Should you do a writing course?

I recently found myself in yet another writing slump so I decided to enrol in a blog writing course. I was secretly relieved to find that most of the other participants were relatively new to blogging which meant that I wouldn’t look like a dodo in comparison. Why this matters so much I don’t know. I was very impressed by the quality of their writing and this became my undoing in a roundabout way.

Each week we focussed on a different style of blog post. One week we wrote an opinion piece commenting on an issue in the news or any issue that we had strong feelings about. Another week we had to write a list post in the style of “10 things I hate about you”. At the end of each topic I posted my contributions and waited with baited breath for the comments to flow in. We critiqued one another’s work with kindness and intelligence, which was nice but also slightly unsatisfying. I posted some comments about another student’s grammar (I was trying to be helpful) and received a rather cool “thank you for your feedback” in reply. I’m still not sure if they were offended.

One big plus for the course was that you could post your work and get feedback in a relatively safe environment. I found myself writing quite a lot about grief and loss and it was wonderful to be able to write so freely. I was quite surprised to discover that I have suppressed a lot of sadness and also anger over the last few years. To be honest, I’ve probably done this for my whole life. Since I completed the course I’ve become more self aware but also more anxious generally.

The downside of the course was that the posts we wrote each week did not have to have a theme so at the end I was left with some writing that I quite liked, but didn’t know what to do with it. I’ll probably post it here on this blog that feels quite anonymous and few people actually read. [Although I’d like to say a big THANK YOU if you are reading this, I really appreciate it!].

Another downside was that the standard of writing amongst the group was so high that it actually left me feeling less confident than I felt before. Clearly I spend far too much time comparing myself to others and finding myself wanting.

Due to some issues at work, I was about a week behind in the timetable and the course finished without me. This was a pity because the topic for the last week was being brave and getting published. Perhaps if I’d completed the final week some magic would have happened and I’d be filled with enthusiasm and self confidence.

I wonder if any of you have done a writing course and what the outcome was? Did you feel more confident about your writing at the end? Was it a turning point for you? I’m genuinely keen to hear about your experiences, so please feel free to comment. I promise I won’t critique your work in any way, shape of form!


All alone on the stage – eek!

I had to give a short presentation at work today and I didn’t enjoy it one bit.

Like many people, speaking in front of a crowd is not my favourite activity. I’m not terrified and my voice doesn’t shake like it used to, but I felt really flat after today’s effort and I resolved never to speak in public again unless I was absolutely forced to.

I should have good presentation skills as I used to be a teacher. I’m also very good at talking, just ask my family, but there’s something about being out the front in a darkened room that makes feel uncomfortable and exposed. I feel that people are going to discover that I’m a fraud and I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

Who’s in the room?

Your confidence as a presenter can be affected by a range of things. For me, it matters who is in the audience. Today there were some pretty important people in the room (including my boss, and I mean my big boss, not just my immediate manager). This made me feel especially nervous especially as I couldn’t see the people at the back. It was a big room.

I don’t know about you, but I really hate not being able to see the people that I’m talking to. If you can make eye contact and watch their body language, you’re more inclined to make jokes and off the cuff remarks. You can also think on your feet.

Are they with you or against you?

When I spoke at my son’s wedding I really enjoyed the experience. I was really relaxed (I’d had a couple of glasses of wine so that probably helped) but I was also really happy and I knew  that the crowd was on my side. Today the environment felt more hostile and less supportive. That’s the reality of work I suppose. Not everyone is on your side. It’s a competitive environment.

Be as prepared as you can

I suspect that the pre-conditions for speaking well are the same as they are for any other type of performance. You need to make sure you are well-prepared, comfortable and moderately relaxed (but not drunk). A few nerves are ok, but not so many that your brain stops working. Try to have an early night the night before you speak and practice your presentation with an actual human being, or failing that, a furry companion as your audience.

If that fails, just do your best and move on

My resolve to never give another presentation again as long as I live didn’t last as I realised almost immediately that I have to deliver a short presentation at tomorrow’s team meeting and another one the day after. It’s part of my job so I can’t avoid it. I’ll just have to do my best and keep in mind that it’s not the end of the world if I’m not brilliant. I’ll save my best performances for weddings and funerals. IMG_0148

Pass the tea and empathy

I’ve been experiencing another cycle of grief and loss which I guess explains my lack of activity over the past few weeks. My husband’s sister ended her life after a long battle with mental illness so it’s been quite difficult lately. It wasn’t altogether unexpected but the whole process was horrible and included the police arriving on our doorsteps to tell us the news, just like in a television show. We are through the worst of it now I think. We also had to go and clean out her room which was a confronting experience as there were many signs of her mental illness, not least the many many bottles of pills of various kinds. She was living a very unhappy and limited life, so although it was very sad when she passed away, it was also something of a relief. This might sound harsh and I appreciate that you will all have different views on the subject of suicide or may have personal experiences, so I won’t presume to know what you are thinking, but I guess this leads me to the reason for this post.

It’s been strange to see how different people react when you tell them that someone close to you has died. Sometimes they are very sympathetic and at other times they are surprisingly cool. One of my close friends lost her sister to cancer last week and when she told her work colleagues, one of them actually burst into tears, which surprised her a little until her colleague began recalling her own grief at the passing of her grandfather some 12 years ago. It turned out that she wasn’t really that concerned about my friend’s situation, it just brought back her own sad memories and she couldn’t cope. My friend said she just stood there wondering if she should be comforting the other person. She was a little angry that her colleague chose to focus on her own emotions rather than offering her any support. 

 I haven’t told many people that my sister-in-law ended her own life as it can be very confronting for them and I don’t want to upset people unnecessarily. Another reason is because some people seem to be overly interested in the gory details and I find this both disturbing and annoying. At the funeral, a friend of the family bailed up my husband and wanted to know all about what the police had said, and how they had identified the body. Fortunately my husband had the presence of mind to say “this is not the time or place to be discussing this” and I was glad that he said that. Some people can be incredibly tactless.

Another woman at the funeral came up to me and said that I had been my sister-in-law’s “bete noire”. I didn’t really know what this meant,  but I gathered she wasn’t paying me a complement. (When I got home and looked it up, I was alarmed to find that it meant someone to be detested and avoided. Lovely!) I have spent the last four years trying to help my sister-in-law manage her finances as she wasn’t able to do this on her own. This meant that I sometimes had to say no to things, which was hard. I often felt like an ogre but I tried my best to look after her interests and well-being.

I was pretty upset by this woman’s comments and shared my distress with my daughter. Fortunately for me, she’s a feisty young thing, so after the funeral was over she spoke to her and told her that she’s been tactless and unkind. I hadn’t been able to do this myself so I was secretly pleased and proud of my daughter. She doesn’t take any shit from anyone, especially when it’s been directed at her mother!

I wanted to end this post with some advice on what to say to someone who is recently bereaved but I don’t think I have the right to lecture other people and I also know that every situation is different. I think that if you are struggling to know what to say in this situation, it’s probably best to say “I’m sorry for your loss”. Then you aren’t being too inquisitive, but you are leaving the way open for someone to talk more about how they feel, if they want to.

I hope that you are all travelling well, but if you aren’t, please talk to someone. Life can be hard and we all need a shoulder to cry on.

Start the day right

We have three dogs and a cat so I don’t usually need to set the alarm to get up in the morning, but one day this week I had a particularly early start so my partner set the alarm for 7am. As I lay in bed listening to the news I realised that this was a very depressing way to start the day. None of the news was good. People had been killed in traffic accidents, the economy was in a bad way, and the American with the ridiculous hair was talking on my radio without my permission! How I hate listening to his voice.

I remember reading that people who watch or listen to the news first thing in the morning are much more likely to report that they’ve had a bad day at the end of the day. I really believe that this is true. When I listen to the news first thing in the morning or on the way to work I tend to feel really low all day. I think it frames things for me in a negative way.

A lot has been written about the practice of keeping a gratitude diary and although this type of activity is not quite my cup of tea, I can really see that it would have benefits for many people. The cynical part of my mind is resistant to these type of practices (too new age), but the other part of my mind insists that there’s value in thinking positive thoughts and being generally optimistic about life.

According to the “experts” the trick is to not force yourself to keep a diary every day, but to write things down every few days or perhaps once a week. This seems to be more effective that simply going through the motions for the sake of it.

I would be interested in knowing if any of you have tried keeping a gratitude journal and whether it resulted in you feeling more positive about your life?


To be or not to be

I always a struggle a bit at this time of the year. I think it has to do with being on holidays. The heat doesn’t help and neither does the availability of excellent white wine. It all contributes to a state of ennui (one of my very favourite words) whereby I am reduced to reading trashy books and sleeping a lot. It’s fun, but I also worry about the fact that I’m not making any progress towards my goals.

Actually, to be perfectly honest, I don’t really have any concrete goals, so I’m not even sure what I was hoping to achieve last year, but I’m plagued with the idea that I should have made more progress. Someone once told me that I was an over-achiever which I find hilarious as I’m chronically lazy. I tell myself that it’s okay to have a rest and a break, but I worry about my inability to focus on anything or make a decision about what I’d like to achieve in the next 12 months.

It’s a first world problem I know, but I suspect that by not setting any goals I am effectively protecting myself from failing. It makes perfect sense that if I don’t try, I can’t possibly fail, but I can still fool myself into thinking that a brilliant future awaits me if only I had the time and money to pursue my dreams. 

The reality is that the only thing holding me back (apart from fear of failure) is deciding where I should focus my efforts. It would be great if a great big sign descended from the sky to let me know what I should do, what things I might find interesting, but not too difficult to master. Alas, there is no-one to make such a prophecy so I’ll have to resort to trial and error.

I’ll be going back to work on Monday so no doubt I’ll be too busy to worry about re-inventing myself or deciding who or what to be. Once again, busyness will be my saviour and I can go back to daydreaming about writing that best-selling non-fiction book on a topic yet to be decided.

Getting Feedback Can Hurt—Here’s How to Ask for It

Here’s a lovely piece that I thought was worth sharing. I still cringe when I think of the time that I corrected the grammar in a poem lovingly presented to me by my partner. I’m still wary about giving feedback and always try to be both kind and constructive, but this article gives me more options.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz-roger_0991By L. Roger Owens

Asking for feedback on your writing is a delicate dance, the steps tricky to learn, as I was reminded when my eight year-old read me her story the other day.

She ran to me with the unlined pages clutched in her hand. I could see how her impossibly small scrawl sloped down the right side of the page; she had to tilt her head slowly, yoga-like, as she read. The story was a barely veiled display of her deep wish to join the family of a wealthy friend. A protagonist (with my daughter’s name) and seven siblings (one of whom is named after her best friend, their parents named for the friend’s parents), have magical powers, but the use of these powers is stymied when one of the siblings falls from a tree and shatters his arm.

She finished with a smile, and as she held…

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Dear Muse

A lot has been written over the years about the difficulty of getting started, or maybe getting re-inspired after a hiatus, but nevertheless this post really resonated with me. I am only too conscious that reading about writing is also just another form of procrastination but it’s more fun than doing the ironing.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

mulloyBy Marla Mulloy

Write a letter to your muse, my writer friend said, in answer to my sad, self-loathing, whine about the writing life.  So I did.  I was mad.

Dear Muse,

I haven’t heard from you for a long time.  I wonder, are you having a nice time on your little holiday?  You must be having a holiday; you are certainly not paying any attention to me.  Perhaps you are on a beach somewhere in the sun, reading something that someone has actually written?  Or maybe you are simply watching people cavort in the sand or wander by the ice cream store, bored silly by my procrastination and delusion.   I realize I wasn’t the easiest charge you’ve had.  I realize I was hard to motivate, boring to watch.  Most likely, you are in my living room sitting in that chair that I placed near the small table where I…

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