Writer on a Train: Home

Photo on 2013-06-18 at 09.30


Well, I’m home. I’m charging my bike’s battery in the other room. I charged mine last night. I slept all the way through until seven o’clock.

I haven’t written a word.

I’ve swept the floor, done the dishes, printed off a few things for my daughter. I’ve answered over forty emails and talked to the nice  man who is going to make us a new front door. I’ve also read Matt Haig’s The Humans (if you haven’t, get  it as soon as possible). I’ve had three glasses of good Californian Cabernet Sauvignon (my husband tends to express his emotions through wine) and made a rather tasty tomato and basil risotto.

But I haven’t written anything. And I won’t today.

All that careful organisation of my time that I wrote about yesterday hasn’t happened. And I feel, although I’ve done all the above, that I’ve failed. I’ve had too many times like this lately, too many days when I fail to write. There is a reason all my writing heroes, when I was a child, were men. I’d read The Obstacle Race by Germaine Greer, but I still found myself, once my daughter began attending school, trying to cram a ten hour working day (as lecturer and writer) into five or six hours.

That hasn’t been good for me or my work, or my writing. It hasn’t been good for my husband (who actually does a great deal of the housework). It was good for my daughter, who strenuously resisted any form of after-school care that wasn’t mine, but she is old enough now to understand.

I’m home. But home has to change.

The academic year is ending. I have a month to get systems in place before my mother comes for a visit. Cleaner, someone to do the ironing. Shed built. It’s been easy to be me on the road, now I have to do the hardest thing of all – learn to be me as a mother and a wife.

I won’t be blogging every day. But I’ll let you know how it goes.


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 Best

This is a post about starting over – about thinking to yourself, ‘no, that’s not good enough,’ and going on to get it right.

I have many role models in my life for this…lately Andy Murray, the British Tennis Champion. Murray is an extremely good tennis player. He’s been ranked in the top ten male singles players since 2007. He’s made it to the finals of all Grand Slam tournaments and once qualified for every final in the same year. But he hasn’t won a single one. Last year, he got a new coach, Ivan Lendl, and this year he nearly won Wimbledon. In his emotional thank you speech, he told his supportive fans that he is ‘getting closer’.

That’s what you need to be a champion – you need to want it badly. You need to be driven to do the best that you can, to be the very best that you can be.

And that means, when you’re writing something wonderful, you may need to start the whole thing over again.

My manuscript was coming along very well. I was storming ahead on writing it. But the voice wasn’t right. The pace wasn’t right. And even though the story is an amazing, breathtaking tale (I can say this, because I don’t feel like I made it up – I feel it was already there, waiting for me), it wasn’t being told as well as it could be.

And that’s not good enough. I’ve started it again, with a new voice. Because being really good isn’t good enough. Not for Andy Murray, and not for me.

Manuscript: To Hide Her Blazing Heart

Word Count: 1346





Things I’ve learned about writing from a labrador puppy

This is Foyle. He may be a bit shaky on such subjects as where it’s okay to pee, but he knows a lot about writing.

He tells me to do the stuff I want, without being afraid of looking silly. He does this by loving the lightweight plastic pots that are used to package young plants. He frequently gets his head stuck in one and runs all around the garden until he falls over and fights it off, but it never stops him from rejoicing when he finds another.

He tells me to do what I need to do when I need to do it, even if I’m not in the mood. He shows me that if you’d really rather squeeze out the front gate and chase traffic, but you know you need to ‘come’ and ‘sit’, you’d better come and sit. Quickly. And get it over with.

He tells me to set realistic targets. He’ll chase a stick until he dies of exhaustion, if I ask him to. But after a few minutes of work, he’ll go to his bed and sleep for hours.

He tells me to dream big. I have no idea what he’s chasing as he sleeps at my feet right now. But his whole body is shaking with the dream of catching it.









On The Road – AWP Chicago


I”m in Chicago. AWP, the Association of Writing Programmes, is about to start and I’ll be presenting there and minding Bath Spa’s stall. We’ve got a fabulous new low residency PhD we want to tell everyone about.

I’ll also be meeting and greeting, and chatting up colleagues, editors, other writers, other academics and various other kinds of interesting humans. The idea is to get up early so that I can write a bit, too, but there’s an awful lot of parties to get through. I’ll do my best and I’ll sneak away sometimes, too.

Most of my colleagues are either single or male… In the first case, they don’t have all that many domestic responsibilities and in the second case, they don’t have all that many domestic responsibilities. None of the other people coming are primary care-givers for their children. For them, trying to write during AWP is an insane goal…like trying to stay sober during AWP. 

But I gave up alcohol for Lent and I give up writing time nearly every day. This is a chance for me to pull all nighters, not in the hotel bar, but at my desktop. So far, with the train journey and this morning, I’m 4,000 plus to the better, and have rewritten all my lost data.

I’ll let you know how the week goes. 

Adventures In Data Loss


It’s not easy, sitting still and not looking while a nine-year-old paints your face. She’s not overly careful around the eye area and she tends to drip a bit… You have to just breathe out, close your eyes and enjoy the ride.

I’m not one of those Americans that thinks ‘it’s all good.’ I think the relentless positivism we’ve been asked to assume over the past few decades is actually harmful. Cancer patients that don’t get better can feel they’ve not been thinking the right way, or praying hard enough…people can be exploited and not have the language in which to express anger with the conditions in which they work… However, I don’t think there’s any point in being miserable, either. Sometimes you just can’t control things, or you let things slip out of your control.

I have a whole little lecture I give about data storage, about how to save daily iterations of your novel and how to back it up weekly both on a data key and by emailing the files to yourself. But, like anyone else, when I get terribly busy, I sometimes get lax. This week I lost 5,ooo words of my new book.

It happens.

It happened before computers. Hemingway’s wife was bringing his stories to him, as a nice surprise, when she left them on the train. Hemingway was still mourning those stories, some twenty years later, as the best things he’d written.

But I’m not so sure. My 5K took me through some very difficult technical things; another shift in time for the entire main section of the novel… a shift in my narrator’s voice, as she recalls things from two years earlier…an explanation as to how and why her community lives the way it does…  I’m dreading trying to write it again. It might very well be worse. But it might be better, too.

And anyway, I didn’t sign up to this kind of life with the idea that I would have everything under my own control. I became a writer, much like I sat down for my face painting, in a spirit of adventure.  I think my face turned out fine, for an evening at home making pizza. I think my writing life is more interesting and exciting than if I’d kept doing jobs I didn’t like. Hang on, we’re still moving, and who knows where we’ll go…

Here’s a soundtrack for the blog, since it’s Friday night. Click to hear it. Hope you like it…


For more about positivism and the harm it can do, read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Brightsided. 


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.



Too Busy For Words


Hi. How are you? Miss talking to you.

Book’s going okay. Shared it with my workshop group. Got some good feedback. Feel a lot more confident.

Still got 40K marking/second marking to do. House is filthy. Friend from Prague still with us, bless him. Going to Chicago soon and taking daughter. Got meetings almost every night this week and a todo list as long as my inseam.

Real busy. Crazy busy. Insanely, stupidly busy.

But I’m writing. Some days not showering (see side of hair, above). But writing.

I mean, we’re all here to do something, right? And that’s what I’m here to do. So I’m doing it. Hope you’re doing what you’re here to do, too.

Look, I gotta go. We must have a proper chat soon. I’ll ping you.

Big hug. Big kiss.






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.