A Pilgrim's Guide

The Craft of Creative Writing

 Part Seven

The Craft of Creative Writing

Time and circumstantial pressures are by no means the only obstacles that we face. It is time to face the fact now that many of our greatest hindrances do not relate to any technical deficiencies at all. It is in this final part that we will explore a whole raft of psycho-emotional hurdles. More perhaps than anything else, it is overcoming these foes that will equip us to pursue the Art of Creative Writing.

Many of these sections are concerned with unblocking various aspects of what may generically be termed ‘Writer’s Block’. I am adopting a twin-themed approach: cultivating the still small voice of inspiration on the one hand, and facing down particular bugbears on the other. Like John Bunyan’s pilgrim Christian, most of us will have repeated brushes with Giant Despair and other dread adversaries. How we fare in facing these emotional blockages will d, to a large extent, determine how successful we are in fulfilling our potential.

It is not only writers who experience extended periods during which they are assailed by the thought that theirs is the most excruciating profession on earth (and that they are its most useless practitioners). This sense of revulsion afflicts a high percentage of gifted people. This is a salutary reminder that extreme creativity is hard to handle. Many highly talented musicians find themselves beset by strong and seemingly inexplicable urges never to pick up their instrument again. By contrast, other pastimes suddenly appear overwhelmingly desirable.

Such feelings assail our heart with mind-numbing plausibility during these ‘blocked’ periods. If I had devoted the whole of this publication to exploring nothing more than the gamut of fears and emotions the writer must overcome, it would scarcely have made the work unbalanced. Fear stunts our willingness to risk and experiment – but overcoming these energy-depleting emotions increases our output and broadens our effectiveness as writers.

Do you remember how Elijah, concerned for the extreme drought that was ravaging the nation, took heart when he gazed out across the sea and declared, ‘I see a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand’. (1 Kings 18.44) The longed-for rains were on their way and the land would soon be restored

Several of the topics in this section overlap and run into each other. I make no apology for that: it is an intentional strategy. Many of the problems that we face are too deep to be solved at one fell swoop, and it is right that we should chip away at them piece by piece, and insist repeatedly on adopting certain courses of action. Moreover, readers will quite possibly want to approach these intense issues in manageable quantities, working them through section by section rather than attempting to read them all at one go.

More than ever, these are the times to remember the four-step solutions:

1) Cultivate the Still Small Voice
2) Maintain Friends and Activities away from the Word-Bank
3) Hold up Banners of Truth
4) Resolve to Pursue your Vocation

The Still Small Voice

‘After the fire, a sound of gentle stillness and a still small voice’. (1 Kings 19:12)

At an exceedingly vulnerable point in his life, the prophet Elijah found himself in an exposed cave high on a mountainside, surrounded by the tumult of raw elements raging wild. For hours the howling wind had been battering his senses to the point where he could hardly think straight anymore. There was worse to come. Jagged lightning set fire to the trees and triggered a great blaze: not the gentle domestic kind that belongs in the hearth, but a dreadful forest fire. The most agnostic of us discover a renewed interest in prayer when we see such terrors sweeping down towards us. As if all that wasn’t enough, the ground suddenly began to tremble. What can be more frightening than when the earth, the symbol of our stability, begins to quake?

Elijah had but lately survived the most intense experience of his life, a contest to the death with the bloodthirsty prophets of Baal. Victorious in the conflict, his nerve that had held so well in the hour of trial collapsed in the aftermath. When the vengeful queen sent Elijah a message to tell him that his days were numbered, she achieved what the prophets of Baal had been unable to do. Elijah ‘lost the plot’ and ran for his life.

For days he fled, until he found himself in the most remote part of the southern desert. From being the centre of the nation’s attention he was suddenly again a nobody, an inconsequential nomad. Desperate to know if there was still a role for him to play in the nation’s life, he strained to discern any sign or message in these manifestations of Nature’s might. But when the storm had passed, the fire had died down and the earth had finally stopped shaking, Elijah had learned nothing that he did not know before. It was all too reminiscent of the storms and shakings he had been through in his own life.

Something profound had happened, however: his own strength had been reduced to the point where he was ready to listen when the still small voice did come. This was the moment he had been waiting for, when peace again touched his soul. At the same time, he was given a fresh set of instructions. He was to return to the fray he had so abruptly departed and appoint a successor for his ministry. His name was Elisha, and he was destined to fulfil a yet more astonishing ministry than he himself had done. The real fruit of Elijah’s life lay not only in what he had accomplished, but in the legacy he bequeathed to the nation.

I have written at greater length about this in ‘Ravens and the Prophet,’ an extended meditation on the life of Elijah. The relevance for us as writers is that we too need to learn to heed this ‘sound of silence’ as one translation puts it, deep within our heart.

When the still small voice speaks, we find fresh and original ways to impart insights and information. If Elizabeth Browning had merely told her readers that they ought to spend more time in prayer, the chances are that her less spiritually receptive readers would have switched off immediately. But what honest soul can fail to re-evaluate their life priorities when she writes,

          ‘Here’s God down on us! What are you about?        
          How all those workers start amid their work,  
          Look round, look up, and feel, a moment’s space,    
          That carpet-dusting, though a pretty trade,     
          Is not the imperative labour after all’.   
           (Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Browning p.34)

Can any of us pretend that attending to ‘carpet-dusting’ domestic chores has never been a more pressing concern than seeking creative or eternal insights?

The still small voice enables us not only to acquire invaluable moments of inspiration but also to rise above the surging tides of life’s conflicting moods and experiences. After all, many of us usually find the external pressures of deadlines and demands less difficult to handle than the fears and longings that so wrack our inmost being. We may choose to suppress and ignore these things, but to do so reveals a lack of emotional honesty which is likely to manifest itself in flat uninteresting prose. The more willing we face our turbulent emotions – our impatience, frustration, resentment, guilt and so on – the better we will be able to understand and write about them.

Cultivating the still small voice means involves developing the time to reflect on the topics we are writing about. Effectively, we have come full circle, back to our starting point of needing to go in search of that vital one percent of inspiration. Except that this time we are more aware of the turbulence we will encounter along the way. Our banner encourages us to go through all it takes to bring us to this place of enhanced creativity. ‘One genuine insight is worth pages of uninspired writing.

Affirming and Protecting our Calling

‘A good work talked about is a good work spoilt’. (Vincent de Paul)

Inspiration and morale are closely linked. The more we know what it is that we are called to be, and to do, the more likely we are to succeed as writers. It is so much easier – and safer – to say that we are a ‘this’ or a ‘that,’ who happens to do a spot of writing than to acknowledge just how important the Craft of Writing has now become to us. With the best will in the world, people want proof of the statement. They want to know which books we have published, and when our next one will be ready. They are not being rude, they are simply expressing their interest and curiosity by the most obvious route open to them. What they do not know is how easily jarred and jangled we can be by such questions!

Our pride wants to leap to our defence and to parade details of our latest project. But wisdom may lie in not attempting to provide much by way of an answer. In the episode I referred to earlier, when my friend asked me in the hospital cafeteria the other day what I was working on, I simply handed him the Contents Page of this book and left it at that. I knew from experience that any attempt to do more than that would reduce my motivation to get on with the hard work when I got back home.

Another reason for keeping at least some of our cards close to our chest is that we are often in no position to be able to give any satisfactory answers. How on earth do we know when the thing’s going to be finished, let alone whether anyone will ever want to publish it?

I liken the emotions these questions engender in us to the ignominy many pregnant women experience when they go overdue. As well-meaning friends ply them with gently chiding questions as to ‘why they are still at home,’ it can make them feel as though it is somehow their fault that the baby has not yet been born. But women only have to endure such comments for a few weeks at the most. For a writer, it can stretch into what feels like near-infinity, as the months go by and certain projects remain unfinished.

Perhaps we ought rather to praise ourselves that these publications are still under wraps and under construction. We should not be ashamed of that. It means we have the courage and the wisdom not to attempt to release them until they are ready.

Other problems we may encounter when we first set out our stall as a writer stem from the fact that our friends and acquaintances know us so well in our former capacity that they are finding it hard to conceive of us in a new role. To them we are still the same old son or daughter, friend, adviser, boss, skivvy or what-have-you. Unless we are very sure of our calling (which is most unlikely if we are only just starting out) we may find their liberally laced-with-doubt perceptions hooking into our own uncertainties and seriously undermining our confidence.

The banner phrase I suggest to help us cope with this testing ordeal is a rather truculent one: ‘This isn’t just a phase that I am going through!’ If our calling is a genuine one, it deserves recognition – from ourselves if from no one else at this stage. If Elijah had not known deep down that he had been chosen as a prophet of the Lord, he would never have endured those desperate days in the desert. As it was, the time came when he recovered both his stability and his sense of purpose. A time may come for us too when others will see us in our true light. We may have left them with no alternative!

Carping Critics

‘A man must serve his time to every trade
Save censure –
Critics all are ready made . .

With just enough of learning to misquote . . .
Seek roses in December –
Ice in June,
Hope constancy in wind,
Or corn in chaff . . .

Or any other thing that’s false
Before you trust in critics,
Who themselves are sore’. (Lord Byron)

Elijah’s adversary, Queen Jezebel, must surely rank as the most carping critics of all time. To all who dared oppose her tyranny she had but one solution: the oft-repeated cry of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland – ‘Off with his head’. Her track record proves that this was no idle boast. As we have seen, even Elijah, who had stayed ahead of the game for so long, finally buckled under the pressure and fled for his life. We should never underestimate the effects that abuse and criticism can have on us, not least in terms of causing our confidence to flounder.

Zeuxis was right. ‘Criticism comes easier than craftsmanship’. There are few callings that leave one more vulnerable than being a writer – but there are equally few that can lead to such rich self-awareness. When I drafted my first full-length book, I was eager to show my work to several people whom I assumed would serve as my mentors. It turned out to be a profoundly discouraging experience. Their approach was far more objective than mine; they favoured ‘all teaching and no anecdote,’ and more or less forced me to edit out all personal references from my writing. To me, the stories I had wanted to include provided welcome relief from the intensity of the teaching, whilst at the same time illustrating and grounding the material real people’s experience.

The dilemma was excruciating. I was insufficiently convinced of my literary abilities in those days, and nowhere near courageous enough to reject the advice my friends were pressing on me. Because I had sought their advice, I felt impelled to accept it.

Considering the painful outcome this caused, it is hardly surprising that writers think twice before sharing their work with others. The very act of expressing ourselves so intimately on paper makes us acutely vulnerable. What if people’s kind remarks are just a patronising attempt to pat us on the head and gee us up? And how will we cope if they make snide remarks or, worse, rubbish the whole project? (Most preachers would sympathise with this too. They know from painful experience what it is like to have over-conscientious people leaping to fulfil their self-appointed duty to correct the one thing they got wrong in their sermon).

People say that writers need to develop a strong hide to cope with the criticism that will inevitably come our way. There is truth in that statement. We do. Even more than that, however, we need to develop discernment. By all means we should listen to every piece of advice and criticism. There is bound to be a measure of truth in almost all of it – but is there a sufficient amount of it to justify making any serious change?

This where the still small voice comes into its own as it processes the comments and examines the criticisms. The most important thing is not to allow the extensive criticism to crush this voice and make us doubt our judgement.

As we saw in the section on ‘Sharing with Others’, it is important not to flare up in our self-defence, upset because somebody has dared to challenge our grandiose work. If we can humble ourselves sufficiently, and accept the challenge, this may actually prove an excellent test of whether our work is up to scratch, and whether we are prepared to stand up and fight for things we know need to be included in our text.

These are the times when we must set our faces like flint and shun all contact with negative voices that would snap the fragile thread of our creativity. Experience teaches us not to share our first outline ideas at too early a stage with highly critical people. Their inability to see beyond our preliminary sketches is likely to discourage us to the point where we lose heart and never complete the project at all.

Think of two people walking round a building plot. One picks his way delicately around, seeing only mud and half-completed foundations. The other dons his wellington boots and sees the beautiful house that will one day stand in that place.

Likewise, to quote Byron’s memorable words, we must beware critics who are sore: the flattering and the bitter, the show offs and the know-it-all’s. Although such people may have some viable observations to make, there is no reason why we should follow their advice implicitly.

This is the banner we must raise to keep us from running to carping critics for help: ‘Only share your work with people who will inject positive feedback and fresh perspectives’.

The Mind Field Maze

You think that you are Ann’s suitor; that you are the pursuer and she the pursued. Fool: it is you who are the pursued . . . Marry Ann, and at the end of a week you’ll find no more inspiration in her than in plate of muffins. (George Bernard Shaw)

When we have taken the all-important step of publicly declaring that we are a writer, and are resolutely setting time aside to pursue our calling, our battles are far from over. The confidence-sapping emotions we mentioned earlier still have plenty of life in them. The battle is joined, and it is primarily in the mind that it will be played out.

Just as insecurities lessen our creativity by causing us to wage unnecessary battles with ourselves, so distractions in one form or another are a constant plague. Although not all distractions take the form of quite such explicit temptations as the one indicated in the quote above, most writers experience strong inclinations to divert their emotional energies into pursuing secondary objectives that will lead them almost anywhere except to producing much finished work.

That same sensitivity which enables us to feel so passionately and to write so eloquently also renders us vulnerable to extremes of hope and discouragement. One day we are convinced that we are writing a masterpiece; the next that we are a hopelessly deluded basket case. Whatever gave us the mad idea that we could ever write a book?

From there, the inner process goes something like this: ‘This piece of writing is no good’ – a supposedly objective though entirely self-destructive comment. ‘Nobody would want to read it – an overt expectation of rejection. ‘Therefore I’m no use at all!’ – a final devastating curse upon ourselves.

If we settle the matter in our mind beforehand, we will suffer less and be deflected less often from our central purpose. We should pay no attention whatsoever to these faith-deadening messages our subconscious plagues us with. They are mournful fear-inducing refrains and should be given as wide a berth as we would give to an unexplored bomb.

When these almost overwhelmingly strong emotions assail us (grand delusions one day and pits of despair the next) be assured that both extremes are quite normal – but that both represent a faulty perspective. Being convinced we are an inspired genius will only give us a serious bout of ‘Writer’s Swollen Head’. As for the negaholic tendencies, the less said about them the better – they can be devastating! How right Kipling was when he taught us to treat both success and failure as impostors.

When we are in the creative writing stage, we may legitimately dally with a few delusions; they spur us on, and keep us on our toes. But we need to declare war on all tendencies towards negative expectations. Ruthlessly. Grasp this banner during seasons of discouragement and declare out loud, ‘I am not useless – I am simply under construction!’ This is such an important battle that we will make it the subject of the next section too.

Pause and Consider

To return to our starting quotation: is there an ‘Ann’ in your life that is distracting you from your call to write? Are you secretly flirting with other possibilities, enticed by the buzz that they give, and all but insensible to the fact that they are drawing you away from your true direction?

Faith and Humility to escape the Condemnation Trap

‘The most self-sufficient form of spanking ever devised by humankind’. (Rachel Simon)

When unspecified fears and a great sense of worthlessness come over us, we have two main defences to raise against these energy–depleting emotions. Firstly, as we have been insisting throughout, we must raise our declaratory banners to offset the flow of falsities that we are continually being depth-charged with.

Typically these thoughts weigh in just when we ought to be reaching for our pen, reminding us that we didn’t achieve much last time we tried doing it, so why not go and do something useful like mowing the lawn, or something kind like visiting a friend in need? These distracting thoughts come in a seemingly endless sequence of plausible variations. It is only the determined and the passionate who will have the strength and resolution to shrug them aside. It is not that these other things do not need attending to: it is just that they should not be done now. Writing is a serious priority and it requires the best of our time and energies.

Our second line of defence is equally as vigorous. At its simplest, it consists of assuming that vices are virtues that have taken a wrong direction, and that there must therefore be a way of ‘catching’ these strong emotions and turning them into something positive. Think of a jujitsu fighter who uses the force of his opponent’s charge to flip him over on his back and the idea begins to make sense.

For example, the more our feelings of fear or inferiority tell us that we will never be able to do this or that, the more we need to humble ourselves and respond in the opposite spirit – not ‘I can’t,’ but ‘I can’. This is not pride and neither is it a blind presumptive faith; it is a faith that is tempered by realism, and a humility that has nothing whatsoever to do with perpetual self-denigration.

Each difficulty that we face, and every setback that we experience thus becomes an opportunity in disguise: a challenge to negotiate rather than the death knell to our desire to write. Why allow past disappointments to make us give up? Provided that we have properly mourned hurts given and received, and sought to learn necessary lessons from them, then they too can play their part in maturing our character.

If we can accept in advance that we are bound to make mistakes, and that not everyone will find our contributions of much help or interest, then we can be free to find both peace and enjoyment in our calling. We will escape the pitfalls of perfectionism on the one hand, and the pusillanimity of the unadventurous on the other.

We are afraid of making mistakes? Then let’s step out and attempt the very thing we are afraid of. When we hear ourselves wondering, ‘Who on earth would want to read this load of codswallop?’ pause and remember how helpful people have found other things that we have written. After that, declare out loud: ‘Why should it be any different this time round?’

What happens if we fail to respond in faith and take some such affirmative action? The chances are that we will remain forever at the mercy of these destructive feelings. They are, after all, more than strong enough to cause us to retreat into ourselves and to lose all sense of purpose. From there it is but a short step before anger and paranoia set in and we end up lashing out blindly at anything and anyone who, as we perceive it, is daring to add to our burden of rejection.

Such reactions are the very opposite of faith and humility in action. Nobody wants to hear embittered people whingeing endlessly that nobody understands them – but there are plenty of people who will respond to someone who has pushed through the mind field and kept their faith and vision alive until they finally succeed in creating something of real value.

The best of us are a mass of internal contradictions, but it is the single-minded who ultimately prosper. They are the ones who are prepared to take whatever steps are needed to keep their hearts free from distractions, and who are quickest to make the most of the opportunities that come their way.

In the face of life’s many distractions, take courage! We do not need to allow them to squash our creativity. It is as we yield ourselves and embrace the particular yoke that our calling has placed on us that we can write or paint or play our musical instruments or sing or pray or do whatever it is that we are called to do, as it were to order. In such ways, we not only stay close to our calling, but keep ourselves one step removed from the tyranny of our moods.

That is why this particular banner is one of the most important put into practise because it is calling Condemnation’s Bluff. ‘Believe the opposite whenever your heart tells you it is all a waste of time’.

A Far from Passive Perseverance

‘Le genie n’est qu’une grande aptitude à la patience’. (Genius is nothing but a great aptitude for patience – De Buffon)
‘La patience est amère, mais le fruit en est doux’. (Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet – Rousseau)
‘Recall your courage and lay aside this gloomy fearfulness’’ (Virgil, The Aeneid)

There are seasons in the writer’s life: times when inspiration flows freely, and other occasions when we need to crank-start our reluctant motors. A break to go for a walk, or to take a day right away from the computer and to learn afresh to play – that is all it may take to release our blockage and to get us writing again.

If the desire to write is still there, then no matter what difficulties or distractions may be preventing us from exercising it, all that has happened is that, like certain types of streams, the waters of inspiration have briefly gone underground. We can be confident that the waters will return, and that we will once again experience the joy that comes from being in a writing flow.

This is where the second of our step principles is especially important. Spending time with friends and in recreational activities rescues us from too much mental preoccupation. We need these non writing projects to compensate against the colossal amount of thought power we expend every day. We will live longer and write better if we husband our mental and physical energies.

In the meantime there is a cardinal principle to reiterate. If we are serious about our calling, then sooner, rather than later, we must come to the point where we can function as writers no matter what is going on in our lives. This is where we make the altogether delightful discovery that we can still operate with some considerable degree of fluency, even during these times when inspiration appears to have all but deserted us.

Discipline and dedication (supported as they must always be by a strong desire) to a large extent supersede our need to ‘feel’ inspired. Without in any way being unsympathetic to those who are caught in the vice of Writer’s Block, we must insist on this banner: ‘We can write to order any time and any place, if we will but set ourselves to do so’. But if we turn right away and find fulfilment in other pursuits, then perhaps our call to write never meant that much to us.

When an almost frenzied impatience takes hold of us, and we berate ourselves for taking so long to produce a finished copy, this is the time to raise another banner: ‘Good Writing takes longer than we would like it to’. It will certainly take a great deal longer than other people think it should do!

Repeating and affirming this particular slogan will help to calm our restlessness as the days and months of hard toil pass by. It will comfort us, too, during those occasions when, for whatever reason, we cannot ‘get’ to our work at all.

Samuel Johnson would have approved of this banner. He once famously declared, ‘I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please have sunk into the grave!’

Remember Brahms? He was forty before he wrote his first symphony. As for Flaubert, he had already discarded two previous novels before he even began to write Madame Bovary. Obsessed with finding ‘le mot juste,’ it is no surprise that it took Flaubert five full years to complete a book which, perhaps above all others charts the rise and fall of impossible delusions. There is still hope for us!

Escaping the Clutches of Green-Eyes the Envious

‘Envy and wrath shorten life’. (The Book of Sirach 30:24)

Ever stood before a rack of publications racked by doubts whether your puny efforts will ever match up to the inspired penmanship of those who have made it into print? The feelings are entirely understandable, but they become crippling when envy rides in on the back of them.

Long ago, wise king Solomon showed how alert he was to the green-eyed monster when he declared, ‘Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming – but who can stand before envy?’ (Proverbs 27:4)

There is no more damaging emotion than envy. It resents the success of others, eats us up from the inside and eventually makes us twisted and bitter. Jealousy is bad enough; but envy is worse. What is the difference between the two? I am jealous when I want what you have. But I am envious when I resent anyone having that thing which I cannot have. If it is allowed to run unchecked in our hearts it spreads like untreated cancer.

In ‘The Artist’s Way,’ Julia Cameron likens bouts of jealousy to snake bites that need an immediate antidote. In ‘The Writer’s Survival Guide’ Rachel Simon is equally as insistent about our need to take action the moment we discern its onset .Rachel suggests an eminently sensible solution. For her, the best way to combat envy is to focus less on the source of our envy and get on with our own work. Closer contact with our own calling will spare us many pangs of jealous longing and pointless animosity towards those who appear to have ‘made it’.

It is worth reminding ourselves how important it is that we win this particular battle. Envy has strength enough to tighten our chest and eventually, to consume us from deep within.

Envy is like a deep-frozen grudge. It freezes our trust, dents our courage, stifles our creativity and impairs our ability to judge accurately and to act efficiently. Envy makes us mean-minded rather than generous-spirited. How did we reach this sorry state?

Perhaps, like a horse wearing blinkers, we allowed jealousy to focus our gaze too narrowly. Our mistake was to assume that our ultimate happiness depended on one person, incident or aspiration and when that failed to materialise according to our aspirations, we allowed a foothold to bitterness, and spite called to envy. Life has more to offer us – wider perspectives, fresh contacts and new experiences.

Rather than resenting someone else’s success (which is often a reflection of our hidden fear of being left on the shelf) the best way to overcome these feelings is to refuse to look on writing as a contest. There is room for everyone, and that includes us. So far from permitting the success or indifference of others to paralyse us into inactivity, we must use these feelings as a goad to pursue our own calling ever more diligently. Only then will we succeed in fulfilling our potential.

Pause and put into Practice

Do you really want to escape the jealousy trap? Then here are some practical steps to take. Julia Cameron recommends drawing three columns on a page. In the first column, write down the names of the people we feel jealous of.

In the second column, list the reasons why we are jealous of them. This will take a great deal of honesty because most of us are highly skilled at disguising these hidden jealousies from ourselves, let alone from other people.

In the third column, begin to sketch antidotes: specific actions we can take that will direct our heart away from the jealousy that is harming both us and them.

Try this exercise. Be imaginative, kind and creative – and gradually the green-eyed monster who used to trample the paths of our hearts with such storming regularity will find the ground being taken from under its feet. Our banner antidote is both a prophetic declaration and a call to action: ‘When love and charity are flowing in our hearts, Green-Eyes will find himself squeezed out’.

Dealing with Disappointments and Repelling Rejection

‘I am in that temper that if I were under water, I would scarcely kick to come to the top’. (John Keats)

‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’. (Proverbs 13.12)

‘He who has never hoped can never despair’. (George Bernard Shaw)

When Winston Churchill returned to Harrow School after the war to give a speech, he, the school’s most famous scion, astonished the audience by uttering but two sentences, – words of advice he had proved in the sternest arena possible: ‘Young men, never give up. Never never give up’.

This is a message we will often need to return to. Hope springs eternal, but the writer’s path is full of moments that cut to the quick. Our spirits can reach a perilously low ebb when a clutch of rejection notes land through our letter box. Not only do they sting in themselves, they, can so easily hook into our low self-esteem, especially if no explanation is provided for them. I remember how gutted I felt when one of my books was accepted by a major American publishing company, only to have them withdraw the offer at the last moment because “I was not well enough known on the American lecture circuit”. It took many months to overcome the disappointment of being outmanoeuvred by blatantly commercial rather than literary considerations.

When it comes to handling the inevitable matter of rejection slips the first and most important thing is to avoid taking the rejection personally. It is our work that does not fit somebody’s commercial needs, not our life and character that are being rejected.

There may, however, be hints in the way the rejection slip is couched that will inspire us to rewrite the rejected piece review some aspect of our style or technique. The most important thing is not to stop writing. Anything is better than wringing our hands and bemoaning how unfair it all is. The very act of putting pen to paper reassures us that we are back on track, no matter what may (or may not) be happening outwardly to our material. As we have been stressing all along, real writers cannot find true fulfilment unless they do write.

Writing is, after all, a labour of love which we undertake ultimately not only for ourselves but for the benefit of others. For that reason it will eventually bring us into contact with Love itself. When I am in a writing flow, treating a subject that is dear to my heart, I feel clean inside. Friends, associates and situations stand before me as I am working. I can love them, pray for them, and even remember their circumstances without in any way losing focus on the work in hand. I am where I really belong.

Keats was right when he looked beyond his immediate turmoil and declared, ‘There is a budding morrow in midnight’. For all the setbacks and the pain, there is also unparalleled joy. There is nowhere else I would rather be, and nothing I would rather be doing. This alone goes a long way to compensate for the hurts and rejections, and which spurs me on to go on making the immense personal sacrifice to closet myself away and continue my work at the word-face. This is the determination we need to help us overcome the temptation to self-pity and which will develop in us a broader sympathy and charity for others. That is why this particular banner is so dear to my heart: it is full of promise and adventure as well as doggedness. ‘We never know what can happen until we try again’.

Pause and put into Practice

Following some disappointment, try using the following starter phrases as a framework Doing this exercise can help us to regroup our hopes and emotions and write our way out of our emotional turmoil.

Why can’t I . . .
I remember when . . .

I dream of the day when I can . . .
I am grateful for . . .
I am confident that . . .

How did you get on? I wonder if you realised that you have just sketched the outline of a modern day Psalm! King David, who experienced such colossal highs and lows in his chequered life, began many of his psalms by pouring out his hurting heart before stirring his faith remembering what his God had done for him. This in turn brought him to a point where he could thank and praise his Lord for what He was going to do next to resolve the crisis that he faced. His memorable songs and poems have inspired millions through the ages to achieve a sense of perspective. Our present disappointment is not going to last for ever. It can even open up into gloriously creative and liberating appointments.

It is courage that helps us to move on beyond our discouragements and faith which helps us to believe that our disappointments will one day be turned into worthwhile appointments.

Unblocking Writer’s Block

He who wants to enjoy the glory of the sunrise must live through the night. (Anon)
Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. (Georges Simenon)

I love my calling – but I can sympathise entirely with Simenon’s sentiments! ‘Writer’s Block’ takes many different forms, but in essence it is much the same: a series of pressures (internal usually rather than external) that make us disinclined to pursue our calling.

There are some, perhaps, who have never experienced Writers’ Block, but I am not sure I would want to spend too much time in their company. Those who have never experienced a day’s illness in their life rarely make the most compassionate sick visitors. Neither do the unrealistically triumphant have much in common with the majority of us who are obliged to try many routes before we finally find the path we are meant to travel down.

My own struggle has never been to find something worthwhile to write about – the ‘blank page in the morning’ syndrome – but rather with finding a suitable angle from which to present material that constantly threatens to run to seed.

No matter what guise it may come in, Writers’ Block can lead to an almost overwhelming sense of alienation. A great pall of grey settles over us and we cry out, ‘What have I got to say that’s worth reading?’ The sheer amount of time we are obliged to spend on our own – such a blessing when inspiration is flowing – feels now like all-imprisoning loneliness. Solitude is precious, but when the well of inspiration – or the morale to drip the bucket into the well – has all but dried up, is it any wonder that authors actually end up welcoming excuses and distractions?

Much of the writer’s time is spent thinking. (‘Brooding’ may sometimes be a more accurate description). Writers need to dream. The mind – like a bicyclist – benefits from periods of free-wheeling. Wisdom lies in knowing how to avoid such reverie becoming dead-end introspection and to convert it into creative writing. Like wind turbines that convert the forces of nature into productive electricity, we must learn to sense when the moment has come to move beyond thinking and to get on with the task in hand.

During times of Writer’s Block we will not feel like doing this. Almost every minute we may find ourselves assailed by dark thoughts, moodiness and temptations to give up. We are afraid we will never make it into print, or, if we have experienced some measure of success, we fear that our latest work will fail to come up to the mark. There is nothing unusual about such feelings. From our frequently jaundiced position, every other writer appears infinitely more accomplished and better established than we could possibly be.

It is at these testing junctures that we can make some serious mistakes. Fear can make us change too much, or too little in our text. Better to stick with the theme we were working on, and only make any serious changes if we are convinced that they are demonstrably better. It can also lead to an inner withdrawing (and to sulks and tantrums) and to a seething resentment against our perceived critics. Another route it can take is to torment us with a desperate desire to please people who, in all probability, we can never hope to satisfy. #Fly Fishing.

The one thing we must not do is to give up trying. All that happens then is that fear wins the contest unopposed. The prophets of Baal triumph and Elijah runs away distraught at the thought that it has all been in vain. We can no more afford to allow Fortress Fear to win in our own lives than we would in the lives of our central characters. Courage has nothing to do with the absence of fear, but everything to do with keeping going despite it. If we will allow it to, the still small voice will always tell us that there is still a way forward! Better to grit our teeth, acknowledge our fears and at all costs refuse to give in. There will be a way forward!

The vast majority of our fears prove to be delusions when confronted head on. This is why faith is the perfect antidote to fear. We had faith in our inspiration when we embarked on the project, and now, in the doldrums, it is being put to the test. We may have to endure months, or even years at a time, when ideas dry up and other commitments make a nonsense of our professed desire to write. But the flame simply will not go out. Like one of those magic birthday candles, it will always spring up again Let us therefore return for our banner to the quote we referred to earlier from the gloriously dogged Winston Churchill: ‘Never give up. Never, never give up’.

Pause and Ponder

Faith and fear lie at opposite ends of the bridge. Where would you place yourself along that bridge? The answer probably lies in whether you are feeding your faith or your fears more.

A Book of Gratitudes

New every morning is the love
Our wakening and uprising prove.
If on our daily course our mind
Be set to hallow all we find,
New treasures still, of countless price,
God will provide for sacrifice. (John Keble)

Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful. Welcome beauty in every fair face, every fair sky, every fair flower, and thank Him for it is He who is the fountain of all loveliness
(Charles Kingsley).

There is another antidote to envy, fear or frustration that costs us nothing yet which contains within it almost limitless power. What is this wonderful quality? Gratitude. It is virtually impossible to be grateful and resentful at the same time. We can turn these thoughts into a declaratory banner: ‘I cannot be anxious, impatient or fretful if I am truly grateful’.

This is no light matter. To a large extent, our happiness depends on the extent to which we are grateful. Gratitude and celebration keep the well of happiness flowing within us, and help us to appreciate the fact that our glass is half full rather than half empty.

Opportunities to express our gratitude are almost endless, but our willingness to do so may have been seriously stunted by past woundings. We cannot alter the past, but we can waste a perfectly good present by worrying too much about the future. Cultivating a grateful spirit can do us nothing but good. Because the writer’s calling is a long-distance haul rather than a short sprint, it will hurt rather than help us live in perpetual anticipation of that mythical moment ‘when it all happens’. Better to take each day as it comes and to make time to celebrate the minor successes, that come our way, and to reward ourselves in little ways. Social trips, a meal out – simple things that we can eagerly anticipate, savour to the full, and then look back on with gratitude.

There is currently no regular cinema where we live on Shetland, so when we hear that a particular film is coming to the island, we look forward to it eagerly. The anticipation is rarely misplaced and its memory is treasured. Back on the mainland we would have taken such events for granted, and no doubt have sandwiched them in between numerous other activities and engagements. Their comparative rarity up here helps us to appreciate them more, and to reflect more profoundly on what we have watched – and that is surely honouring to the spirit in which they were created. We are blessed on these islands too, with an extraordinary wealth of talented singers and musicians. To participate in such ‘live’ entertainment is not only immensely pleasurable; it also fosters a strong community spirit.

Pause and Put into Practice

The stanza of the hymn I quoted at the start of this section reminds us that gratitude is sacrificial as well as joyful. Most of us find it infinitely easier to moan and to grumble than to express our thanks and gratitude. But these two paths lead to entirely opposite outcomes. They are as far apart as faith and fear. This is not just a matter of temperament. Instinctively optimistic people have an easier ride than dour doomsters, but there is much all of us can do to improve our mental outlook. Since every day brings its own share of precious insights and recollections, try writing a list each night of things that have happened in the course of the day for which we can be grateful. We will be pleasantly surprised by how much there is to be grateful for. A baby smiles, we are surrounded by beautiful views, people share kind words with us, we gain a fresh insight through something we have read . . . As you can see, we are not talking about major events such as a new job or promotion, but the visit we had from a friend; the fact that the car started faithfully again this morning, the fact that there was food on the table; that we found a particular programme enjoyable; a letter or e mail that reminded us that someone loves us – yes, even the criticisms that have come our way show that people care enough to make their point. I call this ‘A Book of Gratitudes’.

Try to record a dozen or more good points every day. Little by little, we will come to look for the good things, and to see value in everyday occurrences we might once have passed by without noticing. This is the fruit of reflection – and it will prove a promising well for inspiration. Since the Americans have so much to teach the rest of us about maintaining a positive outlook on life, we will go transatlantic for this banner: ‘It’s time to cultivate the Gratitude-Attitude!’

Preparing for Tomorrow

When once the itch of literature comes over a man, nothing can cure it but the scratching of a pen. (Samuel Lover, 1842)

‘A losing trade, I assure you, sir; literature is a drug’. (George Borrow)

‘He never leaves off . . . he always has two packages of manuscript in his desk, besides the one he’s working on’. (Rose Trollope)

Most writers are familiar with the emotional slump which often accompanies the completion of a project. There is a simple way to guard against this emotional downer – start planning immediately for the next piece of writing. Many authors like to have more than one project on the go, awaiting assessment and submission. Perhaps we should make this our final banner: As soon as we finish one project, get on with a new one straight away. This maintains our impetus and is a useful shield against rejection slips. But if we feel in urgent need of a break from the computer, then we should not hesitate to take one. As we considered earlier, the fallow times often prove pivotal for refreshing our inspiration, and for helping us cope with the inevitable peaks and troughs.

The high points come when we hear that our material has been of real value and service to others. The low points include making the disheartening discovery that Calvin Trillin poignantly described in the Sunday Times a decade or so ago: ‘The shelf life of the modern hardback writer is somewhere between the milk and the yogurt’.

This rather sobering appraisal ought, of itself, to be enough to deter the ‘wannabees’. It won’t, of course, because hope dawns eternal and we are optimistic (or foolish) enough to believe that we will be the ones who buck the trend. And we know from much experience that we will never be fulfilled unless we write down the ideas that are bubbling up within. Like the prophet Jeremiah, there is a fire burning in our hearts; a burden that simply has to be discharged.

As to who it is that we are writing for (our target audience) it is only common sense to research the potential market, but even here we should not limit ourselves unduly. Editors themselves are not always aware of what they are looking for. We write because we know that something vital would be left unfulfilled in our lives if we did not set the whole thing down on paper. And who knows who knows? Our interest and knowledge may just be enough to open up make a new market.

Only a small percentage of those who take up the pen will ever derive more than a small portion of their income from their creative writing, but there are a multitude of opportunities and professions which service and run parallel to it, in much the same way that eight or nine people have to be employed behind the scenes in order to keep one modern soldier in the front line. Where would writers be without editors, proof-readers and teachers of literature?

There is much we have not touched on in this book. Poetry, science–fiction, the arts of crime writing and journalism are just some of the more obvious omissions, along with any practical suggestions on how to explore areas of research. These are all specific genres that must be studied separately. Our aim has been to share principles that can be applied to any form of creative writing.

It was Ovid who wrote, ‘Love has bidden me write’. That is why I want to urge you to press on with all your heart. You have talent enough to turn your ideas and experiences into something worth reading. There are doors waiting for you to walk though, and an audience that is waiting to benefit from your particular contribution.

But don’t be unrealistic. It will all take a great deal longer than you would like, and you cannot hope to avoid at least some of all the highs and the lows of the emotional roller coaster. Faith and courage will always give you the strength to overcome the disappointments and to pursue your calling.

The most important thing is to remain attentive to the Still Small Voice. For me, this is intricately bound up with my relationship with the God of Love, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who has sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, into the World so that we can know Him intimately in this life and the next.

Not everyone who reads these words will have experienced this level of friendship – nor indeed have the slightest interest in doing so, though the offer remains open to everyone. But just as the sun shines on people of all faiths and none, so the principles of creativity we have shared in this publication hold true for all who will humble themselves and apply themselves to something that will bring both you and your readers great joy and insight: namely, The Craft of Creative Writing.

To end where we started . . .

Everyone must start somewhere. Set yourself the goal of ‘free writing’ for at least a few minutes every day for the next ten days. Gradually increase this period as time and opportunities permit – half an hour, an hour and so on. As a first fruit, this will more than double your output – and there can be no better way for discovering where your real heart interests lie – and this will be reflected in the conviction with which you write. Then you will be ready to benefit from all the advice and suggestions we have made in the course of this book. To quote another Latin author, Martial, ‘Scribe aliquid magnum’ – ‘Write something great!’

Books that will take you further

Part One: Writing as a Lifestyle

Dorothea Brand, ‘Becoming a Writer’ (Papermac)
Rachel Simon, ‘The Writer’s Survival Guide’ (Story Press, Cincinnati)

Part Two: The Art that Conceals Art

John Brain, ‘Writing a Novel’ (Eyre)
Michael Legat, ‘How to Write Historical Novels’ (Allison and Busby)
Josip Novakovich, ‘Fiction Writer’s Workshop’ (Story Press, Cincinnati)
Sol Stein, ‘Solutions for Novelists. Secrets of A Master Editor’ (Souvenir Press)

Parts Three to Seven: More General Books

Jack Bickham, ‘The 38 most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them)’ Writer’s Digest Books
William Zinsser, ‘On Writing Well’ (Harper Perennial).
Carole Blake, ‘From Pitch to Publication’ (Everything you need to know to get your novel published) (Macmillan)
Ruth Sawyer, ‘The Way of the Storyteller’ (Bodley Head)
Christopher Stevens, ‘Get into Print’ – A Guide to Self–publishing (New Caxton Press)
Ellin Greene, Storytelling: Art and Technique (Bowker)
‘The Writer’s Handbook’ 2002 (MacMillan)