Join me at the upcoming Kent Festival of Writing, Saturday 14 April, 2018. It’s a full day of writing exercises and great conversations by the sea. I’m doing a one hour workshop on a writer’s “voice”: what is it – and how can you find yours? I’m also thrilled to be in conversation with debut fiction author Kate Mayfield and her editor, Jenny Parrott, to discuss the release of The Parentations. Want to know more? Just follow the link to Kent Festival of Writing:
These are the doldrums between Christmas and New Year, flat land that stretches between the poles that define many of our calendars. 5 days of “Chrimbo Limbo” that span the time between the frenzied, all-consuming build up to a day of food – or faith – and the tail end of the year, one which many will be happy to leave. From our cars or sofas, from muddy woods or frozen beaches, we can feel the world turning. Time, flying. This is a hinge, a pause before the first new day of a new year, filled with possibility.
How can we hang onto this sense of time? How can we use it to prepare for a new year or a fresh start without creating the feeling that we should “do more” or “be more” or “be new” somehow, which is its own kind of all-consuming frenzy?
I return to the page and the old ritual of morning pages.
I have written about morning pages before, and how to get started on them; it is a practice that continues to sustain me. It has become a natural – and necessary – start to my day. A space and time to shape and sharpen my thoughts before the day begins and time sweeps me away in the wake of what it wants.
Morning pages are 3 sheets of A4 (or my preferred online method at 750words.com) written without planning, editing, or censorship. These are raw words, written faster than we can think, as we come to wakefulness. That is their power. It is us, when no one’s looking in a clean space that we define and refine, daily.
It is a place to flex and stretch, mentally and emotionally. An iron for the mind, smoothing away the wrinkles. A meditation made with moving fingers.
These last few months of 2017, I felt too busy to think. My mind was always scratching away in every direction, trying to make sense of tensions and disappointments, moods and missteps, conflicting bits of information and inspirations. When I felt there was no time for morning pages, I knew that they were more essential than ever. How else to keep some control over my own day, other than to take my first 12 minutes or so and write down how I felt, what I wanted, where I wanted to go? Morning pages became a place to capture 750 words of my work-in-progress, before I had to turn to other projects; somedays, it was the only work I was able to do that day for myself. Through a very season, and university term, I kept writing morning pages and using them as starting places for scenes and chapters. Now, at this pause before a new year, I find the WIP is nearing 30K. It will certainly be over that mark, when we toast a brand new year.
Consciously and unconsciously, 750 words sets me up for writing, however busy the day, because I have focused myself on it. I have stated my intent. I have set my brain on that work, as I boil the kettle, as I let out the dog, before the dash and rush to come.
In the new year, I will be teaching many mornings. For those of you who know me, you know how jealously I guard mornings, when I feel I write at my best. Though we aren’t always in control of our timetables, I aim to stay in control of my brain and my time, as best I can. In the coming new year, with all its early starts and pressures, I will seek to continue my practice and share it with students, asking them to begin our day with morning pages. I hope to introduce them to a practice and a ritual that will nurture their writing and their thinking, so that it might sustain them through their writing lives, as it does mine. Looking for a new you? Try an old practice. Morning pages.
See you on the page.
I run workshops, as you’ll know from my blog, and it’s really good practice to take them, whether you run them or not! Last week I treated myself to a whole day workshop with the fab Andrew Wille for Words Away, who run workshops and salons in South London.
Here’s a picture of the “writer’s shrine” he built for the day. It made me want to come home and dust mine!
Here’s a link to his run-down of the day. Do visit – and sign up for his emails, which are chock-full of good advice for writers. It was a wonderful workshop, as you’ll see from his blog. I must say, even a week later, I’m still fizzing with ideas. Here’s to great writing workshops for all!
Hello! If you were on yesterday’s writing retreat with the Kent Festival of Writing, here are the links I mentioned. If not, feel free to read anyway – and join us on the next one!
PLANNING: Our day began with a look at tools, as we all quickly identified that one of the things that can hold us back as writers is a lack of organisation, whether in structuring our days or our work. Finding the right tools is essential for keeping track of our writing – and making the most of our limited time.
INDEX CARDS keep me organised. I use them while I’m planning and while I’m writing. I like that you can add cards easily – no software required – and shuffle them to change the order of scenes or elements. After a first draft, I use them to get to grips with my structure and my story – to track what happens when, what the consequences of events are, and how they affect the characters. This way of tracking plot and meaning with every scene comes from Lisa Cron’s “Story Genuis”: if you like the idea of using index cards, give it a read. And if you prefer your index cards to be digital, there are apps for that. Try Cardflow – it’s free.
WHITE BOARD/CORK BOARD: Some people like the freedom of a big board in their writing space – TV thrillers make us all want rooms full of cards and photos and string – but we might not all have the space. If walls are at a premium, you can work with digital boards. Stickyboard 2 is a giant white board with an endless supply of sticky notes, while Scapple is a programme for digital mind-mapping. Apparently, the drawing and linking of words fires new synapses while we’re planning – and as it’s made by the fine people who designed Scrivener (more of that below), it also interfaces with that software.
POST-IT NOTES: The Queen of Post-it Plotting is Julie Cohen – read about her method on her site. She likes their portability, their flexibility, and how they stack together when multiple story strands meet in a scene. (But I wish their glue was a little tougher!)
BUTCHER PAPER: I first heard about planning on long rolls of paper from Shelley Harris from her fab blog post, Plan-O-Matic. In the workshop, we looked about how the paper can roll down, from Scene 1 to The End, or how it can run sideways, along the narrative arc. I use long rolls of paper for story planning – but I like the freedom of lines and squiggles, all drawn with my beloved Sharpies. Wondering how to get to grips with a really complicated plot or series of strands? Get drawing. There is, of course, an app for this too, and it’s called Daedalus. But a little Googling shows that this software no longer works with Dropbox, so if backing up is an issue for you – and it always should be – they suggest using Ulysses as an alternative. Here’s what David Hewson has to say about it:
EXCEL: It may be the dullest piece of software on our computers, but it can really help you keep track of vital information. I use it to log dates: characters birthdates, the beginnings and endings of wars, vital dates for inventions or key events, and specific bits of research. Some use it to keep track of characteristics: eye colour, hair colour, etc., so that characters aren’t repetitious.
SCRIVENER: If you like the sound of one piece of software that can integrate all of the above, try Scrivener. I wouldn’t write without it. It’s a linear planning place, like a roll of butcher paper, that transforms into a cork board with the push of a button, and it provides flexibility with moving, finding, and sorting text that MS Word can only dream of. And now that it interfaces with mobile defices, it is the perfect tool.
At yesterday’s writing workshop, we also talked about our “issues” as writers: what’s holding us back, what’s making it hard? I really enjoyed the chance to think about how to answer each concern – here’s what we all came up with:
MENTAL BLOCK: What happens when we just can’t write something, when the words or the story has us stopped in our tracks? Often, blocks are a sign that the road has run out – there’s something crucial we don’t know that keeps us from moving forward. Do some planning and find out what it is that you don’t know before you try to write. Find out the “what” of your story before you try to tell it.
HOW TO BEGIN: Oh, the terror of the blank page! Where to begin? We talked about the value of prompts to get us going. We did some free writing with a series of words, called out at random, and we responded to a series of images, either looking at them with our senses or making a story from what we saw: who/what/where/when/how. If you have trouble getting started, fill your toolbox with words, pictures, objects, and books that provide inspiration. This is also a method for KEEPING IT FUN.
HOW TO PLOT: Find our how you think and how you work. Try out all the tools above – and make sure you’re clear about structure and plotting. We talked about John Yorke’s Into the Woods as a great book for thinking about structure and storytelling. Here’s him giving a talk about his book – he also regularly offers workshops.
HOW TO MANAGE TIME: This is a big one! We talked about setting limits, so that we use what time we have effectively, rather than frittering it away. In bursts of writing, 30 minutes at a time, everyone seemed pleased and surprised with what they were able to achieve. If you don’t have someone like me bellowing the time at you, you could try an egg timer or use the Pomodoro Technique. And, when time is limited, working with a system like Index Cards will help you to focus on small moments or elements to work with, instead of being overwhelmed with how much there is to do every time you sit down. Lastly, know when it is that you write the best – and defend those hours. There is little point in setting time aside to write – when that time is not your best.
HOW TO FIND A COMMUNITY: Writing is a lonely business and like-minded souls can cheer when the work gets hard. Similarly, there’s no one like another writer to help you celebrate every time you reach a milestone: finishing a draft, finishing an edit, getting an email from an agent. One way to find a community of writers is to write with them – keep going to writing workshops to find your tribe. Every year, I go on retreat with two writers I met at a workshop years and years ago – I trust them with my tender, early writing as well as my ups and my downs. When it’s hard to find the time to retreat, you can find a community on Twitter, by following other writers and with #amwriting. And why not try NaNoWriMo? The National Novel Writing Month starts 1 November and will put you in touch with cheerleaders, prompt-makers, sprint-starters and tens of thousands of writers, all over the world.
HOW TO FINISH: In our retreat, I asked you to jump straight into the hard part – the crisis, the climax, the thing you were afraid to write. Many of you had real breakthroughs, jumping in and swimming hard. However you begin, keep going!
And that is good advice for all of us!
‘The day is for the living, and the night is for the dead.’
So begins the first of this year’s Reith Lectures with Dame Hilary Mantel on BBC Radio 4. You will know Mantel from her astonishing Tudor series (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies) and any number of her other wonderful books. In her lecture, she defends the role of the historical novelist and talks about her unique approach to writing from and about history. Here’s a link to the BBC Radio 4 Player, as well as a transcript of the lecture, if you’re unable to listen. I’m not a historical novelist, but I took so much away from this talk and am looking forward to the next one, next week:
UPDATE: Here is a link to her second talk.
This past weekend I was very pleased to be in conversation with Michele Roberts at WhitLit, Whitstable’s literary festival. In a wind-blown marquee on Castle grounds, Michele shared her work and her writing process with good humour and a real generosity of spirit. The interview wasn’t recorded, but here are a few things I’ve taken away with me:
LIVE WELL: At 68, Michele Roberts is still doing what she loves: writing, swimming, exploring London, drinking wine and going to parties. Recently, she acquired a new agent, has a memoir for sale and has just started writing what will be her 14th novel. I was impressed with her energy and vibrancy. At any age, writers may worry they are falling behind. (Am I on track? Will there be time to tell all the stories I have in my head?) Michele is only one example of a writer’s longevity. (Think of Diana Athill, 99 and still publishing!) Michele’s days are rich and varied; so is her work. Writers may be as old as their backs, but we can remain as young as our ideas and our hope will let us.
WORK HARD: Michele was very honest about her setbacks. We might think any writer who has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Daughters of the House) has “made it” – whatever “it” is. When her newest novel, The Walworth Beauty, was initially rejected by her publishers, she didn’t let herself despair for long. She said it took more than two years of rewriting, cutting hard and twining in new story lines, to get a book that both she and her editor were happy with. That process, she said, forms her newest memoir, on how to write yourself out of “failure” and what you discover as you do. Established writers don’t often speak publicly of the hard times, but Michele was very generous to remind us that every book can be a struggle, when you are trying to push both yourself and the form, but any writer can turn a book around, if she can find the strength and self-belief. The process turned into two books and a new agent for her – which isn’t bad going at all for a bout of “failure”!
KEEP GOING: When I asked her for one last bit of advice for us, she simply said to keep going, even when it feels like there is not enough support or encouragement, in the long slog of rewriting and the fear the book will never come together, or in the wake of an editor’s “no”. At any age, we can down tools and decide the work is too hard – or we can pick ourselves up, strengthen our resolve, and just keep going. The writers I most admire are all in it for the long haul. How about you?
It’s a new month and a new season. At last, it feels like spring. There are chairs in the sun and grape hyacinths, as well as a new chewy pup called Louie here. Maybe I’m not ready for beginning anything in my work – I am editing – but mornings like these make me dream of possibilities, of what could lie ahead. If you are of a similar mind, here’s a pretty nifty list for beginning any creative endeavour from the ever-essential Brain Pickings:
Here’s to a little chaos and careful perversion.
Today, Brain Pickings reminded me it was the death-a-versary of one of my favourite writers. I’ve been thinking about Sylvia Plath a lot. In a workshop last week, I played a recording of her reading “Daddy”. It landed in the room like something foul, something rotten. Faces were made, awkward shiftings in fold-down chairs in the lecture hall. Not a one of the students liked it and I wondered why. Perhaps there is something about her voice, arch and brittle, distinctly New England, that put them off? Maybe they’d already had too much of her at A-level or maybe, I thought with horror, they couldn’t relate her anymore, that time had eroded her power or interest, that she was dated, passe’, irrelevant. Could it be so – for them?
Sylvia Plath died before I was born and I cannot get enough of her. We all have triggers, things that will make us pick up a book faster than seems humanly possible. I tell myself I know everything there is to know about Sylvia Plath – poetess and cuckold, doomed wife and mother, misunderstood teen-woman with her oven and her milk and cookies and her tragic rolls of tape – but she is my trigger. Any reference to her on a jacket, in a blurb, and the book is at the till with my debit card out faster than you can say Lady Lazarus – but why? Why does she have such a hold on me, still?
Ariel set me on the road to feminism. A budding playwright, I was a Ted-hater way back, in emotional solidarity with those who repeatedly scratched the Hughes from her tombstone. I have long since repented of this vandalism; I do adore Ted Hughes, though not nearly with the passion I reserve for Sylvia. On a recent residency at Yaddo, whose bedroom did I need to see first? Whose books did I search for at the library? Reader, it was I. At Yaddo, Plath wrote poems for The Colossos, for Ariel was still many dark winters ahead of her, and spent eleven weeks working alongside Hughes in what seems to be a happy time for both of them; she writes often of their stay in Letters Home, the collection of her correspondence from 1950 – 1963. The knowledge that she had stood in the library, running her fingers along the spines, was thrilling. Reading my work aloud in the room where I knew she had nearly undid me.
Many come to Sylvia through The Bell Jar, which seems to have become a YA book since I was a young adult. Were I one now, I might have found my way to Plath through Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar, where traumatised teens in a New England boarding school find peace and connection though Special Topics in English and a journal they must fill. Of course, the journal affords them magical adventures of memory, time travel, and redemption, and I loved it. There isn’t a huge amount of Plath in this Belzhar, but I think she’s there in that teenage passion, the wounds that cut and refuse to heal, memories that feel as if the world has ended, before we outgrow such wonderfully painful things.
Recently, I found a young Sylvia in Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953. Elizabeth Winder painstakingly reconstructs four weeks in Plath’s life as a guest editor for the Mademoiselle magazine’s annual college issue, inspecting and illuminating events from her point of view, through her journals and letters, as well as interviewing fellow guest editors, some of whom would end up, often only slightly rewritten, in The Bell Jar. There are wonderful photographs, sidebars on period culture and fashion, and kernels of the work to come, as well as a thorough examination of what seems to have been expected of women at the time and how Plath was already balking.
Of course, there are a kabillion biographies of Sylvia Plath, and they’re all good, in their various ways, combing over the wealth of materials and journals and diaries that she produced. Leaving those to one side, I admire works that are inspired by her, that strive to feel like her. Kate Moses’ Wintering is a “novel of Sylvia Plath”, set during the last few months of her life. Chapters are arranged in the order of the Ariel poems as Plath intended, not in the order of the collection as Hughes saw fit to publish after her death. You probably do have to be a hardcore Plath-fan to love Wintering, but there is much to admire. It isn’t easy. The terrain and the language are rich, dense, and evocative. Here and there, Moses does slip under the poet’s skin, right where we want to be.
Often, Sylvia is only a ghost and no more so than in Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, published just months prior to his death. A collection of poems that he seems to have written over his long life, they show how he was haunted by her actions and his own. They show him trying to pin her down, to understand what happened and how he was, and was not, responsible. They are love letters and question marks, elegies to who she was and who he was. In last week’s workshop, I also shared a few poem by Ted Hughes – Pike and The Thought Fox – and told them the story of their marriage and its demise, and I thought again, as the students finally sat up with interest, how dogged the two were, and always will be, by the drama of their lives.
A recent addition to the Hughes/Plath canon is the novella/essay/fable/miracle by editor and writer Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, wherein a black crow comes to rescue a man unhinged by the death of his wife and his two motherless boys. Crow, Hughes’ talisman, is billed as “antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter”. He arrives at the door like a dark-winged Mary Poppins and says he will stay until they don’t need him anymore. Throughout the book, Crow teases, soothes, and torments them, inserts himself into poetry and history, and helps them remember how it feels to live. Reading it, having recently lost my own mother, I sobbed like a kitten. I can hardly bear to open the book now, but it went straight onto the shelf of favourite books in the Blue House and sits there now beside Mary Oliver and Louise Erdrich and my battered copy of Ariel, all flanking a faded, curling picture of me as a child, head bent, examining my thumb with pain and wonder – a first splinter or graze, I think, the moment where I seem to understanding something about the world and deciding whether or not I will cry. There is something about pain and wonder in all of these books. Is it any wonder I keep going back to them, sharing them with students, and holding them so close?
Happy February. For the whole of January I barely wrote. No blog posts, no rewriting. Not a single morning page. This, in particular, felt odd for me. If you follow this blog, you’ll know I am a great fan of morning pages, Dorothea Brande’s suggestion that writers seek to work in a way that is uncensored, barely conscious – to begin the writing before the critic in our brain is awake. It’s why I am a morning writer and why I reach for 750words.com of a morning, before almost anything (this does not include tea, I hasten to add). But with the turning of a new year, I’d lost my mojo. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I felt my words had all dried up. I felt stuck in the past of what had been, frankly, a year of misery, and anxious to turn the calendar page and start again. But how?
My old ways weren’t working. There was no comfort to be found in writing – or reading. I didn’t know how to find the resilence to begin again – again – nor any idea of how to quit. Salvation came in an email from The Pigeonhole. Could I read Moby-Dick for the month of January, one Stave at a time? (Why this email? Why then? Why anything that calls to a ragged heart and bids it answer?) I had never been particularly interested in the idea of reading Moby-Dick. I’m more a Hawthorne girl: among the Concord clan, I thought Melville had little enough to say to me, a pagan vegetarian from the West. What could he teach me of life when he only solely interested in men, harpoons, and sperm? (Spoiler: there’s rather a lot of sperm in Moby-Dick: sperm oil, spermaceti, a good dollop of testosterone, and buckets of blood.) But I was desperate. I thought I’d dip my toe in the water and see how it felt.
Day 1, the Stave was rather dull. A preface, but easily enough digested with a bit of a day-after-night-champagne head. Day 2, with the introduction of “Call Me Ishmael” and his shameless love for the dashing cannibal, Queequeg, I was well and truly hooked.
Day by day, I succumbed to the pleasure of Melville’s language – a true delight. I could feel myself filling up with vocabulary – arcane, Nantucketian, whale-centric. Somehow, I thrilled to their chases and dazzling escapes – because, of course, it is wonderful writing. Playful, inventive, surprising – but also filled with great affection. Having fallen head-over-heels for Queequeg, my heart made room for Daggoo and Tashtego, the laugh-out-loud Stubb and Flask, the noble Starbuck. I found myself caring every bit as much for troubled Ahab as I did his great white whale. It is a rare thing (for me, now) to want a book to never end. (As a child, I wanted every book to be endless, and only recently have I felt this when reading The Crimson Petal and the White or Wolf Hall.) Nearing the end of Moby-Dick, I kept hoping Melville might continue to add chapters from the grave, so that his journey could go on and on. I would have kept on reading.
It didn’t, of course. It ended last night in its own watery grave, as did the month of January, a horrible month for so much of the world. One twelfth of a new year, done and drowned. But somehow, in the last week of January, I found myself able to return to a project that broke my heart. I know it will continue to break my heart a few more times before it’s done with me, but somehow, with the passing of time and the lifeblood of a leviathan, I feel able to get back on my boat, board my craft and try to sail it. (Too many metaphors? Too many parentheses? Blame Melville. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he pops up again for me, down the road, in another project that lies ahead, if I can get on the other side of the books I must write first. There is a quite a queue building.) “For the third time my soul’s ship starts upon this voyage, Starbuck.” If Captain Ahab can give his whale three chases, I reckon I have another draft in me.
After all, this isn’t a battle of life and death. I have no boatload of whalers to defend. I have only this great white whale of a story, trying to run away from me, and the harpoon of my desire to catch it. If it doesn’t end well for Ahab – or the whale – I won’t dwell on that. In my mind, there is another life for the crew of the Pequod, Melville’s unwritten sequel. Of course, they escape defeat. Of course, they surface, once Ishmael has sailed away in his loneliness. Of course, Queequeg swims to a new island, bearing Stubb upon his back. Of course, Daggoo and Tashtego build the dug-out canoe that will take them all back to New England, where Ishmael awaits with a bowl of chowder. And Ahab? Of course, he will spend eternity circling his prize, which is as it should be, after all.