Dr. Meg-John Barker is an internationally recognised writer and mentor, who has written many books on gender, sex and love. They’re in a brilliant position to offer some advice to aspiring writers who might be finding it a little challenging to begin writing their own stories. They’re also one of our fabulous judges for the Writing Prize!
How do you overcome writer’s block?
My perspective on this has shifted radically in recent years. I’m a strong believer now that one of the most vital things we can do in life is to learn to treat ourselves (and others of course) with consent. This means shifting the old patterns that so many of us have or pushing through or forcing ourselves to do things when we’re not in self-consent. My approach to this is similar to sex. We simply cannot have consensual sex if we don’t absolutely know that it’s okay not to have sex now, or indeed ever. We can’t do consensual writing if we don’t absolutely know that it’s okay not to write now, or indeed ever. The sex that we may have if we create these utterly consensual conditions will be far better than any we would’ve had the old way, and it may well look very different indeed to what we expected it would look like when we were trying to do a certain thing because that’s what we thought we should do. The same is true for writing.
So now when I have space in which I could write, I begin by tuning into whether I want to write. I invite myself into that creative period rather than trying to force it. And, if I can, I try to give myself a range of options as to what I might do, and go with what feels live, rather than pushing into a particular project. Again this is a good analogy with sex: having a range of options rather than a default script. A good practice with creativity is inviting it, making a start on something, and giving it a certain amount of time. If it’s not flowing and you don’t feel present and engaged after 45 minutes, for example, then stop and rest or do something else. Invite yourself again the next day, and do the same again. That way you never give yourself the negative reinforcement of continuing to write till it becomes a really unpleasant and punishing experience.
All of this is particularly important for marginalised people – who are particularly likely to have trauma histories. Writing is an area where we can easily re-traumatise ourselves, feeling the common fear/shame response whereby we don’t think we’re okay unless we’re writing, but also feel terrified of writing badly. Working with the inner critic is a particularly important task for writers, as is finding – if we can – the younger, freer parts of ourselves who are more able to be creatively playful without self-judgement. There’s plenty more on my website about working with these different ‘plural’ sides of yourself.
Could you describe your own writing process? What motivates you?
Personally I often find that taking a walk and letting my thoughts drift to various projects helps me get fired up about one, so that’s a good thing to do prior to a creative period. Journaling about what I’d like to write about – rather than actually trying to write it – can be another good practice for firing me up. It seems to me though that projects have their time. Often when I’ve allowed myself not to go there when I’m not feeling it, when I finally do so I realise that things have clicked into place in the meantime in helpful ways.
I try to have a few projects floating around at any one time, which is easy for me because there are so many things that I want to create. I have the option at the moment, for example, to focus on blog posts applying my ideas about relationships with ourselves and others to the current Covid-19 situation. I have the option of podcasting with my co-creator Justin, or working on my next book with my co-author Alex (and I highly recommend creating with others as a way of getting around blocks and inner criticism). I have an ongoing erotic fic project I can go to. And I have some comic based zines I’d like to write. I try to feel into what is most live and fires me up, or let myself rest and be gentle if none of them do, because we are all adapting to a massive global trauma at the moment and we’re going to need plenty of rest. I generally find that once something does take hold of me, it becomes the thing I want to do with my time and blocks are less of a problem.
I’d recommend writing also with your editor turned off, ideally free yourself to know that it’s for your eyes only and you need never publish it. Just enjoy the process of writing it and remember that you can return to the question of whether/how to edit it and publish it later, if you want to. Much of my best writing – I think – comes from a place of vulnerability, and I could never allow that if I was thinking about putting it out there while I was writing it. I guess what motivates me to write is going deep into my inner experience, applying the things I’ve learnt there, and then turning what I learn from that process into something which might be useful and engaging for others. That can take the form of non-fiction, fiction, writing, or comics.
What books have inspired you or helped you through a difficult time in your life?
My top one would be When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron, which has got me through so many difficult times I can’t even. It’s a Buddhist mindfulness book about how we can relate to our struggles and difficult feelings.
Then, writing wise, I love anything by Natalie Goldberg, who writes beautifully and radically about how to write.
In relation to trans, Juno Roche’s books have had a big impact on me, and I also love their approach to writing. Juno has opened up both my way of being trans, and my way of writing, as they’ve shown me how valid it is to write about our personal journeys as well as how it’s fine to write bits on your phone in daily life rather than always having this sacred, protected, writing time.
What kinds of experiences would you love to read about in the submissions?
Oo good question, I mean the kinds of writing I personally love most would be erotic fic, ghost stories, graphic memoir, and writing which says something about relationships and how people tick, so those genres are always going to appeal to me. But in terms of experiences I’d love to read writing – like that of Travis Alabanza, Juno Roche, and Juliet Jacques – which troubles conventional trans narratives and gives a sense of the diversity of ways of being trans as well as the complexity of trans experience beyond the kind of tragic or sensationalist stories we see in the media. If people tune into their experience and write from that place then I’m pretty sure that’s what we’ll get.
What makes a story come alive for you?
Um, a spooky thing or a sex scene, maybe a spooky sex scene?! No, really for me I think it’s about being pulled into a person’s experience – whether that’s the author of a memoir piece or a character in a fictional story. I need to care about them and what happens to them. The books I tend to put down are the ones where I don’t find anyone I’m rooting for and want to know more about. Even in my non-fic writing I’m increasingly trying to include myself, or – in my graphic guides with Jules Scheele – characters we might care about who are exploring the topic and have adventures along the way.
Could you share any words of advice for writers at the start of their writing journey?
Yes, I’d say go where it is live and juicy and vulnerable-as-hell and write from there. My experience is that writing from that place really speaks to others, and that’s far more important than how good your vocabulary or grammar or any of that stuff is. All of that can be fixed up after.
Also remember that it’s absolutely okay to not write. The best writing comes from a radical acceptance of not writing.
Thanks for talking to us, Meg-John!
Feeling inspired? You can enter our Writing Prize here:
You can follow Meg-John on Twitter, here.