A little vibration at your core


This rather splendid article in the NYT puts its finger on one of the problems of being a modern author – the itty bitty problem of voice. Now that we’re not all writing omnisciently like Dickens or Austen, the aim is to capture the authentic voice of a character, to paint a word portrait as close as possible to the person we’re trying to depict, as they might paint it themselves if they were chatting to you in the pub. The danger is that we try to be too real and just end up writing like ourselves, time after time. This is especially troublesome for first person narrators, who can end up being either too like the author, or oddly like not very much at all (see abandoned novel number one). The best writers can find their characters’ voices without abandoning their own, or over-seasoning with authorial comment. They make you feel they’re in control.

The analogy the article made with method acting is about as close as it gets. We’re trying to write Truth while still capturing a person that is ‘other’. For me, the key to this is to let go, and find those parts of myself I’d rather keep hidden. I let go of my social inhibitions, my shame at some of my emotions and thoughts, and then the writing runs clearer. It’s not always easy, never pretty, and it doesn’t mean I just bash at the keyboard in an angry fashion. You know the feeling when you’re doing it, just as you know the feeling when you’re reading it. Something chimes within you. That’s the best way I have of describing it. A little vibration at your core.

That’s what we’re aiming for. Guess what? Most of the writing day, we miss.

(Thanks to Vanessa Gebbie for the link.)


My Fake Aunt Hilary

The first time I read Mantel it was because of my husband’s grandmother. She lives in Glossop, a town on the edge of the peak district, which is the end of the line, but not quite, as the train has to head backwards out of the station to do a shimmy up to Hadfield, which really is the end of the line. I then learned two facts about Hadfield: the League of Gentlemen was filmed there, and that writer, Hilary Mantel, grew up there. She wasn’t famous then the way she is now, just famous for Hadfield, which was famous enough. So when I saw a slim volume called Fludd for sale in a second hand shop I bought it, when otherwise I might have left it behind.


Fludd was an odd place to start with Mantel, but in many ways perfect. It’s a book about catholicism, and faith, and small places, and escape. It’s also a classic ‘stranger comes to town’ story, where the arrival of a mysterious stranger upsets and recalibrates the lives of the people he meets. Is he real? Is he supernatural? It’s never made clear. It’s a short book, and contains most of what you’d need to know about the character of Mantel as a writer: she writes consistently with attention, candour, humour and kindness. Which isn’t to say that she gives her characters an easy ride, just that she manages to expose them in as nice a way as possible.

Over the years since I’ve read more of her work, and been to see her read from her books and talk about them many times, and always come away wishing she was my aunt. I’d phone her when I felt miserable or uncertain, and she would rattle away to me, dispensing some sharp advice among the kind words of encouragement, and I would put the phone down feeling bolstered, and properly myself again, and that I have to prove something to Aunt Hilary, which would drive me to my desk and the neglected pen.

Or there would be an annual pilgrimage to see her, taking vintage port, and some ink from her favourite shop, and she would be as pleased to see me as she is pleased to see the back of me when the visit is finished, but in between we’d have eaten dinner, and talked of consequential things, and of handbags and scarves too. I would feel as if I had grown cleverer just by sitting next to her, and become less frightened of being clever, and having my own thoughts.

And there might be the odd postcard coming through my letterbox, with recommendations for a new exhibitions or lipgloss, or a suggestion of books to buy, or indeed the books themselves might plonk onto the mat, and they would always make me smile, and send me to my desk.

Because whenever you go to see Mantel speak, you realise that she’s pulling off that most amazing of feats: a woman, in public, being intelligent, and yet warm and funny, without simultaneously making her audience feel patronised or lost. She draws you in, in the same way she does in her work, just by being bloody interesting, clever and not ashamed of it. And it makes me, as a woman, who also writes, want to be better and more than I am expected to be, which is why the fabricated hoohah surrounding her speech on royal women is so depressing. So much was reflexively condemned by so many voices before anyone put their hand up and said, “hang on – are you sure that’s what she said?” It relied on the playground argument that ‘she might be clever, but she still wishes she was beautiful, the bitter jealous cow’, which clever girls are subjected to at school from a very young age. Too big for her boots too, as they might have said up in Hadfield.

We all thought we were past that, didn’t we?

Well I did, naively.

And since I can’t bear to live with the idea that I ought to stop having thoughts and writing them down, I’m going to carry on thinking that we’re past that. In my mind I’m going to call Aunt Hilary and listen to her dismiss the fools, and then turn the tables and ask me, ‘well, what have you written today?’, and since I can’t bear to disappoint her I’m going to knuckle down and get on with it.

How Arthur Conan-Doyle Saved My Life

I was one of those kids – “oh I always had my nose in a book” “all I wanted to do was read” “I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child”. But I once had a brief period where I fell out of love with literature and reading, and it was entirely down to the English department at my university. Don’t ask me which one, because I think it would have happened regardless of which university I’d gone to.

Right up to A level, studying English Literature had allowed a little love in the classroom. I had some of those almost mythical brilliant teachers, in love with words, writing, and passing that love on. They gave me their enthusiasms for Shakespeare, Orwell and Austen, and introduced us to the pleasure of crafting our own stories. As the obvious wordgeek in the class my teachers encouraged my story writing, gave me books, and loaned me video adaptations of Pride and Prejudice while trying not to swoon about the bit where Darcy appears from behind a bush*. True story. Suddenly at university we were suddenly reading a ‘text’ a week (oh how I loathed the term ‘text’) and dissecting, rebuilding, inspecting. It was discussed and pushed aside.

What happened to enjoying the damn book? I wondered.

And so I jumped ship, because I really wasn’t enjoying it, and my university had a clever system that allowed you to do this sort of thing. I jumped sideways, and got a degree in Philosophy instead, which I’d taken as a required minor simply because it was in the same building, one corridor down. Not exactly a true story, but not so far from it.

I didn’t read much in the final years of my degree. I’d lost the love. (I know!) I still hung around second hand bookshops, but you have to feel settled in a place to consider bulking it out with books. Instead I got drunk, and danced a lot, and watched a lot of good films. When my degree spat me out of the other side, capable of rational thought but qualified for little else (though I defy anyone who says that learning to think isn’t a worthwhile pursuit), I panicked. I spent the summer in a flat in my university town, unwilling to acknowledge that it was over and I was going to have to find a job.

One day I went to the discount bookshop and found that Wordsworth editions had published the entirety of the Sherlock Holmes canon, in several books, for a pound each. I bought them all, went back to my flat and spent the next two months lying about listening to the Glen Miller Band and reading Holmes.

My god, but I was happy.

Here he was, perfect in his imperfections, so very flawed, but the only man worth talking to in the whole of London. I couldn’t wait to get to the next story, turn the page, and discover how he’d solve the mystery. I gasped at Reichenbach, though I obviously had another volume to read, so he clearly wasn’t dead. I wished I could go to Baker Street, I wished I could time travel, I wished I was brilliant, I wished we had our own Sherlock, and the promise that there could be someone out there who could see through all the mess and sort it out. I was in love, with Holmes and with reading again.

When summer ended, I went back home for a while. I joined the library. I stayed up late reading all kinds of books again, read the Lord of the Rings and fell in love with that, at the same time thinking ‘wow, this is badly written’. I read. I read and read and read. And I realised I couldn’t stay in the place I’d grown up in.

I packed up my books and moved south, and soon found I had a job in a bookshop, which is where so many aspiring writers end up. It was down Cecil Court, not far from the Charing Cross Road, and sold first editions mostly, but it was also known for specialising in two things: P G Wodehouse and Sherlock Holmes. Without that bookshop nothing over the last fifteen years would have happened.

So Conan-Doyle saved my life twice. Thanks, Arthur.

*this was as good as it got pre Firth. It was actually pretty good. (P&P 1980)

Colouring In – working through the block

For the last few years I’ve struggled with the daily practice of words, so much so that it’s often been monthly or yearly practice. It coincides precisely with having a child, and being pulled inside out to live in the physical world, and so discovering that I am not one of those people who can effortlessly slip from the timetabled daily experience of feeding a baby into the frothy netherworld that is my imagination. No sir. I’ve been searching for ways and means to grease the wheels and unexpectedly found another one: colouring in.

And when I say colouring in, I really mean colouring in. (Or if you prefer, coloring in. I can cater for that.)

colouring in

I was reading the inspiration issue of Poets & Writers, which includes an article on the science of the writer’s brain, and the way our perceptions of failure and threat can cause excessive stress hormones, and these in turn cause us to sit staring at a blank screen. There’s a whole book on the subject, if you’re interested: Around The Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance, by Roseanne Bane.

One of the solutions is to cultivate a habit of ‘process’, which means doing something that gets your creative blood flowing without consequence. Something you don’t have to share, work on, or edit in other words, and if you’ve ever done Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, that’s exactly the idea behind them. Bane suggests using other kinds of artistic activities, like sketching, dancing, listening to music or drawing mandalas as well.

Which is how I found myself colouring in thirty or so sakura flowers last week.

We already had felt tips bought from the Tate, and a Dover colouring book given to us by friends, and so I sat down and started to colour. It’s a book of Japanese illustrations, and so is full of intricate patterns and fiddly bits, and after about five minutes my brain stopped screaming about when I was going to do something “useful” and instead started thinking about which colour I was going to do next. For fifteen minutes I was lost in the drawing. You know, like a kid. You remember that feeling, don’t you? Colouring in pattern wheels, or painting by numbers, just enough for the hands to do, but not too much brain involved.

It’s worth a try if you’re having a tough time getting to the words (or whatever creative pursuit you do), and if you have any other way of greasing your wheels, I am utterly open to suggestion.


Campfires against the dark

The snow came at the weekend, tucked us into winter nicely. And despite the fact that we know it will be cold and wet we cannot resist going out in it, throwing the stuff around, and rolling it into balls of various sizes. One of my favourite sounds is the creak of a good boot compacting freshly laid snow, when all other sounds are being absorbed and muffled. It’s compelling stuff, snow.

And then we come home, and we want a fire to keep us warm, to ease the sting of the cold out of our cheeks and thighs, and just maybe, we think we could stare into the flames, and let our minds wander, let stories rise up and be told the way they would have done a thousand or several thousand years ago.

The flames ward off the dark, you see, but it’s the stories that bind us together, and keep us safe.

You can have that thousand year old experience, if you make the effort to get out there. If you’ve never been to see a gifted storyteller, you have missed something alchemical. It truly makes you understand why travelling minstrels were prized and rewarded so well. It is absolutely nothing like being read to, and it is absolutely nothing like watching a play. It is everything like being taken deep into your own imagination, by someone who knows the way better than you.

I’ve decided to shoehorn ‘seeing more storytelling’ into the do more category of my resolutions, and as I live in London this won’t be as hard as it would be elsewhere. I could do worse than start with the Crick Crack Club, one of the foremost collectors and promoters of storytelling performers. I’ve seen several of their performers over the last few years and loved it every single time, and their what’s on page lists upcoming shows around the country, not just in London. There are other story telling nights around London obviously, including a regular evening at the Torriano in North London, and upcoming events by individual storytellers like Vanessa Woolf, or collaborations like seriouskitchen, who can and do travel further afield. A google will show you the way.

In my googling for this post I came across the Society for Storytellers, and wouldn’t you know it? National Storytelling Week runs from 26th Jan to 2nd Feb. Sometimes you know that the universe is trying to tell you something.

Marginalia – why I can’t let go of printed books

This is what it comes down to: you can’t write on a kindle. Yes, there’s some kind of fiddly highlights and notemaking thing, but you can’t make different sorts of underlining, or use a highlighter, or just mark whole paragraphs with a squiggle and an exclamation mark.

You can’t get an author to sign a kindle either. Not unless you want to try reading through the incomprehensible scrawls of black marker pen they leave on the screen.

Nor is it so easy to flick back and forth, as some novels seem to require, and certainly as some non-fiction books need.

I’ve come to adore my kindle, and the way it syncs effortlessly with the app on my phone. If I’m suddenly stuck somewhere with fifteen minutes to myself I can fire it up and carry on reading. There are hundreds of classic books available for free, and it’s much easier to keep a Dickens or a Tolstoy in your pocket electronically. But the supposed switch over to reading entirely digitally, which I think my husband was hoping for, having moved house with my book collection one too many times, well that simply hasn’t happened. I pick and choose which books I’ll buy digitally, and which I need as a hard copy.

As a technology, printed books have

You know what I would do? I would pay slightly more for a hard copy that comes with a digital copy bundled in. You know – like they do with films these days. You get a code to download it so you don’t have to bother ripping it into your computer. That’s what I want. The best of both worlds.