Interview Series #13: Dilys Rose

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Dilys Rose lives and works in Edinburgh. She is a novelist, short story writer, poet and librettist and has published eleven books, most recently the novel Pelmanism (2014). A new novel, Unspeakable, (Freight Books) is due out in 2017. She is the programme director of the online Master’s programme in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh.

This is the thirteenth 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?

Dull as it sounds, ‘have patience’ might have been a useful piece of advice. New writers and indeed not-even-nearly-new writers can itch to get a piece finished and send it out. But once a piece is in print it’s beyond your control, so you want to be sure it’s in as good a shape as you can make it, before letting it loose on the world.

‘Put it in the drawer’ might have been another useful piece of advice. When you think you’ve finished a poem, story or novel, there’s nothing like letting it sit, unseen, untinkered with, for a few weeks. When, later, you review the work, your clear-sightedness can be alarming: Did I really write that? What was I thinking? Conversely, a thorny problem can miraculously resolve itself with little conscious effort. Either way, a spell in the drawer can work wonders.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

No. I’ve said in the past that I’ve never had the time to suffer from writer’s block and it still holds. I don’t mean this to sound flippant or derisory of those for whom not being able to write is painful. I do wonder, though, why people beat themselves up about not writing when there are other worthwhile, meaningful things to do with your life.

Do you write every day?

No. If I had no other commitments and responsibilities, I might have developed some kind of daily routine but I doubt it. Over the years I have been able to garner pockets of time which were given over solely to writing. Though these were hugely welcome at the time, I’m not convinced that having all day every day to devote to writing is necessarily a good thing, for the writer or the writing. I’m wary of the notion that a writer who clocks in every day takes their work more seriously than one who works in bursts or, to paraphrase Maurice Riordan, binges. Writing isn’t so much a job as a way of life. A regular routine may well produce more work but does it necessarily produce better work? To say ‘I wrote two thousand words today’ is not to say that you wrote two thousand usable words.

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 don’t have any rituals. I write at home, in my place of work, in cafes, in the car. When I find it hard to settle in one place, I try somewhere else. I’m not much good at writing out of doors as there are too many distractions (and, in Scotland, too much uncertainty about the weather!) When I was younger I preferred to stay up late and work into the small hours, though I like my sleep too much for all-nighters – but now I’m find I’m best in the afternoon and early evening.

Have you ever kept a journal?

My attempts at keeping a journal have been pitiful. I think I managed five days at a stretch once and then gave up out of sheer boredom. I’m just not interested in recording the continuum of my existence, or even of listing the highlights or the lowlights. I can’t imagine ever wanting to read back what I’d written in a diary and have little interest in reading the diaries of others: either it was intended for personal consumption and feels like prying, or it was written with an eye on posterity and so is already a fiction of sorts. But not the sort of fiction I’m drawn to.

Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

I’m not a planner. Certain novels – or stories, poems, librettos – require some research, both to acquire some semblance of entitlement to the material, and to find a creative entrypoint. My forthcoming novel, Unspeakable (Freight Books), is set in late 17th century Scotland and required a good deal of research. I enjoyed this side of things but found that as I opened one door, another dozen doors stood behind it, all of them tempting me to step inside. At some point research has to be put aside or it turns into procrastination. But reseach is another thing from planning. To say that I’m not a planner is not to suggest that writing just flows out of me and lands in a happy composition on the page. If only! I might not plan but I can’t move forward without some sense of where I need to go next, even if it’s just an inkling. Plot is not a great deal of use or interest to me but something has to pull me and the narrative from one scene to another, even if I can’t always articulate what this something might be. Perhaps I don’t plan because, if I did, the story would scurry off somewhere and I’d be left with a pile of notes.

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Interview Series #12: James Robertson

James Robertson

Photo by Marianne Mitchelson

The multi-talented James Robertson is a novelist, poet, short story writer, children’s author, translator and is also a publisher. Despite being a very busy man, he is also one of the kindest people in the books world. He is the author of The Fanatic, Joseph Knight, The Testament of Gideon Mack, And the Land Lay Still, and The Professor of Truth. Joseph Knight won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year, The Testament of Gideon Mack was longlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, and And the Land Lay Still won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year. He is also the author of four short story collections, five poetry collections and numerous children’s books written in English and Scots. He runs the independent publishing house Kettillonia, and he is co-founder and general editor of the Scots language imprint Itchy Coo, which produces books in Scots for children and young adults. His latest books are the novel To Be Continued and a children’s book available in two versions, in English as The Book of the Howlat, and in Scots as The Buke of the Howlat.

This is the twelfth 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?

 I was writing from a very young age, and I never considered that there might be ‘advice’ for writers – I thought you just wrote and it worked out or it didn’t. I read voraciously and imitated everybody I read, and kept blundering on like that for years, but always learning, always improving, and finally I realised I had a voice of my own. I was reading Westerns, mainly, so I wrote Westerns too. I had a teacher of English who could easily have advised me to ‘write about what you know’, but he didn’t, he never discouraged my imagination in that way, although he was a perfectionist when it came to sentence construction and cutting out unnecessary words. Distilled to three rules, that would have been good advice: ‘Let your imagination go; write good sentences; don’t waste words.’ But I learned those rules anyway, through reading, because I recognised that these were characteristics of the kind of writing I enjoyed and admired. In my teens I sent a couple of manuscripts off to publishers and they sent them back, quite rightly, and that was sound advice even if all they were really saying was, ‘Not good enough’. Somebody might have said, ‘You must be resilient in the face of rejection’ but it wouldn’t have made any difference because it never occurred to me to give up. If I had known of Raymond Carver’s essay, ‘On Writing’, that might have helped push things along a little, but I didn’t discover Carver until I was in my late twenties. That wee essay contains the most important advice of all: make it as good as you can, or don’t bother.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

 I have phases when I don’t want to write or have nothing to say. That’s not writer’s block, that’s just natural. So instead I read, or listen, or watch. There are plenty of other stories out there, and plenty of ways of telling them. And sooner or later, I find ideas piling up in my head again, and I start to shuffle through them.

Do you write every day?

 If you mean, do I write ‘creatively’ every day, no. I think every day, and eventually some of the thinking begins to shape into a poem or piece of fiction, and then I write as often as I can until that bit of work is finished. Also, I do a lot of translation and editing work for Itchy Coo, the Scots language imprint I co-founded in 2002 and am still heavily involved in, and this means I can switch between different writing projects depending on my mood and on deadlines. So, on reflection, not many days go by without some productive writing taking place.

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 have to get all the mundane stuff out of the way – emails, phone-calls, accounts and so on – before I can settle to write. These can also be excuses, of course, but I think they are more a kind of preparation, a limbering-up. I have a room at home which is my office and that’s where I write: this is a luxury I have enjoyed now for nearly twenty years. I wouldn’t like to have to go back to not having that space. I don’t usually get into writing until mid-morning, or even afternoon, and then it’s just a matter of how long I can keep going. Once I’m into a novel, I have a daily word-count target: 1,000 words.

Have you ever kept a journal?

 For two or three years back in the late 80s and early 90s I kept a journal. I stopped because I felt it was a distraction, in the same way that I feel writing a blog would be a distraction. Life is too short.

Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

Of course I have an outline, but it’s usually pretty vague. I wouldn’t want to close down the options, in a poem or a story or a novel, by planning too much. In long fiction, the voyage of discovery is the thing that makes me want to complete the first draft. But I have usually been thinking hard, and making notes, for some months before I start that draft, so there is a map in my head, it just doesn’t have much detail on it. More important than a plan, in my view, is having a sense of the themes that might be in the story, and also some strong visual images or sound-clips from particular scenes. Everything flows from that meeting of the thematic with the physical world.

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Interview Series #11: Anne Caldwell

Anne Caldwell

Poet Anne Caldwell is also a Literature Programmer for the British Council. I first met her over a decade ago – she was running a mentoring programme that I took part in for people working in literature, and was just the right sort of warm, friendly and empathetic person for that role. We subsequently ended up working together for the National Association for Literature Development. More recently Anne has worked as an academic and teacher. Her work has been widely anthologised and was long-listed in the National Poetry Competition in 2014. She has worked as a Lecturer in creative writing at The University of Bolton and taught for the Open University. Over the last year she has worked at The Bronte Parsonage Museum, The Wordsworth Trust and has been a judge for Poetry by Heart competitions. If you’d like to find out more about Anne, her website is here or you can follow her on twitter @caldwell_anne. Her latest poetry book, Painting the Spiral Staircase is published by Cinnamon Press – more details here.

This is the eleventh 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?

I started writing when I was very young because of a really good teacher. I then had a gap, and took it up again when I was at the University of East Anglia. The best advice I had was from Margaret Atwood who was one of the visiting writers whilst I was there. She said read for pleasure, and enjoy writing – don’t see it as a chore but approach it with a playful attitude. I try and bear this in mind when I find things difficult.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

Yes. After each book I have published I have then felt I have nothing left to say. What has helped is to think of a new project, or attend a writing workshop to kickstart a new direction. I am my own worst critic and can often spot flaws in my work rather than celebrate the positive aspects of it. Feedback from others helps this critic keep quiet.

Do you write every day?

No. But I do write at least three times a week and keep a journal that I update on a daily basis – with any thoughts or ideas.

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 be quiet. I write at my kitchen table and I love writing early in the morning when everyone in the house is asleep. I also ran a retreat when I worked for NAWE at the Arvon Centres and latterly at Ty Newydd – the National Writing Centre in Wales. Both weeks always produced lots of new ideas for me and were very productive.

Can you tell us more about how journalling works for you?

I have about three journals on the go for different styles of writing. I am quite disorganised so often swap between them. I have one journal for writing for my phD and another that is more like a diary. I love notebooks and my friends often buy them for me for presents. I now have got over the feeling that they are too good to write in if they are rather beautiful books. So I don’t care if I fill them just with sketchy ideas.

Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

I mostly write poetry and I don’t often plan a book in advance. However, I have written two long sequences of poems – one set in Aberdeen and one in Berlin. These were based on my father’s photographs and I planned each sequence out. I then wrote in situ, rather like a visual artist sketching for a larger painting. I found this way of working very emotional and enjoyable.

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Interview Series #10: Andrew Forster

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When I first met poet Andrew Forster, he was working as Literature Development Officer for a local council, which is the same job I’d just finished doing myself. A few years later he was on the Board of the National Association of Literature Development, which I was working for and we took lots of long train journeys together to Board Meetings down in England. These days he’s a full-time writer – in fact, neither of us has a ‘proper job’ any more… Andrew published two collections of poetry with Flambard Press: ‘Fear of Thunder’ (2007) and ‘Territory’ (2010), and, more recently, ‘Homecoming’ (2014), with Smith Doorstop. ‘Fear of Thunder’ was shortlisted for the 2008 Forward Prize for Best First Collection and two poems from it, ‘Horse Whisperer’ and ‘Brothers’, appeared in the AQA GCSE syllabus. ‘Homecoming’ was shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of the Year in 2015 and was a ‘Read Regional’ title for 2016. He has read his work at events and festivals throughout the UK and Europe, and as part of the annual ‘Poetry Live’ series, alongside Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and John Agard

From 2003 to 2008 he was Literature Development Officer for Dumfries & Galloway Arts Association, and from 2008 until 2015 he was Literature Officer with the Wordsworth Trust. He is co-editor of the online poetry magazine ‘The Compass’ and runs a number of projects freelance, including the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets. He is working on a Creative Writing PhD, on Poetry and Environmentalism, at Manchester Metropolitan University. You can find out more about Andrew at his blog www.andrewforsterpoems.blogspot.co.uk, and the Compass poetry magazine is www.thecompassmagazine.co.uk

This is the tenth 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?

There is a lot more support available to writers now than there was when I started, in terms of mentoring schemes etc and the development of regional agencies to support writers, but even back then it was difficult to navigate the ‘scene’. Some kind of map of the various events, groups and services would have been useful, and I suspect this would be even more useful now. There’s a book by Paul Hyland called ‘Getting into Poetry’ which had the broad strokes of this nationally for poets, and was very useful to me, but it is long out of date now.

 Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

I don’t know if poets suffer writer’s block in the same way as fiction or drama writers. I keep a journal fairly regularly and this acts as a sort of ‘compost bin’ where most of my impulses towards poems begin, so I usually have a store of stuff for when I have the space to sit and write. I do have silent periods, quite often after books have been completed, or just when I am very busy with other projects, but I now have enough experience of writing after them that I trust them more now

 Do you write every day?

That is my aim and I certainly try and keep my journal most days, but no, some days I don’t.  It remains an overall aspiration though and I am happy to write when I can.

 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?

Routines have been dictated by circumstance really. When I was working full-time I tended to write my journal in the evenings and write poems  on Sunday mornings. Currently I’m doing a creative /critical PhD so I have much more space and I am trying to write in the afternoons after doing critical stuff in the mornings. Much of my last book was actually written on retreat at Hawthornden Castle where I wrote new poems in the mornings and early afternoons and then spent the later afternoons editing stuff and shaping the overall manuscript.

 How does your journal inform your writing?

I have kept a journal sporadically since I started writing in 1992.but it has served different purposes at different times. Sometimes it has been more of a straight diary, sometimes it has been much more focused on poetry and ideas for poems, sometimes it is more notes on things I’ve read or seen. I think with all those things though it helps with the habit of responding to things in words.

 Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

I do like collections of poems to read as books rather than just a loose collection of poems, My first collection, like most first collections of poetry, was selected from poems written over a long period, but I tried to shape it into an order that made some sense as a book, with themed sections. My other collections  took shape as ‘books’ quite early on, though I don’t mean that in the sense you might plan a novel. More that the themes became clear so when poems came I would push them in certain directions, and leave things out that didn’t fit the overall arc of the books. When a new book is complete I just write poems for a while and see what happens until some kind of theme begins to emerge. I may even make a list of possible ideas towards poems but don’t stick to it rigidly.

Interview Series #9: Linda Cracknell

Linda Cracknesll by Cat Wilson

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.

 

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Seaside Writing Workshopwest beach

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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Interview Series #8: Wayne Price

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Wayne Price was born in south Wales in 1965 and has lived and worked in Scotland since 1987. He is a short story writer, novelist and poet and has won many national and international awards for his work. He is a lecturer in English and Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen where he also co-ordinates the undergraduate Creative Writing Programme. He has performed his work at Aberdeen’s Word Festival, Glasgow’s Aye Write! festival, Dundee’s Ignite festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

I met Wayne when he was awarded a Scottish Book Trust New Writers’ Award in 2011, when part of his Award included coaching sessions with me (along with other book world people). In February of 2012 he published his debut collection of short stories, Furnace, with Freight Books. Since then he has published a novel, Mercy Seat (Freight Books, 2015) and a collection of poetry, Fossil Record (Smith|Doorstop) chosen by Carol Ann Duffy as one of only four ‘Laureate’s Choices’ in 2015.

This is the eighth interview in the series here on the blog, asking writers the questions that come up most often with the beginner writers I work with:

[Sophy] When you first started writing creatively, what advice would have helped you?

[Wayne] I started out as a writer some time before the explosion in the UK of creative writing courses, ‘How To’ manuals, mentoring schemes, blogs, MOOCs, etc, so like most writers of my generation I picked up tips the old fashioned way – by reading and imitating, and going up all kinds of weird and wonderful dead ends along the way. It’s definitely a slower process, but I’m not really sorry – the best way to learn anything is to bump (painfully) up against the limits of your current ability and be frustrated enough about it to make improvements, however small. And that’s still how beginning writers learn the most important lessons, I think – all the other assistances make the journey more companionable, like walking in a group rather than tramping it solo, but it’s the same long road it ever was. There are plenty of shortcuts nowadays to getting your work in front of people, but that’s a different thing altogether, and there aren’t any shortcuts to truly getting better as a writer, thank god. Otherwise there’d be no adventure in it.

The first piece of technical advice I ever received was in an acceptance letter from Jon Silkin, the late editor of Stand. I was nineteen or twenty and had just begun placing stories with magazines a year or so before. He asked me to cut the ‘portentous’ (and it was cringeworthily portentous) last sentence of a story I’d submitted, and apart from being good editorial advice it was a watershed moment for me in more general terms. It made me realize the simple but absolutely fundamental truth that you could do a lot of things right in a story or poem, but just one moment of sloppiness could wreck everything around it. It also taught me that you can achieve almost any shade of meaning and suggestion if you simply trust the voice of the story and the intelligence of the reader: that you don’t need to shoehorn in moments of heightened diction and authorial cleverness to say something you feel deeply about. Not much later, I was able to recognize that in spades from writers like Carver, Munro, Bobbie Ann Mason and Kelman, among others, but Jon Silkin’s brief note was when the lightbulb went on and I’ve been grateful for it ever since.

The encouragement aspect of getting taken seriously by someone like Silkin (a poet I’d studied at school) was also a big deal to me. Every young writer needs some encouragement when they’re starting out, if only so they don’t come to think of writing as something self-indulgent and introverted, which is death to anything worthwhile. Even the incredibly private Emily Dickinson was always sending drafts of poems to her friends and family.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

Hmm – the term ‘writer’s block’ covers so many wildly different things. A genuine block, where confidence, or the sense of inner permission, is just completely shot to pieces for some reason, is a real and awful thing for any writer I think, and when it’s happened to me the only cure has been time. I don’t believe any of the usual tips can really help something like that: it’s a kind of wound, and it has to heal. Going back to books that have that magical ability to make you want to write again, to join back in the conversation, is the only practical help I’ve ever found in those kinds of times. Discovering which writers’ voices can unlock your own is like finding a pub in the desert. Borges, Mason, Natalia Ginzburg, Claire Keegan and Paul Bowles have been lifesavers for me at various times; John Clare, Bishop and Frost in poetry – I don’t know why, and I don’t want to think too much about it in case the magic ever stops working. It’s a completely personal thing, and nothing to do with themes and ideas or any of that nonsense.

When I find my writing simply getting crowded out by other pressures in work and life, I do my best to be productive with the aspects of writing that don’t demand the same peace and solitude that raw creation does (for me at least – I wish I was better at compartmentalizing and not letting one worry infect everything else, and I really envy writers who can do that). So I’ll go back to ‘problem’ stories or poems and wrestle with some editing.

The other trouble with thinking in terms of ‘writer’s block’ is that long fallow periods are absolutely fine (probably essential) if your brain is in that phase of creating. I remember Kathleen Jamie saying once to a class of students that in between collections she sometimes felt that the ability to write poems came and went on a kind of orbit like Halley’s Comet, and when it was off in deep space she had to wait for it to come back again. But when it did return, all the silent time went into the making of the new poems – a kind of unconscious preparation. Maybe it’s different for full-on novelists, but for short story writers and poets I think periods of ‘block’ are actually healthy and necessary – the brain’s linguistic and creative battery recharging. I don’t think I’ve spent a single day as an adult without thinking about some problem I need to solve in a story or poem, or mentally adjusting a word or a line, but I’ve spent plenty of days without scribbling. That doesn’t bother me at all. If I don’t have anything to say at a given time, I don’t mind shutting up and waiting.

The brilliant Marilynne Robinson took 24 years to follow up Housekeeping with Gilead. In all his long life, Norman Maclean wrote just a few stories apart from his pitch-perfect novella A River Runs Through It. I don’t think he was ‘blocked’, I think he just didn’t feel the need to produce for the sake of producing. It’s different for every writer of course, and I know that Robinson and Maclean are extreme examples, but the idea that constant production is what being a writer is all about is deeply flawed, and can easily lead to bad, half-baked books.

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 the morning and late at night. I can’t always do that because I teach and the obvious spikes in teaching loads and marking throw everything else out of whack. I write first drafts in longhand and I’m at my most productive when I’m sitting facing the back garden with an A4 pad of paper on my lap. I don’t get distracted much (it’s a pretty boring little garden!) but just having the awareness of space in front of me, and plenty of light, always calms my brain down and lets me slip into the right kind of concentration. My bladder (hopefully not my prostate) is my greatest enemy. When I’m editing I work best in front of a computer screen, and it doesn’t matter where I am then. I think I do my sharpest editing really early in the morning – from 5 to 8 kind of time. When I was under pressure to finish Mercy Seat to deadline I spent a couple of months writing in those 3 early morning hours too before thinking about teaching, emails etc.

 Have you ever kept a journal?

I jot things down all the time, but it’s always objective stuff – things I’ve seen, overheard or been struck by when reading, or tinkering with a problem line/sentence I’ve been mulling over. Sometimes maybe a dream that’s shaken me up in some way. The idea of a subjective journal full of thoughts and angsts just makes my blood run cold. I use note taking as a purely technical/craft thing – I’ve no interest at all in preserving my day to day feelings, opinions and whims. It would feel a bit like saving dandruff in a bag.

Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

I always get the impulse for a short story (or, very rarely, a novel or novella) in a random, intuitive way – I’ve never begun with an abstractly developed ‘idea’ for a narrative, and have no interest in doing so. Having said that, I’m sure I’d think more in that way if I was working in a genre like crime or historical novels, for obvious and perfectly good reasons. I have a story floating around in my head right now which I think might end up being a novella or novel, but all I know about it is that it involves a young guy (16) getting into a relationship with a much more sophisticated older woman and sneaking off to the continent with her (she’s Spanish). I’ve got the ‘feel’ of the characters and their relationship to each other, but that’s about it. If it ends up just being a short story, that’s fine – I’m not going to force it into anything longer by sitting around plotting dramatic things for them to do. I’ll just see how they get on once they start talking and acting up. I think I’ll know more about the length it needs and the kinds of things they get up to when I have time to let them out of my head and onto the page: I need to finish another story first.

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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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Interview Series #7: Elizabeth Reeder

EKR BW

I first met Elizabeth Reeder when she was a Writing Fellow, funded by the Scottish Arts Council, for whom I worked at the time as a Literature Officer (strangely military title, I always thought…). Alan Warner and I later published an extract from what was to become her second novel in one of our Long Lunch Press books.

Originally from Chicago, Elizabeth lives in Scotland and is the author of two critically acclaimed novels: Ramshackle and Fremont.  Ramshackle was shortlisted for the 2013 Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Best First Book of the Year Award, the 2012 Saltire First Book of the Year, and long-listed for the Authors’ Club Best First Book Award (2013). Her short stories, dramas and abridgements have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and her stories, poems and essays are widely published and often explore questions of cartography, identity, ambiguity, family and memory. A chapbook of her hybrid/lyric essays, one year, was published in May 2016 by The Essay Press: http://www.essaypress.org/ep-66/ (it’s lovely, digital and free!). She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow and is co-convenor of that program. She has a slow-time website at ekreeder.com and is on twitter as @ekreeder.

This is the seventh 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?

Have a sense of humour about the process and setbacks, and be tenacious.  Demand curiosity and commitment from yourself to your own writing and process (and editorial prowess).  Make your own way.

Merce Cunningham stuck the following suggestions up on the wall of his dance studio for all his dancers.  He got them from John Cage (who got them from sister Corita Kent).  They’re simply sound and a bit raucous:  https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/08/10/10-rules-for-students-and-teachers-john-cage-corita-kent/

Consider everything an experiment.

Also, I did actually get some great advice when I was 18 or so. A friend of mine said, If you want to write just write. At that point I hadn’t done anything more than scribble a few proverbially bad poems. I was a keen reader, however and that year I was falling in love with Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’, and being awed by writers like Angela Carter. I hadn’t begun to believe that I could be the one putting the words together.  And this friend was right, I was waiting for someone to say, sure you can do that. No one was going to validate it for me and so I just needed to get started.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If so, what helped?

 I’m not keen on the phrase writer’s block, it’s not forgiving enough or motivating enough. Writing isn’t always easy and I don’t always have the answer to a question or problem right away.  So I have things I do to keep moving.  I have a full life that includes family and friends, I love to walk especially up north in Scotland, I read (a lot), watch movies, teach, cook and eat well etc etc.  Writing is vital, but it’s not all I have, and everything I do feeds me and my work and my life.

Importantly, for the writing, I have more than one writing project on the go at any one time.  Each project is usually at different stages (just beginning, deep into the writing, deep into the editorial) and so I can turn to a different project depending on the time I have to commit to it or with a sense of my mindset.  I also do some editorial work and the occasional abridgement for radio. So I do different things that allow me to engage with words (and living) in diverse ways. This helps me be productive.

Importantly, I forgive myself the days when I can’t focus and call these processing days.  I don’t allow myself any daytime television and I limit my social media but exercising, reading, cleaning, walking, cooking, having a coffee with a friend etc are all okay activities.  You are often processing questions about a story or piece when you are doing other things, as long as those things are giving you space.  I read for inspiration and enjoyment and I close read often to help me problem-solve a question I’m having in my work.  Alice Munro’s ‘Friend of My Youth’ helped me find one of the narrative voices for my third novel – a gnarly, intense first person narrator.  During the writing of Fremont I turned again and again to Angela Carter and to Judy Budnitz’s If I Told You Once and they rooted me in something I needed for that book.  Music too, sometimes. Everything But the Girl’s Protection was key for Fremont too.  (I’ll stand in front of you, take the force of the blow…).   I suppose I’m saying that I seek out inspiration and grounding outside the worlds I’m creating in my work and this helps to keep me writing.

Do you write every day?

I make the very real and mostly successful attempt to write everyday. It’s much harder during teaching semesters when I’m pretty much flat out with teaching, prep and reading students’ work.  It’s important to note that some of this writing is fluid and not-goal orientated writing – just sitting down and putting words on the page without worrying where they’ll end up.  I often write almost everything down and just let it flow and cull later.

In terms of more final, focused words, when I have set aside time for my writing, especially intense times, I’m ruthless with this.  When I was on a residency last year at the MacDowell Colony, I set an ambitious word count (daily and for the full residency).  Most days I was near to my daily goal, a few days I was over and occasionally under, and I made the total for the residency. More importantly, they were good words.  During that residency, when I was starting a new novel, I decided to try to focus and keep only the scenes and writing I felt would contribute to the whole.  I actually deleted a lot of words almost immediately, which was a new experience for me that early on in the process, but it did help the focus of the book. Sometimes I put writing I wasn’t so sure about into an archive file. I’ve started to use Scrivener for my novels (it’s a literary software) which, for the way I work (with multiple voices and timelines for my third and fourth novels), really helps me to be able to be nimble with where and how I place different narratives, scenes or fragments of text.  It has a nifty organizing structure so you can just cut and paste and keep notes and archive material in the same doc but out of the way.

In busier times (when I’m teaching intensely), I write when I can.  I go to a café first thing in the morning and write for 20 minutes.  This writing is often very productive and actively reminds me what my main purpose is in this life (writing!), and connects my mind and body together (and allows me my morning long black).

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 prefer to get out of bed and roll over to my desk.  Morning is my best time but I can work really long days when the writing is going well.  I need to get out of the house at some point everyday.  Exercise is important, but I resist it.  It’s important for perspective and fluidity of thought and movement. During the summer I sometimes house sit for friends and I’ll get up and write for a few hours, go for a long walk in the hills, and come back and write. I tend not to drink much when I’m writing intensely and I try to eat well.  I need a strong cup of coffee in the morning.  Just the one. Okay, maybe two.  I’ve been known to dance or sing in the privacy of my own room just to let everything connect together.  This is something I’ve done especially around the first drafting of the fourth novel, which is a lot about happiness.  Another of the Corita/Cage/Cunningham suggestions:  Be happy whenever you can manage it.  Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

Have you ever kept a journal?

I have a catch-all notebook.  A4, oxford, thin lined.  I write in pencil and I throw everything in there from notes about this or that to to-do lists to ideas or problem solving for whatever project I’m working on. It’s chaotic, messy and most of it is unreadable to anyone but me. As I said, I’m usually working on more than one piece at a time. As the notebook fills up, I tend to go through it and on each page I’ll note what piece of work the writing belongs to.  My abbreviations at the moment are B, TWB and AAOH.  Each is a distinct project.  This notebook also contains to do lists, general rants, notes of things I want to remember, books people have recommended that I want to read.

Are you a planner? Do you outline a book in advance, or do you just start writing and see what happens?

I write into a book or story or essay.  I usually have a very strong image or two that I carry with me. For Fremont it was the map on the wall and the kids walking to school when Flo demands a toll for safe passage to school; for Ramshackle it was the door (submerged in the water of the lake) and a girl sitting at a window predicting the stories of people walking by. These images are key and often have an emotion associated with them as well. Whether or not they remain in the final book/project, they’re important to the writing.  I also usually have some strong sentences that guide the voice, point of view and style.  Often I  have a start and an end in mind (and drafted).  It means I know what I’m writing from and towards. Again, these may or may not be the final beginning and end. This is true for novels and fiction and for the writing process as a whole.

I can also really enjoy writing to a spec, for a shorter project.  One of the stories I’m most proud of (‘A Prevailing Wind’) was written when someone asked me to write a fairy tale.  My essaying, which is often hybrid – poetry, memoir, fiction – happens differently.  They tend to emerge from raw notes and then I start to see the form for each shorter piece and then, also, the shape of the whole.  Maybe like how a poetry collection comes together.  Collaborations are, of course, different again and generate new ways of thinking, writing and producing work.  My writing-into can be a challenge if my collaborator is a planner… Sometimes ‘trust me’ only gets you so far.  If you write into a project you need to be both very open and curious and let things happen and also be thinking, all the time, about how everything will fit together and how readers will meet the text.

Also, I’d like to say that our brains are amazing.  As I write my brain makes unconscious connections I’m not always aware of immediately.  My job is to become aware and to capitalize on the connections and the different ways they might work, to make sure they work for the piece at hand. Importantly, I’m not a helpless conduit.  Writing is a craft and a discipline.  As the author I am responsible for what works and what doesn’t.  Making a draft into a final piece is my favorite part of the process.  So, although my process is messy and chaotic and discovered as I go, it’s accompanied by a rich, rigorous, intense editorial focus that creates the final piece.

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Seaside Writing Workshop: Unlock Your Creativity

Come and spend Saturday 2nd July writing with some like-minded people by the sea in pretty North Berwick – more info here.