And now for something completely different. I know only too well how hard it is to find the right people to work with as a writer, especially when seeking quality feedback and support. So, I invited novelist Jenn Ashworth and poet Sarah Hymas , not only experienced, well-published writers, but also experienced tutors,to talk a little about their place, The Writing Smithy, .
Vanessa Gebbie: For an aspiring writer seeking help, doing research to find the best place to spend what little spare cash they have, the world of writing consultancies can be a frightening, confusing place, chocca with all sorts of organisations promising to open doors, to change a writer's life. Why did you think there was room for another? Why did you start The Writing Smithy?
Jenn Ashworth: I had the idea floating around for a while - I'd worked as a freelance for other consultancies but had become uncomfortable with some of the working styles and policies I'd noticed. And even though there are lots and lots of consultancies offering services to writers, few of them are run by writers themselves and have the focus on process and rewriting that ours does.
Sarah Hymas: I had been working closely with writers for Litfest in Lancaster, as the editor of its publishing imprint, Flax. We offered one-to-one professional development sessions for writers we published and the feedback was, again and again, how useful the writers, at whatever points of their career, found the sessions The chance to talk candidly and confidentially with someone about your writing and career can clarify aspirations, definitions of success and so help with persuing the path you've chosen. I wanted to offer this to writers beyond the North West remit of Lancaster's Litfest. Plus, I really enjoy it myself!
VG: Can you say a little more about The Writing Smithy's focus on process, first, then as another issue - rewriting? They are so fundamental - once I'd learned the way my own brain worked, as a writer, I was away!
Jenn: I think partly this was a little bit of a reaction to what we saw as the 'get published quick' flavour of a lot of businesses doing this kind of work - of course we care about our own careers and most of our clients are very ambitious for themselves in that way too. But if the focus is on writing a synopsis, marketing yourself and so on - then where and when is editing, drafting, the long, slow process that learning to do something better involves being addressed? We do genuinely think that working on the writer as well as the writing itself is the most long-lasting form of help we can give other writers.
Sarah: Plus we find it fascinating! As you said, Vanessa, once you found how your brain works you were away. That exploration of ourselves is so unique and ultimately rewarding for all of us, and to be alongside someone tunnelling their own synapses is a privilege. Hopefully it's a continually evolving process too, so there is always something new to learn at all stages of our journeys as writers. Certainly that's what we believe. It's an essential part of creativity: the search for the new... both externally and internally. As for your question about rewriting: its long, slow and intricate. But as creative as the first drafting process - there's something like the art of wood carving in the precision that is needed in the rewriting stage: keeping true to the essence of the thing without chopping off the thumb!
VG: How do you work with a writer on their own process?
Jenn: I listen and observe a lot, and then ask questions that are aimed at getting the writer I am working with to examine the ways they instinctively or habitually go about things, and consider alternatives. I think it's just as important to understand why and when certain methods or techniques work as it is to know when they aren't, so I might also work with a writer to help them understand just why that brilliant paragraph or piece of writing works so well - to turn sucessess from flukes into choices.
Sarah: Yes, it is the questions that encourage the self-examination that are key, I agree with Jenn. And reading of course. How someone reads other people's work, what work you're drawn too, can also help to illuminate your instincts towards writing style and subject: what is it that we love about somebody else's approach to a subject we are interested in? How is our work different?
VG: So how do you guide them in the vital stage of rewriting a manuscript?
Jenn: the most important thing, for me, is before we even go near the writing - to help the writer I am working with articulate exactly what it is they are setting out to achieve. The writer sets the goals. I might ask questions aimed at getting the writer to clarify their goals, or encourage them to aim as high as they can, but writing is all about making decisions and I'm careful not to get in the way of that decision making process. All that's a lot more difficult than it sounds! I can and do give an honest reader's response to a manuscript and that might include some critical feedback, as you'd expect in a usual teaching situation, but my feedback is always aimed at helping a writer achieve what they want to - not my own idea of what makes good writing, or anyone else's.
Sarah: And that is always the crucial thing: to remove our own instincts and tastes from the process. It isn't about suggesting what would be good to write instead, but to flag up how everything builds towards towards that intention. And leave the writer to consider on the possible solutions, or to discuss those with them. I also think it's very useful to identify the 'nub' of a piece, be that the climax, anti-climax, key word or phrase in a poem that the writer believes to be holding it together. This can help with deciding on the shape of a poem: how to build up to that, fall away from it etc... Although having said that I'm always very keen to share with them other poets' work I love.
VG: Perhaps you can reveal a little of your own learning processes here - the things you've learned along the way that feed into what you are now doing for others?
Jenn: I've learned to get a handle on my own bad habits of procrastination and how to tune out distractions! Procrastination - motivation, these things come up very often and I feel I can speak a bit from experience! But I've also learned I need to be gentle with myself and that I need breaks - my concentration span isn't as long as I'd like it to be and that is what it is. Even if you can't totally eliminate your weaknesses, you can work around them!
Sarah: I think it's about trusting myself: I'm working on ideas and drafts even when it doesn't seem like it. When I'm walking or cooking or reading. And by understanding that you can give drafts the space they need to percolate. Patience is invaluable. After all, while it might feel like, it isn't heart surgery, everything can wait, really.
Thank you, both of you, for taking the time to consider my questions - all strength to you both, and to The Writing Smithy. Hats off, chaps - those writers who find you are lucky people.
I hope that’s been useful - please feel free to spread the word. And to close - I love the ethos, as stated on their website -
Your work is yours – we won’t steer you in a direction you’re not happy with and although growth means change, we understand what it’s like to be a writer. We don’t want to turn you into something you’re not.