Something to think about other than how crap you are

Jonathan Lee told me he can’t write in that beginning to end way we used to have to do in exams. He likes to cut and paste. I take a lot of guidance from those school essay writing days: sheets of lined paper, a fountain pen; intense pressure.

Exams tied my stomach in knots, but it was rare I was frozen. There was the moment when, reading the questions, I felt my mind begin to respond – an unfurling. I would grab for a piece of paper, start scribbling words, phrases; quotes I didn’t even remember memorising. Although I was aware I was in an exam, there was a part of my brain that wasn’t thinking – worrying – just reacting, as if in a trance.

Those are good writing days: where there has been no need to force yourself to work, where the impulse has come like a thread in your heart, drawing you on. Such days can have consequences though: waking the following morning, you wait for the same effortless flow of words, but this time they do not come; there is no surer way to deflate the muse than the pinprick of expectation.

Although my writing is about instinct, desire, imagination – some constraints are essential. Somehow, they loosen the bindings that nerves can create. I know this because nothing had me feeling so tongue tied as the thought of an exam, yet sitting at the wooden desk amongst rows of my classmates the clock ticking, I wrote.

There’s something stimulating in the simplicity of: just do it.

The idea of constraints comes up a lot when we are holding poetry courses at the centre here – how writing to form can be liberating. It gives you something to think about other than how crap you think you are. It also takes the edge off the result. You can judge the work by its adherence to the form rather in the more abstract way of how you feel about it, about yourself.


Many of us who write do not have the luxury of writing full time. We fit our secret life in between the hours of our real lives. Because of this, it’s important to have a system that enables us to get straight to it. I have wasted collective months trying to uncover the secret of creativity so that I can tap into it when I need. There is no greater waste of time than to spend it thinking about elusive things. Start with the tangible. I knew that in all of my exams – whether I wrote nonsense or not – I still wrote. It was the combination of the fact that here I was for an hour with a specific task to carry out, and here were a set of questions that gave me direction for that task.

Now I know how much a question can inspire me, I always start with something – usually one word – when I sit down to write each day. Sometimes the word appears while I am in the shower, sometimes I use an App to give me the word. Today, it was ‘title’.

Because it was a technical word I felt nervous at first. Was I going to say anything worthwhile?

The more I follow my writing practice, the more I am able to discern between concern about writing, and simply writing, and how the first can prevent the second from happening. There’s something in this practice, which is a little like sitting and trying to have a clear mind. My breath is the one word prompt and though my mind wants to take me in a million directions of concern, fear, meaningless thought, I have to remain aware enough to spot this and bring myself back to the breath.

Title – that was the word. Really think about it, I said as I saw my concern appear.

Allow yourself to.

Sometimes our fear of inadequacy can prevent us from even contemplating the task ahead.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of title?

It was Jonathan Lee in the kitchen at Lumb Bank – the two of us posing for a photo in front of dozens of empty wine bottles. I don’t know if this was where he actually told me about his inability to write from beginning to end, and if that’s what he actually said, but something he did say to me, about his method, made me think about the lost art of exam essay writing. It’s a discipline that serves me well.

When I began to write, I worried about the phrasing because it was mine not Jonathan’s. Should I get his permission before mentioning him in my blog? I reminded myself the task is to sit down and write on a word for ten minutes don’t stop, so that’s all I had to do. I didn’t need to know what Jonathan would think of my account of a conversation that may or may not have taken place in order to take part in my exercise; I just take part in the exercise – observing everything I think or feel, whilst continuing to write.

Every time I worry – do people really need to hear about this? I say – again – it doesn’t matter: all you are doing is writing for ten minutes, no end, no readership.

None of my thoughts are justifiable objections for not writing. And often, when you are able to observe them – rather than being caught up in them – you realise that they are not your concerns anyway, but the opinions of others that aim to do no good.

Continuing to write despite these ‘concerns’, reminds me that writing is the act of putting words down. Nobody says they have to be brilliant or interesting. That comes later.


The one word prompt is the train arriving for you. Are you ready to be a writer? it asks. Nothing more. Not: get on board only if you are amazing.

Make a commitment to take this train – don’t wait for another. This is the one. You are ready to be a writer now.

There are infinite routes you can take while on this train, and you can become so overwhelmed by the possibilities that you cannot leave the station.

Or, your mind travels ahead of the train, imagining obstacles on all the available tracks, deciding none of them are appropriate. But there are no obstacles – no real ones, only those of your mind’s making. Any route is worth taking. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be a particularly satisfying one, the most important thing is that you took it, and that you continue to take it.

The only thing is to start and keep going. You are training your mind to write – not to reject ideas, or to spend ten minutes thinking how worthless you are. Even if you are in agony for the whole ten minutes, for every word you put on the page, you have taught yourself that nothing will stop you – even agony – and afterwards if you think what you have written is total trash, you can at least be pleased that you have achieved an act of discipline. That’s all the matters with writing. If there is no discipline there is no regular practice, without which you will never become worthwhile. And through this writing practice you finally learn how you like to write: from beginning to end, or listing images with the aim that once you finish you can go through and instil some order; perhaps you just put everything down, thoughts, fears, lines of dialogue, until the panic gives way to calm and you finally find a line that feels clear.

Cut and paste, go from beginning to end, it doesn’t matter, but at least give yourself the opportunity to discover the kind of writer that you are by actually writing.




For those of you who haven’t read Jonathan Lee, um, why?

There is an extract from his forthcoming book, which I was lucky enough to hear at a recent reading, published here in the beautiful magazine A Public Space. You’ll have to subscribe, but I can’t think of a better way to spend a bit of cash. The passage had me drooling. Read Jonathan’s books those of you who like to see a writer zoom in, lay plot aside for the time being, and take you on a sensual journey with just enough current to wash you into the novel’s next moment.

About gabrielablandy

Some history, a bit of fiction, with me in there somewhere.
This entry was posted in Essay and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Something to think about other than how crap you are

  1. Its always the case that when words flow out of me, I often doubt their quality, and when I struggle to express myself, I feel more as if I am working my craft. In the end the only distanced measure of my output is from comments on my Blog or book reviews. It has taught me that you can think what you like about your work, but you will often be surprised by the reaction it produces in the reader.

    • You are so right in that last point. We had a graphic novelist – Adam Cadwell – who was teaching at the centre recently who latest book was put together through images that he had shared online. He said that if he had chosen the ones that he thought were good the book would have been totally different, and it was often the ones that he was least sure about that were loved by more people.

  2. Judith Marriott says:

    Lovely to ‘hear’ you again. I have often wondered how a writer gets started. Where does the inspiration come from, or is it just grind?! You describe it well and it makes me know that I am not a writer!!! I hope you are in a good place, physically and you yourself. Love Ju xx

    • Hi Ju. Thanks for stopping by and reading. You are certainly writer enough to always write thoughtful comments here!
      Am in a wonderful place, these days – physically in a forest, and in myself very, very happy. Love to you.

  3. The dreaded exam! Opened my memoir with one of MBA exams that rendered me frozen—and so the story began. An unraveling of sorts to quest for deeper meaning. Thank you for your words and insights, writer to writer.

    • Lisa, a pleasure. I love that you opened your memoir on an exam! Nice one. I agree that writing about these ‘tight’ moments – because in writing them you have to loosen them, I guess – always gives more meaning.

  4. Maggie Carlise says:

    Thank you so much for this! I had forgotten – completely forgotten – that feeling you described so incredibly well here, of writing essays for exams. I remember now feeling exactly as you described – that “unfurling” that would come, even as I was nervous about the limited time and getting a good grade and all of that. My mind was somehow (I guess from years of necessary honing) trained to keep all of those distractions to the side and just RESPOND. As you said, almost as in a trance – and what a wonderful and productive sort of trance that is!

    I have such a hard time reaching that place of flow these days. Writing, more often than not, is extremely frustrating for me anymore. It’s plodding and slow. It’s like I have to painstakingly chisel every sentence out of granite (and that’s not to say they come out perfectly formed and edited either!) I miss the days when it would just pour out!

    My problem is partly, I think, that I’ve been drawn down different creative/artistic paths (writing often takes a backseat now to those other things when I have something I want to express.) But that’s only part of it.

    I’m wondering now, reading your post, if the rest of the problem isn’t that the writing “muscle” that used to click in for exams (that ability to click into that “trance”) is just really flabby and weak now! I hadn’t thought of that before. But I’ve been out of school for a decade+ now….and while I continue to write, I certainly don’t write with the same rigor and regimen as school compels you to do (papers are due by certain dates, exams take place on certain dates. It doesn’t matter if you’re feeling creative or not! You HAVE to be in that place on those dates. You have to find a way….or suffer the consequences in the form of poor grades.)

    Thanks again, very much, for writing this. This is wonderful food for thought for me!

    • Maggie, your comment is the reason I write these posts! Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts. I think your muscle has gone flabby! I too have found myself chiselling away in pain, knowing that there was a time when I had written in more of a zone. My writing practice has got me back there. I still have bad days, but not nearly as bad as they used to be. It’s like going for a run now, but being fit – so even thought you’d rather not have to do it, you are doing it without getting out of breath and wanting to throw up. Good Luck!

  5. Eve Vamvas says:

    Hi Gabriela
    Great to have you back in my inbox and with such a timely subject…..I left my 3 year old at nursery today for the first time and sat in a café up the road wondering how on earth I was ever to get my mojo back (it was quite a low key mojo at the best of times). Tomorrow I’m just going to get on with it……..

  6. Hello you! What you say applies not only to exams but to other writing-to-deadline tasks when the deadline is very imminent! I’ve experienced that recently, I’ve just completed a Masters that I did in one year – last Thursday I had to hand in my final two essays and my dissertation and leading up to that date I hadn’t really allowed enough time to get it all done, but I had to get it all done, so that kind of free flowing writing where you just can’t allow doubt and concern to stop you was very present right near the end! What I need to find is the discipline to use my own self-imposed deadlines for writing, right now I never believe them. Hope things are going well for you.

  7. Mayumi-H says:

    Amazing, isn’t it, how we often turn what should be such a simple thing – letting go to the freedom of ourselves – into a hair-pulling endeavor. On days when we feel lost, it’s good to remember we can just write, whether it’s purely sensual, surreptitiously didactic, or something completely different. It took a long time for me to feel such freedom. I’m not always blessed with that feeling, of course, because there are days when the doubts worm their way in. But, the daily exercises and free-writes (for me, it’s daily) helped me come to that realization you point out above, that we can and should allow ourselves to be free from the concern of what other people think. Sometimes, we’re even better for it.

    Very insightful, as always, Gabriela. Thank you for sharing!

  8. I recognise that unfurling Gabriela – you reminded me of the way that happened in exams and I realise it’s exactly the same with my writing now. I’ve become much more relaxed about what I put on the page – as you say, not worrying about the end result or the readership, just writing. And in that way, when I re-read it, it’s often better than I thought.

  9. Pingback: Sometimes, you just have to get over yourself | Gabriela Blandy – The sense of a journey

  10. Pingback: The conundrum that the notebook solves - Arvon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s