Monthly Archives: April 2013

From Chocolate to Caviar (what do you feed your brain?)

choc_caviarThere are many fine blogs around – you could become a recluse and quit your job and still not have time to read them all – so apologies if it is years before I pay yours the respect it’s due.

Last week I read Down and Out in the 21st and was particularly drawn to the question of whether fiction is a waste of time and, particularly, the idea of Empty Calories for your Brain.

There is so much that we can (and do) read. The back of cereal packets, billboards, DVD packaging, books, blogs, Facebook, Twitter for example. Writers are (happily) burdened with the fact that they must read daily. And with great variety. So it is that I read a great deal and, without a doubt, read things that I would never have imagined reading in the past.

And what I read starts to categorise itself. And I thought that it may be worthwhile trying to order our reading via its value for your brain. A sort of chocolate to caviar of reading matter.

I guess it would start at White Chocolate (no nutritional value whatsoever) and include things like Caviar (luxury but not necessary), rice and peas (staple brain fodder). So at the White Chocolate end I would place books like Oh Dear Sylvia by Dawn French (and please don’t get me started on this…).

For Steak and Sea Bass I would list Rape, A Love Story by Joyce Carol-Oates and Weddings and Beheadings by Hanif Kureishi. These are, in my humble opinion, the type of essential read that all writers should add to their list.

I guess in the Caviar pot I’d put books like Narcopolis by Jaat Thayil – books that I’ve loved, that are swimming in sensory detail but may not appeal to everyone.

And I’m wondering how you would rate the books you’ve read if you had to order them in a culinary sense? I’d love to read your comments on this.

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Don’t Give Up Your Day Job

Oscar-Wilde_1996173b

Oscar Wilde Photo: Napoleon Sarony

Over the last two weeks I have read just about every article on the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Granta Young Novelist that I could find and I was struck by one novelist’s assertion that you cannot give up your regular job. I didn’t write down her name (annoyingly) and now I can’t remember. So I Googled it (you can Google everything), only to find just about every novelist says the same (including, apparently, Oscar Wilde).

Enter nasty little voices in my mind telling me what a fool I am and what a mistake I’ve made. I did give up my day job. Granted I took a part time job after a few months, one that I can do comfortably whilst still devoting the most of my life to writing.

If you want to be a writer you have to do two things, the first is write (every day) and the second is read (also every day). And you have to do both of them voraciously and variedly. It’s no good sticking to a diet of one or two things (even J K Rowling had to branch out eventually).

And now I’m thinking about all the difficulties that result from my decision – no car, no holidays, making a chicken last three (or more) meals, making my own granola, discovering the joy of polishing my shoes, homemade presents for everyone at Christmas… actually there are a lot of benefits to the more frugal life. I’m fitter, I still enjoy my food, caring for your belongings is therapeutic and I’m one of the few people who can claim to have decimated their income and be mathematically correct.

As part of my Mindfulness training, I read Nadine Stair’s poemIf I had my Life to Live Over and was drawn to the following, ‘I would perhaps have more troubles, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones.’

Living life to the full includes taking risks. Prior to becoming a writer I had lots of worries – all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybe’s – and I spent a lot of my time hoping that I was pleasing everyone. Now my worries are different – but they are concrete and the real concerns of life are rarely insurmountable (even if they are uncomfortable) and, in return, I am achieving something wonderful.

In the last month I have had five poems published, one micro-fiction and two news pieces. I have been asked to judge a writing competition.

It isn’t success that makes me a writer, it is believing and making that commitment that makes me a writer. It is choosing to write and read every day. It is telling people that I am a writer.

John Crace is both correct and incorrect. I may not make lots of money writing but richness can be measured in other ways and, for the moment, I am happy with richness of spirit – money isn’t everything.

The Dangers of Knowing a Writer (1)

Is it dangerous knowing a writer? Are you worried that you know a writer?

I was at the launderette yesterday. I arrived whilst it was quiet and, although the machine I wanted was occupied, it was on its final spin and there was nobody waiting for it. There are many advantages to using the launderette but the most enticing is the brevity of the experience. The washer in question holds a full seven days’ worth of laundry (including bedding) and the full cycle takes just under 28 minutes. I estimated I would be done and dusted in less than 35.

I was wrong. What I hadn’t reckoned with was the full force of humankinds’ tendency towards weirdness and it would be a further 15 minutes before I even got my laundry into the machine. At least I had my notebook.

It took three minutes for the current machine user to begin unloading – a process that should have taken seconds. I watched as she opened the washer door and removed a single sock, stretched it, flicked it and placed it in her bin bag. Next was a t-shirt – shaken, brushed and folded before laying in her basket. Third item out – a towel – towels, it would seem, require vigorous shaking to the tune of much puffing and panting, then a brush before precise folding and placement in the basket. Smalls were destined for the bag (after flicking, shaking and stretching) all other items made it to the basket. Eventually.

Part way through she realised a tissue had sneaked into her load leaving tell-tale traces of white bobbles on all the clothes. At this point the process lengthened as she went to the doorway with each item to shake it outside, brushing off all residue before returning to her basket.

Later I was asked if this would make a poem? Certainly, was my answer or, failing that a character in a short story. Is it, therefore, dangerous to know a writer?

If you exhibit strange behaviours in my presence chances are some remnant of that trait, of your dress, of your visage will make it into my writing. But will I write you in detail? I am a fiction writer. I create. I write poetry about real events but cloak them in imagery or emotions that I’ve imagined. Writing means expanding on reality. If you read my work and think it’s about you then you can be 100% sure that it is not.

But, as a reader, you create your own meaning and, just as I recognise myself or my experiences in the fiction I read; if I’m doing my job well enough you might recognise something of your own life in my writing. Well that’s the way I see it – what do you think?

And as for the woman in the launderette? Well, I’ve already started that story

Write What You Know?

Do you or don’t you? I finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry this week – a skilful piece of writing that did exactly what it said on the tin, a page turner, tragic, vaguely comedic, emotional. I won’t give anything away, if you want a review then check-out what I post on Waterstones.

At the end of the book, Rachel Joyce explains how much of herself and her experiences have gone into the story and I was drawn to consider the above maxim. Last week another poem of mine, Behind The Pyramid was published on Poetry24 and I was asked about my own experiences of losing a child. I have none. How then did I write the poem? Does one need to have experienced something to write about it?

I do believe that as writers we bring ourselves to our work. It is through our lived experiences that we find our own, inimitable, voice. That we stamp our own style and self on our writing and yet, if we only wrote of what we ‘know’ then what would happen to science fiction? To fantasy? To crime? Are all crime novelists murderers on the sly?

I think it would be a mistake to restrict ourselves only to what we have experienced. As creative writers we owe it to the world to create, to make something new, to explore and expand reality. Michael Chricton was a great sci-fi writer. His novels felt real because he brought his vast knowledge of science to his fiction but then he took that all important next step; he expanded, drifted and created.

On an Open University course I wrote a screenplay exploring the lives of a teenage lad with Asperger Syndrome who planned to split the atom from his garden shed, a NEET youth (not in education, employment or training), an obese man and an elderly lady. Each character was plucked from news reports and town-centre observations. I collected hundreds of cuttings, YouTube clips and details. I was scared I may be raided or arrested as I searched for facts about explosives and splitting the atom (not such a rare hobby after all). I scoured the shelves of online chemical sellers, found uranium, plutonium, knew how much per gram. I researched methods of suicide, listened to a myriad song lyrics and watched daytime TV.

And I became worried; I feared that my screenplay would become a documentary. My tutor reassured me; pointed out that this wouldn’t happen because at some point I would finish my research and start to create. I would imagine these lives instead of reading about them. I would add the characters’ lived realities. My story would be born.

I was reminded about the tale of Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier in The Marathon Man of which there are many versions, you can read a comprehensive list here but Olivier’s alleged final comment, ‘My dear boy, have you thought of just acting?’ is, I think, the real message for creative writers. You can (and indeed should) research as much as possible but then it must stop, the clippings and the videos and the interviews should be put to one side; what matters is just imagining, that is when we become creative writers.

Reading Between the Lines

I love to read between the lines. I like to write like that too – leaving something to be considered or learned – and often I worry that my work does not, that in fact I am too literal and, therefore, mundane.

Writers who read (and to write well you have to read – prolifically) will understand the feeling you get each day when you read something profound – and I do read something amazing every day. It may be a piece of poetry that is so beautifully expressed and has multiple layers (and then I worry that mine is mono-layered or predictable), it may be a short story that explores love or death or life in some way that I never even thought possible, or perhaps I’ll read a news piece that’s expressed in an eloquent language that I would never have dreamed to use. Each day I read and think, ‘Yep, I need to be so much better before I’m even halfway there.’

Roland Barthes* said that ‘writing is the destruction of every point of origin’ and it’s true. A badly written or bland piece will remain on the page, will not be destroyed but, equally, will have no effect. Yet a well written, vibrant piece will result in the ‘death of the author’ because it is the very act of reading that brings the piece to life. The reader creates the meaning – and a good piece of writing allows many meanings for many people.

As I said, I love reading between the lines. I love fiction that makes me understand myself more – or the world I live in – or my neighbour. I love fiction because good fiction helps us learn fact.

Last night I started to read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce – I’m only on page 55 so this is in no way a review or recommendation but, it has to be said, I learned something I didn’t want to learn last night – so much so that I couldn’t shake the fact from my head as I went on my morning run.

My right eye leaks, it has done for as long as I can remember (although that’s no indication of when it started to leak – who, after all, would remember that their eye didn’t water?). I’ve always thought that this was perhaps some conspiracy of the cosmetic industry. My flooding right eye results in an excessive need to reapply make-up – and not just my eye make-up – we’re talking foundation, concealer, blusher along with, of course, mascara, liner, shadow. I think my annual cosmetic bill could be halved if I could repair my eye.

Last night, I found out that this is not a major conspiracy but, apparently, proof of my rapid ageing. Ok, unlike Harold, I don’t also have stiffening joints, ringing in the ears and a shooting pain in my chest but heck – I didn’t really want to find out last night that my right eye means I’m now an old lady? And does this mean I’ll find it hard to realise my ambition of living to 115 with all my faculties and spending my days annoying the hell out of people?

Of course if Barthes is correct (and I hope that he is), this is only one interpretation of Joyce’s words and across the globe there will be thousands of others and each of them, necessarily, different to those of the author.

Long live the reader – without you every writer’s words would be dead words.

(* Image Music Text Roland Barthes (1977) Fontana Press)