Welcome to what will be (fingers crossed!) a series of interviews with creative friends and acquaintances I have collected over the years. My aspiration is to share their insights on what inspires them, how they work through creative blocks and rejection and their upcoming projects and aspirations on the first Saturday of each month (the idea: if you get inspired to “play,” you’ve got the weekend to manifest what your Muse demands!!!).
First up, Margaret Vos.
Margaret Vos began publishing her creative writing after years of scribbling, many of them in secret. She is currently on sabbatical from her career in legal, educational, and government communications since relocating to (southeast) London in 2012. A native of the USA, she earned both her Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees in English Literature. Please do not ask her about American Literature. At the turn of the millennium she moved to Aotearoa New Zealand, and was involved in the New Zealand Poetry Society from 2000 including two terms as President (2002-2004). She has published most of her poetry in New Zealand. She is a founding member of The Academy, a private Wellington-based poetry writing group. Margaret is currently focusing on her writing while remaining a full-time mother of two (three if you count her husband).
Margaret is “Madge” to me….a friend I made when we were both exchange students at the then-still-in-existence Westfield College, part of the University of London…..more years ago than I care to admit (let’s put it this way: big shoulder pads were still in, legwarmers, were acceptable, Reeboks were still fairly new, as were Swatch watches and slap bracelets). You can follow her latest international exploits on her blog, Expat Echoes.
Lucky Ginger Studio: At what age do you remember first embracing your Inner Artist?
Margaret Vos: I was about seven years old and I wrote a haiku at school. I don’t have it anymore, but I remember it was about birds in flight – and I remember how good it felt to be praised for producing something creative and fun. I was hooked! I still get a thrill every time a piece is accepted for publication, or gets a good response from my poetry group The Academy. Even if it isn’t published, I am very pleased with myself when I’ve written something good – including if it’s for work. Only recently have I felt that I could genuinely call myself a writer or a poet.
LGS: In what ways do you enjoy expressing your creativity? (writing, cooking, drawing, etc.)
MV: Writing, writing, and writing. Some days I write only a grocery list, but writing is my core. I wish I could draw, but I don’t think stick figures count as proper art. And if I ever take a good photo it’s by accident. I do love the theatre and galleries; I find it so good to see other types of art and gain something from the performance or the visuals. I also like doing what I call applied poetry – sort of like illustrated poetry but it’s often 3-D or stenciled or collaged to enhance the written text. I think of it as an evolution from concrete poetry. Come to think of it, I should do more of that.
My someday wish is to take a sculpture class – I think I would really enjoy working with my hands in a completely different medium than ink. For me, it seems ok to get my hands dirty in clay, but not in the garden … sorry I know that is appalling to Lucky Ginger. I hope we can still be friends.
LGS: Do you allow yourself creative “play” time? (just messing around with creative stuff making things for YOU…with no project in mind?) If so: how often?
MV: Absolutely, and every day if I can manage it! It’s vital to have down time no matter what you do, but ideally for me it still relates to creative works. For me this is primarily reading or making stuff with the kids. I think I read pretty widely – including, ahem, “popular fiction”. My secret guilty pleasure is Stephen King – I think he is actually quite a bit deeper than most people give him credit for, and I really enjoy the entertainment aspects of his stories. Besides, most novels are about good vs evil, aren’t they?
I also confess to watching action/thrillers after my brother-in-law dragged me to see the first Terminator and Predator movies. I practically lost my artier-than-thou card after that. I’ll also watch anything with Johnny Depp in it. Believe me, I can get very creative thinking about him (don’t tell my husband). I guess they provide me with a very different and untraditional view of what creativity is.
And as I said, I love going to the theatre and visiting galleries and museums. And I love applied poetry as I mentioned before. But reading is my favorite creative break.
LGS: What time of day do you feel most creative?
MV: The Muse is a fickle mistress so I can’t say there is a time I find I’m reliably creative. I squeeze writing in during the day if and when I can, or in drafting or editing during the evening at “my time”.
That being said, I often think of good stuff just as I’m dropping off to sleep. I keep pen and paper handy to jot it down because otherwise I never remember that perfect line or phrase, even though I tell myself I will.
LGS: Do you have any creative rituals? (example: when I am doing post-production, I HAVE TO HAVE MUSIC)
MV: Probably nothing that counts as a real ritual. I don’t have lucky socks either. But I do have a poetry coat – think Byron or Shelley, but with sequins. It’s what I’m going to wear when I accept my first poetry prize.
I’m a list maker so I write everything down and I always have paper and pen with me (sorry Apple, no iPad) – you never know when you’ll be inspired, or think of a great line or title. And I try never to go anywhere without a book.
I also have an inspiration board – more on that below.
LGS: What other artisans/creatives inspire you?
MV: Emily Dickinson, William Blake (the Proverbs mostly), WB Yeats, Alain de Boton, Jenny Bornholdt. The Pre-Raphaelites to look at. Sting to listen to (yeah, he was an English teacher…) There are many many more but those are the ones that always spring to my mind first.
LGS: Do you have a support group of other artisan/creative friends? If so – how do you help each other out?
MV: Yes, The Academy. I find that I really need to engage regularly with other creative types, rather than scribbling alone in my garret – I need a touchstone and an outside opinion. The Academy met once a month for a poetry workshopping session on a previously agreed topic. There was a big social aspect too so it wasn’t all hard work and no play. We read out our work, usually 2-3 poems each, then everyone has a chance to comment on it – either questions or suggested improvements.
I also go to regular Poetry Society meetings and open mike nights when possible. Lots of poetry has gone back to its performance-based roots, so it really needs to be seen and heard as well as read. I don’t always like it, but it is really essential to expose yourself to other styles, topics, and types of work rather than just your own.
LGS: What or who inspired you to write your first poems?
MV: My teacher made me do it.
LGS: What obstacles or challenges did you have to overcome in order to get your poetry published?
MV: Believing in myself was my biggest challenge. I also had a bad experience with a vanity publisher early on – I was young, and I didn’t know they were a vanity publisher – and that put me off trying to write or publish for years. This was before the internet so you couldn’t just Google “poetry scams” and be forewarned. I didn’t have a mentor and I didn’t belong to a poetry group so there was no outside help. I know better now!
Because I worked in communications I often found that my creative well had been sucked dry by my work day. I had to also work to constantly refresh myself and that was a challenge – I often failed for months at a time to write something remotely decent. My schedule is better now for writing so I’m making the most of it.
LGS: What was the scariest hurdle you had to cross in that project?
MV: Actually submitting the work – and facing the likelihood of rejection. But when my first work as an adult was published by a real organization, I felt like it gave me validity. It was a huge confidence booster.
LGS: When you encounter creative blocks, how do you work through or around them?
MV: When I get stuck, I go to some of my poetry workbooks or just read other poets, but one of my favorite things is to get into a bookstore or the library. Just casually flicking through other peoples books can get me over poetic inertia.
I also have an inspiration board – it is a creative panel on which I’ve tacked up my favorite quotes, pictures, things that just strike me as interesting. It gets crowded pretty quickly! I can sit back and meditate (aka daydream) on the board until something pops for me. Otherwise it keeps the wheels quietly spinning.
I find that inspiration usually comes after life or myself are out of routine – for example a trip to a new place, a blizzard or lightning storm when the power goes out, seeing something new on the local streets, a death or birth in the family, a funny sign. I try to do new things on the weekend and whenever I can manage between school runs during the week.
LGS: If the “What You’re Doing Is No Good” voice pops into your head, how do you shut it down?
MV: I go to my LinkedIn page and look at what I’ve published. I DO exist as a poet and a writer.
LGS: How do you move through criticism or rejection of your work?
MV: Criticism I value; rejection I don’t – just being honest.
What I mean is that even if you don’t agree with the criticism, and I’m presuming this is constructive criticism we are talking about, you need to be able to take something away from it – even if it is only to recognise the validity of someone else’s point of view.
Rejection out of hand is both hurtful and useless. Better is a considered rejection – in other words, knowing why a publisher doesn’t want/like/need your stuff. It’s not always possible but feedback of any kind can only help. That’s where workshopping comes in handy too – getting other friendly opinions to help you improve your work.
I also look at Stephen King; he stuck his rejection letters on a nail above his desk to increase his determination. And I quite like http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/05/16/publishers-who-got-it-wrong_n_1520190.html – it makes me feel in good company.
LGS: What’s your favorite tool that helps you get your creative work done?
MV: My laptop. Google and Wikipedia. But NOT Microsoft spellcheck.
LGS:What’s your next project?
MV: Winning a well-known poetry competition – I’m thinking Bridport. Wish me luck.
More practically speaking, I want to assemble and publish my first poetry collection. I’ve been inspired by a friend who just published hers.
LGS: What advice do you have for someone who wants to get their work published?
MV: Don’t give up. In spite of my obvious all-around brilliance and outstanding poetic genius, it took me TEN years to get into the NZ Poetry Society’s anthology. Although I had already been published elsewhere, having a poem accepted into the anthology was something of a Holy Grail for me after editing two anthologies myself. It was very affirming to have it finally happen.
Write every day – starting today. Even a grocery list, a work report, or something in your dream diary counts. It’s all practice.
Have a goal. Beyond just saying you want to write, think about what you want to DO with it. Do you want to publish it in 2013 or just read it to Granny on your weekly visits (either is fine BTW)? Are you amassing your work to self-publish? Even if your goal is to submit your work to one publisher or competition a year, it’s a goal to aim for.
Submit your work – to the right place. Writers have to be readers, so find out who would be likely to publish your work (eg if you write sci-fi poetry, Penguin probably won’t publish you). Know your market!. Follow submission instructions! Get out there! Publishers don’t come to you, you have to go to them.
Just DO it (thanks, Nike). I wasted years moaning “I want to be a writer” instead of being one, or recognizing that my work required a lot of writing too. It’s like exercising or quitting smoking, only you can do it, and you have to be ready for it. The only perfect time is NOW.