One of the greatest joys of being a writer is that, like many art forms, it makes you pay attention to life: it focuses your eye and tunes your ear and readies your mind to receive all that each day has to offer. It also helps us to cope with life’s woes and frustrations because, as we writers say so often, ‘it’s material.’
What’s more, every time I sit down to write something, I educate myself anew. Writing is the best way I’ve found of motivating myself to learn about people and places and situations that are removed from my own experience of life – and to learn about them in a way that goes far deeper than intellectual knowing: through my characters I live a thousand lives and a thousand different worlds.
Here is a quotation from one of my favourite books, Bird By Bird, which summarises it perfectly:
One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you the excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.
Challenge: Enjoy opening yourself to the world today, to all it’s beauty and griminess and quirkiness and let this sink into your subconscious – because it is all material.
In my early twenties I went on an Arvon writing course with Ray French and Jean Sprakland. On our first evening, Ray asked us to write down the the things that interest us, obsess us even, the things we love and hate, the things we surround ourselves with and, whether for good or ill, seek out. It could be an idea or an object or a place or a scent. It could be an emotion, an animal, a colour or a relationship. Anything that forms part of our unique atmosphere as writers makes the list.
Ray said that we should look back to that list throughout our lives and that we’d be amazed at how those things we feel drawn to crop up time and again in our writing.
What’s more, by giving these obsessions some thought and by writing them down, we create mental hooks that will be ready to receive all those wonderful connections that the universe offers us, even when we are not writing. Most interestingly, connections will form between the most unexpected items in our lists. I believe that it is this unique combination and these original connections which creates our voice as a writers.
Why twenty? Well, because it forces us to get past the obvious – the things we might list in a twitter profile, for example, the things we write down because we like the idea of being associated with them. By digging deep we find those tiny, quirky – even slightly embarrassing – loves and obsessions that we’d maybe forgotten about or didn’t quite realise were there.
Challenge: take five minutes today to write down 20 things that fascinate you or that you love or obsess about and pin this up above your desk or stick it into the front of your notebook. You could build a collection of images and objects connected to those things – my desk is filled with physical expressions of my writer’s mind and heart.
Here are some of the things that I come to again and again. My list is much longer than 20 and I keep adding to it, but there are a few key items that remain constant and that you will find in both What Milo Saw and The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells.
Light, old shoes, silence, animals, houses, obsessive behaviour, lies, queues, how children see the world, spying, rain, living alone, residential streets, mothers & daughters, picture frames, water, ordinary towns, loss, twins, family life, romantic love, wood, parks, disappointment, running away, hope, injustice, secrets, envy, sleep, roads, ordinary jobs, belonging.
I struggle with Chaucer – although I’m a linguist who has the privilege of speaking three languages, Chaucer’s tongue has always felt a little alien, perhaps a bit too clever. Shakespeare’s words are more familiar.
But occasionally, when I get my head round one of his strange combinations of vowels and consonants, I glimpse a truth that nourishes my writer’s heart. Here’s one of Chaucer’s pithy sayings on the nature of a writer’s life.
The lyf so short, the craft so long to kerne,
Th’assay so hard, so sharp the conquering.
Chaucer is saying that life is short, something that has felt all too real to me in the last few weeks following the death of my dear auntie Marina.
He also says that the craft takes long to learn, a subject I harp on about quite a bit (the school of ‘writers sit back and wait for inspiration’ still holds far too much sway).
Chaucer goes on to say that the writing is hard. Which it is is, as all things worth learning are.
But then, in those last words, he makes clear that when the writing works, the writer’s sense of achievement is immense – that it is nothing short of a victory.
So, knowing that life is short, that it will take a lifetime to learn our craft, that it will be hard, let us get writing in the knowledge that the victory will feel like nothing else in the world.
Over the last week, the National Children’s Orchestra has been rehearsing in the building opposite our cottage. From morning to evening we’ve been serenaded by the incredible playing of musicians all under the age of 14. My 16 month old little girl, my husband and I have glimpsed their genius through windows of the concert hall and sometimes we’ve snuck in at the back to listen.
When the sections of the orchestra broke off and went to rehearse in different venues around the school, the percussionists stayed in this old hall – such a treat for a little girl who loves nothing more than banging on things and crashing them together. We watched them go over and over the same sequences until they deemed them perfect.
I was blown away by the children’s commitment to practising: repetitions alongside new learning, mastering rules as well as improvising, tuning into others and working it out alone – all of these formed part of their days.
It was obvious that the children were having fun. So too was their joy and pride on the last night when they played together and shared what they had learnt over the week.
But there were tough times too. Early mornings, callused fingers, aching backs and tired brains – and a little pinch, I’m sure, at the knowledge that many of their peers were sitting on beach somewhere in the mediterranean.
But the children kept going because they knew that only by putting in the hours would they do honour to their talent; that only by practising would they keep improving and thereby show respect to those with whom they shared this musical space.
We writers who sometimes excuse ourselves of the need to practise under the pretext of waiting for inspiration or for the right conditions, could do well to learn from these extraordinary young musicians.
Over the next week, whenever I feel my writing resolve weaking, I am going to think about these children and what they are doing to fulfil their dreams and to nurture their talents – and will try to do the same.
As a published writer, I have experienced many wonderful moments. Holding a bound copy of my debut novel for the first time, spotting my book in a favourite bookshop, watching a stranger reading Milo in a cafe, my first book signing, receiving lovely messages from people who have fallen in love with my characters, who have laughed and cried and come away changed from having read my stories. Moments like these make all those hours sitting alone at my desk infinitely worth it.
But one moment which trumps them all is my visit to Joseph Clarke School for the visually impaired in Highams Park, London. A place full of Milos, children with character and energy, children with more courage that those of us who see clearly will ever know. This spirit was epitomised for me in 11 ½ year old Sammy who told me:
I’m not a can’t I’m a can.
I’m not a won’t I’m a will.
I’m not an impossible, I’m a possible.
Sammy is a Martin Luther King in the making.
As I stood in the assembly hall, I was filled with excitement but also trepidation. I knew that I would have my work cut out for me – children are fiercely sharp and get bored easily by grown-ups who drone on self-indulgently about their lives. Children rarely hide their disappointment if you fall short of their expectations. The audience at St Joseph Clarke school brought with it a whole new set of challenges: 100 children between 3-19 with all kinds of physical and developmental challenges. Some of them wouldn’t be able to see me. Others wouldn’t be able to hear me. Others still would find it hard to sit still while I read the first paragraph of What Milo Saw. Cheryl Aubury, the brilliant English teacher who hosted me, told me that what many people don’t know is that visual impairments are often connected to a host of other conditions including deafness and autism.
How could I make sure that I caught their attention? That what I said was relevant and truthful and not patronising? That I did justice to Milo and his condition?
I needn’t have worried. These children bounced off my words, asked searching questions, laughed and listened and lost themselves in Milo’s world as I read. They were, in some ways, very different from other children I have spoken too – but in many other ways, they were exactly the same: fun and talented and vocal and cheeky and curious. It was such a privilege to share my words with them.
After the assembly, I ran a writing workshop with nine incredible children: Taneisha (18), Sammy (11½), Bethany (19), Abdullahi (15), Sydney (15), Mustafa, (11), Masha (16), Joshua (11) and Sam (10). Their aspirations, their writing tastes and their skills were as varied and quirky as any other writing classroom I have experienced. Taneisha and Masha dream of being published novelists. Joshua, inspired by Coronation Street, wants to be a romantic novelist (!) and Sam dreams of writing stories about racing cars.
I talked to the pupils about what makes a great opening page, about hooking the reader in from the start by introducing a powerful trigger and by creating a character with a strong desire. They set to work, filling pages with their ideas: sometimes through braille, sometimes through the pen of a teacher and sometimes with their own scribbling. Whatever the medium, each child’s writing was infused with their voice, their imagination and their particular way of perceiving the world. At the end of the workshop, everyone read aloud their opening paragraphs or shared their ideas and I was once again inspired by the imaginative powers of children.
After the workshop I spent a lovely lunch with the Headmistress, Maureen Duncan. Occasionally, life gives you the chance to meet one of life’s heroes: Maureen is one of them. She was articulate, modest, passionate and driven. Every bit of her is focused on her vocation, on her love for the children in her care and on her absolute dedication to giving them the best possible experience of life. She is the kind of person who inspires us to make our bit of the world better.
At the end of the day, I walked through the school gates and back to my train filled with the most amazing words and images of my time at Joseph Clarke School. I also carried a renewed faith in my own vocation: the power of telling stories and why they matter to us as human beings, in particular to children.
I will carry the staff and children of Joseph Clarke School in my heart for a long, long time.
In his wonderful book, Solutions For Writers, Sol Stein quotes Kate Braverman on the struggle and joy of writing. Braverman reminds us how lonely it can be, how hard and brutal but also how, when a story or character comes alive, there is nothing more wonderful in the world:
Writing is like hunting. There are brutally cold afternoons with nothing in sight, only the wind and your breaking heart. Then the moment when you bag something big. The entire process is beyond intoxicating. As soon as Lenny began speaking…I felt like I was strapped in the cockpit with the stars in my face and the expanding universe on my back. In my opinion that is the only way a writer should travel.
The point is that, as writers, we must live in both realms: we need to feel those ‘brutally cold afternoons’ alongside the ‘stars.’ It is out of that complexity that our fiction is forged and that we give our readers what they deserve: stories that beat with life.
When I was nine years old, Milo’s age, someone remarkable showed me a special kind of love. My auntie Marina built me a place to write.
Most children would have loved to spend their summers in Corsica, a beautiful Mediterranean island off the coast of France, but I was a bookish, rain-loving child who pined for England’s cool summers. I remember sitting on the beach looking down at my limbs – so pale they glowed like something extra-terrestrial: I felt like a different species next to the deeply tanned French girls who lay so confidently beside me.
My auntie Marina understood. She also knew that when a child feels alienated from the world, she needs to have a place to escape, somewhere she can be herself and find her voice.
So, with her incredible style and charisma, Marina kicked off her heels, put thick garden gloves over her manicured nails, slipped her khaki shorts over her snazzy Parisian bikini, and built me La Place Du Poète.
In a nook sheltered from the sun by old olive trees, Marina placed a plank of wood between two red rocks and positioned a third rock to create a seat. She made sure I had a beautiful view over the bay where she lived so that, whenever I looked up from my notebook, I could see the sea.
We are all loved in different ways and by different people but occasionally there is someone in our life who gives us a special kind of love, a love that allows us to be the version of ourselves that makes us feel complete. We writers are fragile creatures, we need that kind of love more than most.
Now it is my husband, Hugh, who loves me in that special way, who nurtures me into writing and creates places for me to dream to up new stories. But I will never forget that first kindness from Marina.
Last week, my auntie Marina, my mother’s identical twin sister who I called my ‘other mother,’ died. I have just come back from her funeral in Corsica. It broke my heart to visit the place she built for me. The plank of wood has disappeared and the spot where I wrote is a little overgrown, but the rocks are still there, as is the stone I sat on as a child while I looked out to sea and wrote.
It is a great blessing to know that, just before she died, Marina read Milo in French, L’Etrange Petit Monde de Milo. I will always remember La Place Du Poète, and I will always remember Marina
Seek out those people who give you that special kind of love. By allowing you to grow into your best self, into the artist that makes your heart sing, you will give back to them and to the world a thousand-fold.
Imposter Syndrome is widely recognised these days – that small voice that whispers to us that no matter how good we believe we are at something, we’re really a fraud and that soon we’ll be find out.
And yet it turns out that those feelings might just be a sign that we’re on the right track and that, paradoxically, we are good at what we do:
If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), ‘Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?’ chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
So, being scared means we’re the real deal. It means we have a healthy sense of how incredible it is to master something – whether that be conducting the London Symphony Orchestra or playing at Wimbledon or writing a novel. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell said:
The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
We often don’t achieve our full potential because we get scared – we opt for the softer option because we we’re acutely aware of our doubts and shortcoming.
One of my writing heroes, Maya Angelou, said: ‘I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find [me] out now.’
The fact that we know she’s great and that we continue to read her books is that she didn’t let that fear and doubt stop her from writing.
So, for today, for tomorrow, for the long-term, whenever that little voice comes in, whenever you’re scared, feel confident that it’s a positive sign – a sign that you’re the real deal. And then keep reaching higher.
Artists and psychologists agree: the brain works hard at night. It draws together the raw matter of our day and makes wonderful connections, preparing our minds and our imaginations to be sharp and ready to go the next morning. Dr Sophie Schwartz from the University of Geneva states that, ‘a period of sleep following a new experience can consolidate and improve subsequent effects of learning from the experience.’ Isn’t that great news? Sleep makes us cleverer and more creative!
So, for the past few weeks, I’ve been making sure that the last thought I have before I go to sleep is about my current novel. I turn to the back of my notebook and spend a few minutes writing – sometimes when I’m tired, it’s just one sentence or a couple of words. It might be a few thoughts about a character or about a particular scene.
I’ve been amazed at the ideas that have come to me in the quiet of the night and how I often wake up with a clearer understanding of what where my story should go.
Challenge: place your notebook on your bedside table and, every night this week, as you go to sleep, write a sentence or two about your story. Then come back to it when you sit down to write the following day.
I read lots of C.S.Lewis when I was growing up. Just as his fiction helps us escape into new worlds, his non-fiction shakes us awake and makes us face truths we all too easily dodge. Here’s one of his no-nonsense pieces of advice that I love:
If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.
Telling ourselves that we are too busy to write, that there are more important things to do, that we don’t have the time or energy, that we’re not in the right mood – that’s just our ugly demon sitting on our shoulder trying to lure us away from doing what we love most.
I sometimes set myself the challenge of choosing the most ‘unfavourable condition’ to write: tired, hungry, pressed for time, insufficient light, no comfortable place to sit…. I like to prove my demon wrong. Try it – it’s such an empowering feeling.