Monday, 4 July 2011

Writing Workshop 2011

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Each year I do a writing workshop as part of my local arts festival. For the last couple of years I have put an edited version up on the blog, for those of you with an interest in writing. I am doing so again now.

Two caveats:

It is very long, so you may want to print it out. Although I have rewritten it this year, there are only about seven things I really know about writing. This mean that there will be repetition, for regular readers, for which I apologise.

There is a bit of what I say not what I do that goes on here. Because this is a very intense week, and I am trying to communicate as much of what I know as I can, the actual writing is not my best. I do not have the time or energy to polish and cut and shape; so you have it in its baggy, shaggy, first draft shape. Please excuse solecisms and possible typos. This is more about communication than lovely prose.


So, here we go.

There is one thing that I turn to first every year, because I think it is the single most elemental thing that can stop you writing, and stop you doing good writing.  It is always the first thing I want to talk about because it is at the root of everything. I call it, with no great originality: The Fear.


The Fear.

The number one thing that will stop you writing is not time or talent or your other job or the fact that you do not dine with Sebastian Faulkes. It is not that you do not have a quiet space or that you have the wrong kind of typewriter or that your computer is broken or that your fingers hurt. Proust wrote in a cork-lined room lying in bed while the demons in his head howled at him. There is no perfect time, no perfect space, no perfect state of mind.

The one thing, the only thing, that will stop you is fear.

The Fear takes many forms, and it is a cruel and subtle beast. When you are telling yourself you are tired and you’ll do it tomorrow because the dinner must be made and the house is a mess, that sounds lovely and rational. In fact, that is The Fear. Any time you use the word ‘too’, that is The Fear. I’m too young too old too stupid too unoriginal too late too uninspired too sad too happy: it’s all The Fear talking. When it is at its most blatant, The Fear just marches up, fixes you will its baleful eye and says: I’m not good enough.

That is the central sorrow of the writing life, that one, small, bald sentence. I’m not good enough. No writer is good enough. Anyone who scratches a mark on a page will have heroes; it’s probably why they start in the first place. They wanted to be Virginia Woolf or Scott Fitzgerald or Jane Austen. I started because I wanted to be Evelyn Waugh. I wanted to write Vile Bodies; that was my very specific ambition. I would still like to write something as clever and funny as that, and I probably never will.

Every single writer will have moments, hours, days, even weeks of not being good enough. There are times when you sit down to write and there is nothing there. Your head is filled with mud, or the gusting emptiness that sounds like wind blowing tumbleweed down the main street of a one-horse town. There are days when you believe that you could not write fuck on a dusty blind, as my friend The Playwright says. There are days when all your sentences come out flat and leaden, falling dead onto the page.

There are moments when you simply cannot remember how to do it. Years ago, when I was writing novels, I remember suddenly forgetting how to get characters in and out of a room. It was quite bizarre. It was my third novel, I thought I should know what to do by now. I knew I was nowhere near my heroes, but I thought at least I had a basic grasp of logistics. I literally had to go and get a novel down from the shelf, and read it, to remember how to get my protagonist to move in time and space.

There is a crucial difference between the writers and the non-writers. The writer will learn The Fear, understand it, be so familiar with it that it will walk beside her like an old dog. She will accept that it will haunt her, at almost every waking moment. She will make a policy decision to bash through it, to defy it, to trick it, to laugh at its puny plan. She will remember that the definition of courage is not the absence of fear, but to feel fear and not be stopped by it. That line from a cheap, self-help homily will run through her head: feel the fear and do it anyway. She will tell herself, several times a day, Sod them if they can’t take a joke.

It can be useful to deconstruct The Fear. You need to know the enemy. The problem is that The Fear is a shape-shifter; it is agile and inchoate. Just as you think you have a handle on it, it will morph into another form.

Probably its central defining feature is: the terror that people will laugh and point. Almost every human fears being mocked. This terror is particularly acute when you are doing something that is very serious to you, that really matters, into which you have put your soul and heart. Most of us learn to combat mockery by learning to laugh at ourselves. It’s a very British thing: don’t take yourself too seriously, whatever you do. If you laugh at yourself first, before other people can, then you may remove the sting.

The problem is that writing is a very serious business. It’s not that you must walk around with a grave countenance, acting as if you are rehearsing your Nobel Prize speech. You need not be portentous and speak only in flowing periods. You do not have to pull on some grand literary cloak, in order to live the writing life. On the other hand, if you do not take it seriously, and do it seriously, then you will never be much good. It’s a very fine line to walk.

Because of this, if people do laugh and point, it will cut right to the heart of you. That is why even the grandest writers sometimes do not read their own reviews. They can’t take it.

This central fear is very straightforward. It is the apprehension that some people will not like what you wrote. The main thing to know is that this is true. It is not a straw man that you built in the crazier corridors of your irrational mind. No writer can please everyone, because writing is such a subjective business. I personally do not like Nabokov, which is practically an arrestable crime in some circles. It’s not that I do not think he is brilliant; I just don’t enjoy his work. I don’t like Philip Roth much, either, and I’ve never managed to get on with Updike. I love George Eliot, but I don’t have much time for DH Lawrence, except for the poetry, which I adore. I worship Virginia Woolf, but have never understood James Joyce. I could eat Henry James for lunch, but I have no appetite for Thomas Hardy.

So the first thing to understand is that: people will laugh and point. People will criticise. People will frown and say: what did she think she was doing? People will deconstruct and damn and demonise. Perhaps the vital thing to remember is that this will happen to everyone who ever publishes a word. The comfort is that you are not alone. The thin gruel of consolation is that it is an integral part of being a writer. If you can’t take the brickbats, you will never get the bouquets.

The technique for dealing with this is what I call Factoring In. It is to do with what the shrinks call false expectations. False expectations are one of the most vicious enemies of happiness. So, in a way, it is not about developing a hide like a rhino, or becoming defiant and even angry; it is more about realism. The reality is that every writer gets bashed about a bit, by critics, by publishers, by agents, by friends. Once you know that, in your deep, fragile heart, you can reset your expectations. It will not all be glory and applause. That’s not how it works.

The other thing to know is that it will hurt. It will hurt like hell. There you were, pouring your deepest self onto the page, stretching every sinew, ransacking every damn dictionary for the exact right word, and some grumpy critic who has never written a book in his life will come along and trample all over your baby with his hob-nailed boots. You cannot inoculate yourself against this. But you can learn to write through the pain. There are some good psychological tricks for this. Along with the factoring in, so that you were at least prepared, you can bring a big box of perspective to the table. You are not living in the Congo, where armies rape women with bayonets. Your entire family has not been wiped out by a tsunami. Your house has not burnt to the ground. This sounds melodramatic, but it is true. All right, you say to yourself, it’s a bad thing, but it’s not the worst thing that could happen. I still have my arms and legs; I still have my fingers to type.

Then, you move into the gritted determination phase. So, someone did not like this book, this poem, this short story. Well, damn them to hell and back, I shall just write another, better one. I’ll show them all.

There are other ramifications of the fear, beyond the central people laughing and pointing one. A great oddity of writing is that people seem to feel they need permission. It is as if there is some central committee somewhere, meeting in a smoke-filled room, as crepuscular light filters in through the slats in the Venetian blinds, sucking on their cigars as they decide who is allowed in, and who is not. It is like the Masons: if you do not know the secret handshake, you may not enter the sanctum.

So, before you even start, you will be reading yourself the list of your own disqualifications. You did not grow up in a literary family, you have never even been to Hampstead, you do not have Salman Rushdie on speed dial. You did not go to the right university, or even any university. You are not asked to the right parties. You have no contacts. You never studied English literature.

Whatever these random qualifiers are, you will gather a big old bunch of them in your head, stare at them, and decide you should go and do something interesting with sheep instead.

Here is the good truth. There are no qualifiers. If you have an idea in your head, and hands to write, and a work ethic, you can be a writer. Someone once said, I can’t remember who: a writer is someone who writes. It’s as simple as that. The lovely thing about this particular fear is that it is not true. You may cross it off your list.

There is another fear, which is that even though you think you want to write, and you have stories running round in your head, you do not know quite how to do it. This is where people often think that they must take a course. They must have a degree in creative writing, or go off on those residential things run by Arvon, or in some other way sit at the feet of a master. All these things can be helpful, but they are absolutely not necessary. In some ways, they can be antithetical to creativity, which sounds a bit counter-intuitive. This is because if you go on some strict course, and you are told that these are the rules, and they are carved in stone, it can confine you. You want to gallop over the prairie like a wild bronco, and you are told you must be doing dressage steps.

I think there is one basic way to learn to write, and, wonderfully, it is available to everyone. It is: read. If you ever read an interview with any successful writer, you will see that they were mad readers, often from a very early age. I am the only member of my family to need spectacles; by the time I was thirteen, I could not see a thing. I am almost certain that this was because I spent every spare hour when I was a child reading. I read in the dusk, when there was hardly light to see; I read under the bedcovers with a torch. I actually remember someone once saying to me, when I was eight: you will ruin your eyes. And I did. It was worth it.



A quick practical note; or, the Daily Writing:

Every year I hear myself talking in endless vague abstractions, about The Fear, about The Truth, about listening for the rhythms in your sentences. Sometimes I look out at the faces and think: did they really want to hear about this?

But there is one thing I know that can make your writing better and it is so easy a child of six could do it.

It is: every morning, write, without thought, for ten minutes.

Without thought sounds wrong and mad and bad. Also: counter-intuitive and probably dangerous. What I mean is: turn off your inner critic. You are going to need the critic down the road, the good, constructive one rather than the idiot one who wants to tear everything down with her bare hands and then drink gin and laugh. But there are times when the critic must be sent out of the room and this is one of them.

The great Dorothea Brande, whose book, Becoming a Writer, is still essential reading almost a hundred years after it was written, wanted you to do your daily writing before you were even properly awake, for twenty minutes. Her idea was that if you could scramble to your desk, still in your pyjamas, before breakfast, coffee, opening the post, then you could tap into that golden part of the subconscious which rational thought can suppress. My daily writing is a more practical adaptation of this idea. Sometimes you want to clean your teeth and put on your trousers.

The point of it is to make writing an easy habit. It is what you do. It does not then become a terrifying task, a wearying chore. The daily ten minutes also builds your writing muscle, so that rhythm and pace and even length of sentences start to become second nature. This frees your imagination. And, the doing it without thought, even if you write rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb, or bugger bugger bugger, trains you to turn off that inner critic, who is liable to shout.

The most important psychological aspect of the daily writing is that it is yours. No one will ever see it. Give yourself permission to indulge in flights of fancy, rampant self-indulgence, wild experiment. Just go. Then, after ten minutes, you can be a grown-up again.


No pictures today; too tired. You do, however, get a quick fix of the Pigeon, who spent a very nice day being spoiled by the Mother and the dear Stepfather:

4 July 1

And: a very happy Independence Day to my American readers, and a VERY VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the Older Niece.


  1. Thank you thank you thank you. Almost always am in the horrible grips of the Fear and it is very nice to be reminded that it is to be expected. I wish I could take your workshop in person.

  2. This is wonderful. The Fear thing made me laugh and cry.

    Thank you.

  3. The "Fear" is not exclusive to writing (of course!). It is insidious. And, in my case, it's accompanied by the nasty nagging voice, "Is 'it' good enough?" (Translate, again of course, to "Am I good enough?" This can be applied to any -- ANY single stupid little -- thing!...from making an omelet to being a "good" mother!)

    So, I really appreciate the "just DO it" reminder.
    In fact, I often learn much more in "failing" or having a really difficult time with something than I do when everything is ( almost) copacetic!
    Enjoy your workshop!

  4. Thank you so much for your lovely, succinct advice.
    I shall certainly be printing it out and tacking it to my noticeboard.
    I work and have small children so all my writing is ten or twenty minute snatches of time which makes it very difficult to progress.
    Some comfort to be had in the thought that I may improve as a writer even if the novel is going nowhere...

  5. Came home just now after sweet family dinner to find these enchanting comments. Of course the irony is that these workshops bring out my own fear, the one that says: are you just talking nonsense, into the void? So your kind comments are most welcome and reassuring and comforting.

    Thank you. :)

  6. Your timing is unnervingly appropriate, I have been fighting The Fear since the first story I wrote aged 9 about a girl called Rachel and her pet guinea pig.

    I am now aged 29 and about to take so many plunges I have no hope of staying dry. It is therefore the case that The Fear is sometimes all I think about. However in those moments I will now refer to this post (I've bookmarked it!). It's nice to know when my words don't come I have the comfort of yours,

    Enjoy your workshop and thank you again,

    Bird x

  7. Tania, you are the most generous soul. Thank you so very much for your words of wisdom.

  8. I enjoyed the post. It was not too long at all and I loved the photograph of Pigeon. Such a happy face.

  9. Thank you from a first-time commenter. I really needed to read that as I'm currently suffering from the fear too, but with regards to creating art.

  10. Thank you so much for this – so timely. Am breathless, but wanted you to know that I could hug you (if you're into hugs).

    Imogene xxx


Your comments give me great delight, so please do leave one.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin