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14 reasons why writers need to read

It’s depressing as both an editor and a writer when I hear writers (or more usually aspiring writers) saying they don’t read. Getting books out into the world is difficult. It’s a huge amount of work for both publishers and writers and the only way it’s possible is if there are people out there who read. If you are a writer who doesn’t read the work of others, what would make you imagine that others would want to read your book?

Writers have to read:

1. Because reading is your world

Imagine a chef who hates to eat, an artist who’s never been to a gallery. It’s not credible — neither is a writer who doesn’t read.

2. Influence is good

Sometimes writers tell me they don’t read because they don’t want to influence their work. This is the height of arrogance and flawed thinking. No one creates ex nihilo. No one is that original. Of course you shouldn’t be copying others or never finding your own voice, but what has gone before you is a treasure trove. Tradition and inspiration are all around you in books. You can learn structure, technique and so much more by reading. We become innovative by building on the past, not by writing it off.

3. For the love of language

Great writers are those who have found wonderful ways to use language Their language might be supple or taut and honed. It might be rich or lyrical. It might be rhythmic or urgent. You will discover an infinite kaleidoscope of vocabulary and style in the pages of books written by others.

4. To encourage imagination

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Stop following your dreams and do this instead

When I was home educating four children, other parents were often aghast at how ‘brave’ this was. They would tell me that if their children weren’t in school and ‘made to study’, they would learn nothing. To me, the idea of children who were not full of questions and hungry to learn every second of the day seemed extraordinary.

Our different views of children and how learning works came from different experiences. What I observed was that by respecting children’s autonomy, their intrinsic motivation stayed in tact. In a supportive environment, children could choose their learning. Knowledge and skills flowed when the learner was in control. Their confidence and competence levels rose as a result.

This is why I became fascinated by intrinsic motivation when writing books like Winning Parent, Winning Child.

More recently I’ve been thinking about what it takes to create a life of value through work. And once again I’ve returned to thinking about intrinsic motivation. I’ve been reading Cal Newton’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which led me to researching Self Determination Theory:

Conditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.

When we having autonomy over aspects of our lives; when we are skillful and connected, then the motivation doesn’t have to applied from outside. This is as true of our work as it is of children learning.

And whether it’s the life of a scientist or a writer, work that motivates us and in which we find value and meaning is a great goal. We all desire this kind of work. We want creativity, control and the possibility of making a difference through what we do. Such work is something to feel passionate about.

So what’s wrong with finding our passion and following those dreams?

I hope you’ll read on … here

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5 reasons why shaking up your environment will make your writing excel

As I write I’m sitting in a cottage in North Wales looking out on a sunlit winter hillside. The trees are bare, bracken a deep swathe of rust across the vivid green. The silence is deep and the distractions few.

I’ve been working with a group of writers who I or one of our Cinnamon Press authors has mentored over the last year. This is the only slot in the three day intensive timetable that I have some down time. There rest is writing workshops, one-to-one sessions, cooking for the group, evenings reading back work with them.

But the energy here has been extraordinary and I’ve been jotting down ideas for new blog posts or journalling in every gap or early in the morning.

I’ve got another of these writing residentials at the end of next week and I expect it to be as intense and exhausting. I also expect it to be as creative, energising and idea-filled.

Bringing together a group of people who’ve invested in their writing and who are passionate and committed to their craft is part of the magic. The buzz of ideas is thrilling.

And we’ve enhanced this by getting people away from their normal environments. When we shift environments so many creative things happen. …

 

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I’m currently putting some effort into building up a presence on the blogging platform, Medium. I’m hoping to use this later down the line to deliver writing courses and  mentoring and building my way towards this.

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4 reasons why writers need to take their freedom seriously

1. Writers hold out a vision of transformation

The writing life demands a degree of reflection.

Writers are people who walk around with their senses open, determined to stay awake in a world where so many people seem to be half asleep.

Writers are those with imagination and insight.

They are people who reflect an extraordinary world within that can transform the world without.

Writers are not those who go with the flow.

People may claim to often that a book is ‘life-changing’ but nonetheless every time we read, there is the possibility of a new perspective and growth.

And if the written word is so transformative then the chances are that writers have power and responsibility.

2. Writers are witnesses

When Geoff Dyer asked John Berger what he saw as the ‘job of his life’, replied:

Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories — storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job of your life is because you are so aware of what you are lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.

For Berger, this sense of being a witness involved total immersion and openness to other people and other places.

The notion of the writer as witness is a lot to live up to, yet it is compelling. In The Artist’s Way Julia Cameron challenges writers to become witnesses. There are countless novels that are a testimony not only inward states, human emotion and condition, but also to events.

Books like Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man witness to the legacy of the Holocaust, so that it becomes part of common consciousness.

The film Hiroshima mon amor, from the book by Marguerite Dumas, witnesses to the existential crisis of lovers who need to cling to one another after horror.

The South African poet, Mongane Wally Serote witnesses to the events of apartheid:

I want to look at what happened,

That done,

As silent as the roots of plants pierce the soil

I look at what happened…

When knives creep in and out of people

As day and night into time.

And the list could go on.

Extraordinary writing witnesses not only to historical or political events, but also to emotional states and human relationships.

3. Writers reconstitute the world

As people who bear witness to the human condition; witness to stories that would otherwise go unheard and to the possibilities that lie ahead, writers deal with how much we can achieve.

As Adrienne Rich puts it:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.

This requires belief in freedom. By opening up new horizons through writing, writers take on enormous responsibility. Our writing shifts the perspective of readers and widens their choices as a result. Thought is a powerful thing.

4. Writers shape reality

What do we believe about reality? How do we conceive the nature of our existence and freedom?

None of us can transcend the facts of existence: we exist in a universe of physical laws and principles. Environment, language and culture shape us in complex ways. And to some extent we never become aware of all these influences or shake free of them.

But we are not reducible to those influences. Neither are we the roles we adopt; none of us is only a writer, a mother, a daughter, a musician. Only objects or deities (if they figure in your world view) are wholly one thing. God is God. A table is a table.

Human beings are complex and changeable. We are conscious, or should be if we are brave enough to stay awake in the world.

Humans can transcend certain ‘givens’ –

  • the class we’re born into
  • the racial stereotypes projected onto us
  • the social expectations around us are not who we are.

As Sartre claims, we have the ability to negate these expectations and to become anything.

And it’s not only philosophers who think like this. Increasingly, research suggests not only that we have plastic brains that can adapt and change, but also that our biology is more fluid than we conceived previously. (Studies in epigenetics are rapidly expanding our understanding of this, for example. Nessa Carey’s The Epigenetics Revolution)

This amount of freedom is terrifying and wonderful. It means that authentic living requires that we take our autonomy seriously.

It means that I am never identical with my current ‘self’, yet always responsible for sustaining, challenging and growing it.

It means I can’t hide behind phrases like ‘ this is the way I am’ or ‘it’s in my genes/my past experiences…’

If I choose to remain a certain way, it is a choice, and there is no lying to myself about that. Quoting Sartre:

You can always make something out of what you’ve been made into.

The inner world is a powerful place that changes how we experience the outer world.

Stories, poems and articles make their way into our subconscious and transform how we interact with the world and impact on it.

By being writers who take this seriously we open up a world of new thinking and new ways of being, for ourselves and for those who engage with our writing.

Writing is an awesome thing to do and we do it best when we become people who take our freedom and imagination seriously.

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Why disruption makes us more creative

panorama-2580527__340For twelve years I’ve been running an independent literary press. I love it. What began as a one-book project became a prize-winning indie with a great poetry and fiction list. After a funding crisis in 2012, well-wishers flocked to make sure we survived. Since then, the press has developed a list of 30 titles a year, a book club, competitions, residential writing courses and a mentoring scheme. In 2015, we packed our tenth anniversary with celebrations, looking forward to the next decade.

Success or burnout?

Yet two years later, we were feeling the strain. Why?

We have volunteer help from authors, including our wonderful office manager. We continued to love the books, the events, the places we visit for launches and the people we meet. But despite this, we were always running to stand still. Fatigue was beginning to set in and then …

The shock of changing gear

We got the opportunity to take time off. While founding and running Cinnamon Press, I’ve continued to write. But, although I’ve published novels and poetry collections, the writing was squeezed into the margins of a packed schedule. When I started work on a trilogy, I knew it would demand much deeper concentration and focus. I was fortunate to get an Arts Council grant to travel to Hungary to research and write. The time in Budapest was extraordinary. Draft after draft of the novel flowed and I learnt a huge amount from writing in the place where the novel is set. I was able to talk to authors, editors and museum curators , who kindly gave me their time. And the writing benefited from being able to walk the streets, taking in the place for an extended period.

Peak experiences change you

I came back changed. Peak experiences do this. Experiences that interrupt our well-worn cycles, that give us chance to wonder and thankful, result in shifts in how we see the world. It also made me question how I want to use my time. I came back knowing that I could no longer marginalise my own creativity and expect to be an enthusiastic editor and writing mentor. And I came back eager I to reclaim the vision of Cinnamon Press as innovative, outward-looking and independent. My ideal has always been to focus on excellent literature and I wanted to take stock of that.

In the first twelve years, two things had conspired to create an overwhelming ‘to do’ list. My determination to keep Cinnamon Press going in difficult times had led to taking on more and more work. And my tendency to find it difficult to say ‘no’ exacerbated this. I was spreading myself thinly while allowing expectations to escalate.

It was time to stand back and review. This process is ongoing — we began by looking at everything we do as a press as well as personal and use of time. It was clear from the outset that we needed to examine the publications list. When you say ‘yes’ too often, you end up taking on projects that don’t quite align with your original values. We’ve now put in a plan to lower the number of publications by 2020. A list of fifteen titles a year will still be a significant number for a two-person (plus volunteers) indie press, but it will be more sustainable. We’ll review it again once we’ve achieved this, especially in the light of our own writing goals.

Next we worked to create a series of resource sheets for authors. The aim was to produce clear guidelines, make the way we work more transparent, and to give authors tools to promote their work. It’s early days, but it’s a big step towards not having to reinvent the wheel to answer recurring questions.

The next step was to look at the balance of tasks. I made a list of every job imaginable, grouped them into sections and drew up a weekly cycle of time blocks. Relegating emails and reactive tasks to one period each weekday was liberating. an meant we could prioritise tasks like editing or mentoring. It was a shock to realise that I’d been spending over 40% of my time on reactive administrative tasks. The goal is to get this down to 10% of my time, releasing energy for creative work.

What I’m learning is that it’s possible to ask for help and that routine tasks don’t have to become distractions that expand into all available time.

Reconnecting with the vision

Making these changes has also meant taking time to re-visit the original vision and values for the Cinnamon Press. It’s important that the list focuses on diverse, distinctive voices and remains independent and outward looking. Above all, we want to present a different story, one that isn’t found in mainstream publishing. Reconnecting with this vision has given new vitality to my own writing: becoming a different story is at the heart of my creative process.

Taking a few weeks out this summer proved to be disruptive to my work and my priorities and that’s a great thing. Now I’m looking forward to more creative disruption.

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Don’t find your purpose, create it

The notion that we are here for some pre-ordained purpose is a pervasive one. We’re sold the idea that all we have to do is discover this one thing hidden deep in our souls to know why we exist. But the secret of ‘what we are on earth for’ is often elusive or turns out to be so general it becomes meaningless. Too often ‘finding your purpose’ seems to go hand in hand with generic slogans. And slogans don’t translate into motivation or enable us to live intentional lives. How do actually go about living ‘to bring peace to the world’ or ‘to radiate light’? And if we were born to fulfil some god-given, determined goal, how come it’s not obvious and clear? Why do we need to search for something that we are born for?

I remain unconvinced that I or anyone else has been ‘put here’ to fulfil some need in the universe. So is life meaningless? Does it not matter one jot how we live and whether we are purposeful? Quite the contrary. This life is everything we have, it matters completely. But that doesn’t mean we are puppets put here for some hidden purpose. As Hazel Markus and Elisa Wurf point out, we are ‘active, forceful, and capable of change’. (The Dynamic Self Concept: A Social Psychological Perspective). Each of us makes meaning by the stories we tells about ourselves and the world.

As Joan Didion put it, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ But sometimes these stories can limit us. At their worst, we retell stories that make us more fearful. We weren’t clever/ quick/ pretty/ determined/rich enough last time, so we won’t be in the future. I grew up in a household were the saying ‘It’s not for the likes of us’ was more frequent than meals. (‘It’ being anything good in life, from holidays to hope). Even when I moved to university, I carried these limiting stories with me. And later I had someone in my life whose mantra was: ‘It can’t be done’.

And yet we know that neither people nor stories are set in stone. Stories communicate values, share mores and understanding, but they are still only stories. We can create other stories. In the same way, we can imagine ourselves different, make daily changes until we are different. We don’t have to believe we have a mission planted deep in our souls for us to discover meaning. We can create purpose. So how do we go about it?

How to create purpose

This isn’t an elite activity. Everyone can do it, but writers are particularly well placed, especially through journalling.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau says:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…

I don’t live in woods, but at the foot of a mountain. It’s rural, but not as remote as it seems. It’s only a click away from a world-wide-web and a short drive to larger places. But, in this sanctuary, journalling creates a space where I can make sense of life. It’s the place where I can be both realistic and optimistic or work towards crafting a story. It’s the space where I can experiment, work out my values, discover my goals and create a vision for the future.

A useful exercise to help with this comes from David Hieatt in Do Purpose. He tells us to draw three intersecting circles. They represent

what you love doing
your skills
how you perceive the times you live in (the zeitgeist).

Where the circles overlap, says Hieatt, is where you find yourself most alive.
Purpose with passion

What do I love? New places. I love to immerse myself in somewhere unknown. And I love words. I write novels and poetry, I journal at least daily and I read voraciously. I sometimes believe I don’t know what I’m thinking until I’ve written it down. When I’m writing, I’m in another space, lost in the trance of it.

What are my skills? I’m a creative person who sees both the minutiae and structure in writing so I work well as an editor. I’m an enabler, a teacher and a performer. I’m organised, can hold a lot of disparate information in my head and I’m good at solving logistical problems. So running a small press and being a writer, editor and mentor work for me.

The type of press we run and the novels and poetry I write come out of passion and skills, but also from the zeitgeist. Context always has its effects. How do I perceive the world? We live in a time when there is crushing pressure to conform. Too often the lowest common denominator grabs the most attention. There is too much mindless consumerism and way too much distraction. We sleep-walk into political and environmental disasters and there is fear of difference. We don’t deal well with ‘the other’. And yet there is also extraordinary generosity, resilience and honesty in the world. There is so much that gives hope, a great deal to celebrate and witness to. There are oases of imagination and courage.

So, the books we want to publish at Cinnamon Press are those with passion and purpose. As Adam Craig says when writing about our Liquorice Fish Books imprint:

We live in a time when we’re led to believe our options are limited. …

Our world is shrinking because we are being told there is less here than meets the eye or heart.

Our aim is to encourage and foster new writing that is vibrant, playful, transgressive, radical and beautiful, wherever it might be found.

And the books I aspire to write are those that move and challenge readers. By this, I’m not talking about books that preach and browbeat. Rather, writing that is humane and extraordinary, that is never mediocre or bland. I’m currently reading Anne Michael’s poetry collection, All We Saw, and it’s a perfect example. The writing is exquisite. It’s personal and poignant with stunning flashes of subtle insight. It makes a difference to have read it. I want to publish and write books that, like Michaels’ work, believe in life. As Adrienne Rich puts it:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world.

The story you want to live

I’m currently writing the second book of a trilogy. A Remedy for All Things is set in Hungary in the late 50s where political injustice is extreme. Yet much less extreme situations can also trammel individual and community life. The first novel, This is the End of the Story, is set in 70s Teesside. It was a time when industry was failing and hope eroded. The stories have distant echoes of one another. Not only do they share a central character, but also share a veiwpoint based on a quote from Don Quixote:

The unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction.universe-2742113__340

In short, my characters are asserting that ‘reality’ isn’t always reasonable. And when this is the case, we can remake reality. But the novels are not didactic. They are the stories of people exploring how to create meaning in spite of circumstances. When time fractures and identity is uncertain, the characters persist in imagining. In writing these novels I want to write a different story, not to churn out what might be safer or more comfortable. In my fiction writing I’m exploring how we can create purpose. By telling a story in new ways we can make meaning.

In life I use journalling to the same end. Doing Hieatt’s exercise with three circles was one way to reflect on the purpose I want to create. I’m alive when I’m buzzing with words, fizzing with a story that I have to get written. I’m alive when I confront pessimism or conformity. I’m alive when I’m working with the words of other writers I admire or helping emerging writers. And I’m most alive when I can combine these passions with being in new places. Unfamiliar places challenge me not to get too comfortable. I wasn’t put on earth to be a semi-nomadic writer, editor and mentor, but this is the story I’ve created now. It’s the story that I currently want to live with purpose.

What would you put in your three circles? What do you love? What are your skills? How do you see the world? Get out your journal. Take some time to think about the questions and fill your circles. Look at where they overlap and set about creating your purpose.

First published on Medium

 

 

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The Benefits of Looking the Other Way

While I’m in the in-between state of ‘writer-hiatus’ (with thanks to Alex Josephy for the term) I’m letting my mind mull on the next book in the trilogy. I wrote recently about how new material often comes from dreams or from the trance-like state that walking can induce, but yesterday it came from looking the other way – simply not trying to think about the characters, how they would fit together, what parts of their stories need to be captured or how the overall narrative should be structured.

22140837_1950033865259925_7268270551098052420_nInstead, I was preparing for a Cinnamon Press reading at our local bookshop, the wonderful Hen Bost. Afterwards there was to be a ‘tapas and drinks’ get together for 12 people round our kitchen table so the whole day was spent cooking, accompanied by Lana del Rey and Leonard Cohen.

Somewhere in the midst of making Spanish tortilla, chilli prawns, garlic mushrooms, humus, crab cakes, ratatouille and bean stew, tomato and feta salad and spiced roast nuts, the structure of the next book, For Hope is Always Born, crept up on me and quietly revealed itself. It’s still fragile, but it reminded me that we must stop and do something completely different sometimes in order to let creativity breath.

One of the writing prompt tools I often use for journalling (and which I also used to inspire the poems in the pamphlet Turn/Return) is Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies card. They were developed as quirky ways out of an impasse, particularly creative impasses or team projects. On my way to catch a train today I picked out a card that said, ‘Do we need holes?’ Yes! We need holes in our schedule, spaces to look the other way, to walk or dream or cook for a whole day. We need space to change environment for ten minutes or half an hour or a day or more in order to make ourselves look the other way and find that, when we turn our gaze back again, the perspective has already changed.

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