The most infuriating sound in the world is the decisive pitter patter of laptop keys raining words unselfconsciously on to the page. That’s what I learned at my first Writepace meeting. In the thirty minute slots devoted to writing time, I couldn’t write a thing. And whenever we took a break to talk about our progress and their projects, I had nothing to say.
The only other time I remember feeling so viscerally jealous about a group of people was at a meditation centre in the southwest of England. I was there for ten days to learn the practice. I sat in complete silence, - hours on the cushion every day, observing my breath and the sensations in my body. Sitting on a cushion without moving for hours at a time did not calm me. It just gave me discomfort and pain. ‘What do they have that I don’t?’ I wondered, looking around at the fifty blissed-out people in their lotus positions. ‘I have no ability to practise this technique. I have nothing.’
It’s often the same when I can’t write. The nothing I have feels diametrically opposed to the something everyone else seems to have. Mine is a place of fear, self-pity, jealousy, maybe even shame; a place of alienation from myself and estrangement from others. I build a little house of self-doubt in my head and I get locked inside.
It was the sixth day of that meditation retreat when my frustration peaked. Everybody seemed to have mastered the ability to sit perfectly still for hours on end, able to scan their bodies with a laser-like, dispassionate focus in a way I couldn't. I kept trying: observing my breath in the area just below my nose and above the upper lip. I stopped giving a shit and unlocked the house of doubt I'd built in my head. I began to observe the feelings in my body that the teacher had spoken about. And slowly the techniques I was learning began to work.
On the eleventh day - when I was allowed to speak with the other meditators - I learned that others had struggled as much as I had. A few people even commented that when they opened their eyes and looked at me, I seemed poised and serene as if it came easy to me.
I kept going back to the writing group the same way I’d returned to the meditation cushion. I'd been promised magic at Writepace. After a couple of meetings I got it. Now some of my favourite pieces have been started or progressed at a Writepace session.
My Writing Group
Sharing time and space with other writers at different stages of their writing journey very unsubtly hammers home the point that the road is long. If you get too caught up in the destination, you won't enjoy the journey. Or you might not get there at all.
I still feel wonderfully jealous at Writepace sometimes, but I'm also grateful. I spend time with writers whose productivity and tenacity astounds me. They hold complex worlds and timelines in their heads in the way I can just about recall a medium-sized shopping list. They explore character, history and fantasy in a way I don't have the imagination to. I write thinly-veiled fiction about me wandering through life trying and often failing not to be an asshole. Spending time with people who write in so many genres has inspired me to experiment.
Although we're not a critique group, we become invested in each other's projects. There's a feeling I get when I read or hear an arrangement of words composed by someone else that moves me. It's recognition, admiration, and gratitude. It's generosity. A heart note has been struck. And the truth is, I am far too much of an egomaniac to do this alone. I need to know that other writers struggle too, no matter what their publishing history or apparent levels of productivity. This thing that I'm doing, I see it as a struggle with my ego. And being part of this group protects it —my ego that is—but also puts it in its place. On the one hand, I'm given the space and recognition to exist as a 'real writer', on other I'm reminded not to take it too seriously - to relish the playful elements and the occasional moments of joy.
So when this piece was a week past its due date and I couldn't seem to tie it together, sheepishly, I came to Writepace looking for help. And that's what I got. It turns out that all I needed was to verbalise the difficulty among people who understood, and to let the frustration arise and pass. Call it Annica (The Pali word for impermanence) or call it the Writepace magic. Whatever it was, it worked.
Your Writing Group
Even wunderkinds have had creative support, and if you’re a writer, or if you’re trying to be one, you’ve probably already had some support too. Perhaps you call out to Book Twitter or Reddit to advise you on tackling your story’s plot. Or perhaps you’ve done a workshop to reignite your creativity or to learn better editing skills. Maybe you have just one special person whose opinion you seek. (I know an award-winning author who writes for an audience of one - his wife.)
The best way to get help with your writing is to ask for it.. When you’re trying to write, and you’re finding it hard, you don’t have to do it alone. It’s worth reminding yourself that others find it hard as well, even when they’re making it look easy.
Jo Gibney is a graduate of UL's MA in Creative Writing and a member of Writepace. She recently receIved a special commendation in the 2020 Sean O'Faoiláin short story competition for a story entitled 'Flora'.