Essay by Anne Goodwin, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers.
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Every other Sunday, I don my red fleece jacket and drive to an office in a Derbyshire village, where I pick up a radio and, after a cup of tea and a chat, set out on patrol. I’m part of a team of volunteer rangers supporting the day-to-day running of the National Park, each bringing our individual skills, interests and quirks to the collective task. Although the English countryside remains predominantly white and, thanks to funding cuts, the organisation has been subject to re-organisation throughout the almost ten years and I’ve been associated with it, there’s a commitment to diversity and peer and management support. While it’s not always fun traversing the moors in sleet or driving rain, or confronting a cyclist or dog owner who thinks the bylaws don’t apply to them, it’s something I believe in and generally enjoy.
I feel something similar when I ride up to the Carrot Ranch every week with my response to the weekly flash fiction challenge. There’s a sense of belongingness and supportive leadership, balanced with the flexibility and freedom to respond, within the constraints, in our own way. Even when it’s a struggle to find those 99 words, it always feels worthwhile. Sometimes, as with my regular walks that start and finish in the same place but may take me places I’ve never previously encountered, I’m surprised by what I find both in my own stories and in those of the other contributors.
I’ve dipped in and out of other writing communities over the decade and a half I’ve been writing seriously. I’ve also attended courses and purchased feedback from more experienced writers and tutors on my work. Generally, I’ve found that the type of support available differs according to the stage of writing and/or the writer’s experience: for beginning writers and for the production of first drafts (or raw literature) we’re encouraged to play, but when we come to honing it for publication and dissemination to a wider readership we’re handed the rule book.
Of course, you might be thinking, if you want people to read your stuff, it’s got to be right! I’m not disputing this at all. Publication implies a certain standard; what’s not clear is how to set about achieving it, or even what that standard might look like.
The survival of the creative writing industry depends, to a large extent, on the myth that we know what it means to write well. There’s a plethora of advice available, and a lot of it’s extremely useful to the novice – I laugh about it now, but I still recall that lightbulb moment of discovering show, don’t tell. But there’s a gap. If you’re an intuitive writer, someone whose work grows organically in unpredictable ways, who perceives writing as an adventure, you’re faced with a choice: either be the leopard that changed its spots and succumb to rigorous soul-destroying planning, or face a lonely hit-and-miss journey through the mist.
Planning is useful, but right at the start? That might work for some, especially those who wake up one morning and decide I’m going to be a writer never having written a creative word since schooldays. (Do these individuals exist?) But many, like me, have been scribbling away since childhood. We can produce raw literature in our sleep – in fact, that’s where many writing projects originate – but we need guidance in how to make it palatable to others. Unsure what that how to should look like – even after going through the process of publishing a novel people seem to like – I scour other parts of me for a useful analogy.
Just as I was a raw writer before I was a published author, I was a raw walker (although I’d never have called it that) before qualifying as a volunteer ranger. (Note to those more familiar with the raw national parks of most countries, in Britain this role doesn’t imply an intrepid explorer with a gun in her backpack.) To get to the stage of being trusted to escort the public on guided walks, I was trained in navigation, first aid and knowledge of the countryside. These skills might have parallels in the writer’s toolbox, such as my treasured show, don’t tell, but it’s in my development in the role since getting my badge and tramping the moors alone where I might look for clues as to what’s needed to progress from raw to ready-to-read.
I was very nervous when I first set out on patrol alone and perhaps overzealous in my need to get it right. What enabled me to grow in confidence – and, hopefully, skill – has been the supportive framework in which I can do it my own way, forging my own path – both literally in finding my favourite routes and symbolically in pursuing my own interests – and making my own mistakes. Instead of bemoaning my poor knowledge of geology, wildlife and plants, I’ve developed a niche in reading the literary landscape through its links to the novel, Jane Eyre, something that never occurred to me when I first applied to volunteer.
While useful as a metaphor, there are two crucial differences from my writing journey. Firstly, my freedom and flexibility within the role of volunteer ranger is limited by accountability to the national park authority whereas, as a novelist, can choose to please myself until signing a contract. Secondly, while it can be both scary and embarrassing to get lost out on patrol, I’m much more vulnerable when I mine the emotional depths for my writing. I wonder if psychotherapy, which I’ve experienced from both sides, might get me closer to what I’m struggling to articulate.
There are multiple models of therapy but, for the purpose of this post, let’s divide them into two types. One trains and supports clients to adopt the type of attitudes, thoughts and behaviours believed, based on research and theory, to promote well-being among people in general (for example, CBT); the other uses a “containing” relationship in which clients develop an idiosyncratic story of how they can be the best version of themselves within the limits of their own lives and circumstances (for example, psychoanalytic psychotherapy). The former might have its parallel in the literary sphere in planning; the latter in pantsing. Perhaps you can guess what type of therapy I sought for myself!
If that analogy holds, can we identify some elements of exploratory psychotherapy that might apply to a model of the journey from raw literature to ready-to-read? Here are my raw ideas on the issue; I’d be most interested in yours.
- The process is difficult to describe.
- It takes time, and a lot of it.
- It’s different for each individual patient/client/writer.
- Change occurs within the context of a relationship.
- No-one can tell you how to go about it, because no-one can get right inside your head and see how your mind works.
- It’s a process of trial and error.
- It’s a journey without a clear destination.
- It can be subversive.
- It’s a journey of both the intellect and emotions.
- It takes us to unexpected places.
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill and shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, is scheduled for publication in May 2017. Anne is also a book blogger and author of 70 published short stories. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.
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Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at email@example.com.
In the US, rangers have hero status because a group of them went rogue to circumvent restrictions placed on their communication of National Parks. I think it would be wonderful to have a volunteer ranger program. My aspiration is to one day get to be a Writer in Residence at Zion or Isle Royal NPs. For me, there’s a deep connection between the rawness of wild spaces and the depths from which fiction emerges. I agree it is unexpected, like the swamp thing that rises when really I thought I’d write about a water lily on the surface. The crafting of it all takes tremendous time and it’s hard to explain what is happening in the brain, but something is moving. I enjoyed your connection to therapy, too. I hadn’t thought of CBT as plotting, but I see the points of differentiation! I’ve thought CBT would be helpful for the Hub with his service-related PTSD. The VA referred him (finally!) only for the psychotherapist to deny him. We suspect its because the clinic is short-staffed and the demand is high. But we’ve been going to couple’s group therapy for combat veterans and their spouses and it certainly feels more like pantsing. Thank you for your essay and the thoughts to discuss, Anne!
Oh, Charli, I always feel such a fraud when I refer to my rangering role online because our UK national parks are so different – and tame – compared to most. I doubt I’d qualify for volunteer duties in the US. But it’s still important, especially as tax breaks for the rich are continually prioritised over the environment and, who knows, I could get called upon to be heroic – perhaps in my pussy hat – before I have to give up my boots!
I’m sorry the Hub didn’t get the therapy you were hoping for but the couples work might be fun! Not sure if you’ll be interested, but here’s a link to the Department of Health guidelines for PTSD intervention in the UK (even here not a guarantee people will get it, but at least it’s a framework to argue within):
One of the recommended interventions it might be worth finding out about is EMDR:
if you’ve not come across it already. I was extremely sceptical when I first heard about it as it doesn’t sound like a therapy (remembering while following a moving finger with the eyes) but a few people whose clinical judgement I respect have had the training and value it. (Sorry if I’m repeating what you already know but in these tough times worth sharing more than our reading and writing!)
Thanks for prompting and hosting this post.
But a missing word in the last line:
10.It takes us to unexpected places
What I’ve learned of wild space is that it does not have to be grand to be, well, grand! To me, Elmira Pond was as spectacular as the Tetons or Zion’s towering sandstones. Visually, one might look more impressive than the other, but the true grandness is inside of us where our inner being connects with the rawness of nature. That was something I learned from Elmira Pond, and I’m sure you understand out on the moors. And yes, it ties back to those unexpected places (oops! I must have chopped off the word in the copying and pasting, but it’s updated now). Funny how interacting with nature as a volunteer ranger leads to that imposter syndrome writers battle. I’ve grabbed writing titles for myself over the years but am still reluctant to grab “nature writer” thinking I must first achieve Thoreau status. It begs the question, are we less a writer in our raw stages than in our ready-to publish ones?
And thank you for the links. I just downloaded Audible version of Francine Shapriro’s book on self-help techniques for EMDR. The guidelines from the UK were interesting to read and aligns with what the US military now does with combat veterans. They call it readjustment therapy, but basically it’s the preventative trauma therapy. Unfortunately for the Hub, it was not offered when he got out.
Now that is thought provoking. One the subject of the writer who discovers the urge to write as a moment many years after the opportunities for it at school ended that is me to a tee. So yes I do exist. I’ve scoured my memory for instances of wanting/needing to creatively write in the period from 16 to 50 but i can think of but 2: trying to write a limerick or two alongside my father and failing to do anything like him (what a surprise) and stopping; and writing speeches for family events – best man, wedding anniversary – I understood I could (a) do it and (b) make people laugh so flet that was the area for me. And then the light bulb went on.
The analogy with therapy is fascinating but I wonder where the ‘reader’ fits into this relationship? In the second type of therapy you describe, creating a framework that works within the context of the clients life, is that rather like the feedback we take from readers on which we might adjust our raw literature. The therapist as editor/coach works I think better in trad publishing than indie where our coaches are our beta readers, whose level of expertise is varied and who we, the client, need to work out who has something to offer and how good it is – it is a less professional, more intuitive relationship but none the less very effective if you are mature (as a writer) to work out what works and what doesn’t and take the best of the advice. Is there any analogous therapy to what I’m trying to describe (or am I taking baloney?)
Ah, Geoff, my apologies for doubting your existence – especially as our writing paths have connected so much along the way. But I wonder if, just as I was a ranger in waiting, you were a writer waiting without knowing it for the stars to align in a certain way?
And interesting reflections on the therapy analogy also. Because I was thinking of an earlier stage in the game when publication might be a desired outcome but we’re not necessarily moving directly towards it. I think it’s then that the structured rule-bound therapist/editor/coach/beta reader is more useful. I’ve had a lot of support in my publication journeys but I don’t think I’ve ever had anything coming anywhere near the type of “holding” that a psychotherapist provides, which is more like being a properly engaged parent. I suppose in indie publishing the therapy analogy would be co-counselling or a structured support group.
But back to your question of whether the reader fits into the relationship? In the structured kind of therapy I think they’re the evidence base and rulebook, the kind of “this is what most people like”, which is useful in its way but doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge individual differences.
I think in the second, unstructured therapy the “reader” matters less, although their reactions would be discussed in the therapy and the client/writer would think about whether or not they wanted to follow them. Now I’m getting muddled, but I’m not sure if that highlights the limits of my analogy of the kind of writer I am. Do I care about reader reactions? Of course. Do you want to churn out what’s guaranteed to sell? No, I want to be the best writer I can be writing about the kind of things that interest me and hopefully do it in a way that will interest other people too. Yet when I started my own therapy, I wanted to be “normal”, whatever that is, and now I want to be me with my quirks.
Fitting in the reader is such a good point. I’m not sure the reader will ever fit into my raw drafts because I’m honest in my selfish appeal that each story I take on is because it’s the book I want to read. However, once written, I revise with the reader in mind because I want to share the book I want to read. My first WIP I did not revise with the reader in mind and that was a mistake. It was further a mistake in thinking that revising for the reading audience would somehow diminish my original purpose. It doesn’t. I’m glad you both exist and brought out this point!
I think it takes time to learn what having the reader in mind actually means — could be a whole other post!
Anne’s idea is one that keeps repeating on me. What we need is a discussion group. Oh we have one!!
When I read this sentence, I wondered if we’d met before: “We can produce raw literature in our sleep – in fact, that’s where many writing projects originate – but we need guidance in how to make it palatable to others.”
My books either start out with dreams, or a spark of idea that plays out as a movie in my sleep. I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo for 2 years in a row, and finished rough drafts over 50,000 words. But…
Being dyslexic, I require the assistance of someone who can sequence. There’s only one person who does it well. My sister is an editor who hates editing. One of my talents is extreme nagging and she eventually succumbs, but only if I pay for a plane ticket and visit her for 2 weeks. 🙂 Afterward, I need an editor for the little stuff. That’s what works.
We “pantsers” have been down the rough roads of writing. We’ve stumbled over words, and been wrapped in brambles of thought that become so much a part of us we cry foul when an editor says, “This has to go!”
We’re not satisfied with looking at the pictures and reading the “how to’s,” we have to climb the Mt. Everest of writing and experience the harsh realities for ourselves. That’s the only way we learn.
How interesting that your fiction starts with dreams. I do get lots of ideas overnight but they’re not as visual as yours sound. In fact a rather rule-bound tutor I had insisted I should be dreaming about my characters, but I never did!
Oh, your sister sounds worth cultivating. But (I’m assuming) wordprocessing has really opened things up for writers with dyslexia. Although I wonder if it gives you more of a tendency to juggle the words in your head before setting them down, which I always find of benefit.
I’m lucky I think to have had mostly good experiences with editors – sometimes you need a helping hand out of the brambles, or at least someone asking whether the fruit is so good you want to stay there.
I often close my eyes to type. Fewer distractions. If it weren’t for computers there are many jobs I couldn’t do. I write reports and use a text reader to read it back to me. It’s surprising how many mistakes I find that way.
I start off in dreams, too and often it’s after processing a “find” like a historical curiosity or something about human nature. I’m a fellow dyslexic though a closet one, having learned to hide it most of my life. I’m forever curious about how the mind works and compensates. I struggled with reading lessons in first-grade and was placed in a class for extra help until the teacher realized I could read at a high level. Thus the pantsing comes easy to us because I believe that we compensate beyond understanding the details of spelling or structure. Just my two-bit theory! I found that mapping the W works wonders for how I think non-laterally and gives me a way to plot. I love and rely on my book editor! This is why I’m so pleased we can be discussing the “hard to define” processes behind creating raw literature. Dream on!
Thanks. 🙂 The dreams never seem to stop coming.
Personally, I think that people with dyslexia see the world quite differently — in a good way.
Lots of food for thought here Anne, great post! I had CBT once but it didn’t do much for me…maybe now I can see why, being a pantser, not a planner! I always thought I was weird that it didn’t help me, but I realised that it wasn’t what I needed at that time. Trying to reign in those ‘harmful’ thoughts actually hindered the way I intrinsically think, that constant stream of ideas gurgling through my brain years before I actually started writing, seriously, which I came to realise was the preparation of that first, raw draft. Hope that makes sense! I love your analogy of writing/hiking, the connection you’ve made in your ‘literary landscape’ with Jane Eyre, one of my favourite novels 🙂
That makes perfect sense to another pantser. 🙂
You express the path we walk quite well.
Phew…thank you, from one pantser to another! 🙂
Sorry I missed this earlier, Sherri, so not sure if you’ll get my reply. But it makes perfect sense and furthers my own thinking. CBT can indeed be presented as something that has to work and so there’s something wrong with you if it doesn’t. Delivered by a flexible and thoughtful therapist there ought to be space for negotiation and a deepening of the connection when things go wrong, but often it’s oversimplified and mechanical – as if fixing our minds was simple, although I’d question whether they need to be fixed at all. As you seem to be saying, it helps to gain an understanding of the idiosyncrasies of our own thought processes and then using them effectively rather than importing a system that isn’t right for us personally.
Hello Anne, and now it’s my turn to say sorry for taking so long to reply, and yes, I did get yours, many thanks! Great point, agreed. This ‘one size fits all’ thinking does not help at all. Using our own thought processes more effectively is key. Being made to feel that something is wrong with us if we don’t respond in the prescribed manner definitely does more harm. Always great chatting with you. I wish I had more time to do so, as usual I’m on the back hoof, this time with a house move fast approaching so I will disappear again until it’s done. I get so frustrated at not being able to focus on my writing…but there it is, for now. I will try to pop into the Ranch when I can as I really miss writing flash and our community there, so hopefully, I’ll see you there from time to time throughout the summer… 🙂
No need to apologise, Sherri – and you certainly a lot quicker than I was. I hope the house move goes well and you’ll be back flashing with us all soon.
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