Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Week 1 Day 5.
Five days. Cripes! That’s nearly an hour of writing time. Five sessions, after today, that you’ve invested in yourself and your craft, where you’ve made the decision, as an adult, to step into a place of uncertainty and vulnerability and newness. Which we don’t do very often as grown-ups. We like having a sense of mastery. We like to stick to domains where the challenges are relatively small compared to our skillsets. Most of the time, anyway. The oft-trotted out but rarely reflected on concept of the ‘comfort zone’.
And I’m not actually criticising that tendency. Because of course there may be areas of your life – in fact there usually are – where you’re forced into discomfort, uncertainty and a sense of lack of control purely by circumstance. Be it relationships, health, career, the state of the world. So who wouldn’t, where they have the choice, want to arrange their life so that they have some kind of sovereignty over what goes on. Like, here I am, devoting my time to teaching creative writing, because I’ve spent my life immersed in stories and teaching creative writing. I’m not retraining as a chef or working as private security in a war zone.
So I suppose what I’m trying to say is well done, you’re doing great, but also reiterating that what we’re trying to do here is not kick you out of a helicopter over the ocean six miles from the coast and expect you to swim to land, but instead slowly expose you to the edges of your competence, that space where things become challenging, where you don’t always have this familiar, automated sequence of tricks and skills to deal with any problem, and 1) help you develop some of those skills 2) get you comfortable with winging it and quote unquote failing.
Because if you’re cool with being a bit of a chancer, you know, kind of bullshitting when you’re painted into a corner creatively, if you start to reframe those moments in your mind less as imposter syndrome ‘oh gosh I’m not a real writer, I’m faking it’ and more like a funny caper ‘fucking hell I have no idea what I’m doing, this is hilarious’ you are going to be much more resilient and you’re going to have an ace time.
Because when it comes to writing, this is a heist where absolutely everyone is just a civilian deep undercover. A Capital A Author is just a mask. It’s ridiculous. And sometimes we want to reach for the identity because we think when we get there the anxiety will go away. And professional writers are often quite willing to go along with this mutual folly because we kind of feel more legitimate by taking on this role akin to clergy. Yes, we have learned the mysteries of the inner temple, come consult with us that we may hand down our wisdom.
But it’s nonsense. And a lot of professional authors – and I should know, I’ve interviewed dozens on the podcast, I am one – privately feel like total frauds. Like atheist vicars.
And all we have to do to free ourselves from this knot is just to admit, creative anxiety is managed, it is not cured. It’s like hunger. You can’t finally find the right food and you eat and now you never have to eat again. Unless it’s like, cyanide. It’s an ongoing process. And it can be intrinsically pleasurable and sustaining, it’s good that we’re never finished because once we are, the game’s over. I love writing because it’s such a satisfying puzzle.
Just know, on this big journey you’re embarking on, we’re never going to reach that glorious shining mansion on the hill. Or if we do it’ll be deserted, the dining hall laden with a mysterious banquet you definitely shouldn’t eat if you don’t want to get bewitched by the Gentry Below and led to join them in their fairyland revels for the next hundred years.
I want to have some fun today, um, not in my personal life, I mean with this exercise, and it’s related to one of the overarching techniques that I’d like you to come away from this week with, and you might even like to note it down because I’m going to be telling you a lot of stuff, so just the occasional note here and there to serve as a reminder can’t do any harm. You know, either in a page in your notebook or just in a file you put aside for 100 Day Challenge notes so anything I say or anything that occurs to you as you’re doing this you can jot down, and you have it.
But as a writer it’s really useful to get into the habit of siloing. Or you might prefer to think of it as pickling. Or making loads of jam. But basically this idea that every so often, you make a big batch of something, and you set it aside for later. And that something might be a list of character names, or interesting objects, or story ideas, or you might set yourself the challenge every day for a week of acting like a Pokemon trainer and going out into the world and spotting one person, one human, who you note down a description of, you sort of surreptitiously capture them in prose, this guy with a long wiry beard with strands of grey and white and nicotine yellow, pink pouched eyes, a hunch, and a strange expression somewhere between a grin and a snarl, and you keep him for later, when you’re writing a book and you need to describe your protagonist’s teacher, or the village blacksmith, or the figure in the photograph on the old lady’s mantlepiece.
You might note down something about today’s weather. You might encounter an interesting fact in a book or article and quickly pop it into your notebook for later. You might find a really lovely quotation that sums something up for you and you want to keep it. And list making is another form of that. It’s a way of generating ideas and inspiration now, then you just store it. And later, when you’re deep in the long dark winter of writing a novel, you can return to your pantry and go through the supplies. And it’s so funny, or at least it has been for me, how often these lists that seemed very uninspiring to me at the time, at best a bit silly, when I come back to them, and time has passed, how suddenly I don’t remember writing this stuff, and it’s weird. It’s like it came from somewhere else entirely. And sometimes – often, in fact – there will be a few items on the list where I’ll be ‘that’s cool’. There’ll be an idea I can take back to my story.
Or you can treat them as writing prompts. You can wait til one catches your eye then use it as the basis of some bigger piece. It’s like regrowing a plant from a cutting. So I’m starting here, with these lists, because they provide such solid foundations for your writing practice. We’re going to make a bunch of stuff and it may not be til weeks, months, years later that you fully make use of it but the first stage is to start storing it. And of course the practice of generating it makes you better at generating it. It stirs your subconscious. Stuff starts happening.
So we’ve done people, we’ve done objects, today I’d really really like us to try places. Fictional locations. Could be made up names for towns, villages, forests, oceans, could be much much smaller. The name of a made up business – a nightclub, a tattoo parlour, a soft-play centre. Could be a themepark or the imaginary name of a street or road or an invented planet or constellation in the night sky. Could be somewhere from our world. Could be from the ancient past or the far future or a completely different universe entirely. Could be a nickname two friends have for a certain spot. Some might sound oddly similar to places you recognise. Some might be completely alien.
I’d say, give yourself permission to be bad, to be cliched, to repeat yourself. Give yourself permission to stray slightly into nonsense. I think that’s one of the reasons I say don’t think too much. Just keep the words coming irrespective of quality. Originality is partly a mistake. A category error. And working faster than you normally would makes you accident prone. You put two words together you didn’t mean to and bang. They fizz and we’re somewhere new.
So. Ten minutes. A list of names of invented locations. Are you ready?
And that’s it. You’re done.
How was that for you? Did you enjoy it? Was it hard, easy, a bit of both? And – and this is a good question to ask yourself after any task that has an element of challenge – how do you feel now you’re done? Better than before? Worse? The same? No right answers, just worth noticing.
Please look after this list, however it turned out. Thanks for your effort today. I’ll see you again tomorrow.