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?

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

Namisa – The Next Big Thing

Earlier this month I was tagged by my friend Sarah Barr – writer, poet, teacher and fellow coach (http://sarah-barr.com)  – to take part in the expanding blog, ‘The Next Big Thing.’ In this project, writers tag each other to write about their latest projects.

Sarah, who wrote about about her novel Talk to Me, was tagged by our mutual friend historical novelist Maria McCann (http://www.mariarosemccann.com), who wrote about her new novel Ace, King, Knave, which will be published by Faber next November. Maria for her part was tagged by the novelist and poet Rebecca Gethin (http://rebeccagethin.wordpress.com/author/rebeccagethin/).

I think you get the idea.

So as Sarah’s tagee, I’m taking the opportunity to write about my book A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa, which I finished last March and which I have continued finishing ever since. No, seriously, I’ve finished it. Oh well maybe just a few more tweaks.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

At an interview in Manchester for a consultancy post based in Poland, the interview panel set me a task. ‘Imagine this,’ they said, ‘you are at a reception in an unnamed country. You are approached by an academic who, after an initial preamble, makes it quite clear to you that he requires substantial funding from your department in order to undertake a lengthy course of study in the UK. In an earlier briefing you were advised that this particular gentleman had already received more than generous funding from departmental coffers. How would you deal with his request?’

While for the interviewers this was a test of their candidate’s cultural sensitivity and diplomacy, for the candidate, this was a rather inspiring writing cue. The unnamed country became Namisa, an island that was ‘flying distance from Singapore’ and the setting for my novel A Traveller’s Guide To Namisa. The pushy academic became my manipulative antagonist Ito Bogadan, the thorn in the side of the Downing Foundation, an organisation whose mission is to support the academic and cultural development of former British protectorates such as this one. The hapless employee charged with managing the Foundation’s scholarship funds is Philip Eric Blair, a young man desperate to flee the tedium of his UK office job and find la dolce vita, by progressing from a role as Officer of Education and Culture, with responsibility for Namisa and its neighbouring island of Pundar, to Paris or possibly Rome.

Journeying back to London from Manchester after my interview, I found myself with the NamisanIndustrial Park commuters on the Trinamisa Express, gazing out at the yellowing Wunamisan grasslands: the brave new world of A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa.

What genre does your book fall under?

I suppose it would have to be listed as comic fiction, though ‘comic’ doesn’t quite do it for me. Lightweight satire perhaps.

Which actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

One evening I was having trouble getting back into the story after a break from the writing. I solved the problem by casting the whole novel as if it had been a movie. I hope these actors will like the parts I’ve given them:

Ewan McGregorPhilip Eric Blair, he of the ‘puppy dog stare,’ Officer of Education and Culture for the Downing Foundation, Namisa.

Philip Blair 2

Kate WinsletFelicity Manning, on-the-rebound romance novelist who masquerades as Philip’s wife, ‘a giant among men.’

Felicity Manning 1

Freida PintoTanita, Philip’s insightful Namisan love interest.

Tanita

Stephen FryNeil Bryant, Director of The Downing Foundation in Namisa, ‘long-limbed, like a giraffe.’

Bill Nighy Michael Robinson-Smith, travel writer extraordinaire.

Michael Robinson-Smith

Rowan AtkinsonHugo Danvers, Philip’s sneaky rival, ‘a pokey kind of fellow.’

Jonathan PryceProfessor Shimee Timmaya, Pundari academic.

Celia Imrie Lady Downing, Patron of The Downing Foundation.

Gemma Jones – Philip’s Auntie Peggy.

Simon Pegg Frank Gibson, belligerent teacher of English – aren’t they all?, who always seems to land on his feet.

Frank Gibson 2

My antagonist Ito Bogadan is proving the most difficult to cast. He could be a younger version of David Suchet or a fatter version of Ben Kingsley.



Ito Bogadan 1 (DS3)

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A fledgling diplomat with an illicit secret is posted to the quirky, conservative island of Namisa where he meets a wily academic who lusts after the funding he controls, and possibly a great deal more.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I wrote the first 50,000 words of the novel in one month for NaNoWriMo in 2008, then I unwrote it, then I re-jigged it and added another 50,000 words.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Through my work as an EFL textbook writer I’ve been lucky enough to visit many different countries and get a glimpse of other cultures and beliefs. If I had chosen to set my novel in one of these countries, someone would have been bound to be offended. So, Namisa is set nowhere in particular … and everywhere.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Namisa, of course, has its own language, so the book has an abbreviated Namisan- English glossary for those whose Namisan is a little rusty.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

In EFL publishing we don’t use agents. I’ve been a member of the Society of Authors since 1991 and they have always been kind enough to review my contracts for me. However, I think now is the time to find an agent, since selling a novel is a job and a half. If the agent route proves impossible, I will follow the example of some of my UAE writerly colleagues and self-publish.

And now for my tagees. Here they are:

Sultan Saeed Al Darmakihttp://www.sultandarmaki.com

Sultan is based here in the UAE and is both a photographer and a writer. His latest book is Leave the Birds Alone.

Ruth Cherringtonhttp://www.clubhistorians.co.uk

Ruth is a long-term friend, writer, and researcher. She is the author of Not Just Beer and Bingo! A Social History of Working Men’s Clubs, Authorhouse, 2012.

Eva Dietrichhttp://www.aladdin-books.com/about/index.html

Eva is a children’s author, based in Spain, who is also the founder and director of Aladdin Books. Eva and I were on the same MA in Creative Writing with ManchesterMetropolitanUniversity.

John Dolanhttp://johndolanwriter.blogspot.com/

John divides his time between UAE, UK and Thailand. His novel Everyone Burns is currently No.2 in Goodreads’ Best Books, Asia. Amazing, John!

Last but not least, a nod to my Scottish kilted author friend Seumas Gallacher http://seumasgallacher.com who has already done The Next Big Thing and no doubt would have done it again, but for the fact that he’s done it several times over and has probably had enough of it by now. Seumas, if you don’t already know him, is a prolific blogger and the author of The Violin Man’s Legacy and Vengeance Wears Black. Do check out his site.

The Secret Life of Frank Bosco

I am Frank Bosco. Not a lot of people know that.

I invented Frank. He belongs to me. He came into being last April. That was when I entered the Winchester Writers’ Conference Lifewriting competition. I had to come up with a pseudonym and, somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, I found Frank Bosco. His real name is Francesco Bosco but, since he writes in English, he prefers to be known as Frank. For the competition, I entered the opening pages and a synopsis of my book Veneziano. Frank likes to think of it as Wolf Hall meets The Godfather, but of course he is quite wrong. I ought to know because I am the author.

I was fortunate enough to win a prize for Veneziano in this competition, which was sponsored by The Queen’s English Society and The Joyce Morris Literacy Foundation. When, at the Writers’ Awards Reception on 23rd June , Frank Bosco was called to collect his prize in the University of Winchester Stripe Auditorium, there was some consternation among my fellow writers when I stood up. They were expecting Frank, but they got me. Frank was frankly annoyed since he believed he should have been the one to receive the award and have his picture taken with Dr Bernard Lamb of QES. I did point out to him afterwards that he was, in effect, only a pseudonym and had no real life of his own, which – I suppose –  is a strange irony considering that we are talking here about a Lifewriting competition.

Now, here’s the problem.

In due course, I will receive a cheque for my winning entry. Frank spotted this small item of information in the Winchester Writers’ Conference handbook … and now he expects a cut – 50% if not more. He will not go away. He is delusional and believes himself to be the author of this work and therefore entitled to the prize money.

If other authors have had similar experiences with their pseudonyms, they may like to advise me what to do. Did John Banville come into conflict with Benjamin Black? Did Ruth Rendell have any problems with Barbara Vine? What about Joanna Trollope and Caroline Harvey? I believe it is a common problem. Though clearly I am dealing here with a pseudonym who believes himself to be of more consequence than his creator.