I first met Linda Cracknell when I was working as a Literature Officer at what was then the Scottish Arts Council, around the time her first collection of short stories was published. Linda is a writer of prose and radio drama as well as a teacher of creative writing at home and abroad. Her short story collections include Life Drawing and The Searching Glance. In 2013 a novel set on the shores of Caithness, Call of the Undertow, was published, followed in 2014 by a non-fiction essay collection about walking, Doubling Back: Ten paths trodden in memory, described as a fusion of travel writing, memoir and literary meditation. It was broadcast in abridged form as a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. She is also editor of A Wilder Vein, a non-fiction anthology on the wild places of Britain and Ireland. She lives in Highland Perthshire. You can find out more about Linda on her website here or follow her on twitter here. (Photo above by Cat Wilson.)
This is the ninth interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:
When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?
It would probably be something like: ‘Don’t worry if at first all your characters and situations seem to be based on your own experiences’. Initially I seemed to lack the confidence in my imagination and found that discouraging. It was all good practice with words and observation, but my writing didn’t take off until I started using my imagination more. I suppose after a while the subconscious gets bored with such restrictive material and starts inventing anyway and then you discover that invented material feels more like the truth! Luckily I didn’t give up before that happened.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?
I probably don’t work regularly enough on major projects to suffer from writer’s block. The time that I have to specifically dedicate to writing books is quite small so once I get the time it always tends to feel urgent and I have a pretty keen sense of what I need to do next. It’s mostly a case of sitting down and getting on with it. I’m as good as the next person at displacement activities and prevarication but I don’t think that’s the same as writer’s block. The next idea for a project is usually lurking in my head before I finish the one before so there isn’t any ‘block’ in the sense of not having an idea. My notebooks are always full of them. It doesn’t mean the idea will work, of course!
If my writing is feeling a little jaded, things that help can be an excursion into a different art form, such as a visit to a gallery, or indeed an excursion into another literary form. Opening a poetry book can be really helpful for fiction writing and can unlock my ideas with the form’s powerful compression and essential use of metaphor. I also find travel – which I’m fortunate to do as part of teaching, researching and retreating – a powerful refresher of words, ideas and observations.
Do you write every day?
I probably write something every day: a note in a notebook for example, but it won’t necessarily be a part of whatever my major project of the moment is. Writing books does not make my living, very far from it, and so I depend for this on residencies, teaching creative writing, mentoring etc. Such commitments often take priority over personal writing projects for quite long periods. I’m just completing a four-year spell as writer in residence for Edinburgh’s ‘Sick Kids’ Hospital which has involved writing for and about the hospital as well as encouraging others to write, and providing bedside distraction.
The long haul book-length writing projects are also interspersed with shorter ones. I write occasional radio plays and regular pieces on walking and landscape for a website called WalkHighlands . I also step out of the long haul as part of a writers’ association called ’26’. This involves writing small pieces on randomly assigned topics — for example I’ve recently written about a museum exhibit, a Roald Dahl character, and a walk. These mini-projects are refreshing and also allow me to skip between forms. I’m not a poet but such pieces often take a poetic form because the demands can be just 62 or possibly 100 words. I’m also a Scottish PEN committee member and help edit and manage the twice-yearly PENning journal which showcases the writing of its members alongside people in Scotland who originate from other part of the world.
Ideally I allocate short but intensive periods to my major writing projects such as a recent month-long retreat in Morocco with Culture Vultures. At such times, running my self-employed ‘business’, earning money, domestic issues etc, take a back seat. I relax into a creative space and focus. It is hard work but I find such intensive periods very productive.
Another strategy, especially when working on a first draft, when I can only write in short bursts anyway, is to find one hour a day to write, not censoring myself, just keeping going towards an ending, feeling pleased with six pages of scribble even if many of the words will be scrapped later. I wrote draft one of my novel Call of the Undertow by doing an hour a day for three months. It wasn’t exactly good quality, but I had learned what I needed through the process of writing to start building again from the beginning.
Do you have any rituals around your writing practice? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or at a particular time of day?
I like to write in black ink with my Pelikan fountain pen. That sensory contact with paper is quite important, but I try not to think, ‘I can’t write!’ if I don’t have the right paper and pen! I make small hand-stitched notebooks to take in a pocket when I’m walking and hang a pencil from a piece of string so I’ve got no excuse to let an idea or observation escape. Walking is an absolute essential part of my toolkit. It refreshes and opens my imagination as well as offering observations directly through all the senses. I walk every day if possible.
Have you ever kept a journal?
I kept a diary between the ages of 12 and 18. It makes appalling reading now! Sometimes I’ve kept one since in order to separate a personal commentary from my creative notebook which I take with me everywhere. These days it all goes in to the one notebook and it’s nothing like a journal really.
Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?
I may not make an outline on paper but I usually accumulate a few storyline and structural ideas or write words on slips of paper like ‘the sound of a dying phone’ or ‘reunion’ or a character calling out ‘who’s there?’, and then shuffle them about on a pin-board. I like to have a rough sense of the ending I’m aiming for. The writing process might then move me towards that, chucking in a few surprises and diversions along the way, and possibly resulting in a different ending than the one I envisaged. Most of my writing comes about through a curious mixture of intuition and control with an acceptance of just about anything till I have a first draft, followed by some attempt at rationalisation. My first drafts tend to be very sketchy and superficial but I learn through writing the first draft what I might be trying to do. The discoveries keep coming though, sometimes even in the 13th draft, especially where metaphorical deepening is concerned. I find it useful to stay open to the little signals and clues I lay for myself. I might find myself thinking, ‘Ah-ha, so that’s why I gave him that strange green hat to wear …’ just before submitting the manuscript.
Seaside Writing Workshop
Come and spend Saturday 2nd July writing with some like-minded people by the sea in pretty North Berwick – more info here.
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