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 firstname.lastname@example.org.