One blustery day Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet set out for a trip around the forest to wish all their friends a Very Happy Thursday. And here I am to wish you the same, only sans Piglet as sadly he is self-isolating.
How are you getting on with the lockdown? For me it’s pretty much business as usual; I get up, do my yoga, make a drink and head for my desk. I work till about 12.30, go for a walk before lunch, read a while, then get back to my desk till around five or six. Evenings are spent reading or watching TV (tonight it will be a live streaming of the National Theatre’s ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors‘ with James Corden.) And yet I miss things – things like not being able to go to the cafe, not going to meetings (or Meeting), not seeing friends, not going to the cinema, not going to the pub or the folk club or Friday Room discussion group, not having a meal out. I may not have had a welter of social events but when you have none at all you notice the difference.
On the other hand, it has meant less time spent organising for meetings and Meeting and discussion groups and seeing friends. So what have I been doing with my time? As I said, I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel; I promised (or threatened) a review and I will get to that in due course; I’ve also been reading a Paula Hawkins novel (she of ‘Girl on a Train’ fame) which is deeply, horribly yet fascinatingly dystopian and of course I am still ploughing on with Ducks, Newburyport (only 350 pages to go…) And on Britbox we’ve been watching Rev, which has to be one of the best sitcoms ever. I also chat to my friends online and get frequent phone calls from friends (and Friends). I attended my first online Meeting yesterday via Zoom, which worked quite well, all sitting in silence in our own houses… Oh, and I nearly forgot – I’ve started learning ancient Greek! I can now recite the alphabet from memory and write a few actual words (shut up about your bloody evening classes Gerald!)
So that’s me. What have you been up to? Let me know – I’d love to hear.
So, as another week grinds towards its end, how is my work going? Good question. I have so many balls in the air I can barely keep track of them: aside from poems there are a slew of short stories, a radio play and of course the novel which I am in the process of editing. God, editing is hard! I’ve got first drafts sorted because I’ve got to the stage where I can I just let it rip; I don’t think about what I’m writing, just trust the process and tell the critical, analytical mind to take a flying leap. But when it comes to editing, my woes begin in earnest. My mind jumps all over the place, thinking where is this going? What sort of thing is it really? Where am I going to publish it? What is it actually about? I am tossed and buffeted by ten different winds until I hardly know which way is up, and unsurprisingly I can’t do it for very long; a couple of hours is about the limit. After that I’m exhausted.
I guess these are the questions all writers ask themselves. What kind of writer am I? Who are my readers? Where do I want to be published? to which my answers would be: no idea, anyone, and anywhere. Not helpful. Some days I’d give my eye teeth to be a writer firmly established in a genre, someone who knows her audience and what they want. Someone with a publisher and an agent. But I ain’t and I don’t.
So what is to be done? One thought I had yesterday, struggling through the choppy waters of a short story, was to be aware of these questions as they arise and record them with a view to analysing them later. This is difficult because they rush by at the speed of light, yelling something indiscernible as they go. They’re like players on a hockey field and I never got on with hockey because apart from being out in the cold and the mud trying to hit a tiny ball with a narrow strip of wood, people are rushing by you all the time shouting things like whazafalabeat! and gizzacobaball! and by the time I’d said, ‘Sorry, what was that again?’ they’d be down the other end.)
This is the story of my life. I didn’t fit anywhere so I became a writer. Then I discovered that I didn’t fit anywhere as a writer. So what’s next?
Answers on a postcard, as ever…
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that nine-tenths of what I write is rubbish. I don’t mean on this blog because what you see here are finished posts, hacked from the raw rock-face of thought, messed around a bit, buried in soft peat etc etc, honed and polished, sanded and rubbed and sent out to seek their fortune in the world. More on this later. But much of what I write as a first draft is pure unadulterated junk, mostly because I’ve set myself a word limit and I’m trying to reach it. This however does not make it worthless.
Why not? Well, firstly because it’s something instead of nothing. Where previously nothing existed, I have created something, even if it’s only a flat thing like Kipper’s cake (obscure children’s book reference only family members will understand.) And Something can be worked with and improved upon, even if most of it is ultimately deleted. Secondly, there may be some gems in the rubbish, which is why it’s always a good idea not to delete anything while writing the first draft, no matter how bad it seems. When you’re writing a story (this goes double for poems) you have intentions about it. But the story (or poem) has intentions too, and often these come out when we’re not watching. So don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
For example, I once wrote a dialogue between Father Christmas and Jack and Jill. They were talking in the snow and Father Christmas took off his jolly red suit to reveal a convict uniform with arrows on. He was supposed to be giving Jack and Jill their presents and only gave them snow and ice so they weren’t very happy. It’s a short scene and when I wrote this I had no idea what it meant. I still have no idea what it means, yet a little voice tells me that it has some significance and so I hold on to it.
This blog is nearly at 500 followers. I realise that’s tiny in blog terms but I’m just pleased it’s still growing – so remember, my 500th follower will get the choice of either writing a guest blog post or receiving an e-book of poetry.
Keep it up.
Having been a victim – and perpetrator – of self-criticism all my life I often recognise it in others. As I’ve mentioned before, when I started writing (as an adult) on a German mountainside, Christmas 1980, I barely managed to get two sentences out before I slagged them off (‘too wordy and Dickensian.’) And that was a good day; on a bad day I’d hardly manage to write anything because the blank page would accuse me with its perfection – writing on it would be like peeing in fresh white snow. Self-belief is crucial for a writer; it is also horribly hard to attain, particularly in the face of constant rejection. But you pick yourself up, you blow a raspberry at the editors too foolish to recognise your genius, and you carry on.
What’s harder to excuse (though I understand the impulse) is folk who are afraid to put themselves out there but slag off those of us who do. I’ve had one or two of these in my life, and when I look at what they’ve produced there’s invariably nothing there – or very little. I’m guessing these people have a lot of warheads aimed at themselves but are armed with deflectors so that the flak gets splattered at those nearest to them – but however that goes, it’s harder to condone criticism from people who haven’t had the courage to put themselves out there.
But in the end the biggest enemy is oneself; and my own method of cheating the demon of self-flagellation is to outrun them. I simply start writing, put my fingers in my ears and say lalalalala and carry on writing so fast that they can’t keep up. Of course, once I start the editing process they’re there again – but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
When Virginia Woolf wrote about women becoming authors, she prescribed an income of 50 guineas a year and a room of one’s own. I’m not sure what the modern-day equivalent is of 50 guineas, but I can tell you that a room of one’s own is a luxury I have rarely enjoyed.
The essential piece of equipment in a room of one’s own is of course a desk of one’s own; and this is something I have managed to acquire even if only in a corner of the bedroom. My first desk was a bureau in the hallway (I’ve blogged about this here) and my second, an ancient school desk with a sloping lid which I somehow acquired – maybe from a jumble sale? – and painted white. The lid sloped so steeply that I had to prop it up with fat books to make it level. On the top it had a niche for pens and a hole for an inkwell (at my first year at grammar school we had to use ink pens and I managed to get far more ink on myself than I ever did on the page; thankfully after this we were allowed biros.*) Then after I left home there were built-in desks in student rooms and finally, after years of desklessness, a magnificent one of my Dad’s which had sat in his study for years and was so old and creaky that it had to be held together with string. I seem to remember he bought it for 20 shillings from Timothy White’s. Then when that broke I was already in Madrid and had a tiny desk in the corner of my room and after that, once I was married with children, a table in the corner of the bedroom and then (joy!) for three years a proper desk in an actual study during which time I wrote a load of short stories. Around this period I also had a big dining table up at the chalet which, although a little creaky, was quite serviceable and looked out from a picture window onto the campsite and the trees beyond. But when we moved here I had to make do with a table in the library and a desk in a Friend’s house before I found a rickety old table on wheels and made some space for it in the bedroom.
I have written on trains, planes and buses. I have written in waiting-rooms and cafes, on beaches and in chalets in the woods. But the thing I long for most is a desk of one’s own – and a room of one’s own to put it in.
*I guess this could spawn another post; A Pen of One’s Own…
I know I’ve blogged about this before but the more time I spend on Facebook writers’ groups the more it strikes me that there’s an entire industry out there devoted to (supposedly) making you a better writer. Every week I come across more courses, workshops, talks, lectures, books and videos than I can count; every week I hear of programmes and apps and other things I don’t even know how to categorise which claim to help you to edit or plot or download a cover for your novel or publish or market it. Armies of readers both alpha and beta (and I’ve only just discovered the difference) wait to invade your text and pull it to pieces. And that’s not counting all the Nano-based gimmicks such as stars and certificates, crystals and word-count validations and I don’t know what else. Call me arrogant, but I don’t feel the need for a single one of them. It makes me wonder how the likes of Jane Austen or James Joyce managed to pen a single word without the help of Scrivener or the ever-incomprehensible Save the Cat Beats (OK having read that summary I understand what it is but why is it called that? What does it have to do with cats and why are they saved?
When I started writing I did everything by hand, including editing, and the final draft was then typed up. There was no choice of fonts, no way of putting things in bold or italics (just underlining for emphasis) and copies could only be made with carbon or by using a photocopier. And I never did any courses because I figured (again, call me arrogant if you will) that I was my own best teacher. I still maintain that if you want to write, you need to do two things: write as much as you can, and read as much as you can. Read whatever you like, read good writing and bad writing and try to figure out the difference. Take a notebook everywhere you go and work out how to describe what you see and hear; figure out how to transcribe dialogue and how to convey your own thoughts and feelings.
I’m not saying all these courses and apps are worthless. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never used them and even if I wanted to I can’t afford it. But it does make you wonder. Give me the traditional route any day and you can save your own cat…
For the last ten years or so I have been a subscriber to Mslexia magazine. This is a publication by and for women writers which not only gives news and information but provides opportunities for publication within the magazine. I have had a poem published by them and for six months I was a guest writer on their blog, a time I used to write about my experiences of being married to someone with gender dysphoria.
Issues often focus on a particular theme, and the latest issue focusses on cultural appropriation. The movement ‘Own Voices’ seeks to ‘improve diversity by matching authors to subject matter’ – in other words, to say that you can’t or shouldn’t write about a ‘marginalised’ experience unless you have had that experience. So, for example, if you are autistic and want to write a character with autism, fine. If not, you risk being inaccurate or stereotyping the character in question. You also ‘take up space’ in the publishing world which might be otherwise taken up by an author with autism.
Then there’s the political issue of writers in a position of relative power ‘appropriating’ the narratives of those with relatively less power: for example were I to write a novel set in colonial India featuring Punjabi characters I could justly be accused of cultural appropriation. But whilst I would never seek to write such a novel, I do aim to write characters (albeit minor ones) from backgrounds other than mine because my novel ‘Tapestry,’ a portrait of post-Brexit Britain, would be incomplete without them. If we take this nostrum to its extreme then white men would only write about white men – which would not be a positive development.
Yes, I think cultural appropriation exists. Yes, I think there are political implications involved in writing about ‘marginalised’ experience and yes, we should all think very carefully before doing this. But to say, as the article does, that ‘in order to write authentically about marginalised experience empathy cannot help you: you must have experienced it’, is worryingly limiting. Where does it end? Should we say that men cannot write female characters? Or that those without a disability cannot adequately comprehend the experience of those living with one? Fiction is above all about imagination; not merely imagining other worlds like Narnia but imaginatively placing yourself in the position of another – and this, I would contend, is something we all need to do more of, in life as well as in fiction.
I welcome your thoughts on this topic. There’s a critique of it here.