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A word on motivation for writing a novel

When do you know you’re ready to write a novel? I say novel, rather than book, because although other forms of book (creative non-fiction, journalism, academic work) can take just as long, and have their own difficulties and rigours, for me at least there is something deeply interior about the approach to writing a novel that brings up a blockage that the other forms of writing do not. As for Coleridge, it is my ‘chosen’ form that troubles me most (Coleridge famously complained he could write prose without a problem, but asking him to write poetry was like asking him to cut off a leg. Whatever ‘Kubla Kahn’ is, it is also a statement on the thwarting of the artist.)

I’ve written about this before. How when one integrates a particular form of work too closely into one’s ego boundary container (that keeps us safe; that we ‘show’ to the world) then we won’t risk its failing. And I believe I’ve passed that now. I wrote to a friend, another writer, recently that my trip abroad, my two month travels on a Winston Churchill Fellowship, has given me the perspective to be simply a ‘writer’ and one in service to others (stories, ideas, people, values) rather than having to be a ‘novelist’ in service to my ego (writing for all the wrong reasons, and not ‘succeeding’). It was something I needed to give up. I felt as if I would die giving it up. And yet now I have—the idea that if I never write a novel but follow my energy and heart, that is okay—I am free to actually follow the energy of whatever comes in front of me, or emanates from inside, which is, or could be—no, this time, is—a novel. It’s a love story, at its heart, one set in a collapsed future and one themed around the idea of maintaining one’s values (of being vegan) in a world that no longer, if ever, respected and recognised those values. How does love grow in such a situation? How does one keep one’s compassion?

How do I know I am ready to write this book and not the other books that I have in my ‘unfinished’ projects folder (the book about my father; the book about relationships; the book about the lobotomy). I guess it’s this. That as I am clear that the first half of my life ended a while ago, so went with it the first half of life preoccupations and motivations. Those books started at that time don’t have the same energy now for me to carry on with them. Well, some do, but not while I’m also doing a full-time job. Or maybe. Argh! Constantly this push and pull between projects… And yet this is just an excuse not to commit and get things finished. As my friend, the poet, said, to always feel lukewarm, never cold or hot.

Yes, I guess I’m working this out by writing it down. I have a motivation to change the world for the better, to reduce suffering. Do I truly believe that by entering my own space, descending into the tunnel of writing, and of writing fiction, that I will come out of this with something that will be useful in the world? A novel? Perhaps it has always been the case or is particularly pertinent to this precarious world we live in, that there is no time for fiction any more. That it is entertainment and escapism from the pressing problems of the world. And yet, as Elizabeth Grosz says (PDF) (and I’ve used this quote so many times in the past few weeks) isn’t art about presenting future possibilities? Making of the materials of the present moment a vision or image of what the world could be? And don’t we need art—isn’t art what we save the world for? What she says is that art is the affective energy where “properties and qualities take on the task of representing the future, of preceding and summoning up sensations to come, a people to come, worlds or universes to come.”

What I think I’ve figured out this week is the practical stuff of motivation. I’ve written plenty this week – an article for a running magazine, another one on running and veganism for a Canadian website, a short essay on the film The Ghosts in Our Machine, this post – and they’re all enjoyably short. These essays and articles, as well as the piece on DXE and direct action I’m pitching to a few magazines, are day-long pieces of work (and then of course the re-writing and re-writing follow-ups) but provide something of the instant external gratification that a novel will not provide. So I was moaning last night about the need for some external motivation for the major project, the new book. Hoping that someone would just come along and demand work from me, provide a structure and a deadline. There are mentoring projects, of course. And I just had the PhD. But in the end neither of those appeal because, having learned from the PhD, I really do not want anyone else to read sections or samples of my work until a whole novel is complete.

And so it is back to the intrinsic and internal motivations. The real reasons why we stick with things.

It’s actually good to be thinking of motivation at the beginning of a new project. Do I care enough about this to see it through over a long period of time? It’s much better to be deliberative at the beginning. It’s a long-term commitment. What seems to me a very good indicator of motivation is what comes naturally. I’ve always fought this, being good at things (such as non-fiction, reflective writing, journalism) that I never wanted to be good at. My ego was always so attached, for some reason, to fiction. Perhaps because I loved fantasies and novels so much as a child (and yet I didn’t really begin reading until a little more grown up, maybe 10 or 11). I’m unsure now, now that I come to unpick this. I began writing stories at six or seven. I remember that moment when everyone was invited to write and most of the kids wrote a half-page story in massive handwriting. I was still going 16 pages later. I was so excited I interrupted my teachers’ conversation and got told off. And yet I was still excited, and carried on writing stories. I asked for a typewriter. I wrote whatever I felt like. Poetry, stories, a novel at the age of 15, also journalism, also creative non-fiction (I remember the report about work experience, written about working at, of all places, a women’s magazine, where I wrote an article for them on, of all things, astrology).

I think in terms of motivation I am a little too self-aware now of what comes with writing the novel. Although I have not been through the whole process of the previous one: getting it published, promoting, etc. But I do know what effort it takes, the practical effort but also the psychological drift and step out of this physical plane. What I mean is, you need to properly go and inhabit that other world. I know you do with any book. It’s what Rachel Carson spoke about in the final months of writing Silent Spring. The book becomes your world. You have to want to be in that world. And this wanting has to be natural, not conscious. It’s a bodily longing to be there, I think. It’s what Mario Vargas Llosa writes about in his Letters to a Young Novelist. The single most important factor for being a novelist is the reward of the work itself. Not the product, the process. Sitting and writing fiction is its own reward for those for whom it is the right/only path. (What symbolic lesson is it for me that I cut up Llosa’s book to create a birthday card for a friend? Actually not much. I found the book a little basic and dull.) Oh, okay, that was my ego at work again—being afraid to “be a beginner again every morning”. To be a beginning I mistyped originally, but I quite like that idea (even if it sounds like something out of Apocalypto).

So what new beginning? I think before I wrote for the wrong reasons, and that is putting the fear of god into me for starting something new without figuring out the reasons why I am doing it, or want to stay with it for the next year or two (when also balanced with the rest of my life). But trying to be deliberative runs the risk of being overly-rational. Motivation is perhaps, or should be, more about listening to the body, and taking the peaks and troughs, feeling one’s way into the future, whatever world is to come. Art is an energy and a sensation. Making art is a flow of energy and sensations. And it is about taking materials and shaping them with one’s own energy to create in others the sensation of new possibilities.

It is also about feeling prepared. Feeling capable. As Adele Diamond, the neuroscientist and educator says, the single biggest predictor of educational success is not IQ or even EQ but simply believing that one has the capacity to do the thing. And that comes from confidence and preparedness. Commitment flows from these things. Motivation in essence is then unleashed, whereas before it was bridled, or enclosed. This is where education works at its best sense, as a ‘leading out’ (an e-ducare, in the Latin) from the enclosure, unleashing the motivation through preparedness and knowledge. So maybe one does not simply find the motivation. I know it’s already there to write this novel. The steps I need to take are actually about preparing myself for the journey. And I’ve done that work before.

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Writing in Iowa City

Saturday 29th March, 804am, Heirloom Java House, Iowa City

There are a couple of Japanese girls at the table next to mine getting exited about the dresses they’re looking at online. I can’t tell what exactly, they’re talking in Japanese. On the desk there’s a book: Wartime America. The subtle relations between book and laptop, past and present, seem to sit lightly in this place. A place for writers, more than anything, to interrogate connections. Normally, when I get to the café in the morning around 745am, I’m the only person in there with a laptop. Although this morning the Java House is not quite as busy, when I came here Friday at around the same time it was almost impossible to get a table. Each one was already filled by a young student or older writer, laptop up, drinking their coffees and waters and eating their bowls of oatmeal, already hard at work. The same happens in the evenings. When I came here for a vegan salad bowl, there was more writerly activity. One middle-aged and one elderly poet were looking over drafts, while another professor and a younger student were working through her script. This is a place for writers. It’s the café that is the microcosm of this writerly city, the UNESCO City of Literature, home of the Iowa Writers’ Centre, and to Prairie Light Books, a Midwestern city.

It’s been a delight to be here, to discover the city. To discover the Java House with its brewed coffee, its alt-folk music on in the background, its set up for writers. A delight, also, that I can run again, and have run up and down the Iowa River Trail, seeing more of the city than most walkers will, or most other people at the conference I’m here for.

Although to say I’m here for the conference is an ostensible reason. It doesn’t feel like the real reason at all. Why’s that? I don’t know—maybe that will reveal itself only later. The conference itself, although not yet over, has been…okay, with a strange energy that befits an Affect and Inquiry conference, perhaps, but the general consensus is there are a couple of badly behaving academics lobbing grenades to see what explodes. Although the initial senses of exclusion can only be counter-productive to what Jasbir Puar, from the Women & Gender Studies programme at Rutgers University, was calling ‘conviviality’, an attempt to live with the crises points that are being pointed to by the moments where affect is pushing at the edges of different disciplines to bring attention to for-too-long excluded questions, such as ‘what does being a woman of colour in the academy feel like?’.

There was a debate about the ‘sweetness’ of conviviality and the ‘disgust’ of the bleed/edge as two contrasting approaches to these questions of how to do research, how to explore the making of happening. That other sense of conviviality, its companionable enjoyment, was very welcome last night as I went to dinner with three medics from the local hospital who I met at Prairie Lights bookstore following a reading by the essayist David Lazar from his collection Occasional Desire. The three took me to dinner at Devotay, a Spanish tapas restaurant; they went out of their way to make sure everything could be vegan for me, as well as gluten-free for one of the medics. The evening was pleasurably free from academic infighting (“this isn’t a competition to see who is grieving most, is it?” one awkward moment at the memorial session for the critic Jose Munoz, who died awfully young) and full of talk about books, travel, dogs and jobs (not necessarily in that order), things that people should be talking about when they’ve only just met. My dinner and two bottles of Portuguese red was paid for. The finest hospitality from those grounded in workplaces of everyday life and death.

And this morning I’m bunking off the first session so I can come here and spend a little time writing. Just writing. The first session yesterday was from a wonderful presenter, Kerry Ann Rockquemore, from the National Centre for Faculty Development and Diversity, on addressing the pressures and resistances to writing in the academic role. It was very well presented, very generous, and yet if there was anything that I drew from the session it was how very well I have progressed over the last few years in developing my own writing practices. Although it is still always mostly hard work, the problems she was raising (three types of resistance, based on technical errors, psychological obstructions, and external realities) were all problems I had faced and in many ways dealt with, or developed strategies for dealing with, in the past few years. Writing every day. Check. Finding effective ways to motivate via recording and networking. Check. Breaking tasks down into chunks. Yep, etc. In that way, the PhD has been a very useful training ground, giving me the time and focus to learn how to work better as a writer.

Two key words she didn’t mention, and, if there had been time for questions, I would have raised. Identification, and play. She touched upon them, nearly. The presentation remained introductory, if useful for many if not most of the people in the room.

But what I wanted to know were here thoughts on how identification with a particular role (“I am an academic” for example, or rather, putting it into Byron Katie’s terms, the negative impact of beliefs such as “I must be an academic”) can be so strong and forceful, something so critical to one’s sense of self, that it paralyses, or certainly obstructs, fierce productivity and the ability to ensure a healthy work/life balance. Talking with another academic in the room who had been trained as a journalist, we both felt academic work was much easier than many others seemed to feel it to be. Not only perhaps because we had a more thorough understanding and set of tools to tackle the technical errors than many of the other writers in the room—in particular the need to simply let go of stuff on deadline for publication, having done it so many times we’re trained to do so. But also because, at least for me, my identification is not so strongly as an academic, but as a creative writer, and so academic work feels to me much easier. I care less about it, which means I can enjoy it a bit more.

[Talking of which; one of the Japanese girls is a photojournalism major and she’s just asked if she can take my photo for her class project. She’s sending me the photos she took of this place.]

Which leads to the other point. Play. When I write academic work, I don’t struggle with it so much. I play with it. I sit down and think about not just what I want to say, but how to say it. That’s not to say it’s always easy. It can be a challenge. But a good challenge. One of the conference organisers introduced a panel, and the conference, by talking about how we can enter flow in our dialogue as academics, and how really good critical debate can help us reach that high challenge-high skill place that characterises flow (that I’ve written about elsewhere in relation to running). And I’ve worked really hard, through writing every day, through addressing the heavy-laden psychological ‘need’ to be a creative writer/novelist and taking off some of that pressure, to bring more play (back) into my creative writing.

Which is why this morning I’m taking a break from the non-fiction book proposal I’ve been working on. It’s actually been a lot of fun to write. But over the last few days, with the conference, the jet-lag, and dalliance with strong coffee (a day spent sweating, palpitating—how is this stuff not contraband?!), I’ve found it a struggle, and I want to stop, give it some space, come back to it when I feel more creative, more playful with it. It hasn’t reached the hard-ass honing stage yet (I feel I may be adopting the tone of my temporary residence). There’s more to say, to play, before getting there.

And one more thing on writing. Another way of becoming unstuck, and a reason why I put away the book proposal. I was trying to work out how to link together some of the still disparate elements. I couldn’t think how. And now I can again, after five months, I went for a run. On that run, pushing myself enough so that my mind couldn’t really ask itself questions, after a while I found myself writing in my mind the introduction I needed to do for the panel I was chairing later that day. Ah! So the reason I couldn’t find the answers to how to knit together the disparate parts of my book proposal was because my unconscious was already working on/worrying out another thing that needed writing. It was a lovely lesson. Rather than pushing too hard against what was being crafted internally to try to fit an conscious demand, I let the mind rest, and let what was going on inside come out.

It’s very good to be running again, not least for the job it does in my writing.

I’ve just a few more hours in Iowa City, this city of writers, before I have to check out, see the last of the keynotes at the conference, and head to Chicago. And back to that question. Do I know why I needed to come here yet? Was it to experience what a writing city feels like? To meet the doctors, have fun, and make those connections? To have my photo taken by a journalism student? To learn that my writing habits are actually strong, healthy, advanced, developed? (Although not perfect, not that! Still always work to do.) All these things?

When will I find out. Perhaps I won’t. Either way, it’s been an Iowan delight.

Writing Blog

Put the problem into the writing

The lesson came to me from the poet Sean O’Brien via a friend, who quoted him as giving the advice to “put the problem into the poem.”

So I did that.

The lesson had already come to me from my supervisor, when he told me, “There are doors here that you’ve still to open.”

It took me nine months to work out what he meant. And I’ve begun that.

The lesson comes to all of us, if we write. It’s one of the first lessons you are told. “Write about what you know.” How that is interpreted is often one of the most debated or easily thrown about dictates in all writing.

As if writing needs dictates. But if only we’d listened and learned.

I like O’Brien’s phrasing best. Because what you know are your problems. They are the anxieties that consume your day. Or your angers, fears, loves.

If you are a biologist, such as Barbara Kingsolver, you may fill your works with biological or scientific backgrounds (such as climate change in Flight Behaviour).

But what makes it literature is the energy. As Alison MacLeod says in her essay on voice and the novel in Writing a First Novel,

“And a novel, a good one, is a living thing. Its story is charged with the emotional, psychical and intellectual energies with which its maker has shaped it. As writers, those energies are ultimately all we have. The words might be our medium—our paint, clay or stone—but they’re merely marks on the page until those life-giving energies breathe them into being.”

That is, until our characters and scenes move. It is not Cormac McCarthy’s description of the mechanism of the trolley that the Man needs to fix in The Road, but the emotional energy of the despair and love with which the Man’s need is rendered through the precision of the work (the fixing, the words).

It’s interesting MacLeod leans on the metaphor of the breath. In ancient traditions, we are born without a soul, and our first act is to breathe in the universal life force, in an act of pneuma. When we die, we exhale it back out into the universal field. There is a kinship here with writing, when good writing works.

For the last week or so I’ve been working on this thought: put the problem in your writing. It’s closely associated with opening doors. To be brave enough to admit to your helplessness or struggle is the first thing (it’s the first thing in the AA 12-Step Programme too… admitting the problem has overwhelmed you, and has beaten you, although of course not everyone agrees with that approach.)

Because that’s at the heart of writing. If, as MacLeod says, the energy is all we have, and writing only comes alive with these energies, we have to find some way to channel them into our work (what Freud called sublimation; what, in a way, Keats called Negative Capability; what William James called ‘the vague’). It means being willing to live with uncertainty, a little bit of chaos, and finding a way to bridge the gap between inner fantasy/imagination and outer reality, without panicking, or giving up, or striving for perfection at the cost of never finishing anything.

It requires, first of all, then, admitting, the problem. As MacLeod notes of a review of her first novel, The Changeling, which said ‘In true 18th century style, [The Changeling] admits of other voices.’

Admits,’ says MacLeod. ‘Yes. One opens a door.”

So I sat down to write last week, and admitted, at least to myself, and now to you, dear reader, three things:

  1. cannot stop thinking about X (you don’t expect me to give away everything?)
  2. As his wife says of the author Nick Thorpe in the self-help narrative Urban Worrier, “he struggles when he doesn’t have a project”. Ditto.
  3. This veil that obscures my writing: the fear of meaning nothing

These admissions, and letting myself over to write, led to two of the most honest and fun to write pieces I’ve done for a while. Just scraps, really, scenes, ideas, but alive with energy. Alive with the energy that was missing from my novel, for much of the writing process. The energy that keeps a project alive, but is not, finite, either.  One of which, is included below.

Being then reflexive about the process was also, for me, useful, in seeing that what I was writing about, and what I have in fact written about for the five years, far more freely in my academic work and creative non-fiction than in my non-fiction, is this, perhaps the central problem (not just for me, but as D W Winnicott noted of Marion Milner’s concept of creativity, for everyone): the tension and conflict between fantasy and reality.

Or, to put it another way, of living too much in fantasy. Of letting fantasy grow too big, without a necessary drive of that fantasy into reality.

To put it clearly: my problem has been letting my imagination run away with me and, in some ways, living too much within that fantasy, rather than finding a way to sublimate, channel, deal with, make the most of… etc… the energies, conscious and unconscious, that could be used in writing, love, and life.


  1. Meeting someone and having so many conversations in your head with them that when the chance for a real conversation comes, you’re already convinced you’ve got some sort of relationship with them
  2. Thinking of the success that a published book will bring, rather than doing the real work to bring that book to publication
  3. Being afraid to be creative; pulling back from creative risk

There are more: always thinking the worst, for example, preparing in advance for threats that never arrive, is the base cause of so much anxiety in modern western societies. It’s a lag from our more primitive brains, where anticipatory alertness was evidence of natural selection working well. But we’re not at risk so much these days, and so those patterns are no longer beneficial (or wholly beneficial). Such fantasy thinking is the malaise of modernity.

It is, of course, a structural problem too. We live in, and attach ourselves to such fantasies, and are encouraged to attach ourselves to such fantasies, by neoliberalism, the state, advertising, consumer corporations, as they are highly beneficial to the rich, ruling elite. The American Dream, perhaps the most infamous fantasy, which Katie Stewart has written about so eloquently in her essays and in Ordinary Affects, can be a nightmare. Or as Lauren Berlant puts it in her book Cruel Optimism, “That the route is a rut matters not” when the alternative to the rut of modern living is to fall in between the cracks.

Fantasy works. But it can also overwhelm us, keep us stuck, keep us from doing things that might change our situation.

Coming back to the creative process, and this question—how do we work better as writers?—what I have discovered by putting the problem into my writing, is that many of my stories are structured around this problem:

  • a man wants to recreate the Ancient Greek civilisation and fraternity in his mansion just outside Lewes, Sussex, and it all comes crashing down around him with the reality of the First World War
  • a young man wants to publish his book but realises he is not the great writer he thought himself to be
  • an old man builds a boat on the roof of a tower block, unable to give up his past

In all of these, the passage from giving up fantasy to recognition of the reality is the heart of the conflict. It is what is at stake. That each of the character’s lives will only move forward from their stuck point when they sacrifice the comfort of the fantasy for the gritty and humble, but real, reality of who they are, or where they are in their life now.

What has changed for me? I have come to the end of writing one of these novels, and realised, yes, life has not changed for me, that the reality of finishing this novel was not the same as the fantasy I’d concocted in my head, and which I had lived in more than I’d realised. That I imagined it much better than I’d made it. That publishing did not automatically follow. A reality that I have now faced, felt, hurt, and accepted. Or, admitted. Some of those doors inside are now open.

So two final points

1)   First, clearly, my unconscious was at work in these stories, anyway, to have structured them around my own major ‘problem’.

2)   Second, I feel I am a little further along the road of what the poet Bill Herbert the road from ‘self-consciousness’ about one’s writing to ‘self-awareness’.

This second point is critical. And teachable. Or rather, educable. Education is, after all, to lead out. To help the student open the door, and show them a way out of their problem. And that problem, as with most Buddhist and Eastern thought, is not the obstacle, but is the way.

And so in a way this is a little thank you to my teachers (directly or vicariously) for helping me admit of what it is that is important for me to write about, another slap in the face to Kureshi’s idea that creative writing cannot be taught.

And here’s one of the pieces I wrote this week by putting the problem(s) into the writing, and it felt to me one of the most ‘energetic’ in MacLeod’s sense of my recent pieces.

40before40, Novel Writing, Writing Blog

Talking about your work

A fair few months ago I had a conversation with a colleague about my novel. I’d just finished the piece for submission to the PhD, but was not happy with the final work. I was grumbling about it, when my colleague suggested I needed to find in it the things I still liked about it, because if I was now to not only finish a novel but become a professional and published novelist I would have to talk about the book, many times, over and over, to hundreds of audiences, online and offline, in bookshops and presentations.

In many ways this talk was the most useful piece of advice I’d had as a writer (one ‘for’ the Kureshi camp… more on this later). It showed me, rather starkly, that the book was not finished, not until I could find what in it really mattered to me. Really mattered.

But it was a lesson I thought about this week as I had the chance to speak to or hear other artists and writers talk about their work.

James-MaskreyFirst, I had the pleasure of meeting the glass artist James Maskrey. He works at the National Glass Centre, and makes glass works that tell the story of exploration, especially the early 20th century Antarctic explorations of Scott et al. His work takes images, motifs and a huge amount of research and creates, mainly pieces such as bottles, glasses, and pieces that evoke the materiality of the exploration, and that capture the bareness of the Antarctic, the simplicity of the attempts (and the kit they had to make those attempts), and the clarity of the hopes and ambitions of the men on the journeys.

What I enjoyed, most of all, however, was taking a back seat and listening to how James spoke about his work. He talked with a great deal of passion about the subject matter, and the research process. It’s a process that Maile Chapman and Joanna Skibsrud both write about with luscious delight in Karen Stevens’ new edited collection Writing a First Novel. Particularly for Chapman, whose essay comes in the ‘Research’ section of the book (Skibsrud’s essay is in ‘Inspiration’ but clearly they are linked). All three – Maskrey on glass, Chapman and Skibsrud on writing – talked about the research process as the work. As the playwright Ishy Din also does – it’s the research process, the asking questions, the ‘What If?’ scenarios, that are the work of the artist, the discovering of stories that are already there, says David Swann in the same book, rather than stories you are making up on your own.

What I enjoyed about Celia Bryce’s talk at the First Thursday event last week, hosted by NCLA, was her detailed knowledge and passion for the work itself, the finished book, and how all of her research went into and shaped the craft of her writing. What impressed me most was this energy and love she felt for the story even after eleven years of writing the book (between beginning and publishing). For Skibsrud it was about seven years. (Anne Enright, in the Radio 4 short on ‘Failure’ last week, bemoaned a friend who tried writing a novel but gave up after a year. A year! she exclaimed. That’s not even getting started.)

Bryce spoke with clarity about the process of writing her novel Anthem for Jackson Dawes, and the emotional impact of the novel, about young teens with cancer, felt very much alive in her relationship to her book. That’s the question I wanted to ask here, before time ran out: where had she kept the book, both physically and emotionally, to be able to maintain the passionate relationship she clearly had with the work, for such a long time? Because, in my quest to answer this question — how can we work better as writers? — this question of the huge amount of time it takes to create – ‘of love and longevity’, you might call it — is central to the ability to produce something original. It is the final failure of Clive Linsey in Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, that he runs out of the passion and energy to complete his final masterpiece; the rest of the world, and his selfishness, anger and meanness with the rest of the world, get in the way, and he fails to complete.

So I’m hoping Celia Bryce might drop by here and respond. (It’s possible also why McEwan writes such short novels. No more than novellas, really).

How do I talk about my work? The actual pieces, as well as the process? I guess I talk about the process more easily–and it’s half the reason why I write these blog posts, because talking about the process is for me a passion, unearthing the mechanisms of mind and creativity, my own and others. Creativity is itself a subject matter, even if the process of process can feel, at times, self-involved and solipsistic.

How do I talk about the product, the output? I often talk about the pieces I write in thematic terms (about psychology, about emotion, about process). What I tend to do less is talk about characters, which is what Bryce did, as do the authors writing in Stevens’ Writing a First Novel. David Swann’s piece on his debut novel, about Mollie and Tom, is an excellent case in point — how does he combine the monologues of his two characters? Although the novel is about large themes, what Swann discusses are the voices of his characters. Bryce spoke about Kipper, Megan and Jackson, to tell us about cancer, loss and love as they occur in her novel.

And in Maskrey’s glasswork, he spoke about the characters–Shackleton, Scott, and the objects as colourful as characters, the bottles, the ships, the kava kava–as if these were his subjects.

It has come this week as a very powerful lesson about my writing, and how I work, that only on a few occasions do I get that close to character to be able to tell the story through my connection with them. It was in fact where my novel began–with Marine, my editor–but drifted off course while learning the crafts of plot, structure and storytelling. My supervisor was trying to bring me back to character, but there was something about my idealisation of writing, about the process of process, in fact, that made it easier for me to think about, and focus on, theme.

But even I now tell my students not to write about theme. And not, as Hemingway says, to write about characters either. There are no characters. There are people. Write about them. (Animals are people too, I need to tell myself, because I write a lot about animals.)

So: how you talk about your work says a lot about your relationship to that work, and about how fully realised that work is, perhaps.

A closing note as recommendation of Stevens’ new book, Writing a First Novel. Definitely recommended, except for the really disappointing decision to include a Hanif Kureshi extract from 2002 as the opening essay. Even before Kureshi-Gate hit the newspapers and blogs last week, I was wandering around thinking what an arrogant twat the man is–and has always been, in regards to other writers. His essay in the book of course makes some pertinent generalisations that remain true today for writers, but it is done with an arrogance and pithiness that is distasteful. Also, written in 2002, there is something in the tone or atmosphere of Kureshi’s argument that does not stand up to time, but feels very jaded and misplaced alongside the much more humble, insightful and personal essays. Read David Swann, David Vann, Jane Feaver, and listen to their wisdoms, and read Tim Clare’s excellent response about the power of good teaching in creative writing, but ignore Kureshi’s essay; he offers nothing new, and perhaps will never offer anything new again.


So it’s been a week where my challenge to complete a 40×40 list of tasks in creating a utopia of writer’s habits really has fed directly into my world of professional writing. I met James Maskrey in my goal to meet 40 new people, at the same time contributing to my aim of learning about 40 new pieces of art; and I rushed out of the house to see Celia Bryce talk as part of my goal of attending 40 talks/events. When I first posted the list a number of people felt it was overstretching myself, but so many of the tasks (listening to new music; watching short films) I’ve already adopted as new, and stimulating, habits into my everyday life, and which feel incredibly enriching for both peace of mind and the imaginative life. Long may the long list continue!

40before40, Writing Blog

Leave it in the drawer

What else do you leave in the drawer when you put away your manuscript for six months?

That’s the question I’ve been pondering this weekend as I keep considering the question: how can we work better as writers? It’s an essential and common piece of writerly advice. Once you’ve written a complete draft of a work, put it away. Leave it for as long as you can.

Although perhaps not for as long as Vivian Maier, who never developed a single photograph she took during the 1950s and 1960s, and whose work was discovered (not even re-discovered) by a historical hobbyist John Maloof, when he bought her negatives at an auction, and uncovered one of the great street-photography artists of the 20th century. I’ll come back to this later.

The manuscript of my novel was put away last June/July, after also sending the manuscript out to around a dozen agents (eight rejections, four non-replies).

I’d spent just short of seven years working on this one project. The idea for the novel that I have written and submitted as my PhD thesis came to me in July 2007, as I was working in a pressured editorial role in London. I was becoming fascinated with neuroscience, and what seemed to be an explosion of popular and mainstream news and ideas about what we were learning about psychology via the neurology of the brain.

The original novel idea was both more simple and complex than the book that I’ve ended up with. It began as a split narrative in the 1930s and the 2010s, a little like The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry.

Over the next few years I was, in some way, was put off the idea of the split narrative. The Secret Scripture captures the woman’s historical voice so well, but fails so miserably to do the same with the modern doctor’s voice. (Perhaps I should have stuck with it. The film version of The Secret Scripture is now in production, starring Vanessa Redgrave.) But I was also deterred by the complexity of the narrative; also that Ian McEwan was writing about neuroscientists in Saturday, and also that the 1930s portion began speaking to me far more loudly. These were the characters I wanted to write about.

And so I did. For the next five or six years, and properly for the last three, I invested a great deal of time and effort in the book, through the PhD process. And then it was completed to PhD standard, a year and a half in advance of the deadline, and so I considered it ‘done enough’ (not quite ‘good enough’) but for this academic process, finished.

Having left it aside for six months now, I have returned to it to complete the very, very final copy edit for soft-submission to the initial examining team for my viva.

As I’ve written about before, the novel has not come out as I hoped—a combination of much to do with my own craft skills, and a little to do with the PhD process. And that was even clearer this weekend, as I copy edited. It was a hard task. I can see all the flaws, weaknesses, and flatness of the plot and development.

It’s bittersweet of course—only now, as I have developed so much as a writer, am I able to look back at this book and see its flaws, become aware of what it lacks. But it is hard to have invested for so long in something that remains relatively unfinished, and will not yet get published (even though it’s as competent as many other novels on the market, especially first novels published through small publishers, and vanity projects… oh, the bitterness!).

But what I realised—after getting down on the floor, certainly my best location for gaining perspective (‘this is as low as you get, Alex’)—is that this novel still matters a great deal to me. And that since tucking it away in the draw (with all of the previous drafts, notes, versions – I’d say around two million words of sheer effort over six years) the bursts of energy and enthusiasm I’ve had for the novel are not false dawns; they are real, and exciting. And that they explain to me, as part of the craft of being a writer, which is also the craft of listening to your body and unconscious about what it is that is important to you, that I will come back to this novel. That it is far from finished. That is was in fact not complete, only on schedule for a preliminary deadline that was laid down by the PhD process.

And so what I’m most intrigued by in this renewal of an engagement with this novel is the clarity on the importance of story. The writing of the novel is very good—technically my writing has always been very good. But in terms of both craft (story telling, structure, weaving) and imagination (opening doors, pushing further, saying what hurts) I can see how to improve the book’s story. It will probably mean a huge amount of what is there, and what is also there in the background of those two million words, will not make it into this book.

But that’s okay. That was just practising.

So back to the opening question. What else do you leave in the drawer when you put away your manuscript for six months?

What you leave there is, as Natalie Goldberg puts it, work that needs to compost, ferment, break down, and grow again. And there’s a companion drawer in the mind where the psychological imprint of that book is doing the same work: composting, breaking down, going over the ground to become fertile again.

But what you leave there is also a little part of your old self. And particularly the part that attaches your ego-driven wants to the book you’ve just written, and which, in the writing, are death for your book. It’s the desire to get it out and published before it’s ready. It’s the need for recognition after working on a project for five years without any public reaction. Joseph O’Neill writes well about this in relation to his novel Netherland, which took him seven years to write. What sustains you as a social creature when so much of your imaginative and emotional life is lived in a private world? This is when you need your loved ones and social calendar to compensate—if you are that type of social animal (or in degrees, which we all are, understand where your needs lie). It’s why Steinbeck, in Journal of a Novel, both curses but ultimately blesses the social engagements his wife organises for him. It pulls him up out of the den, gives him good cheer.

So leaving the manuscript in the drawer for as long as you can is an exercise in patience and good craft: I realise now what I have is a first draft. And what Hemingway said is true: all first drafts are shit.

But it is also an exercise in personhood, in freeing oneself from the social self and conscious ego’s needs, which can ruin writing, any art.


Which is why it’s valuable to come back to Vivian Maier. Imagine taking thousands of pictures on an old film camera and never getting any of them developed. Not only not getting recognition for the art you are making, but never even seeing it yourself. There is something incredibly powerful in this story—which is why so many people have written about it, have dedicated blogs to Maier’s story, why it resonates with us, why so many stories of posthumous fame and success resonate with us.

Because posthumous fame is of absolutely no use to the social ego. And in that I think we sense a vital lesson for our own life and work. As Jung put it, the ego is useful for the first half of our lives when we need to establish boundaries, strategies for sustaining ourselves, relationships. The ego helps us build the containers that we then go on to fill with our life’s work. But the ego is not the container. And nor is the container our life’s work. Or should not be.

What Maier’s story, what putting a manuscript away in a drawer, is all about, is, I think, some sort of recognition that to do our life’s work will not be driven by, or even of much benefit, to the ego. There are higher, wider, deeper callings and powers we must listen to, to find and complete our life’s work. The recognition of others—and I know how much my novel was written with this goal in (some sneaky part of my) mind—as a stimulus to work will never result in great art. Not even for Warhol.


And so a double report on my 40before40 utopia of writer’s habits, as I forgot to do it last week. And in some ways, it has become more difficult, now I’m a month or so into the challenge, because old patterns, energies, etc. are starting to take hold of my behaviours. For example, not going to a play I’d already paid for as my companion for the evening was ill, and I took the opportunity to be tired, and a little lethargic. My continued running injuries (spasms in my soleus and calf muscles now) are still getting me down… And yet I definitely see the benefits of challenging myself to create new habits, and how much easier now I can do things I feared before (even ‘wasting time’ watching films, for example).

So this past fortnight I read Coetzee’s mainly-disappointing The Child of Jesus (although not everyone agrees it’s that disappointing), and have nearly finished Bill Herbert’s excellent Omnesia (the remix), I spent an afternoon doing nothing (great!), entered my novel into the Dundee Book Prize, also entered the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction prize, listened to a couple of albums, Liquid Metal and Girls Names’, wrote a new poem based on learning about Picasso’s Minotaur, listened to a couple of podcasts, Our Hen House’s Episode 216 and the Animal Rights Zone 79, bought K a lamp, read two random journal articles ‘We all Kill Whales’ and ‘Environmental EMOs’, and committed at least three hours to pilates. Not bad going.

40before40, Writing Blog, Writing vs. The Ego

Learning how to work (better)

Sometimes, the only thing one can do is lie on the floor. If it’s outside on grass or sand, even better. It’s still a little too cold for that. So indoors is fine. I had a presentiment, not totally disconnected to knowing that Carl Jung, on splitting with Freud, returned to childhood play to re-find his way back into what was for him ‘meaningful work’, that to lie on the floor as I worked through a writing problem would resolve at least half the problem.

Lying on the floor feels wholly unprofessional, and as such, much more fun and relaxed than how one normally works out problems. I only wish we could introduce it to conference proceedings.

Anyway. I’ve been fiddling with this question for a few weeks now: how can I work better? There are subtexts of efficiency and productivity in this, but truthfully, the question is more soulful and grounded than this (and why lying on the floor helps). I’ve peeled back a few layers over the last few weeks (and posts here, on practising, on omnivorous reading, on finding writing models) that are about craft, inspiration, technique.

But what it comes down to is this. I have a 10-page document culled from somewhere of provocative, audacious anonymous aphorisms, and in the very centre of it, it says this:

“Address the objects that are at the centre of you.” There are only a few of them, of these truly vital objects of yours. Turn to them, speak to them, speak of them. Speak from your centre of gravity.

Clearing the desk space, filing the journal articles, organising the piles of scraps of newspapers and stories for stimulation, only go so far in helping make you a writer. What you need to do is make an address to yourself. Find your centre of gravity.

And so I went to the floor.

I went to the floor after sitting for a while, after editing a piece of flash fiction and entering it into a competition, and then finding I didn’t know where else to begin. So I went to the floor, and took with me this 10-pager filled with provocation. “Kick Shakespeare in the balls and shove Homer down the stairs. Writing is easy—it costs you no less than your life.”

I’d sat in the chair for a while and burnt out the first thoughts, as advised by Natalie Goldberg, and got through to a place where I could address myself to this question: how can I work better? Because I’d realised it is not ‘how to write’ or ‘what should I write about’ that needed addressing. It is simply this: how to work. What does it mean to work as a writer? What does it take?

The presentiment I had was of drawing out the problem—literally. So I got out the big pad of paper and a pen and I began to draw some islands. (And make lists). I wanted to think of bodies of work. My body, but also the body of the writing. My body as the work, the writing, but also the writing, the vital object, that is my body’s centre of gravity. What would this be? So I drew some islands of work in a body of water, around a central question, one of great gravitas for how to work: ‘Say for example I spent 2014 working on a body of work around…’ and then drew in the islands.


They are the Island of Love and Relationships; Conservation Isle, the animal reserve; The Island of Running through Place; the Critical Tower; Vegania; the Island of the Craft.

The problem, which is also the same for many creative people, is that I’m an island hopper. I find it difficult to settle in any one community of expertise for long enough to get to know the earth, dig my feet into the soil. Make a home for my writing. My centre of gravity, perhaps, is not in any of these places, but in the journey around them.

Which may be fine, in the long term. But when hopping becomes spinning, when the feet barely touch the ground, when there is no opportunity or time to lay down, what becomes of the body of work, the work of the body?

For me, what was interesting, was that this question came out of the question not of writing, but of reading. Reading is invaluable, essential, such a part of writing that there is no suture between them, no divisible line, no mark, or re-mark, as Derrida might say, to make a definition. My reading felt scattergun. I began from my reading, and saw that, indeed, I was not spending long enough on any of these islands for my reading to compost into writing. To nurture the seeds of the idea that might grow into the body of the work, and ripen.

And then (still on the floor, still drawing, mapping, writing, like a child) I recalled a phrase I’d read on a writer’s website (I stalk, I stalk, but only to learn) about their ‘current writing projects’ and I thought, okay, so, what are mine? And I listed 13. Woeful! Unlucky! Overwhelming! As the Jungian analyst James Hollis rightly identifies, overwhelming is a wounding, a not-dealing with the world, “a manifestation of our sensed powerlessness to alter the course of the outer world.” Or as my friend K quotes to me, “as above / so below.” We create in our outer world the fears that we cannot face in the inner world. And so in my attempts to alter the outer world, through gaining knowledge, by doing things, what I am doing (still doing) is overwhelming myself innerly.

how to write

So back to the question. How can I work better? It’s a question of responsibility, of soul-activism, in the psychotherapist Steve Thorp’s terminology, to become, as Rob McNamara says of us, our most elegant self.

This. And recalling the poet Abi Curtis’s words said to me a decade ago on West Drive, Brighton. “You’re working on six projects? I can only manage two, at maximum.”

And it has served her very well.

So not 13 projects. Two. Two. My current writing projects are…

later, later

(Those empty boxes… Don’t make me choose! Later. Later.)

The most powerful thing this narrowing down does is guide my reading and working hours. Rather than focus on those big questions “how to write”, or “in what genre”, or “what to write at all”, a renewed focus on the process identifies the problems with the process, and so clears away the obstructions. “How to work” is the question, and it is a question of the body, perhaps first, and the mind only later, after. That’s why I needed to get down onto the floor. And perhaps why, in a bizarre admission to this post, I spent last night not hoovering, but going over the carpet a thin strip at a time with masking tape, cleaning it of its imperfections and cat hair and dirt. I knew already I would be lying on it this morning. That was the presentiment. That was the gift of gravity at the centre of this morning’s contribution to the growing body of work. (Soon to become nothing more than a bed for Misha, anyway.)

misha gets in

On Reading, Writing Blog

On Structure: The Girl with all the Gifts

One of the big books of 2014 is set to be M.J. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts. It’s published by Orbit, an imprint of Little, Brown, and came out in January. It’s already got 40 5* reviews on Amazon (the majority of reviews). It’s got a great title and a great cover. Before I picked it up, I was warned how good (read: scary) it was, and had to push myself to read it, not a great fan of horror or zombie works (read: terrified).

On Structure

And while I did read it in five days, and was pulled all the way through by the competent storytelling, I’m more in line to agree with the 3* reviews – there’s something in the end disappointing about the book, which begins with such promise, and yet falls far short of the emotional impact of, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or even Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Both of which have stayed with me a long while. I can’t see The Girl with all the Gifts doing the same.

What was really interesting to make sense of, however, was looking at the work as a writer. So, looking at, among other things, structure. I didn’t consider this until I got to about page 190, pretty much precisely half way through, when it was suddenly very clear we’d reached the midpoint.

In John Yorke’s Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story, that midpoint comes half-way through the film, TV show, or novel, and is the breakthrough in knowledge. The point, he says, of no return. It’s when the protagonist finally realises the secret that has been slowly dawning on them since the beginning of the book.

So on page 193, the young protagonist, Melanie, finds proof (the author even calls it ‘proof’) of what she is. There’s no hiding from this truth. It is the breakthrough. And as per lesson in structure, it comes at exactly the right time, half-way through. Structure for a writer is what keeps your pace working. The novel moves along not too fast, or not too slow.

(Which is why I also agree with this review that the actual conclusion of the book happens way too fast—the outcome of it all happens within a page or two. The resolutions for the characters happens so quickly as to make you wonder why you spent the last 400 pages with them.)

But what is also obvious is that there are clear arcs for the other characters that the author (and his friends, who he brainstormed with—who says the author’s job is lonely?) has worked out. So the ruthless doctor realises, just hours before her death, the truth of her search for the pathogen that has caused the apocalyptic scenario. The hard-ass soldier dies happy after being redeemed by a woman. The teacher who accidentally killed a child before the Breakdown is now ‘saved’ by this child, and so her redemption secured.

So structurally it’s all in place, if in the end a little obvious.

Except it’s not. What’s missing, if we are going by John Yorke’s five act structure, is the worst moment. The doubt and regression, before the final acceptance and mastery, of the knowledge that leads to the change in these characters (the change that is the heart of all narrative; the magic and desire, according to Catherine Belsey, of why we read).


What happens is the young girl discovers this new knowledge about herself… and accepts it. All those wonderful hints in the first half of the book of her acute intelligence and strategizing mind that make you wonder ‘will she won’t she’ become a true monster are never used to test her acceptance of her own ‘evil’ – she basically understands who she is, and accepts it, and masters it. The moment where she realises she needs to ‘feed the evil’ she removes herself from the dangerous situation, meaning the people who could really test her knowledge and resolve are not in the room. So she never really tests this resolve. Rather, she comes to the rescue, becomes the hero. As one of the 3* Amazon reviewers  says, in the end the book is for boys and girls, princes and princesses. The only tension in the final half of the book, then, is plot-driven, not character-driven.

And sadly what begins as a wonderful premise in setting up complex relationships between the teacher Helen Justineau and the girl Melanie then fails away into stereotypical outcomes for a thriller. The relationships deepen to a point, and then stop deepening, except through plot-driven mechanisms. It’s a real shame, because the initial emotional impact just drains away.

It must be very hard, however, as a writer to deal with personal catastrophe in a narrative when the plot catastrophe is so overwhelming, as in this case. That’s a useful thing to think about in writing any speculative or post-apocalyptic fiction.

There are also a few other niggles. The narrative voice is inconsistent. It sometimes is very close third person with the young girl Melanie, seeing things only as she would see them, and then jumping right away into a very knowing, wry and sarcastic voice that you can only think is the author’s own. There are also inconsistencies in time and continuity – some of the things just don’t make sense if the Breakdown happened twenty or thirty years before, rather than say six months or a year.

It’s still a good book. Still one I’d recommend reading. But also one that hasn’t lived up to the expectations and, more importantly, its potential.

Plenty of other reviewers have had their say too, so don’t just take my word for it. Helen Lowe, Carody Culver, the goodreads.com community, James Smythe in The Guardian, Dave Golder in SFX Mag, and Thea at the Book Smugglers, to get you going.

Novel Writing, Writing Blog

Blog Hop: The Novel

Thanks to Em Strang (http://emstrang.wordpress.com/) for tagging me in the BLOG HOP.

What is the working title of your book? Obelisque

Where did the idea come from for the book? Back in 2007 I was getting interested in neuroscience and what seemed to the growing fascination with the ways in which we are or are not in control of our own behaviours and, particularly, our emotions. I read Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error and picked up on the story of Professor Antonio Egas Moniz, who in 1935 invented the leucotomy, the forerunner of the lobotomy, as a way to control affective disorders in the mentally ill. It was an arrogant, unresearched and often lethal medical procedure with no scientific credibility, and yet people succumbed to the idea of so easily controlling theirs (usually others’) emotions and mental pain.

My novel is a fictional interlude into the world of the 1930s and the rise of, on the one hand, therapeutic and psychoanalytic narratives, and on the other, this new form of psychosurgery invented by Moniz. It is basically a medical ‘love’ story, or tug of war, between two doctors over one patient who has to decide if she wants to ‘fix’ her erratic emotions, and if so, which method she is going to choose.

Read the rest of this entry

40before40, Novel Writing, Writing Blog

Modelling the books

I am in love with words and books and stories. One of the greatest frustrations is a bad book, or a book I cannot connect with, that steals not only time but the hope of experience, gives me only disappointment, lets me down.*

old penguinsI learn so much from books. I have an idea floating around for a book loosely based on life-coaching from some of my favourite authors, such as Marion Milner, Franz Kafka, Henry Miller, and it’s a craving for a book I want to read that is not satisfied by the disappointing The Novel Cure, which tackles 751 different life problems, but does so as wry compendium and lacks emotion and narrative, within individual entries and the book overall. As Shakespeare and the Greeks well knew, you cannot captivate a heart without narrative. It is how Sinon fools the Trojans; how Othello convinces the Senate. Why did the authors of The Novel Cure, who obviously love literature, not spot the weakness in their structure?

It is, however, an impressive guide to writer-guides. The list of writers who I turn to, who have given me so much, is written in a similar way to Alice Walker’s list at the end of her essay ‘Saving the life that is your own’. She notes and gives thanks to Zora Hurston, Jean Toomer, Colette, Anaïs Nin, Tillie Olson, Virginia Woolf, for providing her with the models for how to write, and how to live. The end of her list reads like this:

 Tillie Olson—a writer of such generosity and honesty, she literally saves lives;
Virginia Woolf—who has saved so many of us.

It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about. Whether we are “minority” writers or “majority”. It is simply in our power to do this. We do it because we care […] We care because we know this: the life we save is our own.

It has taken some time and some re-reading to understand what Walker is saying. Because the saving of lives is not in the physical sense.

But it is in the psychological and political sense: books do save, change lives. The psychologist (or rather un-psychologist) Steve Thorp calls Alice Walker ‘an “integral” practitioner: an activist, a novelist, a poet, essayist – her work combines psychological and political understanding with a poetic and ecological sensibility.’ The saving of a life can be the saving of this thing you are living, rather than the body you’re living it with. To save one from sleepwalking, from attachments to ways of living that are bad for you (e.g. fantasies of ‘the good life’, ‘the American dream’). As Lauren Berlant puts it, the route to the ‘good life’ sold to us is often a rut, but between the routinized rut and the cracks that drop into nowhere, you stay in your rut. The saving of a life that Walker talks about is the life of the imagination. It is about taking us out of the rut, and imagining better worlds (for ourselves, others).

How do we do this if not with imagination? If not with art?

It is why, in her essay, when asked the question what is the difference between white and black writers, she sees black writers always aiming towards a larger freedom. It is a political and psychological freedom that white writers, says Walker, having never been enslaved or oppressed, need not chase. Or as the African-American writer Terry McMillan puts it: ‘This writing stuff saved me. Writing is my shelter.’

Writing books to be read. What got Jonathan Franzen ‘back on track as a writer’ after struggling with the realisation that his books had failed to ‘culturally engage’ an audience and that, he was coming to see, the novel no longer played an important role in the cultural life of Americans, was reading. Or, to be precise, readers, of which he was also one.

Franzen quotes the work of Shirley Brice Heath,whose work is now very out of date as she researched enforced transit zones, such as airports, where people had no access to popular culture such as TV or much music, which is a time forever gone to us now, with the smart phone; she also got it wrong that ‘the computer will never replace a book’ now we have the I-Pad and Kindle, which gives to the computer the ‘substance’ that book readers crave.

For Heath, there are two kinds of readers, those who modelled themselves on at least one parent, and those who are ‘social isolates’ who become, in fact, hypersocial (hyper sensitive to sociality, rather than antisocial) and who find in books the people, characters, and world with which they can communicate. Reading, then, is an act of imaginary communication. And these types are much more likely to become writers. As Heath said to Franzen: “you are a socially isolated individual who desperately wants to communicate with a substantive imaginary world.”

For Franzen this is no stinging criticism. It is exhilarating. “Simply to be recognised for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.”

I want to take Walker’s words from her essay and look for how they could work as a model for my own writing, and life. Walker explores the works of black women, and from these writers (not only these, also men, also white women) begins to create a body of work that helps her understand her role as a writer, and as an integral practitioner of what it means to be human. She writes about the experiences of black women because these are her experiences. But she also writes about universal human experiences, and nonhuman relations.

I am trying to work out that model for being someone who is being pressed to write, or think about, or work in the field of animal / nonhuman suffering and oppression. But I am not a cow, or a pig, or a chicken, or a dolphin or orca taken from the wild and held captive. I cannot write ‘as’ one of them. So how can I write? Two things to think about:

  • What or who can I write ‘as’ – what is my personal story that, as Jonathan Franzen urges us to do, connects to the collective and social?
  • Who are the models I can draw upon who write about and for animals, either as novelists, poets, anthropologists, ethologists, essayists…

In the margins of my Alice Walker book I’ve written down a couple of things, scratched out of letters in the urgency of wanting to say something. I’ve written ‘Earthlings’ – it’s the 2005 film narrated by Joaquin Phoenix. It is also the collective for what we all are—animals, living beings, connected by this one planet. So this is one thing I can write ‘as’. Another is as a person who feels empathy for those nonhuman animals who suffer through living hells for our taste preferences, our meat and dairy addictions. Does it matter if I write in forms other than fiction to tell these stories? Can I also tell them through fiction and literature (which might include poetry, plays, essays)?

There’s a third question to add to that list. As Jonathan Franzen puts its in his essay collection How to Be Alone, ‘Why Bother?’ with writing? Why write at all, if it changes nothing? If it does not culturally engage in a time of rapid gratification and shallow narrative? (And if you just want to see a really powerful ripping up and annotation of a book, visit this Vice article.)

Alice Walker answers that question—or rather, puts forward Toni Morrison’s answer—in her essay. Write to bring into the world the books you want to read. Or, as Walker takes it a little further, she writes the books that ‘I should have been able to read.’ She is talking about the books of black women, of black history, of black anthropology. As she was striking out to write a story (inspired by her mother) on black women’s experience and voodoo, the only books she could find on this rich experience of religion and the mystical in black women’s lives were written by white men. Until she found Zora Hurston, that is. And when she found Zora, she found that other critically important thing for a writer (for anyone): a model.

And if there aren’t that many models out there? Be as Toni Morrison—as Walker says of her, “She must do the work of two. She must be her own model as well as the artist attending, creating, learning from, realizing the model, which is to say, herself.”

As Walker explains, finding a model is how you learn ‘to be alone’ (‘be a writer’); by realising that, when you write well, you’re not alone at all: “I had that wonderful feeling writers get sometimes, not very often, of being with a great many people, ancient spirits, all very happy to see me consulting and acknowledging them, and eager to let me know, through the joy of their presence, that, indeed, I am not alone.”


And so what was achieved in my week for the 40×40 utopia of writer’s habits? A whole day yesterday feeling overwhelmed and excited with the success of being awarded a Winston Churchill Travel Scholarship. But I still this week found time to meet someone new (Bev, a poet, from the PhD), listen to Hammock’s Departure Songs, watch two short films, The Heat and The Poodle Trainer, I also made two table arrangements for my friend A’s wedding, saw the great poet Douglas Dunn perform at NCLA, sent two valentine’s cards, bought a present (a DVD writer) for my friend K, and committed two hours practice to my newfound love for Pilates.

Already, for a writer, I am feeling the benefits of this ‘practice of doing things’, developing this utopia of ordinary habit, as Ann Cvetkovich calls it. Especially in two areas where I’ve always avoided giving my time—in listening to music and watching film. I’ve always seen both as a waste of my time before, or at least something I don’t find much pleasure in. But it’s not true—and it’s only ‘true’ because of early patterns as a kid of not wanting to be like my sister, who spent all her time watching films and listening to music. I wanted to be different, and so ruled out so many pleasurable acts and moments to find my own path.

Isn’t it funny, as the Jungian analyst James Hollis puts it, that the preferences we are so convinced are ours are often not ours at all? And then what do we do? As Steve Thorp put it just this weekend in his new five-minute read:

The aim must be for each of us to develop into elegant, radiant selves, and join to build communities of love, mutuality and connection. The way we can do this is to wake up, to remove the reductionist shackles of our culture’s psychology, to set out on our own path – however mad and wild we might seem to others – and trust that the journey will, in time, be one we can all share.

 *As a note, these ‘disappointing books’ are often award-winning or shortlisted, such as Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies. I really don’t care about the characters in that book at all, and yet it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, possibly for its faux Woolf style. And Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, a very well written book, but short of depth, for all its plotting and emphasis on the astrological archetypes, which barely play a role in the novel at all. What begins as a wonderfully told story peters out into nothing but plot. By the end, we’re left with a hundred pages where we already know everything that’s happened, a clichéd resolution—the fallen woman saved by love (h/t to the writer Viccy Adams for pointing that out. Maybe the disappointment with these books has something to do with raised expectations due to the award/shortlisting? Perhaps.

Image of old Penguins (cc) Beat Ink

40before40, Writing Blog


When I was 12 or 13 my parents bought me a keyboard. It was a small Casio, but large enough to learn how to play properly. I’d had music lessons at the secondary school and was going through a phase of wanting to try lots of new things.

One night a week a tutor would come round and teach me how to play. He felt like an old man, although he was probably only in his forties or fifties. I cannot remember his face, because I was afraid to look him in the eye. The tutor assumed I was right-handed and, shy and self-conscious as I was, I didn’t correct him. So he taught me to play right-handed, and so being left-handed I of course struggled. He never quite guessed there was something wrong, and so I began to cancel his visits. Not, unfortunately, until he turned up, meaning my parents had to pay for the tutorial anyway.

I can still see myself at the top of the stairs, looking down as my mum struggles to understand why I am refusing the tutor to come in. Why she has been forced to pay for him again; why I am unable to tell her in advance, put her in this position. The tutor loiters outside the roughly painted red door. I still cannot see his face. This happened a couple of times, until they took the hint, and the lessons stopped completely. Not long after, the Casio got slid under the bed. I don’t know what happened to it afterwards.

I began, and gave up, a lot of things this way. An initial burst of excitement, a fearful obstacle involving other people, and quitting. One of the reasons why writing stuck was that it didn’t (seem to) need any external involvement. And when there was someone who took an interest, it was generally positive (after setting me a detention-exercise of 500 words on “Why I shouldn’t be facetious in class”, my French teacher Mr Battson asked if I’d written anything else? I had, a first (fantasy) novel).

Those music lessons became, after just the first couple, too painful to continue. For me it was out of fear of saying what it is I wanted, who I was. At the time, I was struggling with being a teenager, for sure, but also dealing with learning how to be with my unpredictable, alcoholic father and my harsh step-mother. When we visited their house on Saturdays, my sister and I absorbed the feeling that we couldn’t ask for anything. We were terrified to communicate our thirst, if thirsty. Hunger, if hungry. We had to wait until asked.

And the piano tutor never asked me if i was right- or left-handed, and so I said nothing, and I gave up the lessons before I even began.

But writing stuck. There was no need to ask permission. I already knew how to write. I could do joined-up writing before most of my class (Red Class, Mrs Cloak, Heaver’s Farm, 1980). When I was 10 or so I asked my mum for a typewriter, and I began to teach myself how to type. She helped, being a secretary. I wrote most nights, in fact probably nearly every night between the ages of 10 and 14, or roughly when I got my first computer, and discovered football manager games.

I wonder who he was, that pianist? I wonder what his dreams were — if he had practiced piano through his youth, had dreams of artistry, if he still played, if he was, or had been, famous? If he was a teacher at a school or making his own freelance tutoring career. If he played classical or jazz. What he thought of me, that young boy who barely said a word, who didn’t really have the fingers to play a keyboard. And I wonder what looks passed between him and my mother at the bottom of the stairs, standing at the door, her explaining to him that I wasn’t well, or wasn’t able to see him that night. And if he went away with his money satisfied, or if he felt he was being cast away, judged, somehow.

The thoughts come back to me this evening as I finish Glenn Kurtz’s memoir Practicing, the story of his childhood and youth playing and practicing the Spanish guitar, before giving up the “artist’s dream” in his early twenties, working soullessly in publishing, before studying for a PhD in comparative literature, and not even listening to music for 10 years. He went to one of America’s top conservatories, and then on to Vienna, before losing all faith in the story of his artistic ideal. When the reality of the limits to his talent and of his immature vision (and perhaps poor choices) led him to realise that perhaps he was never going to achieve the ideal he had of the life he wanted as a touring classical guitarist.

It’s a very good book. I picked it up over the weekend in a bookshop in Falmouth, mooching with friends. It reminds me, again, of the lesson learnt later in life by Marion Milner in her work On Not Being Able to Paint, that those who find artistic fulfillment are those able to bridge the gap between inner imagination and external reality–what forms you find in the world for the experiences you want to record, create, how satisfied you can be with those forms. It is what Ira Glass talks about in the now famous video-meme of his, Taste.

Near the end of the book Kurtz describes the realisation that the gap, for him, is too wide. He and his friend Marcus have been invited to play their new form of improvised, rebellious classical-pop-jazz at a bar in Vienna, as they both struggle to find their way beyond education into the world of performance. They’ve just been ripped off by the bar-owner, who promised them $100 but pays $10 because the customers didn’t drink enough. But it’s not this that bothers Kurtz:

Something much deeper was wrong with the life I was leading. I had an idea of what I wanted, an image of great music, exalted experience, inspired performances. This ideal glowed so vividly in me that I needed only close my eyes to live in it. But when I opened my eyes, I saw a barroom full of scruffy people getting drunk and a squat, deceitful impresario calculating his take. In this equation Marcus and I were incidental, mere entertainment. And even if the audience loved us, the scene was too small, too finite, too ordinary to feel like success. I enjoyed the music we were playing, and I knew we had just begun to perform. But the dissonance between this and my ideal was eviscerating; it wasn’t at all the life that I had imagined.

I recognise this disillusion; in a way I praise Kurtz for beginning to perform, and for the self-awareness of realising the gap between the inner ideal and the external reality. But I feel for the the young man he was, who had dedicated so much of his youth to playing the guitar, with obvious talent (he won a number of competitions, was accepted into the leading conservatory, acted with such passion as to go against his parents’ wishes for a more stable life), and am saddened that such a realisation came to him too soon (or too late).

Our stories are not the same. Only last week I was talking to my best friend here, K, discussing my PhD. I am glad it is over — glad that I have the freedom to take on new projects. And also that the PhD was not a very creative experience, although a very useful one. What I regret is not the PhD, but that I was not a better writer before I began it. I did not, as Kurtz had, dedicate my youth and young adulthood to writing. I sort of put it off, too afraid, like that shy and self-conscious boy at the Casio piano, to speak out for what I wanted. To take my writing, and myself, seriously enough. I skirted around writing, keeping it as hobby; rather, holding it afar as an ideal, one that I would never have to test, as Kurtz did, even though it broke him.

Although as Kurtz says, “My first time through, I practiced badly, chasing an ideal that ruined music for me, turning what I had loved the most into torture. Now I’m pursuing not an ideal but the reality of my own experience. I began to practice again because I felt I could do it better this time.”

Being broken, heartbroken, and having, most importantly, the ideal–the fantasy–broken, is what allows those of us driven by the inner imagination to actually become writers, musicians, artists. Does everyone have to go through this process? Yes, according to Milner, and to Jung, but also just to common sense. We need to see the reality of our ideas in the world. To do so, we have to let it become something other than the inner fantasy. It will never be as good. We have to be okay with that.

The novel I have written for my PhD is my fall from grace, as the storyteller Geoff Mead might put it. It is not as good as I hoped for. It is not the ideal I held in my head for so long. And yet, I tested it. I finished it, put it out in the world, and held it up for measure. My life has not changed. The rejections from agents have landed on the doormat. In my heart, I know it is flawed and is not what I hoped to write.

But I understand my own experience more now than before. As Kurtz says of his music, it is fear of being nothing without the thing we love and hope for most (our ideals of ‘music’, ‘writing’, ‘partnership’, ‘art’, ‘running’) that leads us to timidity; not being brave enough to let it all go, to experience “in” the loved form itself all that we fear losing:

Being seen seems dangerous, and we hide ourselves; we protect what is most valuable and offer up only what we aren’t afraid to lose. I’d thought I knew what the music should mean. So I held on to the notes instead of releasing them, trying to control them after they’d sounded, to shape how the audience heard me. As a consequence, however, instead of performing, instead of creating something living, what I held was stillborn.

This is a good description of my novel. I describe it as deadened. I have produced something lacking in life by trying to control it, rather than letting it go. Or as Kurtz puts it: “It takes courage to play new music; it takes courage to be a musician at all. But it takes more, so much more, to remain a musician, to let yourself be shaped by music however it speaks to you.”

It takes courage, that is, to let go of the plans, the projects, the ideals, the control. “We’re always planning, protecting, wishing and wanting, as if we could spend our whole lives practicing… The horizon collapses, and now your career is a day-to-day question, even if you’re not ready to answer it. Instead of practicing your art or probing your imagination, you rack your brains for some ambitious plan to put the question off.”

I still do this. Yesterday morning, rather than write, I wasted my writing time on wondering what genre I should write in, if I am wasting my time writing fiction if I am better at poetry (as my friend K suggested) or if I have more success at non-fiction and academic work (as my urgency to contribute to the flourishing of nonhuman others suggests I should).

And yet where is my courage? Where is my courage now the novel is tested and found to be wanting, to remain a writer? To let myself be shaped by writing however it speaks to me.

When I was 23, when Kurtz gave up music, I didn’t have the courage to even test whether I could give it up or not. But I have it. Now, I have it.

There is so much more in Kurtz’s book, so many more riches. His “quitting” music and then coming back to it 10 years later has allowed him to learn that “I wasn’t practicing to learn to play the guitar, but playing the guitar to learn about practicing.”

Because practicing is the story we tell ourselves about what it is we most love doing. Whether that is music, writing, or running, or any other passion. It is our story of how we practice, what we practice, that makes sense of our lives, as much as our story of how we love others. If we practice well, if we practice in the moment, and make of our experience all we can, here, now, today, honestly, without either fearing or giving up completely on the fantasy, the inner imagination, then we will have lived well.


And so what did I practice this week in my 40×40 utopia of writer’s habits? I finished Atwood’s Year of the Flood (not great, glad it’s done with) and Kurtz’s Practicing, and am near the end of Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet. I learnt how to cook potatoes and rice Pakistani style, from my friend’s mother–it was like being on a very homely expert cookery show, and I was constantly panicked that her sari was going to catch fire on the gas hob, but clearly decades of cooking experience meant that didn’t happen.

I watched Night Shift, a short documentary about privilege and inequality, about the labour of bodies. I had a really great conversation with old friends, and new. I submitted 3 poems to Butcher’s Dog magazine, listened to Qualia’s Everything Is Going To Be Fine, committed an hour to pilates, as well as toured Cornwall for my god-daughter’s first birthday. And I wrote for 12 hours.

Writing Blog

Read your work out, listen to who you are

It’s Susan Orlean’s number one tip for editing. It’s Joanna Penn’s must do for final review. And Hugh Howey (author of Wool) doesn’t think you’re taking yourself seriously as a writer unless you have done this on each finished piece (it’s not finished until you’ve done this).

And I do this now. I read my work out loud.

I used to read it out on paper print, edit with a pencil, and then later go back  to the screen. But I’ve found that editing on-screen while reading is actually much more efficient. It’s because as I read out loud I hear the sound of the sentence, its inner structural rhythm (or arhythmia), and have the words reverberating as I edit. If you edit on paper and then make the changes later, you can’t hear the words so clearly. The memory is weaker. It’s no longer an echo.

Kate Kiefer Lee says it helps her sound like a human. I’d go further. It helps you hear who you are as that human. Perhaps that’s especially because at the moment I’m writing creative non-fiction, and it’s autobiographical, and so I’m listening to myself tell myself who I was when I made certain decisions in the past, and who I am now reflecting upon it.

Perhaps this is also how therapy, especially ‘the talking cure’ of psychoanalysis works. So many of us interior people have narratives of who we are and what we can achieve (or can’t) running around in our heads. Perhaps hearing the actual words, rather than thinking them, changes their energy, their hold over us. And if it does that for us, it does it for our characters too, for our writing. When our characters are us, it changes us. (for simple things: winning gold medals; more complex achievements: peace of mind).

Writing is a formulation of the imagination. Reading that writing out loud tests the imagination in the crucible of the real world. It makes me think of Marion Milner’s hypotheses in On Not Being Able to Paint, regarding those who are best able to bridge the gap between inner imagination and outward reality, to create things we are happy with, proud of. Those of us who can manage and live with the chaos and the fear of never producing in reality what we can imagine, will always produce more, and better, than those who cannot handle those fears.

Perhaps reading work out loud, hearing one’s voice, listening to your own imagination as it is read back to you, is part of that bridging process. (I wonder how many of us do this for our blog posts?!)

40before40, Writing Blog

Writing a bible for the wrongness

February already. Life can be frittered away, S was saying on the phone last night, and as I was saying to H in my letter earlier yesterday. We need to challenge ourselves not to rest too long with the container we create in the first half of life, and think about what it is we want to fill that container with. The largeness of our actions is created not by the ego but by the soul. I realised speaking to S that I want to am challenging myself: to progress as a professional writer, to be an animal advocate. Not everything needs to be a challenge; but I am not content with having lived a passive life.

Passively curious. Passively engaged. The narrator in my most recent novel is passive. There is a great difference between passive and active curiosity/living. The narrator in my new novel is active. He wants something. And yet what he wants and what he needs are not the same thing. What he gets, something else entirely.

A friend asked me an interesting question yesterday. In the new novel I’m currently sketching out, my main character, David, is writing a secular bible for the future. What does this bible in the novel mean to me, my friend asks?

For my protagonist David, it means he is being active—actively writing, actively not giving up on the future. He writes in the hope (and sometimes despair) that words can change things. He writes because, like most writers, there is a compulsion to do so. But he writes as well because in his world, words are the posts of a fence that he is trying to put up around a safe space where he, his partner, and their animals can find safety. It is perhaps one of the reasons why people have always told stories and, later on, marked those stories down. What he discovers is the unpredictable nature of written words. They are never secure in themselves, not good as fence posts. They  always mean something else, there is always a gap in the border you want them to make. They  always make something other than you’d hoped for happen. Greater, lesser. You can follow a line, but that does not mean it is solid stone. That’s the alchemy.

For me, the author, I want to interrogate this idea. Because I’m often torn between beliefs that to write is to act, and to write is not enough. Not now. And yet writing is the only thing I do, as Gloria Steinem said, that “when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

It doesn’t mean one can’t be an advocate or activist. But then what one writes about is body, and writing is host.

The bible in the book. It is not so much about the religious connotations of it being a bible; that in the Beginning was the Word. And yet I am also interested in the power of ritual; as a secular society one of the things we have lost are the rituals that are so important to indigenous cultures and which mark and help us through the passages of life. Both Richard Rohr and Geoff Mead, if I read them correctly, believe we are a much poorer culture for the loss of meaningful ritual to help guide our souls towards largeness. Don’t become lethargic, as James Hollis says. Honour the rituals you have inherited, and keep your ancestors close.

The bible is also a means for my character David to work out what went wrong (the “wrongness,” as Margaret Atwood has put it in The Year of the Flood) with the world, and to think about how it could be better, how it could be put right.

For me it is about words as activism, words as change. Writing as an act of enough-belief. I do not want to create a parody, without any real meaning, as Atwood has done. I am not keen on her sci-fi books at all—certainly in comparison to Le Guin.

And yet I continue to struggle with this idea that writing will change things; that it is a valuable thing to do; I suppose I need David to wrestle with that idea so he can teach me something about it, the struggle. He writes out of… faith? Perhaps. And yet in the collapsed future he inhabits, what good will it do. ‘No cities,’ says Apollo in the very last episode of Battle Star Galactica when the wanderers, the refugees, finally find Earth. What he means is no civilisation, no institutionalising of beliefs. No books. No rules, no guides. They are always co-opted, always bureaucratized. But David has a compulsion to write, to do this. As I do. It is a risk that your words will engulf you.

And yet the calling to write won’t get any louder than this. This is the act; this is the calling. I write everyday, and so does David. It feels good (not always easy). To write feels to be in service to what I hope for the world. A world with less suffering, and a world where the Great Mistake of humankind—to think we are apart from and above nature—to think only with our egos—is overcome. To be a New Nature writer. To be an advocate for animals. To write stories that charge people to think of the present moment. Writing as beacon. David believes it is, and Esther believes in David, and together their animals and homestead trust them. So they must be doing something right.


And so how did I do this week, in the utopia of writer’s habits that is my 40before40 challenge? I realise that documenting the whole process will be rather boring for readers; hence why it may generally come at the end of something that seems to me far more interesting.

In commitment to active writing, I found pleasure in writing by hand, as I wrote letters to H (x2), Nish for her birthday, and to my friend Jill Clough, while also having an afternoon doing nothing. I submitted three pieces of work to competitions and submissions: a flash fiction ‘Soil’ to the Tube Flash project, and two extracts from the novel, noted above, to Myriad Editions and Unpsychology magazine.

In commitment to what one of my favourite authors, David Mitchell, refers to as omnivorous inspiration (the only thing omnivorous in my life), I thought about sentinels, inspired by Stevie Ronnie and Susannah Pickering’s poetry launch, and saw John Challis’ debut as a playwright with The Next Train to Depart. I also listened to two new albums, William Basinski’s Garden of Brokenness and Jonsi and Alex’s Riceboy Sleeps, without distraction, while seeing the RIFF/T exhibition at Baltic 39 with my friend K.

I finished two books on the mid-life (Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward and Geoff Mead’s Coming Home to Story)—reviews to follow. And I read two poetry collections, The Point of Waking by Cora Greenhill, and the as yet unpublished manuscript What Things Are by Agnieszka Studzinska, coming out this April/May, I hope. Oh, and I’ve watched three short films – Aisha’s Song, Minka, and the work of Toronto Pig Save on their channel.

In commitment to my social self, I met a new person, a 74-year-old Pete Doherty, who’s a runner, and whose story that he’s going to run the Newcastle Park run on his 75th birthday has inspired a new piece of flash fiction. I’ve had three proper conversations, with my friend E on her plans to do a PhD, with K, and with my friend S on not frittering away your life. And I’ve removed one thing (old towels) from my home. I’ve also given five presents: a book on insomnia to a suffering friend, the found poem for Nish, candles for my neighbours to apologise for a noisy dinner party, and the collected short stories of John Updike for H’s birthday (belated). And a picture frame for K’s art.

In commitment to others, I donated $5 to the fund to pay for Bonny the dog’s medicine, to Sea Shepherd and Toronto Pig Save. And I had five friends round for a new vegan recipe (black bean burgers from Isa Moscowitz’s Isa Does It), made a present (a found poem, ‘Dolabella’) for my friend Nish’s birthday.

In commitment to my soul self, I gave up one fantasy of a different life, handing back some goods from a friend who lent them to me which were talismans for that misplaced life. I took one walk with the ecological self around the Newcastle Town Moor, I’ve gone eight days without alcohol, and begun meditating, and committed an hour to Steve Thorp’s 21 Soul process.