Susie Maguire is a writer best known for short stories. As well as two collections – The Short Hello and Furthermore – her stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and Radio Scotland. She is also an editor, mentor and experienced Arvon tutor, and her background is in acting, stand-up comedy and television presenting. I can’t really remember how I first met Susie – but I think it was about 15 years ago, and we’ve worked together off and on since then. You can find out more about her work here or follow her on twitter here.
This is the second interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with my clients:
Sophy: When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?
Susie: None, probably; I was writing secretly, without thinking about it, and in retrospect believe that was a very good way to start. The ability to let the unconscious out to play gets harder the more you (think you) know about what you’re doing and why, so it’s a nice stage, that playful time. Being surprised by what emerges when you’re just letting it flow, being enthusiastic about discovery.
But if someone has really decided ‘I Will Write’ and is actually seeking advice, then perhaps I’d say: don’t get hung up on formats and feedback and competitions right at the start, because that ‘end use’ stuff sometimes interferes with the process of listening to yourself and developing a trust deal with your subconscious. Another thing I’d suggest is to be careful how much generic ‘writing advice’ stuff you absorb and from what quarter. Lots of it is contradictory and you need to develop your own instinct and methods more than you need ‘how to do it right’ coming at you like a swarm of flies.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?
That expression means different things to different people, doesn’t it? I’ve never been under contract for something that I then failed to complete, and I’ve never lacked ideas to pursue, but sometimes have lacked the courage to pursue them, or lost faith in my ability to do so to a level I deem good enough – i.e. fear has crept in, usually propelled by some other factor which then affects the writing-bit at a deep level.
What helps ‘block’? Realising that you’re over-thinking, that perfectionism has set up camp in your frontal lobes. Giving yourself permission to write badly but passionately, to get it out of your system, telling your critical self to make the tea and leave you to get on with it, tapping away at the keys ‘just for ten minutes, no pressure’, every day… some of those things help. Going for a walk. Movement of some kind. Doing other creative things, painting, drawing, even tidying a corner of a room, all those things can help short term block.
Sometimes the issue is finding or choosing the most viable idea for that point in your life (though usually your pressing theme is hitting you on the back of the head to get your attention, and is inescapable even if un-nameable).
For longer, nastier kinds of block, talking to someone you trust to find out where the fear is, and how to negotiate with it, might be necessary. Everyone has moments of doubt. If they become perpetual, then it’s time to consider the cause, and learn from that, and re-focus yourself appropriately, and with kindness. For that level of ghastliness, a mentor is highly useful; to be able to say, in confidence, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m lost’ and for someone further along their writing path to say ‘it’s okay, here’s the torch, let’s walk together for a bit’ – is wonderful.
Do you write every day?
Yes, but that might be less ‘Writing’, more just plain ‘writing’. Lots of uncapitalised writing goes on to maintain the dream-catching Writing person. Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. Argh.
I am not by nature an organised type, except on the page, and timetables make me feel rebellious, but it’s reassuring if you can develop a rhythm. Because my first break (in radio) came with short stories, I became adept at sprint-writing…teasing a story out over maybe three or four days, then a break from it, then a couple of days editing, (deleting, improving the prose, the tempo, etc) and then (for a commission) letting it go; that shape and time-ratio feels good to me. But on a longer project it’s probably wise to have a schedule, even if it’s a movable sacred hour that fits round your duties as griller of fish fingers or whatever.
Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?
No, and no. But I probably should. Yes, now you ask… I know that if I start writing when I’m cold, tired, hungry, or physically not well, it affects my mood and affects the work’s direction. Maybe I need to develop some professional tics. A certain hat, lipstick, candle, breakfast, pair of polka-dot pyjamas… ? A supply of a special type of biscuit baked by nuns in a remote convent in the Pyrenees? That’s the one.
Have you ever kept a journal?
Only as a child, but it was full of inane comments and drawings of dogs, and scribbled in loopy handwriting at long intervals. Looking at them makes me feel a bit sad. On the other hand, I have vast email archives which, if I could be bothered to work out how to retrieve them, would illustrate preoccupations over the past 12 years or so quite adequately. I admire those who can and do ‘journal’, but loathe it as a verb and eschew it as a task.
Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?
See above for admission of being terrible about organisation.. I’ve often started writing plans and lists and plot outlines and synopses and abandoned them out of boredom, or after getting stuck, or when I realised that it doesn’t work for me, or not for all projects. I did once write a 45 minute play in two weeks, having planned the scenes quite carefully, but in general I’m resistant to knowing too much before I begin writing. I like finding out. Also, I usually use Scrivener to write, so I can write scenes or parts of scenes or questions or lines of dialogue and shift them about to find out what they are for and where and why. I try to write as if I (or the narrator, or the reader) am living the story in an uncomplicated way, and then complicate it later.. if necessary. I tend not to start at the beginning, because I know now that I can leap in to a point further in, rather than write all that preamble or scene-setting which I’ll only end up cutting later.
However, none of these things is a rule, or a habit. Every new thing is a new thing. I have to sniff and lick and chew for a while to find out what it is, how to carry it, what it’s got in its pockets.
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