The Extrovert's Guide to Writing
Any long-haul writing project inevitably involves spending many solitary hours with your laptop. But what if you crave being around other people?
It’s strange isn’t it, how some creative projects feel effortless while others, despite our best efforts, remain elusive. Psychological research doesn’t shed much light on why this happens, focusing instead on what traits great artists share rather than on what stops people from getting down to work in the first place.
One day I noticed something in my own life that should have been blindingly obvious. As an extrovert, showing up for creative pursuits that involve connecting with others is a breeze. No matter how busy I am, I can always juggle things to fit in choir rehearsals or upload to an online photography group. But my long-cherished dream of completing a novel? Suddenly I’m a Premier-league procrastinator.
A friend suggested going on a writing retreat where the ethos of ‘creating alone together’ might trick my social brain into feeling content while still producing thousands of glittering words. This made a lot of sense, after all I had seen my productivity levels soar during NaNoWriMo.The trouble was, most retreats that I read about featured scary buzzwords like ‘tranquility’, ‘countryside’ and worst of all ‘communal meal preparation’.
I was about to give up when I stumbled upon the Paris Writers Retreat run by American author and literary agent Wendy Goldman Rohm. That got my attention. “Paris is always a good idea,” as Audrey Hepburn succinctly put it in Sabrina. Plus, from the photos on Rohm’s website, the workshop appeared to have a strongly collaborative, social focus.
Two weeks later, I found myself in a writer’s loft on the Place des Vosges. A lively group of writers from as far afield as South America and Eastern Europe were gathered round a table laden with pastries. “Breakfast,” announced Rohm, even though it was gone eleven. I knew then that this was my kind of retreat.
That first morning we were asked to choose one character from our proposed work. (Unusually participants can be working on fiction, non-fiction or screenplay). “Write a scene where your character performs an activity they do regularly, something they know how to do in great detail.” Afterwards we went round the room and read our work aloud - it ranged from sixteenth century French bookbinding to someone cleaning their kitchen.
Using this scene as a springboard, we were encouraged to list ten ‘cause and effect’ action points featuring our protagonist to form the bones of complete story. “Remember, thinking is not a plot point.” Rohm reminded us. Oh dear. “A plot point is “A man is locked in a cell, then a bomb goes off.” She encouraged us to think in broad terms about how the brain naturally organises stories, with an alternating pattern of action points and revelation. “The psyche is both progressive and regressive. In any form across any media, the dynamics of storytelling is the same. We see characters moving forward, then falling back.”
Each of us took it in turns to present our story sequence to the rest of the group. But there was a catch. You were only allowed to move on to the next plot twist if everyone gave the previous action point the thumbs up in terms of credibility and interest. Such a gladiatorial approach sounds terrifying but was actually suffused with mutual respect and good humour. Inevitably some stories took longer than others to ‘beat’ out, but everyone got there in the end.
In the evenings, there were optional cocktail get-togethers, networking and readings, which meant that it felt like a proper literary mini-break. Also since most people had travelled to Paris on their own, it was great to have new friends to hang out with after the workshops.
By the end of five days I had the full outline for a novel, an outcome that had eluded me for as many years. So what made the difference? For me being able to tell my story verbally to an audience, literally making it up as I went along, proved to be a lot easier than second-guessing myself at home alone.
It also helped that in discussing the psychology of storytelling, Rohm treated us to a literary feast of examples to illustrate her points, ranging from Paul Auster, Aravind Adiga, Jennifer Egan, Gillian Flynn and Suketu Mehta, the latter a sometime guest-lecturer at the retreat, to ideas from psychiatry, screenplays, narrative non-fiction and poetry.
Ah yes, all very well, I hear you say, but what happens when you get back home to reality? Rohm is a step ahead here too. There is a digital writers hangout where alumni get to chat and upload material, and there are also 12-week digital writing salons where you can further develop your book, the latter also open to those who can’t make it to Paris or her other retreats in Dublin, Miami and Los Angeles.
The next Paris Writers Retreat runs from May 25th to May 29th 2015, there is also a weekend workshop running from May 30th - May 31st. http://www.pariswritersretreat.com