Why it's Better to Write TogetherNov 28, 2021
Mahsuda Snaith is one of the team of expert author coaches at The Novelry. She was named an 'Observer New Face of Fiction' for her debut novel The Things We Thought We Knew (published by Penguin's Black Swan imprint), and her second novel How to Find Home was chosen as a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime.
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From the desk of Mahsuda Snaith.
Writing can sometimes feel like a country park full of bracken.
Let me explain.
A few years back, I was walking with a friend through a local country park. We came to a spot where the ground was covered with bracken, with thin trails weaving through the overgrowth. As we walked through, my friend told me how she knew someone who had come to the same park and lost sight of her dog in amongst the thickets. Her dog just so happened to be called Bracken. There she stood on her own, shouting into the wind, ‘Bracken? Bracken!' Other walkers looked at her with confusion, presumably thinking she was some kind of plant obsessive who liked pointing out the obvious.
So yes, writing can sometimes feel like a country park full of bracken. Sometimes the path between the thickets seems clear, you know exactly where you’re going, can envision the destination even though you can’t quite see it on the horizon yet. Other times, it feels like you’re going around in circles, that your destination may not actually exist (or have ever existed), and you’re left standing on your own amongst the leaves shouting 'Bracken? Bracken!'
Except of course, the leaves are your writing and what you’re shouting is, 'Story? Story!'
Last year, during lockdown, I got lost in the writing bracken. For many years, my dream was to be a stay-at-home writer but, like many dreams, the reality had its downsides.
Last year, during lockdown, I got lost in the writing bracken. For many years, my dream was to be a stay-at-home writer but, like many dreams, the reality had its downsides. I often got tangled up in my writing then lost sight of my story and, when I went in search for it, it refused to come back to my call. I was also lonely and in need of a kindred spirit who would ‘get’ what this crazy writing life could be like.
One morning, in a rare act of social bravery, I decided to post a Tweet asking if other writers would like to meet up on Zoom to talk about how they were dealing with writing during lockdown. I told myself that even if two people responded then my act of reaching out would have been worthwhile. As it turned out, I ended up with a good deal more than two writers; in fact, within a few days, I ended up with 40 names written on a hand-drawn table, trying to divide them into groups so that we could all meet at suitable time slots throughout the following week.
The part of me that was propelled to go out of my comfort zone and send that Tweet was left feeling grateful for the connection I so obviously needed, as well as the feelings of resonance that came when I heard everyone talk about their own writing experiences. At the end of the sessions, I asked if anyone would like to join me once a week on a regular basis and, a year later, I still have Zoom meetings with the group that was formed. We discuss our work-in-progress, submission deadlines, the ups and downs of the publishing industry, as well as that general feeling of being stuck in the writing wilderness. With their wise words, I’ve been shown the path out of the bracken on a number of occasions and have been able to reorientate myself. I can see that, yes, my destination did always exist and, what’s more, I’m one step closer to getting there.
A year later, I still have Zoom meetings with the group that was formed. We discuss our work-in-progress, submission deadlines, the ups and downs of the publishing industry.
Since I began working at The Novelry it became clear that this feeling of ‘stuckness’ was a common issue for writers of all experience levels. In a team meeting one week, we began discussing how many of our writers had mentioned they were sinking in the bog of their first drafts and had seemingly lost the joy of writing. There was the suggestion of a Story Clinic takeover, a session that would be full of fun and play. As I’d spent years teaching creative writing workshops, it seemed natural to volunteer and lead the session. We called the takeover ‘Let’s Play Writing’, and booked it in for my next Story Clinic.
For the workshop, I collated a series of short exercises that I thought would bring out a sense of play for our writers, getting them to come at their writing sideways and, even though they wouldn’t necessarily be working on their novels, get them to see their work-in-progress with fresh eyes. As well as this, I felt a strong need to incorporate breakout rooms. I’d used Zoom breakout rooms in previous online creative writing workshops and always had the same result from them; the writers did not want to come back when I closed the rooms. In fact, many were positively disgruntled, having gotten into great conversations with the writers they’d been randomly put in a room with.
When I did the takeover, I found the same reaction (without the disgruntlement). In fact, the writers came back with expressions of relief. They had tried a timed exercise that probably felt impossible when the task was set (I know, I have done similar exercises myself), they had a go anyway, then had been given a chance to debrief on how they’d found the experience. Via this simple act, they had found the connection and resonance that is so very needed when your work is primarily done from making things up in your head.
The response to that Story Clinic takeover was so uplifting that The Novelry now offers a monthly ‘Let’s Play Writing Workshop’.
The response to that Story Clinic takeover was so uplifting that The Novelry now offers a monthly ‘Let’s Play Writing Workshop’ with me as the lead. We hope that if you’re a member, you will come and join us in one of the future workshops to challenge your creative mind with something a little bit different, as well as find that crucial feeling of connection with other writers. And if you aren’t a member, perhaps you could find that connection by reaching out to writers you know. And, if you don’t know any writers, perhaps you could post a Tweet…
Writing is a solitary act, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is always lonely.
Writing is a solitary act, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is always lonely. In fact, the characters that inhabit your worlds can make the best of companions when they stick to the path and remain in clear sight. But when that character (or their story, or their world) gets lost amongst the bracken, perhaps instead of shouting for ‘story’, we can step out from the thickets and ask if anyone else has lost their story too. At least this way, we won’t be lost on our own.