Writer on a Train: Taking Pains

Photo on 2013-06-13 at 15.03


It’s a hard thing for students to understand: ‘Work may be technically correct and tell a coherent narrative and still not achieve a first class mark.’

You can write perfectly nicely and tell a story perfectly well and still not be any good.

Finding out whether or not you are any good is the main reason people do higher degrees in Creative Writing. In fact, talking about whether or not something is any good is the main reason Creative Writing exists as an academic subject. In the early 1980s/late 1970s English Literature became supremely uninterested in whether or not writing was any good. I can remember it vividly, because it happened to me in such a personal way. In the early 1980s, I was such a good BA Eng Lit student that I was urged to take classes at graduate level.

I got on well with the New Critics (who were Old Critics by then). In particular, I loved Cleanth Brooks. I felt he had my back and I had his. But suddenly, I was confronted by a whole different language. It was a WWI – WWII American Fiction seminar. We were reading A Farewell to Arms. And suddenly, instead of talking about narrative structure or characterisation or anything else I was prepared to discuss, we started talking about patriarchy, hegemonist masculinity. With effort, this became of tepid interest. But truly, all the fun of English Literature  had gone. I ended up taking far more distributive hours than I needed and inadvertently graduated with a minor in Geography.

So the ‘is in any good’ness is important, not just to my subject, but to me, personally. It’s the whole of my life that is in question: I am mostly, really, made up of text. When I die, I would like this question to be in some way answered.

At times i have thought, ‘Hell, yes, I’m brilliant.’ At times I have thought, ‘The reason you are obscure, Mimi, is that you are no damn good.’ I have rushed some work in the past. I have written quickly in order to feed my family and pay my mortgage. But I’ve written some really good stuff, too. Life is short and I’m over 50. I’m  not going write anything but my best ever, ever again.

A friend is submitting work to agents and getting rejections. And it hurts. I have realised I need to rewrite, not revise Hospital High, a memoir, into Losing My Voice, a fictionalised account of my death in a car accident at 14.  That hurts, too. I didn’t want to have to do it…there are other things I want to write, too, and I really want to have a new book out next year. But its not enough to write nicely and tell a compelling story. You have to take pains, if you want to be any damn good.

You have to take the pains.



The Doctor and The Mate – Friends Every Writer Needs

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I’ve just come back from the emergency ward/A&E, and since I’m pumped up full of steroids, I thought I’d share an insight about the writing life I had while I was there.

I have a health condition that I manage by basically ignoring it as much as I can. And that works until once every ten years or so, when it stops working and I need someone with a very specific and acute understanding of throats. And by that time, I need them quite quickly.

And then they do their thing and I’m okay again, which is where we came into the story.

It’s a lot like my new MA student. He is writing a certain kind of book (and if it’s as good as I think it’s going to be, I’ll be telling you about it later). It’s a very specific kind of book, a kind of book not all my colleagues like or read. In an hour together today, we saved his book’s life. It’s going to grow up to be a really brilliant story now.

I was his book’s throat doctor. I knew all the ins and outs of what had happened to it and what we needed to do to get it going again.  And we need people like that, in our writing lives. We need folks who give it to us straight, who say: Take This Particular Steroid Or You Might Die.

But we also need people like my great mate, who has been in and out of a few emergency rooms and specialist wards in her own life. People who will come get you and drive you to the hospital. People who will walk beside you and hold your hand. People who know absolutely nothing about your book (and perhaps won’t even like it or read it) but people who know about you.

People who, when you are saying, ‘I don’t want to take another steroid. That’s three today,’ say, ‘I think you better go ahead and take it. You’re upsetting the doctor.’ People who drive you to McDonalds on the way home and give you a hug once you’re there.

Your book has to work in order to survive. But you have to survive, too.  Sometimes you need to hear the tough advice. Sometimes you just need to hear that someone is behind you, caring that you achieve your dreams.


Hospital High, Blazing


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Most of my friends aren’t writers. I know and am fond of a great many writers, but I live in a small market town. My best mates do all kinds of things. We do the same things, too. Most of us go to my church or live on my street or our kids go to the same school in Bath. And they are, frankly, better at all the things we do the same. I’ve been trying to paint my hall for months – one of my mates has almost totally renovated her house in that time. All the mums at school keep saying, ‘Are you all ready for Christmas?’ The answer is no, not at all. Even though I’ve put all my church commitments in my diary, sometimes I forget that I’m meant to be reading or doing something else for the parish. I’m a trial to my great mates, the ushers at the Sunday morning Mass.

I know that they often wonder why I’m so…rubbish.

It’s the reading and writing, of course. And they forget.

Sometimes they say, ‘I don’t know when you do it all.’ And no, they don’t. Because they don’t understand. The writing…and the reading (which takes even more time) doesn’t go around the other elements of my life, like other work would. The reading and writing are the centre of my life. I am, mostly, made up of text. It is how I interact with the world, it is my primary essence. But that’s invisible to my friends. They may notice that there are piles of books everywhere in my house (as well as occupying the whole of one room and three other walls) but they don’t see me reading. They don’t see me writing.

My family knows my dirty secret. My daughter always used to draw me with a book in my hands. My husband calls up the stairs, ‘Mimi! We have to GO. Stop READING!’

It’s not my leisure time. It’s my life. And no, my tree isn’t up, thanks for asking.

Current ms; Hospital High, Blazing Heart

On Stretching ‘Till It Hurts

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I like my hair white. God is making my hair white, but he’s too slow. My hairdresser tells me it’s too dangerous and she won’t help me. And she’s right. I regularly destroy the ends of my hair and have to cut them off. And I often burn my scalp, bleaching my hair. I bleached it for two four-hour sessions yesterday and destroyed the ends. (I cut them off this morning.) And it’s still not really white – there’s a bit of yellow left in places. I’ll need to do more purple shampoos before it goes the colour I like.

On the other hand, it IS utterly fabulous.

My daughter, aged 10, is an ambitious dancer. She likes to see The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden (we get cheap seats and book the train months ahead of time). She fully expects to be dancing that well in ten years’ time (although she really is interested in becoming a choreographer). She’s just started training at a Russian Ballet School in Bristol, as well as at our local dance school. The Russian Ballet ask for a great deal more extension than my daughter has, and she’s been stretching assiduously. One day, in P.E. at school, she pulled an adductor muscle in her right leg. She’s having physio on it now, and off dance for the rest of the year.

On the other hand, her ballet has really improved.

Sophie has been in talks with a publisher I very much like, about Hospital High. They’d like me to make it more fictional than memoir, for me to ‘base it’ on my life experiences, but not conform to them. They’d like more about my relationships and about the 1970s setting. It’s a stretch. I might hurt it if I try to do that to it.

But on the other hand, it could be absolutely amazing.

To be amazing, you have to risk. To get better at something is to leave the way you’ve done it before completely behind. You don’t know it will work: you might lose, you might get hurt. But that’s art: being injured is almost guaranteed in ballet. Failing, regularly, is almost guaranteed in writing. You can live in the safety of what you know and do what you always do, I suppose. But it doesn’t sound much like living to me.

Current Manuscripts: Hospital High, Blazing Heart


See you in the sky

I’m happy. I’m happy because the Vice Chancellor has just come in to see my Creative Enterprise students’ work. I’m happy because I’ve spent all week in this room, talking to my students in their viva voce exams.

It’s inspiring.

It’s inspiring to hear all their new ideas. It’s inspiring to hear them talk about their ethos and morality and their own sense of aesthetic. And it’s simply lovely seeing young people succeed at something they put their hearts and souls into. When I get out of this room every afternoon, I feel like I could fly.

So, I thought I’d share them here, and let you be inspired, too.

Here’s Kara Rennie’s amazing blog about costume design: www.onscreenfashion.com

Here’s Nina Camacho’s inspiring upcycling blog: www.sohouseproud.com 

Here’s Tom Gill’s sports journalism: www.beyondthedugout.co.uk

and Eve Beddow’s work to raise awareness and funds for Lupus UK: http://kalauk.org/  

and Claire Holmes’ amazing event: www.playgroupfestival.com

I wish I could show you more…you’re missing out on some wonderful people and amazing projects. And what it does for me is amazing, too. I just want to run out of here and make things; make whole worlds, write and write and write. There are points, during the year, when I wonder why I do this work. And then I get to this week, and I know. My spirits soar and I just take off into the sky.

Some of these students were nothing special. Some of them made marks in the 50s and 60s and tootled along the university system. And then they get just a little encouragement to try something of their own and they…well they fly! I’m giving out a 90 this year. I’m giving out two other marks above 85%. And for a university culture that calls a 70% an A, that’s pretty darn mega.

What does that mean for you? Two things, I think. Listen to the young people around you, firstly, and try and hear what they are doing. Sometimes, with a little tiny bit of help, they can do so much more. And also, notice what happens when you get some support yourself.

I’ll see you up in the air.

The Wild Inside


Here I am, playing with the puppy after my writing time. He’s learning that if he hangs out with me while I write, we’ll play after I’m done. He may look little…but he’s got very sharp teeth. As he lay on his back today, biting at his nylabone as I teased it in and out the reach of those teeth, I had a thought. I thought of all the people who had done the same thing, over the years, with their puppies. And then I thought back, to what it must have been like when dogs were new things, and it was a bit of a chance to try and domesticate them.

I imagined a young man, teasing a bone in and out of his wolfish puppy’s mouth and looking, as I did, at those strong jaws and long canines. I thought of how valuable a dog would be to him, as a hunting aid and as protection. But what a gamble it must have been…with wolf packs waiting to welcome the dog back, it was a huge investment of time and trouble for what could turn into either a waste or a danger.

And I thought, too, of how soppy my Labrador will probably grow to be. He’s not going to do much hunting – we’re vegetarians. Will he even be able to recognise when we need protection? It’s a delicate balance, wanting a wolf-like creature, but not wanting them too wolf-like…just wolf-like enough.

Inside me, too, is a hungry wild thing. It is intensely ambitious. It burns in my stomach and beats on my heart. It wants to explode stories into being, it wants to hurl them at the stars. It’s not easy, sometimes, to do the crafting of the work, to make it fetch and carry the reader through, to make it polite and follow the rules.

I don’t want it to be wild, and go off into the woods and be useless. But I don’t want to civilise it too much, either. When no one is looking, I sharpen its teeth.

Getting Out There

Well, it’s been an exciting week!

  1. My wonderful agent, Sophie Gorell-Barnes, is sending Hospital High  out to publishers,
  2. I met with my new writing group and it wasn’t nearly as scary as I feared, and
  3. I’m recording with BBC Radio Four this afternoon…something about writers and their love of stationery.

It feels like a proper writer’s week… Of course, I’m most comfortable in my dressing gown, typing away in my room. But that’s no way to run a whole career. Fine for a hobby, but not for a life…

I used to teach a class for my second years about how to get published. For a year, it was made compulsory, and as I was walking up the stairs I overheard one boy say to another, ‘I don’t want to learn this sh*t. I just want to write.’

When we got into class, I announced that I had overheard this conversation. The class was shocked and silent, rather fearful of my reaction. I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you something. I don’t want to do this sh*t, either. I want to live in my room, write whatever I want and have money and food slid to me under the door. But that’s not going to happen for me and it’s not going to happen for you. So let’s get our pads and pencils out and learn how it really works.’

No matter what your creative endeavour, I urge you to get out and about a little this week. Go to a workshop or a fair. Talk to people about it a bit more. The rewards can be absolutely amazing, once you manage to get over the threshold of your room…

…even if it’s just to go over to someone else’s room!  (Thanks to Peter and his cat! For more about Peter’s wonderful nature and environmental writing, click on the photo.)

Why Write?


Why do we do it?

No, I’m serious, here. Why write full length fiction?

The drawbacks are immense… Unless you are very fortunate you will be underpaid and have to balance your writing life with another professional life, so you are working two jobs. Your entire life revolves around making things with words…so when you sleep/what you eat/what you drink etc., are all governed by your writing time. Your family must either be trained or escaped, and it puts a strain on all relationships…it takes very understanding friends to know that when you disappear for months on end, you still care for them but are only on a roll.  And then, at the end of all that, two words from a publisher or reviewer can make you feel it’s all been a waste of time and effort.

Life is a whole lot easier if you don’t write books.

Last week, I ran my ‘big ideas’ workshop for the redoubtable Alex and Jude’s Writing Events Bath. And as we talked about what a novel actually was, I felt the whole room’s desire to make one themselves. That desire hasn’t gone away in me, either. If anything, it’s gotten stronger with all the years and ups and downs.

Why write? Because you have to. Because you can’t stop. Because it’s the whole point of life.



Hurry Up and Wait

Well, it’s gone! Huzzah!

I was right that it wouldn’t take long to finish Hospital High once I knew what I was writing about…I sent it off to Sophie just now.

Now, I’ll do what authors learn to do best – I’ll wait.

First I’ll wait for Sophie to have time to read it. Then I’ll wait for her to send it out. Then I’ll wait for editors to come back to Sophie.

I hope I don’t have to wait too long!

In the meantime, I have my new book. I can’t wait to get started on it again. And after that, my bear book. So it’s not like I’ll just be filing my nails and watching daytime television…

But right now, I’m going to treat myself to a giant cup of tea and a bus ride to the garage to pick up my car. It’s going to be wonderful driving WITH a clutch.

Hope Sophie can help me pay for the repairs. I wonder how long it will take her to read it? I wonder how long it will take to sell? I wonder if I’ll get a good deal for it? I wonder …

Hey, I said we learn to wait. I didn’t say I already knew how…

What’s Your Book About???

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.