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 writerswhich 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.
Like many people at this time of year I’m starting to think about the New Year and decade!!! and what both might hold. It’s also a time to look back at goals set at the beginning of the year and ask if they were achieved – and the answer is no, at least for one major goal. But as with many things in life the outcome is not always within our control, and I have done a fair bit of submitting work this year but to no avail. On the other hand I have also done Nanowrimo and I’ve sent ‘Tapestry’ to a number of readers and received some positive feedback. So things are progressing.I have also, one way or another, managed to make a lot more money than in recent years which I put down at least partly to Paul McKenna’s ideas here). His book on sleep has also helped and even though I still have problems the zzzzzzituation has improved enormouzzzzzly.
Levels of confidence have also improved, leading to the ability to ‘see’ success, in other words, to visualise myself as being successful. I believe visualisation to be hugely important: nothing can be achieved without first being visualised – or, to put it another way, everything starts with an idea.
So, what are my goals for the next decade? It won’t surprise you to know that they involve being published and establishing a solid reputation as a poet and author. What lies between me and achieving these goals is a complex mixture of the state of publishing today and my own fear of success.
The next ten years are crucial for climate change, so that needs to go on my list of goals. If and when we buy a house it needs to be made carbon neutral within five years. When the car conks out I shall not replace it but join a car club instead: I may also fulfil a long-held ambition to get a motorbike and pass my CBT (OH utterly refuses to ride pillion so the bike will have to be for my own use.)I don’t intend flying anywhere in the future so journeys will have to be made by train and/or boat. As well as all these changes there will need to be moves to more sustainable food, clothing and packaging – some of which are already under way.
How are these goals to be achieved? Will-power is one thing and on the whole I have plenty of it, but will-power can only take you so far: at some point my inner hang-ups and obstacles will need to be tackled otherwise I may end up sabotaging my own efforts.
So there it is in black and white: my goals for the next decade. Brian seems to be doing fairly well with his – what are yours?
And if I don’t see you before Jan 1st, Happy New Year!
I have blogged before about the moment on a German mountainside when I began to write again after years of being blocked. Back then my work consisted of ‘diary’ writing and I’d be happy if I wrote a page or two each day, doubly so if there were some good ideas in it. Back then I couldn’t even imagine writing something so coherent and structured as a short story, let alone a novel. This state of affairs continued for quite some while: I’d write fragments of description, dialogue or characterisation but no matter how I sweated and groaned and prayed, nothing hove into view which might remotely be said to resemble a Plot.
Gradually these fragments began to weave themselves together and eventually some sort of narrative emerged and I began to write short stories, a couple of which were even published. But I still couldn’t imagine writing anything as vast and complex as a novel. What would I write about? What would happen? But over time the stories wove themselves together and somehow out of nowhere I wrote my first novel. Then I discovered Nanowrimo and wrote three or four more but still I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to read, let alone publish them. Then I wrote another novel, sent it to a dozen friends to read and got some positive feedback. But still I couldn’t imagine having a publisher or an agent. Now I’m starting to imagine what it would be like to have a publisher and agent – but when I get there I’ll probably struggle to imagine being successful. And so it goes on.
But there’s another strand to this story, because it’s also a journey from prose to poetry and from the written to the oral tradition. When I started writing I assumed I would write novels. Short stories didn’t seem relevant and as for poetry, that was for another race of people entirely.I definitely, absolutely did not see myself as a poet, despite – or perhaps because of – having written comic verses as a child and love poems as a teenager. I just didn’t take them seriously as poetry.
Enter Word! I can’t remember what drew me to this (then) tiny group of poets in Leicester. Maybe it was that they met in a bar (always a plus), maybe it was that they seemed a refreshing antidote to the precious groups I’d hitherto encountered, one of which made a huge deal about me even attending, let alone reading. But going to Word! was like opening the doors and letting in the storm. It blew me away – and I came home thinking Yes! I can do this! The next time I took a poem I’d written and although the idea of reading in public terrified the pants off me, the group was so supportive that I never looked back.
In order to discover myself as a novelist I had to travel back in time to the beginnings of literature, to the sadly undervalued oral tradition.And that is where I found my voice.
It seems to be my destiny to write in a series of crumbling, cobbled-together environments. My first ‘desk’ was a bureau in the hall on which I wrote in an old notepad with a school biro; later I had an old-style school desk with a sloping lid, impossible to write on unless propped up by books; after that I had my Dad’s old office desk which was held together with bits of string until it wasn’t, and had to be junked. That was a sad day. I’ve written at tables in the corner of rooms and for three glorious years I had my own study with a proper desk and bookshelves, just like I’d been dreaming of. But it didn’t last and after a year of trying to work in the library and using a friend’s spare room, I cleared a tiny corner of my bedroom from which I am now speaking to you.
The ‘desk’ on which perches my laptop or notepad is really a hospital-style table on wheels, the sort which fits over a bed. I spied it in the outhouse and thought, aha!I could write on this during the day and wheel it into a corner at night. So, for the last two years, this is what I have done. It’s cramped and far from ideal but nevertheless on this wonky table in a corner of the room I have written two novels, a couple of dozen poems, numerous short stories and of course my many blog poststo you, dear reader.
So here’s the thing; if I’d waited for the right arrangement during those years I’d have got nothing done. The thing is to write, no matter where you find yourself; so long as you have pen and paper (or laptop) and a corner of peace you can write. I have written on railway platforms and trains, on buses, in pubs and cafes, in libraries and parks and even in the middle of the street when an idea seized me and I had to write it down. Want to be a writer? Write. Accept no excuses.
It was last thing at night. I was sitting up in bed reading and OH was drifting off to sleep when suddenly I heard a voice say urgently: ‘Tenrecs have 29 nipples!’ Now I happen to know that a tenrec is a hedgehoggy sort of thing so thankfully I didn’t have to ask, and I suppose the fact of it having 29 nipples is sort of surprising but I couldn’t really get worked up about it. So I did what I always do and made a note with the aim of either putting it on Facebook or blogging about it. So there we are and now you know; tenrecs have 29 nipples – presumably because they may have up to 29 offspring to suckle, I wouldn’t know.
Making a note of things is a practise I got into a long time ago; I keep a book by my bed for anything that occurs to me during the night and wherever I am in the day a pen and paper will not be far away. Professor Branestawm used to make notes on his cuffs (those were the days of detachable cuffs which were regularly laundered, which meant that he lost a lot of great ideas in the wash) and I used to make notes on my hand but I don’t do that any more because my hands aren’t big enough and besides it’s probably not good for you. But discrimination must be exercised in the writing of notes, otherwise you can end up with far too much material, so I’ve adopted the practise of waiting and assessing: if an idea doesn’t immediately demand to be written down, I wait a moment and see if it becomes insistent. If it doesn’t, I let it go; if it does, I write it down. As time goes by I’ve become more confident in the ability of my mind to remember things as it needs to. Some thoughts need to lie fallow and mature before they can be worked.
So as the editing season begins for Nanowrimers (I shan’t begin till the New Year and maybe not even then) here are my thoughts on editing:
First, editing begins in the mind. Even as you write, the mind is sifting and selecting ideas, words and phrases, even if you’re writing quite quickly. This process is largely unconscious but it’s interesting to watch: just try standing back and observing what happens as you write.
Second, there is no hard divide between writing and editing. You do not ‘write’ first and then ‘edit’; editing is writing (though sometimes it’s un-writing) and writing is editing. However between the first and second (and subsequent) drafts of a work there is likely to be a difference in emphasis between getting things down on paper and improving the expression of those things.
My main problem is that whilst I’m able to subdue the critical mind during the first draft, it necessarily comes to the fore during editing. But unfortunately, mine doesn’t know when to stop: as soon as it’s let out it rushes at the words like a guard dog at a burglar, chases them up a tree and keeps barking until the police arrive – by which time they’ve lost the will to create. I’ve managed to write a first draft without self-criticism, now I have to find a way of editing without being super-critical.
I’m back on Facebook for the duration of Nanowrimo and I’ve been invited to join The Apostrophe Protection Society. I’m pleased people care about this abused and endangered little creature who is so prostituted that she’s paraded everywhere there’s an ‘s’ in sight or wherever two vowels together might indicate a need: the latest example being ‘agre’ed’. Horrors! This poor little mite is now so exhausted that I think she ought to be laid to rest for a few millennia.
In other news I’ve written 9,500 words so far in Nano, so I’m bang on target. To simplify matters I’m going for 3000 words a day which makes me slightly ahead and gives a bit of wiggle room if I have an off-day or a crisis. And it’s easier to add up. I’m going for 11,000 today, 14,000 tomorrow – and by the end of the week I should be on 21,000. But we’ll see.It’s kinda fun being on the Nano Facebook group, swapping ideas and so on, but I do find some folk very fixated on The Stuff. There’s a whole industry around Nano; not only the writing programmes and ‘aids’ but certificates (one person was grumbling that they couldn’t download their 1600-word certificate) t-shirts, mugs, motivational calendars, apps and god-knows-what else. Actually I was quite tempted by this mug but slapped my wrist before I could send off for it as I have to save all my money for our new dishwasher.
For this is now live! Which is to say that, following the plumber’s visit this morning and the announcement that they won’t have to drill through the wall to install a waste pipe, Project Dishwasher is Go! It will make a great difference to our daily lives and I was relieved to read in the Ethical Consumer (and other places) that for a family of four it’s usually better environmentally than washing up by hand – at least if you get one with a good energy rating. Which we will.
One of the great obstacles to writing is Thinking You’re On The Wrong Tack. You bimble along and then suddenly stop, putting a hand to your mouth. ‘This isn’t what I wanted to write at all!’ you cry. So you try to get back to the original vision but of course it’s faded, so the temptation at this point is to Give Up – and if you’re new to the terrible business of writing you may think ‘I can’t do this. I’m not a writer; a real writer would know what they’re doing…’ But sticking to one idea is like canalising a running stream; as Blake says, ‘expect poison from the standing water.’You have to go with the flow, even if the flow seems to be taking you somewhere else entirely.
But the flow is one thing; a flood is another, and what we see is that in Nano as in sport, overachievement is now a virtue; pushing yourself to the limit ‘and beyond’ is the new normal. For example; someone on the Nano Facebook group has already done 50,000 words. Just let that sink in for a moment: after only three days (or if they’re on the other side of the world, four) this person has written 50,000 words. That’s nearly 17,000 words a day, more than a thousand words an hour which I think counts as hypergraphia.And are they happy with their achievement? Are they satisfied? Content? Kicking back to enjoy the rest of the month? Nope – in fact they’re planning on doing 500,000 words in November. Five hundred thousand words. In one month. That’s more than sixteen thousand words a day or – assuming you work ten hours a day – about 1700 words an hour.
When do people rest?
What’s lost in this treadmill of constant production and achievement is not only rest but reflection. Nothing in nature produces continuously (or if so, it’s very short-lived) everything has its time and there are always periods of dormancy when nothing seems to be happening.
But in this society you are what you do. And we can’t allow that, can we?
PS if you’re interested I’ve written 720 words so far today.