Why have you chosen to create your career as a writer and a coach in the Peak District?
I’ve always preferred natural surroundings to towns and cities. I can appreciate the wonder of a skyscraper or a beautiful sculpture or an impressive bridge, but I find nature’s wonders moving in a different way. I’m impressed by human creations, but I’m often overwhelmed in busy towns and feel the need to retreat and escape from them too. But the awe I feel when I’m in the mountains, or the woods, or walking beside a river seems never ending. And I think awe is the right word because we can feel awe even when we’re miserable.
I get bored easily, and the thing about nature is that it’s always changing – obviously because of the seasons and the weather, but also because of something random that we can’t pin down, and I love the uncertainty of that. There’s a wide, expansive view across the Peaks as you come from Sheffield towards Grindleford (just as the road starts downhill towards the Fox House pub) and it’s never (even vaguely!) the same from one day to the next. It’s just an incredible experience to look at the same sky and the same landscape and for it to never be the same sky or landscape at all. I never seem to experience that in the city (although I know that others probably do – it’s very personal).
Perhaps, for me as a writer, there’s something about the ever-changing, unpredictable essence of nature that’s appealing. The creative process is uncertain and surprising, and we can’t always pin it down (however much we might want it to). So there are parallels there that I find reassuring somehow. Nature, and natural objects find their way into my writing all the time, and so it makes sense that I should want to surround myself with those kinds of things. But some writers love the manmade – and it’s just as important for them to be surrounded by machinery and architecture and building sites and abandoned warehouses! It’s so important that writers follow their instincts and pursue curiosity – wherever it takes them. I would never say to a writer that they should ‘get out into nature because they’ll find it inspiring’, because that might not be true for them at all.
Having said that, as a writing coach, it’s nearly always helpful for clients to come away from their normal setting (whatever that is) and meet with me out in the Peak District. So often clients will say that they love the drive or train journey out to Grindleford, and sometimes I use walking outdoors as a way of working through some writing-related obstacle, or slump in confidence, or plotting issue. Whether you’re a lover of nature or not, I challenge anyone to not benefit in some way from the open expansiveness of a walk through the hills: the simple act of walking can shift our perspective.
How do you completely immerse yourself in your writing?
On a practical level I do a few things: I turn my phone off and I stay away from social media. I get urgent tasks that might distract me out of the way. And then I sit at my desk and I tell myself that I’m not allowed out of my chair for two hours or three hours (or whatever). The reason I do this (I know it can sound a little OTT) is that the writing process is a slippery beast. Sometimes I don’t feel motivated or inspired, and the words don’t flow until I’ve been at it a while. It can feel sticky and clunky and frustrating for great chunks of time and it can just be so compelling to head off to the kitchen for another cup of tea and slice of toast. But all that’s just a distraction. If I simply sit there and write, then eventually it all starts to come and suddenly it’s easy and it’s joyful and exciting and I find the right words. It’s a kind of tough love to make that happen.
On a more psychological level I immerse myself by committing to it. Writing really matters to me, and I absolutely understand that it wouldn’t happen if I didn’t prioritise it. I say no to other things in order to make sure that I have time to write. Letting go is an essential part of being a writer. You simply can’t have everything in life, and if you want to write (in any way seriously – to complete a novel, for example) then chances are you’ll have to give up something else. This can be really unappealing to some people.
What impact does your coaching have on writers?
I work with writers to improve the quality of their writing; whether that’s looking at the overall structure and effectiveness of a narrative, or whether it’s unpicking paragraphs and sentences to explore the different ‘tricks’ to improve the quality of the prose.
More importantly, though, I think in the main my coaching is about demystifying the writing process and building confidence. Hopefully writers come away understanding how creativity works, what ‘inspiration’ really means, and how to establish a system of helpful practices for getting started and just making it happen. This can be such a difficult thing in the early stages. But once we understand how, then all of us can learn to listen out for inspiration, to have faith in our own ideas, and to keep writing regardless of how we’re feeling.