Category Archives: Author readings

Writing is from the Soul

 

p-d-james

The novelist, PD James

‘Part of our duty as writers is to do the work of honestly determining what matters to us and to try and write about that.’

Julia Cameron, ‘The Right to Write’.

I’ve always thought that writing comes from a place deep within, but this last few weeks has confirmed that view in a very deep way.  I’ve been working with my writing coach, Heidi Williamson, as I sort through ideas for my new fiction project.  I’m still not sure if it’s a novel or quite what it is.  I have characters and a setting, but I don’t really know what it is about.

And I’ve been going through something of a soul upheaval at the same time.

Like a huge game of Tetris, bits of me are moving about, realigning, making new connections.  I am understanding myself in a new way.  I am beginning to accept parts of myself I could never even acknowledge I had, so shameful to me they seemed.

All this is coming out onto the page.

Let me tell you a story:

Years ago, I went with my mother-in-law to an event held at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.  Surrounded by trays of dead beetles, dinosaur bones and stuffed animals with scary glass eyes, we sat in an audience and listened to PD James and Colin Dexter talk about writing.  I think it may have been one of the most important experiences of my writing life.

Now, let me set this in context.  I had fallen in love with Oxford primarily because I had discovered Inspector Morse.  (Actually, I had fallen in love with John Thaw, but that’s another story!)  The romance of the city and its surrounding countryside connected with something inside me.  It sang to my soul.  I’d read all the Morse books published up until that point, some of them several times.

In contrast, I hadn’t read PD James at all.

And then the strangest thing happened.

I listened to Baroness James, this tiny little Marple of a woman, sit there and talk about her passion for stories, about how everyone has a story and how she loved listening to them, from her hairdresser to the train guard on the tube.  When she talked about writing, she blossomed, expanded.  A light shone from inside her, a light to which we were all drawn.

Then I listened to Colin Dexter talk about how he wrote the first Morse novel, ‘The Dead or Jericho’ as something of an intellectual exercise.  After all, he said, a detective novel is very much like a crossword, and I designed crosswords, so I wondered if I could do the same with a detective novel.

The contrasting lack of passion was chilling.

And I knew which kind of writer I wanted to be.

I shall always remember Dexter’s cold, dead, fish-eyes as he talked about plotting fiction in the same way as any problem must be solved.  I confess I conceived an intense dislike of the man at that moment.  It seemed to me he was subverting an art form, reducing it to something cold and empty and mundane.  Of course, there must have been more to him than that, because I’d read the novels, and I had seen the skill he had in painting character, but to me there seemed something lacking, a vacancy in his art, not least because he clearly didn’t regard it as art.

And beside him, PD James prickled quietly.  She was a woman with a passion, with a deep soul, a woman who wanted to explore the darkest depths of the psyche, a woman with a profound love for her fellow human beings.  It was obvious to me from her body language that she didn’t like Dexter’s clinical approach, that it irritated her.  I don’t blame her.  It irritated me too!

I have always written whatever my soul directed me to, taken the stories that popped into my head and followed them, followed my passions.  My themes have been the themes I have been struggling with in my own life.   I just never bothered to name them, to deliberately set out to find or understand them before.  Lately I have been doing just that.

I’m not the clinical type.  I need to write what I need to read.  I need to explore my own psychodrama on the page, use it as fuel for my work.  At this stage in my life, I need to know myself deeply, to uncover my own hidden depths, and to write about them.  To write them out of my body and mind, and away.

That is why this new work is taking so long to form.  And why I am deliberately allowing it time to form.

Usually, I start with the idea of a plot and gallop along, with characters being tugged behind.  If they get developed, so much the better, but often they end up at the denouement as thin as paper.

This time I am starting with the characters, with their souls, with their issues, their worries, their suffering, their joys.  I trust that they will tell me what their story will be.

This is not a crossword.  Neither is it a hundred metre dash.  It is a slow, steady, indefatigable hack through dense jungle.

Sometimes, you have to take it one day at a time.

Happy Creating,

EF

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The Writing Life: Literary festivals

Finding your tribe as a writer, or in any kind of creative endeavour, is an important thing to do.  Being around other writers provides support and inspiration, and I think it’s a crucial thing to do.  Writing can be a very solitary activity, and its no surprise to find that many writers suffer from depression.  You try sitting on your own every day for six months of the year and see how it affects your mental health!  Its important to get out.

Literary Festivals and author signings are a really good way to fill your well and get affirmation for your work.  Maybe you won’t be able to present what you’ve written to other people, but being around those who are interested in the same things as you, undergoing similar challenges, really helps.

As a writer, you also need to gauge the market and be aware of your contemporaries’ work.  Reading is an important thing to do, and if you really love writing, you will love reading just as much!  Literary festivals give you a chance to be exposed to books you might never pick up otherwise, to hear authors speak about their work, and to ask questions about their writing process.   Think about it – a huge reservoir of inspiration and knowledge out there, just waiting for you to tap into it.  Why would you not?

Your local bookshop will probably have readings by authors scheduled, and these are worth attending because they are more intimate, and allow you more personal access.

Check the culture and review sections of newspapers, and the ads in writing magazines, as well as noticeboards in libraries, for details of the bigger events and festivals.  Some music festivals are starting to have literary strands too, so keep your eyes peeled.

My nearest festival in the one at the University of East Anglia, but its slightly different from a three day or week-long event, in that it studs two university terms with readings by authors, playwrights, poets and journalists.  This gives a wide variety of speakers over a six month period, and allows me to attend where I want, and to absorb what I learn over time.  And because it is such a prestigious centre for creative writing, it attracts some seriously big names.

I have attended events with Arthur Miller, Jeanette Winterson, Rose Tremain, Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney, Iain Banks (need you ask!), Rachel Cusk, Alan Hollingshurst, Isabelle Allende, Richard E Grant and many others.  I went under sufferance with a friend to see Ian McEwan, whose writing I hate, only to be utterly charmed and instantly determined to reread everything he has written.  And I saw Doris Lessing the week after she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  She was feisty, fascinating, and marvellous despite obviously being in terrible pain, and she tore the rather pompous interviewer to shreds, which was very satisfying.  At the end she received a spontaneous and heartfelt standing ovation, and I actually found myself crying.  You can’t find better inspiration than that!

Be warned, however.  Sometimes your idols can prove to have clay feet.  I went to see Graham Swift, whose books ‘Waterland’ and ‘Last Orders’ I had adored.  He read so badly, and was so miserably boring, that I felt insulted enough to vow never to read another one of his books.  And I haven’t.

Brett Easton Ellis was a writer whom I had worshipped since reading his work for my degree.  I clamoured to get a ticket to see him.  And now I can’t remember a thing about him, not even what he looked like, and certainly nothing of what he said.

I generally come away from these events feeling inspired and excited about doing new work, full of ideas and hope for the future.  It can be a dangerous game, however.  Be prepared, if you go to an author reading, to feel insignificant, and that you work is poor and will never be published.  It happens sometimes, though less often the more you write, and it will pass.

The important thing, however, is to go.  Attend events with even the least known authors, since they are often the ones who will inspire you the most.  (And one day, you might be up there too, so it adds to your own karma to support other people!)  Ask questions, and read the books.  This will enrich your own work, as well as introducing you to writing you might never have experienced otherwise.

Challenge yourself.  I don’t really do poetry, but went along with a poet friend of mine to see readings by several poets, and was enchanted.  I’ll never be a poet, but this form has opened my mind to the possibilities of language, and I’m so grateful.

Finding your tribe, and being amongst other writers is important.  It helps you feel part of a joint creative endeavour, but it also feeds your Muse.  There is a whole world of wonderful written joy out there, and literary festivals area an easy way into it.

Happy listening!

EF