Between graduating from university in 2005 and moving to Manchester in 2007, I found writing extremely difficult. Actually it wasn’t the writing – it was the finishing. I would sit down and do some writing – maybe a short story, maybe some of the novel that would become The Leaping – and then I’d stop. And then the next time I sat down, I’d re-read it, and spot a few things that could be improved, or that didn’t make sense, or that I simply didn’t like any more. So I would redraft what I’d done. And then my ‘writing time’, for one reason or another, would have run out. Next time I sat down, the process would repeat itself. And the time after that. Then I’d get disheartened and take a break for a few days. Then I’d come back to it, and re-read it, and think what is this shit? And then, despairingly, I’d start something else. Something that, I promised myself, would be ‘semi-decent’. But of course the process would just repeat itself.
As I say, I wasn’t finishing anything. I was floundering really badly.
It seems obvious, in retrospect. I’d moved from an environment (university) where I had a lot of time to write, deadlines, and frequent, regular workshops to an environment (flat in Whitehaven, with full-time call-centre job) where I had none of those things. I did have time to write, still, but less time, and when you have less time, the pressure to turn out semi-decent/decent material is much greater. You don’t feel like you’ve got time to make mistakes, to write crap, to learn. And so it’s a much bigger deal when you end up discarding something, or something gets rejected. Of course, that learning process – writing crap – is a vital part of the writing practice (for me at least), but that’s little consolation when you’ve spent every night for weeks on a piece of work that, by the end, feels more like something to be ashamed of than proud of.
Anyway – the most important thing that I was missing was real, critical feedback. Which for me is vital. Not just because other people see weaknesses that you don’t, but because they see strengths that you don’t. (A scribbled ‘haha!’ in the margin of one page can make a world of difference to how you feel about the whole novel you’re writing). And of equal importance – the fact that, once the piece of writing is in somebody else’s hands, you can’t touch it. You can’t tweak it any more. It’s too late. It’s not a deadline as such, but it’s a cut-off point – that handing-over to a reader – that marks, for me, the end of the first draft. Or the second. Or whatever it is that you’re getting feedback on.
Which brings me to the point of this blog post, really. I wanted to just discuss, briefly, why receiving feedback is so crucial to me. It helps me improve my writing, but first and foremost it enables me to write at all. And the way I get that regular feedback now is via a writing group – The Northern Lines. We’ve been going just over a year, and meet in either Preston or Manchester every three weeks, and we discuss the work of two of the group members. (There are six of us in total). So we take it in turn to discuss our work. In effect, this means that we each have a deadline every nine weeks, and every three weeks we have a workshop that is invariably illuminating, whoever’s work is being critiqued. It’s fun, as well as helpful. And it’s in a pub. The other members are Andrew Hurley, Zoe Lambert, Sally Cook, Emma Unsworth, and Jenn Ashworth. (Thanks all!)
The point is that if you write, and sometimes you find it difficult and/or lonely (personally I think it is often both of those things), try to seek out feedback from other writers, who know how to deliver it in a helpful way. If you can’t find other writers close enough to you for regular meetings, try to set a group up online. The internet’s full of writers. I can’t overstate how important and beneficial regular feedback is for me, anyway. I suppose everybody’s different though. I never know how to finish blogposts. Jesus.