Herein a little vlog about how writing can transcend time, space and culture…I love the silly still photo on this film!
From time to time
the clouds give rest
to the moon beholders.
Herein a little vlog about how writing can transcend time, space and culture…I love the silly still photo on this film!
From time to time
the clouds give rest
to the moon beholders.
For the last two years, I’ve come onto this page, posted something (usually moaning about writers’ money) and promised to post regularly. Then I’ve disappeared again…for months at a time.
I have shame.
But the fact is, things are going well. My books are being reviewed and are actually selling (I got a royalty cheque – I thought they were fictitious). I’ve got a new job…I’m now Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol…and I wrote a new book over the summer.
In the photos, you can see me hanging out in Soho, signing a stack of Coyote Summer at the Bristol Waterstones and attending my last graduation at Bath Spa University in my doctoral robes from the University of the West of England. (In case you didn’t know, your official academic robes are decided by the last place that awarded you a degree. Academics spend all their time at graduation examining each other’s robes and talking about the ones they like, wishing they’d thought about this when they’d decided where to do their PhD.)
And then there’s the photo of the most glamorous thing of all – hanging out with eminent children’s authors and discussing how to help families re-wild themselves using our narratives. Julia Green, Gill Lewis, Nicola Davies and Jackie Morris were there as we discussed the #mywildworld initiative… and I even got to meet Karin Celestine and her wee felted animals. There’s a chance that some of these authors may come onto this blog and talk about their glamorous literary lives soon.
But let’s keep it real. I spent my summer holiday mainly at the tip as my hoarding family finally decided to declutter. I wrote my book so quickly because I had a stomach bug and was pretty much tied to my bed and the loo for two weeks. My royalty cheque is going to stop my shower from leaking through the kitchen ceiling. Then it will go towards repairing my kitchen from the deluge.
I’m still not rich and I’m still not famous. But I do love my literary life. And it is, sometimes, actually glamorous…
Here I am at AWP in Seattle.
AWP is HUGE. Think of the biggest conference/exhibition you’ve ever seen and double it. Now imagine all the attendees are writers…scary, isn’t it? I talked to staff in a big restaurant across the street from the venue. They’d never seen anyone eat like the writers. They’d never seen anyone drink so much, either (they kept running out of Jack Daniels and Pinot Noir). ‘And you talk so much,’ one waitress said, as everyone else nodded. ‘You’re always talking, and you interrupt each other to talk some more.’
With an estimated 14,000 writers in town, you do tend to see certain similarities in dress (some hip, some smart, most dishevelled) and behaviour. Most of us normally work alone, in a room, so we’re a bit overwhelmed and over-excited to be in such a big crowd. Some soon rather sort themselves into roaming packs. The memoirists and poets form big clubs and have long-running discussions in which sides are passionately taken.
But the fiction writers don’t do this…there’s too many of us. We go to many of the same panels and events, but we wedge ourselves into rooms designed for fewer attendees, sitting on each other’s feet to hear the speakers. And then we hide more, skulk in our hotel rooms.
There are so, so, so many of us. All publishing, or trying to publish novels this year, next year or the year after. Thousands and thousands of us, publishing novels. It can feel a little disheartening.
Talking to the many publishers present can help. The small and university presses, in particular, have to have a strong sense of mission. They know what ‘their’ kind of books/stories are and that’s what they look for. Other things might be good, but it’s not what they do.
That’s the attitude you need to have as a fiction writer. You need to know what you do and what you don’t do. You need to know who is doing the same kind of thing you are doing. You might admire and enjoy other kinds of writing, but you should have a good idea of your home interest, your tribe.
When you do this, you can build relationships with the writers and publishers that are working in your area. You can even club together and promote the whole concept of your tribe. Genre writers – in particular romance writers and science fiction novelists – are brilliant at this.
It’s easy to feel like a voice in the wilderness in this game. Or else, like at AWP, one wildebeest in an enormous herd of wildebeests. When you find your tribe, it gives you power. Now you are a pack of wolves, making each other bigger and stronger by working together.
With what I am writing now, I am finding more and more people I recognise as part of my tribe…I’ve never fit well into one before. I’m looking forward to hunting with them and seeing what, together, we can bring down!
When we’ve finished a piece of writing, there’s only one thing we want to know. Is it any good?
When you’re beginning, and sometimes far into your writing career, you often can’t tell by yourself. You’ve looked at a given piece of writing so long, and have written it over and over. Sometimes you just can’t see it any more.
If you give it to your mother, or your best mate or your sweetheart, they’ll tell you how wonderful it is, and how wonderful you are. But that’s not what you needed to know. You needed to know, is it any good? And they can’t tell you.
Usually they can’t tell you because they don’t know all that much about great writing. But sometimes they can’t tell you because they know too much about great writing, but not a whole lot about how writing and writers develop. And sometimes they can’t tell you because your whole relationship is in the way.
This is where other writers come in handy.
Writing groups are not a new phenomenon. Think about the Romantics…the Lake poets, brother and sister Wordsworths, Coleridge, Southey, de Quincy. Think about the Beats…Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Snyder, Corso. Think about what Dorothy Wordsworth did in terms of editing and encouraging other people’s work. Think about Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the great Beat poet, and publisher. Dorothy and Lawrence wrote themselves, of course, but they were also great enablers of writing…we owe some of the best work of the last century to the energy and vision they brought to their writing groups.
I met with my own writing group two nights ago. I don’t go as often as I need to. I don’t participate as much as I’d like. Sometimes I can’t read everyone’s manuscripts. Sometimes I don’t submit my own writing early enough or at all. But although manuscript critique is important, in the end the place to talk about your writing can be even more important.
What happens, when writers get together to enable each other’s writing is an explosion of creativity. No one knows this better than Susan Tiberghien, author of One Year to a Writing Life. The group she’s gathered in Geneva, Switzerland fizzes with energy, and they give each other incredible support. Clubbing together, they are able to bring in writers from all over Europe to help and inform them. Like my own writer’s group, the members write many different styles and genres…and are achieving a remarkable publication rate.
The best academic writing programmes do this, too. At my university, twenty years ago, three English academics showed each other their own writing. Finally, they decided to offer a creative writing module in the English degree. Now, there’s a BA, three MAs and a PhD programme. There are over 400 students on two campuses, engaging with writing, and out of the MAs have come literally dozens of prize-winning poets, novelists and children’s authors.
One writer plus one writer does not equal two people writing. It does something else. The writing gets cleaner, the energy gets stronger. They take more risks. They work harder. They get…well…better.
I’m very much looking forward to this working with Writing Events Bath on February 17th. It’s easy to get blown off course when you’re in the middle or near the end of a long writing project. This workshop helps writers connect with and articulate their own literary aesthetic; and remember what they love about reading and writing. Participants will take away a series of self-generated expressions of their taste, choice and passion in and for prose fiction.
It’s nearly midnight and I really should be asleep. There’s no guarantee the new puppy will sleep through the night and I have (of course) lots to do tomorrow. But I wanted to share something with you before I close my eyes.
I just finished watching Moneyball, a very good baseball film. We watch lots of baseball films in our house…and we have quite a little baseball library, too.
I love baseball. There’s something about the moment where one person is under the falling ball/batting with the bases loaded/pitching for the last out. If he catches it/gets a hit/strikes out the batter, he’s a hero. If not, he’s a total schmuck. It reminds me an awful lot of the writing life. Sooner or later it comes down to that…you and the great game. Will you score, or will you strike out?
I was too terrible at baseball to play softball in the long American summer breaks, but I had to play in school. Our PE teacher soon learned to frisk my glove for books. He was always urging us to run out every ball. I was placed far in the outfield, where my total absence of athleticism could do the least damage, but even so, a hit ball sometimes trickled my way. ‘Run for it!’ he’d scream.
Honestly. The other fielders were way faster than I was and could actually throw the ball once they’d caught it. Running after a ball I knew I couldn’t throw and taking it away from worthier teamates seemed stupid .
‘Why didn’t you run out the ball?’ the red-faced coach would demand.
‘I didn’t think I could catch it.’
‘Try! Run out every ball, even if you don’t think you’ll win it. One time you will, and it will all be worth it.’ I can see the poor man now, labouring to explain the concept. In vain, I’m afraid. I never, to my knowledge, ran out a ball.
That said, have a look at this Martha Graham quotation.
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly.
If that’s not running out every ball, I don’t know what is. I might not have listened to my poor PE teacher on the baseball field, but I certainly have taken his wisdom on board in my creative work.
Get in the habit of keeping the channel open and doing your work the best you can. Run out every ball, even the ones you don’t think you can catch. One day, you’ll surprise yourself and feel it hitting the palm of your glove.
There are some things about being a writer I really love. First of all, and as you know, I love not having to get dressed in order to do it. I love BEING a writer; I went onto campus for a quick meeting and was running late and couldn’t find my sandals, so I went barefoot. Nobody blinked an eye; writers are allowed eccentricities. And, perhaps best of all, you can write anywhere. Including, on a day like this; the garden, which is where this week’s photo is set.
With me, but stubbornly refusing to be in shot, is my writing companion, Dotty the cat.
Big changes are about to happen to Dotty, though she doesn’t know it yet. Tonight, the new puppy comes home. A labrador.
Well, she’s been having territorial problems and our garden and house have been invaded so often that she’s had to go on antidepressants, to stop her from grooming off all her fur. The dog will keep her company while we’re gone and also will protect her from invaders. But I don’t think she’ll realise that when the puppy arrives this evening.
It’s hard to recognise when we need to change. Yesterday I talked to three writers who didn’t really want to change; either what they were writing, or how they were writing it, or how they thought about it. And it’s true that you can only change things so much before you lose the reason you wanted to write something in the first place; but I don’t think that’s the only reason we resist changing our writing.
I think we fear the death of something we’ve created – even if it’s only a phrase we love that everyone else thinks we should cut. There’s a little death in every change; but there’s a little death in every growth, too. The seeds I plant this week will have to die in order to make a plant; if they remain seeds, they’ll die anyway, from rot. The writer who wrote The Saint Who Loved Me is no longer with us – the me I was ten years ago, before I had my daughter, is gone. But that writer could never have written Drawing Together.
Often the changes we resist are the changes we know we need to make. Having a friend or an agent or editor tell us that we need to change something doesn’t feel like news, it feels like a finger pressing on a bruise. We know…we know all too well that it needs changing. We know so much it hurts.
Today, I’m asking you to push yourself a little harder to try and change something you know needs it badly. After all, another wonderful thing about writing is that you can always change it back.
I ask my MA in Creative Writing students to come up with an ‘elevator pitch’ for their novels. ‘Tell us, in a few words,’ I say, ‘what your book is about.’ The problem is, of course, that a lot of them don’t know.
They might know they don’t know or they might think they know. But they really don’t. You don’t know what a book is about until you’ve written the first draft. And sometimes you don’t know even after it’s been published.
Take the amazing story my PhD student, Louise Johncox, is writing about her family’s teashop. Her family come from Poschiavo, in Switzerland (click here for a live web cam of the village), and have been patisserie chefs for literally hundreds of years. For the last one hundred years, they’ve run teashops in Britain, where they’ve made cakes, pies and their own chocolates. Louise’s generation did not continue the family tradition. It all ended with Louise and her siblings. When she started to write her book, she thought that was the story. But the real story was about conserving the family recipes, many of which were only in her ailing father’s mind, and about coming to terms with the inevitable loss of her handsome, talented, dynamic, larger-than-life father in the only way journalist Louise could…by writing him into immortality.
So this week, I’ve discovered what Hospital High is really about. It was obvious, actually. I’m surprised I didn’t see it in the first place. I think I was just too close to the story to notice that it needed to be explained.
I wanted to be a singer when I was younger. It was everything to me. And I was good. When I died in the car accident, one aspect of me, the singer, never came back. But I learned to sing with paper and pen, instead. Obvious, really, especially when you consider that for the majority of the years covered in the memoir I couldn’t speak at all, but could only write in order to communicate. But I managed to overlook that element. I left it out altogether.
Now, I’m charging ahead on the manuscript, making all this clear. I have that heady, heedless feeling that only comes at the end, when you know where the manuscript is going and you don’t really care if the house burns down, as long as you can sit somewhere warm and comfortable and keep writing, perhaps a cozy place by a burning rafter… For the first time, I think I might actually be done with this book, if not this Thursday, than surely by the next. And I mean it this time, because this time I know what I’m doing.
Here I am in my office at Bath Spa University, and in the background, you can just see my office mate; the performance poet Lucy English. I also share the office with poet Carrie Etter and novelist Celia Brayfield. They’re all wonderful writers, teachers and friends…it gets quite silly in here on the infrequent days when we’re all in.
Like us, most writers also do other paid work. And like us, many writers teach as that paid work. Not all of them should. My colleagues and I put our hearts and our souls into the work we do with developing writers. We constantly try and improve our modules and our delivery. We keep in touch with students long after graduation (it’s my chief way of making new friends), and we are delighted with our students’ successes.
Even if I didn’t ‘have’ to teach, I would. I get so much from it. I’m always being made to think properly about what good writing is, issues of craft, issues of ethics and morality. I’m always discovering something new about form. I’m always learning in class…far more than my students are learning from me (though, when I tell them that, they never believe it).
But more than this, I live in a world where writing is valued. I don’t have to explain to my colleagues about my writing life. ‘How’s it going?’ we say, by the photocopier. And the answer is always about our latest writing projects. Writing is ‘it’ to us; the Alpha and the Omega – the whole of the thing of life. Some of my colleagues are being shortlisted for the highest prizes in the literary world. Some of my adjunct colleagues are just starting out; just placing stories and poems. That doesn’t matter to us that much. We all know what does matter to us that much.
By the way, another Thursday has come and gone and I’ve still got Hospital High… I’m still making it better, you see. When I can’t do that any more, I’ll send it. That’s the craft, too…