Monday, 25 April 2016

Tips for a perfect Summer of Writing

The Summer of Writing workshops have launched! Summer is a busy, social time, so in one sense an odd time for workshops - but it's also a creative time. We forget, sometimes, that we're animals. That like any animal, our energy levels rise with the warm weather, alongside our adventurousness, our sense of fun, our enthusiasm, our interest - which is all, in a sense, our creativity. The long winter months often get the credit for creative endeavour, what with staying indoors and not much to do, but creativity isn't a faut de mieux: it's our lifeblood. Our joy. And like the rest of our joy in life, it jumps up and down and does cartwheels in the summer. That's why I run workshops in the summertime, even though it's also such a busy time - it's the perfect time for adventure and discovery. So here are my tips to create yourself a glorious Summer of Writing.

As well as the workshops, book some time off for yourself to write, whether that means from work, from your family, or a pact with yourself. I suggest treating each workshop as a two-day block, so you're just as "booked off" from 10-4 on the Sunday as if you were at a workshop. (That means no other duties, no errands or chores, no family commitments, no arrangements to meet - just a clear space of time for you and your writing.) If you can, look at also booking a few weekdays or a week off from work, as writing time.

Be strict about your start time and protect the writing time like an angel with a flaming sword - but within that time, be free. You don't need to treat writing time like work and it's much better not to. It isn't work, it's a joy! And the more you enjoy it, the more you want to write. (Enjoying it doesn't mean it's always "easy" - we enjoy doing hard things, too. Just think of crosswords and Sudoku. Enjoying it means it's fun.) Don't set yourself up with a bunch of goals, either - throw all that "SMART" nonsense to the wind, forget about aims, wordcount, page counts, estimates, etc. A good writing day is a day spent writing. That is the only criterium. Protect the time, and within the time be free. There's a rock-solid evidence base behind this advice; you can read more about that here.

Write by hand, unless that's genuinely physically impossible for you. There's fantastic evidence that when we write by hand, we write more, for longer, and better quality. Your handwriting doesn't matter, as long as you can read it. A ballpoint pen will quickly tire your hand out though, because it relies on friction to drag out the ink. If you're right-handed, buy a fountain pen - you can get a Parker from WH Smiths for £20 and under, and their nibs are superb quality. (More expensive pens usually have more expensive casings, not better nibs.) Stock up on ink cartridges while you're at it and cache them everywhere, so you never run out. If you're left-handed, and can't use a fountain pen, try a fineliner or a gel pen. (Gel pens are lovely but run out very quickly.) With no friction, you can write happily for hours without getting a sore hand.

The best part about writing by hand, though, is that you can write anywhere. It's summer! You don't need a dim room to see the screen or a powerpoint nearby. Don't lock yourself in a room at a desk, telling yourself you have to "take this seriously" - go outside! Write in the garden, if you won't be interrupted. Leave the house and go adventuring! Find a coffee shop with a garden or one outdoors, like AMT on Cornmarket. Write in a pub garden (they serve coffee, too). Walk across Port Meadow and sit outdoors at the Perch, or try the lovely garden of the Gardener's Arms. Write in meadows, in parks. Take a packed lunch, a bottle of water, a flask of coffee, and off you go! There are heaps of wonderful places to write outdoors in Oxford. (Check for available loos, too - you'd be surprised; even University Parks has well-kept loos in the middle. And AMT is in emergency striking-distance from the refurbished loos by the Covered Market.) If it's drizzling, or chucking it down, find a covered garden - just being in the fresh air is enlivening and inspiring, and the smell of rain on soil contains a chemical which makes us happy. (More than once I've started writing in University Parks, then walked through a downpour to arrive grinning and drenched at the Jericho Tavern, and slowly steamdried in their covered garden. It's fine to get wet, just make sure the writing stays dry!) All the adventuring makes it much more fun and gives you a much wider range of stimulus and inspiration than you'd get at home at a table or a desk.

Once you start adventuring, you might want a Writing Bag: a sacred, adored bag, big enough to carry your notebook / an A4 pad and any assorted pens or notes you want with you, and waterproof. (This is England, to be fair, even in summer.) I have two, a slim one for just a few essentials, and a glorious great multi-pocketed beast for when I need the Full Monty with me and a packed lunch to boot. Both are leather; the first was a cast-off, many years ago; the beast was a £5 charity shop WIN. The writing lives in the writing bag, along with plenty of spare paper and ink / pens. Mine also has a tiny stapler (with eyes) and spare staples, plus assorted coloured pens. (Okay, 90 coloured pens.) Word to the wise: don't put your waterbottle or coffee flask in your writing bag.

You'll probably have your smartphone with you too, so here's an expert tip: put it on airplane mode. That's usually the only way the battery will last all day and still leave you enough for some texts or a phone call at the end of your writing. Plus, of course, it spares you that enemy of writing: internet distraction. If an idea is tricky, it's so easy to dive into the instant-affirmation of Facebook notifications instead; having it on airplane nudges you away from that. If you do want to look something up, or browse a bit while you're having a break, you can easily switch it back to normal mode, but the fragile battery life of a smartphone is excellent motivation to switch it back to airplane promptly.

Everyone's concentration span varies - mine is almost exactly an hour, and then I need to float back up for a bit, stare around me, eat some water mint, chat with a passing duck, order another coffee, whatever. Don't flog yourself beyond your concentration span; find your natural pace. (That's where having your phone on airplane really helps; it's easier to find your natural pace without distractions. Also, don't eat random plants unless you definitely know what they are; quite a few are poisonous.) After two or three hours like that, I usually need a longer break, which is generally a good moment to eat my lunch, have a wander, maybe change location, perhaps accept that it really is raining and wedging the umbrella handle into my cleavage isn't totally working. Most people can manage about five hours of sustained concentration total a day. That's hard to believe, given the hours most of us work, but nonetheless true. And writing, as well as being enormous fun, is very sustained concentration. Sometimes I spread those hours out, between 10 and 5, with breaks and lunch and walks; sometimes I do a solid block from 12 to 5:30, with only a few float-up breaks. I've learnt not to push it past the 5 hours, give or take. This is summer; this is life; enjoy the rest of the time for other things as well, like a long relaxing walk home, meeting up with friends for a sunny drink, cooking a meal slowly, whatever you enjoy. (Remember not to schedule any Duties, though, that steal the writing time. Duties are for other time.)

A summer of writing becomes an absolute gift to yourself. Suddenly, setting the time aside for writing isn't a chore, something that could otherwise be used for holiday, or meet-ups, or family time - it's a joy, a luxury, a secret delight. You fall asleep the night before excited to wake up, with your writing bag ready, anticipating the time as if it's a rendezvouz with a lover. You spend your writing days surrounded by beauty, gloating in the wonder of it, staring into your secret worlds. You push on into the autumn, layering on extra tights, scarves, and cardigans. You smile secretly in the winter, as you type up the summer's writing or keep on writing with freezing rain hammering the windows, and as you pass your spots. And you feel your excitement rise, as spring finally starts to warm again, at the thought of being back out there, completely free, completely yourself, writing.

This year's Summer of Writing workshops are The Creative Well, Expand your Repertoire, Magical Realism, Writing Dialogue, and Plot your Story. Read about the workshops and book your place here and have a glorious, joyous, summer of writing.

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