The Creative Process

“Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist as a grown up”

Pablo Picasso

Painfully addictive and yet beautiful, the creative process is different for everybody.

As Picasso says, we are all artists. I know I was born to write but those who come to it late in life soon become drawn into its powerful ‘otherness’.

“The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art.” George Bernard Shaw

Writing adds a dimension to your life that you cannot always see until you do it. Brain to pen, thoughts in your hand, concepts on paper or screen and translated back to become real. It’s magic. Some people say it’s miraculous, that it is God at work, that writing or painting or creating is a spiritual experience.

A Big Responsibility

The thought is frightening. It’s frightening enough to make you stop short of ever making a start. But make a start you must, you know it. There will be no peace in your mind until you’ve attempted to express something, even if you don’t know what to say, or whether to write it, paint it, sing it or play it to an audience.

“How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” E.M. Forster

It doesn’t help to hear so-called experts talking highly of painters and writers and playwrights who’ve “got something to say” and you look at their masterpiece and wonder quite what. You see the artwork of great painters like Jackson Pollock or Piet Mondrian, installations by Tracy Emin or Damien Hirst – only to look upon them and say “What?”

Believe me – you’ve got things to say and by getting that pen moving you’ll start to find out what they are. You have to find your way of working, whether it’s with a pen, a typewriter, pencil, computer; the side of the phone book, the back of a shopping list, a pristine new notepad or a perfect white screen with a spell-check and thesaurus at the click of a mouse. It won’t be easy, but you can make it easier for yourself – if you’ll accept that pampering your creativity is a worthy cause.

Brought Home and Privately Yours

You can write in weird and wonderful ways, observe the world and quietly write what you see. It might be fictionalised reality, but seen from your standpoint, with your unique eye and in your own words, it will say something to your readers that’ll give them one more viewpoint from which to understand.

“I wish I were more at home with writing. I can go a year or two or three without picking up my pen and I’m perfectly content. The minute I have to write I become neurotic and grouchy and ill; I become like a little wet, drenched bird, and I put a blanket over my shoulders and I try to write and I hate myself and I hate what I’m writing.” said Edmund White, American novelist and author of the acclaimed A Boy’s Own Story (1982).

I was lucky enough to be brought up by an artist and learned to understand the necessity to accommodate the neurotic, grouchy and ill side of the temperament. The only time it would surface was when life and circumstances stood in the way of my parent’s Creative Process. Unfortunately for me and for the rest of the family, that was quite often.

Accommodate Your Destiny

You either grow up to do as your parents did, or you do the opposite. I hope I do the opposite – I recognise my need to create and try to engineer everything to ensure my Creative Process takes precedence. Lack of confidence and lack of being accepted by the art establishment curtailed my parent’s artistic focus.

“I don’t believe for a moment that creativity is a neurotic symptom. On the contrary, the neurotic who succeeds as an artist has had to overcome a tremendous handicap. He creates in spite of his neurosis, not because of it,” said Aldous Huxley.

This man may well be famous for his experiments with drugs but he created numerous stories, poems, novels, plays, travel works, historical studies and academic essays.

“I loathe writing,” says Muriel Gray. “It’s hard, hard work, like digging the roads… ” she says in her interview with David Mathew in The Third Alternative, no. 27.

You’ll probably know her as a TV and BBC Radio presenter but of writing she says, “There’s no comparison to broadcasting work which is basically money for old rope.” Writing is her passion and, it seems, her reason for living.

Pain is no barrier

“A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” said Thomas Mann.

James Baldwin said he does a lot of rewriting. “It’s very painful.”

All writers and artists talk of the pain but if you’re wise you’ll accept that it’s going to be painful. It has so often been compared to giving birth that it’s hardly worth mentioning – but when you’re pregnant, you know, it’s a hell of a relief to experience that pain; and look at the beautiful reward!

It isn’t funny to have to put up with any pain at all, and to have writers’ block when you know you want to do it; but there are so many jokes about it. This one sums it up for me:

1ST WRITER (at a cocktail party): I’m working on my new novel.

2ND WRITER: Neither am I.

Quoted from Private Eye in The Writer’s Chapbook, ed. George Plimpton.

Find a Way

How do you accommodate your need to create? How do you make it least painful? If it’s ideas or a starting point you need then go to the Triggers chapter, or Therapy, or find your voice in Write with Style, or even in the zany Experimental ideas.

Perhaps it’s the place and the company you keep that curtails your outflow? Teachers of old who stood behind you to pounce on your mistakes have a lot to answer for. But you’re free of that now and only have to be wary of imposing your own inhibitions.

  • J.K. Rowling sat in a café to write the Harry Potter books. Maybe it was to keep warm and topped up with coffee but your reason might be different: if it works for you, do it.

  • Brenda Crowe wrote ‘Play is a Feeling’ and ‘Living with a Toddler’ sitting up in bed: not because she was ill or working at night, but because it was the best way to keep her feet warm.

  • Julian Stockwin writes the Kydd series at his desk accompanied by an ancient piece of mariner’s rope, which wafts the subtle fragrance of the deep sea.

  • Jack Kerouac would kneel to pray before starting to write his novels (On the Road, 1957; The Subterraneans,1958 et al) and in essays he outlined a philosophy of writing that refused all revision and was akin to improvisational jazz.

  • The poet Philip Larkin would say he never went out, while Nadine Gordimer thinks writers should do plenty of ordinary things to keep in touch with life. She says, “The solitude of writing is also quite frightening. It’s quite close sometimes to madness, one just disappears for a day and loses touch.”

Love It or Hate It

“I love writing,” said P.G. Wodehouse. “I never feel comfortable unless I am either actually writing or have a story going. I could not stop writing.”

He was the author of the Jeeves Series and very successful in musical comedy, theatre, and Hollywood.

This quote is encouraging for me personally. At a recent workshop I found myself – in an automatic writing exercise – writing and then reading aloud: “I only feel well when I’m writing.” This produced gasps from a quarter of the other students. They were people who were still hoping to find out why or how writing can change their lives for the better.

Now before I make the mistake of offering the creative process as a religion, I think I will assume that my readers know they do want to write, but haven’t yet decided on their niche. We look at this with some general ideas in Genres.

Do Your Own Thing

There is nothing unusual in wanting to do your own thing.

Lawrence Durrell says this: “It doesn’t really matter whether you’re first rate, second rate, or third rate, but it’s of vital importance that the water finds its own level and that you do the very best you can with the powers that are given you.”

Lawrence Durrell was a poet, travel writer and prolific novelist; and not to be confused with his brother Gerald who wrote of animal life and owned a zoo at Jersey.

Reading the candid comments of other writers is an eminently useful way of endorsing your urge to write.

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.” Ernest Hemingway said.

He was one of the greatest short story writers of America and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. This is bestowed for ‘the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency’ and was awarded for The Old Man and the Sea, first published in 1952. “I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers,” he said. Have a go with Creative Frolics and see if you can see what he means. I think I can: you’ll see I have a tendency to cross the paths of painters in some suggestions on the Experimental page.

Finding your niche, your style, your way of working, can only be done through time and experience. Writing a diary and writing vignettes gives you a body of work that will be an endless supply of material to adapt or rewrite – along with many embellishments and an ever-strong urge to extend your vocabulary.

What of the Process, once Established?

I regard myself as an organic writer. I encourage my students to write organically – as if the first sentence is a stem, and from that will grow roots and shoots, flowers and seeds. It is sure to grow if you plant it as words on paper or screen.

I write stories and plays (including tv scripts and screenplays), and the odd poem, in between the mainstay of creative non-fiction, which you’re reading now. All can be written in an organic way.

For the record: what are my writing habits? I write words and half-sentences in notebooks, between doing other things; I start early, in solitude at the computer or just at a table. I break to make myself tea (eight cups a day). I do housework and cooking between paragraphs, and scribble beginnings, usually, in bed in the dark.

I think the creative process is all about making connections, and building upon them. (See Visualise for more on this.) There’s the ‘What If – ?’ game; but by building simple tentative connections into something bigger, there’s a worthy point to be made. I rely on dreams and on the half-sleep images that dwell in my head. They conveniently solve problems for me. Yesterday I was wondering how to explain my difficulties with defining Visualisation for this text. Overnight I dreamt about the picture that I tried to paint, long ago, called Rhapsody in Black. Today I’ve used it to illustrate the problem: my memory, my connection, was already there and I had to find the right place to use it.

Try any and all ways, methods, outlets and keep at it. Experimental; Vignettes; Genres. The creative process that suits you will make itself known and you’ll come to respect it. This way, your writing will command respect as well.

Writing: Finding Yourself

Shelby Healey's diary pageWriting a book: a chapter about you, and how to find yourself.

I like a good meditate. It’s the way I start my day. Not thinking about anything is the ideal meditative state but (and don’t tell anyone) my mind is not good at doing nothing. So, I sit quietly, eyes focused on a spot in front of me. Getting comfortable is the first priority. I sit upright on a chair, although staying in bed flat on my back, but awake, is an alternative, much frowned upon by aficionados who need to be sitting on hard cushions, Buddha like, with contorted knees. Whatever makes you happy. Once a meditation session starts my aim is not to move, at all. If my nose itches it is ignored, I am as still as a statue. I start by breathing – I mean becoming conscious of my breathing I’ve no intentions of dying at this point! Counting the breaths: one in, one out, two in, two out until I’ve a regular rhythm. Reaching ten I start again. Keeping it simple. If a mistake is made I’ll just start again. That allows me to switch off my mind. Thoughts will arrive but are not considered just accepted and pushed to one side. Relax, remove all the tension from your body.

This takes practice, but is worth it. Simply explained we all have two minds. The everyday mind that keeps you aware, standing, walking, sitting and working away at dozens of bodily functions. Beyond this is another deeper being. It may be the real you – whatever or whoever you really are. This part of you is responsible for those flashes of intuition, and it works quietly in the background. It can be reckless, urging you on to foolish acts or circumspect, urging caution. Too often it is the part of your brain you ignore, often at your peril. How often do we say, ‘I knew I should have listened to myself’?

For me, and I’m not going to demand that you follow my example, it works. Those sudden thoughts that flashed through my mind as I meditated can be considered with more care later. They offer inspiration to the writer. They are the source of originality. OK, there’s nothing new in the universe but you didn’t know you had an opinion about keeping cats, or nuclear power, or your neighbour’s hairstyle, until that thought came into your mind.

Use it.

If meditation doesn’t work find something that does. The pathway to choose is one that relaxes you, takes you away from the humdrum of daily life, that allows you to explore a new world. From those depths will come inspiration, perhaps give you the core of your next work.

Let’s move on from the esoteric to a more practical world. Let’s say that all writers should keep some form of diary or journal. They can be the start of the process of being a writer.

Even if you don’t know ‘famous’ writers for their novels or factual writings, you will probably have read or heard extracts from their diaries or about their lives. You might think there is nothing special enough about your life that’s worth recording, but think again. You’ve probably got more profound things to say than all the celebrities, often non-writers, whose memoirs are piled high, often unsold, in the bookshops. Look on the shelves of charity shops to see how many of these biographies are found. Massaging egos, using books as a marketing device, may work well for public relations but they rarely satisfy readers for very long. Bought as presents, often discarded unread.

Ordinary life is the main ingredient for every work of fiction, and the ability to put detail, explanation and subtlety into any piece of writing, hinges on the skill of interpreting actions into words on the page. The expertise is gained through practice. Even if the diaries you write never come to anything more than practice, you will gain a great deal by writing them.

 Other People’s Diaries

There’s much to be gained from reading diaries and journals as well.

Diaries take many forms, from poetic exposition through personal experiences to love letters. There are personal viewpoints from, for example, expectant surrogate mothers, or a soldier’s view of his war: if you can find a diarist writing about your specialist interest, then reading these diaries can be the extremely useful research for your own writing.

Write about yourself

There is no doubt that writing about yourself can help to define who you are by outlining your beliefs and what you want to do with your life. This may demand an honesty that you have not needed previously in your life. Your mind will become focused and it may bring you peace and organisation.

Writing a diary will sort out problems, collect ideas together, organise your life and offer a sanctuary from the chaos that surrounds you in the world outside of your diary. In these writing focus pages you’ll find that personal writing is of the utmost importance in finding your voice and your style in being a writer.

Your diary will become an uncritical ‘shoulder to rely upon’, allowing your inner mind to express itself more clearly. Look at the positive and joyful parts of your life examining what makes you really happy or expose those hurtful bits that you think you don’t want to know about. Facing reality is always better than living in fear.

As the years roll by the diary will provide a record of your life, an aide-memoir for clarity, a record of events and of tasks you have accomplished. It will show that your life has not been wasted. It will show patterns of events that will surprise you when looking back and you will discover repetition, or linkages to other events that you’d never recognised.

Making you a better person

A diary will help you to communicate more effectively, because it is practice in putting words to something that might be incomprehensible to other people. As a spin-off it will serve as a family history for future generations to enjoy.


Put pen to paper to write everything that comes to your mind. Don’t stop to correct or read what you’ve written. Keep going, mistakes, rubbish and all for 10 to 30 minutes. Worry about grammar, punctuation and spelling later. Get those words down first.

Focused Freewriting

Pick a topic before you begin and try to write everything that comes into your mind about that topic. Write for at least ten minutes.


Draw a shape (such as a box, oval, or circle) in the middle of a blank page and write the topic you wish to write about inside it. Draw lines branching off from your topic, ending with more shapes, each filled with sub-topics relating to the main topic. Some people call it a ‘Starburst’ of ideas. I use one of the mind map software programs to achieve the same task. Once mastered such programs allow even more free expression than paper and pencil.

Writing Prompts

Use a word bowl or a list of questions to spark ideas. A word bowl is a container full of words that you’ve cut out of magazines, or words you have written on slips of paper. Or ask someone else to give you a word or theme to get you going. The ‘distance’ of another person’s perspective can provide you with unusual freedom.

Making Lists

A list makes you only consider specific topics. Expansion is then easier, next time you come to write. If you are a list person, which I’m not.

Descriptive Writing

Involves writing in vivid detail how you perceive the world around you. Write from your point of view. Sit down with a pen and pad and write what you see, just as an artist might set up easel and paint the landscape before him.


Capture another person on paper: their personality, mannerisms, opinions, relationship to you. Describe facial expressions and the way these change when they feel cold, miserable, happy, excited, et al.

Reflective Writing

Pause after several weeks of writing to reflect on your past thoughts and actions, and consider your future. If a diary is to be for self examination it’s important to write down how you feel about events.

Altered Point of View

Try putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Change sex, or become the omnipotent third party. This can really be quite an eye-opener, and will certainly make you a better person in that you’ll be able to empathise with those around you.

However much you try to write a total fiction, there will always be an element of yourself, your hopes and fears, within the pages. Don’t fight it. Your experience is good; and contrary to what you might think, if it came from the bottom of your heart then it will meet with your readers’ minds, and that is where it matters. True fiction comes from experience not just imagination.

Meditative Writing

Be very relaxed and clear your mind of all thoughts. This is meditation. Use an image to create fantasy, think upon the tranquil, serene or peaceful. Or you may be able to draw a picture, from intuition, drawing without thinking of what you are doing. Doodling is a version of this but instead of doodling while you talk on the phone or listen to a lecture, try doodling to simply fill a blank page. By the time the page is filled, your mind will be buzzing with ideas worth writing.

Intensive Writing

Writing can be a cathartic process, clearing out all the rubbish in your mind to produce clarity and peace. Highly emotional writing that is freely expressed but really says what you want to say. Scream at the page as you write.


Conduct a conversation in writing, representing both points of view. Talk to yourself, which is how George Sand worked.

Unsent Letters

Another way of clearing out the detritus in your mind is to tell someone how it really is, in writing, knowing that you will not send it. No need to be polite, to consider feelings – just sock it to them!

Podcast Diaries

Having started and run a community radio station I have a love of radio. Today podcasts can easily play the same role, with you as the presenter. Radio, or podcasts, can be a lot of things: Radio can be a news report. Radio can be a commentary. Radio can be a conversation. Radio can be an audio postcard. Your story can be a combination of all this and more.

There is lots of good information and advice to help use this medium, and you can listen to many individual podcasts. Do so, with a critical ear. What makes one podcast compelling?

Talking into a voice recorder is very different to writing, and you might baulk at the thought. However, you’ll be surprised at what comes out of your head when you get used to talking to yourself (I do it all the time!).

Try keeping an audio journal. Create an online journal. Most mobile phones have a voice recorder that will allow you to create an electronic diary. Start with yourself then talk to your family and your friends; ask them to tell their stories. The politician Tony Benn has used this method to record every event in his life and now has an enormous collection of tapes.

Very quickly you will be sticking the microphone under all sorts of noses and finding that people are quite happy to answer your questions, often very revealingly. I like to sit down, with a cup of tea, and just talk, letting the recorder run quietly.

Soon you could be making radio documentaries, letting the audience participate and experience things as they happen, and carrying your recorder (mobile phone) wherever you go, like a press photographer and reporter, ready to record events as they happen.

Journals versus Diaries

Whereas a diary is thought of as a regular record (and consequently sometimes mundane), a journal is an occasional occupation. You write up an entry in your journal whenever you feel like putting something into words. It might be an observation you want to remember, or an occasion that deserves recording in complete detail.

Your journal entry will be more thoughtful and more discursive than a regular diary. My blog at follows that format. I record all sorts of observations, and too often make political comments. Some people read them, and even comment occasionally. I use it as a cathartic exercise, to get it off my chest. There’s more about this aspect of life and writing in the Therapy chapter.

Diaries and journals keep you in the habit of writing and are a constant way of teaching yourself to write. Sooner or later the diary will be opened again and its subjects aired within the pages of your fiction or your documentary.

Audio Diaries are similarly useful as time goes on. A writer must seek detail to help make his work seem authentic, and sometimes the detail of a private life can only be found in a diary.

Learning to write

Diaries and journals are an excellent starting point. Keep a freewriting notebook and take it anywhere, everywhere. Keep a diary of special events, holidays, and hectic days when it will be useful to reap hindsight of the way events unfolded. By their very nature, daily diary entries are subtle in the telling, yet lively and concise. Reading them later will reveal secret crevices.

Record your dreams and your maddest ideas because they, too, will become useful in your writing.

One of the greatest ways to start feeling confident as a writer is to record your thoughts on how your writing feels to you, and monitoring – in words on the page – how you progress. As your writing career develops, so will your appreciation of your collection of diaries and journals that are loaded with meaningful source material.

Want to Write

Hemingway quoteI’ve been invited to talk at a Book Festival next year – more about that later – but it prompts me to resurrect a book I wrote well over a decade ago. Pathways to Publication was designed to help writers who wanted to publish their own work.

Let’s make a start:

You want to be a Writer?

Of course you do, why would you want to be anything else? With that question out of the way this book does little more than offer comfort and support. It will not solve your obsession although it does indicate possible pathways. You may have many reasons for wanting to write, our hope is that you write for yourself. Nobody else really matters.

That said we assume that one eventual aim is for the writer to reach a reader. Showing writers how that can be achieved is an interesting prospect. To satisfy the reader the writer must work steadily through a number of processes. We want you to produce something that will be read by someone other than its creator.

These pages will follow a central pathway but will allow deviation – plenty of it – as you and other writers contribute, as different styles of writing and of presentation are all examined. Your latest project will never end.

Let’s start at an end. One aim may be to produce a book; just an ink-smeared-on-dead-trees book. You may choose a different format. There’s plenty of choice, and we will describe each in turn.

  • Printed Book
  • Ebook
  • Audiobook
  • App
  • Videos
  • Online (content management software)
  • Games
  • DAISY (for blind and partially sited)
  • Blogs and Web sites

There’s plenty to choose from.

Whatever process is finally chosen, the production of the final book must be as good as you can make it.

It’s not just about content, which, importantly, should always be subjected to close scrutiny by a disinterested third party, preferably a professional editor or proof-reader, but also the physical quality of the work.

Unless a book looks and feels good, with a well designed cover, the correct choice of paper, of font and of page layout, it will fail. No matter how good the content. There remains a prejudice against self-published work that can only be overcome by ensuring that the standards of preparation and presentation are rigorously maintained.

For too long badly produced booklets, with mono-spaced type, smudged photocopy and bent staples hanging onto a flimsy card cover have dominated the image. That must stop. It is no longer acceptable. We have the technology!

In the production process many obstacles have to be overcome but unless the work itself is relevant to an audience no amount of colour, graphic design, expensive paper or hand-crafted binding will hide egotistical, crass or illiterate words on a page.

Being honest to yourself is vital, and the questions asked must be truthfully tackled. What is most important to you? Consider that question carefully, before jumping on a plane to Honolulu with your lover.

How will you accomplish your aims and objectives with this publication? What are the priorities and what is your relationship to others, to relatives and friends, and to the community at large? How will your ambitions change these relationships? Importantly, consider where your writing fits into the world? What would be missing if it had never existed? What messages do you have?