I’ve been having a (post-NaNo) BIG THINK about my writing. I finished my last (OU) creative writing course in May (A363 Advanced Creative Writing) and though I’ve written a lot of words since then I have only submitted one short story (4000 words) – deemed ‘intriguing’ but ‘difficult to place’ by the editor I sent it to in June and who refrained from telling me until September that he wasn’t going to publish it. So I’ve sat on this story for a while (almost as long as he did) and – with NaNo finished – decided now was the perfect time to reassess the whole goddam writing thing.

The issue isn’t whether or not I should write, but – having had a few pieces of flash fiction and poetry published online and in print, where do I want to go from here? Should I do an MA or should I just write? And if I (just) write, what sort of writing should I do? More flash fiction? Longer short stories? Poetry? A novel?

This is when I began to realise that I was asking myself the wrong questions. Whilst I have been writing, I have been reluctant to edit – and when I asked myself why, I realised that it was because of what my writing was about.

My writing is essentially character-based, and often dark. I am not a plot-driven writer, I am a left-brained creative who struggles with logic and a linear approach to anything. I’m a lateral and intuitive thinker, a sensitive soul, a people-watcher. This is how I figure things out; writing is my way of making sense of the stuff I see and hear out there in the world.

But after all the thinking I’ve done, all the notes I’ve written, all the writing I’ve done, all the friends I’ve discussed this with, I’ve read two books that have changed things.

My first epiphany came while reading Doug Coupland‘s Generation X (and subsequently Generation A, which I’m half-way through). I could write a novel in which nothing really happens. No – truly, it is OK – he has done it, in a very clever way and it is an amazing read. I only wish I’d discovered him ten years ago.

The second epiphany happened the other night whilst reading one of Salt‘s most recent publications: Short Circuit – a book of essays about the art of writing short fiction, edited by Vanessa Gebbie.  I’ve only read three of the essays but these have been reassuring, illuminating and liberating (and I can’t wait to read the rest):

Tania Hershman in her essay, Art breathes from containment … sums up (flash fiction) by saying, ‘there is nothing that flash fiction cannot be, there is no prohibition on style, content, tone, pace, point of view, linear or non-linear narrative.’

Elizabeth Baines essay, True story, real story – good fiction (despite personal reluctance and with great authorial generosity) provides insight into her writing process and explains how she absorbs real life experiences and reconstructs them as fiction. This was particularly reassuring not just because my creative process is so similar to hers but also because it connects with another – the most daunting – of my writing ‘issues’, the ‘what it’s about’ which Alison MacLeod addresses in her essay, Writing and risk-taking.

She begins, ‘there will be good reasons not to write almost every story that you care about writing …’ Tell me about it, I was already thinking out loud at this point.

She says, ‘I often find myself drawn to writing about characters who are attracted to something that is taboo.’ OK, well what I write about isn’t exactly taboo, but the characters can be edgy, my stories often exhume the character’s psychological or emotional issues, but as Alison says, (this)

‘can create a complex emotional world (and) … contradictory feelings are jet-fuel for stories; they immediately give a story the tension of opposing emotions and they are also, in their messiness, particularly true to life.’

WOOHOO. This last essay was the one I found the most liberating. Yes I will take the risks I want to take with my characters and my stories, and furthermore I will take the risk that my stories – though ‘intriguing’, might be ‘difficult to place’, but if that is how I write, – and if someone enjoys what I’ve written and sees some value in it – then it will have been worth the risk.

So thank you to Tania, Elizabeth and Alison, I am now officially ‘unstuck’ – and a huge thank you to Salt for publishing this brilliant book.