Hopefully you’ve celebrated packing your bag of skills for Step 1 and are all set for the trip. But we’re not heading out yet. Step 2 is all about where you want your writing journey to take you. At this stage it is all about dreaming big. This should be easy for us writers, shouldn’t it? The slight problem is that maybe the act of dreaming up worlds for imaginary people was a way of escaping the limitations of our reality. So how do we dream big for ourselves?
Note: There are 5 tasks in this step so you may wish to spread it over two sessions, especially if you’re working with a writing buddy.
Tell Me What You Want
In writing this I realised that I needed to flip the question because when asked ‘Where do I want to be?’ it’s easy to jump to the predictable writing goals: ‘international mega-book deal, or the more modest n-submissions to competitions; a completed first draft; submit to an agent.’ Great, these are all really valid goals, but this is setting ourselves up to fail if we don’t address the secret wants we daren’t say out loud. These quiet desires, like ‘I want to believe in my work’, must be heard to make the bigger stuff happen.
The scary thing is that these deeper needs won’t be fixed by getting an agent or publication or competition wins.
Weirdly, successes only seem to put extra pressure on our unspoken wants so we can’t just ignore them. This step will focus on the full hierarchy of wants, not just the big goals but those critical basic needs, the personal and practical, that are vital to moving our writing forward and building confidence.
The interesting problem with saying ‘I want’ is that it does not immediately deliver a lovely list of realistic goals. In fact, something really strange happens when we say it out loud. Using myself as a guinea pig I said ‘I want’ – it sounded loud, entitled, selfish and it invited this other voice, an authoritative teachery voice, a bit like my Aunty Nell, who was very quick to explain to me exactly why I couldn’t have it.
As soon as we say ‘I want’ we’re not just starting to identify our goals as a writer, we’re initiating a battle between the Dreamer and the Doubter inside ourselves.
As soon as we say ‘I want’ that spectre, the Doubter, rises up from our formative experiences to tell us all of the reasons we ‘can’t have it, don’t deserve it, it’s not for you.’ So ‘I want’ gets modified to ‘I’ll settle for’ or even worse ‘Please can I?’ (The Doubter will always say no.) When we talk about being raised working class or with some form of disadvantage that locks us outside of a right to legitimate culture then we are schooled to always think from a position of scarcity, we are told our wants are too big for a world that doesn’t have enough to give (the expectation-lowering philosophy of austerity). What thinking from a position of scarcity actually means is to never feel entitled to want and thereby immediately invalidate any wants as mere indulgence. It’s this scarcity-thinking that sabotages our attempts to even articulate what we want, never mind chase it.
Why Do You Want to Write?
I think this is why we find it hard to say ‘I’m a writer’. Saying we are something is the same as saying we want it and deserve it. So for the first task you’re going to give yourself permission to do this because no one else will. Somewhere, at some point in your life you chose writing or it chose you; you chose words as your way to be in, understand and re-imagine your world. You found your reason to create that was nothing to do with indulgence and everything to do with survival.
Here are some of the beautiful and incredible reasons why some creative folk create:
‘We either die of the past or we become an artist.’ Louise Bourgeois
‘Ideas come to us as the successors to griefs, and griefs, at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some part of their power to injure the heart’ Marcel Proust
‘The world offers itself to your imagination.’ Mary Oliver
‘So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.’ Jeanette Winterson
These are all pretty damn fine reasons to make stuff up. Wanting to write is not an indulgence, it is work: the body, heart and soul work of digging out truth. It’s the most human thing you’ll ever do. It’s your right no matter who you are.
Confidence requires a deep foundation so you’re going to tap into that initial spark of why you write.
- Start with a clean page or blank screen.
- Set your timer for 10 minutes.
- You are going to out-run and out-write that Doubter and write the answer to this question:Why do I want to write?
If you’re working with a writing buddy share what motivates you both to write.
Most writers I know want to use their work as a platform to explore big human issues like poverty and inequality, they want to create a space to resolve trauma or imagine new realities. These reasons give me hope in a mixed-up world.
I hope that the answers that you come up with hearten and surprise you. It will be interesting to share your responses with your buddy and I’d love to hear them too @Kalamene #thewplan.
Keep your reasons pinned up where you write or copy them onto the first page of your notebooks to remind you that you’re allowed to do this.
What You Really Really Want?
Now that you know why you write the second task of Step 2 is to find a way to say what you want, deep down, with no shame. To do this we’re going to borrow an exercise that we’ll be familiar with from building a character.
We all know that we must name what our character wants: that the want is never simple; it’s connected to a latticework of other wants and that achieving this want is critical to the change that needs to happen for that character. To find our character’s want we have to bypass our censor and just list and list and list everything that floats into our brain. (Yay a list!)
So you’re going to treat yourself like a character. Think about your full spectrum of needs as a writer and human with a life and commitments: you might want to believe in your writing; you might be lonely as a writer; you might need time; you might need to fix your laptop and clear a space to write. You might also want to set up a website, submit more, get an agent. All are valid. (Remember want means desire and lack. Don’t forget to think about what’s missing that will enable you to write if you could get it.)
So let’s try it.
- Start with a clean page / blank screen.
- Write at the top of the page: What do I want?
- Set your timer for 10 minutes.
- And write without stopping.
Now you’re going to sort those needs into a hierarchy to help you tackle them.
Copy Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with segment headings into your notebook or onto a big sheet of paper. Make it big!
Give it your own title or borrow mine:
Triangle of Writerly Desires
Look at the needs you’ve listed in your freewriting and sort them into the best fitting segment of your hierarchy of needs.
Here are some examples:
- Basic Needs: material / logistical – I want a new laptop, to clear the landing as a place to write, get a routine to give me time to write, I need money.
- Safety needs: physical / psychological – I want to eat better and exercise so I’m not too tired to write. I want to feel positive about my work.
- Belonging / affiliation – I want to join a Writers’ group.
- Esteem needs: competence, recognition, skills – I want to do that course on Folkore and Fairytale
- Self actualisation achieving full potential – I want to get that first draft done, I’m ready to submit to an agent.
Using the triangle identify any gaps, for example have you thought about belonging – do you want to reach out to other writers?
If you’re working with a writing buddy then you can help one another to work out which want goes where, address gaps and share and compare wants.
Leave Space in your Triangle of Writerly Desires as you’re going to keep adding to it.
I’d love to see your Triangles of Writerly Desires so please feel free to share @Kalamene #thewplan.
When we get to Step 4 ‘What do I need to get there?’ you will revisit this list, having sorted your wants into a hierarchy you’ll be better able to prioritise them and plan how to make them actually happen.
What Are You Afraid Of?
So now you have your list of wants we need to go deeper and find out what you want but may be afraid of doing.
For working class and disadvantaged writers taking a risk is a massive undertaking, because we have everything to lose and no safety net to catch us if we lose it.
To risk means to run into danger. It is a fundamental human characteristic to take risks. That’s why we worship those who do it: Loki, Anansi, Prometheus. Of course, they get punishments as well as rewards, doesn’t that sound familiar? But those rewards have the power to change the world or bring about its end.
If we want to dream big we have to work out what scares us and why.
- List ten writing goals you are frightened of, believe aren’t for you or are beyond you and ask why.
- Choose one that you would secretly love to try but you’re too scared to and add it to your hierarchy of wants.
- If you’re working with a writing buddy help one another to really think outside your comfort zones.
What About the Wants You Don’t Know You Want?
In my first Writer’s Plan blog I said that I wanted to help to give you a route map through the writing woods but as in all fairytales, we can’t do as we’re told and stick to the path because there isn’t a path for us yet, we have to make it together. One of your most important tasks is to go looking for the breadcrumb trails other writers like you have left behind. How did they build their career and break into the industry and can you do what they did?
I’ve gathered the stories of working class writers at different stages of their journey here on No Writer Left Behind so that you can explore and discover the steps you might want to follow (I’m adding to this all of the time and you’re most welcome to submit your own story). I’m also launching a new blog called The House of Books sharing how libraries have changed people’s lives – there’s so much inspiration there too.
You can read writers’ biographies, interviews, listen to podcasts and scour acknowledgments to find out what worked for them. I also love listening to the journeys of other types of creative folk – artists, cooks and musicians. Radio 6 music is great for this. I love Mary Anne Hobbs’s Three Minute Epiphany – mini interviews with all kinds of folk about how they make their work. Cerys Matthews always has fascinating guests on her Sunday morning show. These are great to listen to when you’re too exhausted to write or during that mid-afternoon slump when all you can manage is a cuppa. If you know a source of inspirational writing stories please do share @Kalamene #thewplan.
- For this task you need find, read or ask about the journeys of other writers, look at their milestones.
- Pick what might work for you.
- Add new wants to your Triangle of Writerly Desires.
- If you’re working with a writing buddy come prepared with some examples of writers’ journeys to share and inspire.
Dreamer Vs Doubter: The Personal Narrative
One of the most significant barriers to working class writers succeeding is the personal narrative of shame, that sounds true and a bit academic but what does that actually look like?
Well, it’s a conversation that sometimes escalates into a blazing row between the part of you that wants and the part that is afraid: the Dreamer and the Doubter. For me this conversation is a continuous part of my life as a writer and every time I seek out a new want, I have to have this discussion with the part of me that’s terrified. I want to show you this because I think this is part of the practice, I think that every time we set a goal we’re going to have to talk ourselves into it and reassure the part of us that’s scared.
Here’s how my Dreamer / Doubter chat went after I lost my first agent:
Doubter: The agent has dumped us. I knew she would. The manuscript is broken. It’s never going to be a story. We need to stop this now and go back to fundraising.
Dreamer: I’m not ready to give up.
Doubter: You can’t fix the story. You don’t know what to do. You were too scared to ask the agent what ‘publication ready’ meant and you still don’t know. You’re sick of the story. You’ll never get another agent.
Dreamer: Yes, I’m sick of the story but that doesn’t mean we give up. We’re allowed to mope and grieve and cry for one week.
Dreamer: And then we’re going to tell everyone we’ve worked with what happened.
Doubter: WTF? We’re not telling anyone the agent dumped us.
Dreamer: We are. We’re going to tell them what happened and we’re going to ask for help.
Doubter: You’ve lost it.
Dreamer: We’re stuck we can’t move forward on our own, we don’t know how this works. We need help. Just be brave and let’s see what folk do.
Doubter: Fine, but no one will help.
New Writing North introduced me to my new super agent.
Although I advocate fearlessness as a writer you still need to give space to and listen to your Doubter or it will find ways to wreck and sabotage you until it’s been heard and reassured. Jeanette Winterson describes our relationship with the Doubter perfectly, it’s a dark part of ourselves that we have to transform (yup, just like in the stories):
‘Making the ugly part of us human again is not an exercise for the well meaning social worker in us. This is the most dangerous work you can do. It is like bomb disposal but you are the bomb. That’s the problem – the awful thing is you.’
- Make space to listen to your fears and doubts. Write down a conversation between your Dreamer and Doubter about the wants that scare your Doubter the most and give reassurances.
- If you’re working with a writing buddy this will require deep trust and you might need to agree a safe space and some boundaries first. Once you’ve done this you could role-play, where one person is the Dreamer and the other is the Doubter and discuss the fears that inhibit writing.
That’s it. Great work. You’re done for now. You have your Triangle of Writerly Desires, you know your basic wants, your emotional wants and your bigger goals. You’ve chosen a risk to take and you’ve looked at what other writers have done for inspiration. Finally you’ve had a calm and reassuring chat with your inner Doubter who’s been hopping up and down since you started this trying to tell you ‘Stop! This is madness.’
Now it’s definitely time to celebrate having completed Step 2. Cake!
Kickass Reading for section 2: Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal
Please let me know how you got on via Twitter #thewplan @Kalamene and share what you’ve done to celebrate.
Next up is Step 3: What’s Stopping Me? where we’ll be looking at and admitting to just what is really getting in the way of our writing before we think about making our wants real.
Step 3 will be released in two weeks time on or around 7th March to give you enough time to work through all of the tasks in Step 2.
Good writing and good luck.