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July 2020

The American edition of my memoir ONE YELLOW DOOR has finally come out in the States. Not that they bothered to tell me. It was actually printed in April and I discovered it on Amazon by accident. So different from my British publishers, Darton Longman and Todd, who could not have been more caring. But I mustn’t winge – the cover is great

 

 

 

June 2020
“THE PAST IS A NEW COUNTRY – THEY DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY THERE” A.P.Hartley

“Memoir is archaeology of your own past”Karen Altenberg

For many of you, lockdown seemed to be the perfect time to think about writing that memoir for family and friends, or maybe even for publication, but from what I’m hearing, the thought has not always been the father of the deed!

To encourage any of you who may need it, I thought I’d share with you a few thoughts I gleaned from the archeologist and writer Karen Altenberg, whom I first met after reading Island of Wings, her sensitive and powerfully evocative novel about the last inhabitants of St. Kilda Island in the Outer Hebrides.

We later ran a workshop together on Memoir writing for The Oldie Magazine and hearing her talk I realised that many of the principles that apply to fiction, also apply to memoir writing. I thought I’d share a few of her pointers, which I’ve expanded a bit in the hope they may encourage you to get cracking.

“It’s about signposting, but letting the reader do most of the work.”

Details are important, but they have to be the right ones.

For example: An effective way to reveal character is to describe a setting without the person actually being there. Try describing a person’s study, or their kitchen, or the contents of their cupboards, or the inside of their car, what they keep in the garden shed, and see how effective it is in revealing personality without you actually have to tell us what they were like. It’s back to that old chestnut, “Show don’t Tell.”

“Good writing has physicality, finely observed.”

Think weather. Weather affects how we feel. Make it say something, mean something. To write that it was a sunny day doesn’t really mean much. But to explain how the sun made the individual feel, or how the change in the weather affected the emotions of your characters, the atmosphere between them, the situation, that means something. So weather has personality.

But be careful how you describe it. I remember Lawrence Norfolk once saying, “The sky is never blue.” Well it isn’t. It’s always a combination of colours, and it always has meaning. It always has something to say to you.

Finally, hone in on a specific detail, or a strange detail, or something out of place, leave the rest out.

I talk about this in more detail in my YouTube clip. It’s only a couple of minutes long.

So better get writing – the lockdown is easing… well, until the next time!

 

January 2020
THE POWER OF SILENCE

They say that it’s only when you’ve finished your first draft that you understand what your narrative should really be about.

Trying to short-cut this rather alarming reality, I have spent the past couple of days trying to hone down to it’s bones what I wanted each particular scene to say, and ultimately what the fundamental purpose of this current  ‘work in progress’ was about.

Predictably, I haven’t got very far! Everything is still a fog through which patches of dim light occasionally penetrate. But I came across an arresting piece on silence by the inspirational Richard Rohr, and thinking about silence has led to those patches of dim light getting fractionally brighter.

In case you’re interested, here are two sentences that I found arresting, but I will put a link below to the series of five pieces he wrote on the nature and power of silence.

“We do not hear silence: rather, it is that by which we hear.”

“Silence is a kind of thinking that is not thinking. It is a kind of thinking which truly sees.”

Here is a fuller version of the first portion of this piece:

Silence has a life of its own. It is not just that which is around words and underneath images and events. It is a being in itself to which we can relate and become intimately familiar. Philosophically, we would say being is that foundational quality which precedes all other attributes. Silence is at the very foundation of all reality—naked being, if you will. Pure being is that out of which all else comes and to which all things return.  Or as I like to say, Reality is the closest ally of God.

When we connect with silence as a living, primordial presence, we can then see all other things—and experience them deeply—inside that container. Silence is not just an absence, but a primal presence. Silence surrounds every “I know” with a humble and patient “I don’t know.” It protects the autonomy and dignity of events, persons, animals, and all created things.

Silence is not the absence of being; it is a kind of being itself. It is not something distant, obtuse, or obscure of which only ascetics and hermits are capable. Most likely we have already experienced deep silence, and now we must feed and free it and allow it to become light within us. We do not hear silence; rather, it is that by which we hear. …

Silence is a kind of thinking that is not thinking. It is a kind of thinking which truly sees …….

For all five pieces on silence, click here

 

December 2019
SHADOWS AND SURPRISES

De-clogging the brain after the long Christmas break and zoning in once more to the world you are trying to create – but, if you are like me – as yet imperfectly see – can seem daunting, but as I sat at my desk this morning, feeling more than a little lost, I came across this quote from Hilary Mantel.  It comes from an interview published in The Author last autumn.  It buzzed me up.  I hope it buzzes you!

“Many kinds of writing can be done in the unabashed light of day and by a precise intellectual process, but I think fiction that has layers and depths – the kind you can read twice – has to come from an inner location that is in some way fogged, a place that is a continuing mystery to the author.  When you begin a project you don’t want to see your whole purpose in one clear glance.  You need shadows in the landscape, to keep you alert and expectant.  If you know too much about a story, the work is already done, and writing it down becomes a chore.  You want a story to form up secretly in the dark hours, and to surprise you at dawn by being bigger than you thought and a different shape, and perhaps of a different nature entirely.”   Hilary Mantel.

 

 

November 2019

THE WRITER’S GUILT

Despite the rain, the last couple of months have been a dry time in this neck of the woods. Creatively dry, I mean.  Life, with all it’s challenges, delights and mundane chores, has got in the way of the novel desperately trying to crawl out of my befuddled brain.  As I firmly close the study door and take the phone off the hook, an old familiar guilt bubbles up to the surface. Common to most writers I guess.   We feel guilty when we’re not writing – and know that to justify our existence in the eyes of the world, we need to be, and guilty when we are writing because we have absented ourselves from, well, practically everything and everyone.

And perhaps the worst guilt of all, is that we actually WANT to write and are happy to ignore everything else.  Are we monsters?

Floundering at my desk this morning, trying to get back into the characters of my imagination,  I came across this lovely quote from Wittgenstein.  By changing the first word to ‘writing’ I felt that maybe we have something vital to contribute after all, in these barren times, even those of us who have not yet reached the short lists of the Booker, Pulitzer or Coster.

“Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein.

 

“Writing a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.”

Me

 

 

July 2019

GETTING UN-STUCK CREATIVELY

A group of us got together one evening and realised that creatively, we’d all got a bit stuck. You know that feeling when you want to sit down and write, but there is nothing in your head except a desire to go to sleep!

We were a mixed bunch; a couple were experimenting with  photography, one was a carpenter, another a musician, and one an artist in stained glass.  But all of us were feeling fed up. So over a glass of wine (or two) we had an idea. We’d find a word – could be an adjective, a noun, a verb – but just one word, and we would meet again in a month and share with what we’d produced around that one word.

The chosen word was BUTTONS.

My heart sank. As the wordsmith of the group, what on earth could I write about buttons. As a non-fiction writer, I could do the history of buttons, I suppose. Too dull, and the whole point was that we were to take ourselves out of our comfort zone, to push the boundaries.

What eventually came out of this experiment was a total surprise for all of us, and I recommend it to you as a way to set yourself free if you feel you’ve got stuck.  The glass artist produced a waistcoat with beautiful glass buttons, one of the photographers made a video of a button falling in slow motion. It was extraordinary and surreal. The other photographer rummaged in her mother’s old button box and took a picture of a button card – must have been about 50 years old – which originally held 4 buttons.  Two had been removed, and two were left. The card was old and grubby…. and that gave me an idea.  Here it is:

. “The Tale of Two Buttons”

December 2018

THE FAR SIDE OF PANIC

 

This blog is really for all those of you who have those moments of despair: where is my work going.. what am I doing… can’t think, can’t write… why am I doing this……

Earlier this year I was sitting in on a workshop run by Andrew Miller and Karen Altenberg. Andrew opened it by talking about the ‘process’ of writing. I found myself prickling.. what an odd, unsympathetic word to describe the creative work of writing. And then he explained, and I tell you, the sense of relief that writers as brilliant as he, experienced the same struggles as those of us on the margins, was a wonderful encouragement. A liberation! In note form, this is what he said.

THE PROCESS OF WRITING

The important thing is not to lose faith in the process. If you feel you are floundering, the process will carry you through, even if it takes years (which incidentally, writing a book usually does).

At the beginning of your work you can think of nothing that gives order to it. But any ambitious piece of work involves a powerful sense of being lost, not knowing how to continue, or how to explain it. This being lost, not knowing, is all within the process. Being blocked is just a natural part of it. Panicking is part of the process!

But there is always a far side to not knowing.

Indulge in “diligent indolence” – we need time when we are not overly engaged. Sometimes our writing seems to be working, but it’s often the resting, when ideas are mulling away just below the surface, that is the most important.

Writing can be a messy process, partly because we can’t see what’s going on. That’s because a lot of what goes on is outside of our ability to consciously know it. “When we write” said Andrew “we enter mystery”.

Then there is the time it all takes, which is not always easy to justify, but most work is done slowly, much like a gardener. You don’t plant a seed and expect it to be a full grown plant the next day. It takes 2 to 3 yrs minimum to write a book. It can be hard to justify that much time. Keep your nerve. Things get written through life, not round the side of it.

The difficulty is having faith in the process. When you loose faith in it you feel you’re floundering. The key is to keep faith with it. You will eventually see how it will carry you through.

Later I asked Andrew if he had days when he sat down and realised he had nothing whatsoever to say.
“Often.”
“So what do you do?”
“After 10 minutes or so I give up and go and hoover the floor.”

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