Creative writing – harder than it looks

Procrastination while writing is easy… Cartoon by Cathy Thorne.

As a child I wrote a lot of stories.  I think my English teachers were disappointed that I chose a Science route rather than literature.  However, just like art, creative writing is something I’ve continued to pursue throughout my technical career (when I’ve felt creative enough!).  I wrote a novel during my PhD that I’ve not yet revisited to see if it’s worth publishing1 and have always jumped at opportunities to write articles and blog posts about the things that interest me.  However, I have had one idea for a book bubbling in my mind for the last twenty years and I have never really had the time to focus on it properly.

I’m currently about halfway through my garden leave and contractually I can’t do any technical research or development, so I’m filling my days at home with a combination of my OU Maths module and this exciting book idea.  What I’ve been struggling with is that there are days when I’m not feeling creative at all, and days when I have to do something else, such as an OU TMA, but all I can think about is writing.

In the same way as I’ve been making my OU studies habitual2 I have tried to make writing habitual.  Stephen King has some great advice about writing in his “On Writing” semi-memoir, semi-advisory book.  He suggests writing every day, even if you don’t feel like it.  I’ve been trying to stick to this.  I’ve set myself a modest challenge of 1000 words a day.  Some days this is easy and I’ve sat down and the words have just flown onto the page.  Other days, it’s a real chore, I don’t feel like writing anything and I have to force myself to.  Having this blog has helped – I can write posts about things that matter to me and this can often kick start the creativity I need for the book3.

Following King’s advice to “always be honest”, writing what you know and what you feel to be true,  I’ve found myself drawing on aspects of my own character to create the characters in the book, the situations in which they find themselves and the conversations that they have.  I know friends and family may well see fragments of conversations and experiences within the book and I worry that they will think I am writing about them, which I’m not.  In fact, there are far more experiences in common than people might think, and I want this book to feel very familiar to everyone who reads it, but I can’t help but draw on my own experiences as part of this creation process. Where I don’t have direct experience, I have had to do some pretty in depth research to make the situations fully believable.  This isn’t something that you can just make up and make it feel real to a reader.  Even the extraordinary needs to be based in fact.

What some of my friends have found hilarious is that I’m doing my OU maths as a ‘relax’.  I’ve found the writing process very emotionally draining: switching between characters and whether positive or negative things are happening and their reactions4.  After a few hours I feel the need to do something that requires no emotion whatsoever and I’m pleased I have MST210 to fulfil that role!  I’m hoping that the emotional intensity I’m feeling while writing is being transferred into my words and someone else reading it will be similarly affected.  Time will tell.

I think it’s unlikely that I’ll get this finished before I return to work, but I’ve set myself a deadline of the end of the year.

Until then I’ll keep reading other books and this is one more topic to blog about!

  1.   I think realistically it will need rewriting but the story is sound.  I just hadn’t had the life experiences then to give the characters depth.
  2. Although while I am not regularly commuting into London, the good habits I got into have sadly fallen by the wayside and will need reinstating in a couple of months.
  3. And yes, these posts count towards my 1000 word a day minimum!
  4.   Even some of the research that I’ve been doing has by its very nature been emotional as I’ve put myself fully into the situation I’m researching.

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.