Fragments of York: the Festival of Writing 2011
Small things are more crucial

Bewitched, boggled and... now what?

As a teacher, there are few rewards greater than getting back after a workshop and finding an email from a student, saying that they started writing/re-writing/planning on the train home. And certainly the varied reactions to the York Festival of Writing suggest that for many the lightbulb moment in a workshop (or an agent's comment or a fellow-writer's response) was only a pilot light, which then shed a flood of light on the work-in-progress... even if the light showed that it ought, immediately, to become a work-under-the-bed.

But I suspect that for every writer at York who was radically re-structuring their novel before they even got to the station, there's another who left York feeling decidedly boggled. It's such a lot of stuff to take on board: about the industry, about your work, about how your writing relates to other people's, about how different writers are from each other, about how you feel about your work. Then there's feedback about what you sent in, about what you didn't send in but do talk about, all the tips and tricks and facts and counter-facts that get bandied about over food and coffee and drink and more drink... And just when you think you're getting somewhere, another workshop/agent/editor/author says the complete opposite. And you go home baffled: should you re-write, abandon, submit, change tack, set up a blog, change genre, eliminate the vampires or give them more teeth...? If being driven mad by all this stuff meant you wrote a better book, then of course it wouldn't matter, but the chances are it doesn't mean you write better, it just paralyses you.

The problem is that writing is not an exact science. It's not even an exact art. It's an art-cum-craft which is the essential fuel of an industry, and an industry which doesn't even behave like a normal industry, not least because writer don't behave like normal workers. The industry doesn't know how we do it (nor do we, some of the time) and they don't know what they want till they see it. So what's said about what they want, and how to produce it, is always going to be confusing and contradictory.

So if you're feeling boggled by a mass of talking-about-writing, whether you've been at a festival or just ODing on the writing blogs and forums, I'd suggest that you give yourself a break. Don't rush to try to Do Things with your work: this is terribly tempting for people who tend to deal with worries by tackling them immediately and head on. Equally, if you're someone whose Inner Critic thrives on the nitrogen of information and, like blue-green algae, can suffocate all other life-forms in your mind, don't let the IC impose euthanasia on the WIP. Even if you feel that it's a fairly clear decision between Give Up or Major Surgery, I'd say, don't start down either road immediately.

Instead, I'd suggest that you let it all brew as it will while you do something else: preferably nothing to do with any kind of writing you want to take seriously. Write light verse, paint something (a picture, or a wall), make bread, go for walks with a friend who knows nothing and cares less about writing. (What do you mean, you don't have any friends like that?) In short, allow yourself to not-think about it all, allow your memory to hold onto the bits you've collected which make sense, allow it to forget the bits which don't.

And it may well be true that whatever needs doing is major, but I do also suggest that you're cautious before you assume those two roads are the only ones. Even in yellow woods, there are other paths. On this, a couple of posts from my blog might be useful. Take with a drink of water, as the label you must Always Read says, or better still with a large glass of something stronger: Ask Your Talent, and The Third Way.

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