Thanks to Dr Vanessa Harbour, or Professa Vanessa as I call her, for inviting me to take part in the Writing Process Tour. I met Vanessa whilst we were both doing an MA in Writing for Children at Winchester University. I remember the first time I met her very clearly. It was in a seminar and she was reading out an extract of her work. Her voice was quiet but there was power in it and I remember thinking that her writing was exciting, and that I knew I would like to have her as a friend. She hasn’t been able to get rid of me since! Vanessa went on to do a PhD at Winchester and is now Senior Lecturer there, and is also part of the Golden Egg Academy along with Imogen Cooper. For her part of the tour, Vanessa wrote about writing cold, edit hot. Check out her blog:
So I’m going to zip through the questions & then get to what I want to write about.
1. What am I working on?
At the moment, lots of things. Last year, I ‘finished’ the story I began during the MA. I say ‘finished’ because although I got to the end (a second time – this was the more edited version) I need some distance from it before I can look at it properly, when the memory of writing it isn’t so fresh. That story was for 9-12 year olds. All my favourite books come from that age category – it is my writing and reading home. But since I’ve finished it, I’ve had two very strong ideas for YA stories, even though I never thought I’d write a YA story, and so I am playing around with those at the moment. I can’t yet decide which one I want to write first and so I am thinking of both of them for now.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Honestly, I haven’t a clue! After my MA I got an Arts Council fund to work with a writer as part of the Gold Dust Scheme, run by Jill Dawson (check it out – it’s great: http://gold-dust.org.uk/). I worked with Dr Sally Cline, which I very much enjoyed, and she probably knows my work best. She’s said that my writing is confident, assured and atmospheric – and funny too. Lots of other people have said that my writing is atmospheric too, so I’m going to view that as a strength. But my writing style isn’t fully developed yet. Everyone is unique and if they put enough of themselves into their writing then that is what I think makes their work differ from others. I know that I’ve been avoiding doing that – not deliberately, but because my past was not a place I wanted to re-visit. But that’s where the YA ideas have come from – confronting that. I will pour my own experiences into both those ideas and I know that it will be all the better for it.
3. Why do I write what I do?
It depends on which story you’re talking about. The story I wrote for the MA is a fantasy and is very much a story that I would have loved to read when I was young. But these YA ideas, and other stories – they have just popped into my head. Story ideas come from all sorts of places, from poems, music, buildings, images in stained glass and lots of other things. Recently, a lot of ideas have come to me while I’m out running. We’ll come onto that in a minute. There are always a lot of stories jostling around in my head and the ones I end up writing are the pushy ones who knock the other ones out of the way while I’m not looking. That’s why I’m having a problem with the two YA stories – neither of them will concede to the other.
4. How does my writing process work?
What I’m going to focus on here is how to get into the right frame of mind to write. This has been a real problem for me for the past few months. I’ve struggled to write anything – but, even worse, I’ve also struggled to read anything. All these amazing books have arrived in the bookshop and I’ve barely been able to get through the first two chapters. I only realised what the issue was a few weeks ago – this difficulty had arisen the minute I stopped running. I only started running last year, after a lifetime of hating it. But I stuck with it, grew to love it and before I knew it, it had become essential to my life. So it was a massive blow when I injured my knee in January – an injury that still hasn’t sorted itself out, and so I still can’t run.
What the running did for me was clear my head. I’m a hyperactive kind of person – I have too much energy, a very short attention span and like to do lots of different things all at the same time to keep me interested and to achieve as many things as I can. This is a strength and I’ve certainly needed it over the past year. I juggle 6+ jobs with 2 kids and I thrive on the constantly changing logistics of my day. But it’s also a massive weakness – and sitting down to write or read requires singular minded focus. The running sorted that out for me. It wore me out a bit physically but I also spent the time thinking and processing and when I came back from a run, my mind was also a bit worn out. It felt clearer and settled, with issues resolved or at least considered. I could focus on one thing, be properly ‘in the present’ with it, and giving my writing my full attention.
I was discussing my inability to read with a student and they made the connection between that and my running injury. I realised that I needed to find another way to still my frog like hopping brain. As soon as I thought about it properly, the answer was obvious: meditation.
Before I did the MA I was a Religious Studies teacher (my first degree is in Theology). I incorporated meditation into my lessons as much as possible and the effects were always startling: it always helped the children focus (even on a Friday afternoon!) and allowed them a pause in their day to be mindful. Mindfulness is a buzzword at the moment but the concept is hardly new. I hope that everyone taking it into their lives will continue with it when it is superseded but something else in society. I doubt it.
I hadn’t done any meditation for a while and its something that, the more frequently you do it, the easier you will find it. You can do active meditation – meditation on the move – but I preferred thinking idle thoughts while running. Without that as a choice though, I did a seated meditation.
So if you are looking for something to help you focus and aren’t keen on running or any other physical activity, then you should give this a go.
This is crucial. You’ll never be able to shut out all the disturbances from the outside world, and you shouldn’t try to. But what you need to minimise is disturbances that will most distract you. Put your mobile phone on silent and leave it in another room. Retreat to a quiet corner of your house where nobody will bother you (or don’t even attempt this whilst your children are awake). Get away from your computer or anything that makes demands on your time and attention. Hide or position yourself away from clocks too. Have whatever you write on – pad or computer – ready, but meditate in a different space.
Ideally, this meditation should be done sitting down. How you sit – whether cross-legged or kneeling – is up to you. If you find sitting on the floor too much of a strain then sit in an upright chair, but raise the back legs slightly so that you are tilted forwards and you bring some weight to your feet. Your head and your shoulders should be relaxed and hands resting on your legs or in your lap (on a cushion if need be). If you don’t find this comfortable, then lie down on the floor instead (unless you fall asleep easily – in which case, do it seated!).
You will be sitting/lying down in a still position so make sure you are wearing enough clothes (or wrap yourself in blankets) so that you don’t get cold, as that will distract you. The clothes you wear should be comfortable too.
Going through the body
This is an exercise to prepare yourself for meditation. It also develops mindfulness – an awareness of your body and yourself in general. If you want to use this then just read through it, then close your eyes and do it step by step (it doesn’t matter if you don’t remember everything). Or get a nice person to read it out to you. It usually helps if you close your eyes, to retain your focus. If you do hear any sounds from elsewhere then note and dismiss them. The doorbell ringing won’t destroy your concentration if you let it: this is time for you.
Start with the soles of your feet. Take your awareness down to the soles of your feet and be aware of them. Experience them, feel them, be them. Then enlarge the intense experience of the sole of your feet to include both feet. Your toes, your ankles, the top of your feet. Experience them as fully as you can. Be aware of them. Then move on to the legs. First the lower leg, and then the knees and then the tops of your legs. Again, be as intensely aware of them as you can, experience them, feel them, be them.
Then have some awareness of your hips and pelvis, then your trunk, moving along your spine. To help us here we can become more aware of our stomach, from the lower ribs to the hips and pelvis. Experience it, feel it, be aware of I and, if you can, let it go soft.
Move onto your heart: be aware of it. Be aware not only of its physical significance, beating for us, but also its emotional significance.
Now the lungs. Be aware of your lungs, of the great space they occupy in your torso. Then be aware of your chest and your back, going from the top to your hips. Experience them.
Move now onto your hands: feel them, experience them, be aware of them. Do both arms up to your shoulder blades. Try to retain an awareness of all the parts you have already covered.
Now be aware of your shoulders. Move next to your neck and throat. After this, become more aware of your face and eyes, and the rest of your head.
Having done this, retain the awareness of your body you have developed and then imagine the soles of your feet spreading and becoming wider. Now allow your legs to sink gently downwards, relaxing. Then let your stomach sink slowly downwards, relaxing. Let the palms of your hands and your wrists soften. Now allow your shoulders to sink gently downwards, relaxing. Soften your neck. Soften your face. Soften your eyes.
Let the weight of your body sink gently downwards through your skeleton and into the floor. As your weight goes downwards, imagine your energy being released and rising upwards. So now you feel both stable and light.
Retain this intense awareness of your self and become aware of your breathing. Stay soft, stay gentle and kind to yourself. Soften your stomach and breathe.
After this, stay seated or lying down for as long as you want, thinking or not thinking. When you want to, open your eyes, stretch your limbs and stand up.
Then go to your computer and your notebook – without checking your phone or pausing to make yourself a cup of tear or open the post – and write. Don’t check e-mails or go onto Facebook or twitter or anything else whilst you are doing this. Stay there and write for as long as you can.
When you have done as much as you can, then you can go and make that cup of tea or check what’s going on in the world. The spell you held yourself under will be broken, until the next time.
So if you can’t or don’t use physical activity to still the mind and need something to help you focus then give meditation a try. Not just once, but once a day for a week and see what happens. And if you do, I’d love to hear from you.
I’m handing on the Writing Process Blog Tour baton to Helen Moss, who I’ve known for a few years now through local SCBWI events (and bookshop events!). She is a wonderful person, a wonderful writer & a great supporter of all things related to kidlit. I’ve recently started a book club at Heffers for adults passionate about children’s books – held on the last Tuesday of every month – and Helen was one of the first to sign up. She also wears the most amazing shoes…. Here’s a bit about her:
Helen Moss writes books for 7-12 year olds. Her series, Adventure Island (published by Orion Children’s Books) features mystery-solving young sleuths (and dog) on a fictional island off the coast of Cornwall. Before becoming a full time writer she worked for many years as a researcher and lecturer in psycholinguistics. Helen is co-co-ordinator for the Central East Network of SCBWI. She can often be seen tramping around the Cambridgeshire countryside with her border collies, talking to herself as she hatches more dastardly crimes for her new series.
Helen’s website it: http://www.helenmoss.org.uk/ so please go on there next Monday (14th) for her contribution to the Writing Process Tour!
My continued thanks to Danavira and the Cambridge Buddhist Centre for sharing their knowledge about meditation