Ramble on Writing, No. I

By Rupert Dastur

I’m currently listening to a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson and in the introduction, the author writes about the way Da Vinci used art and science in tandem, each one informing and improving the other. It reminded me of a workshop with Tania Hershman who champions the use of the scientific within her fiction work, as well as some of the amazing work of Jo Shapcott to bring together science and poetry.

Some of the best short fiction writing draws together totally unexpected threads, images, and ideas. A great example I came across recently was Elisabeth Ingram Wallace’s flash fiction 19 Owls, published by Forge Magazine.

I’m not alone in being more creative when I’m encountering a range of things to see, read, watch, and listen to. In this respect, not to mention many others, the pandemic has proved a challenge. Stimulation is pretty limited to the laptop and it’s felt much like Groundhog Day for the last nine months. How, then, can we remain both creative and motivated?

One thing I’ve started doing more is dipping in and out of essays, poetry collections, online journals, diaries, letters, anthologies, and magazines. I used to do this pre-pandemic, but these shorter forms can be digested more easily in the strange in-between times that seem to be a reality of the house-bound existence. I also actively use these as springboards to scribble down ideas and openings to flash fiction and short stories. sShort fiction seems well-suited to the surreal day-to-day lives we now lead; it’s a form that allows for more play and experimentation; nothing is normal and short fiction can reflect this, while helping us to comprehend the bizarre and often brutal state of the world.

Other than reading more widely, I’m also trying to engage more with online events. Last night, for example, despite Zoom fatigue after teaching during the day, I attended a talk with Silé Edwards, of Mushens Entertainment (a UK literary agency). She had some fascinating things to say about the importance of a “strong narrative hook”, ensuring a book “grabs you and doesn’t let go” among many further insights which led me to consider my work-in-progress in a different light. Like Twitter, these events can also help us feel more connected to those walking a similar path – it’s heartening and inspiring in equal measure. When possible, I’ve also started delving into the short writing courses offered on Write and Shine and these are an amazing way of generating new ideas.

Inevitably, not everyone will be able to attend online workshops or be able to hopscotch along shelves. The fact is, there are no magic answers because everyone’s situation is unique: where one writer may feel overwhelmed with work, another might have none; where one family home is breaking at the foundations with screaming and stampeding feet, another’s house might be far too lonely and quiet; some people have too little time, others may feel they have too much.

Perhaps the best piece of practical writing advice I read, which has been particularly helpful more recently, was about time management and it was from the manual Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Essentially, it began with the instruction to do an audit of your available time in any given day. Once you’ve done that, see what you can carve out for writing, and then put a cast-iron do-no-disturb ring around it. Even if it’s only ten minutes, use it to write a sentence, a title, a word. To borrow an expression from contemporary manuals on habit formation: move the needle; you’ll feel better for it.

However, what happens if you’ve looked at your day, your week, your month and you find you really haven’t got a moment at all, that you’re just dog-tired dawn ‘til dusk? Then the answer is simple: do yourself a favour and put writing to one side for a bit. It’s easier said than done: for so many writers, myself included, getting the book finished (and please all ye heavenly gods and hellish devils, hopefully published), is such a drawn-out, daily dream that it can feel like sacrilege pressing the pause button. However, we soak up so much advice about writing every day, hitting so-and-so word-count, entering this or that competition, that we can also lose sight of the fact that writing is in many ways a luxury, a privilege, and an indulgence. We should, perhaps, more often recognise it as such and appreciate it when we can write, but also ensure we’re more accepting and forgiving of ourselves when we can’t.

Under such circumstances, I’ve found it helpful to make a conscious decision not to write, that way the guilt that lurks like a gremlin in the back of our thoughts is politely but firmly banished. Later, when life is kinder, you can pick up the pen again.

Wherever you are on your writing journey, I wish you well.

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Rupert Dastur is a writer, editor, and publisher. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he delved into the mysteries of the short story. He is founding editor 0f TSS Publishing, an Associate Editor at The Word Factory, plus an Events Coordinator for the Society of Young Publishers.  Rupert writes short stories, flash fiction, essays, interviews, and reviews. He runs writing workshops and has also spoken about short fiction and publishing across the U.K. and abroad.


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