In this episode, Belinda Pollard and Donita Bundy interview Nikki Florence Thompson, who teaches creative writing at the Australian Catholic University in Brisbane, Australia. Nikki has an MA in creative writing, a PhD in Literature, and is a blogger and published author. Her memoir, Fight, Flight and Faith tackles grief and anxiety at a very personal level.
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In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, writing coach, accredited editor with qualifications in theology, writing and publishing blogger at smallbluedog.com, and Gracewriters founder
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of the Armour of Light urban fantasy series.
- Nikki Florence Thompson, creative writing teacher and author.
Topics covered in this episode:
- Working out where to start as a writer.
- Harvesting material from life and making the minutes count.
- Creating your own creative writing course by reading.
- Why writing isn’t easy.
- The place of prayer in the writing life.
Click the image to buy on Amazon, or find other retailers at Nikki’s website.
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More about Nikki Florence Thompson at https://nikkifthompson.com/
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Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters Podcast – Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. Hit subscribe on your favourite podcast player so you never miss an episode and find show notes, useful links and a full transcript at gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, we welcome creative-writing teacher and author, Nikki Florence Thompson.
I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and publishing consultant with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. Find links to my books, blogs, and online courses at belindapollard.com.
Donita Bundy: Hi, I’m Donita Bundy and for the past 20 years, I’ve been using my theology degree to underpin my preaching and my public speaking and, more recently, to inspire my young-adult urban-fantasy, Armour of Light series. You can find out more about this and all my other projects at donitabundy.com.
Belinda Pollard: Nikki Florence Thompson has an MA in creative writing and a PhD in Literature. She teaches creative writing at the Australian Catholic University in Brisbane. She is also a blogger and published author of the memoir, Fight, Flight and Faith which tackles grief and anxiety at a very personal level.
Welcome aboard, Nikki.
Nikki Florence Thompson: Thanks so much, guys. It’s so lovely to chat with you.
Belinda Pollard: Nikki, lots of people would love to write. I hear it all the time when I’m moving around and meeting people in different places. What you can you tell them, though, about figuring out where to start?
Nikki Florence Thompson: Cool! Well, first of all, I always say to students, read. Writers are only writers because they’re first of all readers and reading is like the energy that we consume. We need to be reading to be outputting writing.
I’d say, first of all, figure out what you love reading because that’s probably what you’ll love writing and read avidly in that area.
Secondly, writers don’t just suddenly one day become writers. They are already usually writing in some capacity as in journalling, writing down anecdotes, telling stories, even verbally. You’ll be already doing this process of writing. It’s just formalising it. What form do you want that to take as it goes into the world and to readers and figuring that out, partly through that reading process, and then starting to take more steps forward from there.
Belinda Pollard: Among the Gracewriters, the members of Gracewriters, we have a whole lot of different writers. We’ve got novelists, non-fiction writers, memoirists, copywriters, bloggers and we’ve got one person writing an opera libretto. We’ve got all manner of different forms. We’ve got poets, we’ve got songwriters. We’ve got so many different forms. Of all of these different forms and all the different topics, how do we choose?
Nikki Florence Thompson: Well, I’m not one of those people who thinks you have to stick to just one genre. I think you can mix it up and different seasons of life will find you writing in different areas. Although, at first, it’s probably good to figure out where you want to start and stay in one zone for a little while so that you can focus your energies there.
I think it’s a combination of factors. It’s what you feel compelled to write at the time. It’s, again, like that enjoyment factor. What you enjoy writing. I know I got the advice years ago when I was doing my PhD, if you’re not passionate about this you’re not going to last. Don’t try and force yourself into writing something that’s not actually something that you’re really committed to. So, it’s that commitment level.
What opportunities do you have for people to read that? I guess, experimentation really. It’s not a neat process so do some experimenting. Dabble in the different forms and see what sticks. It’s not a hard and fast answer.
Belinda Pollard: It’s interesting because I was a journalist initially and so I naturally gravitated to writing non-fiction and things where I interviewed people and created stuff but I really, really wanted to write fiction and would not give myself permission to do it.
I’m guessing that there’s probably quite a few writers out there or pre-writers out there who are thinking: this is what I really want to write but I’m not allowed to write that.
Nikki Florence Thompson: Yes, not allowed to. And then you’ve got to ask why? Why are you not allowed to? It’s that condemning voice that so many writers have that put these restrictions on us or that have to do with us worrying and those sort of things. So, you then did change from journalism to writing fiction at some point?
Belinda Pollard: It’s interesting because the thing that actually finally got me over the line was a deadline.
So, I started entering competitions and that gave me deadlines and as the old journalist in me rose to the deadline I stopped thinking about whether I was allowed to or not.
Nikki Florence Thompson: And deadlines are so good. In fact, competitions are one of the best ways to cut your teeth and just to get you trying things out and producing. Maybe set yourself some deadlines in different forms and see what happens.
If you really want to do it and have something to write, it will come to the surface. Maybe that’s a good piece of advice.
Donita Bundy: Nikki, for people who are starting out, how do you find time in a busy life already to write?
Nikki Florence Thompson: Again, I think there’s misconception that writers just sit at their desks undisturbed with a candle and a glass of wine or a cup of tea and never move. It’s not like that. I think that you can find pockets of time to write. You can always carry around a notebook or your phone, however people do it. I always tell my students to carry something, whether it’s their devices – I tell them to carry a notebook but I don’t know if they do – and just jotting down thoughts as they come to you. They’ll often come to you after a shower or going for a walk or that sort of thing.
So, keep harvesting your material in those pockets or when you don’t have much time and then there’s always patches in everyone’s days or weeks where they’ve got a bit more time. Maybe then take those notes and try and write some more longform stuff.
There’s all different methods that I’m sure you guys are familiar with for writing. Some people recommend 20 minutes every morning or every night and it will then grow or a page a day. Some writers do a page a day. I find word limits quite helpful when I’m on a project so I’m going to write 1,000 words today or 2,000 words today would be quite a lot.
Just finding those little tricks because nobody’s life is ever going to be a clean slate. And if you do have that time, often it’s too much of a luxury that you don’t feel compelled to write. Often it’s the deadlines or the pockets that force you. I think my writing has been so much more efficient since having three kids because I know that when I’m sitting down and I’ve got a few minutes, I’ve got to make it count.
Donita Bundy: Do you have any resources or books you can recommend to help people get started in writing?
Nikki Florence Thompson: Yes, sure. I love books on the craft of writing because while writing is something intuitive to us if we want to write, it’s also a craft that can be learnt. I love Anne Lamott’s stuff, so Bird by Bird is an excellent writing book. It’s great on instruction but it’s also just beautifully written. So, you’ve got the double whammy there of learning skills at the same time as imbibing the words of a really gifted and eloquent writer.
She also talks about some of the mental challenges that writers face. So, the inner critic; you can’t do this, nobody’s going to like it. All this sort of thing. All these thoughts that sit on your shoulder while you’re writing, she talks about them quite comically.
So, she helps you tackle that, as well. I like Bird by Bird and the premise behind that is she talks about this story of her brother when he was younger, having to do an assignment on birds and the dad says, “Just take it bird by bird!” Don’t write about all the birds at once. Just go through a different bird at a time and so you just tackle your writing one task at a time and move forward. So, that’s a really great one.
I like Stephen King’s On Writing even though Stephen King’s books themselves freak me out and I can’t handle that sort of thing. Ahh! He’s, again, really good. These are sort of the storytelling text books. So, it’s not like you’re being whammed over the head with a textbook, you have to do it like this. They come to a slant and they really teach you.
There’s heaps more on my bookshelf but I think the main thing is also just reading as a writer. That’s what we talk about in our course that we do, reading as a writer. So, when you’re reading, think about all the decisions that the authors are making all the time. Why did they begin that way? Why did they stop at the end of the chapter that way? And you can be taking notes, like literally taking notes, or just in your head or would I have begun that differently? Why did that work? Did that not work as well?
Read as a writer. Almost like you’re picking it apart to the bones and seeing the skeleton of how the writer has made this book. So, I think, that’s one of the best ways to learn and do that in the genre that you’re writing in. So, if you’re a poet, then read poetry that is excellent poetry or that you really love and why does that work. Or if you’re a non-fiction writer, why did they start there?
You can almost take yourself on a creative writing course if you’re dedicated enough to doing this unpicking. I know when I wrote my recent book, I looked at the memoirs I loved and I literally went through and thought about the structural decisions different people had made and then I didn’t mimic them or take any one form but I thought, “Oh, I like how they started there and I like what this person did with their chapter titles,” and then I kind of took inspiration from that.
Belinda Pollard: So, once we’ve got started, Nikki, and we’re moving along through the process, how can we continue to grow in confidence and skill over time? I’m also thinking specifically of that problem of self-doubt because all the writers that I meet struggle with it and it’s such a big topic, even as we become more able. How do we tackle that?
Nikki Florence Thompson: Yes, I’m still tackling that now! I think other people around you are good. This group is good. I always tell students, writing groups are really good because everybody is in the same boat no matter how far along the track you are, actually, you will always struggle, I think anyway, with an element of self-doubt. So, having people around you, you can go, “Yes, I feel like that, too,” or, “I’m having this issue.” Finding your people and having some people that can support you.
I know my husband, a historian, he’s also a writer and we often, when we’re working on drafts, one of us will say, “I’m having that day where everything isn’t working and it’s never going to go anywhere,” and then we say to each other, “This is just part of the writing process. Tomorrow will be the day you break through.” Because there’s almost in the writing, I don’t know if you guys have found that, there’s this really bad day followed by, often, a good day.
So, just having him around to help me is good. So, finding someone who you can talk to and I think writers can often be those kind of solo people or they can feel like they’re on their own so reaching out to other creatives.
Just knowing that part of the process, I think, is enough. So, things like Anne Lamott’s book, even Stephen King, all of them talk about this. It’s a universal writer’s condition, imposter syndrome. It’s just part of our DNA but just knowing that if you feel like that, if you feel discouraged it’s not abnormal but also just keep going because it’s a messy thing. Writing is messy. You’re building something. I don’t know if you guys watch Grand Designs but when you’re building a house there’s always the rain will come and the roof will fall off and everything.
I even said to my husband recently, “This is when the roof’s flying off.” With publishing my book I’m like, “Ahh! It’s not working!” So, just knowing that that’s part of the process.
Nobody actually writes a book just easily. It’s not easy. It can be exhilarating and wonderful and one of the funnest things you ever do and it can be so, so hard. Words are hard to find.
Belinda Pollard: And I think even if you’ve had a book or a writing piece that’s been massively successful, then there’s the pressure of the next one.
Nikki Florence Thompson: I know. I know. I was actually going to message a mentor today because I was feeling these feelings with my book coming out and to say to her, “How do you handle this?” I think it’s always going to be there because there’s always going to be someone better than you. There’s always going to be someone whose book sells more than you. There’s always going to be someone further ahead than you. It’s just life, like anything, and your mind’s going to play but I guess that’s where as Christians, as well, trusting God’s path for you and praying about it. I think we can often feel like we shouldn’t pray about writing like it’s selfish or something which is just stupid because we should pray about everything. God says bring everything to me.
So, praying about those feelings, I often do. Just knowing that writing isn’t going to be a smooth path because life isn’t a smooth path. There’s going to be great moments. There’s going to be really hard moments but if it’s something you feel called to do, that you can do and that will help others and thinking about who it’s going to can also help. Who are you serving? Why does this story need to be told, then just keeping on going – but there’s no miracle cure for it.
Donita Bundy: Yes, I think, too, it’s important to remember that we’re not going to please all the people. I guess, that’s the importance of actually discerning at the start in that prayerful conversation with God. What am I writing for? What is my purpose? What is the message and who am I writing to? Because when you get that feedback from people who are not the target audience and they’re not going to like it, it’s perhaps easier then to take that on board to say, “Well, thank you, but there are also people that this does actually feed into.”
It helps to know you’re just not going to please all the people all time and there are going to be people who just really don’t like what you’ve written and that’s okay!
Nikki Florence Thompson: And particularly, I think, in the age we live in, we have given everybody an avenue for an opinion which is a good thing but it’s also really hard like we get instant feedback and it’s always a mixed bag.
I remember when I had my first baby, there was this great midwife at the hospital who gave us a talk as we were leaving – this is relevant! She said, “Not all mums that you’re going to agree with. You’re all going to have different methods. Look, it’s like me. Some birds like me and some birds don’t!” I just thought that was so cool to have that voice inside my head. You’ve just got to be at peace that some people will like the work, some won’t, but it’s not easy when you actually face it.
Belinda Pollard: When I get particular types of criticism and I’m concerned that there’s a kernel of truth in it and then I’m worrying about that in my classic overthinking style and trying to think about how I can take the good from that criticism and how I can turn it around and how I can improve my writing because I’m always worrying away at that like a little dog at a bone trying to improve my writing. And what I can end up doing is spiralling down into this puddle of insecurity and inactivity in terms of my writing, but if I switch it around and remember, “Hang on. Why am I writing?” I’m writing to help people.
Fundamentally, all of my genres that I write and all the stuff I’m writing, I’m writing to help people.
Nikki Florence Thompson: Exactly.
Belinda Pollard: If I switch away from thinking it’s got to be perfect, to thinking, “Hang on. Who am I helping? Let me think about them,” and it doesn’t need to be perfect to help them.
Nikki Florence Thompson: Yes.
Belinda Pollard: But I have to do that almost every writing session! So, it’s not a one and done.
Donita Bundy: And that’s the importance, too, of maintaining a healthy prayer life, like you said Nikki, praying. Not only pray every day, for who we are and the world that we live in and the community and the family that we belong to, but it’s about the words that we’re passing on and if we get into the discipline, it’s like it’s a dirty word, but if we get into the discipline of prayer and bringing prayer to our writing, I think, as you said before, Nikki, that’s really going to help us. And like you said, Belinda, turning our focus away from the negative and the perfection and turning to the ‘Perfection’ who is inspiring the work!
Nikki Florence Thompson: Oh, I like that!
Donita Bundy: I just think without the prayer we’re lost because it’s our relationship connection and it’s where we get our inspiration from. I hear what you’re saying and it’s so true. I’m in the same boat with both of you and I think some days it’s about doing the discipline when you don’t feel like it.
It’s like when you sit down and write when you don’t feel like it sometimes you’ve just got to sit in and pray and get your tushie glued down and get your fingers on the keyboard and your mind talking to God.
Belinda Pollard: Nikki, sometimes the ones that are discouraging us are not the people out there, the critics and the reviewers, sometimes they’re the people in our own house or our friends and family. Some writers actually struggle to even find a little space to write because of opposition from their own dear ones.
Nikki Florence Thompson: Wow!
Belinda Pollard: Any tips for how to push through that.
Nikki Florence Thompson: That’s a tough one. So, you mean if people in your own family are, “Why are you even doing this?” Yes, I guess, I think it’s important to find someone who can support you. So, someone you can talk to. I’m just big on that because I think we shouldn’t have to battle things alone.
As far as I can see, there’s nothing criminal or bad about writing. I don’t think it’s something that you should stop doing! I guess, just finding the way in each situation that will work. Yes, that’s a tricky one.
Belinda Pollard: It is tricky and I’m sorry to hit you with that difficult question.
Nikki Florence Thompson: No, that’s okay.
Belinda Pollard: Some people live in dysfunctional marriages. Just stating it baldly! And they need that support and I guess that’s a good thought that you’ve raised there to find the support elsewhere.
I would even suggest that sometimes the support that you find might even be in places like Twitter which has become a bit of a meeting place for writers. So possibly you can connect with other writers there for encouragement without necessarily drawing attention.
Nikki Florence Thompson: Yes, and that’s where the internet’s our friend. For all the criticism of social media, I don’t use Twitter just because I’ve never figured it out but Instagram, I’ve met so many of my connections and they’ve been really encouraging. Often people are in the same boat as you and will post something that, as writers, we express by writing, that can be really helpful.
I think that’s a good suggestion. Yes.
As I said, my husband’s a writer and a historian. He’s not on social media so for us I have to be careful how much time I spend on social media because he’s not a huge fan of that but everybody’s different.
Belinda Pollard: The stuff that you’ve written, and you’ve written some very personal material about your own family grief and your anxiety, what tips would you have for other writers trying to decide how far to go with personal material?
How do they protect their mental health? How do they protect their privacy while also creating something that’s genuinely going to be deep and rich and helpful to a reader?
Nikki Florence Thompson: Yes, that’s a good question. I think there’s a few things with that. For instance, if you’re writing on social media, first of all, or a blog, I think it’s a good idea to always let your writing rest even for a day or a night because often if we’re writing about things like grief or mental health, all these sensitive issues, particularly if we’re writing out of, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, we might be writing out of a moment of intense emotion.
I think it’s always good just to, you don’t necessarily have to censor that in any way but just to wait a day and look at it afresh because we can often see things differently when we give them a bit of time to rest. I always say letting your writing rest and that kind of gives you just that little element of something comes out in inspiration but then you can use your analytical brain to then think, “Okay. Is this the message I want to put out into the world?”
For me, anything I put out, I like to put it through a bit of a filter even if it’s really sad which is the reality of the world, does it still offer a glimpse of hope or is it in tune with my overall message which is: Jesus is with you. And I don’t always do that perfectly but just once you’ve written something, letting it rest would be a good way.
If it’s about other people, you do have to be a bit careful. Just if it’s anything defamatory, like one of my favourite writing teachers, Marian Roach Smith. She’s got the Memoir Project. I don’t know if you guys have heard of her.
Belinda Pollard: I’ve heard of her. Yes.
Nikki Florence Thompson: She talks about never writing out of revenge or spite because it’s not good. It’s not going to help anyone, necessarily. Sure, write in your journal in private, talk to God about it, journal it and write it out to Him but if it’s going to be something that’s defamatory of anyone or anything like that, I’d be really careful.
But there are some things, I guess, that are really sensitive topics that we still want to write about. I don’t have any experience about writing about abuse or anything like that but there are people who do and you need to and it will help other people. But just be really careful and you could ask someone who you trust to read it before you publish it if you’re doing it in an online space. Obviously, in a book you’ve got more lead time. But even with my stuff, I was saying to you guys earlier, not in this interview, that I had to get the key players just to look at it.
Before I even sent my manuscript that I’d written, which is about anxiety, before I even sent that to a publisher, I had my two best friends who I trust a lot and I said, “Can you read this? Is there anything in here that gives you a red flag both theologically and emotionally?” One of my best friends is a psychologist so that was really helpful. And when they got back to me and said no, that’s it’s good to go, I felt like I’d had people that know me but also have good brains in their heads and solid Christians to look at it and go, “No. There’s nothing in here.”
And they were just a little bit outside my family, as well. My husband read it, as well, and he’s critical in a good sense but it was good to have just that team.
Donita Bundy: So, Nikki, the Gracewriters tag line is Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture, do you think there are ways that writers can influence society?
Nikki Florence Thompson: Yes, I do. I don’t like to think too didactically probably because I think more from a storyteller’s point of view so I think stories are so powerful. Stories can get to people’s hearts in a way and that’s not original to me, people have said this for millennia, that stories can get to invade people’s hearts in a way that facts, pure facts without a story angle, often can’t.
So, I think being able to tell our God-stories is a way to influence culture particularly if we tell them sincerely and in as skilled a way as possible. Yes. Just personally I don’t want to berate people over the head with my message. I want to make it winsome and flavoursome and hopefully then it will help people.
Belinda Pollard: Winsome and flavoursome; that’s nice.
Donita Bundy: Do you think it’s possible to deepen and test our own faith throughout the writing process and what has been your personal experience of this?
Nikki Florence Thompson: Yes. I think it’s when you do any art form or any task in life, bringing it to God you can always enrich and deepen your faith story.
Actually, a before-and-after tale here, I think I used to think that my writing and God were very separate and I felt quite bad about it. I always had this desire to write but I didn’t want it to become an idol and then in doing that, I think, I made my kind of legalism my idol but in bringing my latest project to God and every time I wrote, not in a hyper-spiritual way or anything, but I just said, “God, please can you continue to help me to say what I’m meant to say here or help me to say this story in a way that shows your love.” And it gave me that feeling that at the end, well, whatever happens with this, me and God have done the best we can!
We don’t want to divide different areas of life from God and I think we can so easily do that. We don’t want to worship the art form either but worship the creator of the art form and the art form will be better, hopefully.
Donita Bundy: Nikki, do you have any final suggestions or tips?
Nikki Florence Thompson: Yes, reading! Reading those craft books, joining a writing group or this sort of a group is great. Just writing. You’re only going to grow in writing.
It’s like my son’s really talented at piano, he’s only in year two, but for the first year or two he just didn’t practice. Now he’s started practising and it’s just beautiful to behold because his natural talent is turning into something but he has to make mistakes. He has to sit at the piano and figure out the notes and they get better.
Belinda Pollard: The gracenotes!
Nikki Florence Thompson: Yes! So, keep playing your notes, keep playing your scales and trusting them to God and then I think that’s all we can do. And then learning to let go which I’m not very good at. I’m in that stage of trying to let go and give it over to God!
Belinda Pollard: Beautiful material there, Nikki. Thank you so much.
Where can people find you online?
Nikki Florence Thompson: Yes. At my website nikkifthompson.com.
Belinda Pollard: Excellent. Thank you. How about I pray for you and the Gracewriters before we finish?
Nikki Florence Thompson: Excellent.
Belinda Pollard: Heavenly Father, we thank you so much for Nikki and for the things that you have taught her through the process of writing, through the process of living life, through the process of teaching other writers. We thank you so much for all the abundant ideas and suggestions that she has given us there today and we pray that they will mightily bless those writers out there who are listening and looking for maybe just that piece of advice or encouragement or redirection.
And we do pray your blessing upon all of the Gracewriters that you will strengthen and sustain and encourage and lead them, in Jesus’ name. Amen
Donita Bundy: Amen.
Nikki Florence Thompson: Amen.
Belinda Pollard: Nikki Florence Thompson, thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you, Donita Bundy. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time on the Gracewriters podcast.
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