July: What gets in the way of you doing what you want to do?

I think most people have something they really, really want to do, but sadly many of them will never get around to fulfilling that desire. This seems to me particularly true if the wish is to do something creative.

Wanting to write but not getting around to it is a particularly common problem, and I’m not entirely sure why. I guess if you’ve always wanted to paint or sculpt then you have a clear route; go to classes, start small, follow guidance etc, but writing is a bit different. After all, ‘everyone can write, can’t they?’ If you read and enjoy books and you can put words on a page, then surely creating a story needs no instruction? But that’s like saying if you enjoy eating food then surely you can cook?

Maybe the first barrier comes from not realising that writing is a craft. Eggs, flour and milk will not in themselves come together to make a cake. You are faced with a pile of ingredients – characters, plot, setting etc, but how do these all fit together?  So my first message is, if you do want to write, acknowledge the need for help in understanding the craft.

Once you have embarked on that journey though, it’s still not plain sailing, and this was brought home to me during the pandemic. Many people who had been writing avidly before 2020 were now struggling. Why was this?

Firstly there’s the whole childcare thing. I was amazed at how many people beat themselves up for not writing when suddenly they were locked in a home 24/7 with their kids.  Had they never heard the quote, “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”? Did they know Doris Lessing felt the need to abandon her young family entirely? Here are some quotes from famous authors about whether or not to have children. Fathers are not immune to that dilemma as well, and the pandemic would surely have affected them adversely, even if the bulk of childcare still fell to their spouse.

But even those who have no children were finding writing hard during the pandemic, and were beating themselves up because here they were, confined to their homes, nothing else to do – surely these were perfect conditions for writing? Well, no. Let’s think about what being a writer during a pandemic means.
Generally speaking, the act of writing is about realising your potential, pursuing your goals; what Abraham Maslow called ‘self-actualisation.’ Maslow talked about a hierarchy of needs, and the theory that if your most fundamental needs are not being met, then higher level needs, self-actualising needs, fall off the agenda. Basically if you are starving or homeless, then you’re not really interested in choosing wallpaper.
During the pandemic, most of us did have our most fundamental needs met; the need for air, water, food, sleep and shelter. But the next level of needs are about safely – these involve personal, emotional and financial security and wellbeing, and how many people found those needs challenging to meet? Fear of illness, loss of jobs, the economy tanking, these were common fears for us all. And even if you could somehow ignore these threats – and Maslow reckoned you cannot, the next level is about love and social belonging. The need for family, friendship and intimacy. Not much of that happening either, right?
So… given that all of us were having our basic safety needs challenged, our need for love and social belonging unmet, then it was, according to Maslow, impossible to address the higher needs – the need for self-actualisation – the need to write.

My second big message then is, don’t beat yourself up for not writing much last year, for not taking advantage of all that time at home during the pandemic. You would have been unusual if you did.

And we’re still here of course. Life is still odd, our security needs are still under threat. So maybe think about what you are writing? People can write under extreme threat conditions – let’s remember Anne Frank and her diary. Writing can be therapeutic Maybe rather than creating new worlds, you need to write about the one you’re experiencing right now.

This month’s words and pictures interview was with illustrator Francesca Watt. Her cheery pictures, her lovely working environment, will surely inspire you.

How to write

Continuing with the theme of barriers to writing and finding a way through these, I invite you to dip into this book at random and run with whatever you find. The book is an invitation to write, an empowering book. There is nothing in here about the work of writing – the getting of agents, the editing of drafts etc, but it is instead full of exercises which invite you to write, encourage you to write, and to find your own way.

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