5 Artists Answer Questions about their process

Crossing the Dissour invited artists who have previously been in residence at Greywood Arts to answer some questions about their process. Perhaps unsurprisingly, four of the five responders are writers.

How would you describe your artistic process? Do you have a daily practice?

Naomi Litvack (painter): My artistic process is quite variable. I’m quite impulsive with ideas, work quickly and don’t like to leave things half finished, so I try to complete paintings within one session, which can be quite demanding. My daily painting routine does definitely include putting my headphones on and listening to BBC Radio 4. I can’t work without it!

Paula Bomer (author): I’m a morning writer. I read an interview with Graham Greene and he said, I wake up and write 500 words a day. That was my inspiration. At my best, I follow that routine and at my very best, I can write 1000 a day. But it varies- sometimes life gets in the way.

Margareth Stewart (author): Holiday-based! Actually, I don’t have a daily practice although I take weekends and holidays off to write. They are my available time to write on regular basis, and that’s when I have my first drafts complete – a fifty-thousand-word manuscript.

Mark W. Sasse (novelist & playwright): Spurts of productivity. An idea hits me – sometimes just a phrase, or a word, or an image, or even a song title – and I know that I’ve received the spark. Of what, I am not sure. So I will start mining the idea. In playwriting, that means I settle on a character or two or three and let my mind go. I just write – without a direction – without any parameters – it’s pure exploration. I love this part of my process because I rarely know where I’m going. It’s a discovery. The writing inevitably leads to new ideas which start to mold and shape the content. Then I go back and whittle away what no longer makes sense and start developing the new ideas out until I see an end in sight. Of course, that end is only a draft, which will see many more revisions along the way. As I am a theatre professional, I don’t have time for writing every day, so I keep my weekends, long breaks, and summers for tackling the bulk of my writing. But ideas come at any time – I must remember to write them down!

E.R. Murray (author): I hate routine as it makes me feel lethargic and bored, but I try to write as often as I can (preferably daily) and at my best times (early morning) but this isn’t always viable. I see time like a Rubik’s Cube; you segment the day into what needs to be done and then you switch it around as needed – sometimes I can carve out long chunks of time to concentrate on my writing and I’ll take a manuscript deeper with intense edits. Other times, I might only have short bursts of writing available throughout the day and I can use this to generate ideas, start new work, or complete a piece of short fiction or a personal essay with a final read through.

Exercise is definitely an integral part of my process and I try to walk at least three hours a day. This is much easier in summer when there’s more daylight, but movement is incredibly important for health and concentration, so I do my best to maintain this amount of walking over winter too. I also run, play squash, do yoga, and I try new things when I can (e.g. African dance) to keep things interesting. By concentrating on your body, you free up your brain, and get the circulation flowing. Exercise is vital for good creative work.

And then there’s reading. You’d be surprised how many people tell me they’re writing a book but don’t have time to read. If you don’t have time to read, I don’t think you should be writing. Trust me, I complete a lot of manuscript reports and lack of reading shows in the quality of the submission. A love of writing begins with a love of story and if you’re not immersing yourself in quality stories, how can you expect to improve?

Do you get creative block? How do you get “unstuck”? 

NL: Yes, I definitely do. I think the best way to get ‘unstuck’ is to work through it. Making something bad is better than making nothing, and you never know what it might lead you to.

PB: I think of it as creative anxiety. Just the inability to open the blank page.  Sometimes I have to force myself to do it, open up the blank page. It can be- honestly- painful. But such is life. 

MS: Oh no, I don’t. I may have unfinished projects which I have lost interest, but no blockage at all! As soon as I sit, words flow.

MWS: I am fortunate. I haven’t had a creative block in years. I have too many ideas and not enough time to write them! I do come across decisions in my writing where I’m not sure which way to go. But eventually, I make a decision and move on!

ERM: I’ve never had a block yet, and I hope it never happens, but if it does, I’m positive I’ll find a way through it. Writing has lots of challenges and pitfalls, but if you love what you do, you’ll keep going. Before getting published I asked myself how many books I’d write if I kept getting rejected – and I could answer honestly that I would continue forever. I think working on multiple projects at a time helps prevent blockage. It’s like any muscle; the more you exercise it, the better it performs. Working on one project at a time can leave you feeling bereft and lost when it’s completed; having several pieces – e.g. short stories, essays and a secondary manuscript all at different stages – keeps your creativity moving as you can switch between them and never have to face a blank page.

How does your creative work fit in with the other parts of your life? Does it feel balanced?

NL: I am currently Artist in Residence at a secondary school, so it takes a happy precedence in my life currently. I am trying to appreciate and savour this time, however, as I know that it will be a difficult balance once I finish this post and am in the ‘real’ world again.

PB: I unfortunately don’t feel very balanced lately, but I’m 50 and I’ve been writing my entire adult life. It’s just become a part of who I am. Writing is up there with eating and sleeping and talking to people. It’s very integrated into my life.

MS: More or less balanced! Writers are not very normal balanced people if I may say so! I am creative, and I guess I was born that way. Nowadays, I have been giving plot advice consultancy to other writers as a meaningful way to help them brainstorm different possibilities for their own stories.

MWS: Luckily, for me, I write, or I teach drama. And many times I teach and direct what I write, so there is a great connection between my creative writing and the other parts of my life. I’m consumed by it, actually. Balanced, no? But that’s the way I like it!

ERM: Balance is my constant battle but it keeps things interesting (which is good, seeing as I despise routine). My time is split between freelance work that pays the bills, planning and facilitating book events/writing workshops (which require a lot of travel and organisation but also pays the bills), online writing workshops and manuscript evaluations, and my own writing. The admin load is huge, but the variety is fun. I have to be extremely organised and I constantly reevaluate my schedule and values to make sure all priorities are met, and the writing isn’t getting left behind.

How do you shake up your habits or patterns?

NL: I like seeing exhibitions and talking to other artists, which provides definite inspiration and encourages me to change things in my habits.

PB: Reading always helps. Traveling. 

MS: I don’t have a specific habit or pattern, I´m a multi-genre writer. I prefer to say I am just experimental. I love trying new things, and it is not different with writing.

MWS: I try to choose projects that will challenge me. Two years ago, I challenged myself to write a trilogy. I had previously written 5 standalone novels, but I wanted to try something different. I just finished the last part of it, which will be published next year. This whole project was a great challenge. It was even in a genre that I had never written in before. I like writing new things and that’s the way I keep things from becoming too routine.

 ERM: Residencies! Travel! Reading! And repeat.

A residency gives you a period of intense concentration, where you can really go deep with a project and unkink the issues: it’s the warm-up sprint where you figure stuff out, then you can return to everyday life and the marathon to completion. It’s time for recalibration, to give your writing (or whatever creative medium you work in) some respect.

I think environment has a huge part to play in how we respond as humans to the world around us and, therefore, our art, so travel really inspires and motivates me. I like to switch from remote countryside to bustling city, from natural to industrial landscapes, and visit as many different countries as I can for extended periods of time. Whenever you’re interested in the world around you, you’re open, and when you’re open, you will find inspiration. 

When did you first call yourself an artist?

NL: I started painting at school, but ironically hated it! My teachers were awful and I was really turned off for years. I find it difficult to call myself an artist even though it is genuinely my job description! It feels somehow pretentious… I will need to reach a certain level before I am comfortable with that label.

PB: I started writing pretty much daily at the age of 14. I wrote my first fiction in my teens. But I didn’t call myself a “writer” until I was in my early 20s and even then I felt embarrassed to do so, because I hadn’t published much. People- myself included here- are so hard on themselves. If I could redo the past- what a wish!- one thing I would do is be nicer to myself.

MWS: This is a huge question because it requires you to be confident in yourself and what writer is that confident especially when just starting out? I went twenty years without writing creatively because I didn’t think I could do it. But that changed. I found drama. It reignited my passion for writing, and then that led to writing novels. I think I finally accepted that I was a writer when, after publishing my first novel, I received my first (glowing!) review from someone I didn’t know. She was a book reviewer and she loved what I wrote. It made my day, my week, my decade, and I finally thought, perhaps I can do this. That was seven years ago.

What do you value most in your own education, training or mentorship?

NL: I spent many years at art college, and as I was slightly older when I started I valued every minute of it.

MS:  Every single book I’ve read; experience I’ve had; story I’ve heard – they are part of my skin and therefore, show up in my writing.

Where do you draw inspiration?

NL: I work with landscape and find inspiration outside, seeing something weird, unusual or noteworthy in a landscape. Found imagery can spark a train of thought, and travel is always inspiring.

PB: Daily life is full of craziness. I just keep my eyes open, my ears tuned in. 

MS: Everywhere! Ordinary, extraordinary, whatever!

MWS: From everywhere! I literally will have a word popa in my head and I’ll wonder how I can turn that into a play. Inspiration is all around us!

ERM: From everywhere. I think you just have to participate in life to be inspired. Life is full of stories and that’s what every creative person is dealing with, whatever their art form. People, places, experiences; it’s all story. Objects, fashion, sport, gossip, film, art, news, nature, facts, mathematical puzzles, journeys; anything you encounter can inspire an idea, but you have to be open to it. You need to develop an eye for what interests you, mix up the various ideas you collect along the way, and find a way to tell the unique story you want to tell.

Would you ever give up on a work?

NL: Yes, I do it lots! I work so quickly that out of 10 things started, there might only be one or two I’m happy with in the end.

PB: No. I’m a bit of a hoarder. I don’t believe in throwing work out, but I have set things aside for years. Then I return to them.

MS: I don’t, unless I have to postpone it due to too much work.

MWS: I do put works on pause either because I’m not happy with it or it just needs more time to simmer in my brain. I’ll most likely get back to it at some point.

ERM: Yes. I have four novels published, but I also have at least two that I’ve abandoned, and I have multiple short stories that didn’t make the grade and won’t see the light of day, but I always give it a really good go first. I trust my instinct and I always know if I’m not feeling the voice or if a story idea isn’t right for me. I’ll write at least 50,000 words of a novel before abandoning it, but by that stage, I know whether we’re a good fit. I usually write my first drafts (50-80,000 words) in 30 days, and if by the end of that period it isn’t working, I know it’s time to move on. But writing – even when abandoned – is never wasted; it’s all practice and learning and moving forward. 

How do you deal with criticism?

NL: I value constructive criticism, it has been a constant in my years of art school training so I’m very used to it.

PB: Shitty amazon reviews used to bother me. Now, my parents are dead, my husband left me, my kids are grown- so I don’t really care about shitty Amazon reviews. I do appreciate reviews that I think “get me”. I’m actually very grateful for my readers.

MS: I never mind – everything is welcomed and part of the growing process. I don’t them personally, anyway!

MWS: I keep asking myself: self, do you like everything? Answer is ‘no.’ I’m very critical of creative works. Ask my wife. I can never find a movie I like. Therefore, I have to remember that not everyone will like what I write. Criticism can sting, especially when you want to sit down with the person and explain to them how they are wrong. But I’ve learned to have thick skin. Read the criticism. What can I learn from it? Then move on.

ERM: I’ve developed the skin of a rhino. In the writing world, criticism is a constant. You collaborate with agents, editors, and promotions teams, and then you unleash your book into the world and you’re open to criticism from readers and reviewers. I love the editing process as it’s all about getting the best for your book, but the reactions from the public and press is scarier – and not always constructive.

It’s true that Goodreads is where many writers’ souls go to die, but you have to distance yourself and allow people to have their opinions. It’s human nature to focus on the one negative review when there are a hundred positive ones, but we all have different tastes and we have to accept that not everyone will love what we create. One word of advice for anyone finding criticism difficult is: don’t engage.

How do you see your role as an artist within today’s frenzied political landscape?

ERM: I think art is political in all its forms. Through the act of creating, you are making a statement of some kind. Not everyone is an activist, but I think you have a duty to yourself to create whatever you can’t not create and that, in turn, is going to reflect in society. For instance, when I write children’s books, I don’t have morals or ‘lessons’, I focus on creating a compelling story – but that story has a sense of what it is to be human, to overcome, to suffer, to care, to make mistakes… and it might involve experiences that are new to the reader, it might make them think about their own behavior or things they have witnessed. Anything that makes you think has a political element.

Where you choose to place your work can also be political. For instance, during the recent referendum, I couldn’t vote as I’m not an Irish citizen, so I donated a personal essay to the Autonomy anthology raising funds for the Yes side instead. I’ve donated short stories to anthologies raising funds for youth mental health and homelessness, and I’ve donated manuscript reports in author bids to raise money for refugees and survivors of Grenfell. This is not to receive a clap on the back; it’s because these are issues I feel strongly about and this is a way I can contribute. Likewise, there are certain journals and publishers I wouldn’t ever consider due to their ethos. Art is needed in society because it enables voices to be heard – as artists, we have a role to play in this, but you have to remain true to your own beliefs and passions.  

How does your spiritual life impact your work?

PB: I believe very much in the unknown, in mystery. It’s around us- the presence of God can be very strong at times. Sometimes I find it overwhelming. In my book mystery and mortality, I ruminate on these things. 

MS: A lot. I´m umbandista-a spirit religion from Brazil. Somehow, its practioners become more self-aware and connected with natural forces. In doing so, I guess it became easier for me to write or work with art.

MWS: It really does impact everything about my work in one way or another. Much of the time subconsciously. I believe certain things about the world and it certainly will seep into my writing.  

Is it difficult to be an artist?

NL: It’s so hard. You are your own worst critic as an artist and every piece you make is subject to intense scrutiny and criticism, whether from others or from yourself. It can be isolating and thankless and you definitely don’t do it for the financial reward. But it also gives your life a higher purpose and is a lifelong project. So it is also the best job in the world.

MS: No, it’s much better than being a politician! Writers are magical beings who create different worlds out of the ordinary! Hard is just one of these worlds.

ERM: I think it can be difficult to be human, and as artists we’re human, so that can be difficult. And it is certainly difficult to be an artist in a country that has no freedom of speech – where it can be a matter of life or death. But in a safe environment, we make our own choices and I really struggle with the whole ‘tortured artist’ idea. There are so many truly terrible jobs out there, people surviving awful atrocities, forced to live in the worst imaginable conditions – we choose to be artists in whichever form (or some might say the form chooses us) but the important thing is, we have a choice. If we don’t like it, we can change it. Yes, there are challenges; personal, mental, creative, financial – and the latter can be frustrating at times – but I think rather than difficult, challenging would be a more exact definition.