Adventures with writing habits

Keeping going – novelist Rosie Garland on persistence and creative rituals

Rosie Garland

Three years ago Rosie Garland had pretty much given up all hope of getting her novels published. Her agent wasn’t taking her calls, rejections were coming thick and fast, and she’d been diagnosed with cancer. She had spent 12 years writing four and a half novels – perhaps it was time to call it a day? As her second novel is published to great acclaim she shares her experience of keeping going through the tough times.

Overcoming creative self-harm

Rosie had an early taste of fame as a singer in post-punk band the March Violets. Grown up responsibilities soon got in the way and full time work as a teacher pushed her creative projects to the side. She wrote short stories and poetry, and performed her cabaret act Rosie Lugosi, then at the turn of the millennium she got an idea “that was too big to be a poem or short story.” Rosie made the decision to work part time to shift the balance of her work and creative life, she landed an agent, and dedicated more of her time to writing novels.

However, after 12 years Rosie had pretty much given up all hope of being published. She said:

“My agent wasn’t getting back to me and I felt I had to stop continually putting myself through the self-cruelty of writing and having it rejected. It felt like a bizarre form of creative self-harm.”

“that was when I entered the Mslexia competition as a last ditch attempt.”

She needed to protect herself and go to “the places that weren’t harming me. That was the poetry and singing and performance. So I made a decision to do that and that was when I entered the Mslexia competition as a last ditch attempt.”

Mslexia ran its inaugural competition for unpublished novelists in 2011. Rosie not only bagged the top spot with The Palace of Curiosities, but got a place on the shortlist with another (as yet unpublished) novel. From this came a bidding war between publishers and a six-figure two-book deal with Harper Collins. Her second novel Vixen has just been published to rave reviews.

Vixen by Rosie Garland

The apprentice novelist

Rosie believes if success had come earlier she might not be where she is now. “I might have sunk without a trace – become one of those people who has one book.” She refers to the years of writing as her apprenticeship, and doesn’t resent the time spent refining her writing skills. “The amount of time I have had to work to become a novelist has paid off. I have learnt my craft, I have done my apprenticeship.”

She learned from her mistakes, referring to the second novel she wrote as “awful”. She said, “it’s going to stay under the bed forever. I will keep it as a reminder to never get above myself. The second novel was a process of writing something really badly – I can point to it, as an example of how not to write.”

Keeping going: habits and rituals to support creativity

Over the years Rosie developed tactics to support her writing. The first is being open to feedback. She told me:

“I try to give myself as much input as possible. That might be going on a writing course, or Arvon retreat, getting full, frank feedback from tutors, my agent or editors. I don’t want to write in a vacuum – ‘bring it on’ is my mantra! Part of being a writer is always wanting to grow, always wanting to learn, never taking for granted that I am a writer. Because I think the day that happens is a really bad day for me.”

Her other support mechanism has been creative rituals. This is vital to someone who admits to being terrified of the blank page and needs a routine each day to get words on the page and the creative juices flowing. Rosie starts the day with three pages of journaling – she says this isn’t creative writing but “rubbing the crust out of my eyes” and getting out of the way all the ‘what I did yesterday’ stuff. She continues:

“Don’t set yourself up to fail. If had to write a full chapter I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

“The next thing I do is write six images. What a snail looks like climbing up a leaf, what it felt like to stub your toe. I do it every morning without fail, if miss one I do a catch up session later. Coming out of the six images I write a haiku. Then I do the classic three pages of morning pages – free writing coming out of the six images or using a writing prompt.”

These rituals sound like a lot of work, but taken individually they are small tasks and quick to perform, and that’s the secret for Rosie. “For me it’s all about small commitments. Don’t set yourself up to fail. If had to write a full chapter I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Rosie Garland's notepad

Dealing with an inner critic – silencing Mavis

Morning can be a special time for writers and artists, and for Rosie it’s when she’s open to more playful non-linear writing, but also because her internal critic hasn’t got out of bed yet.

Throughout her writing life Rosie has battled with a vicious internal critic. A few years ago she gave this critic a name: Mavis. She found that naming her was a release; separating the cruelty from herself made it easier to deal with the criticism.

Rosie says “My rituals are there to nurture and support me. They enable my writing; provide nourishment, support and food for my writing. Yet Mavis will say to me, ‘call yourself an artist when you enjoy rituals so much.’ That’s Mavis telling me an artist flounces around in clothes pulled together from a bunch of headscarves.”

A weekly reflection inspired by Julia Cameron

The rituals are the foundations of Rosie’s writing, a way of keeping in touch with her creativity. She’s a big fan of Julia Cameron, though admits it took nearly a year to complete one 12-week programme and felt it “nearly killed me!”

Her final ritual was inspired by Julia Cameron from her creativity bibles The Artist’s Way and Walking in the World. Rosie takes time each week to reflect on four things:

  1. How have my morning pages been going this week?
  2. Have given myself an artist date?
  3. Have I gone on an artist’s walk?
  4. Other issues – what else has been going on?

Keep going

“I have had to hack out time for my writing in around all the things that put bread on the table”

For most of her life Rosie has worked while writing. “I haven’t had the luxury of being a writer as my full time job. I have had to hack out time for my writing in around all the things that put bread on the table and keep the rent man from chucking you out the time at the end of week.”

Getting cancer made Rosie realise that life is too short. She told herself, “I’m not doing this any longer. I don’t care what’s in the future, I’ll just trust.” Rosie’s advice to others struggling to find their creative balance is to just “keep going”. It might take a long time, but it will happen.

I’m going to give the last line to one of Rosie’s characters, Anne from Vixen who says “I shall live that life like the gift it is, and waste neither it nor myself. I am my own woman. I like her. She has stories to tell and all of them are interesting.”

Vixen was published in July in hardback, and The Palace of Curiosities is available in paperback. You can find out what Rosie has been up to by following her on Twitter @rosieauthor  and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/rosielugosi

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