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Writing When Ill

Tools for writing, no matter what!
Guest Post by Sandra Jensen

As I wrote in my previous blog, there are many impediments to writing with a chronic illness. I am very lucky my version of ME/CFS is not so severe that I’m constantly bed-bound, but it still has a profound effect on my writing practice. Yes, there are days when I’m too ill to do anything at all, but the accompanying despair and disappointment can take an even greater bite out of my creative impulse. I know that if I write, I feel better, at least emotionally. But that doesn’t make it easy to do. There are moments I’m so engaged in writing I forget myself and my attendant pains and woes. But mostly, for me, writing is tough. It is primarily, as Dorothy Parker said, “the art of applying the ass to the seat.”

I’ve developed processes to help me get back to writing when my illness has chomped away at my confidence. A Page a Day is the best way I have ever known to apply my ass to the seat and write, even if I’m too ill to write for more than a few minutes at a time. Essentially it is writing one page every day for a month. A page of anything at all. The three critical ingredients in this are:

  • Having zero expectation that the writing is good
  • Setting achievable goals
  • Accountability.


Taking Good Writing Off the Table

The moment I expect my writing to meet some sort of standard (whatever that might be: unique, interesting, intelligent, funny, or even just “well written”), I lose spontaneity, and worse, my confidence – probably already slipping away – finds some other person to inhabit. Sometimes I instruct workshop participants to intentionally write badly – as badly as they can! I first came across this idea two decades ago in an article by John Spayde, published in Utne Reader, about a group of artists who would get together one evening a week in his and his wife Laurie’s dining room and intentionally create “bad art”. The evening became so popular they had to turn people away.

One of our faithful attenders once asked Laurie why we use the b-word. Doesn’t it imply low standards, low expectations, low self-esteem? No, Laurie explained. It implies no standards, no expectations, and very high self-esteem. Bad Art is all about conscious, dedicated badness—in community—as a tool of liberation.

I’m not suggesting you always intentionally write badly, but that you try to avoid intentionally writing well (or at least notice when you feel this impulse, and try to let it go, turning your attention instead to the world on the page, to see it more clearly, feel it more deeply, and write from that place).  

Very helpful here is NOT to edit anything you write. Spelling, grammar – anything at all. Don’t try to find a better word in a thesaurus or online, just write whatever word occurred and keep going.

How little writing can you do?

The second ingredient is setting an achievable goal. If I attempt to write, say, a thousand words a day, I might manage to do this for a few days, but then I’ll have a bad day health-wise and only manage a hundred and I’ll beat myself up, making it even harder to get to the page the following day. By achievable, I really mean achievable. The Page A Day process suggests that you commit to writing one page, double spaced – that’s about 250-300 words. But I use the term “page” quite loosely. Think of it not so much as how much writing can you do, but how little. Two paragraphs? One paragraph? If that is what feels actually achievable, then that’s the goal you set. And if you set a longer goal, say a full page, but have a day where you can’t do more than a sentence, that’s OK. So long as you write something.

And, while I feel it’s really beneficial to do the process for about a month (or more!), if that feels impossible, do it for two weeks.

A Writing Buddy

The third ingredient is accountability. Why do I find it easier to write within the context of a writing workshop, retreat or even just a writing group where members gather together? Because I know there are others writing, so I write too. I’d be letting the side down if I didn’t! Or I’d feel embarrassed if I just lolled about and did nothing.

But how to do this if one can’t leave one’s house, or bed? (Let alone the restrictions placed on us by COVID-19.)

Find one person willing to do the Page-A-Day process with you. You’ll need to share your writing with each other every day in some way: via email or WhatsApp or uploading documents to a shared Google drive, perhaps. I usually write my page in a word processing application, and then copy and paste it into an email. Other times, I simply write in the body of the email – this takes the least effort, and that’s what I want, no effort! But, there is a drawback here, which is it’s easy to lose those emails in the morass of my outbox, and not take the time at a later date to copy it all into a document where I can find it easily.

Key here is you do not give each other feedback. Perhaps you could check in after a month is up, or after two weeks as to how the process is going for you, but the moment you start getting feedback, even if it’s only positive feedback, perhaps especially if it’s positive feedback, it can activate the impulse to write “well’, to live up to perceived expectations. In fact there’s no expectation to read each other’s work at all, only that you send it to each other!

Something happens simply receiving that email from your writing buddy. You can’t let them down by not writing something, so you write, even if only a couple of sentences, and you send it along.

Additional Tips

So. Find a writing buddy. Set an achievable goal (each of you could have different goals), and write absolutely anything for a set period of time. If you don’t reach your goal that’s fine, just so long as you’ve written. And by anything I mean anything: random thoughts. Something inspired by a line of a poem, or a prompt you find in a book or on the web. Or use an old photograph or other image as inspiration. Or, you could use the process to keep going on a short story or a novel. But I think it’s helpful if you allow yourself, each day, to write whatever comes up, even if you planned a prompt, or had an idea, sit there a moment, and see what wants to be written. You might continue what you’ve written the following day, you might not. No expectations, remember!

If not knowing what you’re going to write about feels too challenging, then, before you start the process, make a list of memory prompts, short one-liners describing a specific memory, a scene or moment in time, and use those as inspiration. When you choose a line from your list, you might write the actual scene, or find yourself moving into something fictional.

Good luck! Write badly! And, if you have any questions at all about the process, I’m more than happy to answer them. Just email me at sandra@sandrajensen.net

About Sandra Jensen

Sandra Jensen’s work has been published in a number of literary magazines and journals; her awards include winning the 2019 Bridport Prize for a first novel.She was a guest writer and panelist at the International Conference on the Short Story and a workshop leader at The Galle Literary Festival, Sri Lanka. She’s received writing and travel grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Arts Council of Ireland and Arts Council England. You can find out more about her at www.sandrajensen.net.

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How to Apply for Arts Council Funding

I will be delivering a webinar with The Literary Consultancy and Sarah Crowne (Director of Literature at Arts Council England).

7 Jan 2021; 5-7pm

This webinar will help you understand Project Grants and Developing Your Creative Practice, each of which offers an opportunity for writers to fund their work and expand their practice. It will summarise the benefits and drawbacks of each, and help you approach a funding application with confidence. 

In this workshop you will learn:

  • What Arts Council England funding is available to writers, who is eligible, and how to decide whether to apply
  • The basics of the Project Grants and Developing Your Creative Practice funds, and which is better for you
  • How to think like an Arts Council assessor when writing an application
  • How to summarise and clarify your aims, and communicate these effectively
  • The nuts and bolts of the application itself.

There will be a presentation and talk, a Q&A, and some activities to help you start to plot the specifics of your application. 

Click here for more information and to reserve your free place.

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The Art of the Grant

How to Get Arts Council Funding to Finish Your Book
Guest blog by Sandra Jensen

I am a writer. I am a writer with a chronic illness: M.E./ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome being but two of the names doctors use. I’ve had this for over 25 years, with increasing debilitation. Writing has, in a way, saved my life, giving me a sense of purpose in what is for the most part a very limited existence. I’m just grateful I never had a dream to be a Wimbledon champion!

‘I credit this success largely to two things: practice, and excellent assistance.’

Nevertheless, there are many impediments to writing with a chronic illness: having enough well hours to put in the work on a manuscript, the despair that accompanies a bad stretch, and, to be honest, financial scarcity. When I heard my recent application for an Arts Council England Project Grant was successful, it was an enormous boost. I can now focus on writing rather than how to bring in an income. The grant will pay me a living wage for my writing time, cover professional editing expenses and allow me to share my journey here, with you, via four blogs, two podcasts and a webinar. Most of all, I’ll be able to finish my novel, Seagull Pie. This is a comic coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old girl who wishes her family were the Waltons and her boyfriend Alexander the Great. Instead, her father is dead, her mother is a welder, her older brother makes bombs and her grandmother is waiting for the Ding Dongs to arrive in a “rocketship”.  It is largely based on my own chaotic childhood experiences…

This is my second successful application to ACE, and I credit this success largely to two things: practice, and excellent assistance.

I have made a number of literature grant applications. I’m a Canadian Citizen and am eligible to apply to the Canada Council for the Arts. I lived in Ireland for a number of years, and applied there. In both cases, my initial applications were not successful, but I kept at it until they were. I learned what each organization was looking for, and I also realised that even if an application wasn’t successful, the (often eye-watering lengthy) process was useful creatively: writing a synopsis of a novel or a short story collection is never easy and in doing so, over and over, I discovered aspects, negative and positive, about my project I might have overlooked if I hadn’t made the application in the first place. And, if I had to submit my manuscript with the application, that always inspired me to give it a bit more work.

When I returned to the UK in 2013, I decided to make an application to ACE. The process seemed daunting and complex when compared to the (then) process for Canada and Ireland. And, a few people said without a published book, the likelihood of me being successful was slim at best. I almost decided not to bother – especially given the severe brain fog that is one of my frequent symptoms. It felt as if I’d needed a PhD in the art of grant applications!

But I don’t give up easily. I believed that all I needed was help. The right kind of help. With a bit of online searching I discovered that a number of unpublished writers did in fact receive ACE grants, and many of them were Norwich based. So I approached what was then called the Writers’ Centre Norwich (now National Centre for Writing), one of many regional literature development agencies in England. I was lucky enough to be put in touch with Sam Ruddock, who was at the time Programme Manager for the Centre.

His review of my application was detailed and extraordinarily insightful. He gave me specific suggestions, which I implemented, and after another review with him I sent it off, and was successful. Of course I sought Sam’s help again for this recent application. Since 2013, ACE has implemented a new application process using online software that has its drawbacks so it was extra helpful to have Sam’s encouragement as I went through the process.

For all my grant applications I’ve sought help: preferably from someone familiar with making such applications, but at the very least from someone who understands the creative process and who has a good eye for language. Clarity and confidence are, I believe, critical. It’s not always obvious to me if I’m failing in either area, particularly self-confidence. Essentially you are selling your work, and yourself, so coming across as uncertain isn’t a good idea! I’m also blessed to have a friend who has proofreading experience. She’s caught all my typos and weird sentence constructions.

‘Don’t let yourself be put off by the application process.’

As I have a chronic and unpredictable illness, the open deadlines for the ACE Project Grant are great. I became bed-bound shortly after starting this recent application. It was some time before I could return to it, so I was grateful not to have the extra pressure of a deadline. ACE also offers access costs for the application process – they want to ensure anyone can apply, so if you have a disability that precludes you from using the online system, or another health condition or disability that makes it difficult for you to apply on your own, they will pay for someone to help you.

ACE has a number of guidance sheets and will also answer any questions that come up. If you are not successful, they will offer some feedback on why. Sometimes an application is very good, but there simply are too many very good applications and not enough funding.

I would say five things are vital when making a grant application:

  • Don’t let a lack of self-confidence in your work or yourself stop you from applying
  • Don’t let yourself be put off by the application process
  • Give yourself plenty of time
  • Find someone to help you
  • And, most importantly, don’t give up if you aren’t successful!

Sandra Jensen’s work has been published in a number of literary magazines and journals; her awards include winning the 2019 Bridport Prize for a first novel.

She was a guest writer and panelist at the International Conference on the Short Story and a workshop leader at The Galle Literary Festival, Sri Lanka. She’s received writing and travel grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Arts Council of Ireland and Arts Council England. You can find out more about her at www.sandrajensen.net.

This is the first in a series of blogs that Sandra Jensen will write for Your Writing Launchpad over the next year. We will also be co-hosting a webinar in 2021.

If you would like help in accessing funds to support your writing, you can find out more about how Your Writing Launchpad can help you here.

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Strengthen your Arts Council application

I have read lots of draft applications for funding to Arts Council England. They may have been for the various different pots of money – from the old Artist Development Funds and Grants for the Arts, to the current Developing Your Creative Practice and Project Grants funds – but there are common errors that crop up time and again.

Arts Council funding has always been competitive. The success rate for applications (once the application has met basic criteria) has hovered around 40-45% for years. Now, with Project Grants reopening post-lockdown, it is reasonable to assume that this success rate will plummet.

That makes it more important than ever to ensure your application is as strong as it can be. Tailored feedback from me can help you do this. I would estimate that at least two-thirds of applications I advise are successful, and I offer a ‘You’re ACE’ service to read and feed back on your draft application for a standard fee of £50.

If you can’t afford that at the moment – here are three general tips that can vastly improve your application. Avoid these errors, and your application will have a far higher chance of success.

1. Stop Using Qualifiers
‘I have had some success in my career so far.’
‘In this project I will try to create…’
I get it: most of us hate blowing our trumpet. It can leave us feeling exposed. But it is doing you no favours. If you can’t speak positively about yourself in a funding application, when can you? If you can’t write confidently about your experience, practice, and proposed project, then why would Arts Council chose to fund you? You have to remember that every application is read by someone who (probably) knows nothing about your practice. Using qualifiers in your application serves only to introduce doubt into the subconscious of the person reading your application, raising questions about whether you will be able to deliver your project. Take a marker pen and go through your application crossing out every single qualifier you have used, and read it back. I promise you, it will be stronger.

2. Stop treating ACE like a kind relative
Arts Council England exists to invest in the creation of new work that might not otherwise be able to be made, and to support it to reach audiences. It doesn’t exist to give you money to take time off work to write. Time isn’t the outcome of your application, it is the means to producing the art. This may seem a small distinction – after all, we all need time in order to create new work – but it is crucial. When you introduce your project, talk about the work itself. Excite ACE about what you will create and why it maters. Treat every sentence in an application like an elevator pitch to a prospective investor. Focus on the opportunities rather than the challenges. ACE isn’t going to award you funding because the person reading your application is sympathetic with your challenge. Your application will only be successful if you convince ACE of the artistic value of the project you are proposing.

3. Pay yourself and other artists properly
Arts Council has a remit to support the entire ecosystem of the arts. Decisions on funding are made on the value of investment, rather than a lowest cost basis. Not only do you get no benefit from not paying yourself and other artists properly, you harm your application immeasurably. If you don’t pay yourself an industry standard day rate for research and creation (and probably admin around this, too), then you will be unlikely to be successful. I advice an absolute minimum of £90 day rate for an unpublished author. Other artists should be paid industry standards for their labour, which are often higher than that. You can include unpaid services, but these should only ever be treated as Support In Kind and always demonstrate the value to the person or organisation offering that unpaid service.

I hope these tips are useful to you. Feel free to drop me a line if you would like to take advantage of the ‘You’re ACE’ service, or have any questions. And good luck.

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Allow me to introduce myself

Hello. I’m Sam, and this is You’re Writing Launchpad. Trust is important when you are investing in your writing. So I’d like to tell you a bit about me.

I have always loved books, words, and stories. My earliest memories are of stories at bedtime and learning them off by heart. I remember taking a copy of The Lord of the Rings into school when I was about 10, and carrying it around because it made me happy. (Full disclosure: I probably also enjoyed the kudos from reading such a long book!)

Reading, for me, has been both escape from my immediate surroundings and the way I learn about the world and the people around me. It is a headlong dive into empathy, even while also being an opportunity to do other things and experience different lives.

I’m a trained storyteller – in that I studied History and Politics at university, and have an MA in Modern History. I mean, what could be better background for understanding the power of a story than the writing and re-writing of history or the persistent fictionalising of life in politics?! I love Rudyard Kipling’s off-cited quote that ‘if history were taught in the form of stories it would never be forgotten’. I believe that every time we write history, we are choosing to tell a story about ourselves and the world as it is now.

I bring this training to my work today. I am perhaps best as a macro editor: helping you shape and construct the narrative and characters and themes of your work. Although I can offer line-by-line editing and feedback, I am not a copy editor. I will help make your book more readable, concise, and effective in communicating to your readers.

I began my career working for Waterstones where I started as a Christmas temp and went on to manage the fiction and front of store sections, institute a festival, and be nominated for Bookseller of the Year. I moved on to work for a brilliant and relatively new organisation called New Writing Partnership, which was to become Writers’ Centre Norwich and then National Centre for Writing. There I became Programme Manager and worked across a wide range of work – from international conferences to historic festivals, reading promotions to school engagement, industry development to writer support. In all of this work I got most joy from working with people in a front-facing capacity: talking about books, hosting events, helping writers develop their work, and most of all reading, always reading.

I joined the board of Gatehouse Press, and became Editorial Director. There I instigated the New Fictions prize which has worked to diversify publishing and support talented writers into publication. I was proud to publish Kumkum Malhotra by Preti Taneja, a brilliant author who has gone on to win the Desmond Elliott Prize for her debut novel We That Were Young, and a host of other talented writers.

Thanks to the incredible support I had at National Centre for Writing, in 2014 I was awarded a prestigious Clore Fellowship to spend a year learning and thinking about how I could become a better leader in the arts. There I learned that I didn’t want to lead an organisation but to stay close to artists and audiences, and to develop my own artistic practice. I trained as a coach, and learned the value of clear communication, spaces to think, and understanding myself and my own energies.

I returned full of ideas and keen to try to experiment with how books could be experienced in live events. I created Story Machine events in 2016 and 2017 and decided to focus on that in 2018. I got a dog, and started to work freelance from home. It wasn’t easy, and my income reduced, but I finally found a work-life balance that nurtured me.

I have been married for 16 years to a wonderful wife who makes me smile and helps me grow. Life hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve struggled with addiction problems which I recently talked about at a brilliant event – True Stories Live – in Norwich.

I am an introvert, which means that I prefer talking to people one-on-one rather than in groups, and need lots of time to myself to replenish my energy. I still love nothing more than reading quietly in the bath, and working quietly with my dog sprawled across my lap. Over the last few years I have invested in the things that matter to me: people and personal connections, stories, and shared experiences. I have learned a lot. Sitting on my couch now, typing this, I am more artistically fulfilled than before, more nurtured by others than I have ever been.

I hope I can use my skills, experiences, and passion for words, books, and stories, to support your writing. After all, this is YOUR writing launchpad.