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.

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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)

The Power of Lines

I attended school before health and safety; human rights hadn’t been embraced never mind the rights of a child and corporal punishment ruled. It wasn’t called that at primary school, it had no name, it was just It. Your parents sent you off confident that you would learn and be protected. Instead you suffered endless abuse. Some benign – standing on a chair all dinner because you dared to socialise whilst you grabbed a rushed sandwich or spending break with your nose pressed to the stone wall because you accidently tripped and the teacher thought you were pushing. Others sadistic – being hit with the thin edge of a ruler because you were pushed in the queue and your teacher thought you were dancing. And then there were the punishments which were an affront to literacy. Lines.

I was given lines once because I hadn’t copied my RE passage off the board quickly enough. I was five and the passage was about Jesus’ forty days in the dessert being tempted by the Devil. I had to write over and over, I must work quickly and neatly and then, on the next break, I had to copy the rest of the passage from a friend’s book.

Last Monday I gave myself another ‘lines’ exercise but not in any kind of tribute to my rather pathetic primary school experience. This was the act of reducing my poem from 67 lines to 40 in order to meet submission guidelines. I’ve read people’s letters in a number of literary magazines aimed at writers, letters where the author bemoans the paltry word or line allowances. Forty lines? Fifteen hundred words? And yet, despite my toils, I am firmly of the belief that restricting and shortening can (and usually does) improve work.

Having been inspired to write after reading Gethin Chamberlain’s harrowing article, my poem If The World Ends… went through countless drafts – there are only six electronic versions but my poetry writing depends upon my beautiful fountain pen and decent quality paper before I get anywhere near a computer. And my first electronic version was 67 lines. And I loved every single one of them. And I had a coffee and asked myself – is it so precious that I don’t submit? Or find a different forum – one with a more generous lineage? But I knew the answer was no.

Restricting lines makes us better poets because it makes us mess around with line length. It makes us take a coloured pen to everything, highlighting the bits we can’t lose, circling the iffy bits. Playing with metre, and enjambment… I love this stage in poetry writing but I’m curious what other poets and readers think.

If you’d like to read an early draft of my poem (if you can bear the subject matter more than once) and compare it to the published version then I’d love to hear from you – please do leave a comment or send me an email.

Revelation Number One

I’ve been meaning to start a new Blog for some time. That’s not to say that my old Blog has died, just that after such a length of time it seemed strange reposting. I needed inspiration and, today, it came.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid number 8 is about to be published and publishers across the globe are teaming up to ensure a near simultaneous worldwide launch. The news transported me to my daydreams – Booker Prize, Costa First Book Award, Guardian Debut… they all conflate into one rose-tinted ambition. In reality my goals are far less highfalutin – give my work away, publish a letter, a poem, an article on something I discovered, a travel piece, win a small competition – even just one of these would transform me from what I am now to A WRITER.

But what am I now?

In actual fact my life changed when I decided that I am, already, a writer. Like any artist I practise every day and am very much still within my apprenticeship but I am a writer nevertheless. I write book reviews at Waterstones. I write short stories, poems, memoirs, novels, short articles, several Blogs, a newsletter. The only thing I’m lacking is that elusive badge of honour – publication.

And so it was that the diary of the aforementioned kid inspired me to start this Blog. I realised, as I made my morning cup of something hot with caffeine (I go healthy after lunch) that one of the biggest reasons for not yet being published was that I am a Wimpy Writer. Yes, I realise that my writing is not yet as polished as I hope it will be in years to come. And, yes, I still have lots more to learn but the single biggest factor in my lack of success (if success is measured via how much you have published) is my Wimpiness.

I am a Wimpy Writer.

I dare say that there are others who may identify themselves as such but I reckon my own, inherent brand of wimpiness is slightly different. I am not averse to rejection, I’ve always taken a stoic attitude to it – better to reveal yourself as you are and be rejected than put on an act and find yourself somewhere that you don’t really want to be. Thus if my poem or story or article doesn’t match the requirements of a particular editor then it does not mean I am a bad writer, just not yet equipped with the skills to write for them.

My own pernicious brand of wimping dates back long before my writing adventures. At sixteen I became an Avon lady and trudged the streets religiously several evenings a week. I had been lucky to inherit a large patch, albeit one with very few regular buyers but, with the amount of houses on the round, there was certainly the opportunity for good sales. Unless you give that round to someone with a very acute sense of not disturbing people.

I did want to be a great Avon lady. I bought samples, bought extra brochures – I had the patter if you deigned to answer the door. And, therein, lay the problem.

It was evening, perhaps people were eating their tea (I’m a Northern girl), or washing-up, or helping kids with homework, or settling in to watch television. I didn’t want to disturb them too much. And so I knocked – gently – and sometimes I might, if I felt particularly confident, knock again but still ever so lightly so as not to spoil their meal, or their reading, or their viewing.

I wasn’t particularly successful.

And so it is with my writing. I don’t mind rejection but I don’t face much of it – given that I don’t like to disturb. I know how many emails people get, how many letters, how many competition entries. And so I stall. I hang around. I knock gently.

So, here it is, my Diary of a Wimpy Writer – and I’m ready for a challenge. Each week I will update my Blog (a publication of sorts) with tales of my writing and knocking. Perhaps, with a little more determination and (hopefully) some persuasion from my readers, I can become less of a wimp and, who knows, actually get my writing out there for a larger audience.