30 Writing competitions for 2016

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Ohohoho! Saviours of the written word! As we look forward to a fan-frickin-tastic 2016 filled with a multitude of writerly insights and discussion, we’ve compiled a list of upcoming writing competitions scheduled for the year ahead.

Included are details about word counts, deadlines and direct links to each event.

If you’d like to add a writing competition to our list then please feel free to contact us!

  1. Graywolf Press Non-Fiction Prize

The next submission period for the nonfiction prize will be from January 1-31, 2016.

A US$12,000 advance and publication by Graywolf will be awarded to the most promising and innovative literary nonfiction project by a writer not yet established in the genre.

Submissions must include a one-page cover letter, a two to ten page overview of the project (including what is already complete) and a minimum of 100 pages (25,000 words) from the manuscript.

  1. Climate Fiction Short Story Contest

Climate change – perhaps better described as catastrophic climate breakdown – undoubtedly represents one of the most significant threats to humanity. Yet it remains a fairly abstract concept for most of us.

Speculative fiction stories have the power to take abstract ideas and turn them into gripping, visceral tales. The emerging subgenre of climate fiction help us imagine possible futures shaped by climate change.

The grand prize for this competition is US$1000, and the deadline for submissions up to 5000 words in length is January 15th.

  1. Bare Fiction Magazine Short Story Competitions

Any style/genre of writing in a variety of forms, including short stories, flash fiction and poetry. An annual competition with submission deadline of October.

Short story submissions must be below 3000 words and the associated entry fee is £8. Winners of each category receive £500.

  1. Bedford Writing Competition

Annual competition for writing of any style or genre. Winners are published on website and in an eBook, and they also receive a £200 prize.

Submissions have a maximum word count of 3000 words and the associated entry fee is £5.

  1. Young Lions Fiction Award

This award recognises ‘young authors’ – defined in the competition rules as anyone aged 35 or under. Submit any novel or short story published or scheduled to be published in the calendar year.

The deadline for submissions is August.

  1. 2016 Newcastle Short Story Award

One for Australian writers. First prize is AU$2000. The deadline for submissions is midnight, 31st January 2016 and the entry fee is AU$15. The maximum word limit is 2000 words, which includes both titles and any subheadings.

  1. Chicago Tribune short story award

The contest is open to all writers in residence in the United States. All entries must be fiction and less than 8000 words in length. First prize is US$3500 with four finalists receiving US$1000 each and five runners up receiving US$500.

Deadline is January 31st 2016.

  1. PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

For American citizens with books published in the calendar year (or scheduled to be published) – no self-published books will be accepted. No submission fees, with a deadline of October.

  1. British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition

One for fantasy writers. Deadline for submissions (max 5000 words) is annually in June. There is a £5 entry fee and first prize receives a £100 award.

  1. The Caine Prize for African Writing

For published African authors of fiction. Must be over 3000 words in length and written for adults. Advisable length for the stories is between 3000 and 10,000 words. There is a cash prize of £10,000 and works must be written in or translated into English.

Deadline for submissions is January 31st.

  1. Cinnamon Press Writing Competitions

Any style or genre of writing is eligible for their rolling competition deadlines, which fall throughout the year between September and July. Entry fees vary according to form of writing, such as poetry, novels, short stories and flash fiction.

  1. Artificium Short Story Competition

What makes a winner? The judges are looking for accomplished writing, full of style and intelligence, demonstrating a passion for language. Intriguing plots and themes that captivate the reader and make them think. Any genre, as long as the quality of writing is high. Works must be written in English, and authors can be from any country.

Submissions must be less than 8000 words in length. There is a £6 entry fee and a prize of £300 for the winner.

  1. Nelligan Prize

International writing prize for writers of all stripes and nationalities. Deadline is March 14th, 2016 for submissions of 12,500 words or less. Entry fee is US$15 and first prize is US$2000.

  1. The Bath Short Story Award

An award for local, national and international writers. Closing date for submissions is April 25th, 2016. Short stories of up to 2200 words in all genres and styles are welcome – there is no minimum word limit. First prize receives £1000 and there is also a local prize for Bath residents, as well as The Acorn Award of £50 for unpublished writers of fiction. Entry fee is £8.

  1. The Bristol Short Story Prize

Entries are welcomed for unpublished stories written in English. The deadline for submissions is 30th April 2016 and stories can be on any theme or subject. Maximum length of 4000 words. An £8 entry fee and first prize is £1000. There are also 17 further prizes of £100 for all shortlisted writers.

  1. Brooklyn Non-Fiction prize

Annual prize awards US$500 for the “best Brooklyn-focused non-fiction essay which is set in Brooklyn and is about Brooklyn and/or Brooklyn people/characters”. (It’s Brooklyn centric, you might say).

Submissions should be between 4 and ten pages long (up to 2500 words). Deadline is mid-November.

  1. Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award

Annual poetry competition for African America poets – both published and unpublished. The award offers a US$500 prize and publication by Lotus Press for the best book-length collection of poems (approximately 60 to 90 pages). Deadline is March 1st.

  1. The HG Wells Short Story Competition

Space is the theme for the 2016 HG Wells Short Story Competition. Key date for your diary is July 17th – the final deadline for entries. Submissions must be below 5000 words in length and there is an entry fee of £10. Various prizes are on offer for different types and styles of writing. Check website for more details.

  1. The Doris Gooderson Short Story Competition

Submissions welcomed for writing of any style or genre. Winners are published on the Wrekin Writers website and in the Wrekin Writers anthology. This annual competition offers a first prize of £150 for stories of no more than 1200 words. Entry fee is £3.

  1. Early Works Press

Annual writing competition accepts entries of any style or genre. Winners are published in anthology containing 10 to 20 stories (length dependent). There is a £5 entry fee for stories up to 4000 words in length and £10 fee for stories up to 8000 words long. Deadline is October each year, though the publishers also run other competitions throughout the year, so it’s worth keeping an eye on their site for details.

  1. Exeter Writers Competition

Exeter Writers runs an annual short story competition. The competition began in 2009 and is very popular, receiving entries from all over the UK. The 2016 competition is OPEN for entries. Prizes are £500, £250, £100 for first, second and third placed submissions. There is also a local prize of £100 for the best Devon entry.

Deadline is February for stories no more than 3000 words in length, of any style or genre.

  1. The Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition 2016

Entry fee is £8 for ghost stories between 1000 and 7000 words in length. Though the website also runs competitions throughout the year for flash fiction stories. Deadline is Thursday, March 31st 2016 and first prize receives £500.

  1. Writer’s Digest Competition

The winner of this annual award will receive US$5000 and an interview in Writer’s Digest. There are a variety of different award categories so it’s best to check the website for details. Deadline is May 6th 2016.

  1. Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2016 Short Story Competition

First prize receives £500 and a place on an Arvon residential writing course of your choice, as well as publication of your story on the W&A website. Closing date for writing submissions is Monday February 15th 2016 and all submissions must be unpublished prose of 2000 words or fewer.

  1. Manchester Writing Competition 2016

There are two prizes – one for fiction and one for poetry. Both competitions offer a £10,000 first prize. Deadline for entries is Friday September 23rd 2016. The fiction prize will be awarded to the best short story of up to 2500 words, and is open to international writers aged 16 or over. The poetry prize will be given to the best portfolio of three to five poems (maximum length: 120 lines). The entry fee for each competition is £17.50.

26. Tethered by Letters F(r)iction contest

Literary publisher and resource for writers Tethered by Letters run this tri-annual publication, F(r)iction, – an art and literature imprint that is distributed around the world. It features short fiction, flash fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and even a selection of graphic stories. It also showcases amazing artwork.

First prize for the short story contest is US$1000 and there is an entry fee of US$18. The first prize for both the poetry and flash fiction contests is US$300 and there is a US$10 entry fee.

The deadline for these contests is 31 March 2016.

27. The Short Story ‘Monthly 500’ Flash Fiction competition 

The Short Story was established in 2015 and has quickly developed into an influential platform for short fiction. They champion short stories, flash fiction, and micro-fiction.

Every month, they invite submissions for their flash fiction competition, the winner of which receives publication on their website and £50.

The deadline for each month’s contest is midnight on the last day of each month.

There is an entry fee of £2.28 and entries must be no longer than 500 words (including title).

28. The Tales for Teens competition from Skylark Literary Agency 

Skylark Literary Agency are on the look out for dazzling and original writing for young teens. They are looking for compelling voices with strong characters and a gripping story – an “unputdownable read” for 13-15 year olds.

Entries must take the form of a one-page synopsis and the first three chapters of the novel, submitted by via email.

The competition is open to writers of any nationality writing in English, and entrants must be unpublished in the field of fiction and unagented.

The winner will receive a one-to-one editorial critique of their finished manuscript either via telephone of in person (location permitting) with one of the competition judges.

The deadline for entries is Easter Sunday – 27th March 2016.

29. The Brighton Prize

The Brighton Prize offers cash prizes for new short and flash fiction. If you’re a writer with a brilliant short story that will both challenge and excite the judges; this is for you.

Submissions are currently open for flash fiction up to 350 words, and short stories of 1-2000 words.

The winner of the short story prize will receive £500, and the winner of the flash fiction prize will receive £100.

There is an entry fee of £8 for short stories and £6 for flash fiction.

The deadline for submissions is 10th June.

30. New Welsh Writing Awards 2016: University of South Wales Prize for Travel Writing

The prize celebrates the best short form travel writing from writers based in the UK and Ireland and those based worldwide who have been educated in Wales. The word length is 5,000-30,000 and the closing date is midnight 3 April. Entry is free.
The winner receives £1,000 cash, e-publication by New Welsh Review on their New Welsh Rarebyte imprint in 2016, as well as a positive critique over lunch with leading literary agent Cathryn Summerhayes at WME.
Second prize is a weeklong residential course in 2016 of the winner’s choice at Tŷ Newydd Writing Centre, and third prize is a weekend stay at Gladstone’s Library.

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Is the commercial media machine killing creative culture?

John Steinbeck

As prophetic dreams go, few are as discomfiting – due to their close proximity to reality – as one nocturnal epiphany John Steinbeck conjured up in the mid 1950s.

A rare writer of uncommon integrity, with a deep resistance to commercialism and a supreme faith in the human spirit, Steinbeck felt the need to pen a short letter to his literary agent and lifelong friend, Elizabeth Otis, after one specific dream caught him off guard. Indeed, the missive speaks volumes about what is perhaps the most significant threat to creative culture today.

In late July, 1956 – some 50 years before Buzzfeed – Steinbeck writes:

“Do you ever dream of getting letters? I used to a lot but haven’t lately until last night when I had one very clear and sharp. I can even see the stationery. It was from Otis Wiess and it said, “We would like very much to print your book The Short Reign of Peppin IV and think we can do it in two large installments. There are, however, certain changes we would like you to make in order that our readers will be more interested. The pace must be considerably speeded up and many of the historical and literary allusions must be removed since they will only confuse our readers. We should also want you to add three new characters and several episodes which are too long to put in a letter. I should like to meet with you to tell you of the changes we will require. Will you please let me know when this will be convenient?”

It was all perfectly clear. When the clock went off this morning I was busy typing an answer and had got as far as “Dear Otis: I have your letter and am deeply pleased with your interest in my book. I would like to suggest to you that rather than put in new characters and episodes, that you get new readers—” And I woke up thinking this was funny as hell and just laughing at my own cleverness. Isn’t that an odd and perhaps prophetic dream?”

Prophetic indeed. After all, we are in constant dynamic interaction with this thing we call culture – which is shaped by our values and, in turn shapes what we come to value. The question of balance between catering and creating is one that is asked by countless aspiring creatives: whether it is the responsibility of those involved in cultural enterprise to cater to what the people already crave, or else to create new, more elevated tastes by insisting on the substantive over the vacant?

It is pretty clear where much of the corporate media (i.e. culture and art for profit at all costs) stand on the issue. How else to explain the constant stream of novels that are copies of other successful novels, and the sequels and prequels of movies, and the exhibitioning of photography and art that is simply clones of previously successful pieces of art or photographs?

There is undoubtedly a necessary dialogue between catering and creating; yet it is difficult not to side with E.B. White, who famously asserted that “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” and that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

Yet irrespective of White’s idealism, we find ourselves immersed in a culture that purveys endless memes of cats because – we are told – that is what we want. We don’t want new films. New stories. New art. New ideas. We want cats getting stuck on treadmills. We want cats looking grumpy. Sometimes we want dogs chasing deer but that is about as far as originality is allowed to stray.

This is part of an overarching narrative that is suffused with a rather insidious implication that cat GIFs – and the occasional inspirational (though usually misattributed) quote superimposed on some stock image of a sunset – are all that we as a people are capable or worthy of wanting or understanding. Increasingly, our agents of culture are abdicating their responsibility to create more elevated tastes and capitulating to catering.

What is to be done? As aspiring creatives, the challenge is and may always remain: do something different. Create something new. It may be difficult. There may be less money in it. But it is possible. It has to be. In the words of Captain Picard, you just have to “make it so”.

 

The little-known poems of Chinua Achebe

achebe

The Nigerian novelist is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers of the past century. His debut novel, Things Fall Apart, is still the single most widely read book in African literature, despite being published in 1958.

Yet despite his fame and status, few people are familiar with his lesser-known – though certainly not ‘lesser’ in any other sense – poetry. Indeed, this was something the great man himself was well-aware of: joking in a 1998 lecture at Portland’s Literary Arts event that there was a “conspiracy” theory against his poetry.

Yet his love for poems and poetry dates back to the very dawn of Achebe’s career as a writer. And the very title of his magnum opus is borrowed from a line in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”.

It was only thanks to Professor Wu stumbling upon this edited recording of his nearly two-hour long Literary Arts lecture during his idle trawling through the interwebs that we have discovered this fantastic example of Achebe reading three of his poems, later published in the 2004 anthology ‘Collected Poems’.

Please enjoy:

Complement Achebe’s poetry with some examples of poetry from our own fabulous contributors – or contemplate the role of poets and other creatives within society, and their place in culture.

Productivity vs creativity: writing and the stock exchange

 

lead-to-creativity

How many of us have ushered the phrase ‘I work to live; not the other way around’, insisting that we believe this to be true even while we toil away at our desks for hours after hours? Apart from the general unpleasantness of finding ourselves caught in this corporate entrapment – which is entirely unnecessary, by the way – such soul sucking drains are also incredibly dangerous to our creative sensibilities, and our writing abilities. After all, we need silence, and boredom, and time to compose our thoughts and creative inclinations – none of which come easily in the hustling, hurly-burly world of the 24/7 post-fordist society.

How can we break free from such trappings? Well, fortunately we have an inspiring example set to us by one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, who struggled with, and eventually extracted herself from, a similar predicament.

In 1906, Willa Cather left teaching and moved to New York City to join the most successful and prestigious periodical magazine of the era: McClure’s Magazine. Famous for its fierce investigative reporting and for publishing spearheading, radical fiction writers like Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London, the magazine’s success had been driven not by artistic endeavour but by brutally ruthless corporate management, which saw journalism as business and writing as a marketable commodity that bordered on what might be called content-farming today.

Cather was originally hired as a fiction editor, but after a mass staff walk out over employee discontentment with the magazine’s corporate ruthlessness, she found herself leading an intense investigative project, which became such a sensation that the magazine’s circulation exploded.

“Mr. McClure tried three men at this disagreeable task, but none of them did it very well, so a month ago it was thrust upon me,” Cather wrote to a friend shortly before she was promoted to managing editor.

Cather’s natural ability saw her excel at the role, and at first she noted being enticed by the trappings of being called an “executive”, as well as the gratifications of attractive pay. Yet she soon began to reflect that the relentless intensity of journalistic productivity drained her creative capacity, which she felt was blocking her from her true calling as a literary writer.

Yet despite her misgivings, she found she was unable to tear herself away from the role – for the same complex, conflicting and often contradictory reasons any of us stay in thankless jobs, or other situations that restrict, rather than expand, our creative spirit – that do not let our souls grow.

willacather_stamp

In a letter, Cather discerns that this is, in part, down to corporate manipulation on the part of her employers. She notes that McClure was able to shape the interior conditions of life within the publication’s offices, to keep his staff running on their corporatized hamster wheel; feeding their confidence to deliver greater productivity that suited his profit margins, and fuelling their self-doubt about larger creative pursuits. She writes:

“Mr. McClure tells me that he does not think I will ever be able to do much at writing stories, that I am a good executive and I had better let it go at that. I sometimes, indeed I very often think that he is right. If I have been going forward at all in the last five years, it has been progress of the head and not of the hand. At thirty-four, one ought to have some sureness in their pen point and some facility in turning out a story.”

 

Two years later, however, in 1908, everything changed. Cather received a remarkable letter from her friend and mentor, the writer Sarah Jewett. The letter contained what so many of us need in this situations: a simultaneous hard shake of the shoulders and warm embrace. Cather discovered it was precisely the kind of wake-up call she needed to emerge from her trance of corporate productivity and focus her creative energies on the task of writing.

Jewett wrote:

“Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country — in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality — you can write about life, but never write life itself. And to write and work on this level, we must live on it — we must at least recognize it and defer to it at every step. We must be ourselves, but we must be our best selves.”

Cather replied quickly to Jewett, showcasing as she did a natural mastery of self-awareness and insight into a great many perennial perplexities of the human spirit:

“My Dear, Dear Miss Jewett;

Such a kind and earnest and friendly letter as you sent me! I have read it over many times. I have been in deep perplexity these last few years, and troubles that concern only one’s habits of mind are such personal things that they are hard to talk about. You see I was not made to have to do with affairs — what Mr. McClure calls “men and measures.” If I get on at that kind of work it is by going at it with the sort of energy most people have to exert only on rare occasions. Consequently I live just about as much during the day as a trapeze performer does when he is on the bars — it’s catch the right bar at the right minute, or into the net you go. I feel all the time so dispossessed and bereft of myself. My mind is off doing trapeze work all day long and only comes back to me when it is dog tired and wants to creep into my body and sleep. I really do stand and look at it sometimes and threaten not to take it in at all — I get to hating it so for not being any more good to me. Then reading so much poorly written matter as I have to read has a kind of deadening effect on me somehow. I know that many great and wise people have been able to do that, but I am neither large enough nor wise enough to do it without getting a kind of dread of everything that is made out of words. I feel diluted and weakened by it all the time — relaxed, as if I had lived in a tepid bath until I shrink from either heat or cold.”

At the heart of the friends’ exchange is the acute awareness of that bargain we strike between practicality and idealism; of our perceived conceptions of reality and our real, true hopes and dreams. It is the tradeoff between productivity and creativity. Cather continues in her reply to Jewett:

“Your mind becomes a card-catalogue of notes that are meaningless except as related to their proper subject.

[…]

[Mr. McClure] wants me to write articles on popular science, so called, (and other things) for half of each week, and attend to the office work in the other half. That combination would be quite possible — and, I fear perfectly deadening. He wants, above all things, good, clear-cut journalism. The which I do not despise, but I get nothing to breathe out of it and no satisfaction.”

Cather’s awareness of this tradeoff is crucial to her realisation of the need for change. She remained restless at the thought of the sacrifice she was making in buying the model of “productivity and profit” as success at the success of soulful, creative satisfaction:

“The question of work aside, one has a right to live and reflect and feel a little. When I was teaching I did. I learned more or less all the time. But now I have the feeling of standing still except for a certain kind of facility in getting the sort of material Mr. McClure wants. It’s stiff mental exercise, but it is about as much food to live by as elaborate mental arithmetic would be. — Of course there are interesting people and interesting things in the day’s work, but it’s all like going round the world in a railway train and never getting off to see anything closer. I have not a reportorial mind — I can’t get things in fleeting glimpses and I can’t get any pleasure out of them. And the excitement of it doesn’t stimulate me, it only wears me out.

Now the kind of life that makes one feel empty and shallow and superficial, that makes one dread to read and dread to think, can’t be good for one, can it? It can’t be the kind of life one was meant to live. I do think that kind of excitement does to my brain exactly what I have seen alcohol do to men’s. It seems to spread one’s very brain cells apart so that they don’t touch. Everything leaks out as the power does in a broken circuit. So whether or not the chief is right about my never doing much writing, I think one’s immortal soul is to be considered a little. He thrives on this perpetual debauch, but five years more of it will make me a fat, sour, ill-tempered lady — and fussy, worst of all! And assertive; all people who do feats on the flying trapeze and never think are as cocky as terriers after rats, you know.”

Continuing this train of thought, Cather attempts to rationalise her decisions in the same way so many of us justify tolerating circumstances that don’t serve us in the grand scheme of happiness and lived experiences:

“I have to lend a hand at home now and then, and a good salary is a good thing. Still, if I stopped working next summer I would have money enough to live very simply for three or four years. That would give me time to pull myself together. I doubt whether I would ever write very much — though that is hard to tell about for sure; since I was fifteen I have not had a patch of leisure six months long. When I was on a newspaper I had one month vacation a year, and when I was teaching I had two. Still, I don’t think that my pen would ever travel very fast, even along smooth roads. But I would write a little — “and save the soul besides [from Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book].” It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or of the stock exchange.”

Shortly after penning these thoughts to paper, Cather began working on her first novel. Yet it took her another three years to finally leave McClure’s – by which point she was one of the most powerful women in journalism.

Once she had left the oppressive corporate regime, however, Cather never looked back. Her debut novel was published the same year she left her role, and received wide critical acclaim. She subsequently published another thirteen books over the course of three decades, earning Cather the Pulitzer Prize and establishing her as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.

So, how good is your day job?

 

Thoughts of a stand-up comedian: Next year is my year

 

Microphone-Whealans

Competition season is upon us. I’ve already crashed out of two large competitions for new acts, Laughing Horse New Act of the Year and Leicester Square Theatre New Act of the Year. They’re a frustrating experience and I hate them. There’s nothing quite like the imposition of competition to make an activity which I love doing, stand-up, stressful and unpleasant.

I’m not saying this, of course, just because I failed to progress in two of the biggest competitions; but it is a factor. Laughing Horse wasn’t fun, partially because I was so very bad in it. My poor performance can, in part, be explained by a lethargic audience, tired after sitting through fifteen other acts (I was on last), including one who did a good fifteen minutes on stage instead of his allotted four. But I was also lacking in my usual energy, my presence was stilted and I visibly lost faith and interest when my first joke didn’t provoke huge laughter.

Leicester Square Theatre was frustrating for the opposite reason. I was really good and didn’t progress. I was on second and got big laughs from a large crowd. I came off stage delighted, certain that if I wasn’t placing first on the night I’d be given a wild card through to the next round. Three days of nervously checking my emails followed, before all the quarter finals were set in stone without me in them.

I don’t mean this blog to come across as the ravings of a bitter man, although it is by definition. The three acts who progressed through my heat, James Bennison, Red Richardson and Joe Jacobs, are all excellent. I wouldn’t place myself above them in a competition. There is, though, a definite annoyance at being really rather good, being told so by my peers, and then getting nothing from it. I’m insecure and ambitious and these slight failures make me ask questions that I probably needn’t. Are there inherent problems in my act? Am I actually good enough to make it as a comedian? Am I deluded?

All the comedians I’ve talked to about this, and I’ve talked to a good number because I am very insecure, have said similar things. Firstly, competitions don’t matter. They’re an accelerator, helping you get to paid gigs faster, sure, but if you’re actually any good, the recognition that a trophy brings you will come along in time anyway. Secondly, they’re essentially random. Good comedians won’t get through and rubbish ones will. It all depends on the audience, where you’re placed in the running order and a myriad of other factors. You shouldn’t worry so much, you’ll get lucky in time.

I think these are half true. Sure, a good comedian will eventually find success anyway, but I’d rather find it sooner than later. Besides, you get a thousand pounds for winning a big new act competition. I’d quite like a thousand pounds. Secondly, there is a certain element of unfair randomness but generally speaking the people who win competitions are good. There’s always a way I could have been better, without compromising my act, to wow an audience. It’s easy to blame fate, to blame the very nature of the universe. It’s harder to accept the inevitable unfairness and try to do the best with it you can.

So what now? I’m at the point, after six months and a hundred gigs, where I can comfortably do fifteen minutes in front of a packed Saturday night crowd. I’d like to move onto more paid work but there’s no real urgency yet. The mantra, repeated to friends and myself, has become “next year is my year”. I feel I’m growing as a performer all the time, I’m getting significantly better at dealing with troublesome crowds. I’ve got a healthy amount of material. I’m developing an identity. Most importantly though, I’m consistently funny. I’ve actually been paid real money. Twenty whole pounds of it.

“I tried out a joke about Jeremy Corbyn and homoeopathy the other day, and nobody in the audience either knew what Jeremy Corybn or homoeopathy were.”

Aside from the vague objective of ‘improving’ my goal is to have a half hour I’m happy with for the Edinburgh festival next year. With underlying themes and everything. I’m gradually managing to put together something that feels fairly consistent; but it’s difficult finding the time and space to try it out all at once. Most spots I do these days are ten minutes long, and I’m proud that I’ve migrated onto these longer sets from doing just five minutes so quickly, but it’s still barely enough time to lay down anything with a longer, more considered narrative.

I can find spots which are fifteen to twenty minutes long at the club where I’m now a regular: Cafe Mode. However, the audience found there, drunk party goers, aren’t the kind of people who are going to appreciate twenty minutes of satire. I tried out a joke there about Jeremy Corbyn and homoeopathy the other day, and nobody in the audience either knew what Jeremy Corybn or homoeopathy were.

The material will come together in bits then. Grown by a series of amendments to my existing cannon, trying out little new jokes that can be added to what I already have. The occasional longer two to three minute bit. I’m hoping to gain the confidence to perform new material for longer stretches, at the moment I give up at the slightest sign of trouble. Too cowardly to accept anything but instant love from an audience. A brave comic allows themselves to die. I’ve got to learn to commit suicide and come out unscathed. It’s not as dramatic as that really though, it’s just comedy.

About the author of this post

Daniel Offen is an aspiring comedian and writer. He has written four jokes and half a book. He assures us he is capable of all of the usual thoughts and emotions of an unusual twenty four year old man and will talk about them at length. He deals primarily in irony and whimsy. He tweets as @danieloffen.

 

Creatives in profile: Interview with Eric Akoto

 

Erik Akoto

In the latest of our ‘Creatives In Profile’ interview series, it is an honour to introduce Eric Akoto, Publisher and Editor in Chief of Litro Magazine.

With a journalistic background, Eric has featured in various magazines, and contributed to various books. He also curates and comperes at festivals such as The Latitude Festival and the Hay Festival. His passions lie in progressive politics, freedom of expression, quality & independence in arts and journalism, social enterprise, secularism, good technology, and above all the power of fiction to connect and bring a level of empathy to different peoples.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos

AKOTO

There’s a long story and a short story. The short story of my background is that I was born in London and raised in South London, Battersea; I had a strict African upbringing. After leaving University, it was hoped I’d become a doctor or a Lawyer; but I had a creative spirit. Not knowing how to channel that creativity, I accidently landed a job as a male model – the job required a great deal of travelling. This was about 2000. Before the dawn of email and fast internet connectivity for sending large image files – so I would always be travelling, with an A-Z & my portfolio in hand. Spending hours on end on public transport – my sense of direction is terrible so I was always late – but I lasted for a good number of years and got to work with some amazing creative designers, photographers & magazine editors, which ironically lit a spark in me to get into magazine publishing. My first attempt at a creative publication was an e-zine called LA-NYLON (Los Angeles, New York & London) – I was about 25 and fortunate to have been offered the opportunity – through the modeling- to travel to some amazing cities. I wanted to create a platform where I was able to share what I was experiencing in these cities with friends.

Reading was always a passion and the time I spent travelling to and from interviews was always spent reading a book, magazine whatever I could get my hands on.

The long story starts in 2006, when I met a guy at the London Bookfair who was handing out a pamphlet – an A4 sheet folded in half – with short stories. I took one and on my ride home on the tube started reading it and thought to myself “this is a great idea I want my friends to see this”. I had a spider web of talented friends all doing different creative stuff, and so I began reaching out to them – for artwork, cartoons, stories, design – along with this guy in the space of a month or two we’d put together about a 20 page DL sized pamphlet. I took it to a local printer and printed a few thousand copies – and began distributing them myself.  It was a fun hobby and every couple of weeks I got these amazing creative friends together to help design, bounce ideas off each other and produce this pamphlet, which I then shared with them – and the rest of my community.  Before long a year or two passed and the guy from the bookfair went on to finish his PHD – and I’d fallen in love with publishing. I started taking the pamphlet to book shops – Foyles was one of the first book chains to support the magazine and after a few meetings with them they decided to sponsor the pamphlet – I managed to then convince Time to insert the pamphlet into one of its issues – to do this I had to increase the print run to 60,000 to meet it’s print run and at the same time decided to hold more stories and add more pages to the pamphlet turning it into a magazine and I haven’t looked back since.

My ethos has been shaped by the help given to me by the creative friends who supported me – it is being able to give a platform to emerging talent and Litro Magazine over the past 10 years has allowed me to do this.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

AKOTO

 I guess anyone who is “fair” to people and know that despite a “general” direction there is always another way.  Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Malcom X, Tony Benn, Ta-Nehisi, and my daughter.

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current industry trends – where are we heading?

AKOTO

The future of literature and writing, to me has to be one of growth and diversity (diversity not in the populous term that’s now coined as a catch all for inclusion of Black and ethnic minority in the publishing industry (being a minority, Black and Male in a very white industry I find the term a little condescending) – but the diversity in the industry to embrace all talented writers through to editors, publishers; whether they be Black, Female, Transgender, Gay whatever and not to be diverse because it’s trendy. A great writer will be enjoyed and appreciated by all and not just the few.

In order to not loose the many talented emerging writers by the wayside – from the top-down of the literary industry – it must reflect today’s society.

For a long time the dialogue around the future of publishing has been one of death –  its true many publications have either transitioned to the web or given a greater focus on the web; but what the web has done for publishing is to kill off the kind of print that provides distractions of the ’10-minute-read-before-you-bin’ variety. In turn, this has cleared the way for titles that are fascinating, made with passion, collectables.

Print does a great deal that the web can’t and vice versa – there will always be the need for a tangible, haptic experiences. Ultimately, nothing can replace the smell of a printed material. Even if the web / new technologies being developed cause a shift in the regularity of the reading experience.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a Literary Magazine should be for? Why are they important?

AKOTO

The sad truth is that literature or literary magazines does not reach a wide enough audience; yet alone have any chance of competing against other entertainment options – Binge TV watching, movies, journalism and non-fiction. More people will camp outside an Apple store for the launch of a new iPhone than they would for the lunch of a new literary magazine or a book. If the competition was a boxing match, there would be an inquest as to why the referee allowed the match to start in the first place.

It’s important for a literary magazine – on surviving its daily pounding from other entertainment options, it’s struggles with lack of funding – to produce a publication that does not just cater to writers but for the general reader – a platform for writers to write, emerging voices to be heard, but importantly a place for it’s contributors to develop a place to be heard for their particular beliefs or aims that they feel will better society and move culture in a positive direction.

Contributors to literary magazine’s should not expect to be published because they have done the rounds and feel it’s their turn to be published; but instead should be contributing because they feel their voice / story has something to say. And it’s in the publishing of these contributors that makes a literary magazine important.

Litro Magazine, for instance, has a clear identity. We have always championed and provided a platform for emerging writers, whether through print, online, festival stages, our newly launched literary agency – Litro Represents – and through other opportunities.

But alongside this, we also publish contributors with arguments about the current cultural dialogue, and political landscape – through the monthly themes of Litro Magazine – we do this so we can encourage an attitude to writing that goes beyond just getting one’s name in print.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the publishing industry; with numerous magazines switching from print to online, and others starting out and continuing as purely digital platforms. How do you balance the two outlets of print and digital with Litro? What are the different challenges you face with each of these?

AKOTO

I’m an early adaptor and a big tech geek, but I also enjoy the tangible feel of the printed form. There’s nothing better than meeting a person for the first time having a passing conversation – and for that person to then send you a book he/she has read and feels you will enjoy!

The internet has certainly provided a massive opportunity for writers – and consumers; but I don’t see a fight between print and the internet (for one thing print would surely loose before the bell rang). Instead, I see a nice challenge – how one can get the two to compliment each other. For instance, three years ago we started our collective story telling on twitter the #litrostory; and the experiment has been a great way to reach a new audience and followers on social media and draw them to the magazine.

INTERVIEWER

The magazine and online platform both look to combine various different aspects of literature – and indeed, culture in general, through a medium of different forms; from stories to reviews and comment or feature pieces. Why do you think it is important to combine these mediums?

AKOTO

I started Litro to share stories with friends who not only have differing practices but also differing interests – and I’d like to think of Litro Magazine’s readers as the same.

INTERVIEWER

Literature, and ultimately all art, is about communication and expression. How does Litro fit within our cultural conversation? And how do we ensure the conversation carries on?

AKOTO

I’m sure many in the publishing industry see Litro Magazine as incomprehensible – considering the fact we don’t just cover literature, yet we still call ourselves a literary magazine. The great thing about Litro being a small magazine compared to our larger, older contemporaries – who have greater access to funding and trusts set up – is that we are able to address topics and questions more openly.

The classical musician Bach was dismissed by his peers, who thought his music was incomprehensible. Employed by a church to play the organ, he was rebuked as having  “many curious variations in the chorale, and for having mingled many strange tones in it, and for the fact that the congregation has been confused by it”.

With Litro we provide a platform for the unheard, the experimental – and at times unpopular.

For literature and all art, we need to ensure the conversation continues to flow – so all of us – especially those in a position to help support the arts – must not be afraid to experiment and take chances.

INTERVIEWER

David Foster Wallace once opined that it was “getting harder and harder to sit quietly by yourself and think hard about something for thirty minutes instead of thirty seconds”. Do you believe that the ‘instant gratification’ culture of iPods, televisions in car back seats and constant information on our smartphones is having an impact on us as readers? How can the publishing industry counter this? How do we engage our readers effectively?

AKOTO

Our reading habits as a whole has been impacted by the rise of the use of smartphones and other hand held devices. Developments in technology moves so fast that I guess an ‘iPod’ now belongs in a museum.

Whether the change in our collective thirst for instant gratification needs countering – on the one hand yes, but the book as a product and the way it is consumed – has had to change to keep with the times, in the same way music consumption changed from a product packaged on a TDK cassette tape, on vinyl, or a CD, to a file on a smartphone or iPod.

But will book reading actually suffer – and its consumption need more engaging?

I doubt it. My daughter – who at just 11 has more handheld devices than I have, with Kindles, iPhones…you name it! –  But recently she not only re-introduced me to one of Kipling’s poems – but also to a poem by Jacqueline Woodson, New York from her collection Brown Girl Dreaming – a book I ordered on Amazon.

The new era of books may actually see more authors, more reading, and more books being bought and sold.

 INTERVIEWER

Could you name your top five writers – and explain why they impress you?

AKOTO

I am impressed and engaged by so many writers it’s far too difficult to limit to just five.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

AKOTO

For me, creativity is passion, and wanting to unleash something you feel you need to share, beyond your immediate surroundings and not having the fear of ridicule stop you from doing so. Ultimately, creativity is the need to create something new, which is very hard to do.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

AKOTO

I stopped watching the Television a while ago – which has been a great help, I like to run in my local park – I’m fortunate to live not too far from Hyde Park, which has a lot of green open space.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

AKOTO

Read, Read, Read, Read and Read some more – even it’s just a menu at a restaurant, a random magazine you pick up whilst travelling – you never know where your inspiration might come from. It’s also good to have a complete knowledge and understanding of whatever it is you end up writing.

The loneliness of the long distance writer

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Studying the daily routines of many famous writers, one is immediately struck by how many rely on physical exercise to support their mental cogitations. Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, favoured long swims at his local municipal pool, accompanied by “doing sit ups and push ups all the time”, while author Tim Leach has prescribed rock climbing as a writing aid, noting how “both writing and rock climbing share a kind of rarefied loneliness”. Countless other writers, meanwhile, have found solace in the hypnotic action of racking up mile after mile in solitary, focused long-distance running.

Louisa May Alcott, for instance, thought she “must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run”. Famous misanthropic satirist, Jonathan Swift, meanwhile, would “run half a mile up and down a hill every two hours” during his 20s, according to Samuel Johnson. Then of course we have the novelist Haruki Murakami, who started running to get healthy and lose weight, but who found in running something essentially important to the mindset of the writer, noting how he felt his “real existence as a serious writer began on the day that I first went jogging.”

So what precisely is it, about running, which seems to lend itself so aptly to the art of writing?

Joyce Carol Oates ascribes the twin activities of running and writing “to keep the writer reasonably sane and with the hope, however illusory and temporary, of control”, and notes that she would ease any bouts of writing block with afternoon runs.

Freedom, consciousness and wildness

For Oates and other writers, running is thus a process that proves especially useful for the type of intensive, cloistered work they do. But perhaps it goes beyond that. After all, there seems a natural similarity between the two actions; they complement each other, seeming to be the natural extension of the other. The steady accumulation of miles mirrors the accumulation of words on the page, and both aspire toward a clear finishing line: either the end of the run, or else the end of the novel. Equally, while both are challenging, they can also invoke a sense of joy and elation – heavy physical exercise releases endorphins, while the rush and exhilaration of finding a writing rhythm and flow similarly brings forth feelings of ecstasy (no wonder Vladimir Nabokov described writing as “a drug”).

Both Leach’s “lonely” rock climbing and long distance running, therefore, offer a combination of freedom, consciousness and wildness – an ability for writers to escape their surroundings with a sense of purpose that is necessary for cultivating deep thought, or working out constraints and challenges within their writing.

Running is important to writing, then, because it opens channels. It expands our potential and helps us grow – to better understand the world. Our minds are free to linger on thoughts they otherwise would not; in a kind of simulated – but nonetheless stimulating solitude that helps us better understand who we are, at our very deepest levels, as human beings.

Perhaps nowhere in literature is this crucial aspect of running captured better than in Adam Sillitoe’s short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Famously, this work began as two alliterative lines of verse, written by Sillitoe upon being struck by the serene calmness of a young man bedecked in a running vest and shorts trotting past his cottage.

Sillitoe’s short story focuses on Smith – a working class teenager with bleak prospects in life and few interests beyond petty crime – who turns to long-distance running as a method of both an emotional and physical escape, and as a means of mental reflection. As he runs and thinks alone, Smith – perhaps inevitably – turns to writing; and it is he who narrates his own story, in a perfect summation of the symbiotic relationship between writing and individual cogitation on notions of ‘the self’ during bouts of solitary exercise.

Expanding consciousness and self-education

This idea is expanded upon by Oates, who in 1972 began keeping a journal to accompany a new-found “compulsive” need to run. She writes: “[Running] is not a respite for the intensity of writing but is a function of writing […] running seems to allow me an expanded consciousness in which I can envision what I’m writing as a film or a dream.”

Don DeLillo echoes such sentiment, as he recalls the transporting effects of running after his morning writing sessions in an interview with The Paris Review: “Running helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle – it’s a nice kind of interlude.”

The solitary exercise of long-distance running seems, in many ways, to be part of self-education – and indeed of self-revelation; just as writing is. This is pointed out by Murakami in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, as he attributes “most of what I know about writing fiction I learned from running every day”. On the one hand, running is about constantly striving for new challenges and fresh goals – competing ever longer distances in the quest for better conditioning of our bodies – and on the other hand it helps us better express how this makes us feel through our words; supporting us in writing as we seek to better condition our minds and souls.

This isn’t simple conjecture based on hearsay from other creatives, either. Indeed, there are an increasing number of scientific studies that show a connection between aerobic exercise – which increases the flow of blood to the brain – and enhanced mental capacity. For example, a study by Oppezzo and Shwartz demonstrated that walking boosts “creative ideation” both in real time and shortly after (though this effect can also be induced by other activities, such as knitting).

Perhaps, then, the perfect daily routine for writing should include both long periods of solitary exercise, followed by periods of writing interspersed with periods set aside for knitting. Or perhaps the clue to the perfect daily routine for writing actually lies in those crucial words “daily routine”. For composition and writing is so rarely sustained by one momentary act of inspiration; but rather by daily perseverance and steady progress.

When creativity flows, it really flows; just like an invigorating run where you finally “hit your stride” – and it is no coincidence that this same phrase is used by writers and runners alike to describe the moment when work becomes joy.

But of course, simply running regularly will not be enough on its own to invoke the muse of creativity. It is not necessarily an instant cure for writer’s block. Yet it is through the same effort, determination and repetition of the act necessary to perfect the running process and push ourselves toward our long-distance goals that we must bring the same commitment to writing; turning up day in, day out, regardless of weather, or whether we feel “inspired” enough; and sitting down at our desks and putting word after word and sentence after sentence, just as we place one foot in front of the other out on the road.

In a 2004 interview with Runner’s World, Murakami sums this up pretty succinctly:

“The most important qualities to be a writer are probably imaginative ability, intelligence, and focus. But in order to maintain these qualities in a high and constant level, you must never neglect to keep up your physical strength. Without a solid base of physical strength, you can’t accomplish anything very intricate or demanding. That’s my belief. If I did not keep running, I think my writing would be very different from what it is now.”

Why we write

At one point or another, it seems as though nearly every significant writer in history has tried to address the question of why writers write. Some suggest the impulse to put pen to paper is down to a desire to better understand one’s own self; for others, it is the desire to understand the world, other human beings, reality. For some, writing is redemption. It is a means of freedom. Others, meanwhile, simply write for the fun of it.

Of course, there is – and never could be – a single answer to this question. Yet it nonetheless mesmerises us – partly, perhaps, as a piece of psychological voyeurism, as well as because it seems so hopeful and enticing a prospect that, by garnering a slight glimpse of the innermost drivers of great writers, maybe – just maybe – we might be able to replicate their workings and their motivation in our own work.

In this article, we attempt to highlight certain writers and their views on writing motivation.

George Orwell: Four universal motives of writing and creative work

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George Orwell: Photograph: Public Domain

Orwell’s 1946 essay Why I Write begins by detailing his less than idyllic childhood – absentee father, school mockery and bullying, and a profound sense of loneliness – and proposes that such early micro-traumas are essential for any writer’s drive. He then lays out what he believes to be the four main motives for writing (full version here):

“(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Ray Bradbury: Writing is joy and celebration

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Bradbury’s remarkable keynote address at the Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea brims with an invaluable reflective view on why you should write. It’s a simple mantra, really, because it’s about fun:

“Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say “Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…”, you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else. […] I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year. ”

Watch the full address here:

William Faulkner: Man is so amazing and beautiful that the writer must put it down on paper

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In May 1958, Faulkner read from his favourite novel, The Sound and the Fury, at an event open to the general public. After the reading, he answered questions from the audience. The surviving recording is of questionable audio quality but makes up for it in the utter depth and richness of insight into the author’s views on writing and the project of art:

“You’re alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He’s flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them — not individually but as a race.

The writer is so interested — he sees this as so amazing and you might say so beautiful… It’s so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man — frail, foolish man — has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way… some gallant way.

That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You’re never bored. You never reach satiation.

[…] I’m writing about people. Man involved in the human dilemma, facing the problems bigger than he, whether he licks them or whether they lick him. But man as frail and fragile as he is, yet he will keep on trying to be brave and honest and compassionate, and that, to me, is very fine and very interesting — and that is the reason I think any writer writes.”

Isabel Allende: Writing is an obsession

Isabel Allende - Register files

Isabel Allende – Register files

Celebrated Chilean American author Isabel Allende has famously spoken about writing “gave some sort of order to the chaos of life” after experiencing personal tragedy (her daughter, Paula, died in 1992). Indeed, she insists that storytelling is rooted in personal experience, and is, in so many ways, an obsession:

“I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story? I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later. Over the years I’ve discovered that all the stories I’ve told, all the stories I will ever tell, are connected to me in some way. If I’m talking about a woman in Victorian times who leaves the safety of her home and comes to the Gold Rush in California, I’m really talking about feminism, about liberation, about the process I’ve gone through in my own life, escaping from a Chilean, Catholic, patriarchal, conservative, Victorian family and going out into the world.”

Susan Orlean: Writing feels like magic

susanorlean

New Yorker staff writer and journalist, Orlean, has previously noted that the first rule of writing is that “you have to simply love it, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.” Yet she goes further when reflecting on her own writing motivation:

“Writing gives me great feelings of pleasure. There’s a marvelous sense of mastery that comes with writing a sentence that sounds exactly as you want it to. It’s like trying to write a song, making tiny tweaks, reading it out loud, shifting things to make it sound a certain way. It’s very physical. I get antsy. I jiggle my feet a lot, get up a lot, tap my fingers on the keyboard, check my e-mail. Sometimes it feels like digging out of a hole, but sometimes it feels like flying. When it’s working and the rhythm’s there, it does feel like magic to me.”

Italo Calvino: writing is becoming part of a collective enterprise

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From his collection of letters (1941 – 1985), Calvino often addresses the motivation beneath his attempts at poetry, fiction – and even letter writing:

“Personally, I believe in fiction because the stories I like are those with a beginning and an end. I try to write them as they best come to me, depending on what I have to say. We are in a period when in literature and especially in fiction one can do anything, absolutely anything, and all styles and methods coexist. What the public (and also the critics) require are books (“open” novels) that are rich in substance, density, tension. […] One writes most of all in order to take part in a collective enterprise.

[…] The fact is that I have always been more a writer of short stories than a novelist, and it is second nature to me to close — both in formal and conceptual terms — even a story that remains open; to condense into a short narrative space all the elements that give a sense of completion to the story. However, I do not mean by this that I am in favor only of short time-spans — or rather, there is no doubt that we are living in a period in which time has been shattered, there is no room to breathe, no possibility of foreseeing and planning ahead, and that this rhythm is imposed on what I write — but ideally I believe more and more that the only thing that counts is what moves in long, very long time-spans, both in geological eras and in the history of society. Trying to work out the directions in which these things are moving is very difficult; for that reason I feel more and more incapable of understanding what really is happening in a world which does nothing but prove each model wrong. “

Joy Williams: Writing is fumbling around in the light

joywilliams

In her beautiful essay, Uncanny Singing That Comes From Certain Husks, Williams considers the impetus for writing with equal parts insight, irreverence, and that blend of anguishing ambivalence and convulsive conviction so characteristic of the writer’s mind.

“It’s become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole, he has a wound, he writes to heal it, but who cares if the writer is not whole, of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well. There is something unwholesome and destructive about the entire writing process. Writers are like eremites or anchorites — natural-born eremites or anchorites — who seem puzzled as to why they went up the pole or into the cave in the first place. Why am I so isolate in this strange place? Why is my sweat being sold as elixir? And how have I become so enmeshed with works, mere works, phantoms?

[…]

A writer starts out, I think, wanting to be a transfiguring agent, and ends up usually just making contact, contact with other human beings. This, unsurprisingly, is not enough. (Making contact with the self — healing the wound — is even less satisfactory.) Writers end up writing stories — or rather, stories’ shadows — and they’re grateful if they can but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough. […] A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.”

Writing tips from writers (Volume II)

Writer’s Block. It sounds like a fearsome condition, a creative blockage. The end of invention. But what is it, really?

Often, it’s created from conflicting, unhelpful desires – we want the writing to be perfect; but we also want the novel to be finished as quickly as possible. We want the words we write to be good; but can’t bear to put them down on the page in case they are bad. We like using semi-colons, because we’ve been to college; but we also love Kurt Vonnegut and we know how he feels about them, so we just use boring old commas instead.

Okay, so that last one isn’t the most difficult challenge to overcome in writing our magnum opuses; but it’s often these smaller, minute details that cause writers the most grief. You can be overcome by a fear that the precise way you’ve written a sentence isn’t quite right – and you grow frustrated as you try to change your story on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Surely, if every sentence and word and turn of phrase is constructed perfectly, the novel will take care of itself?

Such concerns are, of course, ultimately self-defeating. Because the only way to actually write something is to write it!

But then, perhaps the hardest part of writing is actually starting to write. Hemingway, after all, famously opined that the most frightening thing he had ever encountered was “A blank sheet of paper.”

So just how do you go about facing an empty page, coaxing your ideas into the world of form, and steering the end result toward shore? To help you cast off, we’ve compiled a list of #WritingTips – from writers; for writers.

 

Cherish feelings of inadequacy – Will Self

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“You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.”

Stay drunk – Ray Bradbury
raybradbury

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

You need rules you can rely on – George Orwell

George Orwell at a typewriter

“One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Only tell stories you can tell – Neil Gaiman

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“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you.”

Allow yourself to lose track of your writing – John Steinbeck

 John Steinbeck

“Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.”

Cut out exclamation marks – F. Scott Fitzgerald

F Scott Fitzgerald

“Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”

You need to have guts – Sylvia Plath

 Sylvia Plath

“Everything in life is writable is you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

Find your writing signature – Raymond Carver

 raymond-carver

“Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications. It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.”

Protect your writing time and space – Zadie Smith

 Dress to impress … Zadie Smith's Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets has been nominated for the BBC's £15,

“Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” 

Is there such a thing as the ‘perfect daily routine’ for writing?

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During her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Pearl S. Buck thrilled a captive audience with her description of the shimmering aliveness from which a creative work is born: “The creative instinct is, in its final analysis and in its simplest terms, an enormous extra vitality, a super-energy, born inexplicably to an individual, a vitality great beyond all the needs of his own living […] this energy consumes itself then in creating more life, in the form of music, painting, writing or whatever is its most natural medium of expression […] it is a process proceeding from within. It is the heightened activity of every cell.”

This description of inspiration – an event (if we might describe it thus) both mental and physical – will be recognisable to all creative types who have ever been overcome by it. Yet discovering it has been, at best, an elusive hunt. Whether it is even possible to manufacture the conditions necessary to draw inspiration out from whichever haunt it keeps, so that it might spur the creative onto create the art they seek to make, remains a contentious debate. Is there a way to produce the inspiration needed – and also to keep hold of that inspiration long enough to express it adequately – to produce a great creative work? Or is there a mystic, divine-intervention element to inspiration and creativity?

It is the belief – or hope – that inspiration and creativity can be nurtured by the practices and processes we, as creatives, employ, which remains the unspoken assumption beneath all creative writing courses; in the subtext of all writing tips from writers; and behind the daily routines employed by creatives. They point to what might be described as the ritualization of creativity – or attempts to advise others as to what daily processes they may employ to invoke the muse.

There is something quasi-religious, half-ceremonial about such processes and routines. Writers can get quite pernickety about them. Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, wrote his final drafts on separate pieces of paper attached to a running scroll with sealing wax. James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat – and composed Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard.  Virginia Woolf spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-a-half foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to work both up close and from afar. John Steinbeck, who liked to write his drafts in pencil, always kept exactly twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. Truman Capote wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday, would change hotel rooms if the room phone number involved the number 13, and never left more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray.

Yet does such ceremony – rooted in strange uneasy feelings of superstition – actually help the creative writer? Or is it down to sheer determination? Samuel Johnson, after all, said simply that “composition is for the most part an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance”, and contended that, rather than need a particularly angled desk, “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”

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Intriguingly, psychological analysis suggests these creative rituals may be both cognitively sound and creatively fruitful.

The Psychology of Writing

Cognitive psychologist, Ronald T Kellogg, illuminates the role of the daily routine in producing inspiration and enhancing creativity in his work The Psychology of Writing. In this volume, he explores how work schedules, behavioral rituals, and writing environments all effect how much time we spend trying to write – and also influence how much of that time is spent feeling bored, anxious, or bound up in actually writing or being otherwise creative. Kellogg writes:

“[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance… The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of a writer’s method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state. Moreover, in accordance with encoding specificity, each of these aspects of method may trigger retrieval of ideas, facts, plans, and other relevant knowledge associated with the place, time, or frame of mind selected by the writer for work.”

Among many of Kellogg’s interesting findings relating to the impact of our writing habits and environments, is the attention paid to background noise. Here, we find that high-intensity noise (exceeding 95 decibels) disrupts performance on complex tasks but improves it on simple, boring tasks. The reason for this is that noise raises arousal levels, which helps us stay alert during mindless and monotonous work, but can distract and agitate us out of creative work when immersed in the kind of work that requires deliberate, reflective thought. Scientific evidence to support therefore, our previous suggestion that when it comes to writing, we need silence.

Yet the degree to which we are affected by such environmental factors also concerns our natural disposition toward anxiety (or lack thereof). Kellogg notes that writers more afflicted with anxiety – an unfortunately rising epidemic in our 24/7, post-Fordist, hyper-commercialised, society – tend to be more disconcerted by noisy environments. And the degree to which one feels anxious similarly affects how much noise one can put up with. This is almost scaleable – so that on the one hand you have Proust – who wrote in a cork-lined room to eliminate obtrusive sounds – and the other you have Allen Ginsberg, who was known for being able to write anywhere; from trains to planes to public parks and bustling streets.

Each writer, therefore, has a highly subjective requirement for what makes a daily creative routine effective in preserving the state of inspiration and creativity:

“The lack of interruption in trains of thought may be the critical ingredient in an environment that enables creative flow. As long as a writer can tune out background noise, the decibel level per se may be unimportant. For some writers, the dripping of a faucet may be more disruptive than the bustle of a cafe in the heart of a city.”

Forget the 9 to 5

Another key observation Kellogg makes regards the amount of time spent writing. Several studies indicate that working for 1 to 3 hours at a time, then taking a break before resuming, is most conducive to productivity. What is more, studies on circadian rhythms suggest that performance on intellectual tasks peak during morning hours, whereas perceptual motor tasks fare better in the afternoon and evening.

Intriguingly, these findings almost perfectly mirror Kurt Vonnegut’s daily routine. Perhaps therefore showing that certain creatives are naturally predisposed to work in a way that naturally complements their creative inclinations.

The dedicated workspace

As to the location and physical environment needed to nurture creativity, Kellogg notes that writers’ dedicated workspaces tend to involve solitude and quiet, although in youth – “the apprenticeship phase of a writer’s career” – almost any environment is workable, perhaps a hybrid function of youth’s high tolerance for distraction and the necessity of sharing space earlier in life when the luxuty of privacy is unaffordable.
Good news, then, for young writers currently facing (in the UK at least) the crippling effects of a conservative government seemingly hell set on forcing the young to bear the brunt of austerity measures, with lack of housing, huge debts and no jobs. Thank heavens for small mercies, eh?

But Kellogg points out that the key thing to remember, when it comes to these environments,  that there is little here to do with superstitious ritualization — an effort to summon the muse through the elaborate juju of putting everything in its right place — as cognitive cueing. Kellogg considers the usefulness of a special space used solely for writing, which cultivates an “environment that cues the desired behavior”:

“This phenomenon can be reinterpreted in terms of the cognitive concept of encoding specificity. The abstract ideas, images, plans, tentative sentences, feelings, and other personal symbols that represent the knowledge needed to construct a text are associated with the place and time of the writing environment. These associations are strongest when the writer engages in few if any extraneous activities in the selected environment. Entering the environment serves as a retrieval cue for the relevant knowledge to enter the writer’s awareness. Once the writer’s attention turns to the ideas that pop into consciousness, the composing process flows again. Particular features of the environment may serve as specific prompts for retrieving, creating, and thinking.

For instance, a scene outside an office window, a painting hanging on the wall, or a plant sitting in the corner may become associated with thinking deeply about a particular text under development. Staring at the feature elicits knowledge representations bearing on the problem at hand.”

Flexibility of human thought

Yet for all these routines, insights and analysis, Kellogg notes astutely at the end of his book that the multitude of different practices and processes used by writers suggests more about us as human beings than any set guidance to creating the ‘perfect routine’ for nourishing creative thought.

In his closing chapter, he says: “The diversity in environments chosen by writers, from Proust’s cork-lined room to Sarraute’s Parisian cafe, suggests the flexibility of human thought. A person can think in any environment, though some locations become habitual for certain individuals. The key is to find an environment that allows concentrated absorption in the task and maximum exposure to retrieval cues that release relevant knowledge from long-term memory.”

Despite all the available strategies for ‘optimising creativity’, then, one truth – the ‘Capital T-Truth’ remains: there is no ideal cork-lined study with the perfectly angled chair rotated to the acceptable degree of inspiration creation. No matter how perfectly you position your desk clock, or sharpen your pencil, you cannot guarantee that Booker Prize.

Ultimately, what actually counts is sitting down, clocking in the hours and showing up day in and day out, without fail, without romance, and writing; writing; reading; reading; editing; editing; and writing. More than superstition, it’s about effort. And more than luck; it’s about love.