Creative Writing Archive

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!

Novel Writing, On Reading, Writing Blog

Notes on Stucture: Andrew Miller’s Pure

Andrew Miller’s Pure was the 2011 Costa Book of the Year. Set a few years before the French Revolution of 1789, it tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, and engineer, who is given the job of removing the cemetery of Les Innocents from Paris. Removing it complete, as it has become a physical and psychical stain on the city.

It’s a wonderful premise set in a turbulent time. But there’s something not quite right with the book. On the PhD at Newcastle, we were recently given a seminar by the prose playwright and senior lecturer Margaret Wilkinson on structure and narrative pace, taught how to be better readers-as-writers.

Margaret’s lesson is that there should be a few essential elements in each novel:

Read the rest of this entry


A Story About My Father

Later this week an actor will perform the first story I’ve written about my father.

My father went missing in 2007 after my step-mother found him lying in the gutter after a drinking binge. Thirty years of marriage and another promise to give up alcohol was enough for her. He soon moved into a bedsit, but is now presumed homeless. We won’t presume worse.

The story begins here: picking up from the gutter. The piece I’ve written is one in the ‘100 Faces, 100 Stories’ installation that runs from 9th-11th September in a brick courtyard round the back of the homeless charity Crisis in Newcastle, North East England. The installation aims to raise awareness of people’s stories of homelessness, alcohol abuse, incarceration, violence, rehabilitation, achievements and friendships; the highs and lows that the charity’s service users call everyday life.

Crisis shares its building with the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Some of their users’ stories are part of the installation. As difficult to summarise as they are to comprehend.

None of these conditions describe my circumstances, but Crisis works to create a community through training and the provision of care between homeless and non-homeless alike. I have run a workshop on interviewing skills; writing this piece was another chance to contribute.

It was easier than I thought. I wrote four pieces. The first was of a Scottish homeless man. The third was of an African immigrant, Jeremy. The story of my father slipped in between them before I knew I had written it (this is also how I get out of bed in the morning; I distract myself with narrative while moving my arms, my legs…).

When director Alan Lyddiard told me he wanted to use my piece as one of two to be performed on the opening night, I downplayed the impact it might have on my wellbeing. Being the son of an alcoholic, anything to do with my father is met with a numbness that, according to Roy Baumeister of the Psychology Dept at Florida State University, is much to do with social rejection. I wrote the piece in my father’s voice as I remember it. How will I feel hearing an actor interpret this? I’m not sure. I’m still coming to terms with the inconsequential fact that the actor and I have the same name.

My ambivalence is, I think, to do with feeling I’ve yet to fulfil my potential as a writer as much as it is with my father. Are the two linked? Yes, of course. But I know writing this piece has been a watershed. Not from three years of living with a homeless father, but thirty years of living with an absent one.

In Empathy and the Novel, Suzanne Keen argues that there is no proven evidence for the altruistic benefits of literature or novel reading. But what about writing itself? What other proof do I need than knowing writing this piece—and having it appreciated—has helped me address my relationship with my father. It has also allowed me, in the fullest sense, to contribute more. Since writing this piece, I have completed the draft of a novel and an academic book chapter. In whatever articulation it finds, a blockage has been removed in my capacity to contribute to life.

A few weeks ago I took part in a debate on ‘the limits to freedom’ organised by The Great Debate. On the same panel was a journalist who talked about her research into alcohol and freedom. I Googled her before the debate. I was envious of the quantity of her output and certainty of idea. Before the debate I was, my partner said, the most nervous she had seen me.

The journalist put forward her argument. ‘Britain doesn’t have a problem with alcohol,’ she said. ‘The state is too quick to restrict freedom of personal choice. It treats adults as children.’

In some respects, I agreed with her. Except that part about Britain not having a drink problem. The journalist lived in London. Outside London, Newcastle has the largest homeless population in the UK and one of the worst drinking problems. A joke is that Newcastle is as far as the Scots get on the Glasgow-London train before being kicked off (my father is from Glasgow). Perhaps a more relevant explanation, as reported this month by the North West Public Health Observatory (PDF), is that there is a north-south divide in the misuse of alcohol. The north has a history of heavy industry and working class poverty. When heavy industry disappeared, Newcastle rebuilt its economy around the service industry—the ‘alcohol economy’. It is Europe’s third most popular bachelor party destination.

Members of the audience suggested the London journalist had never spent a Saturday night in Newcastle. I suggested that alcohol destroys not just those who abuse it, but those around them. I used the example of my father. It felt okay to talk about it, finally.

I will sit down later this week and hear my father’s story performed. I will say to myself that writing it has been both instrument and evidence in exploring, and moving past, narratives that had limited me in life: how much I could contribute, cope with, and care about my potential and my community. And as the practices of living seem easier to me now, so does—strangely enough—the practice of writing.

This piece was originally written for and published on the Changing Minds, Changing Lives project website.