“What’s the writing advice that really pisses you off?” was my favourite question to ask award-winning author and editor Dan Coxon. Originally we were speaking of the module I’m convening at Roehampton University, The Business of Writing. But it’s a phrase so much part of every freelance wordsmith’s life and career and such an important reminder in itself that I knew it had to be part of this month’s word-count workout at the Writers’ Gym:
I am standing in a wood, at the edge of a pool. I drop a pebble into the water, watch the rings dissipate. When they do, I drop the next pebble. Like anywhere I go in my head, I’m more aware of the place than I am of me. It’s the pebbles, not myself, I’m here for. I don’t drop the next pebble until those rings have faded to stillness. Then, in goes the next.
I’ve been using this pool for as long as I can remember. Rather than race through your lines (if you’re acting) or information (if you’re giving a speech or being interviewed) or offering all the multiple directions a conversation could go (if you’re interviewing someone else), drop one thing into the silence, let the rings dissipate around that. The space between is where the thinking happens.
This wasn’t necessarily how I experienced my earliest performances (say, The Wicked Fairy, aged 6, at primary school), It was how I was thinking by the end of Youth Theatre (Hilda, the Ugly Duckling’s sister, aged 18) but the most important place I used this wasn’t on a stage. It was beside one. The place the penny (not just the pebble) dropped about how communication and performance fit together was the first time I knew I needed to play myself.
That place was one of the first primary schools where I ran drama clubs. I was standing at the side of the hall, listening to the head teacher introduce me. I’d recently left university and, if I’m honest, felt closer to being one of those identically uniformed and identically poker-faced, cross-legged children staring up from the floor, than to being one the smattering of adults seated around the edges of the (suddenly enormous) room. What was going on in my head went along the lines of “Oh God, what if no one wants to do drama club? What if they don’t like me? What if they realise I shouldn’t be here?” and all the other things impostor syndrome screams so eloquently as we stand at the edges of our comfort zone. Then it was time to start walking. It was also the moment I thought, “What if… I get to choose who I am and what this is?”
I often joke (the way you do about things that aren’t jokes at all but absolutely true) the two belief systems I grew up within were Judaism and, ever so slightly beneath that, Star Trek.
I say two; really, I experienced them as a continuum. Not because Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry was Jewish, or even because the symbolism of the Vulcan salute Leonard Nimoy created for his character, Mr Spock, was drawn from having seen the shape of the Hebrew letter shin formed with the hand as part of an orthodox service when he was a child. It was because Star Trek – while not literally, presently real – was about potential. Here was an imagined version of humanity in which we had survived the worst things about ourselves. We had become a force in the universe not for self-destruction but for exploration, outward and inward. We were motivated not by personal gain but by personal betterment, connection, and curiosity. That was the agenda from which we boldly went where we hadn’t been before. It was not a statement of who we were, but who we had it in us to be… Read the full article for free on my Substack
A thought on Impostor Syndrome (and why I’d rather be with it than without it).
On Friday, as you might have seen from Saturday’s video, my partner thought a bunch of people at the professional writers’ meet-up he came with me to for the first time weren’t actually writers.
Because that’s what they said about themselves.
(My partner works in the film industry. Where, as you can imagine, NOBODY says “Oh, I’m not really a filmmaker…”. Ever.)
This afternoon, I joined two of my colleagues and two of our MA students to be filmed discussing our courses. I caught myself thinking whether I shouldn’t mention the exercises we’re using that were based on my own book.
Nobody censored me, other than me.
Here is what I want to do about it. Feel free to join me if it resonates with you too:
I will value, discuss and celebrate my work of itself.
I will enjoy when people are surprised I have a PhD, an ISBN number, or anything else. Because I’m changing what those things look like to those people. It’s not about me. It’s about them.
I will notice (not judge, but notice) when I think “but so and so wrote that which is much more established/impressive/famous etc” and acknowledge how irrelevant comparison is. No one else in time and space can write what I can. Letting comparison and self-consciousness have the final word means everybody loses.
I will name the “who does she think she is” voices in my head. I know who they are. They’re just an echo, of something that didn’t matter in the first place.
I will remember everything I write is imperfect and everything you write is imperfect and everything everyone has ever written is imperfect — but real, in the world. Because it got better with every draft so the message made its way into the world. I will remember perfectionism never gets around to connecting with anyone — but authentic does.
Here are three books I love and am proud I wrote. Here’s to the ones that will follow.
I’m so happy to be launching the Writers’ Gym Podcast. Each episode explores an author’s unique mix of memory, imagination, observations and questions about the world, and how that translates into their unique stories. There may be only seven basic plots but there are infinite original voices — come and unleash yours as you develop your creative curiosity, build your focus and explore the goals, exercises, tools and techniques to discover what you really want from your writing — and what your writing really needs from you.
A painter doesn’t need permission to mix any colours they like. Yet, as writers, our memories, imagination, observations and questions about the world and ourselves come with “not supposed to go there” stamped all over them. How can we give ourselves permission to beat those blocks? Multi-award-winning author Jennifer Steil joins me to talk about about what kept her writing through kidnap, cancer treatment and everyday life in the three countries she calls home. Join us here.
Somewhere in the depths of my digital memory, there’s a photo from seven years ago.
In that photo, I’m standing in a park in Richmond, under this same umbrella. I’m smiling, I’m somewhere beautiful and safe. But everything is strange and everything is terrifying. I don’t know who I am in that moment; everything’s lost or feels like it doesn’t fit anymore.
I promise that woman in that moment (and I promise you, today) that these things were true then and they are true now:
✍️ It WILL change. YOU will change it. You and the things that matter to you most will be stronger on the other side of realising you deserve better, then how to find — and be — better.
✍️ Self-esteem is not 20:20 vision. We never realise how much energy went in trying to fit into other people’s templates until we stretch out and discover how much more of ourselves is available to us and where we truly fit.
✍️ Thriving is often around the sharpest of corners, but that version of your life is real and it’s waiting for you.
✍️ Most of us find it incredibly hard to find the self-esteem to ask for, and indeed offer, help. Yet when someone reaches out to us we feel the gift, and compliment, it truly is. Never be afraid to give and never be afraid to take.
Love and thanks to every one of you, my friends, colleagues, family, everyone I’ve written for and with, coached and been coached by in 2022. Never hesitate to message me.
If someone you know needs to hear this — share it, but text them your own words too. #Keeptalking, #keepwriting, we’re all part of one conversation and it’s richer for every one of us being in it as we all turn this same new page tonight.
I have a personal ‘gateway’ to my writing. There’s really just the one reliable way in, if I want the day to be all it can.
Often, when clients or colleagues ask me about writing music, I’m cagey. I turn the question back and am always happy to learn what yours is. Yet I don’t answer too specifically.
Before today, I’d have told you that’s because no two writers have the same ritual. That it’s all about the courage and curiosity of finding your own and not getting too hung up on someone else’s.
But that wasn’t true. Well, sure, it was literally true. it just wasn’t the reason.
I discovered @angelobadalamentiofficial in a single jolt to the heart of a few chords in an unreleased song in a documentary about an album it wasn’t on, the early 1990s: ‘Is It Raining in London?’ was his collaboration with my first love @paulmccartney but it was @twinpeaks @davidlynchworld that brought me to where I now, mentally and emotionally, live. I try and start somewhere else at least once a week, but when I hear the title track my brain and body know what’s happening, that I’ve arrived exactly where I need to be.
Music goes somewhere words can’t — even in the most articulate and honest moments and expressions, we still see ourselves at our clearest in music, privately and without any words at all. There are no excuses in music, no boundaries between the thoughts we link and the feelings we allow to settle and surround us. Words let us hide as much as they let us reveal. Music, like what I call God and you might call the universe, is beyond that. Much like Twin Peaks itself, music is about a truth that’s nothing to do with plot coherence. We find ourselves there, and there are no words. None are needed.
What’s the one gift your writing self needs from you this Christmas?
Whatever your answer, it’ll come down to time and space to give to the book that’s in you, out of you.
Until Christmas Eve, I’m offering a limited number of Writing and Confidence Coaching Digital Vouchers at just £45 for one hour. Or, if you’d like them printed and part of a unique Christmas card, let me know in your email.
Vouchers must be used by 1 March 2023, or can be transferred as partial payment for any course that starts in January 2023.
I’m really happy to share that, on Wednesday 9 November, I passed my first ICF exam and am now officially ACC (Associate Certified Coach).
October was quite the month: not only Green Ink Sponsored Write for Macmillan Cancer Support, my first full one as a visiting lecturer at Roehampton University (where I did a module of my PhD in 2017 and my BA twenty years ago!) and the first post-lockdown in-person course at Olympic Studios, but the first anniversary of my cohort beginning our business and personal coaching course. I pursued a coaching qualification so I could know I was giving my coaching clients the best service I could possibly provide. The wealth of skills, techniques, ideas, concepts, colleagues, supervisors and friends was the most personally and professionally enhancing experience I could have asked for. I truly believe the difference in my life and my coaching is already felt by all my clients, friends and family – just as the difference coaching makes in them is experienced by the people in their lives.
Finding coaching meant finding a language and ideology for what was always at the heart of my teaching, lecturing and directing. In the end, it’s all about making that unique story, that unique performance, that unique person, the most themselves they can be. And discovering yours is the root of authentic confidence, of creativity, of clarity in life and work as well as on the page or stage. That’s what my new masterclass Focus and Flow is all about: how to make, instead of hope to find, time and opportunities to live, work and act from your creative mindset.
To start bringing your life, work and art into alignment with the goals and values that make you ‘you’, join me Wednesday 30 Nov, 6.30pm GMT.
I’m Sophie Hannah, I write crime fiction including psychological thrillers, detective fiction and Hercule Poirot continuation novels. I became involved with the Sponsored Write thanks to Rachel Knightley who is one of my ‘Dream Authors’ — a member of my online coaching programme for writers, Dream Author!
Are you a “deadlines person” outside the Sponsored Write? Is the time-limit part of the challenge or the attraction?
Yes, I’m generally very motivated by a deadline and find the challenge energising. Constraints of any kind, including ones to do with time, can be very inspiring because narrowing down the options forces you to think more creatively.
Many involved have personal connections with Macmillan Cancer Support. Do you want to share any experience of the charity’s work?
Macmillan Cancer Support provided invaluable help to a friend’s parents when they were dying, it’s an absolutely vital organisation which gives so much support and comfort, I am incredibly impressed by the charity and all the amazing work they do.
What do you make of this year’s theme, ‘Constant Renewal’?
I love it! I’m going to be writing two poems for the anthology: one from the point of view of Wilfred Owen and one from the point of view of Philip Larkin — both will be protesting from beyond the grave about having been ejected from the GCSE poetry anthology!