Commenting on Creativity

I originally started this blog because I wanted to share my creative writing with the world. I deleted most of the first posts I made, as looking back the writing I did then seemed terrible. I’m sure if I look at the writing I did a couple of years ago I’d think it awful, but that’s the point of learning and growing – hopefully, you’ll always get better.

It’s never been a secret that one day, somehow, my dream is to be an author. Or, more specifically, a published author who can earn a steady income from books written alone. I love my current job, and if I could quit tomorrow to just write books I wouldn’t – I’d rather stay in the job I have now and write books for fun. But this isn’t what I want to talk about today. No, right now I want to write about commenting on creativity, and how that can help and hinder someone.

I was talking with my flatmate the other day about creative writing, as I sign up to so many free courses to get hints and tips for writing well. There are so many documents on my computer of half-finished stories, bullet points of ideas, and even a couple of ‘finished’ books. I have so many notebooks (which I hoard to an excessive extent) with hastily scribbled musings and random scenes, as well as several jottings on the notes app on my phone. When I was in university, it made sense to me to pick a creative writing module in my second year – it was, after all, what I dreamed of doing one day and happened to be doing most days anyway.

It’s safe to say now that this isn’t exactly a happy story.

That creative writing class was one of the worst classes I ever took at university, partly due to the terrible teaching and partly due to the soul-crushing, heart-wrenching trauma of losing faith in your dream and what you love. Yes, it sounds melodramatic, but creative writing is something I’ve done all my life – from terribly written plays when I was tiny that ripped off Scooby-Doo, to the very short book I wrote when I was 16 and foolishly thought that it was good enough to be published – and to go to a class all bright-eyed and hopeful only to come out with my work torn apart with vicious comments circling around in my mind, I thought that was the end for me.

There is a difference between constructive criticism and just criticism. Telling someone ‘your characters are a bit weak, you should try building up their backstory more to reflect a more complex character as a whole’ is very different to saying ‘your characters are awful’. And that’s what that class was for me.

Each week someone would have to bring in their response to a task – there was writing a short story based around a recent news piece, or writing a story that happened over the course of an hour. We spent the class focussing on that person’s work, and giving feedback on how we found it. I ended up with the task to rewrite something that happened to you from someone else’s perspective, something that I spent a long long time on just because I was so excited about it.

I like to think I’m not completely naive. I’m not very good at taking harsh criticism as it is, and very much like the sandwich tactic where you give a bad point in between two nicer comments. Still, I went into that class and braced myself, repeating a mantra that it was all good constructive criticism. And then the teacher opened up the conversation with “So who knows who Jonathan (my main character in the story) is? No one?” She turned to me and immediately said, “And that’s why your story isn’t any good. Because we don’t know who the main character is.”

It felt very much like a slap in the face, especially as I tried to say that I had tried to gradually introduce him in a way through first person narration that didn’t feel like a paragraph of him looking in the mirror and describing himself and his life story. Still, the teacher insisted, it was very bard form that you didn’t discover his name until the third paragraph, and the fact that you don’t get his full background in a 1,000 word piece just isn’t good enough.

And so it began. On and on she went, with some of the class chipping in with “your style just doesn’t work”, “your language choice is poor”, “I just didn’t like it at all, really”. I remember being given back 15 copies of my work, with scribbles all over it. There were some kinder ones, with comments every now and then saying “I love this bit!”, but those weren’t the ones I thought about afterwards.

So after that class, I ended up keeping my head down for the rest of the module. Frankly I felt useless, and didn’t really care to continue it. I don’t like sharing my writing even on a good day, and after that I’m loathe to share even a paragraph of something I’ve written to friends who I know wouldn’t even dream of saying anything in a nasty way.

Commenting on someone’s creativity can change the way they are creative altogether. I’m very much of the belief that a comment, remark, or critique made in a way that’s meant to be positive, or rather something said by someone who means well, is always good. When 16-year-old me had an email back from an agent saying my story needed more developing, as the main character was said to be one age but came across as another, I was at first mortified. Then, after ten minutes of thinking my life was over and plenty of chocolate, I realised that an agent had taken the time to look at my work and give me some feedback. Good feedback, at that. Looking at that terrible book now (a moment of silence for ‘Fizzy’, who will never see the light of day again), the agent was exactly right. The main character does come across as a different age, but they didn’t write back to me saying ‘This is crap, burn it, your character is terrible’. They gave me constructive criticism – which really, is a critique with guidance. Yes, the character was terrible, but I was told why and most importantly how to make it better.

Creative work is a tricky beast at best, and critiquing creative work is even worse. You know, as well as everyone else does, how much heart and soul and effort you pour into creative work. I’m sure everyone in that class felt as precious about their work as I did about mine. But it’s difficult to comment on someone else’s creation in a way that is helpful without being unkind, which is something that I think my old teacher needed to be taught. She would quite happily tear work to shreds, but offer no form of guidance for how it could be better. On another person’s work she’d just occasionally write ‘no’ next to certain paragraphs, which was as illuminating as being stuck in a cardboard box in the dark.

So the next time you comment on someone’s creativity – be it someone’s song, a rhyme they made up, a story they scribbled on a napkin – take a moment to form whatever thoughts you have in something that is helpful. You can be positive and critique someone at the same time. Even if what that person has done is a flaming pile of cow dung, you can still say something nice before you deal that blow – like the fact that the flaming pile of cow dung is a really good first step, there’s just a few changes you’d make….

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NanoWriMo ‘Wrap Up’

So. I won.

Yes, you heard me, I actually ‘won’ NaNoWriMo and managed to write 50,000 words in a single month. For those of you who have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, please check out my previous posts including this one here.

I first participated in NaNo two years ago, in which I reached 30k words (something I was very proud about). I started off really strong and kept to the word count every day, but it tapered off halfway through the month. After stressing out last year with dissertation and various essays, I decided to skip out doing NaNo and instead just tried to write a little more in that month. Ever since I’ve been itching to do it again, needing that extra drive and excuse to write write write. So, this year, I started off NaNo in high spirits with twitching fingers reading to write like I was running out of time (which I was) Hamilton style.

Like two years ago, I started out very strong and stuck to my word count, even going above it on some days. Feeling pretty smug about it, I was rather chuffed with how it was all working out. Instead of reading on the tube, I’d be typing away on my phone. On my breaks at work, I’d jot down some ideas, and my time at home was spent writing away. It’s very freeing writing for NaNo, knowing that it doesn’t matter whether it’s perfect or not, you just write as much as you can every single day. I know the vast majority of what I wrote will need serious editing, but I equally know that there are a few gems there. It helped me work out the plot of a story I’ve been thinking about for the better part of a year, and it’s the first time I’ve found that I didn’t need to forcibly stretch my plot to reach 50k. Instead, I feel like I’m only two thirds of the way through the book, and think it could easily reach 70,000 or even 80,000 words if I put my mind to it.

I talk a little about the benefits of NaNo over on my reading blog (which you can read here), mainly about how I’d been in such a reading slump and the break from reading meant that I felt revitalised when I could finally go back to it. NaNo showed me that it’s not about finding time to do something you love, but making time – something which I now know I can do, and really there are no excuses.

About mid-November, I was thrown way off track with NaNo due to some exciting things going on in my work life, which has resulted in me getting a new job! All very exciting, but it meant that on my day off I wrote something crazy like 5000 words just to get back on track.

Towards the end of November, I managed to keep up and even keep ahead at times, until finally on the last day I reached that elusive 50k, and couldn’t have felt prouder of myself. It was a great goal that I didn’t for a second think I’d reach, which only made the win even sweeter.

So even though I know what I wrote is mostly tripe, and may never see the light of day outside of my computer, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

NaNoWriMo Midway Update

Up until a few days ago, I have been right on track with writing for NaNo (National Novel Writing Month, see here for more details). Unfortunately the last few days have been unbelievably hectic, so whilst I have been writing everyday I have fallen a bit behind with the goal of hitting 1167 words every day. Still, I think I’ve been doing pretty damn well (especially compared to the first time I took on the challenge a couple of years ago), and currently my word count is at 24,000 words. To be ‘on track’ I would have to be at 28,333 words, something which I don’t think will happen today.

NaNo is such an interesting challenge to be taking part in, because part of me is itching to go back over everything – checking names, small information, edit sentences, craft a few beautiful similes I’ve thought of – but that’s not in the spirit of NaNo. It’s difficult to remind yourself that this isn’t about being perfect, because at least for me I want to just go over it again and again to fix things I think read badly or don’t work. Then I remind myself that you’re not meant to stress over these things, and really it’s far better to save your stress for your word count.

It’s amazing really, how much you can do when you change your priorities, as usually in my spare time I’m dedicated fully to reading. As I’m participating in NaNo this month, my reading for this month has been so terrible I can’t even think about it without feeling guilty and slightly sad. Every spare moment has been filled with writing, and whereas I spent a lot of my time on the tube or waiting around or on my lunch breaks reading, now I’ve had my phone out typing away. Whilst in a normal scenario I’d rather read on the tube and save writing for sitting at home with my computer and a cup of tea, it’s been fun to try it out this month.

And that’s my mid-way update for NaNo 2017. A little bit behind, but still enjoying it and having fun with the story.

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NaNoWriMo 2017

Let’s do this.

I am officially participating in NaNoWriMo 2017 – which, for those of you who don’t know, is National Novel Writing Month where many attempt to write a novel in the month of November. The main goal is to hit 50k words, and whilst I have never ‘won’, my goal is always to write as much as I can and just have fun.

I have only participated once before, back in 2015, as last year I decided not to stress myself with hitting that word target every day and instead focus on my dissertation and final year of university. All month – heck, all year I have been so grumpy that I couldn’t join in last year, so I’ve been so excited for November 2017 to roll around.

I made a post about my experience in 2015 (click here to see), but I think there are several reasons why I’m so excited to participate again. Firstly, NaNo gets you into the routine of making time for writing every single day. I always say how much I want to be a writer one day, but I never manage to ‘find the time’ to knuckle down and write. NaNo teaches you to make that time, whether that’s only five minutes before you head to work or during your commute or just before you go to bed, you get into the habit of making that time.

Secondly, NaNo isn’t about creating a masterpiece. It’s simply about hitting that word target, hitting those 50k words, so of course it’s a very very rough first draft of a novel. It’s not about editing or musing over sentence structure, it’s about typing away at that keyboard and doing your upmost best to hit that goal. That in itself is so freeing – you don’t worry about whether your work is any good or that it doesn’t flow right. All you have to do is type type type, and worry about editing later.

There are several other things I’ve got going on next month (one of them may or may not be Sims 4 Cats and Dogs stop judging me), but I’m determined to throw myself into NaNo and have fun. So let me know if you’re participating, and definitely add me as a writing buddy – my name is Stammydodger, and no, don’t ask.

Finding Inspiration

I’ve been struggling recently on what to talk about on here for two main reasons. First, I’m trying to juggle lots of different things which include job applications, full-time work at a different job, applying for writing competitions, graduating, moving flat, and more. (These are excuses I tell myself, whilst I sat and watched Love Island – in my defence, you need time to wind down and relax, y’know? Self care and all that.) Secondly, I’ve lost track of my inspiration.

Maybe ‘lost track’ is the wrong expression to use here, but it’s the only one that I can think of (and I blame that on being tired and uninspired, which is kinda the whole point). It’s like my brain had a little Idea jar inside it somewhere, which had my various little musings and thoughts and what have you. Within it are several books that I want to write, plans I have for the odd project or two, and birthday present ideas. One of the main things, however, is what to write on my two blogs. For my book blog, I find it slightly easier – I’m always reading something, so I can do a review, or even talk about what I’ve read or want to read. On Alwayslovetowrite, however, it’s a bit trickier.

You see, this blog has almost been like a more PG friendly version of my diary. Whilst I don’t go into all the gruesome details, usually I blog when I’m feeling strongly about something – be that how much I love dogs, what I think about politics, or how I’m feeling more anxious or stressed. It’s the place where I can discuss about whatever I like, a platform that, in the age of the internet, I’m able to have. Anyone with access to the internet can have a blog, and that’s so exciting – all of a sudden you have a space where you can talk about what you want, because it belongs to you.

But what happens when you start to feel a bit down and tired? What happens when you come home from work or a busy day and you just want to watch some trashy TV? What happens when the only emotion you feel the most is just weariness? What do you do when you reach into that jar and the inspiration is all gone?

Because really, it’s not ideas that are running out, it’s the inspiration. I keep a small notes file on my phone where I jot down all the various ideas for blogs that come to me, and there are still a few on there that I could just use. But looking at them doesn’t stir anything within me. Nothing is standing out as being interesting enough that I want to tell the internet about it.

Some days, you just don’t feel like writing. And, like always with me, I don’t really have the answers. I think self-care is incredibly important – so much so that I kind of want to write a blog about it, which kind of helps in this current situation. Finding that thing that, in this moment, you feel strongly about, something that is important to you, is the exact thing that I always search for before I write these blogs. They’re not about perfectly crafted pieces of work, but a stream of consciousness as I work through what I’m feeling – which followers are subjected to (I’d say I’m sorry, but really I’m just rather happy you’re here).

Finding inspiration is always difficult. I like the advise of taking that much needed break, which calls to the very obese lazy lady inside me who just wants to sit around and eat all day whilst reading all the books I want to read. But I also like the proactive approach, of going out and trying to find that inspiration. Doing something new, trying different foods, reading a genre I never delve into. Meeting up with friends, going for a walk, or even taking a different route to work. It’s inspiration tied up with motivation, along with a good head space and positive attitude – a list of goals that, at least for today, I don’t feel like I can tick off.

Sometimes, all you need is a good night of sleep, with the hope that when morning comes, you’ll feel just a bit stronger to tackle the rest of the day. Fingers crossed.

Dealing with Rejection

I’m just going to hold up my hands and say it: “I am crap at dealing with rejection”. I mean, let’s be honest, when you’ve just been rejected (from a job you applied for, a relationship you may have/have not been invested in, turned down by friends), the last thing you want to hear are those well-meaning souls who tell you it’s just not meant to be, or something must be around the corner, or something better will come along. Sure, those are more than welcome but personally, I don’t want to hear them immediately after being rejected. I want to shout, scream, cry, and do all three at the same time. All I want from other people is maybe a hug and for them to whisper “they/he/she/it is a bastard”. Because in those first few moments, I want to just be completely irrational and I need people to just tolerate my “the world is ending” moment so I can just get it out my system. Then bring me sugary snacks, cups of tea, and help me pick up the pieces.

This week has been my finals week, and I am now officially finished with university. Unfortunately this week I also heard back from all the grad schemes and summer work experience opportunities I applied for – all with a negative. In retrospect, I can nod and say “Ok, yes, they were the biggest companies with everyone and their mothers applying, so the competition was incredible fierce, but at the time? No way. At the time all I wanted to do was cry and give up. I wanted to cuddle up in my bed with some chocolate and watch a feel good film whilst I sobbed at the fact that I wasn’t wanted. Because, at least for me right now, it’s not just because I was rejected. It’s the addition of the fact that it’s a job that I really wanted, and I’m a soon-to-be university graduate hoping to get into my chosen field. So getting rejected? Felt like a kick in the teeth. And to have them on the week of my final exam? Like an extra kick when I’m on the ground for good measure.

That’s when everyone brings out the corny sayings: they don’t know what they’re missing, if they knew you they wouldn’t reject you, they just don’t understand, you’ll just get something better next time, chin up chuck etc etc. Again, it’s all meant well and after a day or so I feel like I can take those lines and feel happy after receiving them, but just after I’ve been rejected and staring at the empty abyss with no certainty about my future? Telling me I’ll get something better ‘next time’ just doesn’t do it for me, as although the person saying that is just trying to cheer you up, both of you know that there is no actual truth in that statement – that we know of. Sure, something could come along that’s better, but something could just as easily not come along – I’m presuming, of course, that you can’t see the future.

Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is to the plight of being rejected. I want to be the person who, when they get rejected, can just keep their chin up and move on. For now, though, I need that time just after – be it thirty minutes, an hour, or even half a day where I can just mope and feel sorry for myself. After a good angry venting session, it feels pretty cathartic. Once you expel those emotions it feels so much easier to move onto the next thing. And whilst it was a bitch to be rejected during revision, the revision itself had a strong enough pull for me to get my act together that I was able to move on relatively quick. Don’t get me wrong, I cried down the phone to my mum about how I was a failure, but soon enough after got back to reading about the contrasting presentations of the House of Fame between Ovid, Jonson, and Chaucer.

I think one thing does hold true though; whilst sometimes you need to have a cry or shout in anger, it does good to go into that next day fresh and determined. Instead of letting a rejection kick you down and keep you down, let it just knock you off guard for a moment before getting back into the ring and fighting on. At least, that’s what I’ll try to tell myself next time.

Always telling stories

I have always loved telling stories. From telling anecdotes of terrible customers at work to writing out fantastical ideas that I always dream of doing something with one day to share them with the world. There’s just something so incredible of creating a world in your head, of thinking up characters and descriptions that exist only in your imagination. There’s something special about that infinite space, and then looking at either a blank notebook or a blank word document with the cursor blinking, full of possibilities. Seeing the physical evidence of someone’s creativity is always astounding, but with books it’s even more so as the only materials the writer used were a combination of 26 letters. It’s probably why I love reading fantasy, just to see how other writer’s minds work and the things that they can imagine and create, see where they’ve been inspired and how they, in turn, can inspire me.

I’ve known that I want to one day write books for a very, very long time. In past posts I’ve gone into detail about some of my ‘early’ work, which included a very short play which was essentially Scooby Doo with a retriever (there was a graveyard, a vampire, and a witch), along with two pieces of fiction, a duology if you will, that was inspired by my seven-year-old-self’s crush who ended up moving to another country, which is what the second book deals with. Such heartbreak at such a young age, but if I remember correctly the only reason I liked him was because he was a fast runner, which probably isn’t the best thing to start a relationship for.

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So clearly I had a love for stories and imaginations as a child, but when thinking back I remember all the ways I loved stories. It seems child-me didn’t quite understand the very important difference between telling something as a story and telling a story as if it were a truth. AKA child-me lied about a lot of things, but didn’t think of them as lies, more as ‘stories’.

When I think back, a few of these little ‘stories’ come to mind, all that occurred in primary school up to the age of about nine or ten. There are minor ones, such as telling a girl that I had seen a unicorn or a friend that I had been taken from a tribe of magical warriors (though that one I blame on my brother, who I distinctly remember telling me that I was adopted in probably the most imaginative tale ever, which included our parents travelling to a tribe in the wilderness and doing some ritual in order to get me). But the one that spiralled entirely out of control, and which still makes me smile to this day, was the story that my cat had had kittens.

My cat, of course, hadn’t had kittens. Bundle was, in fact, neutered, and so would never have kittens ever, but little me (I’m pretty sure I was in Reception or Year One, so maybe five or six years old) really liked the idea of my cat having kittens. So much so, that I imagined how great it would be if Bundle had actually had kittens. All I can remember is telling a few of my friends and perhaps even my teacher, the ever-wonderful Mrs Hill – she was involved in another one of my story-related obsessions, in which I took home a lot of books from the school library, but didn’t want to give them back, and so soon collected a box-full of books, which my Mum discovered, but luckily Mrs Hill didn’t tell me off. Apparently stealing is not ok, but when it could demonstrate a child’s love of reading there isn’t much of a punishment.

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Back to the cat. So all I remember is telling a few people that my cat had had kittens, the dream of any five-maybe-six year old girl. After that I don’t remember much at all, apart from what I’ve since been told by my Mum and brother. Apparently the news of kittens spread through the primary school like wildfire, a primary school that my older brother still attended at this time, possibly in his final year there before secondary school. He found out about our cat supposedly having kittens when one of his friends asked if the kittens were for sale. Next thing I know, my Mum is telling me that it’s wrong to lie after people kept enquiring after our kittens. I’m pretty sure little-me was as confused as everyone else – I mean, after all, it had been a story, and was it really my fault that other people couldn’t recognise such excellent creativity and imagination?

It’s safe to say that the story-telling, or ‘lying’ as others called it, died down after that, and by the time I reached secondary school I understood the importance of clarifying to the mere mortals when I was telling a story.

My only regret? That I threw away the original manuscripts for those two books I wrote about my heartbreak over this boy. Man, would I love to be able to read them now. That would be some serious entertainment right there – though I seem to remember in the second one that he moved to Australia and was bitten by a black widow spider, because apparently little-me was a spiteful so-and-so.