The Alchemy: A guide to gentle productivity in your writing

By Anna Vaught

An intimate writing guide that is for anyone who wants to learn how to improve their craft.

I took a long time to be published; by that I mean, I took a long time to start writing. I did not have the confidence. Now I have, it is like a torrent. I am six years in. When the occasional person decides to be a bit snarky about the seven books I have written in that time, I tend to explain that they were in my head for decades and that is why everything is as it is now. My bravehearts, do your own thing; believe in your work first and foremost and do not apologise for the way in which you work, whether it be 'too fast’ or ‘too slow’. Here is my first bit of love for you all and it is about productivity - but perhaps not in the way you might expect. Also, being gentle on yourself and always working with what you have.

Here is a comforting thought. For a start, you work with what you have. That is, it is lovely to have an office or a dedicated room, but if circumstances demand that you write at your kitchen table, or on your lap wherever you are, so be it. If you wait for those perfect circumstances, you will never start, so always go with what you have. I write at the kitchen table and am frequently interrupted. I go with it and use headphones for busy times. Remember that genius exists in the finest library, but also at a scruffy kitchen table. Also, if you think you must assemble ideal conditions – that is, ideal emotional or psychological conditions – before you write or continue writing, then I do believe that is deferring your creativity to fate. You may feel down, sad or that heavy weight of grief that comes after the first pains which you think will kill you. My darlings, I am so, so sorry. But you know, you can write in rage and sadness, too. Maybe not yet, but you will. Sometimes, little bits of story unfurl within the sad story of you and yours; cling to them, because they are still there and precious. Think I do not know? I am writing this now, to you: after a second very broken night, this little story unfurled while I was on the phone to care providers and emergency staff because I have a very unwell eldest. I find it heartbreaking sometimes and after years a solution is not within our grasp, but within those feelings, I try to draw something else out. Today, this morning, so tired, it was for you. Take it. I always say that, even in our darkest moments, there will be a story to unfurl. I absolutely stand by it. Creativity is closely allied to mental health, self-care and, in my case, salvation.

It may seem that, with difficulties in our daily life, for those we care for or, or with ourselves, we cannot create, but that is not so. Here is more about me: I manage several long-standing mental health problems and I have been recovering from Long Covid (we are getting to know each a bit better, right?) - and I am not writing from a position of privilege, telling you sweet things. I am aiming to comfort you, so that you might follow a dream and, hopefully, get paid for it, too - but we will come back to the latter.

What about the adage of writing every day? That real writers write every day. Well lovely if this is you, but it cannot be everyone. I cannot do it. If you are poorly or managing any combination of circumstances, or just because it doesn’t work for you, then you cannot do it. This does not mean you cannot produce a book. Again, go with what is available to you because, again, if you think it is only possible with (perceived) ideal circumstances, then you may never get started or find your progress is stymied because you are feeling anxiety about your lack. Look, instead, at what there is. Thought. Cogitation. Reading. Listening. Man, you have been busy. So, you may not have committed words to the page, but a process is still ongoing. Pondering is the writing, too. Do not forget that now. (I dedicate this last sentence to my fantastic agent who had to remind me about this and specifically in the context of pondering the plot. Ahem.)

This point follows on from the last. You may not write every day – as in get words down on a page – but try to inhabit the world of your book. What might that mean? Perhaps, that you mull over its characters and plot, read, think about it all on your commute, go for a walk and just let it sit and let your mind freewheel and see what springs up; that you keep reading; that you look over edits – your own or someone else’s – and maybe you could do bits of admin if the urge is that strong. Do your page numbers, check SPAG or write an acknowledgements page: these things can be lovely little boosts and make you feel your book is evolving into an actual THING. Think of the work and the writing as not only being the writing down, but also of the rumination while you are having a bath, or resting, say. If you do that, you may find your attitude to it shifts and you realise you are further along than you thought.

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