Ten Tips to Rub Out Writers’ Block

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Do other professions have similar issues to writers’ block? Is there such a thing as Doctors’ Dread? Opticians’ Obstruction?  Grocers’ Groan?

And how should it be written? Is it a block applying potentially to all writers, therefore “Writers’ Block” or does this debilitating condition specifically refer to the struggles of solitary individual writers, therefore “Writer’s Block”?

Or should it even be “Bloc”? As in a collective, alliance or coalition? Doesn’t that put a different slant on the concept? It truly is a unifying condition because, whatever it means, and however it is written, I know one thing for certain. Pretty much all writers, often at unexpected points in their writing lives, will suffer from writers’ block.

Fundamentally though, it doesn’t matter as to the whys and wherefores of the name. What does matter is what it does to us. It can be truly paralysing. Time-wasting.  Annoying.  And frustrating enough to make you want to pack it all in and find yourself a far less demanding pastime or career.

It isn’t necessarily a short-term problem either – or something that happens when you’re sleepy or can’t concentrate because you’re attempting to write on a busy train. It can creep up in an environment of perfect calm. It can pounce when you’re well-rested and have set time to one side for the purpose of writing. It seems to relish planting buckets of self-doubt into your usually fertile and industrious mind.

It can hit before you’ve even set pen to paper, part way through a paragraph, or even when you’re speeding to a piece’s conclusion. One of my most frustrating moments involved my feeble attempts to name a character in a chapter’s final paragraph. It took more than three days to get it right. The silver lining to this particular cloud is that this particular occurrence of block forced me to change my writing technique and routines for the better.

(Incidentally, if you’re the type of writer who needs to complete sentence one to perfection before allowing yourself to move on to sentence two… and if you’re struggling to get something right, just try leaving a gap and moving on. I often make a note and highlight it, for example – ‘This is where they walk across the beach and end up at the Neolithic site’. I almost always come back the following day and shake my head in puzzlement at my previously frozen state.)

The great thing about the universality of this terrible condition is that almost every hobbyist or career writer can identify with how it makes us feel, and how crippling it can be. That means empathy, and it also means community.

So, here are a few bits of advice that all of us could potentially find useful. Some/all may be obvious, but there’s no harm in re-stating the obvious. We’re only human. We forget. And sometimes it is the block itself that loves to sabotage our creativity – by forcing that forgetfulness.

  1. If you always write on your laptop at the kitchen table, try moving the laptop to your bed, or to the sofa, or try attaching a keyboard and monitor and sitting at the desk. Or if you always write on the laptop, get yourself a little notebook, write in longhand and type up later.
  2. With whatever writing tool/s you prefer, get yourself comfortable. Put on the radio and just write down a few lyrics, or make notes of the DJ’s inane drivel. Or put the TV on and extract what you can from whatever you find. I also go through songs inside my head and write alternative lyrics. Often by the end of all this copying and daft wordplay, I’m ready for the more serious stuff.
  3. Take a break, even if you don’t think you need one. It’s a very obvious suggestion, but it does work. Twenty minutes is long enough to get yourself a drink, and to wander round your home giving your eyes and your body a change of scene.
  4. Eat something. Preferably something juicy – like an orange. There’s a good chance that as soon as you get those fingers mucky, your brain will suddenly rebel and switch itself back on again. Pesky things, these brains of ours.
  5. In preparation for potential bouts of block, keep notepads and pencils in every room and jot down abstract thoughts that jump into your head. That way, when you’re struggling for ideas in the future, you can just gather up your notepads and see what you can find. The chances are that if an idea connected with you in the past, it may also mean something in the future.
  6. I’ve had great results from opening a reference book at random and taking some words from that page. Perhaps pretend your character is speaking those words. Not so long ago I used this technique and had my character saying ‘Fear and Loathing in Birmingham? More like Lustful Loathing in Liverpool’. In the end, I didn’t use it in the piece, but it made me smile and was enough to get me going again.
  7. Do some physical exercise. Preferably something that gets the body and soul tingling, and out of breath.
  8. Spend some time with animals or children. I don’t know the proper term for this, but it certainly isn’t a form of ‘dumbing down’. To me it just encourages more of a non-intellectual response to life. It can help simplify what’s going on in your head and in your writing. Perhaps you could put yourself into the same position as the creature? How might two cats converse? What goes on in the mind of a toddler?
  9. Just write – even if it is complete rubbish. You will probably produce unreadable trash for the first few paragraphs or so because your mind isn’t yet in the right place. But it isn’t impossible that some of it may be useable, or even be pure gold. But the important thing is to write without demanding anything of yourself. No perfectionism and no preparation.
  10. Ask a fellow writer to read your work. Supportive writers are the best writers. This isn’t a competition. There’s room for us all, and the more we give, the more we get back. I’m not ashamed to say that some of my best ideas began their lives in the comments of my writing buddies.

I would love to hear your views. We’re all different and we all discover our own solutions to our own specific problems.

So, please comment. Who knows? Your comment may be exactly what a struggling writer-to-be is needing to hear.  And on day, you may be that struggling writer.

More on Wednesday. Please follow, and don’t miss any more writing-related revelry in the future!

“Every puffling is precious.”

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Review of ‘Moving Times’ by Phoenix Writers

‘Moving Times’ is a book put together to celebrate the decade-long existence of the Phoenix Writers group, from Horwich Lancashire, and the contributors should be highly proud of what they’ve achieved.  

The first thing you notice is that it is a very attractive book with a simple but well-designed and effective cover. This really does the contents justice, which is something not achieved by all small press and writing group books.

As a member of three/four writing groups, I really do identify with the sentiments expressed in the book’s foreword – ‘What moves you, gets you out of bed in the morning, drives you to action? For us on a Thursday, it’s Phoenix Writers. We meet as friends, share ideas and get support and inspiration’. Yes, that’s what a strong and healthy writing group does for the usually lone creative. Such a group provides a stable and caring home for people who, by the nature of their pastime, can feel rootless and isolated. Phoenix is clearly a great base for many thoughtful and interesting writers.

This book contains just over 100 pages of stories, poetry and thoughts, and style/content-wise, there really is something for everyone. When reading a book of this type, I always begin with the poetry.

Ann Lawson’s ‘Iambic Tetrameter Rules, Okay?’ is a clever and amusing poem about the frustrations of forcing your creativity into a restrictive art form, and am sure the sentiments expressed will resonate with most poets.  With a completely different feel, ‘S is for Sharing’ is a short and life-affirming verse by Tony Nolan about all the positives in the world. This joy in living can be in short supply at times, so it’s pleasant to read regular reminders. In a similar vein, Joy Pope’s poem titled ‘Horwich Times’ made me proud to have connections with the town, and even more keen to produce my own book about Horwich – ‘a town of bustling resilience’. Kathleen Proctor’s poem, ‘Alexander, My Grandson’ is the most beautiful recollection of love for a grandchild who is ‘snuggling, nuzzling’ and ‘Chubby, chunky, comfortable’. Jeanne Waddington’s poem ‘The Contrariness of Young Love’ is about insurmountable contrasts between a young couple. It’s a regular enough subject, but the style lends it originality – ‘She’s a summer’s evening, he’s a cloudy day.’

The stories are also lovely to read and insightful. Bernie Jordan’s story ‘Time Moves’ begins this collection with a vivid recollection of a moment in the life of a crane and a railway bridge at Lostock station. 

‘Turning Left,’ Janet Lewison’s unpretentiously written tale, immediately drew me in with its endearing dialogue about a woman who ends up in a hired home that comes with its own snazzy car. She is changing her life, and the Cobra she now drives provides its own form of liberation.

‘Newfoundland’ by Elaine Hamilton is a short but lovely tale of boats, and it really conjured up a misty and weird atmosphere.

‘Going to Waste’ (by Dotty Snelson) is one of the longer pieces in the book, about recycling, hoarding, skip-diving and the make-do-and-mend ideology of a man, Gordon, his wife Sheila, and their personal tragedy. I really enjoyed this touching story.  

Barbara Oldham’s story ‘Stolen Bikes’ was about that very subject – or was it? Reading it, you really get a feel for the woman behind this very witty monologue.

Terence Park’s story ‘Wild Mouse’ tells the story of Mags and Rebecca on a day out at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. They take in all the pleasures and try to defer their ride on the ‘Wild Mouse’. The characters leapt from the page, especially their dialogue.

‘What the Spider Said’ by Phil Chrimes is an insightful tale of a conversation between Boris, a spider, and Humphrey. Their conversation is simple and so endearing. Pam Hunter provides another spider-related piece of writing as she relates the tale of ‘Little Miss Muffet’ and gives the reader the story behind it. There’s a lot to learn from how fairy tales and nursery rhymes come about.

Alan Gibbs’ piece ‘It Started Well and Just Got Better’ is about a campervan trip to Mull to view white-tailed eagles. This gorgeous personal recollection was good to read and really encourages the reader to visit this area of the world.

Lastly. Margaret Halliday’s piece, ‘My Home is in India’ did bring a tear to my eye. Margaret passed away in March 2019, and also attending ‘Write You Are’ – another Horwich-based writing group of which I am a member. I knew Margaret’s writings well, and this appreciation of her life in India was Margaret to the core, and a lovely, though unintentional tribute to her.

Thanks, Phoenix, for this book. Greatly enjoyed!

Interview with Lesley Atherton about her book, ‘Past Present Tense’

Interview with Lesley Atherton re: ‘Past Present Tense’

A: This book is about hoarding and nastiness as well as being about family and relationships. It’s an obvious question, but why on earth would anyone want to write (or read) about hoarding?!

L: Well, it’s down to my own personality really. I’m a natural acquirer of unnecessary items but have always managed to stop short of becoming a hoarder. I’m more of a clutterer. Give me a wall and I will put things on it.
Give me a shelf and I’ll fill it. I wish I wasn’t like this, but I am.
Waste Not, Want Not. Make Do and Mend.
So this led me to begin watching programmes about hoarding and getting some deep compassion and understanding of the sufferers as well as those who must live with a mess not of their making.

The main character of ‘Past Present Tense’ is Tanya, who discovers that the dad she thought was dead is actually alive, and is buried under his own clutter in his own hoarded house. I was able to put myself in her position. I was able to also put myself in his position. I hope that’s come over in the writing. There is so much misunderstanding of the reasons behind hoarding. I know that one of the fallacies is that the people just need to get up off their bums and start to clean.

But for the majority of hoarders, it isn’t laziness that causes the collections and clutter, it is more a feeling of connection to the items, and to the memories and feelings those items hold. There are elements of anthropomorphism too. Hoarders don’t just feel responsible for the items they own, but also feel compassionate towards them and often their relationships with the objects are more meaningful than many of the relationships they have with other humans.

Like I say, I’m not a hoarder, but I do understand where the hoarding motivation comes from. I currently own 76 musical instruments. I play only 3 of them regularly, and play none of them daily. Why do I not sell them? Because I like them and enjoy the ownership of them. I like them to be there when I’m ready for them. And there are so many other reasons too: creativity, appreciation of beauty, appreciation of usefulness, and the desire to be able to entertain myself!

I know I’ll never be a minimalist. Blank spaces irritate me. But I really do need to have far less stuff. I hoped that writing about hoarding in this way might interest those people who live with hoarding, either their own or that of others.

A: Is the writing based on the work of anyone else in particular?

L: No. Just me, though one of my reviewers felt that the inner dialogues of the early chapters were reminiscent of Sartre’s ‘Nausea’. It’s odd really, but in recent years my reading has definitely taken back place to my writing. On the plus side, it means I’m not overly influenced by new books I’m reading, but on the negative side, I’m also behind the times. But that works for me. I don’t mind being retro. I can’t imagine being anything else.

A: That’s your personality?

L: It is. I don’t really do trends. I am who I am.

A: I understand you’re working on another book at the moment.

L: Yes, I’m finishing the manuscript for my novel, ‘The Waggon’. It requires completion before September 2019 as I will be submitting it as the final assessment for my Masters Degree in Creative Writing. It’s currently at the 65,000 word stage, but there’s quite a way still to go. After that, I’m going to be starting on a book about teenage Aspergers, and will continue with my publication of other peoples’ work through Scott Martin Productions. I have a few ideas for novelettes and many ideas for short stories, and will also be working on my blog.

A: You’re unstoppable. Do you still have time to attend writing groups?

L: I do. Currently I go to two weekly groups, and two monthly groups. I also attend two monthly reading groups. Why do you ask?

A: I was just wondering if you still find them of use, now you’re published and have more writing experience. Isn’t it something you grow out of as time goes on and you know what you’re doing?

L: In my case, no. My Tuesday group, in particular, is like family. I don’t know what I’d do without them
socially, and they give me great confidence creatively too. My advice to anyone who wants to write, is to
engage with other interested souls online and in person. Once you get over the first feelings of fear at
sharing your work, it really is liberating!

A: I can see that. Thanks so much for answering my questions!

L: Thanks. It’s been fun 🙂