Writer On A Train: Being a ‘Real’ Writer

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I went to a posh girls’ school last month, with a team from my university’s outreach programme. I put a bit of effort into how I dressed, trying to fit in. But when I arrived, the receptionist looked me up and down and then said, ‘Oh, you must be the writer.’

It made me wonder. Was it just because my clothes weren’t crisply ironed? Was it that my hair had blown about a bit in the wind and got too curly? Was my lipstick too bright? Or did I actually look…in some way…arty? Writery? 

Today is my day off from my mammoth train journey. I’m at my in-laws’ house. I’ve written here quite a lot over the last 30 years, but now that they’ve both died, I’m finding it hard. 

Not being able to stop noticing things is what made me start writing to begin with, but it’s getting in the way today. It’s not like I can turn it off, though. It’s not like I can’t see that the bird feeder still has the cup for toast crumbs that my father-in-law went out in the snow to provide. It must have made him gasp for air…he was dying, even then, though we didn’t know it. I can’t keep myself from imagining him reaching, bracing himself on his stick, flopping down breathless and satisfied on the sofa when he was done. I can see just how his face would have looked. 

Not only can I not stop noticing things, I also can’t always stop imagining things.

My imagination has been strengthened by my writing practice.  I may not want to think about my mother-in-law, but every time I see the copper jelly moulds on the wall, I can see her standing back and regarding them with satisfaction. I can hear her say, in my mind, ‘I think that looks effective.’ And it breaks my heart. 

It’s my dreams, too. Since I started writing seriously, my dreams are no longer random silly images and vignettes. My dreams are well-structured and very three-dimensional. Sometimes they carry on from each other over several weeks, expanding into a huge coherent narrative. They’ve very convincing. The one about the rather large kitten I brought home that turned out to be a tigress was particularly disturbing. In it, my poor family kept trying to tell me that we were in danger from the rapidly growing cat…

There’s this concept that artists are driven to create – that ‘real’ writers ‘have’ to write. I’m not so sure about that. However, I do think, as in my previous post, we choose. And I also think that once we’ve chosen, there’s really no going back. 

In adolescence, humans begin to make huge, largely unconscious decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. We chose what is most valuable to us from our own brain structure. The brain, which has up to that point overdeveloped its synaptic functions, then begins to prune itself. This process lasts, according to a recent article in The New Scientist, well into our late 20s, but is largely irreversible. 

I think this is the basis for all of our Romantic assumptions about ‘genius’, or our ideas about some people ‘having’ to write (or paint or whatever). Once you develop your brain in a certain direction, to do certain things, it’s very difficult not to do those things. Part of your pleasure in life, and your comfort with your own existence, is to utilise those carefully constructed synaptic patterns. 

It reminds me of when, shortly after I ended my well-paid career to write seriously, the bank took away my Gold Visa card. I was on hold while the lady in the bank’s call centre looked up the procedure for me to return the card. Thinking I was inaudible, I sighed and said to myself, ‘Why did I ever want to be a writer in the first place?’ The lady answered. She said, ‘Well, dear, I suppose you always felt a bit special.’

We aren’t, of course, special. But we are a bit different, in the same kind of way. I imagine if you put two chess strategists in a room with a hundred other people, they would find each other…or two linguists…or two dancers…or two farmers. I can certainly find writers. Even when I’m on a panel of media practitioners or at a slimming club or a church barbecue or at my daughter’s school, I find I’ve made new friends with…yet another writer. It’s gotten so that when I meet someone at a wedding or a pub and we chat for more than five minutes, I just go ahead and ask, ‘So, what kinds of things do you write?’ And they answer. They say, ‘Poetry,’ or ‘Fan fiction.’ Before I even know their names

When I was young, I thought that real writers lived in Paris. They were solitary, like polar bears. Or they had country houses and big shining walnut desks. They were nearly always men, or slim, unattainable women. They never had children needing to be picked up and taken to tap dancing class. They never had jobs, or worries about the damp in the extension. 

Every since my first publishing deal, I’ve been trying to find this ‘real’ writer in the mirror. I never could. I found her in other people’s eyes, instead, because of my rumpled clothes and my untidy hair. But really, I found her inside me, long ago. And I loved her so much that when the time came to prune her away, I couldn’t do it. 

And that, as the poet said, has made all the difference. 

 

Writer on a Train: Taking Pains

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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.

 

All Change

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I’m changing.

I’ve always written in bed. Now, I’m commissioning a writing shed.

I’ve always paid all my writing money into the family account. Now, I’m only paying in a percentage and investing the rest in my own development and promotional activities.

I used to write in the early mornings, and that worked for me. Then my life changed. Now, I snatch bits of time and it doesn’t really work well at all. That’s got to change, too. Hence the shed. I need to be out of the house for the ‘Mum, where’s my socks?’ hour, the ‘I forgot to tell you, I’ve got a tasting tonight and won’t be home until ten,’ hour, the ‘I knew I could catch you if I rang early,’ hour. Now, I’ll be in my shed. You can disturb me for blood, bones and fire…and maybe zombie invasions.

I’m changing. I’m going back to being what I was all along, underneath.

A writer, first and foremost. Every day.

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.

MS

Hospital High, Blazing

Horridness and the Writing Life

If I’ve managed to insert my photo, you’ll notice I look grumpy. If I haven’t, you can safely assume I look even grumpier.

It’s been a horrible Christmas. I’m not just talking about the virus from which we’re all suffering, the fact that I’m writing this at Tamworth services while we wait for the RAC to recharge our battery, or the endless bloody rain.

I’m talking about a family member slipping into mental illness; tears, bitterness, nastiness, tension that made every meal indigestible, scenes so disgusting we asked our daughter to stay in her room half the day. Calling the doctor horrible.

Bad stuff.

And because I’m a writer, I’m a traitor. Oh, I’m doing my best to help deal with the mess. I’m trying to calm everyone down. I was even the one who went to talk to the GP. But part of me is thinking, ‘I’ll use this. This is gold dust.’

I remember when I was in the West Bank. I’d inadvertently strayed into Jenin the day after the CIA had killed three Hezbollah activists. When I’d rolled down my window and asked directions, some locals tried to rock over the rental car.

Horrid.

But I was writing a poem about it AS I drove away. I didn’t want to forget any of the details.

There’s me. Then there’s the part that watches. She’s not all that engaged emotionally. She’s noting the exact colour of the blood and remembering the worst thing she’s ever heard anyone say.

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Time

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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

 

Chaos and Order in the Writing Life

I meant to write this Thursday. I meant to have my hair done this morning. My husband didn’t really want to run to the Post Office to tax his car before giving two wine tastings in two separate cities (both with flood warnings). I didn’t really want to miss my daughter’s Taster Day reception at the school we are hoping she’ll attend next year, but I mis-read the time and scheduled teaching, instead. Oh, and the house looks like we’ve been burgled.

Chaos.

I can’t write when things are this messy and chaotic.

But they get this way, when I’ve been writing.

When things are going well with my writing, I don’t really notice that I tracked in half a ton of twigs, rosemary needles and dead leaves when I go out to garden and think about what happens next in my latest book. I don’t care that I have forgotten all the paperwork to do with my daughter’s school activities. I’m not bothered about dirty dishes or the fact that we still haven’t started the decorating (and the walls look horrid). I don’t answer my phone calls and I put emails about things I should do to one side, to think about ‘later’. But then, one day, I go to write and I am noticing it all. I think to myself, ‘Really! Why is this house so horrible? I can’t work in an environment like this! I can’t deal with all these people, phoning me, wanting me to do things, asking me questions!’

I get quite shirty about it.

But it was my fault (writing too early and then too tired to cook at dinner time) that there are big pizza boxes on the kitchen counters. It was me that left all my teaching books scattered on the dining room table (getting an hour or so in on the manuscript before my daughter came home). It was me that didn’t care about filing my class registers. Now it’s time to get out the shovel and clean the place, and spend a few hours on admin, so that my writer self can get back to work…and mess it all up again.

She’s horridly selfish. But I love her.

With Love, From Me To You

I know, I look tired. In my job (I’m a university lecturer, as well as an author), if you don’t look tired by the middle of November, you aren’t doing it right.

I do it right. I love my students. I mean, I genuinely care about every single one of them; even the ones whose names I can’t remember. Even the (perhaps especially the) horrid, difficult, spiky ones. I have about 95 students I’m teaching directly this year and another 100 or so that I either tutor, mentor or pop in to see and speak to occasionally.  And I love every one of them, even the first-year-boys-who-smell-of-pub.

And they love me back. I give them my energy and they give me energy. Sometimes I get more than I give. Sometimes I give more. It’a not useful to keep track.

It’s the same way in my writing life. I got a nice forward last night.  Someone who I really respect loved something I’d written. They said that word, ‘loved’. And suddenly, I’m full of energy again for my current project. The reader had felt the love I’d put into my writing and had responded to it. My love had gone to her, and so she sent me some back. I feel like I got a good deal out of that exchange and I hope she does, too.

When I wrote that story, I didn’t know if anyone would ever read it. I felt alone and very vulnerable when I wrote it. But I put the love in, anyway, like a message in a bottle. Because, really, what are we doing when we write, if we don’t? What good is it to anyone if we save our energy for ourselves and don’t spill it out into our texts, willy nilly?

There’s no safety in the game of writing. You either do it, or you don’t. And doing it means doing it with…well, there’s no other word for it…love.

Current ms: Blazing Heart

Word Count: 82,945

 

Out of Control

 

My hair…

I went for a walk in a rainy forest and it’s completely out of control.

So is my manuscript. I told Sophie I’d have it done by the end of summer. I told myself I’d have it done by Christmas. I’ve been writing it three years. Right now, I don’t know if it will ever be finished.

I have a first half I love and a second half I quite like. I’m trying to write the first half to meet up with the second half. But it won’t go. It won’t do it. My characters keep doing other things, instead.

And this, this maddening state of affairs, is actually a good sign. I finally finished that Graeme Greene book about General Omar Torrijos (I read a few novels in between chunks). Greene talks about talking about characters that begin to do things you didn’t plan, and how it’s a good sign. He was chatting to a girl when he remembers talking about it…which goes to show you. It’s so true, it’s nearly a cliché.

So, it’s a good thing. I keep telling myself. It’s a good thing.

But when I look in the mirror, or when I look at the first part of the second half of my manuscript, I have moments of despair.

Manuscript: To Hide Her Blazing Heart

Word Count: 75,692