Zen and the Art of Creative Writing

The things I have written this year are ‘Not For Publication’ (NFP). Am I wasting precious time? I think not. I am practising the art of creative writing and trying to adjust to this lifestyle. I like it. It suits my psyche. I feel like I am in the apprenticeship phase of my writing life, despite the fact of my Earth years.

I have written a short story from a particular incident from my family history. It could be for publication, but is it finished? I am not sure.

I have also written my life story, to get that out of the way and out of my head. Not for publication, but I feel relieved of the burden and the obstacle to a freer creative mind.

My own personal writing process has been revealed to me. I now understand how this energetic force unfurls within me, and then abates with The End, post editing of the Zero Draft.

Writing desk

    I feel well behind when it comes to my skills with crafting the English language. I place blame in part on the negligent curriculum set by Victoria’s Education department during the 1970’s. Grammar was not taught at all, and yet this is an essential tool for being able to express oneself properly, and this leads to effective and genuine communication. This society now converses in memes and acronyms, and we can see how that’s going.

    I favoured math, design, art, science, became an Industrial Designer and left English behind me in secondary school. And yet I have always needed an outlet to express my thoughts and ideas. My main blog is Sues Bent that I began in 2008. While continuing with this blog, I have also written for my side projects such as our big trip around Australia, and my love of French culture.

    Of course, I have written work-related items during my years employed as an Information Professional: reports, media briefs, copy for websites and advertisements, instructional manuals, strategic plans, and created presentations.

    All of this writing over many years has strengthened that muscle. I have put in the ten thousand hours towards mastery (as prescribed by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers).

    I feel match ready.

    My Self-Initiated Lifelong Learning Experience continues and I draw further learning about the English language and writing from Benjamin McEvoy and his Hardcore Literature teachings. The Writers HQ continues to be a great source for motivation.

    I have my Writing Plan and some ideas for 2023.

    Next month I will write a review of 2022; things accomplished, books read, writing completed, etc. I have done this before, inspired by Chris Guillebeau. It is great way to plan for the year ahead.

    PS The title of this blog post highlights my love of the 1974 book by Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I wonder if Benjamin McEvoy has a tutorial on this classic novel.

    My writing process

    Since returning from Mick & Sue’s Aussie Adventure last year, I have been writing. And I have been able to ascertain my own process.

    Writing desk and equipment

    Here is the outline of that process:

    • I can hold the idea in my head for many years before I set pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.
    • Once I do though I can be driven each day, focused and intent on getting the words down.
    • I break it down into chunks, or scenes, or chapters.
    • I list these on PowerPoint slides, and in an Excel list, and also scribbled onto post-it notes that I stick onto a poster on the wall near my desk. These can be easily juggled.
    • I am a visual person by nature, so I find relevant images to enhance my creative flow. These could be from my own collection of photographs or found on the World Wide Web. These act as prompts.
    • I try to apply myself to writing out each chapter as best I can and work my way methodically through my list of scenes/chapters.
    • I save all of my work as I go onto a hard drive and an USB.
    • Once this is done, I save these into a PDF format and copy the files onto my iPad using the Bluefire Reader app. This keeps my work “clean” and I can see and read it through properly.
    • I edit by reading and rereading these chapters day after day. Depending on where I am reading, I will note any changes onto my smartphone or in a notebook.
    • I can’t put it aside until I am happy with what I have written.
    • Each time I make changes I have to update all of my files and the PDFs on my iPad to ensure I have the latest version. This can be time-consuming.
    • Perhaps a software program such as Scrivener would handle all of this process for me, but I’m still learning, finding my way and what suits me. Also, what is inherent to my nature and how I engage with the creative flow.
    • I find it hard to do anything else while I am held in the throes of this story that is calling to be told. I can spend all day at my desk at this task, even foregoing my daily walk. I will need to remedy this though.
    • I usually work in silence. Music and podcasts can be distracting. Sometimes I will play some classical music. When updating though I can play some more upbeat tunes.
    • I don’t like to talk about my work while it is in process. I’m not sure why this is. Do I feel it is not good enough? Am I embarrassed? Will it kill the magic? Perhaps there is still the option to bin the whole lot?

    I have just finished the zero draft of a new project. I am still not prolific with my word count. I am in the process of rereading and editing and soon I will let it sit. I’m not sure about it yet. Will I bin it? But I felt I needed to write this particular work to get it out of the way. I want to move on. I want to try my hand at something else. At the moment I’m waiting for the next idea to take hold. I know it will come.

    Catching butterflies

    “Catching butterflies” is a poetic notion offered by author Jock Serong at a recent workshop at the Peninsula Writers Club, that I attended recently.

    Jock Serong presenting at the Peninsula Writers Club

    It refers to one of the ways writers engage with the creative process. The butterflies are the ideas that flit around in our heads, or out in the ether. As writers (or artists) we get a glimpse of the colour, a shimmer of light reflected from their wings, and then it is gone. Maybe to return.

    How quick do we respond? Can we catch it, study it, pin it down, find the words to describe it accurately? Or will it dart away to another creative soul who will be ready? Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic, expresses the idea that ideas have their own life that is independent of the writer. If one creative person will not express it, the idea will find another willing creative.

    The topic of the workshop with Jock Serong was Plotting and Structure. He paced us through his ideas, giving examples from his books, and others. I liked his presentation style and the easy logic of his process. His description of his own novels inspired me to want to read them, as I haven’t yet. The Settlement is his most recent and the third of a trilogy.

    We did a few exercises that he set for us. One was to put a character into a stressful situation and see how they react. A method often used by Stephen King.

    We wrote for ten minutes. Others read out what they had written, and they were great. How quickly they put themselves into this character and the situation. Meanwhile I was still imagining my hero in her setting. Obviously, we have different approaches, but it illustrates my beginner’s ability, compared to the seasoned writers in the club

    I was not disheartened though and left with a new ‘to-do’ list and fresh ideas. I made a structure table for my story and will have a look at the Scrivener software. I am now reading On Writing by Stephen King as this seems to always crop up as a ‘must read’ book for writers.

    My own story has a new thread and I have plotted out the scenes, ready to start writing.

    Writer’s Work

    After attending the Writer’s Workshop this month provided by the Peninsula Writers Club and facilitated by author Kate Mildenhall, I have been quietly contemplating… and not much actual writing.

    Group picture – Peninsula Writer’s Club – 7 August 2022

    The workshop on Pitching and Publishing was useful, but more so were the exercises and discussions with all of the writers in the room. It was interesting to hear about the progress of other writer’s projects, successes, and not so successful experiences.

    I felt energised after the event and came home to prepare my own Annual Writing Work Plan. I am great at writing plans: work plans, project plans, communication plans, staff development plans, implementation plans. And I am happy with the personal creative writing plan that I prepared for myself.

    I now have a year’s worth of relevant resources to work through in order to expand and deepen this skill of creative writing. I will list some of them below for reference.

    Kate Mildenhall was an excellent facilitator for this workshop and her former career in the teaching profession was evident. I had already read and enjoyed her historical fiction Skylarking and after this workshop read The Mother Fault. I confessed to her that I could see many similarities between her novel Skylarking and my work-in-progress. We both had identified Anne of Green Gables as a story that was of a similar strain to our own works. So, yes, similarities, but totally different tales.

    My own story sits idle. But I now have an idea about how to develop my story further. The ideas sit inside my head, as the main story did for years before I downloaded it from my brain through my fingers onto paper and computer and wove it into a comprehensible narrative. I am at the point where I need to sit and get these new ideas onto ‘paper’. I will need to prepare a storyboard like I did for the main part of the story, and then plot the scenes and weave the new scenes into the other part of the story that I have already completed. So, while the creative ideas continue to percolate in my head, I write lists of things to do, and read books about writing.

    Here are some resources (in no particular order) that I have incorporated into my Annual Writing Work Plan (some I have read and listened to already*):

    BOOKS ABOUT WRITING

    • Save the Cat! Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody*                                                  
    • The Artists Way by Julia Cameron*
    • The Vein of Gold by Julia Cameron*                                                        
    • Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark *                            
    • Use Your Words: A Myth-Busting, No-Fear Approach to Writing by Catherine Deveny       
    • Everything I Know About Writing by Annie Dillard                                                                              
    • Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert*                                
    • Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg*                               
    • Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg*                                                   
    • Searching for The Secret River by Kate Grenville                                 
    • Ten Things About Writing: Build Your Story One Word at A Time by Joanne Harris *
    • Night Fishing by Vicki Hastrich                                   
    • On Writing by Stephen King                                                        
    • Steal Like an Artist, Show Your Work, Keep Going by Austin Kleon                                              
    • The Writer Laid Bare by Lee Koffman                                                     
    • Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott                                                          
    • The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy                                                          
    • Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum                                          
    • Writing Your Life by Patti Miller*                                                              
    • How to be an Artist by Jerry Saltz                                                              
    • A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders                                                         
    • The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr                                                 
    • The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp                                                           
    • The Little Red Writing Book by Mark Tredinnick
    • The Luminous Solution by Charlotte Wood                                          
    • The Writer’s Room by Charlotte Wood                                                   
    • How Fiction Works by James Wood         

    PODCASTS

    • Magic Lessons by Elizabeth Gilbert*
    • The First Time by Katherine Collette and Kate Mildenhall
    • The Garret: Writers on Writing by Astrid Edwards             
    • The Writers Room by Charlotte Wood
    • Ruts and Routines by Madeline Dore
    • How to Fail by Elizabeth Day
    • Keeping a Notebook by Nina LaCour
    • Writer’s Routine by Dan Simpson
    • Between the Covers: Conversations with Writers by David Naimon
    • So, You Want to Be a Writer by Valerie Khoo and Vic Writers Centre
    • First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing by Mitzi Rapkin
    • James and Ashley Stay at Home by James Watson and Ashley Blunt          
    • The Screenwriting Life by Meg LeFauve and Lorien McKenna       
    • Dead & Buried by Carly Godden and Lee Hooper*

    SOME OTHER RESOURCES

    Finishing the Zero Draft

    With reluctance and humility, I set down the zero draft of my story.

    It is the story about a teenage girl growing up in Portland and Cape Bridgewater during the years of drought and World War 1. It is a family story about hardship and poverty. At this stage I have just over 21,000 words in 21 chapters and 65 pages. So, it is short; too short?!

    I have enjoyed the creative process of letting the story unfold. I have felt the emotions of my hero, lived in the era, understood the hardship, and asked the questions as they arose in my hero’s mind.

    The story still needs: time to sit and set, to be fully edited, more emotion, more detail, more prose, more relationship, more revelations, more words, more wordsmithing.

    Of course, it falls short of my high expectations, trying to follow in the footsteps of classic Australian novelists. But despite years of writing this and that, it is my first real attempt at writing a “book”.

    While I wait for my story to cook, I will study the works of other authors and see what devices they use to embellish, evoke, and portray.

    Zero Draft

    Melding into my Zero Draft I enjoy the gentle ebb and flow of the story unfolding. Just five chapters in, still setting the scene, I visit the world of my hero like a time travelling tourist. It is nostalgic even though I have never lived in this time or place.

    Farm at the Cape. Copy of original painting by unknown artist, c. 1895

    Helping this beginner writer to navigate my way I use the wisdom and assistance of the Writers’ HQ in the UK. They offer short online courses and this year I have done the Balance Your Writing Life Challenge and now I am completing Editing 101 in readiness for when I do eventually finish the Zero Draft.

    I have also read Save The Cat! Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody and have applied the Beat Sheet to my plot, providing me with a more detailed understanding of my hero’s journey.

    I feel freed to hear the quote by Terry Pratchett:

    “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

    With no real deadline I have the luxury to enjoy the process as it unfolds. I do not aim to meet a certain number of words per day or sit at my desk at a certain time for a specific number of days. I find that if I try to force the creative process, I write uninspiring third-grade drivel.

    What works well for me is to linger in the moment of the story, let it fill my soul, dream, and imagine. And I am discovering that when I take this gentle and unhurried approach, when I wake in the morning the details are revealed to me, and I have to get up, go to my desk, and write it down before it fades away.

    And this is the very process of creativity that I am dwelling in and loving.

    However, I know my hero is about to meet some life-changing and heart-breaking challenges.

    Those Adverbs!

    I hesitate at the edge, procrastinating, fearful about plunging into the deep, the real work of writing a book. I am surrounded by experts, published authors, stories already told.

    But here I am at the precipice, ready to go deep into the story.

    “Everyone has a book in them.” ~ Stan Smith (my father)

    The preparation is done, and no more time to dally.

    Writers desk at the ready

    I have not been writing in this blog for a while.

    • First there was the travel adventure around Australia where I concentrated my efforts on a bit of travel writing through Mick & Sue’s Aussie Adventure.
    • Then last year I completed the family story and printed that tome for family.
    • During February I have been trying to get my head to the task. I’m not sure that taking part in #FebFlourish on Instagram helped at all, except to add to my procrastination.

    So, my plan now is to:

    • Assign blocks of time for this writing adventure.
    • Go over my notes.
    • Do a bit more planning so I have a structure to write into.
    • Aim for a number of words per session goal.
    • Just start writing and try to get this first draft down.
    • And maybe I should do the online courses offered by WritersHQ.UK
      • Balance Your Writing Life that starts in March
      • Editing 101 that starts in April

    Lockdown Life

    Since we have returned to “normal” life, after our adventures, we have been in lockdown with the rest of Melbourne and Victoria. My husband misses his weekly golf games with his mates and looks forward to when he can do that again. I am quite happy and occupied at home. We are both fully vaccinated.

    Images during lockdown life 2021

    These are some of the things I have been doing:

    • Family History Research

    After decades of saving bits of information, stories, and photographs, I am finally compiling it all and see an end in sight. A bonus has been the remote access to the Ancestry Database. This has allowed me to fill in lots of gaps and extend my tree.

    So far, I have found 22 ships that our ancestors arrived on, mostly from England, Ireland, and Scotland, one American, and one German. Three convicts on my side and one convict on my husband’s side.

    Some of the ships my ancestors arrived on emigrating to Australia

    I have one mystery that I cannot solve, and he is a key ancestor. I have found him in England and found him in Australia, but I don’t know when he arrived exactly somewhere between 1851 and August 1853. Perhaps there is a major misspelling somewhere that has not translated well into the digital files.

    The excellent course I completed online through Future Learn has added a richer dimension to my research. I know what I am doing. Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree, Future Learn UK.

    • Exercise
      • Walking within the five-kilometre restriction. This can include a solid upward walk with views of the bay. Logging these on Strava gives an added interest.
      • Cycling along the foreshore track now and then.
      • Unfortunately swimming at the local pool is not allowed at the moment. We look forward to when we can go back there regularly.
    • Creating
      • I finished an oil painting that I had on my easel for too long. Marg’s elephant at Salvia Court. And started a new painting.
      • Cooking lots of yummy food that we then have to share between the two of us. Cheesecake, Lemon Meringue Pie, Apricot Sour Cream Tart. Practicing for when our family can get together once again.
      • I practice playing my piano occasionally.
    • Media consumption
      • Reading The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. His interpretation of those early years offers only stories of flawed humans, on all sides of the equation, trying to survive on this Earth. There are no heroes in this tale.

    Writing Practice

    Since leaving my full-time job, I have been concentrating on improving my writing skills.

    IMG_0836

    Here is the list of resources that I have worked through so far:

    My aim from this self-initiated writing course is to improve my writing skill in order to write the first draft of a novel by the end of 2020. I have my idea, characters, location, era, and plot. I have done some research and now I just need to get it out of my head and onto the page.

    Author A. (Alec) S. Patric

    Alec Patric spoke at Frankston Library this week as part of the Australian Library Week events. And despite the small number of people in the audience, it was a lovely event. Maybe because of the small audience it was more of a conversation rather than a presentation. Alec Patric

    Alec appears as a dedicated and humble writer who loves his craft. Growing up in the then barren western suburbs of Melbourne he sought enrichment through poetry. Becoming a ‘writer’ was a foreign concept in that era in that community. Working on weekends in his dad’s engineering factory he found beauty in words.

    The conversation at the library meandered lyrically, involving us all, we spoke of poetry, literary fiction, genre fiction, winning awards, work in the local book shop, Black Rock White City, his soon-to-be-released collection of short stories The Butcherbird Stories, immigration, book clubs, libraries, the writing life, and more.

    When Alec observed that fiction novels are the zeitgeist of society, I understood completely. This is a notion I have explored on occasion, my thoughts flailing about trying to reason why fiction is important. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas is a perfect example of a story that portrays a particular, time, place and culture: ‘the spirit of the times’.

    The conversation about literary fiction brought the novel Eucalyptus by Murray Bail to mind. A book I love and is hard to place into a rigid genre. Alec was aiming for a literary page-turner with his book Black Rock White City and by receiving the Miles Franklin Award in 2016 for this novel, he obviously succeeded.

    He mentioned the Long List for this year’s Miles Franklin Award and this has prompted me to have a look at those books. The one that appeals at first glance is From the Wreck by Jane Rawson.