On Being Overwhelmed – and Finding Perspective

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been doing my typical headless chicken act, heaping unnecessary pressure onto myself with an extra -large spoon and wondering why I’ve been feeling totally overwhelmed and unable to write a damn thing in what little free time I’ve managed to carve out for myself. The culmination of this stress was evident when I got around to submitting the one piece of recent writing I was really proud of to a competition on Monday – only to realise that the deadline was midnight the night before. Fortunately my super-pragmatic boyfriend was on hand to prevent me falling too far into a slough of despond over the incident, but nevertheless it made a further dent in my already damaged armour.

The truth is, whilst I established long ago I want to be ‘a writer,’ I grapple every day with what sort of writer I want to be. One day I’ll write a magazine feature pitch, the next I’ll plan a novel or start editing a previous story. Then I’ll turn my attention to short story competitions and try to churn something out for them.  On top of that I’ve recently completed an eight week sitcom writing course at the City Academy, and have this week embarked on a seven week crime writing course at the City Lit and signed up for a conference next weekend on how to get published – all this as well as holding down a job four days a week. Oh, and did I mention I’m also working on a screenplay idea with my writing mentor?

Just reading that last paragraph back makes me feel anxious, it’s no wonder I’ve been feeling overwhelmed. But what I’ve realised today, after having given myself a couple of days’ downtime (by which I mean no pressure to write anything, having impromptu catch ups with friends, sitting in the sun at lunch time instead of being hunched over my computer fretting about what to write and yet still not writing), is that when it starts to feel too much that’s generally because it is too much. It won’t help to try and force yourself to do more, the only thing that will work is to allow yourself to do less. Only then can you regain perspective and control over your situation. And, in my case, only then can I remove the creative block that undue amounts of pressure create. This realisation has made me feel instantly calmer, and you know what? I can feel the ideas start trickling back into my brain just like a tap that was turned off has been turned on again. Perspective isn’t always easy to find when you’re mired in the mud, but when you do find it again it’s both a joy and a relief. Phew.

Want to be a columnist? Then read this.

It’s difficult to sit in a room with Guardian columnist and features writer Hadley Freeman, author of the soon to be published ‘Be Awesome,’ without feeling somewhat inferior. Hadley is, after all, what so many women – and men – of her generation aspire to be; a celebrated writer. But one thing Hadley is not is intimidating; in fact she’s both naturally funny and utterly charming, which makes it impossible to dislike her. Is there anything this American in London can’t do?

The event Hadley is speaking at is the Guardian Masterclass on column writing. She begins by telling the audience how she got into writing for a newspaper. Her “pushy Jewish mother” entered her in a competition whilst she was at university which, unbeknownst to her, she went on to win. Her mother duly collected her award and she was none the wiser, until an editor spotted her writing and approached her – and the rest, as they say, is history.

What would Hadley’s top tips be to succeed in column writing? Firstly, she says, write as widely as possible. Be funny if you can, and write for yourself rather than your audience. Don’t feel locked in by your voice; change it as appropriate, for example when writing about something outside of your comfort zone. Don’t feel pressure to always write news-reactive copy. Be careful how much of yourself you reveal to the reader. And, above all else, only write what you feel strongly about – if you don’t care then why should the reader?

After imparting her words of wisdom Hadley dashes off home (to write a feature, she tells us, somewhat appropriately). Replacing her at the front of the room is Michael Hodges, who writes for Time Out magazine. His advice to aspiring columnists is to be forceful and willing not only to be knocked back but also to write about things you don’t necessarily want to write about. He stresses the importance of being concise (“cut, cut, cut,” he says, “like sharpening a sword. It’s always better afterwards.”)

Michael’s style of journalism differs from Hadley’s, he says, because he waits for things to happen rather than seeking them out. He believes that “the weird is in the every day,” and that “there’s nothing more rewarding than observing your fellow human beings.” Ultimately, he says, it comes down to discipline. If you practice anything let it be producing clean copy that is well paced and holds the reader’s attention.

After the break Guardian columnist Marina Hyde takes to the stage. Marina has such presence that she wins over the audience immediately. Her chatty style, relaxed demeanour and her ability to laugh at herself make her approachable and real. She begins by warning the audience against using the word “I” – “know the rules before you break them,” she says, giving the example of Caitlin Moran as someone who has earned the right to use the word.

Comments, Marina says, should be largely ignored. And she agrees with Michael that being concise is vital: “If you can’t say what you want to say in 750 words you’re going wrong.” The best things she has written were completed in under an hour; the worst took three or more. “Sometimes I put the brakes on the word count and accept it’s a piece that has to go stillborn into the world,” she says, to laughs from the crowd.

Always be honest when you make a mistake, says Marina. And don’t assume that even if you put links in your stories people will know what you are referring to, because, she says, “It’s courtesy to explain.” Keep anger out of your writing because “it makes people switch off.” Be careful of your tone, and always try to get a joke in early to win over your audience. It’s also important to be able to write about a broad range of subjects, she says – and if anyone’s got that down to a fine art it’s Marina herself, writing three columns each week on completely different themes.

Marina closes with one final piece of advice: “Be someone people want to have a pint with.” Looking around the room it’s clear she’s easily achieved that goal.