Are you Custer or Crazy Horse?

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Green fingered writer

What’s his secret?

I’ve recently been watching a series of documentaries on the Wild West. I don’t have TV but I’ll watch pretty much any documentary on DVD. This particular series is one that my husband taped on video – I’m showing my age here but, remember those days? Trying to pause the recording before the adverts came on, and then start it up again without missing anything? How you couldn’t switch channels as otherwise the recording would switch too? Ha! Alien concepts in this day and age. Anyway, I digress…

These documentaries are brilliantly done. Well researched and lots of original footage, from photos to letter to diary entries to film – and the reportage is really balanced. Apart from the on-screen wobbles, you wouldn’t think my husband recorded these 14 years ago and we’ve only just had them converted to modern technology!

Why am I telling you all this? Basically, because of a point that was highlighted in Episode 3 that set me thinking. An historian pointed out that the main difference between Crazy Horse and general Custer was that Crazy Horse already thought he had the perfect life; he was in a state of being and wanted to be allowed to continue. On the other hand, Custer was in a perpetual state of trying to improve – he lived in a permanent state of becoming.

I think this Custer reference is a great description for artists and writers. As far as I’m aware, the creative mind constantly demands improvement and change, so there’s always movement. This movement is as unpredictable and unruly as the rolling seas, but it creates the driving force behind old ideas in fresh voices, adds the necessary passion and magic that takes something good and makes it incredible.

But is there another way to be? A less frantic and unsettling approach? My husband is definitely a Crazy Horse – he approaches life in a calm and steady manner, and has more energy and staying power than anyone I’ve ever met. He’s an incredibly creative and talented singer/songwriter, but isn’t driven to the peaks and troughs of emotion that charge in unannounced to my days. Instead, he meanders his way and eventually gets there.

We’ve discussed this and he seems to think it’s the length of the work involved and the fact that when you perform, you get an instant response from the crowd – hopefully a positive one. Although singer/songwriters suffer from nerves and stage fright, the catharsis comes much quicker. Writers, on the other hand, spend long periods of time in solitude and the work requires more input, a different approach. And there’s no guarantee anyone will actually read what you write.

So is this the key to being Custer, or does it just come down to personality? What do you think?

As writers, can we ever mirror Crazy Horse and just be? 

Think you know enough? Think again.

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Arvon, Totleigh Barton

Totleigh Barton, almost 1000 years old

As writers, we need to be confident about our abilities and we have to be dedicated. In the early stages, there’s usually a certain amount of arrogance in play, but I think that’s a necessity if you want a writing career. Otherwise, how else would you start?

The initial focus tends to be on publication and typically you hammer out lots of work, usually way before it’s ready, and the badge of honour rejection slips start rolling in. It’s not what you expected and it’s not particularly nice, but that’s when you begin to look at your work differently.

There may be some writers out there that were immediately brilliant, but I’d say they’re definitely a minority. There may also be some who skipped the first embarrassing step mentioned above – if so, I wish I was one of them. But generally, you need to work towards this next phase, when you start to concentrate on the quality, rather than the quantity, of your writing.

Arvon garden

Need a bit of space? Just one of the quirky places for you to relax and write.

You get some things published, or secure an agent, and you expect to nail a publishing deal. But you don’t. You get some positive responses and you keep going despite the odds, pleased with your progress so far but always wondering – when will it be my turn?

Sound familiar?

This is a conversation I’ve had with plenty of writers of late. And I’ve realised that this is a difficult stage, when there’s a danger of falling into the trap of believing you know enough – or at least enough to write well – and all you need is to keep going. And going. Until you find the magic that unlocks your plot/voice/character/*insert troublesome issue here*.

Dedication and determination are certainly necessary – they’re key ingredients for success in any field – but I think there’s more to consider. I believe as writers we should be constantly open to improvement, and part of that improvement is reading, listening to and getting advice from the authors you admire and aspire to emulate. as well as talking to people who are at the same level.

I recently attended a residential Arvon writing course at Totleigh Barton, a rural  retreat near the tiny village of Sheepwash in Devon. Surrounded by farmland and stunning walks, the property is a mishmash of manor house, home, country garden and meadow. Your room is perfectly furnished – think small and contained, with enticing desks and no distractions – and the absence of Wi-Fi and phone reception adds to immediate feeling that everything is designed to make your stay comfortable yet productive.

In short, it’s a writer’s dream.

I’d read a few reviews before I arrived and expected the week to be great, but nothing could have prepared me for how great. (Isn’t it good to know that despite the fact we can look everything up online, you can still find magic?) This week was singularly the most useful investment I’ve made towards my writing and I would encourage any writer to give it a try.

Encapsulating the overall experience is really difficult. It feels almost impossible to put into words. And yet, the impact it has had on my writing is so great, I feel it would be a disservice not to, so I’ll give it a go…

Arvon, Devon

Where lots of the magic happens – eating, writing, workshops… sneaky midnight feasts

Imagine a week’s full board stay in a house that’s almost one thousand years old, in the company of 15 other people who are all as passionate about and committed to writing as you.

Now, take that image and add two truly incredible writers – in this instance, Malorie Blackman and Melvin Burgess – with each willing to spend their week sharing their knowledge and experience in both group and one-to-one settings.

And for good measure, throw in a visit from Meg Rosoff.

Can you picture it? If so, you’re starting to get an idea of what to expect from an Arvon course.

The description above is certainly impressive, but it’s not the name-dropping that stays with you, (though of course, you can’t help it) it’s the relationships you build and the light bulbs that go off as the week progresses.

Malorie and Melvin were warm, funny, approachable and friendly throughout, and their completely different styles provided the perfect environment for us to learn and improve. The workshops and tutorials were seamless, each complementing the last and adding another layer to our ideas of how to write and how to write well.

Rural Arvon course

There are plenty of beautiful walks to help you digest all that excellent advice (and the wonderful food)

The standard of the group was really high and it was amazing meeting all these new people – each with completely different backgrounds, experiences and stories to tell – under the common denominator of writing for children and young adults. You cook, write, walk, chat, eat, and drink together. You share your work and your worries, your successes and your hopes and the camaraderie builds.

Out of this grows a real sense of team spirit, which counteracts all those lonely hours of typing, and somehow verifies what you do and why you do it, without a contract or rejection letter in sight.

I could impart some of the knowledge shared by Malorie and Melvin, but I don’t think it would be fair because I wouldn’t do it justice. You need to hear it direct from them, because they’re the ones successfully living and breathing life into books day in and day out. They’re the ones that will inspire new generations of writers, just like they’ve inspired several new generations of readers.

Totleigh Barton and the wonderful people I met there reminded me why I’m doing this. I really did experience some hallelujah moments when certain aspects fell into place (thank you, Malorie and Melvin), but even more importantly, I fell completely in love with writing all over again when I didn’t even realise I needed to.

And that’s something that just going and going will never do.

(For more detail, you can read a really good, in-depth review of the week here, written by fellow attendee and writer, Sarah Ann Juckes)

Thanks Arts Council – I’m off to Arvon!

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west cork writer

These guys are cute, but should come with a warning sign: May Cause Distraction (Look how tiny Franklyn was when we got him!!!)

I’m feeling incredibly lucky right now because I’m heading off to Totleigh Barton on Monday for a week to learn more about the craft with some of the best Young Adult writers alive – Malorie Blackman, Melvon Burgess and Meg Rosoff.

I’ve been desperate to go on an Arvon course ever since I heard about them several years ago, and I can’t believe it’s finally happening.

It’s come at just the right time too; I have some tricky final edits I’m trying to get my head around and workshops with fellow YA writers, peppered with bouts of solitude for writing, is exactly what I need to get stuck in and kick things into shape.

There’s no internet and the setting is rural, so no distractions and no excuses. This means I won’t be blogging for the next two weeks – but don’t worry, I’ll report back on my return and let you know how it went and whether it’s something I’d recommend.

Before I say ‘bye for a while’, I’d like to give a big shout out to the Arts Council who generously gave me a small travel and training bursary – they really have helped to make this possible!

I nmy absence, happy writing all!

Looking for writing advice? (Part 2)

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apostrophe-manFor part two of ‘Looking for writing advice?’, I’ve scoured a few of my favourite online resources for further information, inspiration and encouragement. Here goes…

There are lots of places to look for writing competitions, submissions and events, but if you sign up to Paul McVeigh’s blog and Emerging Writer by Kate Dempsey, then you’ll find you’ve got more time for writing as they do the hard work for you. Both of these blogs are an excellent resource and I recommend you sign up right away.

For those of you writing novels – whether you’re starting out or are trying to improve – have a look at Sinead Gleeson’s brilliant Would You Like To Write a Book? series of articles in The Irish Times. And if you fancy some podcasts, then you can also listen to Sinead’s The Book Show over on RTE Player.

Author blogs definitely worth reading include Libran Writer by Lia Mills and Women Rule Writer by Nuala Ni Chonchuir. For all things crime, you have Declan Burke’s Crime Always Pays and for all things amazing, Neil Gaiman’s Journal. The list goes on but who could resist reading updates from the amazingly talented Oliver Jeffers? I’m not sure that one’s technically a blog but hey, it’s Oliver Jeffers, so who cares?

For a variety of information on all things writerly, try Tania Writes by Tania Hershman because she’s brilliant (you’ll also find an excellent Irish & UK lit mags list on there). There’s a great blog written by author, Susan Lanigan, and a perfect example of what you’ll find there is this post:  I Am Good Enough, And So Are You. And Clockwatching by SJO’Hart is a rather wonderful (and rather prolific blog) that is the home of everything from book reviews to flash fiction, writing advice to editing services. Her post, How I Got My Agent, is a great place to start.

I know there are many more writing blogs out there worth a mention but I don’t want to overload you; these are just a few of my favourites and I hope they prove as helpful and interesting to you as they have for me. If you have any blogs you’d like to highlight and recommend to others, please add them in the comments below. If there are lots, I’ll add them into another post so they’re not missed.

So – who have I missed that you would recommend?

 

 

St John’s Eve

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Although this is not about writing, it is about one of the things that is (almost) as dear to me and certainly takes up an (almost) equal amount of time during the summer months…

irish traditional farming

And so the fire was lit…

Yesterday was St John’s Eve, the evening before the feast day of St John and an important night in the calendar of any Irish gardener who has planted spuds!

It’s the Irish bonfire night, when fires are lit to bless the crops. The ritual is traditionally performed at sundown – only we weren’t available that late so we lit the fires a bit early. And then for the best bit; we dug up our first stalk of potatoes in 2014.

Despite our hastiness, I’m pleased to report there was no negative impact on the flavour. However, I’m sorry to report that there aren’t any photos of the cooked product as they mysteriously disappeared before the camera arrived! (*Cough*).

Apparently, summer bathing used to commence after this ritual, and it was believed that taking part in the fire burning eliminated all risk of drowning. You can read more about the custom here.

I used to live in Andalucia and – after several years of completing this Irish ritual – I have only just realised that this rural tradition coincides with the wonderful Noche de San Juan Batista.

A celebration held on the beach, Noche de San Juan Batista also centres around bonfires; in this instance, to cleanse and purify, with people leaping over fires to burn their troubles away then running into the sea for good luck. I loved this night, when smoke would permeate the air and hundreds of bonfires would line the nighttime horizon.

I wonder – did any of you observe either of these old rituals last night? I’d love to think we were all lighting fires, keeping tradition alive.

Irish traditions

The pike was then used to unearth the first stalk, breath held.

traditional farming, west cork

Time to carry the loot from the earth to the pot (in your T-Shirt, of course)!

 

 

Literature Bursary Award Clinic – Dublin

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green fingered writer

This (not so) little fella is always hopeful!

Every year, writers all over Ireland complete their literature bursary award forms and wait in hope. Funds are obviously limited and so many writers are disappointed when the rejections letter arrives. This is unfortunate, but a necessary part of the process.

The bursary forms are straightforward but open to interpretation, and I know from experience they can be daunting. But the Arts Council Clinic – held in the Irish Writers Centre – is a great way to give yourself the best possible chance at submitting a successful application. 

This informationis taken directly from the Arts Council newsletter – it’s something worth subscribing to if you don’t already! 

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Information clinic – Literature Bursary Award 

The deadline for the next round of the Arts Council’s Literature Bursary Award (for writers working in English or in Irish) is 17 July 2014 at 5.30pm. In advance of this deadline, the Arts Council will hold an information clinic in the Irish Writers’ Centre to offer advice and information on the application process.

The clinic will be held on Thursday, 26 June from 11am until 12:30pm in the Irish Writers’ Centre, 19 Parnell Square, Dublin 2.

The clinic will cover the following topics:

  • The purpose of the Literature Bursary Award
  • Who and what is eligible
  • The application process  – online services
  • The application form
  • Essential supporting material
  • Budgets
  • The assessment process
  • Terms and conditions
  • Common mistakes to avoid
  • Questions and answers

Further information

For more information on the Literature Bursary Award, visit the available funding section of the Arts Council’s website. You can contact the Arts Council on 01 618 02 00 or emailinfo@artscouncil.ie

 To book a place at the clinic

Places on the clinic are free but participants must confirm their attendance to events@writerscentre.ie by Thursday, 19 June 2014.
For those not in a position to attend

copy of the presentation from the clinic, along with notes from the day, will be available from the Arts Council from Friday, 27 June. To request a copy of the presentation, please email Jennifer Lawless at Jennifer.lawless@artscouncil.ie.

 

Looking for writing advice? (Part 1)

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Over the last month I’ve received over forty emails/tweets/messages asking for advice on writing. This is a pretty high number – and more than I’ve received before in such a short space of time – so I’m guessing there’s something in the air that’s making people feel extra frustrated/blank/exhausted/lost.

mayaangelou

Although I’m hardly an oracle, I love that people feel they can come to me and that I can help in some way. It’s a real honour and a pleasure every time. But I suspect that for every writer that manages to ask another for support, there are several others struggling with aspects of their writing career suffering in silence.

I know that I’ve relied on other writers to vent frustrations, ask advice, get a second opinion. But I also know that I’ve worried/stressed/suffered in silence from time to time. I can’t say why exactly – I don’t know why but sometimes, that’s just the way it is. I’m guessing fear is probably the culprit. Fear of failure, of success, of *insert worry here*.

So, in an attempt to help anyone that’s feeling a bit lost but doesn’t know where to turn, I’ve compiled a list of my most popular posts – the ones that seem to be helping people most with the questions/difficulties they’re facing – below. I hope they help.

  • For the love of writing, keep going! – a look at overcoming the feeling of failure by enjoying what we do.
  • The Wolf We Feed – a post about taking responsibility for our writing and writing career.
  • Is your routine good enough? – drawing on other writers’ experiences, this post considers how we write, whether it gives the results we’re looking for and what we can do to make positive changes.  (PS My routine has changed completely – maybe it’s time for an updated version of this post?)
  • Writing without payment – should we or shouldn’t we?
  • Thick-skinned – can rejection ever be positive?

Feel free to post links to some of your own useful posts below. Next time, I’ll be posting a list of recommended blog posts from other writers that offer further advice, inspiration and encouragement.