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!

 

Riding the Just-broke Horse

Photo on 2013-11-29 at 11.49 #5

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

Photo on 2013-11-18 at 07.54 #2

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.

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.

So Little Time

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I’m sorry not to write lately. I haven’t wanted to write much of anything. 

I’ve evidently got a heart condition – who knew? I’ve felt breathless most of my life, but I’ve been a bit extra breathless lately. Then I phoned my doctor to say I had some chest pain and the next thing I knew I was in the back of an ambulance. I have angina…and on Monday I’ll find out if it’s take-a-few-tablets angina or open-heart-surgery angina or something in between. They told me the finding out procedure kills one in 1000 people who have it. It starts heart attacks in 20 more. And in some, it causes strokes. 

I’m waiting for this procedure. I’m also waiting to find out if Editor O’ My Dreams likes my latest manuscript. 

I hate waiting.  I’ve already died once, in a car accident when I was fourteen. I constantly feel time ticking away. And Monday seems to be rushing towards me. 

So I started wondering – do I really want to spend the time in between writing?

And then I wondered: Do I really want to spend the rest of my life writing at all? My writing life isolates me. To fund it, I work in a stressful environment (doing what I love, teaching other writers, but in the increasingly competitive academy). To really succeed at the combination of them both, it’s not enough to write well enough to be published. I must try and write world-class, award-winning fiction. The whole thing really is quite stressful – I haven’t had that big break-through book and might never have it. It means my place in the academy and in publishing is always uncertain. The whole thing can’t be good for me or my heart. 

After all, I don’t just live for me – I have an eleven-year old child and a husband and an elderly mother. It might be actually selfish to keep writing. 

Since I had time to think, I’ve thought. I’ve thought about the great relief it would be just to live – to go to work and come home and make dinner. To see my friends lots and keep my house nice and have parties…to GO to parties. And then I thought the parties I really want to go to are usually other writers’ book launches. And that I’ll still be reading. And that I doubt very much if I could actually stop writing altogether. 

Then I went to breakfast with a friend who talked about one of my books with such fondness that it made me cry. And I read a few fan letters. And I read this article from Science. And I thought some more, about why I really write and how if it helps just one person, just a little bit, it will all have been worth it.

My life will all have been worth it. 

So I started writing again. 

 

 

Being Nice

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I worked with Fay Weldon on Monday (sometimes, I really do have a glamorous literary life). As usual, La Weldon said a lot of interesting things. But one of the most interesting, for me, anyway, was, ‘A lot of women writers are held back by wanting to be nice in their fiction, because they want to be good girls and please everyone.’

Just like many young women don’t think that there’s any need for feminism anymore, many new female writers think that their fiction will be a gender-free zone, where their womanliness has no impact on how they are read. Of course, both are sadly mistaken. There is still a 10% gender pay gap in the UK, women pensioners are, according to the government, ‘significantly more impoverished’ than male pensioners. 1 in 10 men will be treated for mental illness and it’s 1 in 4 women… And, despite Hilary Mantel’s recent successes, the vast majority of literary prize winners, grant awardees, Visiting Professors, etc, etc, etc are men, even though, on any given post-graduate course in Creative Writing, women predominate.

‘Girls will read about boys,’ my first children’s editor told me. ‘But boys won’t read about girls.’ I thought boys grew out of that, but an editor interested in the book that became The Saint Who Loved Me thought differently. ‘No man is going to read this,’ she told me sternly. ‘It’s got things about tampons in it.’

I hadn’t realised that. I hadn’t realised that because I wrote about a woman’s experience of the world, and wrote about marital problems, spirituality and life choices from a woman’s perspective, I was alienating 48% of my potential readers from the get-go. Male readers very much liked Welcome to Eudora from the various reviews and letters I got from them. How they got their hands on it remains a mystery, though…it was often shelved under ‘Romance’.

If you happen to, or make up your mind to, write in accepted literary models and if you write, in a way, specifically for men, you don’t seem to be ghettoised. But if you are a female writing primarily for women, you can pretty much forget being taken seriously by the literary establishment. Even today.

How much of that problem is about the writers being too ‘nice’ in their fiction and how much is about marketing, cover design and titling (the working title for The Saint Who Loved Me was  St Rock) still remains a mystery.

But I know one thing – nobody is going to take my books seriously if I don’t. If I don’t stop being nice and wanting to please everybody.

I’m writing in the café today, because my new cleaner is in my house and my shed is still on order. While I was madly typing away (the tea here is strong enough to be a Class A drug), an acquaintance approached, smiling.

‘May I join you?’ she asked.

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I’d rather you didn’t. I’m working.’

She raised her eyebrows and looked hurt as she turned away. I fought the instinct to run after her…to abandon my manuscript and explain. But I didn’t.

It’s a start.

Getting A Little Organised

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My daughter found her squirrel pencil case and didn’t need her pink one anymore. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘You need one.’

This was news to me, but she’s still young enough to humour. I shook out my bag and put all my pens and pencils into the pencil case.

A week later, I read an article about stationary by Lucy Mangnan (who is nutty about stationary – I was part of a Radio Four programme she did about it). It talked about pencil cases and what women keep in theirs. Phone charge cords featured heavily.

I’m always losing my phone charge cord and not getting important calls. I started keeping my phone cord in my pink pencil case.

The pink pencil case is made out of oilcloth and patterned with butterflies. It has a little Velcro-shut pocket on the side. On my recent tour of externalling, I kept my receipts in there. It is the first time, ever, that I haven’t lost some of my receipts on a business trip.

My daughter was right – I did need a pencil case. I just didn’t know it.

I can’ t get too organised. I can’ t schedule every hour of every day. I need time to be able to say, ‘Hey, that’s a nice flower. I wonder what it would be like to be a bee and go inside. I know, I’ll stop my bike and use my lipstick mirror and get really, really close to the flower and write a little bit in my notebook about how furry and comfy it all looks in there.’ I need time to lie on my bed and worry that everyone writes better than I do. I need time to lie on the sofa and read and time to drive like a lunatic to the cinema so that I can watch a film I just read about on Twitter that starts in two minutes.

But I also need time to write and a place to go to do that. I’ve blamed work, my family, even the dog sometimes for not getting time to write. But, really, I just need to get a little more organised.

Just a little, mind…

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. 

 

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.