. You have still spent time tapping into your subconscious, connecting consciously with your muse, and you have learned how to consistently keep mining for good ideas instead of accepting whatever’s on the surface. It is time and space for creativity. 

For anyone really, but particularly for writers, giving this space to idea generation is important. Without that, there is a danger of staleness, or even worse, a creative block. The process of creativity, therefore, is no less important than measurable productivity. 

What do you think? Do you struggle between choosing creativity and productivity? Or how do you manage both?

 

A Writer’s Diary: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

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4 June 1831

I wonder if I shall burn this sheet of paper like most others I have begun in the same way. To write a diary, I have thought of very often at far & near  distances of time: but how could I write a diary without throwing upon paper my thoughts, all my thoughts – the thoughts of my heart as well as of my head? – and then how could I bear to look on them after they were written? Adam made fig leaves necessary for the mind, as well as for the body. And such a mind I have! So very exacting & exclusive & eager & headlong – & strong & so very very often wrong! Well! But I will write: I must write – & the oftener wrong I know myself to be, the less wrong I shall be in one thing – the less vain I shall be!

– Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A Writer’s Diary: John Steinbeck on Comfortable Space for Writing

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12 February 1951

Lincoln’s Birthday. My first day of work in my new room. It is a very pleasant room and I have a drafting table to work on which I have always wanted – also a comfortable chair given me by Elaine. In fact I have never had it so good and so comfortable. I have known such things to happen – the perfect pointed pencil – the paper persuasive – the fantastic chair and a good light and no writing. Surely a man is most treacherous animal full of his treasured contradictions. He may not admit it but he loves his paradoxes.

Now that I have everything, we shall see whether I have anything. It is exactly that simple. Mark Twain used to write in bed – so did our greatest poet. But I wonder how often they wrote in bed – or whether they did it twice and the story took hold. Such things happen. Also I would like to know what things they wrote in bed and what things they wrote sitting up. All of this has to do with comfort in writing and what its value is. I should think that a comfortable body would let the mind go freely to its gathering. But such is the human that he might react in an opposite way. Remember my father’s story about the man who did not dare be comfortable because he went to sleep. That might be true of me too. Now I am perfectly comfortable in body. I think my house is in order. Elaine, my beloved, is taking care of all the outside details to allow me the amount of free untroubled time every day to do my work. I can’t think of anything else necessary to write except a story and the will to tell it.

– John Steinbeck 

A Writer’s Diary: Virginia Woolf on Earning from Books

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26 January 1930

When we made up our six months accounts, we found I had made about £3020 last year – the salary of a civil servant; a surprise to me, who was content with £200 for so many years. But I shall drop very heavily I think. The Waves won’t sell more than 2,000 copies.

– Virginia Woolf 

A Writer’s Diary: John Steinbeck

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13 February 1951

It must be told that my second work day is a bust as far as getting into the writing. I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one. It is as though the words were not only indelible but that they spread out like dye in water and colour everything around them. A strange and mystic business, writing. Almost no progress has taken place since it was invented. The Book of the Dead is as good and as highly developed as anything in the 20th century and much better than most. And yet in spite of this lack of a continuing excellence, hundreds of thousands of people are in my shoes – praying feverishly for relief from their word pangs. And one thing we have lost – the courage to make new words or combinations. Somewhere the old bravado has slipped off into a gangrened scholarship. Oh! you can make words if you enclose them in quotation marks. This indicates that it is dialect and cute.

– John Steinbeck