On finding the time to write and smashing creative goals, with Write and Shine's Gemma Seltzer.


Gemma Seltzer is made of fairy dust. She must be magical, I hypothesise, after reading her credentials. It’s a long list filled with collaborations, residencies, a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship and the publication of her heartwarming book, Speak to Strangers.

As well as having a novel in the works, Gemma has founded Write and Shine, a workshop series that starts at 7:15 am in central London. The workshops awaken creativity and fill notebooks through focused freewriting. Participants find the time to write, talk creative practice and break bread well before I have managed to convince myself to get up and put the bins out.

I spoke with Gemma, hoping to learn her secrets on getting up and writing no matter how busy your day is. I’m hoping that, with some practice and strategically placed alarm clocks, some of that fairy dust might just rub off on me.    

time to write

What a fantastic idea for a workshop series. Why did you start Write and Shine?

Mornings are peak creativity time for me and I wanted to share my love of the first part of the day with others. Acknowledging how busy we all are, and how so many of us want more creativity in our lives, I gather people to write before the working day begins.

As a writer, I’m interested in the stuff of everyday life inspiring my work. I collaborated with a photographer in 2013 to create a digital literature project called 5am London, which captured the city in the early hours of the day. We travelled to a new spot in London once a month, including the Houses of Parliament and Hyde Park. It offered us a different side London. We saw people on their way to work, or on their way home from a long night out. It was like walking around in a dream. Our minds were buzzing with ideas each time. Soon after the project ended, I started running the morning writing workshops.

What is the most important skill you’ve learnt as a writer developing this program?

Using freewriting (writing continuously, usually for a set period of time, unconcerned with staying on topic or creating work that is ‘good’) to begin every writing session has invigorated my own writing, and I love seeing how participants respond to the invitation to write intensively for a few moments, writing faster than they can think, without the fear of sharing the work aloud with others. Whenever I’m about to embark on a new chapter of my novel, or attempt to draft a poem, I allow myself a few moments of freewriting to express ideas, let go of worries and ensure I can face the page with clarity.

I always really enjoyed close reading of essays, poetry and stories. I love spending time with a piece of writing, preparing my own ideas before I bring the work to the group. I’m learning more about good writing and understanding the reasons for its power over the reader.

What advice would you give to people with an overflowing plate (full-time work, primary carers) who want to find the time to write more?

Finding a few good places to write is an important part of developing a good habit, I think. This might be the kitchen counter or a desk, plus a café that’s just the right kind of noisy and busy enough so you don’t attract attention. I do think writers should cultivate the habit of writing anywhere, and trying to make sense of the world through their words on the page.

But equally, for people who are short of time, knowing where they like to write means they don’t have to spend time choosing where to go. As a writer, you then free your mind from that concern. And timed exercises work well. Set yourself ten minutes to write about the character, 15 minutes to fill a page with the dramatic opening scene for the next chapter. When the time is up, you can stop. Take a break. When you return, you might realise you’ve written one or two phrases that are useful. At the very least, you’ll have tricked yourself into starting to write that day.

time to write

Why have you chosen to incorporate prompts into the program? What makes them effective?

I’ve discovered much research that shows we’re more creative in the morning. When we wake, we’re incredibly sensitive to the sights and sounds of our environment. My experience has led me to believe that it’s the best time to think and imagine, with afternoons better for editing and critiquing. I have a tendency to start the day with freewriting and filling a few pages of my notebook with rough, flowing nonsense. It’s personal, reflective writing mainly. So I include prompts in the programme because I believe they can help open up our imaginative thinking and can take our ideas in interesting new and unexpected directions.

Can you share a sample of a prompt with us today?

In one of our early morning writing sessions on a cold winter morning, we listened to a long recording of the dawn chorus and wrote as the birds tweeted their symphony of songs. It took our writing in all kinds of strange, bright, melodic direction. (The recording is available here in case anyone fancies trying the task, too!)

Because we can’t all fly over to London at the drop of a hat (unfortunately), Writers Bloc is offering a batch of morning-themed exercises created by Gemma Seltzer as a part of our short courses initiative. Lasting four weeks, these online self-guided courses offer you a chance to carve out some private writing time, at home, at work, or on the move. Get the four-week program here for $30AUD.

Katerina Bryant's picture

Katerina Bryant

Katerina Bryant is a writer based in Adelaide. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings and The Lifted Brow, amongst others. She edits nonfiction for Voiceworks and Antic New Writing. Her essay, ‘A Pig in Mud’ was shortlisted for the 2016 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She tweets at @katerina_bry.