Tag Archives: Jeanette Winterson

Inspiration Monday: Support your local library

the forum-norwichI am tempted to break into my own, rather wobbly version of Petula Clarke’s ‘Downtown’ here, but slight amendments the eponymous destination.

“When you’re alone

And life is making you lonely

You can always go:

To the Library!”

Okay, it doesn’t work, but you get the idea.  The Library is your friend.  It’s your soulmate.  It’s a world of excitement and adventure cocooned within four walls.  And it’s currently free (at least at the moment it is in the UK– but David Cameron, I’m watching you!)

I have always felt a strange sense of peace amongst books.  Not for me the sudden flash of panic as the realisation dawns that there are never going to be enough hours in one’s life to read everything one wants to.  Books en masse produce in me a kind of nirvana, a bliss, a calm.  It doesn’t matter how bad things are, a library is one of the two places I can go to know peace.  (The other is the beach, in case you were wondering, but that’s another story.)  This is no coincidence.

Jeanette Winterson, in her emotionally complex autobiography, credits working her way (alphabetically – how pragmatic) through her local library with saving her life from a traumatic and abusive childhood.  Books give us the power to escape, to transcend, to find knowledge and wisdom, happiness and peace.

And more than that – Terry Pratchett notes the strange distortion that occurs when books are gathered together.  He calls it L-space, a phenomenon in which the power of knowledge bends the time space continuum so that all places and times are accessible from the magnificent Library of the Unseen University (although travelling in L-space can be dangerous!). This is really just a charming metaphor for what Winterson reports.  Libraries open up unexplored and unimagined realms for us without our ever having to leave their environs.  Although, if you have ever visited Kim’s Bookshop in Arundel, Sussex, you might agree with Pratchett that L-space does indeed exist!

Libraries have changed greatly since the days when my Dad used to take me down to our village library every Friday night with my fist full of little cardboard pockets to exchange with the kindly librarian for books that enchanted and fascinated me all week long.  Now I frequent the UK’s most popular library, the Millennium Library at the Forum, Norwich, which is housed in a breath-taking vision of modern architecture, and has the highest borrowing numbers in the country.  No wonder.  Its great.

My favourite treat is to go to the library without a time limit, and just browse, as if I were in a sweet shop.  I can wander about, dipping into sections, picking out jewels here and there like a magpie.  I can have whatever I want to try, and I don’t have to worry about how much its going to cost me.  Often I find books I have been hanging my nose over on Amazon or favourite blogs, wondering whether I should buy them – with the library I can try them out, and see if they are worth the investment.

I always make sure I browse the ‘Just Returned’ trolleys too.  This is a great way to come across books that you would never have tried otherwise, because they are shelved in sections you would not normally think to visit.  These eclectic shelves are a great way to expand your reading by picking up whatever appeals to you.

Appeal is crucial.  Sometimes I go in with the challenge to choose books on the basis of their covers alone!  This is a fun thing to do with fiction particularly, because you end up not only with a bunch of stuff you would never have found otherwise, but also you get to sample the publishers’ strategies on book design, which is a useful thing to know about if you are a writer or illustrator.

If I find a book that proves especially useful for research purposes, I always make sure I record its Class Number as well as the author and title details in my writers notebook, so that I can find them easily again.

One of my most profound library revelations of recent years is the idea that if I choose a book that it turns out I don’t like, I don’t have to keep it the full three weeks.  Yes, I can take it back the very next day, if I like.  Nobody will judge me.  Its like test driving a car.  If it doesn’t prove useful, its not the end of the world.  I used to have such an investment in choosing the right books to borrow.  But there are so many books to delight in.  Why worry?  Just try a few on for size.  Its not as if you have to pay for them.

Libraries are an enormous resource.  As are librarians.  Many of them are highly trained, and they really love it when a borrower asks them a question which is something more interesting than ‘why won’t my card work in the machine?’  They love to ferret out unusual and rare tomes, and rifle through the vagaries of the inter-library loan system.  They are usually only too happy to help you with your research questions.  There is so much knowledge and expertise on offer, and most of time we don’t even know it is there.

This week, give yourself the best treat ever.  Go and gorge yourself at the library!

Happy browsing,

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