In Memory

Today would have been my father’s birthday – a once forgettable date, lost between Christmas and New Year which led to rather a meagre birthday present haul. I never forget it now. He died twenty years ago, a few months before his 58th birthday and I still miss him desperately.

He was a painter who gave up painting for twenty years – from my early childhood until his early (and too brief) retirement. He gave up because it was impossible to combine painting with earning enough to support us. He was good at what he did and exhibited widely before I was born. Would he have ‘ made it’ if he’d carried on? Maybe. Did he regret the sacrifice ? I don’t think so.

Anyway, the struggle to find time to teach, paint, and be a family man was too much. I still have a portrait of me he began when I was about four. I outgrew the dress I was wearing before he was able to finish it, which says it all. Consequently, I grew up with the knowledge that doing what you love is a privilege not everyone can afford.

My father always fostered my ambitions, even my mad decision to give up teaching, study for an MBA and become a business woman. He thought I was bonkers, but supported me none the less.

He died before I discovered what he had always known – that I wasn’t really that kind of person. I began writing only after his death, when suddenly life seemed short, precarious and altogether too precious to waste on work I hated. I had always wanted to write ‘one day,’ but dying days are certain and ‘one days’ aren’t.

He never saw me published and never met three of my four children.

Whenever things go badly with my writing, which if I’m honest is often, I wonder what his advice would be. Would he tell me to stick with what I love, to seize the day, or to face up to economic realities as he had to do?

I have no answer to this particular conundrum: I only wish I could ask him for his.

Living Narrative

Do you live in narrative? Are you someone who always has a little voice in her head interpreting, describing, novelising your daily life?

If you have such a voice are you a) mad? b) possessed? or c) a novelist. I now think the most usual answer is c) but as a child I did worry that it was a) or b). No one ever talked about it and, fearing that this endless descriptive flow was at worst mad and at best pretentiously self indulgent, I never raised the subject. I identified with Joe Marsh and Ann of Green Gables, and even most disturbingly with the ghastly girls of the Chalet School and as they apparently thought in well structured sentences so did I.

Later, when I was older, I became concerned that this measured ( third person) narrator’s voice mediated my experience, distanced me from living in the moment and prevented me from responding instinctively to people and situations. I am not sure that was true, but nonetheless ‘I resolved to give it up’ ( I am pretty sure of that because back then I definitely was the kind of girl who ‘resolved’. )

Fast forward thirty years and in a series of tentative, cautious conversations with other novelists I discover that this literary voice endlessly forming sentences as an hour by hour commentary on life is not so unusual. Lots of perfectly sane people do it. Who knew?

While I can’t say I regret its loss overmuch, I do think it was incredibly useful. I grew up writing and even in the years when my pen never touched the paper, I thought in prose. I was probably more fluent, more literary as a young woman than as an old working writer. When as a student I needed the words they were always there, tumbling out of me, faster than I could write: clause and sub clause unrolling like a carpet under my feet, taking my argument wherever I wanted it to go.

Of course it isn’t like that now. Words elude me all the time and I don’t know if that’s a symptom of incipient mental decay or if it’s because I no longer live in narrative: I just live. What about you?

Write up and write downs

I wouldn’t say being a writer is an emotional roller coaster because 1) it’s a cliche and 2) neither flying pigs, wild horses nor any other improbable kind of animal incentive would get me to ride on one. I don’t like what roller coasters do to my guts and my inner ear, but I do like being a writer in spite of its impact on my emotional health. ( A polite way of saying it makes me bonkers.)

If it weren’t for the reasons given above there would be some mileage in the metaphor. Writing is full of dips and troughs, sudden highs when you believe you are a genius and gravity defying plummets when you realise that not only are you not a genius but you can’t even write an interesting sentence. You hurtle along what may or may not be a safe, pre planned path with terrifying switch backs, hairpin bends and expectation defying changes in speed and then comes the sudden terrifying recognition that you don’t actually know whether this wild journey will end in a happy resolution or in some dire tragedy. Being a writer you can even imagine the headlines, the article and the death toll.

Personally I am OK with the doubt and the uncertainty. I love the moments of delight and elation when you feel just out of control enough to enjoy the journey, but I expect them to be followed by vertigo and vomiting. I am able to cope with the sense that it has all gone horribly wrong and the feeble structure in which you have invested such high expectations cannot support your ambition, is badly engineered, has wet rot, metal fatigue and is about to teeter and fall. I can cope with all that. It is the hope that gets me. Every time…

Five ways to do it

There are many ways of writing a novel . A brief poll established that of writers I know the top five locations for novel writing are

1. in an office or shed, (everybody’s doing it ) The great thing being that simply going there convinces everyone that you are working even though you might just be internet surfing, napping or rearranging the garden tools.

2. At a kitchen or even a dining table, for those without a room of ones own. Manuscripts tend to get coffee stained and muddled up with the gas bill which can add an interesting post modern frisson to the offering blurring the distinction between reality and fiction etc

3. In bed I have tried this and always fall asleep, but apparently it works for some people.Writing and dreaming are sometimes indistinguishable anyway

4. In a coffee shop – particular good for fantasy writers on low incomes ( isn’t that all of us?) Tends to lend itself to excessive caffeine consumption and if its a local coffee shop and you know lots of people a very low word count per hour.

5. In some fantastic exotic location. Whenever I’ve tried this I’ve decide that the location is far too nice to waste time working.

There are also five preferred tools:

1. typewriter only good if you can type as the damned things don’t have a delete, copy, paste or insert button. Only for the very clever who don’t make mistakes and have very strong finger muscles ( ie not modern day degenerates.)

2. Pen and paper – I get cramp just thinking about it but great for those with legible handwriting who are unlikely to leave the only draft on the train.

3. Pencil and paper – for those with legible handwriting but less certainty.

4. Stone tables and chisel for those with the same qualities as 2 but more time.

5. Word processor – for those who can’t type, haven’t got legible handwriting, who are quite likely to leave drafts on the train and make lots of mistakes.

And five top tips for writing a novel without all the work.

1. Plagiarism, picking up some obscure book that miraculously isn’t on the internet and copying it This is a criminal act that can’t be condoned and only included here for completeness. Besides any book obscure enough to be a candidate for plagiarism probably isn’t that great anyway.

2. Calling on the muse. People’s techniques for this vary. Some involve alcohol induced trance like states, others involve reclining on sofas eating grapes and I have heard that a vigorous walk across wild country can startle a muse into manifesting. I’ve never had any luck with this myself long walks tend to produce nothing more useful than detailed to do lists and blisters.

3. Calling on the pixies. Some leave chocolate out in the hope that good new words will appear on the pc by magic. I’m afraid I eat all the chocolate so never have any to experiment with. At best I would describe this as unproven. Anecdotal evidence suggests they are better at making shoes in any case.

4. Automatic writing. This is a bit like getting in touch with your muse only harder as it involves contacting the dead. Given the low rates of literacy in the world over time and the even smaller number of english speaking literate dead, the chances of finding one who is both a decent writer and interested in hanging round writers who probably have among the least interesting lives for dead voyeurs, seems remote.

5. Employing a ghost writer – less like 4 than you would think. Works brilliantly for ballet dancers, footballers and topless models.

Mythanthropy

I like myths: I depend on them. They are the source of much of what I write and the foundation of my writing. My personal myth is as necessary to me as the air that I breathe or the coffee that launches my writing day. My personal myth is that writing is easy, fun and unimportant. ‘You just sort of sit down and type and eventually something will happen and then a story sort of arrives and you just write it. I quite like it, but you know it’s not essential to me. I haven’t always written and I was perfectly happy back then and you know I’m only part time so I’m not really a writer…’ I’m not saying I don’t believe this because, as we all know, myth expresses truth, but the deeper truth is that I know that if I allowed myself to admit to caring about my work, to taking it seriously, I would be unable to do it it all.

I don’t know but I suspect that we all use little personal myths to help us write, odd takes on the world that allow us to keep doing something which I have to see as essentially ridiculous. Some people use the myth of the struggling artist to inspire them. They buy into the necessity of pain in order to produce something worthy and sometimes see the value of a thing as being directly proportionate to the amount of suffering involved. Some wannabe writers seem to believe that to be ‘real’ writers they need to develop a borderline personality disorder, alcohol/drug dependency or a problem with personal hygiene. Others see writing as a battle in which their self worth is tied to their personal courage and grit, their ability to absorb all the difficulties and disappointments this business throws at them in order to come back bloody but unbowed and still fighting.

Writing is difficult because it requires skill, persistence and luck. It is hard to earn a living, it is hard to gain respect: sometimes it is just bloody hard. It is not glamorous, it is often isolating and isolated. Is it any wonder we need our personal myths to protect our egos, to make our daily struggles more heroic? Or is that it just me?

Teaching Myself

What do you think of when you think of a creative writing tutor? I summon the figure of an older woman with wild hair and a ‘sensitive’ nature and come up with Margaret Rutherford’s medium in Blythe Spirit. I try again and produce Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney, in short, faced with the words ‘creative writing tutor’ I rather fear that my imagination supplies an image of a charlatan. Oh dear.

You see I now teach creative writing and I don’t believe that I am a charlatan. I may be heading in a Professor Trelawney direction sartorially, but I’ve got it under control. However, if responses to my new career are anything to go by, I am not the only one whose first instinct is to mistrust the very idea that creative writing is teachable. Those who write already are suspicious – I mean we all just write don’t we? We read lots of books and liked them so much we started writing them for ourselves – what is there to teach?

Rather a lot as it turns out.

‘Ah but you can’t teach talent,’ as several people have said rather sniffily. I think that is probably true, but you can encourage, stimulate, challenge and direct it. Most people have a spark of it and it is kindled by enthusiasm, by the opportunity to work with people who take writing seriously. Where can you get helpful feedback on a mss if not from my peers and teachers? Agents and commissioning editors rarely have time these days. Who cares enough to discuss whether something works better in first person or third but those selfsame teachers and peers?

It struck me recently that we treat writing as something quite unlike the other arts. There is nothing strange about being taught to dance, or draw or sing and yet people (often the same people who send their children off to tap and modern, piano and Saturday art classes) find it very odd that people should be taught to write. Could it be because people think it is easy? That yes indeed anyone can just write a book and it will be a good one? Maybe.

I fear I have fallen into the same trap. I used to believe that nobody taught me to write, which is of course ridiculous hubris. Back in the day I was encouraged to write all the time, story writing was an essential part of the curriculum. I wrote stories every day for years not just in primary school but at least until I was sixteen. Teachers read my stories out in class. I was taken seriously and I was encouraged, stimulated, challenged and directed.

I don’t know that many young people get that kind of teaching these days. I don’t know that creativity is valued as it should be.

I do know that the undergraduates and graduates I work with have things that they can learn and those things are, by and large, things that I can teach them. I must say I love it.

It is a cliche to say how much I’ve learned too, but it is true. I think the most significant revelation

has been how little I have valued the part my own teachers played in fostering my creativity and

taking my writing seriously. So it’s a bit late and some of them are probably dead – but thanks all of

you! I would never have become a writer without you.

Histrionics

I’ve always liked history – reading historical novels, studying it ( in moderation) and now writing it ( in slightly modified form.)I’m not a real historian – not remotely – and even when I studied it, I liked the ‘what if’ questions much more than the facts. I’m not that keen on facts to be honest. They are generally inconvenient and gritty; lumps in the smooth cake mix of my imaginary confections.

Fortunately I write historical fantasy or sometimes alternate history, (depending on who is writing my book blurb) so you would think I could discard them at will. I can’t. Unfortunately, it’s the grittiness of fact that keeps my fiction grounded and authentic and I am just as bound to the damn things as if I were writing real history.

This might be mad. I mean if a story is going to feature were wolves or magic perhaps angsting about the exact type of helmet a soldier might wear is a little neurotic. But I do angst about that. I am currently battling a major panic that my current story, set in AD 50, has my main character ( a seeress) too ignorant of battles down south to be believable. (She’s a seeress, Nicky, she can see the future she’s never going to be ‘believable’.) I am also worried that her companions would be wearing lorica segmentata rather than, the altogether more convenient, mail shirts. I pore over maps to try to work out how far my heroes could realistically cover in a day and track down details of the kind of provisions you might be expected to find in a first century Roman’s pack in mid winter. OK one of the Romans then turns into a wolf, but at least he eats the right kind of food.

I have of course rationalised this absurd incongruity – an obsession with this small stuff and a tendency to rewrite the really big stuff – the laws of physics for example: I believe that when I am asking readers to suspend disbelief and accept the impossible, it helps to go the extra ( Roman) mile to establish credibility, to build a story world that is grounded in verifiable truths. I also believe that I cannot write any other way. My perfectionist streak, which is otherwise indiscernible to the naked eye, will not allow me to just make everything up.

I am occasionally urged to write stories set in other times and places and I wonder if the people doing the urging appreciate how much time is involved in researching a book. I don’t particularly like research, I don’t get lost in it, I do it with a clear purpose in mind and only cope with it at all by choosing periods about which little concrete is known so that even being picky about the facts leaves me vast amounts of interpretive wriggle room. I don’t think I could write a story set in well documented periods because I would be paralysed by the vastness of what I don’t know.

I have tremendous admiration for people who write real historical novels, who take me to another place that is as tangibly foreign and bizarre as the past would have been.The past is not like the present without lycra and with poorer hygiene, it should feel like another planet not just another country.

For me the research is worth while when one small discovery brings that strangeness home, because fact is stranger than even fantasy fiction and nothing I can write can ever do justice to real history. I love it that the Romans had a tradition of were-wolf stories and that the condition of my poor benighted character was understood. In honour of that delightful fact my new book is called ‘Versipellum’, skin changer, or at least it will be when I finish writing it.

A wolf in woman’s clothing

I am a wolf. This is somewhat inconvenient because wolves don’t cook or clean or shop for food. I also seem to be something of a stay-at-home, chocolate eating wolf, inclined to sleep a lot: a semi hibernating wolf who, lacking opposable thumbs, is pretty useless at living my life.

I thought I was going to have to be a wolf for most of my book but I am rapidly changing my mind, though, to be honest, as a wolf I don’t do much rapidly. My claws make too much noise on my wooden stairs, my breath smells and my dog has forsaken his place under my desk; I think I have to give it up. I have been a fox before now, but she was female and largely co operative if more feral than I would have liked. I am often a man, or a boy anyway, which is straightforward, though I obviously have to remember that it is only in my mind that I pee standing up.

I like shapeshifting it’s what we novelists do. I always remember an internet friend remarking that she had persuaded herself she was several inches taller in order to live in the skin of her heroine and was constantly surprised that she couldn’t actually reach the pickles off the highest supermarket shelves. That hasn’t yet happened to me, though I am occasionally disturbed to see the face of an old woman in the mirror in place of my youthful and (invariably attractive) protagonist: always a bit of a let down that.

The wolf is different. The wolf is semi-nocturnal and always tired, plus he has no self discipline. Absolutely none. He is an alpha male who won’t compromise and is horribly territorial about the best place on the sofa. He expects the pack to obey him, which, frankly, has come as a bit of a shock to the pack who are used to a little less snarling.

None of this poses an insurmountable problem, the deal breaker is that the wolf doesn’t want to tell his story. He can’t be arsed. The wolf doesn’t care if it never gets written. The wolf wants what the wolf wants and it isn’t what I want so I think I have to let him go, let him slink off back into my id or wherever the hell he’s come from and take his stink back with him. I think my husband will be pleased.

Defining Moment

It seems pretty obvious to me that a writer, writes. It isn’t very complicated you are a writer if you write and a fiction writer if you write fiction and a children’s fiction writer if you write children’s fiction. So far so good. But what if you are not actually writing – just talking about it? Can you still hang onto that status? We have all I’m sure bumped into the writer who published a slim volume of poetry forty years ago and has dined out on it ever since – can they call themselves writers? Can I? I am Ok with people saying they are writers even if they are not currently working on something – if they are on holiday , or briefly between books but if the hiatus goes on for too long surely they are ex writers or former writers rather as women of a certain age can be ‘former glamour models.’ I say this only because I haven’t actually written a novel or even really done more than a couple of hours writing for the best part of a year.

I have lectured on writing, run workshops on writing, critiqued writing, given talks about writing, given advice about writing, got into arguments about writing and even assessed other people’s writing but I haven’t done any myself. This makes me feel fraudulent. Is an actor still an actor if they haven’t had a part for ten years? And what is the cut off point? Am I still a writer now but not if I don’t write for another year or two?

I don’t think you can be a writer in your heart or head without also being one with your fingers ( or with whatever appendage you use to generate words on a page). I think you can be ‘resting’ for a while but not for too long or it begins to look like retirement. Sure you can be between books as you can be between jobs but doesn’t that kind of make you just unemployed?

Maybe you are different and in your soul you ‘just are’ a writer, but I didn’t start writing until my thirties. I wasn’t a writer before then and I fear that I can cease to be a writer as easily as I became one. I am not sure my soul has noticed. Does it matter? A bit. I like saying rather grandly that I write when asked what I do at parties. It seems more glamorous somehow than saying I hang around for long periods of the day in my dressing gown reading the paper and arguing with imaginary people on t’internet. I would miss the label, but would I miss the activity?

Would you?

Playing Devil’s Advocate

In an earlier blog post there was the suggestion was that one of the aims of education might be to encourage children to love reading. Now I believe passionately that every child should be taught how to read, but that is about it. This is a dangerous thing to say here, but I’m not sure that people who love reading are actually that much use.

Now I am talking specifically about reading fiction here and not the great jewels of English literature either, because great writing and great thinking is always needed. A small number of precious books have changed the world and every child should have the chance to read them.

However, if you walk into any of the (remaining) grand emporia of the written word the greater proportion of material on the shelves isn’t particularly great and I suppose it must be what most of us are reading ( if we are reading at all) or they would be in even worse trouble than they already are. This stuff is the OK stuff with which I have filled too many of my waking hours. The kindest thing that could be said about my writing taste is that it is eclectic. I was a mal coordinated child, egotistical and narcissistic as all children are and not good at making friends. From the first time I managed to read for myself a whole sentence of story ( written by the much maligned Enid Blyton ) I was hooked as surely as if fiction were crack cocaine and story has been my addiction ever since. I read my way through my infant school, closeted in the book cupboard, I read my way through a whole year of maths in junior school and never did learn long division. I read through most of my adolescence, living only in a kind of lucid dream My children’s infancy were the years of sleep deprivation and door stop fantasy read against the background drone of Ringo Starr narrating ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’. The sound of the theme tune even today induces instant catatonia and dreams of elves. How many conversations have I not had because I was lost in a book? How many times have I been absent when I ought to have been present? In fiction I could be anyone, do anything and what I could do in fiction I didn’t have to do in life. And there’s the rub. Why bother to change the world when you can read about other people doing it (and succeeding,) why bother to change yourself when in fiction you can be anyone you want to be?

My children quite like reading and that’s fine by me, I actively don’t want them to love it. I don’t want it to be for them what it has been for me, my addiction, my obsession, my crutch and my refuge. I want them to love living not reading about it.