My ALLi author guest this episode is Mark McGuinness, a poet who also writes books and hosts podcasts about how creative people can get over blocks in their productivity, motivation, and resilience, among other factors that can get in their way. Mark says his career as a poet and a creative coach employ the same kind of ability to listen carefully to language.
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Inspirational Indie Author Interview: Mark McGuinnessOn the Inspirational Indie Authors podcast @howard_lovy features @markmcguinness, a poet who also helps other creative people discover their voices. Click To Tweet
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Inspirational Indie Author Interview: Mark McGuinness. About the Author
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Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 35 years, and now amplifies the voices of independent author-publishers and works with authors as a developmental editor. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
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Read the Transcripts — Inspirational Indie Author Interview: Mark McGuinness
Howard Lovy: My guest this episode is Mark McGuinness, a poet who also writes books and hosts podcasts about how creative people can get over blocks in their productivity, motivation, and resilience among other factors that can get in their way.
Mark says his career as a poet and a creative coach employ the same kind of ability to listen carefully to language. I'll let Mark McGuinness tell his story.
Mark McGuinness: My name is Mark McGinnis. I am a poet living in Bristol, in the southwest of England, in the UK. As my day job, if you like, I work as a coach for creative professionals. So, I work with creatives across the whole spectrum of the arts and the creative industries, including authors, including fine artists, including agency creatives, micro entrepreneurs, movie and tv screenwriters, directors and performers, actors and musicians as well. So, I get quite a broad church, if you like, in my coaching practice.
I grew up in North Devon, which is even further southwest than Bristol. It's out in what we call the sticks in the UK, and so it's a beautiful area. It's got an inspiring landscape and it also rained a lot. So, when I was a kid, I used to love playing football. Whenever it was dry, I'd be running about playing football with my friends, but it often wasn't, and in those times, I would be indoors with a book, devouring one book after another. So, very much a reader from a young age.
Howard Lovy: Also from a young age, Mark became interested in poetry.
Mark McGuinness: I got interested in poetry, specifically when I was at secondary school, which I guess you would call high school on your side of the pond.
So, I had two wonderful English teachers, Sue Dubbs and Jeff Riley, who reignited the spark of poetry for me. So, when I went to college, it was a natural choice, I wanted to study English. We don't have to major on this side of the Atlantic, we just pick one subject, and we study that and that only. So, I did three years of English literature and language at Oxford University, and I chose all the poetry options all the way through.
So, I just basically took that as my three-year opportunity to read as much poetry as I could, which was a wonderful time and a great, you know, if you like, that's laid the foundation for reading and writing since.
Howard Lovy: What appealed to Mark about poetry was how much can be said in just a few words.
Mark McGuinness: I remember when we used to, in Sue Dubbs class, she would say, okay, we're going to be looking at a poem today, and sometimes that would be it. We would spend a whole lesson looking at a single poem and maybe, you know, two or three, but quite often just one poem as I recall, and the thing that amazed me then, and still amazes me today, is that you could spend an hour looking at this small block of text or few little blocks of text arranged in order, and you would find more and more the more you looked.
It's not like a page of prose where you read it and you're onto the next one. With poetry, it opens up, and it opens up the more you look into it, and to me that is an inexhaustible source of wonder and magic.
Howard Lovy: So, for Mark, poetry was it, that was what he wanted to do with his life, but like many poets, he needed to find a day job to pay the bills.
At first, he had a hard time with the choice until he discovered a career that fit him perfectly.
Mark McGuinness: Well, yeah, it was to be a poet, but then of course I knew that not many poets do it as their main living. So, I thought, and I had really no idea what I wanted to do as the day job. I mean, from Chaucer, Chaucer was a customs inspector, from him onwards poets have generally had to have day jobs, and I thought academia would be the way forward for me, but actually it turned out to be a bit of a dead end. So, even though I spent three years at Oxford reading poetry, I hardly wrote anything.
I ended up being quite creatively blocked and stressed out, and I ended up in a therapist’s office at the end of that experience, and I was bemoaning my fate, as young men generally, of a certain poetic cast, often do. And I was saying to my therapist, well, I don't know what I'm going to do with my life. And she said to me, well, maybe you could do this. And I was like, really? And she said, yeah, I think you could be good at this. So, her name was Catherine Kirk. She was another wonderful teacher. She got me interested in personal development and therapy, and encouraged me to go on courses and read books, and I ended up training as a therapist.
Fast forward a few years I'm in the west end of London, building up my therapy practice, and in and among all the usual kind of rich and varied fabric of the trials and tribulations of life that a therapist will be dealing with, I kept noticing that there were certain sessions that had a different kind of energy. So, this was the actor with stage fright, or the novelist with writer's block, or the agency copywriter who was stressed out by agency life, and at a certain point I thought, you know what, a lot of these people, this doesn't necessarily feel like therapy, and I looked around and I thought, well, what if I call this coaching instead of therapy?
These people don't necessarily have a mental health problem, but they put their heart and their soul into their work, and so maybe we could call this coaching, and say we're going to do some heart work, some soul work, some mental work, but you don't have to have a problem in your life, you just have to have a creative dream or a path that you are pursuing.
That was in the mid-nineties, right about 1996, 1997, I started doing that, and I've been doing it ever since.
I've done various other kinds of work, and coaching, and training, and study, but I kept coming back to coaching with creatives, and really that's the main thing I do these days other than write poetry and make podcasts.
Howard Lovy: And Mark does see a similar set of skills necessary for both poetry and coaching.
Mark McGuinness: I would hope so. Yeah, I think so, I think there's several things. I think that's a good observation about observation, that you've got to be curious in both cases. There's always something that grabs your attention as a poet and that you're curious about and you want to follow up imaginatively, so to speak, and whenever I coach somebody, there will be an element of curiosity about who is this person, what is their work like, where's that come from, how do they make it, and so on.
I think there's also a verbal component. A lot of coaching, like therapy, comes down to just being alert to some of the fine nuances of language and hearing the way people talk about the challenges that they face or the goals that they can have. It reveals a lot about their thinking that can actually show you what is holding them back or what could potentially help them move forward.
Howard Lovy: And through helping others, Mark also helped get beyond his own writer's block.
Mark McGuinness: So, I think there's maybe something of the wounded healer archetype here, that you teach what you need to learn yourself or what maybe you are learning, or you help others heal the wound that you have to work on. I think that there has always been, you know, looking back at what I would call a symbiotic relationship between the poetry and the coaching, but on one level they're quite separate. If I'm writing, I'm just writing, I'm just focused on the poem. Maybe I'm thinking about a reader, but it's not intended to be helpful to anybody. It's just intended to be what it is.
Similarly, the coaching is quite separate, because I really focus on the client and their art form or their form of creativity, but lessons from poetry will creep in. Sometimes I will read a poem to a client, or I will say, well, it's funny, you're saying that about screenwriting or novel writing, but here's how it looks for me as a poet, and some of the solutions I've come up with.
Also, I think it just helps me, being a coach, I think that one of the great gifts of that is you start to lead what Aristotle called the examined life. Even when I'm struggling with a poem, there's a part of me that's watching this and going, okay, but if you were a client, if this were a client, what would you say to them or what could you bring to it?
So, I think there's hopefully another thing that the two have in common, is raising your awareness, your consciousness of what you're doing. Not just what you're trying to do, but how you're doing it, because very often that's the thing that when I realize, oh, I'm pushing too hard in that direction, for instance, in a piece of writing, or I'm trying to force it into being this way, and maybe it wants to be another way. Then I come into the picture then, and it's not just the writing that's going wrong so to speak.
Howard Lovy: So back in 2006, he launched a blog where he learned the craft of writing for a career-oriented creative audience. By 2012, when he had published his first book, he had a built-in audience and there was no question about going the indie route.
Mark McGuinness: Yeah, I mean, I'm a bit of a control freak when it comes to creative control at least, and just the idea, when self-publishing came along, that whole series of barriers was out of the way, and you could be the one making the decision about what gets published, and when and how, and with what cover, and what title and format. And the whole process, even of working with my designer, Irene Hoffman, who does a wonderful job of designing, not just the covers, but also, she lays out the interior, it's such fun to be able to make something.
Particularly, I know eBooks are really associated with indie publishing, and that's a wonderful thing, but to me, I grew up with holding a book in my hand as a kind of magical object, and to this day, it's still a lovely thing to hold a book in my hand and think, I made that.
Particularly, given that a lot of my work as a coach is ephemeral, you know, it's a conversation. The results are not. It will make an impact on somebody's life, and I can see things that they've made, but it's not like I can hold up all the thousands of hours of coaching that I've done and point to that, but with a book I can.
And I really love the fact that each time I pick up one of my books, for all the faults that I might be able to pick up with it, it really feels like it's my book. It's done the way that I want it to be done, and I love the whole look and feel of it.
Howard Lovy: Mark's books are divided into subjects, teaching about productivity, motivation, resilience among others.
Mark McGuinness: Well, each of them, certainly the first three, they're a particular challenge that we face as a creator.
So, the first book was called Resilience, which is about dealing with rejection and criticism as a creative professional, and you know the thing when somebody says to you, oh, just don't take it so personally. That person generally isn't an author, they're generally not an artist, because if you are then you know how it feels, and you know how personal it is and how hard it is to deal with that.
So, that was my starting point with that book. I hadn't seen a book specifically for creatives about dealing with the gut punch you get when you get that email, or it used to be the letter, or the little printed slip in the post saying, we regret, thank you for the opportunity, wish you luck elsewhere, et cetera.
Then the next book probably should have been the one, thematically that is the one that comes before that. It's called Motivation for Creative People, and that's all about the fact that we do march to a different drum, if you like.
I think a lot of people, they get up in the morning, and it's important that their work is meaningful, it's not just a paycheck. I really do believe that. But for a creative, it is absolutely non-negotiable. We have to feel that we are working on something that we find creatively meaningful and inspiring, and when I looked at the research on creativity and I did my masters, I found actually that it's a pretty well established fact in psychology, that unless you are driven by that love, which they call rather scientifically, intrinsic motivation, then you are not going to be all that creative. That creativity and intrinsic motivation are very highly correlated.
So, focusing on extrinsic rewards like money or fame, or getting five-star reviews on Amazon, or getting a good review from a critic, or getting snarky comments on Twitter, the more you focus on that, the outcomes, whether they're good or bad, the less you'll be focused on the work itself, the less good the work will be. And of course, if you are a creative professional, then you have to take account of that arena, otherwise it's just a hobby.
So, that book was my response to that dilemma, how you navigate that and negotiate that, because it's an ongoing thing that we all have to do each day.
The one after that, Productivity for Creative People, is more to do with the nuts and bolts of how we get the creative work done. How you manage to carve out the time, for example, to write, when the world is probably not beating a path to your door saying, when is the next chapter ready?
There's all kinds of distractions and demands, and so on. Not to mention the internal resistance. So, this was everything that I'd learned from looking into research on creativity and studying the habits of highly creative people, and also what I had learned, what I felt was worth taking from the productivity and time management industry that was relevant to creatives, and putting that together in the book.
So, that was Productivity for Creative People, and then the latest one is, 21 Insights for 21st Century Creatives, and that was deliberately a shorter, lighter book, but maybe a more high-level one. I'd realized at that point I'd been coaching for 21 years. So, I thought, come on, I must have learned something from this, and I wrote this big, long blog post that was basically just 21 insights, and I got quite a lot of emails saying, Mark, this is great, but it's a really long blog post, can you do this as a pdf? And of course, I went away and thought about it and enlarged it and turned it into a book.
So, that's my latest book and I like that one because it gives you quite a lot of ideas, high-level ideas, and it will give you the insight and then get out of the way. It's not giving you the 10 steps to execute everything, because when you are really doing something creative, there isn't a how-to step, every step of the way.
Howard Lovy: In addition to his books, Mark hosts his own podcast for creative people and poets.
Mark McGuinness: Well, I've actually got two podcasts, which reflect my kind of split-screen career.
I have one called the 21st Century Creative, which as the title suggests, is for creatives, and that's a bit like the podcast version of my books. It's where I share ideas around creativity, motivation, productivity, personal development, anything that will be relevant and helpful for a creative. I have a gallery of great guests, writers, artists, designers, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, and so on.
Then my latest podcast is the poetry show, which is called A Mouthful of Air. I stole the title from WB Yeats, because he talked about his poetry, “I made it out of a mouthful of air”, which is a lovely way of just drawing attention to the oral quality of poetry, that it's older than writing, that even to this day, when poems are printed, you can still read it aloud, you can still listen to it, you can still have it as an audiobook or a podcast.
I really love exploring that dimension of the show. And going all the way back to what I was saying about when I first discovered poetry, focusing on a single poem at a time. So, every episode of A Mouthful of Air focuses on a single poem. So, the first thing you hear is that poem, and then you get, either if it's a classic poem by Yeats, or Shakespeare, or Emily Dickinson, or somebody, you will get me infusing for about 20 minutes or so, and just talking about how the poem is written, how it works, what I think is great about it, what might not be apparent at a first listen, and then you hear the poem again, and the idea is that it should sound different the second time because of the added context that you have. So, that's half of the show, where I will read a classic poem and enthuse about it.
The other half of the show is in episodes where I invite contemporary poets to come along and they read one of their poems, and then I ask them, where did the poem come from, what was it that prompted that in your imagination, and then also how did it evolve in the writing process? And I guess if you're a professional writer, this is a really interesting set of interviews to listen to, because you will hear really high-level poets talking about the making of an individual piece, and you can hear the whole of that piece because it's a single poem, and how that came together.
Quite a lot of writer friends and clients and listeners have told me it offers a different kind of window onto the writing process that maybe is a little bit different to what they would get if they're focused on fiction or on non-fiction advice.
Then again, once we get to the end of the interview, you hear the poem again, and people tell me it's a little bit like the magic eye, that things pop out at them the second time round that weren't apparent the first time.
Howard Lovy: Mark's advice to other creative people who want to build an author career, start by looking inside yourself.
Mark McGuinness: I would say always start with love. Start with what you really love about the kind of writing that you want to do, and if you're not entirely sure about what that is, then start with curiosity, because very often this is where a poem will start from me. I get a line in my mind or an idea or an image, and I just think, well, let's just play around with that. Just write that down and see where it goes, and this is the magic thread that you want to have going through your career because if you start to put your work out into the world, you will experience rejection, you'll experience all kinds of resistance and so on, and the challenges don't end there because when you become successful, that provides its own kind of distraction.
You know I was saying earlier on about extrinsic motivations, if you become too focused on sales, on money, on fame, on what other people think, on the pressure to deliver the same kind of hit that you delivered last time; all of that will take you away from what you love in the work.
So, it's really important that you know how to recognize when you are back home as a writer, when you are in that space where you are writing from curiosity, from love, from imagination, from the writing being its own reward. And each time you come back to that kind of unusual gift, ultimately, it's the only thing that really makes this worthwhile, because you can get money and fame and status and praise from plenty of other occupations, but we're the stubborn ones because we want to do this through writing. We want to do it through creativity. So, never forget that.
But writing from love, that's your home as a writer, and always leave the door open and leave the magic trail there so that you can find your way back.