an end and a beginning

And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.

T.S.Eliot, Little Gidding

Something I learned about writing this week is that when I write what I love to write, it becomes a much greater and more beautiful thing to do. (Whether it is more beautiful to read is another matter!)

I am – I have come to know – the sort of writer who can spend hours over one sentence, putting everything into balance. T.S. Eliot’s notion of the right sentence is precisely what I am striving for in my writing. It is not a case of writing what you know, or writing from your wildest imagination, but of writing exactly what you mean, or as close as you can get. That is authenticity.

I can write very fast when I want to. I wrote my first, failed attempt at a novel very fast indeed, in a matter of weeks. I loved writing that way – I felt so productive! It was useful, too. I needed to know what it felt like to write that number of words, to write a story that big. But it was a terrible attempt at a novel. Terrible. Awful. It had no soul, and it didn’t mean anything, or the meaning was so obscured by the dreadful writing that my courage failed at the thought of trying to fix it. So I know that, for me, it takes time and craft to find what’s true and worthwhile in my writing. By craft, I mean only what is quoted above: the balancing of words and sentences and scenes and chapters, one against another, until they are right. For me, that is a slow, careful, thoughtful, insanely difficult business.

Instead of trying to write more! and write faster! I am trying to write less, and write more slowly. It is a strange feeling to be making myself slow down at a time when I feel terribly unproductive. All other writers in the world appear to work faster, harder, and more successfully than I do. But I have learned that comparing myself to other writers is a surefire way to mess my head up. I eschew all writing advice, all rules, all guidelines. The only knowledge you can bank on is that which you learn through your own experience. That which you know to be true, because it is written in blood, tears, scars, years – that is truth you can depend on. No one can help you with that.


don’t listen to the voices

As a child, my creativity was not exactly nurtured and encouraged. Attempts at art were met with laughter (“What is it supposed to be?”) When I tried to learn the violin, I was accused of aural torture (“It sounds like you’re trying to kill a cat.”) When I showed off my ‘ballet’ dancing, it was made clear just how wrong I was about my skill level there (“As graceful as a herd of elephants!”) As a child I didn’t understand that art has to be practised before it gets better. If I was bad at something, then I needed to stop doing it right away.

Literature and art were valued by and important to my family in some ways. But it seemed that the making of art was for other people.  I grew up believing that only geniuses and special people could be painters, dancers, musicians and writers. And since I wasn’t a genius or special, any of my attempts to paint, dance, play or write would be met with laughter and a sort of nervous contempt. Who do you think you are? People are just going to laugh at you. You’re not good enough.

No wonder, then, that it took me a long time to take my writing seriously and call myself a writer. I still reel at the amount of courage needed every time I say, “I’m a writer.”

No wonder, too, that sometimes self-criticism disables or diminishes my ability to write well. It is hard to devote time and energy to writing when in your head the voices are reeling off reasons why you’re so very wrong about everything.

It helps to say to myself, as often as possible, “You are a good writer.” I don’t say it as some kind of affirmation, thinking that if I say it enough times the universe will make it come true. I say it because it IS true. Speaking the truth gives me courage. Without courage, I can’t write.

I am a good writer. I do have talent. I have the ability to move people with my words. That is not a little thing. That is not something that can be discounted or thrown away. It’s a gift, one that I should be proud of. A gift that I should protect and nurture and grow.

To say I am good doesn’t mean that I think I am great, the greatest, a genius, a wonder. Just that I am good enough. Good enough to sit down to work and try to become better. Good enough to try. Good enough to use the gifts I have in order to make the world a better place, even if it’s just a tiny little bit. Good enough to tell myself: keep going. Good enough to shout down the voices that tell me I’m an idiot for trying, that I’m hubristic for wanting to be better, that I’m making a fool of myself.

So what if I make a fool of myself? The alternative is to never risk anything. I think that’s what frightened my family – taking those risks, looking stupid to others, being vulnerable to criticism and rejection. Yes, those things are hard as hell. And sometimes (often) you do get rejected, and you do get criticised, and you do feel stupid. It hurts. But it doesn’t kill you. What kills you is never using your gift, never exploring your talent, never following your heart. What kills you is giving up. So don’t give up.

red and yellow and pink and green

Last Friday I attended the launch of Hannah Leach‘s exhibition of paintings at the Old Joint Stock, Birmingham. Hannah is a one of those people who is brilliantly talented and good at everything. She is an amazing writer, a wonderful painter, she can dance, she models, and she also has a thriving hypnotherapy practice. Her hair is currently a very bright shade of pink, which isn’t a talent as such, but does take some skill to pull off with flair. Which of course, she does.

Her paintings have a great depth of colour, and also use shape in very interesting ways. There is realness in her work, but everything is slanted. I was particularly captivated by a series of small watercolours, which, from a distance, appear to be photographs. The closer you get, the more indistinct and painterly they become. It’s very mysterious.

If you are in Birmingham, pop into the Old Joint Stock and take a look. (You have to go right up to the top of the building – to where the theatre is.) She can do prints as well, if you can’t afford an original – but there are a range of pictures at very affordable prices, so if you fall in love with one, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be yours.

If you’re not in Birmingham, have a look at her website where there are images of some of the larger paintings. Try to see them in real if you can.


the long haul

I was talking on the phone today with a writer I’ve been mates with for a while. We were talking about how we might find ways to work together in the long-term future.  He mentioned how we were both in it for ‘the long haul’, having first met around ten years ago, when he was starting out as a writer, and I had been going for a few years. (And thought I knew it all. Wry smile.)

It was a reminder of just what it takes to be a writer. It’s a lifetime commitment. When you first start out, you think you’re going to get somewhere quickly. When you sell your first story or make your first film, you think, this is it! I’m on my way! But the reality is that it’s just a first step in your career, and it takes many many such steps to build a viable life around writing.

Often it’s a case of one step forward, two steps back. You can’t always maintain the momentum you build up with sales and stories and progress. Sometimes a big project can consume months and years. Sometimes you make a wrong turn, get involved with something that’s not right for you, have to backtrack and start all over again. There are periods of time when nothing seems to move at all, when you feel like you’re back at the beginning again, when you can’t see the progress you’ve made.  It’s possible to lose faith, to lose confidence, to lose support from people around you.

Through all of this, you just keep going. I don’t know why. Maybe, sometimes, you keep going just because you’ve got too much invested in it to stop. Maybe, other times, you feel this is what gives your life meaning. Sometimes there is joy in it. Often, you feel you are doing it in order to process hard lessons in life. When you stop and think about it, you realise that you do it because you have a passion or a compulsion to move people, the same way you were moved by words and books and images. You don’t do it for money, because there isn’t any. You don’t do it for fame. You don’t do it to see your name in print. The external rewards are too fleeting, too arbitrarily given, to be motivating in the long term. You do it because it’s who you are.

No writer worth their salt needs to be told not to give up. But we do need support. We need support from other writers who are also in it for the long haul; to be reminded that it is a long haul; that it is, in fact, a lifetime commitment that probably won’t ever bring massive worldwide success, but will keep giving all the secret, little, brilliant things it gives, for as long as we keep paying our dues.

food for writers

Recently I’ve been preoccupied with a number of things that only tangentially relate to fiction writing. Except when in full inspired flow, I am not someone who does nothing but live and breathe writing day after day,  although sometimes I feel an almost irresistable pressure to be that person, as if only a perfect dedication to writing at the exclusion of all else could enable me to produce good fiction.

Despite this self-inflicted pressure, I actually believe the opposite is true. People who do nothing but write (if there are such people) are living in a very limited kind of a way. Intense experiences, such as having a job, a relationship, travelling, learning a skill deeply, grieving, loving, playing – all these are food to the soul. Being outside in nature, being in the endlessness of a moment where you completely forget yourself – this is the kind of nourishment every being requires in order to be creative and honest in the world.

As writers, we cannot allow ourselves to sit comfortably still for long. We must agitate our inner lives, else our writing will stagnate and become rotten. It is easy to become stuck in a phase of writing which once felt fresh and new, watching as the bright phrases and lovely sentences gradually harden and hollow out, until they are empty models of something that was once real. It is easy to pretend that you are still speaking with your true voice. Maybe you can fool others, too. But if that is your voice, why is it so hard to write? Why don’t you ever feel like you are flying anymore?

It is hard to break free from that rut and dig for something deeper and truer. What if no one likes it? No one buys it? What if it is not as good as what you’ve done before? What if you uncover truths that change your life, that disrupt your peace of mind? So you carry on playing with the dead. You become blocked. You can’t rewrite the old stories, and you can’t write the new ones either. You know you can’t go back and you haven’t found the courage to go forward.

It’s a place I have been a few times, that nowhere place of being ‘blocked’. I don’t think there is any way to force a passage through it. It takes as long as it takes. It takes whatever it takes. For me, that is usually a big change. Something wrenched from my heart. Knowing something that is hard to know. Burying something I have been trying to keep alive. It takes a certain amount of forgetting about writing, of walking in the woods, of playing, of grieving, of watching the colour of the sky, feeling the sting of snow on your face, being swept up and moved by waves of music.

Whatever you do to enrich your soul will enrich your writing. Sometimes your writing practice itself will nourish your soul. But sometimes your soul needs other deep and urgent care before you can write again.


never say never

How do you know when it’s time to stop writing something? Is it when the very thought of it fills you with a sense of paralysing ennui? When you can’t imagine ever being interested in the characters? When the plot makes no real sense? When, after writing several drafts, you still have nothing more than one or two images that seem powerful to you – and no story, no emotion, no thrills?

Or should you never give up? Should you always finish what you started? Should you power on through, ignoring those feelings, ignoring the problems, just fighting to get to the end of it?

A lot of writers say you must ALWAYS finish what you start. I am not so sure. With this current project, I feel that when I started it, I had a particular idea in mind, and that idea has failed on a number of levels. It just wasn’t a good enough idea to sustain a whole novel. Plus, it was too directly autobiographical – writing it well means writing about myself in a way that no longer feels relevant or important to me. And at the same time I can’t get enough distance to see what I might change or how I could make it work better.

I have learned a hell of a lot from trying to write this story. But now I think it is time to put it away. Maybe next year, or the year after, I will dig it out again. Maybe then I will be able to see exactly where I went wrong and how I can put it right. But for now… it’s Sayonara baby.