Solitude and the writer

Why do writers need silence and solitude?

Surely writers can write anywhere – in public places and in cafés, for example? Why would they even need to go to workshops or on writers’ retreats? Why can’t writers lock out their family and write in a room at home? Why do they complain when people make a noise and ‘disturb’ them?

Does contrived solitude work? Do writers produce more when they are alone, or when they are surrounded by others?

Your inner creative voice

Writers need just enough silence and solitude to listen to their inner creative voice. We have many inner voices and the worst, of course, is the one that beats you up for the things you haven’t done and should do. We’ve been taught to kill that voice. We’ve been taught to talk back to it and sort it out. Remember that book by Shad Helmstetter, What to say when you talk to your self? But, when slaughtering the bad voice, we need to take care not to lose the creative one. It’s down there somewhere, and your life as a writer is so much more difficult if you can’t hear it.

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Turning down the external volume

You go out, you have fun, you surround yourself with friends, you discuss, you argue, you tell jokes. Do all of that on a regular basis and there is way too much external noise. You will never hear the voice that has come up with a memory, an idea, a what-if, the description of a character, or an opening line to some story you haven’t thought of yet. So, you need to turn down the external volume and listen out for what that voice is saying.

Abu Dhabi, home to our Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop, is not the best of places to be a writer. There is something for you to see and do every evening of the week: a film screening, an exhibition opening, a musical performance, a play, a comedy show, a guest speaker, a debate, a dinner with friends. And after each of those activities, you are obliged to post photos of the event on social media to show that you were there along with the rest of the in-crowd, the people who are in the places that are trending.

But what about your writing? You won’t be hearing your inner creative voice with all that going on.

Solutions

There are various solutions. Some are drastic.

  • You could stop going out and do what you originally committed to do – write. At a writers’ conference, author Terry Pratchett once gave a plenary address entitled, ‘Why are you listening to me when you should be at home writing?’
  • You could give up writing. You may need to acknowledge that you are not sufficiently committed to writing to give up your social life and spend the necessary time drafting and re-drafting your work.
  • You could go to a writers’ workshop and find enough temporary focus to hear that voice and write for thirty or forty minutes. This can definitely get you started, though it is not a permanent solution. Your workshop will provide you with input and support, and it will give you that brief period of head space that you need to get some new ideas down on paper. To be a successful writer, however, you need to be able to write independently of your writers’ workshop. Did Dickens go to a writers’ workshop? Did Hemingway?

SolitudeDo not delude yourself. If you can’t write on your own – and that means being able to turn down the external volume to hear what’s in your head – you won’t be able to write in that expensive writers’ retreat or in that romantic garret in Paris.

 Listen

So, train yourself to be silent. Limit your socializing. If your socializing is full-time and your writing is supposed to be full-time, one of those is not going to work. Decide which it is to be. Find a time of day to think and write when there are fewer distractions, and let that creative voice filter through. Listen to it and then quickly write down everything it says.

If you can do this, you will never be short of ideas and you will become your own support system.

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Give me a cue #1

In our weekly meetings of The Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop, I give out a number of writing prompts that serve to stimulate the imagination and help the writers connect enough ideas to write a short piece during our session.

It may be that they write only a few lines inspired by the prompt, or that they come up with a piece of flash fiction, the initial draft of a short story, or even the premise for a novel. The important thing is just for them to let their minds loose around these cues and trust that a story or an idea will visit them. So, from the last workshop on Valentine’s Day, 14 February, 2018,  we have the following prompts:

Prompt 1 – First Love

The Italian writer Elena Ferrante is now writing a series of essays for The Guardian. The first of these is on the subject of First Love. As with all of these prompts, you’re advised to write your short piece first and then, out of interest, take a look at the source for that idea. Incidentally, Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym and, although the real writer has been unmasked, she still remains rather reclusive and inaccessible.

Ferrante

Prompt 2 – Dirty Money

Shooter Literary Magazine is inviting submissions for Issue #8, which should relate to the theme of Dirty Money. Check their website for further details. Submissions should be between 2,000 and 7,500 words.

ShooterLit Mag

 

Prompt 3 – The Accident

Watching men at work on the building site next to my house gave me the idea for this prompt. So, you might consider the lead up to an accident, the accident itself or the aftermath. On the other hand, think ‘out of the box’ about other kinds of accidents. Stretch your imagination.

Prompt 4 – There should be more than one word for ‘love.’

I ‘love’ this prompt. It leads us to consider the many kinds of love in our lives. The line comes from a British TV series called River, which is – on the surface – a crime drama but which, beneath the violent storyline, is actually a very moving love story. In the sixth and last episode of the first series, one of the characters quotes this line: ‘There should be more than one word for ‘love,’ and then goes on to list the many diverse manifestations of love.

Prompt 5 – A Nasty Taste

This prompt comes from the title of an article in The National newspaper. A celebrity restaurateur got less than brilliant reviews for the food served at his New York restaurant, hence the ‘Nasty Taste.’ In English, we also say that a bad experience has left us with A Nasty Taste, in our mouth, so the prompt can be interpreted in several different ways. I do in fact get a lot of my story ideas from newspapers. See if the same works for you.

What to write

When I give out prompts, workshop participants generally ask me two questions:

  • What should I write … a story, an essay … what?
  • How much should I write?

My response is, in effect, ‘I don’t know … because I can’t get inside your head. I can’t see what thoughts these prompts might trigger in your brain.’

Writing is about depending on your own inner thought processes. Too often would-be writers are still in thrall to their old childhood memories of the teachers who told them what to write and how much to write. Writers are proactive. It is important to remember that you won’t become a writer until you start to listen to what your own mind is telling you to write. Train yourself to listen to inner voices and to see both remembered and invented images. Can’t hear them? Can’t see them? Keep listening and keep looking. They will come.

Learning from other writers

A few days ago I mentioned Ben East’s excellent interview in The National with Fiona Mozley, the author of Elmet. Learning about another writer’s sources of inspiration is always helpful and enlightening. Here we learn that Mozley saw Elmet as a ‘Yorkshire western.’ She saw parallels between her story of a land dispute in England and the ‘traditional arc of a western.’ To identify this arc, she drew upon films such as Once Upon a Time in the West and Unforgiven.

Once upon a time in the West

These kinds of western battles and the showdowns go back through cinematic history to movies like High Noon, Shane and The Magnificent Seven, but also to films like The Seven Samurai.Seven SamuraiTheme

In our workshop, when discussing story ideas, I often ask participants. ‘What’s it about?’ Mozley answers this question in the article: ‘ the question of the individual versus society; how people battle the natural world and their landscape.’

We don’t really know what we are writing until we discover our themes. Do you know yours?

Making words count

Cinema or television, then, can be one source of inspiration. Another is, of course, other books. Mozley tells us she has drawn inspiration from southern American gothic literature and, in particular, the work of Cormac McCarthy, from books such as No Country for Old Men and The Road.

The Road2

Her close reading of McCarthy ties in – rather spookily – with what I had planned for our workshop this week. A few words of explanation about this directly from Mozley: ‘McCarthy made me think about every single sentence, how I needed to make every word count.”

Last week we discussed ‘overwriting’ and ‘redundancy,’ abundant examples of which we can find in our own first drafts. The purpose of re-writing is to remove what is not needed and ‘make every word count.’

So, when you lift your fingers from the keyboard and say, ‘It’s done!’ what happens next?

Writing Rules

Elmet, the novel by Fiona Mozley shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was not a priority on my reading list. Ben East’s interview with the author, published in Sunday’s edition of The National turned that around. Sometimes it happens that something you read resonates with you, as it did with me on this occasion. That something was to do with Fiona Mozley’s beliefs about writing.

Elmet cover

About rules

In our workshop, we often discuss the ‘rules’ that are put about on the subject of writing. My belief is that we have to know what those rules are … before we set about breaking them to suit our purpose. Rules become myths, and this interview with Fiona Mozley gently explodes one myth, which is ‘write what you know.’

Staring out of a train window while travelling from London to York, Mozley spied ‘a collection of caravans and shanty-like structures,’ and seeing these triggered, in her words, “a sense of wanting to explore something I didn’t know about, people who were very different from me.”

On writing what you know

If you don’t know what to write about, then writing what you know might be a good place to start. I’d say go ahead and write what you know when other people know nothing about that subject. You write. We read and understand. But, what if you wrote about something you didn’t know?

This makes me think of a workshop I attended one year at the Emirates Lit Fest. The subject was ‘Writing historical fiction’ and the participants were a mixture of fiction writers who knew very little about history (like me, for example), and historians who knew very little about writing fiction. A brilliant session in which we all learned a great deal. Then, one of the historians put up her hand and asked, ‘So, if we are writing about an historical figure and there are gaps in our research, and we don’t know what actually happened, what happens then?’ The fiction writers gasped.

We all knew that when you don’t know something … you make it up.

Writers on the edge

Lots of writers out there are ‘on the edge.’ Perhaps they are not writers at all, but they are thinking about writing and they are almost or nearly writing. The purpose of a writers’ workshop as I see it is to get these writers on track or, if they have strayed, to get them back on track. This is one of the reasons why I set up The Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop – to support writers, but also to help them help themselves.

The Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop, which met for the first time in June 2015, has held over 30 sessions and run over 90 workshop hours. At the last count there were 606 members. Most of our regular writers have set their goals and are most definitely on track. However, it’s now possible to have a better overview of the issues encountered by some of our newer writers and from time to time I hope to discuss these here on the All Write In Abu Dhabi blog.

How our writers write, their writing process, comes up for discussion on a regular basis. I think there are warning signals that we need to watch out for that indicate all is not well with our writing process. Here are some of them.

You need to review your writing process if …

  • you’ve been writing for a long while and have little to show for it;
  • you lack the ideas and inspiration to keep going;
  • you’ve lost your direction;
  • you’ve lost sight of the story you wanted to write;
  • your rough draft hasn’t moved on for some time;
  • you keep adding subplots to your novel;
  • you write infrequently;
  • you read only rarely.

I’m sure I can come up with other signals, but these should be enough to get us started.

Obviously people take different approaches to their writing. The way you write may not suit me. The way I write may not suit you. The three approaches most commonly described in the how-to-write literature are as follows:

Pantser writing – called this because it is when people write ‘by the seat of their pants.’ These writers begin writing, then figure out where their story is going as they write. Sometimes this works very well. Sometimes it is a disaster with the writer ending up wandering about in the dark wood of the soul.

Freestyle writing – in which the writer writes scenes out of order and then organizes those scenes into a coherent structure.

Outline writing – here the writer puts together a detailed outline, working out who does what and when, and adding in the related subplots. When everything is in place, they go full speed ahead and write their first draft. Have a look at this video in which crime writer Jeffery Deaver explains his approach to outlining:

There are no rules. You can write the way you want to. However, successful writers usually establish the rules that work for them and stick to those rules. If your novel is getting written, and if your work is getting published, you’re doing something right. If you’re floundering in a mire of words, join us at The Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop and find out about the writing processes favoured by our most seasoned and successful writers.

 

 

 

 

A Thought Or Two About Fictional Twins

Double Vision                                                                                                                 There is something about twins that makes them a subject of fascination for readers and writers.

Twins, or their equivalent, have been popping up in fiction throughout the history of literature. We have evil twins, separated-at-birth twins, sickly or mad twins, wicked sisters, rival brothers, but also changelings, soulmates, dark halves, lookalikes … and all of them threatening to unpack our emotional baggage. People just hate it when you tell them you saw their ‘twin’ in the supermarket. It undermines the human quest for uniqueness.

In her book Twins in Contemporary Literature and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), Juliana De Nooy examines the various and most fascinating manifestations of twins:

Identical and conjoined twins offer counter-intuitive images of one being in two bodies and two beings in one body, and thus may be seen to lend themselves to explorations of the nature of the self.

Consider for a moment when you last met twins on your own reading travels.

Schizophrenia                                                                                                                   We find them in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) – Jackson and Pierrot, the brothers of the disreputable Lola. We find them in John Banville’s 2005 Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea – the wordless Myles, and his sister Chloe. I remember finding them years back when I read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), another Booker winner. (What were the Small Things? I can’t remember.) Roy’s Esthappen and Rahel die tragically, I believe, by drowning, while Banville’s Myles and Chloe wade out together into the sea to meet their fate:

They were far out now, the two of them, so far as to be pale dots between the pale sky and paler sea, and then one of the dots disappeared. After that it was all over very quickly.

In Richard Ford’s novel Canada (2012), which explores the themes of assimilation and belonging, Ford’s narrator Dell and his unalike sister Berner are fraternal twins. Dell reflects:

I sometimes found myself thinking of Berner as an older boy. Other times I wished she looked more like me so she’d be nicer to me, and we could be closer. Though I never wanted to look like her.

The desire for the closeness that comes from similarity threatens our human need for individuality. Canada2 Zadie Smith’s ground-breaking novel White Teeth (2000) uncannily anticipates the rise of fundamentalism in Britain. One son Magid is sent back by his father to Bangladesh to be educated and ‘challenged,’ while his twin Millat remains. But which twin is ‘safe’? Millat goes on to join the dubiously-acronymed ‘Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation,’ (KEVIN):

… he stood schizophrenic, one foot in Bengal and one in Willesden. In his mind he was as much there as he was here. He did not require a passport to live in two places at once, he needed no visa to live his brother’s life and his own (he was a twin after all).

This is the schizophrenia of a split cultural identity as exhibited in the twins of Smith’s novel, but transferable to a population of confused individuals. White TeethSacrifice                                                                                                                                In her book Negotiating with the Dead (2002), Margaret Atwood has a whole chapter on ‘duplicity,’ or this ‘world of doubles’: ‘Which Twin has the Toni?’ Atwood describes a magazine advertisement for a Toni home permanent. Two identical girls are shown with two identical hair perms – one an expensive salon hairdo and the other the cheaper home version. ‘Why was it that I suspected fraud?’ asks Atwood. Is this a clue to the twin syndrome? One twin is merely a copy of the other. As Atwood observes:

In his book on human sacrifice, The Highest Altar (1989), Patrick Tierney would have it that the successful twin represents the living society, and the unsuccessful one his dark alter ego – the one who was sacrificed and then buried under the cornerstone in order to deal with the Underworld, propitiate the gods, and protect the city.

NegotiatingIn life, one of a pair of Siamese twins must often be sacrificed to save the life of the more complete other. This is the lot that falls to Marion and Shiva, the twin protagonists of Abraham Verghese’s surgery-for-beginners-novel Cutting for Stone (2009). In Gillian Flynn’s best-selling crime thriller Gone Girl (2012), Go – short for Margo – comes very close to taking a murder rap for her twin brother Nick. In literature, twins – or at least one of them – are expendable.

Who can say how many twins have fallen for the sake of fiction?

The complete article ‘Which Twin has the Toni?’ first appeared in the IATEFL Literature, Media and Cultural Studies Newsletter, Issue 46, March, 2015. More on twins in the next post.

References

Atwood, M., 2002. Negotiating with the Dead. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Banville, J., 2005. The Sea. Basingstoke: Picador.

De Nooy, J., 2005. Twins in Contemporary Literature and Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Flynn, G., 2012. Gone Girl. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Ford, R., 2012. Canada. London: Bloomsbury.

McEwan, I., 2001. Atonement. London: Jonathan Cape.

Roy, A., 1997. The God of Small Things. London: Random House.

Smith, Z., 2000. White Teeth. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Tierney, P., 1989. The Highest Altar. Viking.

Verghese, A., 2009. Cutting for Stone. New York: Vintage.

On cats and writers

In her July blog post, author and writing coach Kim Fleet directs us to the wisdom and habits of cats and shows us what, as writers, we can learn from them. Writing uses up our ‘energy and mental concentration,’ she tells us, so cap naps are in order. Good to know.

As I write, my three cats are snoozing in advance of significant bursts of energy later on this afternoon. We should do the same: ‘set an alarm for 20 minutes, then lie down on the bed and have a short nap,’ after which, ‘refreshed and alert,’ we can resume our writing. This put me in mind of Doris Lessing’s accounts of her own writing routines in her book Walking in the Shade:

I drop off into sleep for a few minutes, because I have wrought myself into a state of uncomfortable electric tension. (1997:93)

The process of writing can be intense to the point of being debilitating:

And it is exhausting, for suddenly after an hour or two, with perhaps only a page or two done, you find yourself so heavy you tumble onto the bed and into sleep, for the necessary half hour, fifteen minutes, ten – and then up again, refreshed, the tension cut, and you resume the wandering about, the touching, the desultory tidying, the staring, while you approach the typewriter, and then you are seated, and your fingers fly for as long as they do – up again, movement again. (1997:227)

And remember what Dorothea Brande tells us in her book Becoming a writer, first published in 1934:

… rise half an hour, or a full hour, earlier than you customarily rise. Just as soon as you can – and without talking, without reading the morning’s paper, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before – begin to write. (1983:72)

Brande describes this moment of morning waking as ‘the twilight zone between sleep and the full waking state.’ In this heightened state of reverie, the imagination takes hold, writer’s block is banished and writing conundrums are solved. So, more cat naps during the writing day offer more opportunities for creative wake-ups.

That’s all for now. I think I’m feeling a bit sleepy.

The cat naps