Pep & Prompt #11: What’s Your Context?

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“I am overwhelmed with things I ought to have written about and found the proper words.”

Virginia Woolf, Diaries Volume One 1915-1919


Damn you, Woolf, saying all the things that we know and feel and agonise over. There are so many things to write. It can be paralysing. It can lead to the dread Shiny Thing Syndrome. It can stop us, flat-dead, in our tracks.

I always knew I wanted to write things. It was a physical urge in my fingers, a physical urge in my gut and in my throat for the words to emerge, somehow beautiful and right. But it took me so long to get going, because  when there is an entire infinite universe or two of choice, where do you start?

Believe it or not, constraints or limitations make you more creative.

Try this: imagine a story about anyone at all anywhere in any universe.

Versus this: imagine a story about a girl called Willow who lived in a wooden hut with her mean, elderly aunt.

Most people would read the first challenge and immediately panic. Infinite creative freedom might sound amazing, but in reality it’s not always so.

The second challenge is less terrifying. It gives creative constraints. It gives us a place to start. It gives us context.

You might notice that while your fave author turns out a lot of work about different things, there are common themes running through their work. Margaret Atwood, of course, is the queen of furious social commentary and feminism. Neil Gaiman likes to mix the new and the old, the woo world with the material world. Jon McGregor tries to close the distance between the real world and the words that describe them.

Vanessa Gebbie has some things to say about things:

How did these writers find their theme? I have no idea. Go ask them on Twitter. Or an even more useful exercise is to find YOUR theme. And it just so happens that we have an exercise for that.


Write a list of all the things you have written.

Write a list of all the things you are currently writing.

Write a list of all the things you would like to write in the future.

Write a list of all the things you want to read but are unsure if it’s been written.

Write a list of the feelings that beat in your heart when your fingers begin twitching to make words.

Look at your lists.

Can you spot any common themes or ideas? Any common emotions? Do you always end up writing about love or loss or both? Is there a lot of domestic conflict or physical violence? Is everything very quiet and muted or loud and aggressive?

What does your existing writing and your wish list say about you and the way you see the world? Does it change the way you look at your writing? Perhaps it feels more vital, more urgent. More needed. Because it is all of these things. So go write.


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