Monday, 3 September 2018

The Mindful Writer

So you want to be a writer? According to popular mythology, all you need to do is hole up for a weekend or three, drink copious amounts of coffee and/or smoke a lot of cigarettes and put pen to paper. Words of genius will instantly pour out of you. After that comes The Auction, which will make you rich, and The Film Deal, which will make you famous. For impatient binge writers, there is plenty of advice out there, from writing a novel in a month (NaNoWriMo) to producing a book in a weekend.

Published under the Creative Commons licence.
Site: Rubin Museum of Art, Date 22 October 2017, Author FMdesign (Frank Murray)

But what about the pain and pleasure of writing itself? Or the pure love of invention? And the way that writing, like meditation, can help you find your personal equilibrium? Writing is in many ways the ultimate mindful occupation and recording your thoughts regularly can help transform your life. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to reap the rewards. The essential point is that each day you check in with your work, and each day you learn something from it. Writers have been talking about this for decades, and yet somehow the idea of the lone author instantaneously producing work of undiluted genius is an enduring fantasy. Such outpourings do happen, but only after years of apprenticeship to the craft and discipline of writing. 

As Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: ‘What one wants for writing is habit...It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea.’ The trouble with our own ‘casual half hours after tea’ is that such practice can seem more like limbering up for a marathon we will never be asked to run than an activity which is valuable for its own sake. The besetting issue for most writers is that their work is only validated by publication – or so it seems. Until then, writing is a mere hobby, and we are struggling amateurs. 

But there is so much to enjoy. Each stage has its own rewards, even the supposedly preparatory and relatively uncreative period of research, as the novelist Marina Warner has observed – she finds the smell of book dust inspiring and libraries give her a sense of escape. In fact, it’s my experience that research is essential to the creative process, allowing ideas to connect with our imagination and find their own strange logic. We don’t have great canvases to splatter with oil paint, or the thrill of mixing colours, but we do have the tactile reality of paper, books and pens, the fascination of field trips and research interviews and the excitement of serendipitous discovery: the way that a single object can invoke a whole world. Writing is a physical activity as well as a mental one, and every day can be a discovery.

Published under the Creative Commons licence User: (WT-shared) Cai at wts wikivoyage - Own work,
Public Domain,

There is also something restorative and exciting about tapping into your unconscious, developing ideas that are rooted in your obsessions or memories. All artists work with both the external world and their internal consciousness, and this is one of elements of the creative process that is difficult to describe – my view is that each writer will find their own way of combining these elements to a lesser or greater degree, and they will find these solutions via a process of trial and error and experimentation. No agent or editor can tell you how this works, and it’s an innately private and personal matter in the first instance. Notebooks and daily writing help the process along. Author and writing guru Julia Cameron advocates writing ‘morning pages’ first thing each day, and many writers make this part of their practice. One such writer is Hilary Mantel: ‘At this hour one writes easily, without strain or effort,’ she writes. ‘There is no sense of the words being graven in stone, or that sense of making a commitment that can be so paralysing. Sometimes what is written at this hour isn’t used, but is invariably free from constraint.’ (The Agony and the Ego, Clare Boylan, 1993).

This communing with you inner self isn’t necessarily spiritual, but has some similarity with yoga practice or morning prayer – it’s a way of getting beyond ‘dailyness’ and finding patterns and symbols that have meaning. And this meaning may be personal in the first instance, but can ultimately be communicated to other people. Creative writers often undervalue this part of the process, and there can be a sense of pressure to rush towards completion. But this is short sighted – and prevents us from working to our fullest potential. We can learn from the process of visual artists, who see process as an integral part of their daily life as well as a component of each finished work. GraysonPerry describes his creative process as his ‘mental shed’ which gives him a sense of security and a safe place from which to look out of a window ‘onto the world’. 

My favourite writing space is a moving train, looking out at a passing world. This makes me feel as if my writing is moving too, and what I write is delible and malleable, like Hilary Mantel’s dawn drafts. This creative sketching is a way of finding a pattern without imposing one, of evolving a loose logic that determines its own shapes and connections. Raw experience, random impressions, childhood memory, all of this can be forgotten and revisited, twisted and repurposed. At its best, this process can take us into the ‘zone’ in which we transcend the limitations of self and find an equilibrium that allows our creative imagination to flourish, disappearing into our own ideas. Rather than rushing this period of our writing process, surely we should cherish it, and learn how to nurture our developing ideas. Not only does this benefit our finished work, it is a life enhancing process in itself. 

(Based on an article I first published in Bookanista

Sunday, 12 August 2018

Three books that inspire me

I don't know how many books I've read in my life, but I do know that I was an avid reader from the age of five. The books I first loved were about magic and adventure, and I developed a passion for Roman warfare as a result of reading Rosemary Sutcliff. I still love historical fiction, though I can't remember much about shield deployment in a battlefield context.

Childhood favourite
My common law step-grandfather gave me a boxed set of all the Narnia books when I was seven. I loved and re-reread them all, but the one that blew me away was The Magician’s Nephew, by C.S. Lewis, the tale of two Victorian children who travel back to the Genesis of Narnia. (I had yet to make the discovery that all of these books were Christian allegories, though very little seems to be under the radar when I look back on them now.)

What I liked best was the evocation of lost London, in particular the attics that connected a row of tall houses, and the way in which Lewis boldly describes Creation, with Aslan breathing the new Narnia into being. It seemed that anything was possible, anything could be described in a book, and I found that so exciting.

All-time recommendation
It’s impossible to be accurate about this, as these things do shift around as you find new things, but I keep coming back to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which recently took a bit of a drubbing among some of my Facebook friends for its poor plot structure. There is a danger in teaching creative writing that you might suggest that there are absolutes in writing, when I would say there are just two – read a lot and write a lot – and this book is proof of that.

This is what I wrote on Facebook in its defence: ‘It's not a sensible book at all, but so mad and intense that it creates its own weird magic space, unlike anything. CB's books, crazed as they are, are positively Austen-like in their restraint compared to this one.’ What stays with me from this book is its character, the moor, the intensity of teenage passion, something bleak and mysterious that doesn’t make any sense. It’s my ultimate recommendation (today) because of this – few writers can communicate the essence of obsession and contrariness as Emily Bronte does in this book. And I also actually love the Russian doll structure, tales within tales, the enjoyment in a story told by a fireside with the wind howling outside.

What I'm reading now
I’m currently reading Reality Hunger by David Shields, which is opening my eyes to the extent to which my own genre of writing, historical fiction, overlaps with creative nonfiction as well as fiction. I’d describe this book as an opinion-starter, and it’s a bit ‘novel is dead’ (or at least in intensive care) for my taste.

I think the novel, literary or generic, will absorb all comers – the success of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s maximalist My Struggle series is an example of fiction that encompasses many of the tropes and conventions of nonfiction.

A version of this post originally appeared on the English and Creative Writing Department's blog at the Open University.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Five women forgotten by history

I'm attracted by the stories of lesser-known people in history, left out of the established historical record because of their race, their social status or their gender. Here are five examples of women marginalised by history whose lives were fascinating, and whose achievements were astonishing. One of them, Aemilia Lanyer, is the inspiration for my novel Dark Aemilia.

Trota of Salerno was a 12th century Italian medical practitioner and writer. She was famous in her own time, but her work was forgotten until the late 20th century. Her treatise On Treatments for Women was incorporated into the Trotula, which was a compendium of three different works about women’s medicine by three different writers. There are only a handful of copies of her authentic work. No other information about her life has survived, but we know she wrote the Practica secundum Trotam ('Practical Medicine According to Trota'), which covers a variety of different medical topics, from infertility and menstrual disorders to snakebite and cosmetics.

Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, the first woman to be published professionally as a poet in England, was born to a family of Jewish Venetian musicians who played at the court of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. She was the mistress of Lord Hunsden, the Lord Chamberlain, for six years. After that, she was married off to a cousin, and lived in Westminster. In 1611, she published her proto feminist poetry collection ‘Salve Jesu, Rex Judaeorum’. She is thought by some academics to be the mysterious ‘Dark Lady’ to whom William Shakespeare addressed his later sonnets.

Excerpt of a miniature portrait of Aemilia Lanyer
Painted by Nicholas Hilliard (d. 1619) (Source Wikimedia

Maria Anna Mozart was the sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. When she was seven years old, her father Leopold started teaching her to play the harpsichord. He took her and Wolfgang to cities like Vienna and Paris where they performed at court. In the early days, Maria sometimes received top billing, and she was noted as an excellent harpsichord player and forte pianist. But when she grew older and was of marriageable age, she was excluded from these performances. There is evidence that Marianne wrote musical compositions, as there are letters from Wolfgang praising her work, but none has survived.

Maria Anna Mozart, Anonymous, 

Mary Elizabeth Bowser was an an American freed slave who worked as a Union spy during he Civil War. Bowser was highly intelligent and had a photographic memory, and posed as 'Ellen Bond', a slow-thinking servant. She worked at functions held by Varina Davis, the wife of the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. Bowser eventually worked in the Davis household. She memorised all the paperwork she saw and the conversations she overheard, relaying this back to the Union side. Bowser was eventually found out, but before she fled she attempted to burn down the Confederate White House. After the war ended, the federal government destroyed any records of evidence of espionage in order to protect those involved. Bowser did keep a journal about her life, but was lost in 1952. There is no record of her later life, or her death.

Irena Sendler was a Polish nurse and social worker who served in the Polish Underground during World War II. As head of the children's section of the resistance organisation Zegota in German occupied Warsaw, she helped smuggle some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, providing them with false identity documents and housing outside the Ghetto. She was eventually caught by the Nazis and sentenced to death, but managed to escape execution and survive the war. In 1965 she was recognised by the State of Israel as Righteous among Nations and honoured by the Polish government for her humanitarian work.

Irena Sendler, 1942, Wikimedia commons. 

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Keeping a notebook

How does an idea become a story? It’s hard to define or describe the process. The relationship between creativity and physicality is one that we sometimes overlook. But the physical process of writing is essential to the development of fiction. The brain/hand connection is as important to a writer as it is to a tennis player.

What exists in our imagination is usually formless and confused until it has become in some way physically real – at which point we may find that other ideas attach to it. Some writers carry ideas round in their heads for months – but I can’t be the only person who thought they were doing this, only to discover that the idea had disappeared. Obviously there are different ways of keeping track of our thoughts. A note on an iPhone may be all that’s needed to record the passing moment, or pin down a sudden inspiration. But perhaps we are losing something if we turn our thoughts into instant electronic data. The notebook, tried and tested for centuries, is an invaluable tool. Not only is it a repository of ideas and experience, it can also help generate lateral connections.

Essentially, a notebook helps us to focus on our immediate responses to the world. Writing in the preface to A Writer’s Notebook (Heinemann, 1951) novelist and short story writer W. Somerset Maugham says: ‘When you know you are going to make a note of something, you look at it more attentively than you otherwise would, and in the process of doing so the words are borne in upon you that will give it its private place in reality.’ (Maugham 1951: x)

Kafka's notebook with words in German and Hebrew
Vessel to Vessel, The National Library of Israel Collection

Habit is also important according to Virginia Woolf. In A Writer’s Diary (Hogarth Press, 1953) she says: 'But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink.' (Woolf 1987: 22)

For most writers, a notebook is the closest thing we have to an artist’s sketch book, and the equivalent of a studio. Instead of an atelier of half-finished canvases, splashed with paint, we have jottings and scrawled sentences which catch at our vision of life, and can sometimes contain passing flashes of inspiration that would otherwise have gone forever. Unlike sketchbooks, they are rarely beautiful in themselves, although there may be beautiful things in them.

Bruce Chatwin, photographed by Lord Snowdon, 28 July 1982, Wikicomms, Fair Use

Does the quality of such notebooks matter? At worst, an expensive notebook can tempt us to write self-consciously, or pretentiously. I used to think the travel writer Bruce Chatwin was guilty of notebook narcissism. In his memoir The Songlines (Penguin 1987) he writes: ‘I made three neat stacks of my “Paris” notebooks. In France, these notebooks are known as carnets moleskines: 'moleskine', in this case, being its black oilcloth binding. Each time I went to Paris, I would buy a fresh supply from a papeterie in the Rue de l'Ancienne-Comédie.’ (Chatwin 1987: 160) These notebooks went out of production in 1986, but a Milanese publisher brought them back into production in 1997 using Chatwin’s term ‘Moleskine’ to give credibility to the brand. They are now ‘design classics’ which potentially adds to their dubiousness as the tools of a writer’s trade. But – confession time - I now write in a Moleskine notebook myself.)

The writer Ailsa Cox stresses that the notebook should help us connect with the energy of lived experience Writers like Katherine Mansfield fuelled their intensely observed short fiction by making bright, immediate word sketches, using sensory observation to record the minutiae of the ‘ordinary’ world. In Writing Short Stories: A Routledge Writer’s Guide (Routledge 2005) Cox explains: ‘Notebook-writing doesn’t have to prove anything or be shown to anyone. Mine’s indecipherable anyway.’ (Cox 2005: 49)

Although habit is important, writing in your notebook shouldn’t be an oppressive duty. The spontaneity essential to the best short story writing is best fostered if you write in your notebook regularly, but not slavishly, Cox believes. ‘The idea is to liberate your creativity, not restrict your own freedom. Write whenever you find an opportunity. I have to confess I have sometimes started scribbling during an especially mind-numbing meeting.’ (Cox 2005:50)

Perhaps the most important function of a notebook is that it is portable, and you can almost write in it off-guard, without worrying about the quality or quantity of what you produce. So the notebook is my ally in the struggle to improve as a writer, and to feed my imagination with fresh ideas. I write on trains, in cafes, parks, at the seaside, in the kitchen, anywhere. There is always something there when I close the book that didn’t exist when I opened it.

(A longer version of this article was published on the Thresholds website, University of Chichester

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Six top tips for summer writing

Yorkshire moors - Bronte country Rollo

1.       Start early – beat the summer heat. Set your alarm for no later than 8 am and postpone all your household or admin jobs until the afternoon. Keep your mind as free as possible before starting work, and get down to it as soon as possible after you get up. The author Monique Roffey writes as soon as she wakes up when she is working on a novel; the mighty J.K. Rowling works in bed first thing.

2.       Set yourself achievable goals. Be specific and realistic. Can you really take the NaNoWriMo approach and write a entire novel in August? Seems unlikely – and their word goal is 50, 000 whereas you will have to craft at least 70,000 to reach conventional novel length. It might be better to work on one short story, or two produce two or three good chapters, or to resolve an issue that you haven’t had head space to address before.

3.       Choose the right place to work. It may be that you have a quiet office in the house (we currently have builders next door so I am feeling the pain here). Or it may that you have a café or library where you can work well. Wherever it is, make sure that you spend at least three hours a day in that place, writing, and only writing.

4.       Say ‘no’. I very rarely tell anyone I am not meeting them/taking something on because I’m writing – it somehow has the same effect as saying that you are staying in to wash your hair. People feel snubbed, weirdly, because the convention is that writing should be your lowest priority in the modern, speed-driven world.  But I have a range of substitute excuses, usually to do with my (admittedly demanding) day job, or family stuff (and there is admittedly also plenty of that). Whatever reason you give, just say ‘no’. Don’t feel pressurized to fit in barbecues or building a new extension on your house. This is your summer of words.

5.       Be active. This may sound contradictory, but do also make time to move about. A writer is not a brain on a stick, and getting your blood circulating helps your brain to work. There is also a weird connection between creativity and walking. Virginia Woolf was a great fan. Ernest Hemingway used to go hunting after putting in a morning’s writing. There is no need for that.

6.       Read. There is also a lovely connection between reading and writing. The voice and created world of another writer is inspiring and curiously restful. Choose the right author – you may not want to immerse yourself in the work of the prize-winning writer whose book was published this year to wild acclaim and is writing in your chosen genre. You’re only human. Read nonfiction, poetry, an established classic. Read like a writer, seeing how they have addressed the problems and challenges you are facing in your own draft. And read like a reader, paying close attention and letting the writers take you where they want you to go.   

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

How to write a novel inspired by Shakespeare

My novel Dark Aemilia is based on the life of Aemilia Lanyer, the first woman to be published professionally as a poet in England. Aemilia is one of the women who may have been the Dark Lady to whom Shakespeare dedicated his most passionate but troubled sonnets. In my story, I assume that not only is she Shakespeare’s muse, but also the true author of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays – The Tragedie of Macbeth

There are several ways in which Macbeth inspired the story:
Theme: the destructive power of ruthless ambition; violence begetting violence; the drive to subvert established hierarchies.
Plot: the smooth efficiency of a plot in which temptation is followed by wrong-doing which causes alienation and retribution. A perfect balance between freedom of choice and tragic inevitability.

Atmosphere: the sense of evil that haunts ‘the Scottish play’; the dark power of witchcraft; violence and murder; the bleakest aspects of the natural world.

Language: the use of imagery and stark, vivid language to convey the fearful, deranged perspective of the protagonist.

Gender: the fact that, in spite of being excluded from positions of influence, women are a potent force in the power play between men.

William Shakespeare, The Chandos Portrait 

And I'm not the only author to be inspired by the work of Shakespeare:

  •  Ambition is the driving theme in Moby Dick, by Herman Melville (Macbeth/King Lear) Melville’s Great American Novel draws on both Biblical and Shakespearean myths. Captain Ahab is ‘a grand, ungodly, god-like man…above the common’ whose pursuit of the great white whale Moby Dick is a fable about obsession and over-reaching. Just as Macbeth and Lear subvert the natural order of things, Ahab takes on Nature in his determination to kill his prey - and his hubristic quest is doomed from the start.
  •  A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley (King Lear) Smiley retells the story of King Lear in modern day Iowa in her Pulitzer prizewinning novel. The novel is set on a thousand acre farm which is owned by a father and his three daughters, and told from the point of view of the oldest, Ginny. Instead of dismissing the two older daughters as wicked and grasping, as Shakespeare does, in her novel Smiley explores the family secrets that underpin the drama, and shows the significance of the land itself. 
  • The Black Prince, by Iris Murdoch (Hamlet) This is a brilliant depiction of obsessive love, though its plot is a typically convoluted Murdochian creation which is inspired by Freud and Plato as well as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It tells the story of a twisted friendship between two writers, and features some cheekily cross-dressed sex scenes in which Julian (a young woman) dresses up as the gloomy Dane. Murdoch is strongest on the unpredictability of love, and the black comedy that can result. 
  • Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (The Tempest) Huxley makes numerous references to the work of Shakespeare in this dystopian novel, and the title is taken from the Tempest: ‘O brave new world, / That has such people in 't!’ Like Caliban, John ‘The Savage’ is an outcast, despised for his appearance, and Huxley is exploring ideas about the power of art and the nature of humanity as Shakespeare does in this haunting and, possibly, final play.
  • Wise Children, by Angela Carter (The Taming of the Shrew et al) Twins, doubles and paradoxes abound in Carter’s last novel, as they do in the works of Shakespeare. The story of twins Dora and Nora Chance explores ideas about paternity and incest, and the novel is written in five chapters like the five Acts in a Shakespeare play. One of the themes is ‘high art’ versus ‘low art’ and Carter jokily refers to Shakespeare via Kiss Me Kate, a populist adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew. 
  • The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey (Richard III) Richard III gets a sympathetic makeover in Josephine Tey’s 1951 whodunnit, which reads like a cross between Rear Window and Time Team. Detective Alan Grant, confined to bed after an accident, begins to take in interest in the much maligned king after studying his portrait.  Although clearly Richard III was a real person, the false picture we have of him was originally created by Shakespeare, Tey argues. He created a pantomime villain and child murderer in order to curry favour with his Tudor patron, Elizabeth I.