Psychologist Martin Seligman is an expert on happiness. A renowned psychologist, he is internationally recognised for his work on getting more of what we crave. In his PERMA model he recommends that we maximise five elements that promote happiness for an individual. The following is an excerpt from his Positive Psychology Program:
"Positive Emotion - the ability to be optimistic and view the past, present, and future from a positive perspective. Engagement - entirely absorbs us into the present moment, creating a ‘flow’ of blissful immersion into the task or activity. Relationships - building positive relationships with your parents, siblings, peers, and friends. Meaning - having a purpose and meaning to why each of us is on this earth. Accomplishments - having realistic goals and ambition can give you a sense of satisfaction. When you finally achieve those goals a sense of pride and fulfillment will be reached."
Creative activities can offer a level of engagement and accomplishment, and through creativity often meaning can be found.
There are countless activities one could choose, from playing a musical instrument to pastel painting, but we’ll just take a look at creative writing as an example. It’s easily accessible, it’s low-cost, so why not?
Here are some common misconceptions that have crushed many an aspiring writer's spirit.
It won’t make me any money
According to this article by Shaunta Grimes, the average annual income is $61,820 for a group comprising writers and authors. Of course there will be a huge range within that group which includes fledgelings all the way up to J.K. Rowling and James Patterson. To go further down the rabbit hole, how does the money vary?
This article describes the results of a 2017 survey of emerging authors and financially successful authors. The researchers found some interesting numbers. In the group of successful authors earning $100k+ per year, 20 percent continued to work to support their writing; in the emerging author group earning less than $500 per year, 66% were working or being financially supported by family.
So yes, most of us following the writing life probably won’t get rich enough to retire early and own the yacht, private jet and fleet of luxury cars. But many writers are able to make a reasonable living, and be lucky enough to be paid for what they enjoy.
Isn’t writing for enjoyment something that we should stop doing after school?
Unless we deliberately take writing classes at university or college, that is often true.
Unfortunately, as life takes over, many of us ‘leave childish things behind’ to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, instead focussing more on getting qualifications or vocational skills. Then as time marches on, commitments make demands of our time, and so begins a mundane routine of pragmatic productivity.
Isn’t it a waste of time? There are so many other things I could be doing.
Parkinson’s law is a well known aphorism in sociology – that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If we see ourselves spending the weekend knee-deep in household chores or renovations, that is a prophecy that will fulfil itself. For a pragmatic look at beating the clock, check out successful author and writing guru Joanna Penn.
I’d feel guilty if I sat on my own, in my own head
When you find yourself dipping a toe into writing, leave the house and go outside to stretch out the writer’s cramp. Observe (all right, sometimes eavesdrop) and be inspired by nature – all this is actually the opposite of being a hermit. Plus, writing doesn’t have to be in a dingy corner of the house. Joanna Penn (above) likes to write in cafes, as do many authors. Now who needs an excuse not to drink coffee all day?
In addition, writing can be a highly social activity in other ways:
In fact, there can be crossover of writers into less obvious realms, such as Australia’s Supernova Comic Con & Gaming Expo where sci-fi and fantasy attracts Australian speculative fiction talent.
Writers' groups - face-to-face through Meetup or other networks.
Online such as through the ever-increasing number of Facebook groups. As a member of more than seven Facebook writers’ groups, I wondered if I was merely in a minority of a few nerds with an overactive imagination. I did a quick number crunch. Sure, accounting for some overlap and members who are no longer actively writing, I was still impressed to add us up to a massive 92,748. So, you are not be alone.
Where’s the excitement?
Contests. What’s not to be excited about? A deadline. Sometimes a prompt to get the juices gushing. Prizes can be as thrilling as seeing your name and work in print, to being a runner-up or winner of an international contest. I hope you didn’t notice the subtle self-plug there. And there could be money. £30,000 has been on offer for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. The Australian Writers’ Centre runs a free monthly flash fiction contest with $500 up for grabs, and it’s open to anyone anywhere in the world.
Publication - magazines, literary journals, online. It might just be for the thrill of trying, for there will be rejections along the way – good for the constitution I find – your name in print, the pride of being in a journal nestling along with your favourite writers. and forming a fanbase.
Collaborating with other writers in anthologies. This can be a great way of having your story published whilst being part of a mutually supportive group. And once you have a publication to your name, it can really boost confidence as well as proving to prospective publishers and literary agents that your work has merit.
Writing marathons. Yes, people do this. National Novel Writing Month was founded in 1999 and is known fondly (or with trepidation) as NaNoWriMo. It's a non-profit mission to get writers put down their words with fervour. As their website states, “On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30”.
Sharing your creations with friends and family. You’ll be surprised by closet admirers of the written word, and probably surprise (in a good way) a few people along the way.
How do I start?
This is how you can move further into your creative writing journey.
Cast aside preconceptions and negative self-talk. “I don’t know what I’m doing”, “It’ll probably be rubbish”, “I should be cleaning out the gutters”. These are excuses to avoid and therefore not to risk failure. The good news is, there is no failure if you’re just trying, just practising, just having fun.
Think about what you like to read. What stories or authors draw you into their worlds? What genres do you most enjoy – thrillers, cosy mysteries, sci-fi? Romance, horror or historical fiction? Or are you more interested in the truth of things? In that case, you might like to think of ideas for a memoir, or help someone to write theirs.
Don’t forget your local library. A huge range of ebooks and audiobooks are available now, meaning we can access other writers’ imaginations with just a few clicks.
It’s just you plus a pen and paper or computer. Or dictating into your smartphone. Use any medium you like other than blood (very messy).
If you aren’t ready to start on your 80,000 word novel yet, try flash fiction. That’s very short, short stories. A famous example of this was Ernest Hemingway’s poignant six-word story: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Write a little every day, if you can. If you can’t, a little a few times of week, or a long session on a weekend… it’s all up to you. Writers love to debate about how many words should be put down per day. Fortunately, there is no single solution for all. The NaNoWriMo is an extreme. Write 400 words per day, or 3,000. Do what works for you.
I’m reaching for my laptop. What tools are available to support me?
Read, or listen to audiobooks. I’m afraid I’m going to mention one of my favourite authors again. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” states Stephen King in his inspirational how-to book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”.
By reading widely, your creative soul will gorge on an almost infinite range of authorial voices and story. Being enjoyable and educational, this will make you a more critical reader, you will be able to discern top-notch wordsmithery from the bland. And as Oscar Wilde put it, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Not plagiarism, of course, but more like a student learning from how their master makes the smoothest moves.
Instructional books, websites and podcasts. There are more than we can fit into this article, but there are encouraging guides for all levels. Some are easier to read than others, such as “The Art of Fiction” which is full of John Gardner’s wisdom and wit, whereas others can be drier. I listen regularly to podcasts that give me tips on better writing, The Creative Penn, Helping Writers Become Authors and The Book Editor Show being just a few of my favourites.
If you are getting more serious and want to make sure you work is free of technical errors, there are a number of apps. Grammarly and Hemingway have been useful to many a writer. For fans of typing, I mainly use Google Docs (free) and Scrivener (reasonable cost).
Writing courses can open a writer’s eyes to those mysterious elements that make us fall into another world. How do we get started with a great opening sentence that hooks the reader, then drilling down to the nitty gritty of theme, plot and character development, setting, dialogue, symbolism, emotional tone and so on. Some courses are free, like these ones from the University of Iowa (flexible distance learning modules - ranging from "How Writers Write Fiction / Poetry" to "Stories of Place" and "Hidden Meanings" and much more), or this one from The Open University via FutureLearn.
Beta readers. A beta reader has a good look at work before it is ready for editing pre-publishing. Friends and family might be the first people you think of, but for obvious reasons they may be positively biased towards you and might not want to hurt your feelings with critical commentary.
Tell me more about beta readers
A beta reader doesn’t have to be writer themself, just someone who is happy to read your draft and give an honest opinion, though a writer can give extra perspective and more depth to feedback. You could even swap your ‘works in progress’ and encourage a writing buddy.
You can ask your beta reader to look at some or all of your work, to be specific about what they like and don’t like, where they think the plot holes are etc. So you could share your work with people you meet through writers’ groups, or pay for someone experienced in beta reading to dedicate a certain amount of time with a deadline for returning detailed organised feedback. Quality of beta readers varies as much as calibre of writers. Two or three opinions is often better than one. Beta readers can be found through online forums such as Fiverr and some Facebook groups.
Getting into creative writing might not make you a millionaire but it can intensely enrich the soul. With the rising popularity of writing and the availability of useful resources, there is nothing to stop you joining the movement. There is a wealth of support in the form of courses, face-to-face and online networks, and a multitude of opportunities for the competitive.
If you need a little inspiration, mosey on over to the stories on this writing website. Browse through my free short stories, which range from a dinner party hosted by an odd couple, to a serial killer on a twisted mission.