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teaching vs writing

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

Teaching and writing go together like cake and icing, like chips and vinegar, like cheese and jam. We writers are drawn to teaching for good reasons: we get to talk about books all day, we get nice long holidays, we get the sort of autonomy and independence we awkward types love. In my workroom there are two writers, me included, amongst the staff. The staff member I replaced is also a writer, who left to pursue her successful work in poetry.

But it’s not easy. Stephen King says teaching “sucks away the creative juices and slows production.” It’s true. Writing novels is slow work, anyway. But when you’re teaching all day, coming home and cranking out a couple of hundred words might take you hours. I sometimes find myself just gazing at the screen as the letters dance around. Sometimes I type with my eyes closed. (Free advice: Anything you write whilst you’re actually asleep is unlikely to be your best work.)

Working full time in any job is demanding, and I don’t think teachers are uniquely hard done by. I’ve worked as a secretary, as a picker in a factory, as a cleaner, a cook, a copywriter, a cold caller. Each of those jobs was hard for different reasons. And I know I’m lucky to have a job which is reasonably well paid and which I enjoy.

But… (you knew it was coming)… but… GOD, is it exhausting, dealing with people all day long. Thinking about what they need from you, what you can do to get through their barriers, what you can do to inspire them, what you can do to help them achieve. Thinking about if you’ve done enough, if you’ve done wrong. Having to summon the patience for dealing with people who, really, really, make you wonder. About their motives, about their personalities. Dealing with the fact that most of the people you work with neither notice nor care about how hard you work or how much of your life you are giving them.

The thing is, when you are a writer, the people that you most want and need to think about are the imaginary people in your head. And those people, your people, get pushed out and squeezed right to the edges as your brain fills up with more and more and more of this everyday crap. You neglect your imaginary people, and you neglect friends and family, too. There’s just not enough time for everyone. You need a bigger brain, to accommodate everything that’s in it.

I’m not going to stop teaching or writing – I can’t afford to give up either. And I don’t know what the solution is, except to just keep trying. Just keep believing that there will come a day when it all falls into place. When all this hard work will pay off.

 

best british fantasy 2014

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

Very proud to have a story in this Salt anthology, sharing covers with amazing writers like Nina Allen and Priya Sharma.

and then and then and then

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

When Haruki Murakami sat down to write The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he didn’t have a plan. When Stephen King wrote The Stand, he didn’t have a plan. When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she didn’t know what was going to happen or how it would end.

And when I sit down to write my book, I don’t know exactly where it’s heading, either.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not comparing myself with these literary greats, not in terms of talent. But it does give me comfort and succour to know that I’m not the only writer who starts simply with an idea, an image, a sentence, and that’s it. To me, writing is partly a process of discovering the story. I cannot – and I have tried – write a story that I have already plotted out in detail. It’s dull, it bores me, it makes every word die on the page.

 

Three things

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

The talented, charming, and persistent(!) Priya Sharma has tagged me in a game of blog hop called “Three things I don’t write, and three things I do.” Priya’s stories are regularly published in prestigious markets and are then invariably snapped up and published in the year’s best collections. I’m lucky enough to be sharing a table of contents with her in Salt’s forthcoming Best British Fantasy 2014.

Three things I don’t write about…

I am not remotely interested in good-looking people having romances with each other, even if they are vampires or zombies. Especially if they are vampires or zombies. As a reader, that kind of thing makes me fall asleep, and as a writer, I just haven’t got anything to say on the subject.

High fantasy, and secondary world fantasy in general, is not my thing. I might write alternate histories or futures, portal fantasies or liminal fantasies – but they always have one foot in reality, because I think a writer’s job is to comment on the world – our world. Inventing other worlds as a form of escapism is of no interest to me.

I also hardly ever write about fruit.

Three things I do…

My characters tend to be people, usually women, who have some kind of problem with reality.  This theme runs deep through all my work, and it is from this well that all my stories come bubbling up. Reality in my writing is nearly always ‘the real world’ (as opposed to a secondary or fantasy world) and the tension between consensus reality and the character’s reality is where all the interesting ideas come from.

A problem with reality might be triggered when a character experiences a head injury. I’m interested in injuries and illnesses and how they affect our experience of the world. We are our bodies, in very real and important ways. We live in our bodies. So I’m interested in how living in a compromised and hurt and injured body affects our relationship to reality.

Birds, dogs, and other animals are the messengers of the fractured realities experienced by my characters. We have such strange relationships with other creatures. They are the recipients of our great kindness along with our incredible brutality. (They can tell us a lot about what it is to be human.)

Tagging the wonderfully cool and super amazing Katrina Leno. Her YA novel, The Half Life of Molly Pierce is out now. And I really want to know her do’s and don’t's so I can copy her and be as fabulous as she is.

 

then we set ourselves on fire

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

I live in a city where it is considered somewhat normal (even, in some quarters, desirable) to write angry confessional poetry and ‘perform’ it to friends and strangers in pubs. The performance usually consists of attempting to impose some kind of rhythm and meaning on a formless string of half-sentences by way of reading them out in a very silly voice. This display will invariably be followed by gusts of applause from the audience, most of whom are waiting their turn to get up and inflict the very same thing on everyone else.

I once took my friend Katrina Leno to witness this phenomenon in action. Half an hour into the open mic poetry night (an evening I now refer to as The Worst Night of My Life), she texted me: I’m losing the will to live. Five minutes later: I’m seriously thinking about setting myself on fire, just to make it stop.

The funny thing is that Katrina herself is a wonderful, powerful poet. She’s also a fantastic writer of YA fiction (and any other fiction she turns her hand to). Her first novel, The Half-Life of Molly Pierce, is coming out in a matter of weeks. Buy it. And/or enter the free giveaway competition for a chance to win a signed hardback copy plus all sorts of goodies. And don’t be surprised if KL becomes bigger than JK. You can say you heard it here first.

 

silence: broken

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

The man who lives in the apartment upstairs has a wooden leg. His dog has a little cart with wheels, strapped onto his body where his hind legs used to be. In the early mornings, the man and the dog chase each other over the hard wooden floors, and fight over a bone.

I’m just speculating.

There’s no such thing as silence. Right now I hear the high chimes of glass being poured into the recycling bin, and the rumble of the council van. The river’s white noise, rain on leaves, and the birds’ whistles. Distant voices, footsteps on the stair. The click and pop of the kettle, cooling.

I read recently a beautiful essay by Kathleen Jamie, about a trip to the Far North. She says that there she came across a silence beyond silence. And within it, her mind was suddenly clamourous with thoughts, a kind of panic, rushing heart. I would like to hear that silence, just once.

The other kinds of silence I know all too well. The silence of things left unsaid, words unwritten, dances stilled, songs stopped in the throat. Those are the silences that hang from my body like a coat, a heavy coat, too heavy to do more than shuffle around in. Those are silences I would like to shrug off me, like letting a coat slip from my shoulders. It would fall to the ground and make a sound like hundreds of pieces of cutlery dropping onto a stone floor. After that, I would speak, and tell you how I really feel.

how late it was

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

I’ve never grown out of wanting to stay up late. There’s a glamour to the night time, a certain electricity in the air. When I was younger, I liked to stay up all night with my friends. I was always the last to go home or go to sleep. Now, all my friends have grown up, and the last time I stayed up all night I felt horrible the next day, like my body was made of gravel and dirt, and my brain was busy with voices… So I thought I won’t do that again.

I used to like to write at night, because I felt like I had the world to myself. Growing up in a big, loud family, you learn to carve out time, solitude, peace, and then to defend it tooth and nail. I read a lot and was usually able to leave my body and live inside the story. Sometimes I think that I wouldn’t have survived my family at all if it weren’t for books.

Nowadays, night times are not so peaceful. My neighbours disturb me. Living in cities, so close together… I hear them moving around. Their music is intrusive, the boring thump-thump-thump of a bass line.  I want to live somewhere I can hear silence. I want to see stars in the sky at night, and be a little afraid to walk along the path to the water, and stumble, and hear the unearthly cries of the foxes in the woods.

For a long time I’ve been feeling that I want my life to change. But I have not known the shape or way it should change. I don’t want anything, or the things I want are everyday things. To sleep without earplugs. To hear the rain. To spend my time reading and writing. A very simple kind of life. But I’m not a simple kind of person, I’m complicated and full of contradiction. I want courage, is what it is.

 

me and mouse.

Friday, February 14th, 2014

It was a real thrill to hear Armistead Maupin read from his new novel, The Days of Anna Madrigal. In fact, it was spellbinding. It was like being in a room with all his characters, all rolled up into this one extremely funny, lovable, compassionate, quick-witted, joyfully acerbic man.

Maupin’s books are a roly-poly mix-up of Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Jackie Collins and a weekend at Burning Man. With their silly, sometimes preposterous, plots (it was funny to hear him talk about the plots he discarded along the way – glitter killer, anyone?) and campy subculture referents, the Tales of the City novels might have been too outrageous to become popular. But the books succed and endure because they are about people – ordinary, dysfunctional, flawed, funny people – and Maupin makes us care about them.

It was clear to see from the audience reaction just how much Maupin’s stories matter to people, and what a difference he has made in their lives. It’s fantastic to be reminded what it is that writers actually do, and why we cannot survive without them. Writers like Armistead Maupin make the world a better place. Even if all we had to thank him for was the ‘twat cosy’ (which reduced a 300-strong audience to tears of helpless laughter) it would be a brilliant, unforgettable contribution.

 

 

hungry.

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

We’re getting older and we’re starting to feel trapped. We are old women now and we have grey hair and we don’t give a shit about anything. We have been walking in the forest, we have been looking for mushrooms, and slowly the trees have been closing in on us and now we have lost the moon.

It feels like life is very hard now, and getting harder.

We wanted to live as artists but now there is no way. There’s no time for reading and writing, nowhere to stay, no gentle places. The hungry machines come snapping and pull us in by our hair and fingers. We work in tall buildings. We work at contentedness and gratitude, but we are not grateful or content. We are raging, incandescent, furious, terrified that the flickering light will go out before we’ve had our chance to burn.

We are old women and we never married and no one pays our bills. We want to live in the woods, in a small brick cottage. We want to live in a wooden house with chicken legs. We want cats and dogs and secrets. It’s our right, as old unmarried women, to set up house in the deepest part of the forest. It’s our right to be ugly and full of wicked laughter.

But we have been fenced in, we have been surrounded. We are living lives that we never intended.

 

wake up, phil

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

I love the cover art for my story in the current Interzone. Mars, dogs, a secretary, a dream – it’s like the inside of my head fell out and landed on the page. Had some interesting reviews of this – it’s very pleasing when readers understand what you’re trying to do with a story.