In Praise of Residencies

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A recent conversation with a friend prompted me to write this post. Conversations, for better or worse, can be inspirational that way. I’m sure most writers will agree when I say that chats – with friends, lovers, or perfect strangers – can spark off a story or a poem or an entire screenplay when you least expect it. But enough about conversations. This is not an ode to them.

Back to the chat with my friend: we got talking about writing residencies (in general), and the purpose they serve. I think that residencies are a vital part of the creative process. They give you the gift of uninterrupted time. During a residency, you have the freedom to retreat into solitude and give the story ideas that have been brewing inside your head the undivided attention they deserve. You also get to interact with fellow artists and enjoy the company of likeminded people. Friendships and creative collaborations thrive in this setting.

The best thing about residencies is that they manage to keep the chaos of the world at bay even if for a few weeks. This makes it so much easier for you to focus on your writing. Perspective dawns. The work is all that matters, you realize. The rest is noise.

“You don’t have to be holed up in a hut in the woods or fly away to a chalet to write,” my friend argued in response. “You are a writer, you write. You’re a painter, you paint. Makes no damn difference where you are”

This argument is perfectly valid. No one is denying that it is possible to work on a novel while you are commuting to work or to paint a picture while taking a break from cleaning the house or shopping for groceries. In fact, most of us get work done this way. No story or poem will get written if you wait till you can get away from it all. The world’s demands can’t stop you from writing or painting. But when a residency director sends you a letter of acceptance, do grab the chance with both hands. Remember it can do your art a world of good. Just pack your bags and get going!

Many residencies give writers a chance to travel and spend time outside their home countries. A residency is an immersive experience – an opportunity to meet new people, taste new cuisines, and take in sights and sounds that eventually weave their way into your stories. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you will be rewarded. Inspiration will strike. Story ideas will come flooding in. Residencies can work magic, literally. It’s hard to pinpoint the source of this creative churning. The magic springs from a combination of factors – freedom from the daily grind, a sharpened focus on your writing, and the comfort of feeling completely at ease with the people around you and your surroundings.

Travel, essential to the writing life as oxygen, is one of the many benefits a residency offers. The journey helps you get under the skin of a place and to gain a clear and more nuanced understanding of other ways of life. There is no substitute for this experience. No amount of research or google searches will give you the in-depth perspective a residency gives. Living in Paris for a month is not the same as reading about living in Paris and writing in Parisian cafés (even if there is an excellent selection of books – both fiction and non-fiction – that do justice to the city). Imagine Hemingway writing The Sun Also Rises without actually having made the journey to Paris. What a different book that would be!

Whether you are hoping to live and breathe a place and to capture its rhythms in your fiction or you are in search of a quiet haven that drowns out the din of the world and nurtures your creativity, a residency is what you are after. There are a number of residencies in different corners of the world to apply to. Submit your best work and the details of the project you plan to work on. Application requirements vary from residency to residency. Some ask for recommendation letters from people who know you and your work well. Others waive this requirement. Some are by invitation and cater only to nominated artists and writers.

Putting the application together is the hard part. Give it your best shot and you will be bound to enjoy some of the most rich, intense, and creatively rewarding experiences of your writing life.




Performance Anxiety: Or When Writing a Book is Easier Than Reading It

My very first public reading was an impromptu open mic sort of thing in the town where I live. I’d been informally invited by the organiser to read from my first novel, Esperanza Street, the advance copies of which I’d just received. It was a few weeks prior to the official release date and, with launch readings already planned, I thought it might be a good idea to rehearse.

I duly turned up, book in hand. It was a casual gathering in a bar at the local theatre. There was a medium sized crowd, most of whom were fellow writers. I bought a drink and found a seat with a clear view from which I could watch how each writer delivered their readings. One by one, people stood up, walked to the front, and read calmly and with aplomb. They made it look easy. I fiddled with my book, waited for the nerves to dissipate. Instead the nerves grew more intense until, inevitably, the point arrived when I felt I had to take my turn. After all I’d come this far. I stood up and walked to the front, my palms already sweaty. Now I would love to say that it was easier than I’d expected and that I’d been worried about nothing. But it wasn’t. It was terrifying and I literally shook with fright all the way through my reading. My eyes glued to the page I read too quickly, rushing back to my seat the instant I’d finished. I felt so disheartened by this experience that I wondered how I was ever going to read live again. My first launch reading was only three weeks away. I seriously considered cancelling, feigning illness, paying an actor to read for me.

I asked other authors how they dealt with performance anxiety. Know your stuff really well, they said. Script your banter and practise it beforehand, they said. And whereas this is all very good advice, none of it helped. The problem I had didn’t feel like an issue about the logistics of delivering a reading. There was some other, more fundamental, block. I felt physically sick at the thought of reading aloud again to strangers.

Thankfully no-one trotted out the hackneyed suggestion to ‘imagine the audience naked/in their underwear’. As if a room full of naked people staring at you could ever be an antidote to anxiety. Never mind that this strategy is based on creating a spurious power differential, the underlying premise being that one becomes more powerful only if others are rendered powerless, a point of view I simply don’t subscribe to.

I phoned my cousin, Minneapolis-based jazz-pop singer songwriter, Ameet Kamath, and asked him how he dealt with anxiety prior to performing. I confessed to him that my anxiety about reading live was by now stopping me sleeping. What he said turned it around for me. He told me he had grown to love performing. ‘Remember that people have come just to see you’, he said. ‘They’ve made time in their day to come and hear what you have to say. They’re not going to be hostile. They’re not testing you. They want it to go well for you because they want to enjoy their evening. What you have to share with them is part of that.’ He told me that when he was due to perform, he sat in the wings and watched the audience come in. He watched them take their seats and as they settled in he said, internally, privately, ‘Welcome darlings’. I absolutely loved the spirit of this.

At my first launch in Sheffield Waterstones I introduced myself, confessed to being nervous and told the audience about my jazz-singing cousin and what he’d said. I told them that I liked his way of doing things so much that I was actually going to say it out loud. And I did. ‘Welcome darlings,’ I said. It broke the ice immediately. Everyone laughed and I relaxed. The evening became a pleasure not an ordeal. Yes, I was still nervous and my voice still shook as I read. But I read clearly and slowly and when I sat down to sign copies of my book I took a few minutes to chat to each person who came up. I was reminded once again how gratifying meeting new people can be. There were, to my great delight, many other writers there as well as other creative folk. There were people who had come because they’d spent time in the Philippines, or because, like me, they just loved books.

I understand now that, at its best, a reading is about communality. It is a shared experience. So an author does not have to feel as if they are on display, as if they are being judged. I have started to think of readings as being akin to a party where everyone has similar or at least compatible interests. And so, provided one can find a way to break the ice, conversation is likely to flow and one is likely to have a good time.




Litro #153: Open | Q&A: Author | Jane Rogers

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I recently had the extremely good fortune to be able to interview one of the most decorated writers in the UK, Professor Jane Rogers, about her creative process. Over a long and prestigious career, Rogers has won numerous awards including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Somerset Maugham Award, the Samuel Becket Award, the Writers Guild Best Fiction prize and the BBC National Short Story Award. She has been longlisted for the Man Booker, the IMPAC prize and the Orange Prize and she has also been nominated for a BAFTA. It was heartening to hear that even a seasoned writer like Rogers can still feel uncertainty about whether a story has legs or not and that, on occasion, she still abandons a story without completing it.

NK: What does the first thrill of discovering a story feel like? How do you know that this is the story/novel you’re going to be writing?

JR: I wouldn’t really describe it as a thrill, because it isn’t a single moment. For me, a novel idea gradually comes together over a long-ish period of time. With Conrad and Eleanor I knew I wanted to write about a long marriage, but many different strands had to fall into place before I could be sure it would be a novel.

The first goes back to my schooldays. Around the age of 16 I was told, probably in confidence, that a friend’s father had disappeared. He had left home and not told his family where he was going. I’m not sure how much I embroidered this in my own imagination, but what I thought was that he was fed up with his family and unhappy in his life, and that he was looking for a new life. It seemed to me a much more romantic and a much more radical thing to do than leaving for another woman or man. It was open-ended, and he might or might not return. The idea of his vanishing has stayed with me and has changed meaning over the years of my adult life, as my own father later left my mother, and as I myself felt the pangs of uselessness that came with teenage children growing up and needing me less. So that was always something I wanted to understand better, by exploring it in writing.

Other elements of the novel, for example the interest in IVF and stem cell research, came from earlier research I had done for a TV drama that was never made.

When I sat down and started writing Eleanor’s story, I was very unsure that it would properly develop into a novel. And yes, that is precisely why I wouldn’t call it a thrill! It is mainly uncertainty about whether it actually is a novel, and I seem to feel that uncertainty right up until a first draft is completed. So the real answer is, I don’t know that this is the story I’m going to be writing!

NK: Do you enjoy research? How do you know when to stop?!

JR: Yes, I enjoy research very much, and have done it for most of my novels. Historical research for Mr Wroe’s Virgins, The Voyage Home and Promised Lands, and scientific research for The Testament of Jessie Lamb and Conrad and Eleanor. I like learning things, I guess, and writing a novel gives a specific focus to what I need to research. With Mr Wroe’s Virgins I didn’t know when to stop, and I spent a year or more trying to learn everything I could about life in 1830, from British foreign policy to apocalyptic sects to what kind of underwear people wore, and how to make oatcakes. Eventually I realised it was impossible to know everything, and then I wrote, and did some checking up afterwards. Since then, I think I’ve come to realise there is a kind of tipping point. I keep on doing research until somehow I reach a stage where I certainly don’t know all there is to know, but I feel at home in the world of that subject. Then it is possible to write about it.

NK: We’ve talked before about ‘story totems’, about whether there are particular objects that connect you to a story or to your writing generally.

I have a number of beloved objects which I keep on the windowsill above my writing desk, and I often stare at them while I’m concentrating on writing. But I don’t think any of them specifically connect me to any one of my stories; it is more that I think of them as part of the landscape while I’m writing, and in a way they are talismans. Mostly they are gifts from people who are close to me; there’s a little wooden frog my son brought back from Madagascar; two tiny bronze women – one reclining, one kneeling to chat to her – made by my sister Helen; a clay echidna, whose prickles sometimes crack off, sent by my Mum from Australia; a wooden snail whose curly shell is made from a violin, given to my daughter when she was 3, by a good friend who is a violin maker. There are a few other things too, and a lot of pebbles. I love the shapes and feel of smooth pebbles, especially from beaches and rivers, and I do pick them up and fill my pockets, wherever I go. That suddenly sounds rather Virginia Woolf-ish! I fill my pockets because I love the feel of the pebbles, not to weigh me down! The pebbles are probably the most useful while I’m writing, because there are a few favourites which I like to hold and turn in my hand as I’m thinking and trying to move on with a story. I suppose they are rather like worry beads, only bigger. There are far too many pebbles in my work-room, and I sometimes have to take a bag-full and deposit them in the garden, to make way for new ones. It’s quite nice to come across some of the old ones in the garden from time to time, when I’m weeding.

My short stories are often inspired by a single event or image, or indeed something I have read. But it’s more common for a physical object from my life to take up residence in a story and make the story real for me. For example, when I was commissioned to write a story about Alan Turing (‘Morphogenesis’ appears in Rogers’ Comma Press collection ‘Hitting Trees With Sticks’) I needed a scene between the teenage Turing and the boy he loved, Chris. I found a way of anchoring that in reality by having him present Chris with a fircone from his pocket, using it to demonstrate a mathematical point. The real fircone was sitting on my windowsill at the time, and looking at it carefully and focussing on it gave me the way into the scene.

I suspect most writers do this, though. Good, precise writing is always a result of careful observation.

NK: Are there particular artists that trigger creative responses for you?

JR: I love visual art and yes, there are certain works that have been important while writing particular stories. There’s a wooden sculpture called Infant by Barbara Hepworth which I loved when I visited St Ives, and the postcard of it lives by my desk; likewise, a Samuel Palmer picture which must be about 20 years old now. I’m not sure that they exactly ‘trigger’ creative responses, but they help me to try and be true to what I want to say.

NK: I think a lot of writers feel doubt and are often plagued by a sense of futility (‘Can I really do that all over again?’). Does that still happen for you and, if so, how do you deal with it? How do you deal with periods of creative drought?

JR: Yes, indeed. But I know the only way to deal with it is to plough on. And when I really can’t write, I do something else. Gardening, walking, cooking, reading. I do sometimes give up on things, but I am very stingy and like to recycle stuff, so stories which I have abandoned are sometimes resurrected years later, and finished off.

NK: You’ve had a long and distinguished career. What are your thoughts about longevity as a writer? How does one keep the pot full, the fire lit?

JR: I don’t know! You do what you know how to do. Writing is, in the end, a job like any other. I suppose one of the things that makes me want to write is reading the work of other people. I find other writers inspiring, and I can name specific novels which helped to inspire specific novels of mine. For example, Waterland by Graham Swift inspired The Ice is Singing. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go inspired The Testament of Jessie Lamb. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury inspired Mr Wroe’s Virgins.

NK: Is your creative process familiar to you now over so many novels? Or are there aspects of it that still surprise you? Has it changed?

JR: It’s difficult to say. I think I usually write my way into things. That is to say, I do a lot of writing which is not kept, which is no use, but which I seem to need to write my way through before I get to the voice or idea or language I’m after.

NK: I wondered if you would say a few words about truthfulness/truth-telling in fiction. For me, the mark of a real artist is the drive to voice the truth even if it feels self-exposing or difficult. It feels to me from your work that you don’t shy away from telling the truth. Is this a conscious choice?

JR: Yes, I think telling the truth is the whole point, really. As a reader, you can tell when a writer is being honest, emotionally honest, honest about the way her or his characters think and speak and react. Which is not to say they are familiar or easy to understand, but they have integrity. Hemingway says every writer needs a crap detector, and to my mind that is about truth. For example, easy descriptions are crap: The golden sunshine poured down over the meadow sparkling with beautiful flowers. If you want to write truthfully, is sunshine golden? Does it pour? Can a meadow sparkle? What are ‘beautiful flowers’ and how can I make the reader see them? What colours and shapes do they have? Truthful description is specific.

I know your question is about bigger truths and yes, I’m trying to understand the things I write about, so it would be stupid of me to be dishonest because then I would never understand them, and sometimes a drive to truthfulness does lead into some dark and difficult areas. But for me, exploring and understanding difficult things is the whole point of writing, and it starts in the language, in the sentences, the words.

9781782398233Jane Rogers’ tenth novel, ‘Conrad and Eleanor’, an intricate and nuanced portrait of a dysfunctional marriage as it unravels, is released by Atlantic Books on June 2nd.




Networking for Writers

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When I first starting writing fiction seriously I knew a lot of healthcare professionals but no other writers. In fact, I had no connections in the world of the arts as a whole let alone in publishing or media. Still, I reasoned, networking was something that didn’t hold any especial relevance for me. After all, most writers spend long periods of time flying under the radar, working away diligently in isolation. And when they finally finish their masterwork, it becomes someone else’s job to take care of its journey through the world allowing the writer to submerge again into their next book, right? Right?

Divested of such naivety I’ve come to understand why building a writing career requires, no less than in any other field, the ability to network. Moreover, I’ve had to build my writing network entirely from scratch.

Now, I’m not one of the lucky few to whom networking comes naturally. When I researched to see what was out there on the subject of networking for writers, I expected to find a plethora of articles that would render it all less daunting. I found surprisingly few and, of those I came across, none felt like they quite nailed it for my particular situation.

The thing is, conscious organised networking feels like such a corporate concept. Its innate pragmatism implies that the entire point of it is to result in a quantifiable outcome, such as a new commission or contact. Articles about networking generally offer useful if somewhat prosaic advice along the lines of ‘research the person you want to approach and think about what you might have to offer them’ and so on. Which of course is perfectly sound advice. But I can’t help feeling that there is something about networking for writers that doesn’t quite fit the corporate model. An artistic career has facets to it that a business career doesn’t.  For me, the process of networking needs to feel a little more organic.

To understand why the standard way of looking at networking doesn’t quite work for me, I had to go back and think about why artists create in the first place. Edgar Allan Poe defined poetry as ‘the rhythmical creation of Beauty’. The creation of beauty as a primary motive is an unusual choice given the materialist world we inhabit. But then to persist in doing so in return for uncertain, small, or sometimes non-existent reward is an even more unusual choice. As Robert Graves said, ‘There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.’ One could replace the word poetry with any art-form and the underlying premise would still hold. So it seems to me that a network for artists needs to accomplish more than just providing opportunities. There has to be something in the pot about artistic support and validation too.

For me, networking only feels right if it follows the same internal drive as my writing. In other words, the act of networking also has to feel authentic. On my part, I respect anyone who can stick to the page for long enough to turn out a novel but I’m not going to go the extra mile for everyone who does so. There just isn’t enough time in my day. That said, if someone’s work cuts down to the bone in some way, if there is truthfulness in it, if they or it have artistic integrity, if the work speaks to me, I’ll make time.

Another thing I’ve realised over the years is that it’s not always apparent who might prove to be a fruitful contact and who might not. A commission might come from one person but artistic respect, stimulus and succour, which are equally as vital, might come from another. I have friends who are journalists who haven’t proffered any help whatsoever with contacts, reviews and so on. I also have friends who have no connections in media or publishing but who have taken it upon themselves to approach local book stores and libraries on my behalf without me even having to ask. The common characteristic that unites the people who have made such efforts for me is a genuine, deeply embedded, love of literature. An internal drive that we share.

Another thing I’ve found is that networking often happens as a by-product. Let me explain. By nature, I’m a lousy ‘conscious’ networker because walking up to someone I barely know is awkward at the best of times. However, like most writers, I naturally generate an abundance of ideas. I also possess a fair amount of energy and, as a result of a day job in healthcare, I am seriously organised and time-efficient. These attributes, combined with my internal literature-loving drive, have led me to start organising spoken word events in the town where I live. The intention behind these events has never been for me to read or promote my own work. Rather the underlying vision has been to bring what is challenging, exquisite, truthful, raw and deeply human to our artistically rather mainstream, not very bookish, little town. The readers are chosen by a small group of people because of our genuine, deeply embedded, love of literature. An unexpected outcome of doing this is that it has been incredibly fruitful for networking, though this was never the intended purpose.

I confess it feels somewhat fraudulent not to provide a succinct list of pointers in an article about networking. Despite myself, I’m twitchy at the thought of ending without at least a few bullet points. Plus, I may never get another opportunity to include the word ‘arse’ in a blog post.

So, in summary:

  • Networking comes very naturally to some lucky, lucky people. The rest of us have to manage it regardless.
  • Networking is not short-term. Unless you want to be a one hit wonder. It’s about building enduring and mutually respectful connections that bear fruit for both parties over time.
  • Honesty is by far the best policy. Be your true self. If you’re faking it, time will out you.
  • Networking is actually quite fun.
  • Yes, it takes time and energy to fully engage in it. But it will eat up more energy than it gives back if you approach it simply as a chore to be accomplished. A better way to see it is as an exploration of the field in which you want to operate, with the aim of encountering like-minded people.
  • People won’t automatically offer help, even if it seems obvious that they can. You have to ask. Even then they may not follow through but it’s always worth asking.
  • It doesn’t always bear fruit but then it doesn’t always have to.
  • Talk is cheap. Action is what really counts. Plenty of people are charismatic and network effortlessly but getting stuff done has nothing to do with charisma. That person who says of course they’ll put you in touch with so-and-so, or send you that biblio for your research, or proof-read that piece for you, or come to your reading but then never does? They’re never going to.
  • Don’t be that person who says, sure, I’ll put you in touch with so-and-so, or send you that biblio for your research, or proof-read that piece for you, or come to your reading and then not do it. If you say you’re going to do it, do it. Or just don’t offer in the first place.
  • You won’t get on famously with everyone. Humans are complex and diverse. Just because someone is an artist doesn’t mean they can’t also be an arse.



How to describe a writer

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Last week, I had a meeting with a designer about setting up my website. We met at a café on a blazing Sunday noon. The sun was burning a hole in the sky; the air was molten lava, the city was dangerously close to bursting into flames. Temperatures in Delhi can shoot up to 47 degrees Celsius (—Fahrenheit). In a long and harsh summer, May is the cruellest month. Stepping outdoors at noon on a typical day in May is a feat. Medals must be handed out to those who dare to venture forth.

I took the plunge on Sunday because I really didn’t have a choice. The person I needed to meet was in town only for a day. If I didn’t sit down with him and figure out a plan for my website, I’d continue my existence as the last writer on earth without a website. Not that I minded. My writing life wouldn’t wither and die because of the lack. Words come to you whether you have an online presence or not. Website or no website, plots will be weaved, characters fleshed out, stories told. I am happy to continue my website-less existence, but other people – agents, publishers, writing fellowship administrators – seem to disapprove. A writer without a website in this day and age is a strange animal, they say. Give us an explanation for this state of affairs or forever be silent – I am warned.

I am not a hermit who lives on a mountain or in the belly of a cave. I am neither addicted to technology nor allergic to it. I use a computer at work. I do all my writing on my laptop. I waste a lot of time surfing the internet when I should be writing. I wasn’t making a statement by not having a website. I simply didn’t think it was the be all and end all of a writer’s life. Anyway, when I decided it was time to set up one, I found a designer who seemed to understand my requirements. We met at a café in my neighbourhood on the hottest day of the summer to talk things through. After complaining about the weather for ten minutes – a mandatory conversational requirement when people meet in Delhi – we got down to business.

We chalked out a plan. The look and feel of the website, the responsiveness of the design, the best way to order the content – the necessary details were discussed.

“Your bio goes on the opening page,” said the designer. “Best to write a crisp one. Start off on a light note, preferably”
My whole life flashed before my eyes. Many amusing incidents to report. Much lightheartedness in there. But how to pick one among several amusing incidents and make it the opening paragraph of a bio note? What if said incident didn’t amuse the people who browsed the site? Would I have to invent an incident to add the right touch of lightness? Being a fiction writer, was I expected to inject a dose of fiction into my bio note to amuse and entertain readers? Questions, questions….

Then I got thinking about writers’ bio notes in general. If we were to be honest, most of us could fit this description: XYZ is a cranky perfectionist. Obsessively revises everything she/he writes. Agonizes over every damn word. Is a pariah at social gatherings and family reunions because of a tendency to tune out of conversations and work out tangled plot details in her/his head. This habit drives XYZ’s friends/lovers/family crazy. XYZ is hungry for validation in the form of feedback on her/his writing. Has been known to ask people for honest criticism and then resent them for a lifetime for giving it. XYZ can quote a Shakespeare sonnet or a soliloquy from Hamlet from memory but she/he often forgets to pick up the dry cleaning. XYZ is a mix of bravado and agonizing self-doubt – a volatile combination. Approach XYZ at a party at your own risk. Never start the conversation with the question, “have I read anything you’ve written?” This triggers extreme responses in XYZ including homicidal thoughts.

Obviously this is not the sort of bio note you display in public. I am working on a more appropriate version for my site as we speak. Once I iron out the wrinkles and add the right touch of lightness, it’s going to sweep readers off their feet. I think it’s going to be the best damn piece of fiction I’ll ever write.




Social Media for Writers

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Before my first novel came out I virtually never used social media. The too-easy and sometimes fraudulent intimacy of Facebook made me uncomfortable. The notion of whittling human communication down to 140 characters on Twitter appalled me. When Esperanza Street was shortlisted for the Guardian ‘Not the Booker’ Prize, the final stage of which was down to readers’ votes, novelist Vestal MacIntyre, author of acclaimed bestseller Lake Overturn, sent me a cheerful five word email: ‘Time to get on Twitter?!’ But, you know, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it even though I knew he was right.

It goes without saying that curiosity is deeply human, as is the urge for connection to others. Not to mention the desire to understand a creative work within the context of its maker’s life. These are surely the reasons why an author biography appears in most books and why I inevitably feel a little disappointed if there isn’t one.

In a previous post I quoted the Swedish poet, Harry Martinson. Martinson wrote a poem called ‘To Be’ in which he described a journey on a steam train with his foster father one summer. The language of the poem is vivid, ecstatic, a startling change in tone from much of his other work. He describes riding in an engine ‘festooned with leaves’ while,

 

‘Cherry-blossoms rained over us

were sucked into the smoke

and blown up in whirls

like a cloud statue over the Sunday School.

They stuck like God’s postage stamps

on each lump of coal in the tender.’

 

And in the last stanza, ‘This memory is dotted by flowers like a bright blouse.’

For me, the fullest meaning of this poem was only grasped when I read Martinson’s biography. Abandoned by first one parent, then the other, he spent much of his turbulent childhood as a parish orphan fostered by different households. His happiest time was the three months he spent as the foster-son of a train driver. Knowing all that makes the poem unfold in a new way.

Of course we live and write in different times to Martinson. Information travels more quickly now. The volume of published literature has burgeoned and authors are expected to find ways to differentiate themselves. Even so, for me, the anxiety that social media and the net sit in opposition to the idea of privacy persists. But given that an author and their work can be written about by anyone, I can see that it makes sense to take control of one’s online presence rather than leave it to chance.

The internet can seem like an untamed wilderness (and in some ways it is given the sheer volume of information buried within an even greater frippery of white noise), but reduced to its essentials it’s really just another arena where information is exchanged.

There is of course a boundary that must be individually placed, each to their own: the biography of a deceased poet can afford to be a great deal more revelatory than that of a living author who still has to do the school run. No-one could reasonably expect a living author to be, as a matter of course, open about their unhappy childhood. The intimacy of the digital world is in any case somewhat sham. Even if it appears the Kardashians routinely put their private life up for public display, in reality they and their publicists carefully vet what is aired in the public domain and what is not. Which of course brings into question the authenticity of anyone’s online persona and the difference between the ‘brand’ and the actual human being.

For authors our words, not our faces or bodies or the shenanigans we get up to, are both our currency and our shield. Exposure beyond the professional is just not necessary. So for an author it’s perfectly fine to talk about books, our artistic influences, our opinions and interests, but one can easily stop short of divulging details of family life.

The real question though is how useful is social media when it comes to book sales?

Granted no amount of online exposure is going to make up for a terrible book. But good fiction travels by word of mouth which can be so very, very slow. On a purely pragmatic level, given that most people get their news and information online these days, eschewing hard copies of anything, the more online visibility an author or a book has, surely the faster the sales curve will rise? And if not, might there be other benefits to social media for an author? Can an author’s social media profile make a difference when applying for grant funding for example?

‘These are interesting questions with no clear answer,’ says literary agent, Euan Thorneycroft, of London agency A. M. Heath. ‘I suppose my overall feeling is that for most authors who use social media, it doesn’t impact on sales. I’m not saying that it isn’t useful. It enables authors to feel part of a community, to share thoughts, ask questions, etc. as well as shouting about their own and other authors’ books. And that’s all great. But I’m not convinced it actually significantly affects sales for most of them.

‘There are a minority who clearly have benefited from social media in terms of sales. But there doesn’t seem to be any template one can follow. Some people are naturally good on social media whilst others aren’t. It isn’t really something you can teach people. Those who are successful on social media and whose sales are good seem to be those authors who are willing to engage with the social media community rather than just shouting about their own books. And not just engaging, but engaging with other serious writers who themselves have good followings. As I said, I think these authors are in a minority.

‘I think another interesting question is how social media is enabling authors to get representation in the first place and how some authors have cleverly used things like Twitter to alert agents to their work.’

For smaller imprints like award-winning indie press, And Other Stories, publishers of Yuri Herrera’s award-winning novel, ‘Signs Preceding the End of The World, marketing books via billboards on the Underground is simply not an option. So is social media of particular value in this sector of the industry? And Other Stories founder Stefan Tobler says, ‘If you know an author already through social media, you might be more curious about the book and so pick it up in the first place. But I certainly don’t think every author needs to do social media. Though if authors are intelligent, generous about others and engaging online, it doesn’t do them any harm.’

As yet there doesn’t seem to be consensus on the benefits of social media for writers and whether we engage with social media or not is often down to personal preference.

When Esperanza Street first came out, publicist Nicci Praca advised me that all authors should consider being on at least one social media platform. Award-winning novelist and poet, Vanessa Gebbie agreed: ‘You have to give readers a way to connect with you.’

And Other Stories publicist, Nichola Smalley, agrees with this but expands on the limitations as well as the benefits of some of the popular platforms:

‘Writers can pique readers’ curiosity about their books, and build a name for themselves if they have interesting things to say on social media, but it’s not a simple matter.

‘Twitter can be a great place for people who like to play with words and share ideas, but it’s something people should only engage with if they really want to engage with other people. It’s not much good as a marketing tool unless you actually build up a relationship with people and get to know them to some extent.

‘Facebook is challenging unless you want to pay for marketing, as the algorithms they use restrict what people can see, but people wanting to tell friends or fans about good news in greater detail can do it well there.

‘Instagram is great if you want to capture the attention of visual thinkers and younger readers, but make sure you have a visual eye!! People won’t follow you unless you provide them with interesting or attractive images. No one wants to look at boring stuff!

‘Snapchat is not really something that we’ve experimented with, but I am looking into it. Vines and Youtube are great if you have video content you want to share, but you need to advertise the presence of things on other channels to build a following, and it can be hard work. Vines are very short – best for visual jokes really!’

As well as the overwhelming diversity of social media, to complicate matters even further, platforms also wax and wane in popularity with time. Many authors have used online scrapbooking site Pinterest as a promotional tool for their books and one can easily see why. Pinterest’s demographic is significantly more female with the greatest proportion of users in the 25-45 age range which nicely dovetails with the book-buying demographic. More recently though, Pinterest’s popularity has been eclipsed somewhat by Instagram.  Bestselling author Suzanne Joinson, whose second novel The Photographer’s Wife has just been released by Bloomsbury, has Pinterest boards for each novel but now primarily uses the site as a personal digital dream-board: “I have it on a private setting for pinboards collecting ideas and images if useful to whatever I’m working on.’

Building an online presence is a time consuming business and one that requires a degree of commitment. Vestal MacIntyre, while acknowledging the benefits of Twitter later went on to add: ‘As far as social media goes, to be honest I haven’t found it really useful. I wasn’t on Twitter when my books came out and since then have struggled to muster the energy to raise much of a following. I tend to hibernate when I don’t have anything to promote.’

On a personal level, since Esperanza street came out and I started doing public readings, I’ve realised it’s a genuine pleasure to make contact with fellow readers and writers that I wouldn’t have had the chance to encounter otherwise. Social media and the internet are just another means of doing this, albeit in a somewhat detached way, which actually works quite well for relative introverts like me.

In conclusion, if the digital world is your thing, then using it to build a profile is a good idea, but no author should feel they have to. If you are going to embrace the digital world, my final thought is this: make sure you have a good author headshot. No holiday snaps and definitely no selfies. If at all possible, get it done professionally. It will be worth the investment. A good photographer will know what works across different platforms. Make sure a photograph of you is up where it’s needed. In line with the theory that all our behaviours are driven by the urge to connect simply because all human beings are fundamentally alone, the evidence suggests that people are much more likely to click on articles that have images and even more so if that image is a portrait.




Time Travel

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One of the pleasures of writing fiction is the freedom you have to play around with time in the stories you tell. Unlike real life, fiction lets you leap into the future and dive into the past with remarkable ease. Flash-forwards and flashbacks are at your fingertips. You are free to move back and forth in time, pole-vaulting from past to future and back to the present in the blink of an eye. Stories are time travel. Storytellers, time travellers. The scope of the journey is limitless. The possibilities infinite.

One of the many options at a writer’s disposal is to use multiple timelines to tell a story. I have always been fascinated by novels with multiple timelines. I love reading them. I am writing one which has two stories set in different timelines – one in 1950s Tibet, the other in contemporary India. The two intertwine at a crucial point in the narrative. Handling multiple timelines is not an easy task to take on. But it has its own rewards. One of the attractions of writing a novel with multiple timelines is that the stories set in different timeframes give the theme – the central chord that binds the stories together – a deeper resonance. The echoes from the past and future add color and character to the present. They provide a larger perspective and draw the reader right into the heart of the narrative.

David Mitchell’s critically acclaimed novel, Cloud Atlas, contains six stories set in different time frames. In a review, critic and writer AS Byatt called the novel a “rollercoaster” in which each story has an individual ending, as well as a cumulative ending to all, “giving a complete narrative pleasure that is rare.” Mitchell juggles timelines like a magician. His canvas is wide – the stories are set in 19th century America, Britain in the 1930s, California in the 1970s, London in the 1980s, and an apocalyptic future. Mitchell strings the disparate narratives together effortlessly and the reader is the richer for it. The novel gifts us with startling insights about the past and the future, inspiring us to explore the intricate connections between the two with fresh eyes.

Kate Atkinson plays around with time in her novel Life after Life to raise fundamental questions about the human condition. The heroine lives “many lives” in twentieth century England, each with different twists and turns and outcomes. A baby is born during a snow storm in 1910 and dies before she takes her first breath. A baby born is during a snow storm in 1910 and she survives. Time repeats itself in Life after Life, giving the heroine second, third, an infinite number of chances to live her life. The question Atkinson asks is: given more than one chance, would she (and every one of us) want to set things right in the world and save it from its preordained fate? Would we take the trouble to rewrite destiny? Would we care?

Pulitzer winner Jennifer Egan experiments with time with interesting results in her 2010 novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. The interlinked stories in the novel revolve around an ageing rock musician and his assistant. The stories take daring leaps between the late 60s, the present, and the future. Swinging back and forth in time, A Visit from the Goon Squad takes readers on a journey of self discovery, raising questions about choices (or their lack), ageing, and mortality.

Multiple timelines have much to offer to both writers and readers. But a few words of caution for writers are in order. Handling dual timelines requires focus, patience, and a lot of perseverance. It is critical to make both (or more) timelines in your novel equally interesting for the reader’s sake. It is also essential to maintain a balance between the stories set in different time frames to make sure none of them take up too much space in the overall narrative scheme.

When switching between timelines, be careful about making the transitions clear. Blurry or abrupt transitions will confuse readers. It is hard for readers to keep turning the pages if they are unsure about which story the writer is leading them into. Novels with multiple timelines make extra demands on the reader’s attention span. Don’t tax it with unclear transitions and leaps and bounds that come out of nowhere. When you (and your characters) move back and forth in time, the reader has to be with you every step of the way. Keep it clear, keep it interesting, and the reader will stick with you till the end.




Why Everyone You Went to High School With Assumes You Are Writing About Them

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“A lie, sometimes, can be truer than the truth, which is why fiction gets written.”- Tim O’Brien

Writing fiction and poetry can be controversial, especially when you use the name of the pizzeria where you worked when you were 13, and mention that they had mice and cockroaches. Poetic license might also lead to suing license, so when I read my new poetry book, Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria (Unsolicited Press, Davis, California), in my hometown (Lakewood, New Jersey, USA), I’ll order from the Red Moon Pizzeria but not reunite with the owners, once my employers, because the following two lines might hurt their feelings:

“Albert Schwartz said you made pizza boxes for $1.50 an hour and

sued the owner while cockroaches and mice scuttled on the floor,”

It might even cause the health department to void their food permit. Besides, every other pizzeria in New Jersey is called “The Red Moon Pizzeria,” and them suing you for misappropriating their name would be like Tom, Dick or Harry suing you for naming your child “after them.”

In addition, several kids who never wanted to be your friend suddenly want to be friend because you are an author. They ask if you were writing about them during your poem “Orgasm on Yom Kippur,” which concerns pharmaceutical majors and PhD scholars. Maybe you had them in mind when you were having orgasm under the water faucet and your mother walked in on you and compared you with those noble, well-behaved, exceedingly pristine souls with extensive CVs from Harvard and the like—compared them with your measly Rutgers University resume—they were actually in the synagogue while you were in the bathtub having pleasure on the day of atonement.

Really: it’s not about you!

A friend of mine recently emailed that she’s enjoying my poetry book, Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria, and has decided who the “pimply kid” and several other characters might be in the poem “High School.” Here is the stanza:

“in the library lesbian nuns studied Thomas Aquinas while pimpled ex-seniors flirted with cheerleaders because they had not done so in the 1950s”

Truthfully, numerous teens in high school had strawberry patches on their adolescent faces so it is normal for your former classmates to assume they were the pimpled characters who spoke with cheerleaders in the late 70s “because they had not done so in the 1950s.”

Similarly, let’s say you are dreaming about some guy who never invited you to his bar mitzvah, though you invited him to your bat mitzvah, and you dream that you encounter him in a radio shop in your old town and that he’s really nice to you, in the dream, though his mother, whom you’ve recently seen in the supermarket, was a complete bitch, barely saying hello near the grapefruit section. She ran her food carriage over to the avocadoes when she saw you coming. Well, now, all the kids who made fun of you in Hebrew school wonder if it’s them you are discussing, but, really, let’s be honest—no one invited you to their bar mitzvah!

Let’s also presume that the love of your life—you considered her that—has brought a suit against you, alleging that you have exploited your 5-month tryst with her in a nonfiction piece about losing your virginity. You have inscribed a Dante meets Beatrice-like meaning to your words about the relationship, whereas she tells everyone, “We never dated.” That she is suing you, with one of the best Orthodox Jewish-Hispanic solicitors on the Jersey Shore of New Jersey, USA, is reason to think that maybe you had a relationship, when the truth is that most of it was in your head, and that which resided in your skull is now down on paper and/or Kindle and/or Internet.

Some things are better left in reality while other things, when they enter reality, are better left in fiction. As a “bad reality” thing to do, you wouldn’t post on Facebook, “I’ve never had a hot flash.” This would seem too personal and autobiographical, too immediate, for the Facebook audience. Thus instead I write a poem, “Why I have never had a hot flash: this is why God loves me,” which gets published in an obscure journal no one will ever read. Now it, the poem, which is more inspired than it is autobiographical, is actually “in its element” in an obscure journal that no one reads. If “I’ve never had a hot flash” appears in your Facebook status, your future mother-in-law, who will invariably pay for your wedding because you have no money—will be devastated. She will only be proud if she learns about this non-menopause state of being in obscurityville literary journalville, far removed from her District of Columbia suburb, because to her Facebook posts are like gossiping with her tennis partners near the avocado section.

Thus, and in conclusion, the delicate creative writing process is a mesmerized synthesis of what’s in your mind and never happened but achieves a degree of reality in poetry and fiction. So let everyone you know think that you’re writing about him or her though it truthfully comes from experiences that you’ve misinterpreted. Bon appétit!




Everyone’s a critic: dealing with negative reviews

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Writers are, by nature, an introspective bunch. We mine the seams of our own lives for insights that feed our work. Writing is our way of processing the world, of making sense of our experiences by rendering them into meaningful narratives. In fact, this is what all artists do. Our creative work is our most authentic voice in the wider world and putting our work out there is an act of self-exposure. So receiving a negative review can feel a bit like being told to shut up and, worse still, by someone who doesn’t know you at all.

No-one who writes a book puts out one that is intentionally shoddy or poorly-finished. Most writers have worked pretty hard to get it into the best shape they can. Even so, negative reviews are inevitable. There is no such thing as perfection in art. Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. There are as many types of reader as there are writer and your book is never going to please them all. Of those it doesn’t please, some will be more than happy to savage your work publicly.

Goodreads, the powerhouse of book review sites, has some interesting wording in its review guidelines, encouraging ‘harsh, critical comments’ of the sort ‘this guy can’t write a lick’ or ‘this book is absolute trash’. This stunned me when I first read it. But then I wouldn’t dream of saying such a thing about anyone’s book in a public forum even if I thought it privately. Authors are (quite rightly) discouraged from engaging with negative reviewers, which at times can give Goodreads the air of a duck-shoot where the author and their books are the target, even if this wasn’t the spirit in which the site was created.

When I first discovered Goodreads, I looked up my all-time favourite books. Books I’ve adored over the years. Books that genuinely changed how I think. Books that I bought as gifts for people I admired, loved and connected with. Anna Karenina, one of the greatest love stories of all time, has a rash of one star reviews. One reader found Jude the Obscure, a book about the conflict between the divine and the carnal within the human psyche, ‘whiny and depressing’.  Sure, for some people Jude may well feel whiny and depressing. But it needs to be said that it took a certain kind of writer to create a book like it and it will need a certain kind of reader to appreciate it fully for what it is.

J.M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is another example which has completely divided readers and been heavily criticised by those who had hoped for a rerun of Coetzee’s Man Booker winning Disgrace. At times, Elizabeth Costello reads as much like an academic treatise as it does a novel. There is no doubt that it’s harder work to read than most contemporary novels. It’s one of the very few books I have kept aside to re-read later in my life because I know that there is more to be gleaned from it. Yet so many people have struggled to enjoy it at all. Nevertheless, in my opinion, it is a book most worthy of coming to in a spirit of trust and openness.

Ultimately every author writes for a certain kind of ‘target reader’, someone who will understand and be interested in the themes they explore, enjoy their style of expression and connect with their characters. Yet motivations for reading are manifold: to be challenged, to learn something different about the human condition, to enjoy the musicality and texture of language, or simply to be transported for a while, to be entertained. All of these motives are of equal value. But it is a rare book that can fulfil them all. So, for some readers your book, my book, any writer’s book will necessarily be a one star experience. In the end, the only way to deal with a negative review is to ignore it. That reader has not ‘got’ your book. Another reader will.

At this point I feel compelled to comment on the absurdity of rating a book from one to five stars in the first place. No-one would dream of walking through the Tate Modern and rating a canvas in this way: ‘Hmm, Peter Doig, too bleak. Gives me the heebie-jeebies. One star..!’ In other artistic fields, it’s considered self-evident that the audience’s response to a work of art is too subjective, too diverse, for there to be a meaningful way of ‘ranking’ it. But then we don’t buy original paintings off Amazon. If we did, they’d probably be rated by stars. True, no-one is going to read through hundreds of reader reviews to get an idea of whether a book is for them or not, they may as well just use the time to read the book. Instead some are simply going to look at the star rating, even if it makes little sense that a book, which has as much claim to being a work of art as a painting, should be judged this way at all.

Some time ago, a work colleague confessed to me that, though he understood books and music as art forms, he just didn’t ‘get’ visual art. I thought about this a lot. I’d just been to see an exhibition by Peter Doig at the Tate. Doig’s paintings cannot be described as ‘beautiful’ in the usual sense. They feel desolate, extreme, disturbing. In addition, it’s impossible to identify the subjects of his paintings. Is it the derelict building, the patrol car on the opposite shore, is it us (the viewer), is it the discomfort, the uncertainty, that the images evoke? What we believe the subject to be depends on what we, the viewers, bring to the work ourselves (and, in my opinion, herein lies Doig’s genius).

Before I started writing seriously, I often approached art as a consumer. My opinion of a work of art was usually based on what made sense to me or what had (to my eyes) aesthetic value. As I progressed along the writer’s path, I began to understand that the piece of work itself is the culmination of a much longer process and without seeing it within the context of its process, (and within its historical or social context also), it cannot be fully appreciated. I tried to explain this to my work colleague using the example of Peter Doig. In order to create, for example, his canvases of derelict buildings seen from behind the treeline, the artist had presumably lived and breathed the same moment of encounter and surprise for many weeks if not months prior to the finishing of the actual canvas. Moreover, Doig’s paintings prompt us to try and construct a narrative because this is the normal human response to everything. It is how we respond to the events of our own lives let alone a work of art: we require them to have meaning. Of course an artist creates using their own narrative, not ours, though elements of it will be universal, applicable across the board irrespective of setting or culture. For me, considering Doig’s paintings with all of this in mind gave them an entirely different set of meanings and made the experience of viewing them a great deal richer than it might otherwise have been.

Kasemir Malevich is probably an even better example of an artist whose work cannot be fully understood or appreciated out of context. One needs to approach his work as his response to the social, political and personal upheaval that he lived through. What would someone who had not taken the trouble to do so make of his Black Square?

Books of fiction of course are usually designed as a coherent narrative where there is less ambiguity about meaning or subject. But this being so means that we tend to approach a text with more rigid expectations than we might have of, say, an abstract painting. A lot of the time when I see a negative review, it is clear that there is a disconnect between the reader’s expectations and their actual experience of the text. In other words, they are expecting their own narrative to be repeated, reinforced or at least dovetailed with. A criticism I have heard more than once of my novel, Esperanza Street, is that the ending made the reader feel empty or sad. They had expected it to end on a high note. To which I say ‘shucks’.  A reader’s need for a happy ending says more about their personal narrative than it does about the failings of my book. The book is what it is. It is built from my experiences, my attitudes, my associations, my life journey, not theirs. Expecting it to be something else is like going up to a complete stranger and asking why they aren’t taller/fatter/richer/differently dressed. So in the end perhaps the only thing that can be fairly criticised about a book is the craft, if it is obviously deficient, not the content. (But, please note, if you’re going to feel free to criticise my craft or anyone else’s, you’d better be a maestro yourself!)

So what to do? For any author smarting from a negative review or a snotty star rating, I heartily recommend the Goodreads exercise. Make a list of the best books you’ve ever read, the utter paradigm-shifting classics, and then read some of the bad reviews they’ve been given. I guarantee it will make you feel better.




How Does a Writer Deal with Other People’s Negativity?

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For a long time, I didn’t confess to the wider world that I was a writer. It wasn’t until my first novel was bought by a publisher and I’d actually signed the contract that I decided to really come clean. Even after that, with certain people, I didn’t say anything until the book was physically on the shelves. The reasons I was cagey about it were manifold. Firstly, it’s a long road and it takes a considerable length of time to produce anything one feels comfortable letting people who aren’t your best friend or your mum see. Even your closest allies get bored of waiting for you to publish, bored of hearing that you’re still working on the same story you were working on the last hundred or so times they saw you. They either want an excuse to break out the bubbly or they want you to shut up about your book. It’s a bit like listening to someone talk about their marathon training, and for years rather than months at that Bor-ing.

The second reason and probably the biggest is that I got fed up of the thinly disguised smirk that my confession was often greeted with because, you know, everyone’s a writer. Or at least it seems that way, as if everyone who can’t wield a paintbrush or play an instrument with any degree of competence toys with the idea of writing a book because writing is a paint-by-numbers and keep-within-the-lines kind of thing, isn’t it? I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard someone say, ‘I wanted to write a book too, but…’. Most of those people, for various reasons, never will: it takes too long, it’s too risky, you only get paid once it’s done and rarely earn a fortune, one might as well expend one’s energy doing something more practical etc etc. The sorts of people who don’t do it for those reasons were never really going to be writers anyway because writing isn’t a lifestyle choice, it’s a compulsion. 

Though being a living-on-a-shoestring, aspiring author might seem cool in your twenties, it becomes just plain embarrassing if you’re actually living on a shoestring and still aspiring in your forties. By the time I’d finished my long uphill apprenticeship and the first book was ready to go, most of my fellow writers had long since fallen away. People who are really writers know they are writers. They know because the thought of not writing is unbearable, because they are like withdrawing addicts when circumstances prevent them from writing, because writing is when they feel authentic. From the outside, who can tell who is genuinely a writer and who isn’t? So I suppose the slight smirk is understandable.

in my name.

Like most people I was raised to think that the summit not the climb is the point of any endeavour. Of course, I do not believe that now. I now believe that a person is the sum of their experiences, not of their achievements. Something I’ve noticed in the biographies of many writers is that their employment history is often eclectic, characterised by a kind of restlessness. This might be taken by some as a lack of commitment to a ‘proper’ career but I don’t believe that is so. I think it’s more to do with a kind of hunger for experience coupled with a need to find some kind of ‘home’. I suspect that most writers feel like misfits and that home, rather than being a place or a group of people, turns out to be within language.

Of course even when your book is finally out, the reactions aren’t always salutary. For someone whose creative progress has stalled because of fear, bad luck, lack of commitment or frankly, in some cases, a lack of genuine ability, it can be hard to watch someone else take a risk and then have the temerity to succeed.

Writers, like any artists, are wise to start growing a hide like a rhinoceros and to start growing it early. Because even when you get your book onto the shelves the negativity doesn’t stop. Some readers will genuinely appreciate your work but others will take delight in savaging it. They assume, like many, that if your head is above the parapet, it’s okay to take a pot-shot at it. If you’re the sensitive type, (and sensitivity is part of the artistic constitution), other people’s negativity can be creatively disabling.

One of my favourite antidotes is what I call my medicine bundle. This is a tatty file full of anything that has made me feel good about my work over the years or reinforced my reasons for doing it. So in my medicine bundle I have printouts of positive reviews, feedback from course tutors, the very first letter I received from my agent inviting me to get in touch, encouraging cards from friends and family, quotes from long dead writers. A medicine bundle should have no room for the ambivalent or the begrudging, only for what is resolutely positive. It’s basically a psychic hug stored up for when I need it. And there have been plenty of times when I’ve needed it to remind me that my work does have merit and that other people that seem quite sensible and that I don’t owe money to think so as well.




How Does a Writer Deal with Other People's Negativity?

3048872-poster-p-1-how-to-deal-with-judgmental-people

For a long time, I didn’t confess to the wider world that I was a writer. It wasn’t until my first novel was bought by a publisher and I’d actually signed the contract that I decided to really come clean. Even after that, with certain people, I didn’t say anything until the book was physically on the shelves. The reasons I was cagey about it were manifold. Firstly, it’s a long road and it takes a considerable length of time to produce anything one feels comfortable letting people who aren’t your best friend or your mum see. Even your closest allies get bored of waiting for you to publish, bored of hearing that you’re still working on the same story you were working on the last hundred or so times they saw you. They either want an excuse to break out the bubbly or they want you to shut up about your book. It’s a bit like listening to someone talk about their marathon training, and for years rather than months at that Bor-ing.

The second reason and probably the biggest is that I got fed up of the thinly disguised smirk that my confession was often greeted with because, you know, everyone’s a writer. Or at least it seems that way, as if everyone who can’t wield a paintbrush or play an instrument with any degree of competence toys with the idea of writing a book because writing is a paint-by-numbers and keep-within-the-lines kind of thing, isn’t it? I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard someone say, ‘I wanted to write a book too, but…’. Most of those people, for various reasons, never will: it takes too long, it’s too risky, you only get paid once it’s done and rarely earn a fortune, one might as well expend one’s energy doing something more practical etc etc. The sorts of people who don’t do it for those reasons were never really going to be writers anyway because writing isn’t a lifestyle choice, it’s a compulsion. 

Though being a living-on-a-shoestring, aspiring author might seem cool in your twenties, it becomes just plain embarrassing if you’re actually living on a shoestring and still aspiring in your forties. By the time I’d finished my long uphill apprenticeship and the first book was ready to go, most of my fellow writers had long since fallen away. People who are really writers know they are writers. They know because the thought of not writing is unbearable, because they are like withdrawing addicts when circumstances prevent them from writing, because writing is when they feel authentic. From the outside, who can tell who is genuinely a writer and who isn’t? So I suppose the slight smirk is understandable.

in my name.

Like most people I was raised to think that the summit not the climb is the point of any endeavour. Of course, I do not believe that now. I now believe that a person is the sum of their experiences, not of their achievements. Something I’ve noticed in the biographies of many writers is that their employment history is often eclectic, characterised by a kind of restlessness. This might be taken by some as a lack of commitment to a ‘proper’ career but I don’t believe that is so. I think it’s more to do with a kind of hunger for experience coupled with a need to find some kind of ‘home’. I suspect that most writers feel like misfits and that home, rather than being a place or a group of people, turns out to be within language.

Of course even when your book is finally out, the reactions aren’t always salutary. For someone whose creative progress has stalled because of fear, bad luck, lack of commitment or frankly, in some cases, a lack of genuine ability, it can be hard to watch someone else take a risk and then have the temerity to succeed.

Writers, like any artists, are wise to start growing a hide like a rhinoceros and to start growing it early. Because even when you get your book onto the shelves the negativity doesn’t stop. Some readers will genuinely appreciate your work but others will take delight in savaging it. They assume, like many, that if your head is above the parapet, it’s okay to take a pot-shot at it. If you’re the sensitive type, (and sensitivity is part of the artistic constitution), other people’s negativity can be creatively disabling.

One of my favourite antidotes is what I call my medicine bundle. This is a tatty file full of anything that has made me feel good about my work over the years or reinforced my reasons for doing it. So in my medicine bundle I have printouts of positive reviews, feedback from course tutors, the very first letter I received from my agent inviting me to get in touch, encouraging cards from friends and family, quotes from long dead writers. A medicine bundle should have no room for the ambivalent or the begrudging, only for what is resolutely positive. It’s basically a psychic hug stored up for when I need it. And there have been plenty of times when I’ve needed it to remind me that my work does have merit and that other people that seem quite sensible and that I don’t owe money to think so as well.




Dealing with the Inner Critic

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The Inner Critic is a part of the psyche that every creator knows only too well. Like Gary Larson’s Chicken of Depression, it perches itself in the corner and reminds you that you really aren’t ever going to measure up to The Greats. The Inner Critic is the voice that undermines you at every turn and, just as you get wise to one of its strategies, out-foxes you with another.

Last year I wrote the clunky first draft of a second novel. I had spent months patiently engineering a sabbatical from work so that I would have the time and the headspace to tackle it. It had been a long time since I’d properly immersed myself in a new fictional world and I was certain I’d be delirious with joy when my sabbatical started and the words could finally flow. The sabbatical launched with a research trip. On my return, I sat down at my desk and wrote and wrote and wrote. For a week. Then I spotted the chicken. It was perched on the wall I’d just hit. My internal commentary went something like this: Every word is pedestrian. Your first book is rubbish. What’s so great about being a writer, anyway? I hate writing. I hate being this lonely and this bored. This is definitely going to be my last book. I never want to do this again. Why the hell did I decide to do this again? I comfort ate. I drank too much coffee to the point where I felt unwell and crotchety. I struggled to get out of bed on days that I didn’t have to do the school run. The negativity invaded my dreams too and so, for a while, even sleep went out the window. The Inner Critic is an expert and covert saboteur. And like labour pains, when it has been a while, one forgets.

Some of the most creative and productive people I’ve met have some of the most strident, most denigrating, Inner Critics. Three years ago I interviewed game designer, Martin Vaux, who co-created award-winning cult card game Lords of War.  He talked about the constant carping inner voice that he has to deal with on a daily basis. ‘I’m scared. All the time,’ he said. ‘Because there’s no way of being sure that what I’m doing is any good. But then there’s a risk, a cost, in not doing something. And that applies to anyone in any walk of life. If you wait, you’re just gonna die with your ambitions unfulfilled.’

However much you achieve in your creative career, the Inner Critic is there to stay. You can’t lose it but you can develop your defences. You can get wise to it, persist in spite of it. You can start to deconstruct it whilst remaining blind to the possibility of failure for just long enough to finish that poetry collection, that novel. One antidote is to develop a network of creative friends and allies who, guaranteed, will all have their own Inner Critic. If you can afford it, get a psychotherapist. If you can’t, there are some good self-help books out there. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ audiobook ‘The Creative Fire’ makes for excellent listening, or Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artists Way’. Because in the longer term, engaging with this aspect of self rather than ignoring it will be essential for longevity as a writer.

When I look back over my own writing journey, I see a discernible pattern: I’ve had my most debilitating moments of doubt, fear and worst of all, ambivalence, when I’ve finally managed to finagle the time and space to write. In other words, at the point of commitment. Realising that this is so doesn’t stop it from happening. In fact, I’ve come to realise that this is simply how it’s going to be for as long as I write.

The Inner Critic generally operates in the unconscious. I really believe that it is more often our inner barriers than our outer circumstances that stop us creating. Let’s face it, all the other writers and artists out there also have a day job, kids, a household to run and/or a hundred other commitments. In my own experience, the Inner Critic is a more persuasive advocate for maintaining the non-creative status quo than any real-world person or situation.

I have found that, for me, the best way to engage the Inner Critic is through dreams. He (yes, for me it’s a ‘he’) has appeared frequently in my dreams and only ever pops up when I’m writing rather than when I’m going about my day job. As a dream character he started off being menacing if not plain terrifying. Over time, he has mellowed. He is still big, still glowering, still unsmiling, still harsh, but he is no longer terrifying. I’ve also noticed that when he appears in a dream scenario now, other more nurturing aspects of the self often walk into the room to counter him and these other characters, over time, have become stronger, more robust in appearance, more vibrant and more vocal.

There is a plus side. The Inner Critic, like all aspects of the psyche is multifaceted. Perfectionism is his or her middle name. So as well as being highly effective at derailing your efforts, if harnessed and counterbalanced properly, the Inner Critic can actually prompt you to do finer work.

 




On Writing: Title Hunting

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Can this be the best title or the worst title?

How hard can it be to find the right title for your novel? You’ve done so much heavy lifting – sweated over several drafts, weaved together complicated plot lines, fleshed out characters who your readers feel compelled to care about. You’ve conjured up a convincing back story for each of them. They are your creations. The twists and turns in their lives have been plotted by you. The lines they speak sprung from your imagination. No one knows the heart of their stories better than you. In the light of these facts, logically speaking, titling your book should be a walk in the park. There you are, the creator of plot and character and dialogue, summoning the title with a snap of your fingers. You command, the title appears. All is well that is titled well.

Unfortunately, things don’t work that smoothly in the title department. The road to the title is paved with agony, despair, and frustration. I speak from experience. This is not to deny that there may be writers out there, on this planet or in a galaxy far away, who know exactly what to call their novel or story or poem right from the start. They are exempt from the agonizing search I am about to describe in detail. They can carry on reading this post for sport while the rest of us seekers sweat it out.

Since I’m working on the final draft of my novel these days, I spend a lot of time thinking (worrying, obsessing, agonizing) over the title. The working title, a handy standby so far, will have to go. The search for the real thing is on. How do you define a good title? What qualities should it possess? It must be intrinsically linked to the story you tell. It has to be memorable, a word or phrase that makes your book stand out in a crowd. Some writers add a touch of poetry to their titles. Some prefer spare, minimal, direct titles.  Titles can be long phrases or sentences. A single word can also do the job with élan. Whatever the length or tone, all writers aspire to come up with original titles. The dream is to find a title that is as original as the story you tell.

So my search began. I had a few possibilities in mind and I wrote them down. They looked good on paper. They captured the essence of the story without giving away too much; they had a touch of mystery, a dash of poetry. Feeling pleased with myself (pity the fool!), I decided to go online to make sure no one else had used these to title her/his works before. Imagine my shock and horror when a Google search revealed the following facts:

*Title option 1 – name of a Beatles song, a Korean film, an obscure independent film from the 80s, a first novel by a South African writer

*Option 2 – line from a pop song, title of two published novels (a romance and a work of literary fiction), name of a travel company, title of a documentary film

*Option 3 – title of a poem written by Pablo Neruda in his 20s, titles of three published novels, title of a collection of poems
I switched off my computer and wept. It took me about a fortnight to recover and get back to my hunt for the perfect title. Back to the drawing board, start from scratch. Stanley Kubrick was right: “Everything has already been done. Every story has been told… It’s our job to do it better.”

More options surfaced, more combinations of words kept me up at nights. Like all novelists in search of a title, I looked for inspiration in Shakespeare’s immortal lines. Thousands of poems, novels, stories and plays have mined his phrases for their titles. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap…. The list is long. The Bible is a close second. Many a classic takes its title from this grandiloquent source. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Faulkner’s Abaslom! Absalom! come to mind.

Poetry can be the prose writer’s salvation. Consider the number of novelists who have found inspiration for their titles in lines of poems. Their ranks are huge and on the rise. Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell), Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy), Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann), Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe).
There is no dearth of sources, no lack of inspiration. Seek and you will find. And so my search carries on….




The Nuts and Bolts of Making a Book Happen

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The commonest complaint that writers make is that there isn’t enough time in the day. It’s true, of course, there isn’t. Once you’ve accounted for the day job, recovering from the day job, child-care, emptying and refilling the dishwasher, sorting out the household admin and so on, there is very little, if any, time left. So how on earth does one write that novel at all without the patron, the high-earning partner, the trust fund or moving back into Mum’s and Dad’s spare room?

I’ve recently finished the first draft of my second novel. It’s a story that gestated for some time in my head before I could engineer the circumstances that allowed me to write it. I knew instinctively that I was going to need a several month stretch in which I could fully immerse myself in a new fictional world. I knew I wouldn’t be able to create the book I wanted in fragments of time squeezed between other commitments. As the parent of a primary-schooler and the sole earner in our household, resigning from work altogether was simply not an option. Navigating a few months without salary was one thing but, as someone whose job had over the years become increasingly specialised, the possibility of not finding work again afterwards was terrifying.

I decided to ask my employer for a sabbatical. It took five months of negotiation to finalise the details. This negotiation required me to recognise the needs of my workplace and do my bit to help address them so that the impact on our service would be minimal. I waited until staffing issues were sorted, until new team members were fully up and running and I agreed to stay on the on-call rota. Yes, I was impatient. Already there were ideas buzzing round in my head that I was anxious to explore on the page. But the wait was worth it for several reasons. One is that I had a chance to prepare fully so that when I finally started writing I hit the ground running. The other was that I had my employer on side so that my job was preserved for me to return to, which took the fear and risk out of the enterprise.

I planned ahead carefully for the time when my salary would disappear. I was determined that I was not going to sacrifice my daughter’s interests for my own. If she was going to be required to do some extra sessions at after school club to free up a few more hours writing time, then so be it. But I was determined that the activities she enjoyed and valued, such as her music and swimming lessons and her big cat World Wildlife Fund adoptions, were all to continue and I was simply going to have to ring-fence the money for them. So the cuts had to be made elsewhere. In other words, in my own life. I cancelled all inessential subscriptions and memberships. I re-mortgaged. I changed my broadband provider, investigated swapping utilities and credit cards. I went through months’ worth of household accounts and bank statements to shave expenses down to the essentials. Social outings before and during my sabbatical became a seafront walk and coffee out of a thermos rather than a girls’ night out at a restaurant. I walked rather than drove. I stockpiled childcare vouchers in advance so that after school club fees would be covered later. I saved annual leave so that the first few weeks of my sabbatical would be slightly better paid.

Not all the preparation was financial. I slogged through a year’s worth of CPD in just over six months so that the annual appraisal which was scheduled to fall during my sabbatical period would not turn into a major distraction. I planned my research trip down to the minutiae. I compiled a bibliography from online library catalogues. I contacted libraries early to get membership forms. I reserved materials so they would be ready for collection the minute I first stepped through the door. I was organised.

There is a view of writers and artists as chaotic, impractical, impulsive creatures who function best in the ether of ideas without the need to taint themselves with mundane, material considerations. It’s a view that writers often share of themselves. There is, I suspect, a grain of truth in it. In as much as there is a link between spontaneity and creativity. But, if generating ideas requires a certain restlessness of mind, manifesting them takes clarity and diligence. Of the writers I know, the successful ones (by which I mean those that complete projects rather than have private jets) are the disciplined ones who give a nod to practicality even if it’s not their superpower.

I realise now how unhelpful it has been to think of time as a luxury. It’s much more useful to think of it as a commodity. Money and time are intimately related in that one is usually traded for the latter. So one of the key means to free up time is to minimise financial outgoings. The less you need to earn to keep your lifestyle afloat, the less time you will need to spend doing the day job, the more time there will be to write. That said, I knew tightening the belt wasn’t going to be sufficient of itself. I would never have finished the project if I hadn’t been awarded a grant from Arts Council England. There are a few grant bodies that will fund research costs for writers and/or time to write and it’s worth investigating whether your project might be eligible. Only a minority of applications are successful. So how do you maximise the chances that yours will be one of them?

Sarah Palmer, of West Sussex Writers, writes grant bids as part of her day job. She says, ‘Read the application guidelines carefully. Some funding bodies provide very useful, detailed guidelines which will help you to focus your application, ensuring that you only give information that’s needed. Don’t just think about yourself when completing your application, but consider what you bring to the funding body you’re applying to. What are the funder’s stated aims, and how would your project help achieve them? Will your project raise the funder’s profile in the areas they are particularly interested in? If you’re applying to a regional or single-interest body, think about the relevant cultural landscape, and how you or your project will contribute to it. Go for facts, rather than hyperbole. Research your budget forecasts thoroughly, particularly if you know those funds are ‘restricted’ by which I mean that they are only awarded for a specific purpose such as travel. If you can, talk to people who have successfully applied for grants from the funder you’re applying to. Looking at successful applications will help you set the tone, and may also give you an understanding of the kind of language that particular funder looks for.’

To Palmer’s advice I would add that it is always worth getting someone else to proof-read your application before you submit, to check for concision and clarity. I have found that the process of filling out grant forms, of having to justify what you want and why, frequently helps to bring the project into focus.

Once you’ve freed up the time to write, start and don’t look back. No returning to tweak that first chapter. Develop tunnel-vision. It helps to have a dedicated work space so that you can leave your work out without having to tidy it away. I find that if work is left ‘mid-process’, it becomes easier to re-enter it the following day.

The last word should probably go to Lao Tzu: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!




The Creative Writing Student: Does Everyone Have A Novel In Them?

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We’ve all heard the popular maxim: everyone has a novel in them. Whether you believe it or not, it certainly sounds like a good thing. The beauty of literature, after all, comes from learning about the world from someone else’s viewpoint, from experiencing something that is detached from us physically but can nonetheless engage with us emotionally. So for those of us who want to discover the full range of ideas and experiences amongst our fellow humans, it is a welcome thought that everyone has a potential novel to write.

On the other hand, there are already a great deal of bad novels out there, so perhaps a more discerning filtering process is a good thing. The arguments for and against are both numerous.

This potential novel question didn’t seem important to me before I came to study my Creative Writing MFA. An inner novel, and deciding what to do with it, is someone’s personal business, I thought. It was only when it became my business that I was forced to pick a side. Let me explain.

Being a creative writing student and having to regularly introduce myself with that fact, I am very used to the inevitable questions which require me to describe what I’m writing. I have long been suspicious that neither party really enjoys this, but social etiquette requires that I plow on with my rehearsed novel pitch. The usual tell-tale signs of forced interest on their face and the discomfort on mine have been enough to convince me that one’s novel is not good conversational territory.

Once in a blue moon, however, something quite wonderful happens. When people learn that I am a writer, rather than ask what I am doing, they gleefully tell me, as if the fact is something that has been clawing away at their insides and has only just found the direction with which it can make its escape, that they, too, despite not thinking of themselves as ‘writers’, are writing a novel.

Obviously, when this first happened, I was thrilled. The more people telling stories, encouraging the sharing of creative expression, the better. So, out of genuine interest and politeness, I took up the position of curious questioner.

“I’ve been thinking of writing it for about nine years,” the guy at the house party said.

“Is that right?” I replied. “What’s it about?”

“Angels,” he said. “Well, an evil angel.”

“Oh,” I said, a sudden perverse interest coming over me.

Over the next forty-five minutes, he took me through a world in which a fallen angel, someone akin to the devil, had come to earth and started impregnating women. Some of these women, however, are secretly magical angel-like beings themselves, which means that, when one of them gives birth to the villain’s daughter, the child has a great enough mix of powers to be the only one who can stop him. Twist upon twist. I nodded and nodded, throwing in the occasional oh cool. It’s a story, I was told at the conclusion, about sexual morals. Good versus evil.

“So how far through are you?” I asked, exhausted.

“I’ve not written any of it. But I think about it a lot.”

Noticing that he had paused to take a sip of his drink, I told him that I had to go to the bathroom and, after splashing my face with cold water to try and forget the details of the angel’s promiscuities, went back out and hid from him in the kitchen.

The next time this happened was in a coffee shop, a place where I usually feel safe enough to let my guard down and not worry about sudden unexpected chit-chat.

“I’m a writer, too. People tell me I’m a great writer. They say, ‘you’re a beautiful writer, you should write a novel, we would read it,’” the guy at the coffee shop told me after casually asking what I do. “So I’ve been thinking of writing this book for about five years.”

“Good for you,” I say, urging the queue to move faster with an intense creasing of my brow. Stay interested, stay polite, I told myself.

“Yeah, I noticed that there’s certain things that are popular now, like trees. You know, after Guardians of the Galaxy. So I’m writing about a world where trees take over. But the trees are all female, and they’re, like, sexy trees. They create a government called the Democratree,” he said, as serious as if he were talking about tax returns or his sick grandma.

“Democratree?” I said, glad that I didn’t yet have my tea, otherwise I would have spat it out in disbelief.

For the next ten minutes I was treated to an in-depth speculative monologue about what the motivating factors would be for an evil army of trees and how a ragtag team of heroes would work together to stop them. It was kind of like an arboreal War of the Worlds. Once my tea came I struggled to find the right words with which to conclude.

“How much have you written?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing yet. But I know the whole story.”

“Good luck,” I said, mentally noting that coffee shops were no longer safe spaces.

After these, and a couple of other similar occurrences, my patience with people’s inner novels had started to run rather thin. But please, I add desperately, don’t think I am judging these people, because that’s not what this is about. And I’m certainly not judging their ideas either. I’ve struggled through enough elevator pitches of my work and unnerving workshops to know that you can never tell whether an idea is good or not until it is written. In fact, I might even go as far as saying that I like these ideas (Democratree, in particular, has franchise written all over it). But these people, the poor unwitting souls, only succeeded in reminding me of that age old question: should everyone write the novel in them? Is everyone really capable of that? Their willingness to tell a stranger their idea rather than writing the thing down tipped me slightly closer to the no camp. After all, the difference between a serious writer and one who talks about their novel to strangers is vanity, surely. It’s wanting to seem like a writer rather than be one. To tell someone about your story for nine years without having written a word is failing to realise that pushing the bike along beside you, no matter how nice and shiny that bike is, does not mean you can ride it.

On top of it all, too, I find that I am hopelessly jealous of their confidence in their own ideas. If I could have half the amount of confidence it takes to tell a stranger about a non-existent work for over thirty minutes, then I would get a lot more done. I would be a much more prolific writer. These people are, it seems to me, wasting this confidence.

So I think the envy and the annoyance have forced me to come to a conclusion. Everyone, if they were to root around enough, has an idea for a novel inside them. That I don’t doubt. But this is, I see now, not the question at all. The question is what one does with that idea, whether one writes it or not. And either is fine, as long as once you’ve admitted it will never be written, your novel doesn’t only exist in vain conversations with strangers at parties. That is not a work of art burning inside you. That’s an anecdote.

That novel that you have inside you, then? Well, as a writer who doesn’t enjoy speaking about my work half as much as these self-confessed non-writers do, I think that these potential novels, whether they are about sexually violent angels or attractive trees bent on world domination, should be written. Because then maybe their authors would be too busy to lecture me about them when all I want is a cup of tea.




Fact and Fiction

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Readers’ comments on your published work are anything but predictable. Last month, I was surprised by some of the comments I got from people on a short story I wrote. The story appeared in an online literary journal, which has a dedicated following. Anyone with a decent internet connection was free to read and comment on it. Comments began to pop up soon. Some readers said they were truly moved by the story and listed their reasons for feeling a connection. I was grateful to them for taking the time to do this. Others were less expansive. They keyed in a “Liked it” in the comments column and left it at that. No complaints there either. If only a writer’s life was that simple!

More feedback came rolling in. Time for the not so complimentary ones and the downright accusatory comments. Bouquets over. It was all brickbats now…There was a common refrain to this lot: a chorus of angry voices said that by writing a fictional story loosely based on a real event (migrants drowning in the sea while fleeing from their war-torn homes), I had exploited a catastrophe. It was best if fiction writers left “real life” alone. Facts are facts. Fiction is fiction. Remember the two don’t mix.

A Mark Twain quote comes to mind — “the only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to be credible.” We live in a world where fascist dictators are elected to power. It is common practice for them to hand out death sentences to people for speaking up for things that matter (freedom, art, religion, love). We live in a time when politicians lead us to war under false pretexts, and killer drones swoop down from the sky on innocent civilians. No fiction writer can make this kind of stuff up. Not Shakespeare, not Mary Shelley or Margaret Atwood could conjure up our real life dystopia. The line between fact (life) and fiction (art) is a porous one. One seeps into the other. There is no law against it. There never has been and never will be one.

Magic can happen when a fiction writer splits open a fact and leads the reader deep into its heart. History becomes human and relatable. Revelations about the inner lives of people spring forth. British writer Julian Barnes called his book, Arthur and George, “a contemporary novel set in the past.” Rich in style and substance, this remarkable work of fiction traces the lives of two British men at the turn of the 20th century. Both the central characters in the novel are real-life figures. One is the son of a vicar, the other the well-known author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Barnes’s reworking of history raises interesting questions about human nature. It is also an insightful exposition of sin and redemption. John Fowles held up a mirror to Victorian England in his best-selling novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Bitter truths about class and gender discrimination, rampant at the time, are an intrinsic part of the narrative. Fowles’s fiction is informed and enriched by facts. It still remains a piece of powerful social commentary.

The enigmatic Elena Ferrante describes Naples with the precision of a cartographer in her popular Neapolitan novels. Ferrante traces the physical geography of Naples with as much skill as she unveils the birth and growth of the friendship between the women in her novels. Ferrante seamlessly weaves in factual details into the narrative to breathe life into the setting. To read Ferrante’s work is to take in the sights and sounds and tumult of Naples in all its horror and beauty.

The porous border between fact and fiction has always been a source of fascination for artists. Writers, painters, filmmakers, and composers have tried to question it and experiment with its many possibilities. Some subvert accepted narrative techniques in their work to highlight the permeability of the dividing line between life and art. Others use provocative imagery or dissonant musical styles to inspire audiences to rethink the divide. Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is an excellent cinematic mediation on the line between fiction and reality. It questions assumptions, shifts boundaries, and rewards the viewer with liberating insights.

When art encroaches on life it does so to illuminate greater truths. Fiction – well written and deeply felt – opens the reader’s eyes to human facts. It helps both writer and reader to rethink the world and imagine a more just and gentler alternative.




April 1982

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It is 1982. April. I am running. Excitedly, crazily, happily, running down Floral Street, London WC2, in the mid-part evening sunshine.

I am a writer. My name appears on no jacket. (How I fancy my name where McEwan’s sits on the cover of The Comfort of Strangers). My byline appears on no feature, story nor comment piece. (How I fancy my name where Jim’s sits on his pieces in the Covent Garden free newspaper).

But I am a writer. I have leapt from the doorway of no 27 – Tony and Guy now but London’s most fashionable advertising agency then – and my invitation to employment there as a writer is secure. For the only time in my life in which I am not wearing football kit, I leap in the air in jubilation. A writer. In Covent Garden. April, 1982.

I was a writer already, if truth be told.

Barely a dozen weeks earlier I had trodden the pavement stretch between Baker Street station and the London home of Messrs Foote, Cone and Belding, and emerged from an encounter with a man named Andrew and a likeable fellow named Tim to find that, if I could envisage sharing a box with Tim (and he had presented no objections), then I could be a writer there.

I could write radio commercials week by week for Newsweek magazine, offer up the odd topical press advertisement, and enjoy the indulgence and largesse afforded to a writer in an ad agency. Then.

I quickly became besotted by Helen, a pretty, quiet girl with red hair, who occupied the junior seat in the small office signed ‘Copy Typing’. As writers, we did not type. We wrote in scribbled long hand before delivering our drafts to Helen and her elders for them to be transferred without error to headed copysheets.

I was ignored by Helen. Tim and I played Subbuteo much of the day on a cloth pitch secured with masking tape to the top of two plan chests. Writing. Writing. Writing.

Actually, I had been a writer before this, too. (You’re beginning to get the idea.) I had been a writer since five days after I’d graduated. This earliest sojourn had been at Hall Advertising, Drumsheugh Gardens, Edinburgh EH3, and here too they had indulged me with the longed for badge of office.

How I loved the cool, damp warm-grey sets and slabs of the New Town. How I adored the furnishings of Edinburgh; its alleys, steps and tenements rich in narrative, and its pubs rammed with good men – characters from some other writer’s novels.

I bought all of Kennaway here, each the moment it reappeared in fine, hardback editions from the newly established Mainstream.

It is 1989. June. London SW1, in the failing sunshine of late evening.

I am a writer. But you know that. I am a very drunken writer, downing champagne in a lavish marquee in the railinged garden in the centre of St James’s Square. It is five years since PC Fletcher met her death on the pavement nearby. There are wilting flowers. And champagne. There is a party. There are many writers. But now I am a writer with some slight elevation in this lowest of fields.

It is a right old night. None of we writers writes a thing. For sure. But bosses and their secretaries, account directors and their account executives, art directors and gamine producers are joyfully developing plot on every square foot of dusty canvas. Later in the evening, the scene will shift to the agency’s conjoining buildings on the corner of the Square and Charles II Street, and new twists will emerge: new stories be conceived.

Before I moved here, to St James’s Square (which minded me on all days of Bustopher Jones above all else), I had been a writer hovered above the railway as it rolled, weary, into Paddington.

I plied my trade in Bishop’s Bridge Road, W2 for five whole years, the bear across the road, beloved of my childhood, a daily reminder of my first and deepest longing to be a writer.

Paddington. The eighties. No glass. No reflections. Brick. And grime. I wrote advertising for The Guardian. And I came and went at will from its offices on Farringdon Road, meeting with smart marketing men and, on occasion, with giants: with Preston and later Rusbridger, each kind enough to humour a writer from a different planet.

I have been a writer at many addresses. Many nights.

Copy typists grew extinct. As I unboxed my Amstrad 9512, I wondered what had become of Helen.

So many words written. How many ads? How many scripts? And later… later… how very many pages of how very many websites?

This is a charmed life, on the periphery of writing.

But sometimes again it is 1982. April. And I am running down Floral Street, London WC2, in the mid-part evening sunshine.




Literature’s Echo Chambers

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Time passes slowly in front of my computer screen. I have a short story in mind, but I can’t face writing it. I have e-mails still unanswered, friends asking how work’s going, if I read this, watched that, I can’t bring myself to reply. It’s not that I don’t value the relationship, but I can’t engage with them today. I can’t talk blog posts, writers’ pages, and literary jams. I can’t talk plots, or formula. Literature, its conceit, feels utterly farcical to me.

It’s been building for a while, there, at the back of my mind. Modern culture seems a soulless pretension, trading on past glories, and repetition. I hate what I write, I’ve lost faith in it. Lost the courage to see it through. I can’t talk to the writers I know, because their words, their presence in my life, has become overbearing. Their opinions smother me. I want to enjoy their success, to appreciate their work, but I feel this can only be done from far away.

I know this is nothing new, a writer seeing themselves in the wilderness. For years prominent artists have cultivated this image in order to elevate the status of their work. Painting self-portraits of unique alternatives to the authors of the day. Positioning themselves as cultural idealists, simultaneously the pure, visionary writer, and the acidic, venomous, critic. I’m not suggesting we all need to start attacking each other’s work in order to progress, but every time I see an article by some middle-aged, well established writer, suggesting writer’s only write for other writer’s, that writer’s no longer have anything interesting left to say, I can’t help asking if they only have themselves to blame. If they’ve allowed literature to be diluted, and infantilised, in order to succeed in a more streamlined, homogenised, landscape.

Over the last few years I’ve met many writers. Some are famous, at least in the context of their surroundings. Some are respected and revered. Others are just starting out, trying to get ahead. Quite often these meetings take place in one of two environments, the live reading, and the writing workshop. In either scenario I find I’m guilty of the exact literary dilution I so detest. I confuse modesty and humbleness with nonchalance and apathy. I dismiss my work, my desires, believing I lack ambition, and determination. This is perhaps largely due to the fact that I never feel as unsure of myself as I do when I am around writers, but I wonder how this sort of social awkwardness, combined with the expectations of fitting in, of playing the game, affects the work and opportunities of those with artistic aspirations.

As a society we tend to believe talent and talent alone brings success, but there is an element of naivety, and romanticism to this idea. I think it was Orson Welles, one of Hollywood’s most accomplished actors and directors, who said making movies was more about hustling than anything else. Granted literature is perhaps not quite the same, but there are aspects of trying to make it as a writer that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing itself.

Last year I read at the launch of Litro’s Hearing Voices Anthology. This should have been a proud moment for me. My story Seen And Not Seen had been selected to appear alongside a host of writers whose work I admired, writers I had written about. By the end of the evening however I came away thinking that on a personal level, the night was an absolute disaster. A nail in the coffin of a soon to be unrealised career.

It started with me mumbling like an idiot through a conversation with one of the other performers. For some reason I found it impossible to make eye contact, or answer any of her questions coherently. Then when it came to introducing my piece I forgot to thank Litro’s editor for the opportunity, and started rambling about my story being inspired by Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky and a book I’d read on Howard Hughes. For days afterwards I felt utterly ashamed. I replayed the evening over and over in my head. The other writers seemed so confident, so self-assured to me. They had a presence I felt I lacked. They were professional, engaging. Thinking about it this now I still feel an intense embarrassment, and yet the emotions I felt in those days after the event was nothing compared to how I often felt after writing workshops.

For me these classes were marred by an oppressive competitiveness, which clashed with the uniformed display of comradery, and community. There is nothing wrong with this sort of one-upmanship rivalry in theory. Think of the Modernists. Think of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and others in Russian literatures Golden Age. These writers challenged each other to greatness. They provided one another with the incentive to produce ever better pieces of work. I’ve seen this happen in the classroom, small groups, driving each other on. I’ve seen evidence of the opposite to though. Good writers stripped of individuality, their judgement clouded by academia. Their work becoming blandly polished, intellectually submissive. All their fire, all their guts, gone.

Of course I’m not dismissing readings, and workshops, or any of the ways writers choose to broaden their horizons. What I’m asking, what I’m trying to figure out, is whether this kind of literary collectivism is now the only way to thrive. If immersing yourself in local scenes, in criticism, performance, and study, is the best way for all fledgling writers to flourish, to find and maintain their voices.

A few years ago I wrote a small article about German painter Caspar David Friedrich, perhaps the most influential of all of Germany’s Romantic painters. When he died Friedrich was penniless, his work mired in obscurity. Often criticised and misunderstood for an artistic stance that went against the trends and fashions of his age, of enlightenment, he once said,

I am not so weak as to submit to the demands of the age when they go against my convictions. I spin a cocoon around myself; let others do the same. I shall leave it to time to show what will come of it; a brilliant butterfly or maggot.

For modern writers this kind of idea is becoming increasingly difficult. A balancing act is required between trying to get your work noticed, and not losing yourself among those chasing the same dreams, using the same tools, responding to that same creative spark. For writers to remain relevant, to avoid an era of identikits, I believe we have to face up to the world as it is, not how we want it to be. Remaining true to our voices, our idiosyncratic views on the state of things, we must not lose sight of what we strive to create. Because anything else is surely just an echo in the room, another face in the crowd.




Story Totems: The Stuff That Litters Writers’ Desks

I suspect that every writer’s desk has a tide-mark of stuff arranged around its periphery, totemic objects that connect us in some way to our writing. I have noticed that writers’ totems often seem to be in media that are non-verbal and independent of text, most frequently visual art or tactile objects.

 The poet Selima Hill once described going for long walks along the Dorset coastline as part of her creative process, collecting stones and shells or any interesting object that caught her eye along the way. For poet and novelist Vanessa Gebbie the inspiration for her first novel, The Coward’s Tale, set in a Welsh mining village, was a larger than life bronze statue, Dalou’s Le Grand Paysan which stands in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris.

As a surrogate, Gebbie acquired a much smaller bronze replica of a similar statue, Picciole’s In Labore Benedictio, to connect her to her story. More recently novelist Suzanne Joinson, a lover of street markets, in an essay for BBC Radio 3, likened writers to magpies, their eyes always drawn to the shiny thing that might one day seed a story. For Joinson, inspiration for her debut, The Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, came from an 18th century missionary map.

 My own desk is home to an assortment of objects including South American clay pots, weathered beach stones, drawings by my daughter, a turquoise vase with crackle glaze that looks, close up, like the layout of a city seen by satellite.

None of these are connected with a particular story. They are simply part of my writing space. But I have noticed that when I write there is often one object that I focus on for that particular piece of work. For me, so far, it has always been an image. Gebbie, who also teaches creative writing, echoes my experience: ‘Although I can’t say I’ve always had some object or image catalyse every piece I’ve written, I have noticed that the visual is usually, for me, the most successful prompt from which a story will emerge.’

For the last year I’ve had propped up against my study wall an etching of a street scene by Indian artist Pradnya Zate which I came across by chance in Mumbai and bought on the spot. The instant I saw it something about it made me think of the world of my second novel which at the time was still brewing in my head.

 A while ago I wrote a post for my publisher’s blog about a painting that had unexpectedly inspired my first novel, Esperanza Street. The painting was Guiseppe Da Volpedo’s Fiumana, an Italian neo-impressionist painting about a protest march by agricultural workers.

I had encountered Fiumana at the Brera Museum in Milan years before I even conceived of writing Esperanza Street. I was riveted by it. The painting reminded me of a novel, of the way individual narrative threads come together to make a whole. I came away with a postcard that barely does the original justice. The postcard stayed pinned above my desk for years. One might wonder what the connection could be between an Italian painting from 1896 and a book set in 1980’s Philippines, but looking back I can see quite clearly the resemblance between the composition of the painting and that of my novel, though I wasn’t consciously aware of its influence while writing the book.

Professor Jane Rogers, whose tenth novel, Conrad and Eleanor, comes out in June 2016 and whose work has won multiple awards over a very prestigious career, has this to say: ‘I have a number of beloved objects which I keep on the windowsill above my writing desk: a little wooden frog my son brought back from Madagascar; two tiny bronze women made by my sister Helen; a clay echidna sent by my Mum from Australia; a wooden snail whose curly shell is made from a violin given to my daughter when she was three by a good friend who is a violin maker. I often stare at them while I’m concentrating on writing. I don’t think any of them specifically connect me to any one of my stories; it is more that I think of them as part of the landscape while I’m writing, and in a way they are talismans.  I have a lot of pebbles too. I love the shapes and feel of smooth pebbles and I do pick them up and fill my pockets wherever I go. The pebbles are probably the most useful while I’m writing because there are a few favourites which I like to hold and turn in my hand as I’m thinking and trying to move on with a story. I suppose they are rather like worry beads, only bigger.’

Rogers says that though her short stories are often inspired by a single event or image, or something she has read, it’s more common for a physical object from her life to take up residence in a story and make the story real for her. ‘For example, when I was commissioned to write a story about Alan Turing (‘Morphogenesis’, which appears in my collection Hitting Trees With Sticks) I needed a scene between the teenage Turing and the boy he loved, Chris. I found a way of anchoring that in reality by having him present Chris with a fircone from his pocket, using it to demonstrate a mathematical point. The real fircone was sitting on my windowsill at the time, and looking at it carefully and focussing on it gave me the way into the scene.

Rogers suspects, as do I, that most writers collect and use totemic objects in this way and do it quite instinctually.  Whether a totem is the original seed of a story or simply a method of drawing what is still not manifest out into the real world probably doesn’t matter all that much. Any tool a writer can use to inspire and create work is worth exploring.




On Writing: The Post-Writing Comedown

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There is a vacuum here, a void. I’ve written everything I needed to. If I was an established author I could take a break, wait for the next piece to take shape. I could teach, pass on what I know, or comment on current affairs, and reside in opposition. As it is I’m in limbo, a space between projects. I walk the streets to fill hours no longer spent writing. I read. I reacquaint myself with old albums. Somehow this doesn’t feel like I thought it would. I’m unsure of myself, of everything I’ve done.

I think it started when I received confirmation of my graduation in Creative and Life Writing. I’ve been awarded a certificate my partner thinks I should frame. I am Reece Choules MA. There is a sense of personal achievement that comes with this, however vague and intangible. I have no idea what I am going to do with it. I read between the lines of the accompanying university transcript. For hints and clues to a realisation I fear. I have no place here, in your literary world. I am an impostor. Running out of words. Running out of stories to tell.

In a way, I guess I’m always where I am now, on the brink of self-sabotage. To the point it has almost become cliché. I wonder if in fact this is a writer’s default setting, but deep down I don’t think that’s true. It is worse at times like this though, when I have finished a piece. The post-writing comedown brings an onslaught of overwhelming despair. The graded insight into my work only seems to be exacerbating this. I know it’s only an opinion, the words of lecturers whose views are so often contrasting. These marks however present me not with a problem, but with an abstract feeling that’s hard to pin down.

I spent months crafting the stories submitted for my final portfolio. I had absolute faith that this was the best work I had produced. I believed they were parts of a yearlong jigsaw that worked as well individually, as they did as some loose fitting whole. Even the title, Mantras For Modern Living, seemed to fall into place at the right moment, organically, and without struggle. Yet in the end it was my least favourite piece, written for a Life Writing module I never felt I got to grips with, that provided my best mark. At the time I thought the story was perhaps too introverted, too melancholic, to work on any universal level. To find out then that it worked more successfully than a series of stories I had poured my heart and soul into leaves me feeling like I failed.

Maybe this is all an act of subterfuge, a creation of a problem that isn’t there, but it troubles me to know I have been in this situation before, on my undergraduate course. Back then it was a never completed novella called These Days, a suburban western I couldn’t quite get to grips with, which ultimately brought disappointment. The pace was too plodding, the characters too contemplative. So with deadlines approaching I was forced to admit defeat. Reluctantly I reverted to type, I wrote about my life. I say reluctantly, because I felt I was cheating. I wasn’t telling the story I set out to, the story I wanted to, I was rehashing. Going over old ground. This isn’t a denouncement of Life Writing. This is an acknowledgement of that internal voice that Life Writing brings out in me. The voice that says, no one cares.

I know that a writer rarely sees their work in the same way as the reader. That every piece is eventually open to, and at the mercy of, all individual interpretations. So a story can at once be, a haunting meditation on death, and a glorious affirmation of life. It can be brooding and misanthropic, but insightful and humorous. As readers we bring our views, our baggage, to every story we read. The things we like become a way of identifying ourselves, and others. So the novels we love are both immersive worlds we escape to, and a brief, albeit obscured gaze, at our own elusive personalities. This might explain why it is it so common for writers to have a stronger affection for their lesser known works. The untainted novel that stands outside of the collective psyche.

Obsessing over these kinds of things will, for many writers, be completely counterproductive. In some respects part of me wishes I was still the ignorant youth writing songs for a never formed band. I feel as though I know too much now, I’ve seen how others slip away. Life catches up with them. Children, the bills. The fire burns out, writing becomes something to leave behind. I seek comfort in the journeys of writers I admire. I tell myself James Salter wasn’t published until he was 32. That A Sport And A Pastime was rejected by every major publisher, until George Plimpton published it in his Paris Review Editions. For each example like this however, I am aware of others less romanticised. Some are tragic, while some seem bittersweet.

I’m thinking of Philip K. Dick. How throughout the 1950s, despite numerous pieces being published in Science Fiction magazines, and journals, he toiled extensively on what he considered to be ‘literary’ works of fiction. So much so that at one time he was said to have at least a dozen ‘literary’ manuscripts in circulation with agents and publishers. Of all these it was only Confessions Of A Crap Artist that would be published in Dick’s lifetime, and this was due largely to the success of novels such as Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, and A Scanner Darkly.

I am aware that to some readers it is almost perverse to consider Philip K. Dick as anything other than a success. Today he is remembered as one of the most important Science Fiction writers of the 20th century. His novels and short stories have inspired countless film and television adaptations, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, and most recently The Man In The High Castle. I can’t help wondering though if he would have swapped this for the more ‘literary’ reputation he spent all those years working for. If given the choice he would have chosen an altogether different career.

Perhaps I’m guilty of a shameless over indulgence. If however there is something to be learned here, I suspect it is this. A writer will never be able to control how their work is perceived. You can study every How Fiction Works book. You can plan, and craft, and re-draft. Literature is a correspondence for those seeking understanding. The perception of it, is and always has been, the readers’ domain. They are our judge, and jury. The people we reach out to. So in the end it has to be them who decides what kind of writers we’ll be.