Other Writers II – Finding Your Tribe

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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!

 

Other Writers I: Writing Friends

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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.

More On Why We Write

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I’ve been working on my fictionalised account of dying in a car accident. It wiped me out yesterday, writing about dying again. I felt sick and shaky and in describing my PTSD, I nearly started it up again. I had a few flashbacks, but then had a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit and they stopped. It must be good, I thought, to be that powerful. I took Dog for a walk just to be on the safe side.

While I was walking Dog, I ran into a lady from church and Dog played with her dog while we chatted. I said something about my day and she said, ‘That must be very cathartic, writing it all down like that. You must feel soooo much better.’

Well no, I didn’t answer. I feel a whole lot worse, actually.

I  know writing can be therapeutic, but it can also be destructive. Obsessively looking and reliving any event can be less than useful to building a healthy psychology. And writers are often sickly people anyway. They start noticing things because they are sitting quietly, out of the way. They have time to write because they didn’t get chosen for the hockey squad, or (like a surprising number of our MA students) got injured by horses, or have a kind of shyness that almost amounts to an injury. We are, generally, just the kind of people who need to get out more in the fresh air and worry less.

Shelley’s idea that we are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ might also be true, in a way, but we legislate for lots of different parties. In my bookshelf, Jane Austen sits next to William Burroughs (it’s not that I don’t have any Balzac, etc, I just roughly alphabetise and there’s room for both of them on that particular shelf). I worry about it all the time. I know they’re not getting along. Depending on what you think is right and wrong in this world, you will find great authors who are actively promoting what you think is wrong. Writing does not tell us how to live…if we are looking for it to do that, we have gone seriously astray. If we think we are supposed to do that for other people, we will be very disappointed.

Both of these concepts take the emphasis actually away from the writing and put it on what the writing is about. But what the writing is about isn’t nearly as important as how the writing is. When we read creative writing, we are able to inhabit the sensibilities of another person – the writer- who, themselves, might be writing in a way that they, too, are attempting to inhabit the sensibilities of another person. The writing itself, the how-good-is-it-ness of the writing, enables us to do this spectacular thing; bridge out of our own consciousness.

When people ask me why I write, I always say, ‘To serve God.’ That’s me, as a Catholic, as someone who promises every morning that ‘each word, each deed, each thought of mine shall be an act of love divine’, and every evening acknowledges my failure to accomplish the morning’s promise. I don’t mean that I’m writing religious tracts. I mean that I’m writing as well as I can, to make these bridges.

It’s great work. Sometimes it’s even rewarded.

But that’s another post.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/08/literary-fiction-improves-empathy-study

Riding the Just-broke Horse

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I’m waiting.

I had a phone call with Editor O’ My Dreams this week and we talked about what she wants from the beginning of my fictionalised-memoir-of-dying-in-a-car-accident. What she’s asked  is going to be quite challenging. She wanted the fiction to show more than the memoir about my life before the accident, about what I lost when I lost my voice. But now that she has that, she misses the immediate sympathy and hook of the original beginning, which took you just to the moment when I was struggling to stay alive. Somehow, I now have to weave both into the beginning.

I tried to work on it yesterday, but my imagination wouldn’t come when I called.

It’s like that.

And I really wouldn’t want it any other way.

One of my first jobs was as a cowgirl. Well, I could ride and we’d all had to leave the ski hill where I was working early because the snow just…stopped. In Montana. In January. It wasn’t like there were tons of jobs waiting for us. I could string fence and I could ride and I knew how to move cows around. I have no idea how I knew how to move cows around. I’d never done it before. But on my trial, I motivated them through a gate as if I’d been born doing it. The rancher ‘s wife was impressed and I was hired.

I also got involved with training horses (and, later, mules, but that’s another story). I was working as a waitress in an all-night diner on the graveyard shift and feeding cattle and riding fence in the early mornings. I slept from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, but then I had some free time. I was also usually still wearing my jeans and boots, having collapsed on top of the quilt. I thought I might as well make some extra money, so I took on the training.

Some of the horses were just-broke. You could get them to come to you, eventually, and you could get the saddle on, usually. What happened when you got into the saddle was not predictable.  There was only one thing about them of which I was certain. They loved to run.

They were still young. They could still remember the freedom of the big fields and ranging the mare/foal pastures. They couldn’t wait to shake the fidgets out of their legs. I stopped riding not long after that time, after a bad fall which dislocated both arms and my nerve. But back then, I was still totally fearless with ten or twelve years of riding under my belt. I’d raise up a bit in the stirrups (I’ve always liked them a bit short), lay down on their necks and just fly.

The mountains were high and snowcapped. The air was angel-pure and burned your lungs with cold. It was, I suppose, about as close to heaven as we mortals get.

And that’s just what it’s like when the writing comes. I lose track of my fingers and what they’re doing. I forget that I’m making a world with pixels on a screen. I just fly.

But first, I have to catch the horse. It will come to me, eventually. And I’ll be able to get the saddle on, usually. But sometimes I can’t and sometimes it won’t come when I call.

It’s like that.

On Being Irrepressible

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I’m going to talk about writing. I’m going to say something very profound and important. But first I’m going to talk about my hair.

My hair. Sigh.

Some of you have always known me with straight white-blond hair. The fact is, I thought I’d bleach it white and that made it straight (I also made it break and made my scalp bleed a little, too, but hey, ho). I couldn’t keep doing that (even though I loved how it looked) so I’ve had to go back more to my original colour. And my curls are starting to boing up. Straightening them takes me half the day. Cutting them off seems to be the better option. There’s just no stopping my hair, once it starts.

And, now that I’ve given myself permission to start writing again, there’s no stopping that, either. I’m still waiting for the Editor O’ My Dreams to come back to me. I delivered two new manuscripts to my agent last week (well, one new, one rewritten after her comments) and, over the weekend, I started another, which will be a follow-on to the based-on-a-true-story ms with the Editor O’ My Dreams.

And something else seems to be happening, too. I’ve always read every book I started. All my life. Some, like James Joyce’s Ulysses (which I read far too young) I threatened to leave, but I didn’t. Every crappy romance found on a rainy day at a B&B, every sports biography opened during a sleepless night at a relative’s house, every Rainbow Magic Fairy book my daughter pressed into my unwilling hands – I read them all to the last horrible page.

Now, I’m not. I’m saying to myself, ‘That’s too self-indulgent. I’m not reading any further.’ Snap shut the cover. I’m saying, ‘This is too densely referential and all the research is ruining it for me.’ Regretfully pat and put back into library bag.

I’m not reading anything else that I don’t like. Even if the writer won the Nobel.

The fact is, when I became  a professional writer, I started listening to what people told me about writing. About mine, about other people’s… I rather lost my own sense of taste, my own understanding of what is good and what is not. I’ve got no beef with Louise Rennison – she’s dead funny. But I’ve had the fiction director of my publishing house sit down with me and ask me if I thought I could write more like her.  And felt bad because I didn’t think I could ever say yes.

Well, goodbye to all that. Life is too short to read books you don’t like…and much too short to write them.

I’m afraid my taste in writing, like my hair, is becoming, once again, completely irrepressible. My hair colour might change again. But that won’t.

Readers

 

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At the university where I teach, we have lovely gardens. In fact, we have listed, conserved gardens. This September, after the lovely summer, they looked absolutely spectacular. ‘Wow,’ I said to one of the gardeners, ‘it looks amazing.’

She sighed and leaned on her spade. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I wish we didn’t have to have to students back.’

I just smiled and kept walking (I frequently hit the gardening staff up for cuttings), but inside i was thinking, ‘You wouldn’t be here without the students. The place might not have survived without the students. The students are the whole point.’ 

And it’s the same with readers. I’ve just had an email from an undergraduate student. Her novel is turning out experimental. She’s horrified that her tutor wants her to think about readership. I hope I can straighten her out on Friday…convince her that the two are not mutually exclusive. 

Some writers never think about their readers, ‘I write what I want to read,’ they say. ‘If I like it, I know they will.’ And that, of course, works…if there are enough people a lot like you. If you are plugged into the zeitgeist in a personal, fundamental way. But it doesn’t work for all of us. It especially doesn’t work if your reader is ten. Or fourteen. Or two. 

Readers aren’t just there to react to your genius. Readers make up half of the book. You don’t write the story world…you write signs that point to it. The reader makes up the rest in his or her mind. You say someone, ‘has a beard, baggy corduroy trousers and a vacant expression’ and they add the rest to make a whole person.

Take a moment to read that description again: What do you see? Is your person’s hair thinning? Do they stoop a little? Do they wear half-moon glasses down on their nose? Mine does. Yours might not. And that shouldn’t matter. 

A good relationship with your readers means that you are both making up much the same book. That you aren’t ruining the book they are making up as they read and they aren’t ruining the book you are making up as you write.

Good agents and editors understand readers so well, that they can often guess where readers might have problems with a writer’s manuscript. They help the writer build little bridges of meaning across the soggy bits. 

I’m going to talk to the Editor O’ My Dreams about my manuscript at the end of the week. I’m going to talk to my agent tomorrow…and I’ve just sent her two new manuscripts. I’m getting several people to read my Adventure Story With Dog – people with Army backgrounds to see if I’ve hit the right note. Lots of new readers, reading lots of new things. 

It’s pretty scary, sometimes. 

But it’s also very satisfying. Because the story doesn’t happen without the reader, the words on the page are not the story. The story only becomes real when the person reading it makes up their own corduroy-clad character, maybe one with bushy hair and a lop-sided bowtie. That’s when it lives, when it stops being ‘your book’ and becomes ‘their book’. 

Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of marks you’ve put on the page. It might be pretty. It might be just like you liked it. But there’s nobody smelling your roses. 

 

Afore Ye Go

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At railway stations, there used to be large signs advertising Bells Whisky. ‘Afore Ye Go’ was their slogan – in WWI, they gave away drams of whisky to disembarking troops.

The last time I wrote this blog, I thought I might be about to die. I’m not.

I also wrote about considering giving up writing. I’m not doing that, either.

But to be honest, I’ve considered giving up writing for years now. It’s been a hard time for me. I’ve had some rotten luck with publishers; good editors leaving or being forcibly retired and then me and my books pushed onto editors who didn’t want or like them, a publicity director getting sacked just when one of my books came out – so no review copies sent out – and then being pulled into a meeting for poor sales… I know I shouldn’t moan, but it does get to you, eventually.

I’ve done extraordinary things in order to write. I was engaged to a man who left me because I ‘spent too much time writing’. I used to wake up at four a.m. to write before cycling into Oxford Circus from Stoke Newington and working a ten hour day. I cycled because it was quicker and I could write longer. When we lived with my in-laws and I was trying to rewrite my first novel, I’d get up at five and get a lift with my father-in-law to a condemned house, which had been owned by friends. I had a small paraffin heater, and I’d take a flask of tea. Toilet facilities were a bit grim.

I used to be passionate about my writing. But I’d taken so many punches (at work and in publishing) that all the passion had been punched out of me.  I kept on writing in fits and starts, but I had no confidence, so I had no passion. It certainly didn’t seem more important than, say, the laundry, or a pile of marking. Nobody seemed to value it, so I didn’t either.

When I thought I might be about to die, I really had to ask myself: do you want to keep doing this? If you only have a few years left, do you want to spend any of it alone in a room, typing?

Something extraordinary has happened as a result. I’ve rediscovered my passion. I’m saying, ‘No, I can’t make breakfast, sweetie, I have to write.’ I’m saying, ‘I can’t finish this marking in the time I’ve got because I can’t work ten hours a day unpaid.’ I’m saying, ‘Mummy loves you very much, darling. Now go and do something else for another hour.’

And I’m writing, writing, writing, writing, writing, writing, and writing.

Afore I go.