Poet, playwright and short story writer Liz Breslin shares her ten-step-guide to rediscovering the spontaneity of writing and reducing the time spent worrying over word counts.
This is part of our Early Career Writers’ Resources pack on Routine, with contributions from authors Vida Adamczewski, Monique Roffey, Antony Johnston and more. Our Resources packs are generously supported by Arts Council England. Discover more here →
Liz is a poet, playwright and writer of short stories from Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature and she is one of five writers who participated in our Imagining the City programme in February 2021.
Imagining the City brings together five writers from UNESCO Cities of Literature across the world to explore connections between Norwich and their cities, link up with local writers, and work on a range of commissions.
1. It’s all material.
This is what I tell myself when saving things I’m never going to buy to online shopping carts, cleaning the back of my teabag cupboard or sitting through meetings. Letting my mind wander at these moments is also important, and doodling in the margins of whatever is handy. Someone will use a gold-star phrase, or I’ll get obsessed with the mannerisms of whoever is presenting. The names of the tea or the jaunty blurbs on the packets will make me mad. Cleanliness is next to organisationaliness but it’s the scrap of something I find that will stick in my mind, as well as the Kate-Winslet-in-Ammonite fingerless gloves in my cart because they’d totally give me a writer in a garret vibe and besides, they’re vintage.
2. Routine is overrated.
It’s all very well to say I’m going to write at 5am, or on paper before I look at my phone, or for 1000+ words or 2+ hours each day, but I’m not. I’m not even going to write whenever I can. See 3.
3. Shame. Shame. Shame.
What I like to do is ignore my absolute desire to write, even though it’s what makes my heart sing, even though it’s what makes the world have no time. Because there are many more things to do that would be better for the economy and/or make sure that I give my teenagers 100% of my energy 100% of the time. Actually, that should be and/and, since women can have, and must have, everything. Everything except. I suppress the phrases, the stories, the taste of the words in my mouth, the mental visual of the stanzas on the page, until I can ignore them no longer. About as annealed as l3 diamonds, out they pour on a screen or in a phone note or on a piece of paper that I will lose while doing something for the economy or the teenagers.
One day when I am a grown-up I will explode with the resentment of this arrangement and use my creative anger to spew out a fully formed genius narrative that has nothing to do with teenagers and the economy because they don’t own me. Maybe.
4. Steal and be selfish.
I stole this piece of advice from NZ writer David Hill. I like to cut up and paste things by other people and make them into my own thing. I learned from my virtual co-resident Lynn Buckle that this is called literary collage. I learned from the hurt hearts of plagiarized colleagues (it was not me who did it) how important it is to attribute everything that you steal / borrow/ cut / paste to the writer you stole / borrowed / cutted / pasted it from.
5. Make it up.
Cutted is a word now. So is organisationaliness.
6. Don’t dream it, be it.
Frankenfurter said that in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. When people ask me what I do, I say ‘I’m a writer.’ It took me ten years of writing before I was confident enough to say that. I had to work on it in the same way as working on saying out loud and up front that I’m queer.
7. Mix media.
This is my entire justification every time I click ‘next episode.’ Mix everything. This is my entire justification for a second martini. Ragged edges are attractive. Sense is overrated.
8. Edit hard.
This is one reason the word counts I mention in 2. don’t work for me at all because some days I would end up with a negative score. When I can’t see the edits for the ego in my work, I do an editing swap with another writer, or I pay an editor to do the editing because an edited piece is a glorious, elegant thing.
9. Finish before the end.
I am a strong subscriber to Jo Bell’s poem editing advice to ‘lose the last two lines’ which is all the easier to comply with if I haven’t got to them yet. But I also mean it in terms of deciding to finish my writing day when I am still enthusiastic about my writing project. Please note: this is purely theoretical. I almost never get uninterrupted writing time. I make it work. I make it fun.
10. This advice doesn’t work for you?
Write the advice you’d agree with. (Yes, this might be a writing prompt. Yes, I find writing prompts hugely helpful, but mostly only when I’m tricking myself into doing them by doing them my way.)
Liz Breslin is a poet, playwright and writer of short stories from Dunedin. In 2020 she co-created Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature’s Possibilities Project and was the winner of the Kathleen Grattan Award for a Sequence of Poems. She’s also been part of a spoke’n’word tour of the Otago Central Rail Trail, which will be screened as rail:lines, a documentary film. Her second poem collection, In bed with the feminists, will be published by Dead Bird Books in 2021.
Liz says: ‘I was fortunate enough to get a UNESCO City of Literature residency in Krakow, Poland in 2019. The experience taught me a lot – that it was possible for someone like me to do something like that, that the Cities of Literature network is incredible, that these opportunities are gifts of time, creation and connection. In our lockdown here in NZ in 2020 I spent a lot of time physically alone and connecting with others online through The Possibilities Project, through a national hackathon, through multi-voice video calls and one-one-one chats but always through screens. So now in 2021 the idea of a virtual residency seems a natural and energizing idea, and I was amped to apply with my ideas about watching modern life watching us through webcams. Plus Norwich seems like a completely fascinating place to visit and if I can only go there virtually right now, so be it.