Ahead of her workshop, ‘Kick Your Writing out of a Rut’, Ruby Cowling chatted to Francesca Baker, Comms Manager at Spread the Word about what a writer’s CV shows, overcoming blocks, self-censorship and experimenting with new ways of telling stories. You can read the full transcript below…
Francesca Baker: We’re here in our lovely little office at The Albany, Spread the Word’s office, with Ruby Cowling to have a little bit of a chat about what you’ve got coming up and what you’ve been doing.
You’re running a workshop for us all about getting out of a rut and working through stuff and refreshing your writing. That’s something that you’ve obviously had quite a lot of experience with.
You’ve won various competitions, you’ve submitted to lots of stuff, you’ve had your work published, and you’re also an Associate Editor at Short Fiction. So you seem to do a lot of things. You’ve got a collection coming out in 2019.
Ruby Cowling: I do now, yeah.
Francesca Baker: Can you just tell us a little bit about that? You’ve won lots of competitions, including the White Review Short Story Prize and the London Short Story Prize. Your work’s been shortlisted by Glimmer Train, Aesthetica, Gertrude Stein Award. You’ve published Lighthouse, The Lonely Crowd, Galley Beggar Press Singles Club, I Am Because You Are, and This Paradise is coming out in 2019.
It just sounds very, very productive and prolific. Do you write really fast? Do you get stories out really quickly?
Ruby Cowling: Not at all, no. I think every CV is going to sound as if the person’s been really prolific, but of course that’s just the peak achievements of about 7 years or so of work. You’re never going to be listing all the times that you didn’t make it and you couldn’t work and you didn’t do this.
So no, I work really, really slowly, and with quite some struggle, which is why I wanted to offer this workshop. I feel as if it’s really my top area of expertise as to how to get over that difficulty of sitting down and really struggling to get any words out or facing all the demons that come with you every single morning when you try to work.
That looks like an impressive CV, and of course I’m really happy to be able to put that out, but it’s certainly not a question of just “great, I’m going to write tons and I’m going to be super successful in 6 months.”
Francesca Baker: That’s the thing no one talks about, is the struggle that goes in. My dad’s always saying to me, “When you publish your novel…” and I’m like, “Oh yeah, because it’s just so easy to do that.”
Obviously there was recently the article coming out about how little writers earn. People think that writing and creativity is this glamorous career, but it’s a lot of work.
Ruby Cowling: It’s a lot of work. It’s the kind of work that you don’t feel you can complain about it being hard work, because it’s a privilege to do it and it’s a wonderful – there aren’t many careers in which you can access the parts of humanity, I suppose, that you can access through writing. Which is why I like to do it.
So yes, it’s really hard work, but we’re not really allowed to say that. It’s nice if we have a shared space where people can actually admit to that and begin to discuss ways in which we can perhaps ease the pain.
Francesca Baker: Do you find yourself coming up against those kind of blocks quite a lot that you’re hoping to help people overcome?
Ruby Cowling: I do, yeah. Now, I think with experience, I’ve come to recognize their faces when they do appear. “Oh, I know you, I’ve had you before. Even though you look just as frightening as you did the first time, at least you’re familiar now. I know that I’ve conquered you.”
It’s certainly with time and experience that these things, though they do recur, become less monstrous.
Francesca Baker: I like that you’ve personified them and made them into something quite tangible. I guess that really helps to address them.
Ruby Cowling: I read somebody said that it’s like having bats in your hair. I think DBC Pierre wrote that book Release the Bats, didn’t he? It’s a slightly different metaphor, but yeah, as much as bats are wonderful creatures, you don’t want them flapping around in your hair, and that’s how it can feel sometimes.
Francesca Baker: As well as writing short fiction, you write editorial fiction.
Ruby Cowling: Yeah.
Francesca Baker: Do you think that helps your own writing?
Ruby Cowling: It definitely does. It really does. I’d recommend to anyone, at whatever stage of your writing career, if you get any opportunity to work on a magazine, read other people’s work – I mean unpublished work, not just of course the published writers that you would be reading – do that.
You get such an insight into so many different people’s modes of writing. Even if something that you receive that’s submitted doesn’t work for you as an editor and you have to reject it – which of course happens all the time – it does make you question, always, why doesn’t this work for me?
So you’re learning all the time in such a quick way that you can’t so quickly from just your own work.
Francesca Baker: What would you say is distinct and unique about writing short stories as opposed to novels or poetry?
Ruby Cowling: Everything. [laughs]
I’ve just been working on a novel for a while, and certainly with the short story you have the benefit that you think there is a possibility of actually being finished within 3 years, whereas with a novel you cannot necessarily see the finish line for a very, very long time. It requires a different kind of stamina.
Also with the short story as opposed to the novel, there’s always this tantalizing chance that you might actually achieve something that has very few flaws if you put the work in, whereas with the novel I tend to think that it’s just inherently going to be flawed. It’s just too big not to have areas for improvement, even after all the drafts, even after publication. It’s always the wreckage of a good idea, which I think is Iris Murdoch who said that.
Francesca Baker: Yes.
Ruby Cowling: Whereas with a short story, although perhaps we never really do achieve perfection, there’s just the promise of potentially you may get there.
As for poetry, well, I think poets are kind of magician geniuses, so I can’t really speak of poetry. But I think to me, poetry, trying to work in that genre, it’s too intimate and too intense, whereas the short story, at least you have somewhere you can go and come back. That’s the difference for me personally.
Francesca Baker: One of the things you’re hoping to challenge in the workshop is self-censorship. Why is that such a problem? Why is it a barrier to good writing?
Ruby Cowling: It’s a huge problem, I think. It can come in all forms. You may be actually writing and producing material, but on some level you’ve got the psychological brakes on. Your work might be functional, but it could be so much better because of all the juicy stuff you’re holding back.
That can be a barrier that way. It can get so bad that you’re not even able to put a word on a page because you think “oh no, whatever I say, I’m going to get into trouble of some kind” – whether it’s with your parents, whether it’s with society, anyone around who’s telling you, “no, you shouldn’t be saying that” or “no, you mustn’t hold that view.”
Francesca Baker: It can be very stifling, I guess.
Ruby Cowling: Yeah. It can be toughest if the barrier is to actually putting out something that’s exciting to read and that makes people go, “wow, I feel that the author has taken a risk there.”
For me, that’s something I love in a short story, where you think the author’s put something on the line of themselves, and you feel it and you really make that connection. Whereas if they’re self-censoring, there’s a barrier between you and there’s a lack of intimacy then, which can result in not such a –
Francesca Baker: Yeah, it stops you putting stuff out. It stops you from connecting with your reader.
Ruby Cowling: Yeah.
Francesca Baker: Do you find that you quite often have to shock your work back to life? That’s something you’ve said, that you’re going through the motions, almost. You’re getting words down on paper, but getting some of that…
Ruby Cowling: One way of getting going in the day is just to write anything, which is something that perhaps we’ll work on in the workshop.
But once you’ve done that, once you’re in the flow of actually producing words, it can come out sort of deadened and you realise that what you are producing isn’t really where you want to be going.
Those are the moments when you need to be brave, perhaps, and ask yourself: “What is it that I’m avoiding? Okay, I’m going to allow myself to three sentences which directly address the dark stuff or the difficult stuff.”
And then you can delete them. That’s fine. Nobody else needs to know. But then at least you’ve opened up something else.
Francesca Baker: It sounds almost therapeutic.
Ruby Cowling: Well, yes, except you often end up worse off psychologically than you were before. It’s not very soothing therapeutically, but it can allow you to start working certain things out.
Francesca Baker: You said that in your workshop you explore some unconventional approaches to storytelling.
Ruby Cowling: Yeah.
Francesca Baker: Sounds intriguing. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Ruby Cowling: This is why I love the short story, because there are so many opportunities to do unconventional things.
We’ll be looking at some short stories – mostly extracts, probably, not full-length short stories – from both British and international writers who have really, in their work, questioned what can actually make a story and have taken that to the limits in terms of literally, where are the words on the page? How much work are you making the reader do? How far can you stretch that before the idea of story breaks down?
Just really beginning to shine a light on narrative from a different place than the one where you might be sitting there thinking “I have to write in this way. I have to produce ‘proper’ sentences and it has to flow in the ‘correct’ way.” That can just stifle you.
Francesca Baker: Kind of taking a different lens.
Ruby Cowling: Yeah, by opening up the ideas of what makes a story. I think it can really help people find different ways into their own work.
Francesca Baker: Finally, if I’m struggling with a blank page, what’s your top tip?
Ruby Cowling: My top tip is make some kind of mark on that page – any kind of mark on that page. It might be gibberish, whatever.
I sometimes have found that it can help to try and transliterate the voices in your head that are stopping you from continuing that day, which might be telling you, “you’re no good, you’re rubbish, what you wrote yesterday was terrible, this is so boring,” blah blah blah. Just get that down on the page. Write that down.
And then, of course, you can have the pleasure of deleting all of that because you know it’s gone. Then at least your fingers are moving or your hand is moving, and you’re going for the day.
Often you find that actually once those voices start to come onto the page, you often just swerve into your own work anyway. So it’s not really a question of separate voices and then your work; it can be just a smooth way in.
Francesca Baker: To just get started.
Ruby Cowling: Yeah.
Francesca Baker: Awesome. Your workshop: Kick Your Writing Out of a Rut with Ruby Cowling, on Thursday the 11th of October at The Albany. Looking forward to it. Thank you.
Ruby Cowling: Thank you.