Writers are like plants. Some are hothouse flowers, delicate and sensitive: put them in a greenhouse and they’ll flourish: but place an orchid in a draught, and it soon topples over. Others are hardy perennials: providing they’re planted as per the instructions on the packet, they’ll keep growing back year after year, even after the toughest of winters. And then there are those tenacious miracle-plants – you know, the ones that can root themselves in the tiniest fissures of rocks, or anywhere where they can extract the smallest particle of nourishment from the air or the sun or the ground. Wherever there’s the whisper of potential, they’ll cling on for dear life.

There’s a discussion on WriteWords at the moment about how ‘cosy’ an atmosphere needs to be to support writing. Can an environment be too understanding and accepting? Do we need the harshness of rejection to grow, in the what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – sense?

Environment is, of course, deeply important to writers. Not just the places we write about in our novels or short stories or poems, but the environments in which we place ourselves. For some, a café table with a latte and a laptop is the ideal environment. For others, a silent study with the door firmly closed and a ream of empty paper.

But I’m not just talking about physical spaces. We writers are sensitive to the invisible energies whispering around us, whether we know it or not: the weathers of our world. That silence at the end of the extract we’ve just read out: is it the silence of disapproval, surprise or realisation? The raised eyebrow, the exchanged glance: what’s being said, really? Is the critique we’re receiving engendering and appropriate, or subliminally cruel and undercutting?

I’m a great fan of the I Ching – the Chinese Book Of Changes. Written poetically and symbolically, it offers often obscure but usually excellent guidance to seekers. One line from its many pages has always remained with me:

Develop an atmosphere in which things can grow.

The environment which most nurtures you as a writer may be very different from the one which nourishes me. The important thing is to be aware of what you, as an individual, need - and to do all you can to cultivate such an environment for yourself. This includes the place you work in; those very personal little rituals that most writers have: the tin of biscuits on the desk, the hot water bottle in the lap, the pictures on the wall, the view from the window. It also includes the people you choose to share your writing with and the places you send your writing into. And, perhaps most importantly of all, there's the atmosphere you develop within yourself towards your writing.

Here's an example gleaned from the Strictly team. After a long bout of block and discouragement, Rod was at his wits end. How could he ever write again? Fortunately, his wise partner suggested to him that he return to the seed of his writing: the enjoyment of it. Since then, he's been using 'enjoyment' as a barometer for his writing activities, and can really see the green shoots of recovery. (Rod will be blogging more about this later on).

We are each unique. And it’s my opinion that an engendering environment – whatever that may be for you – must be found if we are to flourish and grow. As Barbara Sher, author of the wonderful Wishcraft – a free, online book about ‘growing your own best life’ writes:

‘If a seed is given good soil and plenty of water and sun, it doesn’t have to try to unfold…If a seed has to grow with a rock on top of it, or in deep shade, or without enough water, it won’t unfold into a healthy full-sized plant. It will try – hard – because the drive to become what you are meant to be is incredibly powerful. But at best it will become a sort of ghost of what it could be: pale, undersized, drooping…
In the age of ecology, we ourselves are the only creatures we would ever expect to flourish in an environment that does not give us what we need! We wouldn’t order a spider to spin an exquisite web in empty space, or a seed to sprout on a bare desk top… Put us in a nourishing environment, even late in a hard life, and we burst into bloom.’

In the immortal words of Morcambe and Wise: Give me sunshine. Whatever that means to you.


New Intern on the Block said...

Oh geez. This rings a bell. I can't be in my comfort zone if I wanna write. So, I can't be in my bedroom, at my own desk, or anywhere in my house! I'll get too comfortable and start doing other housey things.

Anonymous said...

I find that having something to start me off in the mornings is good. Lately I've discovered Julia Cameron and reading a page or so sets me in the mood for it and I usually write a couple of pages that makes me feel good. Irritants are the worst thing like noise from a neighbour's tv or drumbeat, and I lose interest and go to bed. I find listening to opera myself is a great help.

Emma Darwin said...

All very true. Part of learning to write is learning what's right for you, and growing the confidence to reject what isn't. I think this is very relevant, too, to the kind of help you seek out for your writing. A teacher or a group which is vicious in the name of honesty and rigour is no use, but nor is one which is anodyne in the name of positivity and supportiveness. The latter is less painful, but neither kind will help you to grow.

When it comes to making the most of someone's creativity I don't usually subscribe to the 'what doesn't kill makes you stronger' school of thought, but there's a lot to be said for learning the difference, as one does in Yoga, between the awful pain of something which is wrong and damaging for you, and the pleasurable pain of the stretch which gets the spot marked X makes a world of difference to your whole body.

Helen Black said...

What a great post, with lovely quotes, thank you.

I too have been thinking a lot about this issue and realising that there's a difficult balance to strike. On the one had one needs a nurturing environment yet on the other we all need to be challenged and face the fear, as our friends over the pond say.

Old Kitty said...


I think I'm a hothouse delicate thing! LOL! I do like my silence, my little rituals, my space, etc. I like to be in control of my writing time from the phsyical to the emotional to the spiritual. If I'm upset in any form, way, function, I'm restricted creatively and in other ways too.


Morecombe and Wise sums it up for me really!

Great post, thank you.

Take care

Anonymous said...

Oh, Morcambe and Wise. So many memories -

Bring me Sunshine, in your smile,
Bring me Laughter, all the while,
In this world where we live, there should be more happiness,
So much joy you can give, to each brand new bright tomorrow,

Make me happy, through the years,
Never bring me, any tears,
Let your arms be as warm as the sun from up above,
Bring me fun, bring me sunshine, bring me love.

Roderic Vincent said...

Now you've got that damn tune running through my head.

(Great post, Susie)

Caroline Green said...

I love this post. I don't feel very lush and verdant right now - think I need the creative equivalent of some Baby Bio.
Great stuff, Susie.

Gillian McDade said...

Excellent blog, Susie. I think discipline counts for a lot, for me anyway. Regardless of the environment, we should be able to focus on the task. I can't eat while I write, although I can read. And when it comes to rejection, I often want to give up.

joanne fox said...

I really enjoyed this post. A lot of the time it's hard to find the ideal conditions. But I think if an idea is strong enough it will push you to write it - sometimes in spite of your circumstances rather than because of them.

Deb said...

Great post, Susie. I think another thing that plays a huge part in a writer's life is the emotions they feel on a particular day. If I've had a row with someone or someone has just cut me up on the way home, I find that simmering anger comes out in my writing, whether it should be there or not. If I'm having a great day and the sun is shining, that too has an effect on how I write - more positive and happier words I do write:)

Ann said...

Great post. I find ritual very helpful for me. I like to be challenged but not with a heavy hand. So I agree there is a delicate balance and we all need to find our own nitch. I like quietness with Mozart playing gently in the background. Whether that produces good writing or not, I have yet to discover.

DT said...

It's an insightful post, Susie. Different environments, of course, favour different kinds of growth and creativity. So one person, even on the same day, may need a different space and stimulus. It follows that it helps enormously, if we know at the outset, what it is that we're trying to produce - whether it be a piece of writing or a state of mind. Not inly are we each the only person who can determine that but we are also each the only person who can really make it happen.

DT said...

It's an insightful post, Susie. Different environments, of course, favour different kinds of growth and creativity. So one person, even on the same day, may need a different space and stimulus. It follows that it helps enormously, if we know at the outset, what it is that we're trying to produce - whether it be a piece of writing or a state of mind. Not inly are we each the only person who can determine that but we are also each the only person who can really make it happen.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Lovely to read all your comments - thanks, everyone! (I've been out all day until very late.)

Flowerpot said...

Hi Susien - just read this late - haven't had much time for blogs recently. A great post, and I hope you are finding the right bit of sunshine for you right now.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Thanks, Sue - appreciate that! :)

Fiona Mackenzie. Writer said...

It's very hard to get the balance right isn't it? I've kept an email that I recieved after what I thought was my good critque of another writer's work (on an arts council funded site). The venom still gets to me.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

I know the site you mean, Fia. I feel there's always more complex stuff going on that first meets the eye - that's what I mean about the swirling energies - and some can be very negative and undermining whilst others can be engendering and supportive. Do you keep the email to remind you of this? Just wondered what would happen if you ritually deleted it so it's venom can't reach you any more. I'm just about to do something similar...