Writing the Magic

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Books may be the only true magic.

Alice Hoffman

The last time I wrote, I wanted to explain that even successful books, don’t, for most people, make a great deal of money. I intended to follow that up with another post, about how satisfying the writing life actually is, despite the fact it doesn’t make you rich…but my day job got very busy and I never had the chance.

I’m actually quite good at making money. I could make a great deal more if I wanted. I’ve got four business ideas right now, for where I currently live and the capital I’ve got available.

But instead, I continually decide to keep spending my time making magic.

Right now, I’m writing a timeless story as true as stone. It feels as if I’ve heard it before, a hundred times, as if I heard it as I went to sleep every night for a thousand years…but it’s really brand new. My characters – a feckless dreamer of a poor boy and a spoilt brat of a rich girl – are stereotypes…but you’ve never met these extraordinary people before.

Their incredible journey of love and hope and their impossible love is inspired by the true story of my engagement ring. Andy and I found this ring at an antique stall in The Angel, Islington in North London. We sent the money back to friends in London, who bought it for us and posted it to Yellowstone National Park. In Bozeman, Montana, we found the stone had been substituted with glass. In my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, Goldmaker’s Jewellers cut another stone to fit the setting.

The stone was lovely, but kept falling out because the Edwardian setting had poorly-made prongs. In Bond Street, back in London six years later, Andy had the shank of the ring mended and sorted out the prongs that held the stone, as well. He also had assay marks put in.

Ten years after that, it was stolen from our tent as we slept with our four-year-old daughter, twenty miles from Paris, France. The thieves were Eastern European youngsters, exploited by an Italian gang-master.

The insurance provided another ring. I hated it. I sold it and bought a new garden shed with the money and got another vintage ring. The stone fell out of that one and was lost forever. The insurance gave us more money…I bought a silver one. I didn’t like it, either.

For seven years, I kept an Ebay search running. Every once in a while, I would look for my ring. And one day, I saw it.

I phoned Andy. We had very little money at the time, but he said, ‘Buy it. Buy it right now.’ I did. That’s when I discovered it was in Stroud, a town about twenty miles away from where we live. I felt like it had been trying to come home.

Still, I couldn’t quite believe it when I opened the box. But yes, there was the chip on the side from rock climbing in the Tetons. There were the ever-so-slightly wonky prongs. It was my ring. Impossible. But true.

So, Alice Hoffman was both right and wrong. Writers do make magic when we sit down and create a story. But that’s not the only magic in the world. There is magic all around us in love and hope and improbable kindness and coincidence and happenstance and…and it’s all as true as a blue-stoned ring.

On ‘Am I Getting Rich?

The writer’s life: Hard days, lots of work, no money, too much silence. Nobody’s fault. You chose it. ”

― Bill Barich

Short answer: (spoiler alert) No.

Author’s incomes are actually going down, not up. Publishing is a perilous enterprise these days and one way of trying to make it pay is giving most authors a great deal less than they got ten years ago. This week a bestselling Irish author decided to go back to his full time job, so that he could pay his mortgage. Most of us survive (as Ros Barber explains eloquently) by cobbling together part-time teaching jobs, school visits and other paid work.

But what do we mean by ‘getting rich’?

I think we mean feeling comfortable. Being financially secure. Even…and this almost never happens to writers: becoming financially independent.

I don’t feel comfortable or secure. If I get ill or I lose my job, my family will be in trouble. But looking at it from the standpoint of cold, hard income and outgoings, evidently my personal financial position isn’t as precarious as it feels.

Because when I research it, I’m already rich.

Looked at from a global perspective, I’m in the top 14%. In the UK, my family are in the top 26%. Trust me, if you could see my 13 year old car, my IPhone 5c and my two-up, two-down terraced house, (let alone my haircut) your first thought wouldn’t be: there goes someone rich. But clearly, I am. So, why don’t I feel rich?

So why are writers moaning about money?

I think it’s because, compared to other professions, it is so poorly paid. If you study Law or Medicine or an academic subject for years and work hard and become a success – if you become a QC or a Consultant or a Senior Lecturer/Professor, you make a very good wage. If you study writing for years and work hard and become a success – you make less than minimum wage and have to do other work to supplement your income. In the end, that means we all get less writing and writing that is less imaginative, free and inspired. Because in the back of our minds, writers are wondering how we’ll pay the mortgage if we get ill.

 

On Still Not Being Famous

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Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.

–Virginia Woolf

I’ve written a book that lots of people love. I’ve been nominated for big prizes. I’m doing literary festivals. I’m going into schools. I’ve been interviewed by lots of magazines.

But I’m still not famous.

In films, when writers write a good book, they become famous, almost immediately. In real life, not so much. People squint when they meet me at cocktail parties and say, ‘Should I have heard of you?’ I have to spell my name three hundred times when I sign up for a new service. At the bank, when the machine ate my debit card and I was trying to prove my identity, they weren’t all that impressed with what ID I had in my pockets. In desperation, I went to my car and pulled out a copy of Dreaming the Bear. It has my photograph and name. The bank clerk wrinkled her nose. ‘The thing is,’ she said, ‘Books aren’t on our accepted list.’ Nobody is all that impressed that I’ve written a book people love.

And the thing about awards is that many are long-listed but few get the actual prize. If you hang about, hopping from one foot to the other, hoping for validation, you’re going to have a long wait and might not win in the end. If you look back and see what won and lost in a given year, you’ll see the prizewinner sometimes wasn’t the book you still remember…or sometimes isn’t the book that’s still in print.

The fact is, it’s a long game. You can’t second guess yourself. You keep learning and writing and hoping you’ve done good work. If you are very, very lucky, you’ll get some recognition in your lifetime. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women twenty years before she died. She knew it was popular. But she had no idea we’d still be reading it – nearly 150 years later. Big names fade. Obscure authors suddenly pop up into our notice…sometimes years after their deaths. If you try and measure your worth as a writer by recognition, you will probably not get it right.

Much better to be in it for the game than the fame. And to take it easy on minding the opinions of others.

 

 

 

 

…and then a year had passed

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You are a writer. The ‘normal’ ship sailed without you long ago.

Terri Main

A great many things have happened since I last posted here. Dreaming the Bear has been nominated for many awards and is just about to come out in the USA. Coyote Summer will be published in June and Hospital High comes out in September.

It’s all go.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m having a marvellous time. I love all my books. I love my editors and publishers. I’ve met some amazing people and I get to hang out with my writer friends again. I go into schools and talk to young people about how reading and writing can change their lives. They call me inspiring…I think it’s the other way around.

But there’s no doubt about it. I’m working very hard. I lecture half time at one university, have a Royal Literary Fellowship at another and have done guest lectures at four more in the last few months. I also do writing training for other kinds of people – social workers, engineers, long-time unemployed, business people, PR professionals. It’s what you have to do these days to make a living from the writing…and my living is the main income for the family.

So, everything is lovely. But I looked up, and then a year had passed. I won’t let it happen again. From now on, I’ll keep you in touch.

Why I Write

You are never stronger than when you land on the other side of despair

Zadie Smith

 

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When I was fourteen years old, I died in a car accident. Of course, it was only temporary, but my injury was long lasting. My voice box was crushed.

Until then, I’d been a singer. I was just about to have my first televised solo – I’d already been performing in choirs and musical theatre and singing with my cousins’ band. I had no doubt that my future would be in the performing arts – I spent all my spare time in rehearsals or in voice and dance classes.

Suddenly, however, I had no way to express myself creatively. And more than that, for the best part of three years, I couldn’t speak at all. I had to write, in order to communicate – with my mother and the hospital staff…and then with friends and family.

I’d always been a voracious reader and had always messed about with words. I’d done some songwriting with friends and on my own and I did the young poet thing of rolling words around in my mouth to taste how they sounded…I was on the writing edge of performance, anyway. I suppose the accident just tipped me over.

So that’s the story of why I write. But it’s not the whole story.

Much of my motivation for writing is about trying to change the way the world works – about combating injustice and poverty and illness and ignorance. I write because I wasn’t sober enough to do Law or patient enough to nurse. I write because the only thing I’m particularly good at is telling stories. I write because it combats my own helplessness and despair and because I believe the stories I tell help other people combat theirs. I especially like making young people feel stronger and more resilient about the challenges they might face in their own lives with my stories. The stories I loved as a child certainly did that for me in my own time of great challenge.

Reading fiction is a way to live more than one life, to cram more experience and existence and sensation into our time on earth. Reading fiction is a way of putting two fingers up at Death, and so is writing fiction. I write the truest things I know, in the most beautiful way I can. It’s a transparent bid to become immortal.

I’ll let you know how that works out.

 

 

 

Finding Time To Write

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I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.

— Maya Angelou

In my last post – quite long ago now – I said that you can’t write world-class fiction and conform to societal norms for women. It’s been an even longer time since Virginia Woolf said, in A Room of One’s Own, that if you don’t have a private income and staff and your own room, it’s going to be nearly impossible.

Jeanette Winterson, in an interview with The Guardian in 2004, didn’t think things have changed. “I never wanted children, but if I’d been deeply in love with a man and he’d wanted children, it would have been difficult,” she said. “I never wanted to be a part-time writer; work had to come first, which is selfish and self-directed, and you couldn’t do that as a wife and mother – though it may be possible now, in partnership with the right man, because boys have grown up differently.”

My husband is brilliant – he and my cleaner do nearly all the housework and he does our ironing, but even with the ‘right man’, it’s not easy.

If you are working, even part time, and doing the normal things expected of women in our society: baking cakes for fetes, checking on elderly neighbours, helping with care – or, more likely, wholly in charge of care – for children and other relatives, planning, shopping and making meals, keeping the garden looking nice, knowing where the hockey stick is, showing the world a groomed and nicely-dressed persona every morning, spending time nurturing the huge web of relationships that make up women’s social lives, spending time with your partner… If you then try to put reading and writing into the crazy mix of most women’s parenting years (and we are talking about over 20 years average), you are setting yourself up for failure.

A male writer can be moody, abstracted, absent from his children, ignore his friendships, be dishevelled and barely speak to his wife, let alone remember to take out the bins and mow the lawn… and if he is working and writing, people will actually see this kind of behaviour as heroic. It is not the same for women writers.

Let me give you an example… My male colleagues often show up to work actually a bit smelly, certainly untidy and often with stains on their jumpers, torn jeans, badly needing a haircut or perhaps a good shave… imagine a woman showing up to work in a similar state…yesterday’s makeup, hair on end, dirty clothes, smelling a bit (of smoke and drink)…unshaven legs, unplucked chin hairs…how well do you think any work place would support that woman?

I know it’s funny, but it shows the difference in our minds about what is acceptable behaviour for male writers and what is acceptable behaviour for female writers. Women have just as much passion and concentration and absorption in our relationship to our work as our male counterparts. But most of us can’t go away for three months on a residency, or live in our rooms, letting the rest of the family fend for themselves for half a year, or even wear a stained jumper or miss a shower. Hilary Mantel, in a recent conversation with Fay Weldon, moaned about having to get her hair done every day when she did American tours. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Hilary Mantel to have to mess about with her hair when she could be writing. How much time does Martin Amis spend on his hair before he does television?

This concern is all about time. It takes time to listen to your elderly neighbour’s story about her day trip to Pontypridd, to bake two dozen sodding cupcakes, to avoid feeding your family fish fingers and chips for the two years you are writing your novel. It takes time to shower and blow dry your hair and pluck your effing chin hairs. And all that time you are doing all that stuff, is time you are not writing and you are not reading and you are not going to events where you can meet important people. It’s time when you are not able to have your chance to do your best. 

So.

Back to kicking ass. Febreeze is a writing woman’s best friend and I highly advise you to keep a bottle on your dressing table for those days when yesterday’s jeans aren’t quite as fresh as you hoped. And when someone says something to you like ‘Don’t you line dry your sheets?’ or ‘Are you ready for Christmas?’ Say, ‘No. I write great books instead.’ ‘No. Did you get your Author’s Foundation Grant application into the post in time?’

I, my friends, have committed to a serious programme of kicking ass. And I suggest you do, too.