Pop Quiz Writers: What do you do?

I’m getting my head around starting a PhD next month and earlier this week I undertook the mammoth task of tidying my desk. It’s amazing the difference it makes, looking at it now gives me a feeling of control that is otherwise slightly lacking in my frame of mind as I leap into the unknown. It also gives me a sense of possibility about my writing, rather than looking at the random pile of papers and post-its that was there previously and inspires nothing more than a passing thought of “eugh, I need to sort that out.”

I was thinking about the difference those couple of hours of effort has made to my mind set when I met with a writer friend yesterday and we got to talking about the rituals we undertook before we started writing. There’s nothing magical in intent or result about these rituals, we have not unlocked unparalleled access to a mythical muse. It’s more about getting your head in the right space to concentrate on what you need to do – and sometimes trick yourself into writing even when you don’t initially feel inspired. Some people light candles or meditate; others seek out the perfect soundtrack and begin writing when the music starts. I have a writing cardigan and when I’m wearing that, it’s time to get to work.

There are some aspects of writing that can’t be taught and the writing ritual is one of them. You have to find your own way, let the process evolve and trust what works for you. What I call my writing cardigan has no inherently literary or magical properties; it’s one that my Mum knitted for me when I was a teenager and at this point it’s a little frayed and lost its shape. Because I love it, I can’t let it go and initially I would wear it when I was writing because that’s something I do at home on my own and frankly it’s probably not fit to be worn in the outside world. Over time, it became a signal to my mind that I was going to be staying at home and writing whenever I put it on.

I think that’s what the writing ritual is all about. We all have lives outside of writing, and most of the time you’re working hard to keep that going – whether that’s working to keep a roof over your head, looking after children or just the smaller things like keeping food in your cupboard or making sure your car has had its MOT. It’s something very personal and it depends on how you write, and how much time you have. If you have all day, by all means take an hour to meditate and do what you need to in order to get your head in the right space. If you’re cramming writing into an already busy life, it may be that you just need to take a deep breath and connect with your writing. You don’t need a clear day, a perfect space, a tidy desk or your lucky table at a coffee shop to do good work, but if you’re finding a lot of other things competing for your attention, the ritual can help.

I think the other thing about rituals is that you’re bringing some level of magical thinking into play, and that’s another important part of the process. I am aware that from the outside, my writing cardigan is faintly ridiculous, and there’s not really any chance that it would help to lend it to anyone else if they were stuck. I can – and do – write without it. However, if you’re struggling with maintaining your momentum, or finding the idea of your big project daunting, clearing a space to write and finding a way to get yourself there can make a big difference. Now if you’ll excuse me, my cardigan and I have some work to do. 

Honey, let me READ

I don’t like book snobbery. I don’t like it when people think they’re better than others due to a combination of their education and personal tastes leading them to like books labelled “literary” instead of “genre”. Some prejudices may dissipate in time – Naomi Alderman’s incredible sci-fi novel recently won the Baileys Prize, fantasy series Game of Thrones is mainstream and you only need look at the raft of amazing films and TV series that are currently popular to know how rich the storytelling is in graphic novels. So maybe the snobs will stop telling people what to read, but how to read appears to be another issue.

Really, it’s the same issue in a different hipster outfit. Books aren’t sacred objects. You can dog-ear pages, crack spines, scribble notes, spill your dinner on the cover or read in the bath and let the pages get crinkled and this doesn’t mean you love or appreciate books any less. The magic of reading doesn’t reside in the book - it lives inside you. I asked Simon, a smart bookworm friend of mine, where he stood on things like folding over pages to keep your place in a book and he said the most beautiful thing. “Every book is a museum of fossilised sound.” I loved that because I hear every book I read, and fossilised highlights just how robust it is, how lasting an effect books can have. Glyn Maxwell talks about how you feel good poetry throughout your whole body. It doesn’t really matter if you read it in a pristine first edition, on a kindle, or in a battered paperback, what matters is what you hear and feel as a result of reading.

And OK, yes I know this is petty, but it’s important to me because book snobbery puts people off reading. I’m not sure that those people who claim to love literature and then look down on others for reading different things or treating their books differently do really love it. Perhaps they love feeling cleverer than other people. Perhaps they like their smart bookshelves more than piles of crumpled titles scattered around a house because they look better. But if they cared about literature they wouldn’t care what and how other people read because all readers keep literature alive.

It also matters because if you get too precious about books then kids won’t read them. They have to be able to read what they want, without being afraid of getting shouted at for reading the wrong thing, or not looking after their book. In short, they have to be a part of their lives and you have to let kids love books in the same way they wear down the fur on a favourite teddy bear. I recently took my niece and nephew to see the musical of Matilda and they were genuinely shocked when Mr Wormwood destroyed her beloved books. This despite the fact their own books get folded in their bags, splattered with milk from reading over breakfast or rumpled in bed. That’s because letting books get worn is not the same as disrespecting them.

Listen, if you like keeping your books pristine, then be my guest. You do you, honey. Personally, I don’t care what state my books are in as long as I can read the words inside them. I have a copy of The Crow Road that has literally travelled all round the world after I lent it to a friend when he went travelling and it really looks like its seen some shit. I love that book. I love that my friend, not a big reader, took it with him everywhere he went and read the whole thing. I don’t care that it’s now battered, I care that another person read a beautiful story. If it falls apart, I’ll get another copy or I’ll download it on kindle, I’ll get the exact same story whatever form it’s in.

There’s too much judgement in the world as it is, so really, is folding down the pages of books the hill you’re choosing to die on? Let people live and honey, let me READ.

The Crow Road
By Iain Banks

The revolution will be feminised

The realisation that sexism was a thing came to me pretty late in life. I’m one of three sisters, so there was no brother in my family enjoy more privileges or freedom. My Dad was a nurse, so there were no real gender roles, either. I even went to an all girls’ high school until I was 16. I know that this makes me lucky. I grew up thinking I could do whatever I wanted if I worked for it, and I want the same for every little girl.

Sometimes I despair because it feels like the world is going backwards, but there is reason to hope. I love the twitter account @read_women that shares books written by female writers, often on a topical theme. Whatever is happening in the world, women have written about it and this account exists just to share that work and raise awareness. There’s no profit in it, just a community of people who love reading and raise up female writers who may have been consigned to history or the dreaded “female fiction” label.

Another example is the Guilty Feminist podcast, which makes me laugh a lot. It is characterised by a warm inclusiveness that allows women to be imperfect and I think that’s important. I think comedy can also be very valuable as a means of understanding the world. The podcast does an excellent job of tackling serious feminist issues alongside more light-hearted matters, which means no one takes themselves too seriously.

A third example is Salomé magazine. The editors accepted one of my poems for publication recently and I’m very proud to be a small part of their magazine. I’m also astounded by how lovely the team are, and how principled. They believe in paying writers, so they do. They believe everyone should receive feedback to help them with future submissions, so they do that too. It does make me wonder how so many more established magazines can’t achieve something that these determined women have done in a very short space of time. They are also organising a Summer Party and despite the fact that I’m slightly nervous, I’ll be reading my poem at the event. I’ve had such a warm welcome on twitter that I feel reassured that it will be a fun and supportive environment, one that has been created specifically to help emerging female writers.

What all of these examples have in common is that they’re co-operative, generous in spirit and supportive of others. This seems to me like a new model, distinct from the idea of clawing up a ladder alone to get to the top, and it also seems distinctly female. Feminism has a long road to travel; I know I have a lot to learn personally. We need more intersectional feminism that welcomes even more diverse voices in the conversation, for example, and art has a vital role to play in sharing those voices. You could imagine Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin singing at this point but I actually think the way things are going, it’s not just that sisters are doing it for themselves; they’re doing it for each other and that’s what is so powerful.

Why drag politics into it?

My favourite thing about Jeremy Corbyn gracing the covers of both the NME and Kerrang in the run up to the election is that more austere media have to describe what they are. I imagine the writer with a face like they’re sucking a lemon as they type “rock magazine Kerrang” in relation to a political story. It seems to have sparked debate amongst rock fans and beyond about whether politics should be included in a music magazine. In these politically polarised times it seems artists of all kinds are told to keep politics out of what they do.

Fuck that.

Musicians, writers, filmmakers, comedians, actors and more are told to stick to the day job by people who don’t seem to realise that it’s impossible because all art is political. It doesn’t matter whether the work is political in intent, whether it has some measure of political thought buried in the subtext or whether it’s nowhere to be found. The act of creating something is always an act of defiance in one way or another. Whether you’re kicking down the constraints of patriarchy, illuminating the impact of war or showing a young couple fall in love against socially-constructed barriers, it’s all political.

As with all art, rock music has been, and continues to be, part of my political education. If established political figures and commentators are worried about scruffy hordes of rock fans taking over their territory, they should be. We’re a lot better informed that you might imagine. If some people are uncomfortable that a music magazine is openly espousing more liberal views than they hold, they’re idiots who appear to have missed the point of the very thing they claim to love. Like the people genuinely surprised that Harry Potter author JK Rowling has anti-fascist, liberal views, it shows a startling lack of understanding. One of the incredible things that art can do is unearth such dissonance of thought and start a conversation.

As an aside, my least favourite thing about the Kerrang business is that I keep imagining someone like Zach de la Rocha reading all the internet comments about how politics doesn’t belong in rock music and shedding a few tears. I’m comforted by the thought that he’ll get an incredible song out of it, though.


Personal interlude

The Bank Holiday weekend was a bit strange for me. I learned on the Friday that a friend was getting married on the Sunday and from my distinct lack of knowledge I was clearly never invited. I was a little bit hurt; this was a friend who had drifted away after they found a new partner and yet still I had always thought they’d be back in my life one day. It felt like a faint line was being drawn under the friendship. Over the weekend, I got messages from various mutual friends asking me why I wasn’t there and whether I had known it was happening. That made it feel a lot more definite and that line became much more permanent.

I’m not going to go into a lot of history because it’s not really that relevant. I was a good friend to this person and at a time when I needed support, they weren’t there for me because they were caught up in their romance. Perhaps I did something to warrant their disappearance from my life, I honestly don’t know. Friends have theorised various scenarios and what they all demonstrate is the incredible loyalty and kindness my friends show me all the time.

As well as helping me to remember that my friends are wonderful people, the whole situation made me realise something about what we do and don’t say, what is and isn’t included. It’s possible that this errant friend realised their mistake and felt too awkward to get in touch, for example. It may have felt easier to just slink away, even though I think we all understand when people get overwhelmed, or over-excited or just too damn busy to keep in touch all the time.

The interesting thing is that one slightly awkward conversation and my attendance at – or at the least, awareness of – the wedding would have meant no one else would have known that we never really spoke any more. There was never an argument, and yet the severance of the friendship is absolute and maybe difficult questions would be asked. My presence would have made the absence of friendship less visible to the wider world. Silence didn’t keep the distance between us hidden; on the contrary, it exposed and amplified it.

I’m not sure what all this means, but it’s an interesting idea for a writer. How loudly do the things we consciously edit from our work echo in the final draft? What is the effect of all the things we don’t say? What is happening behind the scenes of the primary action? I don’t have any answers; it’s just something I’ll be thinking about over the next few weeks as I work on some new poems.

Maybe one day I’ll write about this whole situation and how it feels. I’m not so sure on that, because I try to focus on the positives wherever I can. Maybe I’ll write about my brilliant remaining friends instead. Or perhaps something that shows that dark moments illuminate both the light in our lives and secrets about the strange business of writing.


And just for the record, despite everything I wish this former friend of mine the utmost happiness. I wish I could have been at their wedding to tell them so. I’ve learned from this that what isn’t said can also hold weight, so perhaps the on going silence will pass on my good wishes somehow.

Human beings suffer

I’m sure from the outside, the lives of writers and artists look easy. I mean, all you have to do is spend a lot of time doing the thing you love, right? If you’re a writer, it means you spend a lot of time writing and reading, which is all I ever really wanted to do so I can see that it might look easy. It means engaging your imagination throughout every aspect of your life, which is a way of truly appreciating it. The challenge, and the place where the real work comes in, is to keep doing these things when the everyday stuff of life gets in the way.

When it comes to major events, from a personal loss to national horrors such as the recent Manchester bombing, things get even harder. I’m not saying for a second that it’s harder for artists. It’s not. I lost my Dad a few years ago and I don’t think it was tougher on me than on my sisters just because I’m a writer. I’ve been following the news about the attack in Manchester with the same horror as everyone else. I’m not kidding myself that I’m somehow special or more sensitive. When I think of writing about it, lines from Seamus Heaney’s poem The Cure at Troy keep recurring in my head:

No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

That doesn’t mean it’s pointless to keep going in dark times. Poetry, for me, is about understanding; it has as many roots in kindness as it does in language. Looking at the world in a new way can help us to appreciate it, see things from a different perspective or articulate feelings we’re struggling to understand. Poetry is also about joy. Poets write for the sheer joy of it, and that’s a good thing to be sending out into the world right now. It can be hard to hold on to that when horrific events take us so far from it, but I feel that artists of all stripes have an obligation to persevere.

The obligation is there not because artists have been marked out for some special reason. It’s because it’s incumbent on everyone to keep going, to find kindness and love in even the most horrific of circumstances. There is as much courage in a teenage girl putting on a sparkly t-shirt and dancing at a pop concert as there is in a writer trying to find a new way to express an old idea.

What’s my point here? Life is hard, human beings suffer and it can be hard to make sense of it all. All we can do as artists is stay connected to kindness and joy. All we can do as people is share that same kindness and joy with others and never, ever stop dancing.

I wanna reach down and pick the crowd up

I haven’t blogged for a while, it’s been a tough few months while I adjust to various situations that made me re-think my approach to writing. However, a chance comment to a friend today made me think it was time to get back to it. I was both shocked and saddened by the announcement of Chris Cornell’s death today. I told my friend that he had always been an inspiration to me because although I never had much in the way of musical talent, hearing him sing made me want to write the way he sounded.

If you’re not aware, Chris Cornell is a rock musician, known for the bands Soundgarden and Audioslave as well as a successful solo career. You can find a proper biography online somewhere. For me, when I think of Cornell, I think of the moving Temple of the Dog album that was on almost constant rotation throughout my late teenage years. The album was written by musicians looking to process the loss of a friend and it is full of anger and love and most of all, life in all its messy and complicated iterations.

When I said I wanted to write how Cornell sounds, I meant a strong, unwavering voice that resounds with sincerity and power. A voice that demonstrates anger and frustration but has a foundation in humanity and love that will not be ignored, will not tire, and pushes to the edges of endurance to make a point. The power and strain of his voice is, to me, something to aspire to in poetry.

Part of my recent struggle with writing has been trying to balance what might make me successful in some measure and what makes my heart sing. I was already headed that way, but the news of Cornell’s death has sealed it for me. Maybe I should have learned more lessons in my years on the planet, got more cynical and focussed but my heart won’t let me. I really haven’t changed much since I was a teenager. I still want to write like Chris Cornell sings, and now I know that I will, for all he gave to the world in the form of his music, for teenage Zoe who felt shivers down her spine when she heard him sing – 

You’ve got to hold on to your time
Till you break through these
Times of trouble.

Influences come in many forms. Writers need to read widely, but they need to be voracious consumers of all forms of art and follow whatever makes their heart sing. They need to live as widely as they read, if that makes sense. I don’t know. It makes sense to me. Thank you Chris Cornell, for all the music you gave the world and for once again helping someone who was lost find their way in times of trouble.

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

When I first started writing, it was at a difficult time in my life and I had a burst of inspiration that appeared to be unearthed amidst the turmoil. As I committed more deeply to writing, I found that the inspiration appeared to evaporate and the first few times that happened, I panicked. I felt like I’d lost whatever it was that gave me such joy and I was approaching an end to my dream of being a writer. Over the years, I’ve found this has happened on a frequent but entirely unpredictable basis and one thing I’ve learned is not to panic and trust that the inspiration will return.

A lot of writing advice, correctly, centres on the need for hard work as a writer and how you must write even on days when you don’t feel particularly inspired or even when the work you’re doing isn’t turning out well. I understand the value of that and certainly I agree that perseverance can pay off on that score. When I was completing my MA, I couldn’t negotiate assignment deadlines around a capricious (and let’s face it, fictional) muse so I did have to keep working to a certain extent, but I must admit I never kept myself to a schedule or particular pattern of working which required a set number of hours or words, per day or per week. For some writers, this approach works but it’s worth acknowledging that writing advice is pretty much like relationship advice – all the theory sounds correct but it’s never the same when you’re experiencing it personally.

When I find myself without the urge to write, the first thing I do is remember not to panic, which only makes me feel worse and therefore less likely to write anything of merit. I remind myself of all the times this has happened before and I have come through it. Then I set about doing anything to fill up my mind in a way that might cause inspiration to come flooding back. At the moment, I’m reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for the pure joyous beauty of the storytelling and Charles Simic’s book of poetry The Lunatic to help me keep looking at language in a way that is fresh. As I get used to a long commute, I’m also listening to an audiobook of David Copperfield to remind me of the way words conjure worlds. In doing all of these things, I am still a writer and I don’t see this as time away from what I do, it’s just time to refill the well of inspiration.

All writing advice should be taken with a grain of salt because each writer is on a personal journey akin to a love affair, it’s never the same as the theory or the experience of the next guy. Continuing to write despite how you feel might work for you and in that case, keep doing it. On the other hand, if you need a break, don’t think of it as failure. You might find inspiration from being outdoors, or from switching off your brain for a while and watching something comforting on TV, decluttering your home or going for a run. The important thing to remember is that you’re still a writer when you do these things and at some point, you’re going to get back to the blank page.

American Gods
By Neil Gaiman
The Lunatic: Poems
By Charles Simic
David Copperfield [Audible]
By Charles Dickens

Will you be my Valentine?

Love, like poetry, is a slippery creature and both love and poetry remain an enigma to me most of the time. In preparing this blog, I’ve researched love poems, thought about the structure of love stories and watched a couple of films and I’m at a loss. I recognise that Valentine’s Day is just a commercial enterprise and the aim is to make people feel they are lacking something which can be remedied by buying a certain product, or buying into a certain worldview. It still sucks to be single on Valentine’s Day, though. I miss having someone to sneer at it without appearing bitter. I miss being able to talk about romance at all without appearing bitter, tragic or, if I choose to think more positively, hopelessly naïve.

Love poems can be incredibly moving and address many aspects of romance, from consuming passion to unrequited love and the end of an affair. I haven’t written many love poems in my career because I’ve never found a way to break out of those categories. I have written some reflections on past relationships, but they’re rarely about love and more about self-discovery. I did write a poem for the wedding of two of my best friends and that was a tough commission because I felt a lot of pressure to get it right. I found the certainty of their marriage, the “rightness” of them being together very hard to express without resorting to cliché. The language around love is something that fascinates me because, I think, what it demonstrates in most cases is the inadequacy of language. So much remains unsaid and perhaps that’s why poets, novelists and musicians continue to try.

As a single woman in my forties, I may find much unsaid about my experience but that doesn’t mean it isn’t written between the lines – screaming at me between the verse and the chorus – and those are messages no one wants to write down. Love poems talk in elevated language about how superficial aspects such as age or looks don’t matter (and my friends do the same) but the truth is that in the real world, they do. In the rousing poem Wild Geese, Mary Oliver counsels that, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.” That may be excellent advice for life, but if that soft animal contains too many contradictions, if it loves delicate poetry and the most bombastic action movies, gourmet cocktails and a pint of Guinness, or loves being an Aunt but would rather have a puppy than a child, it makes for a truly terrible dating profile. Trust me.

Just as there is a gap between the words found in love poems and our experience of love, there is a dissonance between how we would like life to be and how it really is. While no one finds the words to express that, Valentine’s Day can stake a claim in the gap, pulling us towards the dream and away from the reality. On bad days, I think there must be something wrong with me to have failed so utterly in the world of romance. I remind myself of the many loves in my life, comprised of my family and the most incredible friends, just to be reassured that I’m not irrevocably broken. I always write to find out what I think, so maybe I need to start with that experience and write love poetry which reflects my reality. Wild Geese may be relevant after all, concluding as it does:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Next time I feel like a romantic failure, I’m also going to remind myself of something I discovered while researching this blog – Amazon lists the recent film version of Macbeth under the category of Romance. I may suck at dating and remain mystified by romance but at least I know that Lord and Lady Macbeth aren’t the romantic model to strive towards.

I’ve told you a million times to stop using hyperbole

I’ve noticed that the word traitor seems to be popping up in rhetoric a lot recently. It seems I’m not the only one to notice, with a German panel labelling it the ‘ugliest word of 2016’ due to Nazi overtones. A traitor is defined as ‘a person who betrays someone or something, such as a friend, cause or principle.’ This means a person who is protesting against the actions of a government they see as deplorable is not a traitor, they are in fact staying entirely true to their own principles.

Protests which are designed to condemn the behaviour of a corporation – such as #DeleteUber – or deny a platform to alt-right speakers, as happened at the University of Berkeley are not betraying principles of freedom of commerce or speech. A company can and will do what it wants, but so can each customer. That alt-right speaker does have the right to speak, but equally everyone else has a similar right to ignore him, or speak up about why they don’t want him there. I, for example, have the right to tell you I’m going to turn up at your house once a week and read you poetry, and then send you a bill. You have the right to tell me you don’t want to pay for that, and you don’t want a stranger in your house. You’re missing out on some cracking poetry, of course, but you’re not a traitor to free speech to tell me so.

The word was used this week in relation to MPs who voted against Brexit, as if they were traitors to the country and the will of the people. Apart from the fact that the referendum didn’t deliver a resounding 100% vote, if you believe in the UK as a sovereign power, and you believe therefore in the sovereignty of parliament and the notion of parliamentary democracy, then you believe in the right of MPs to vote against something they believe is not in the national interest, or the interest of their constituents. They are, in fact, the living, breathing embodiment of faith in the system that they are accused of betraying.

It seems like ‘traitor’ has become shorthand for ‘someone I don’t agree with’ and that’s dangerous because the word has so many emotive associations. It is used as an argument-ending word to shut down discussion and will, in turn, become meaningless. The truth will always be more powerful than any amount of hyperbole or rhetorical tricks, and writers have a duty to preserve and defend language so that the truth can be shared with people. A good example of this is in the Pablo Neruda poem I’m Explaining a Few Things and the haunting lines:

and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like the blood of children.

Neruda is the master of simile and metaphor but in this poem, denouncing the Nationalist movement during the Spanish Civil War, he understands that nothing is more powerful or emphatic than the bare, unvarnished truth. In these times, writers must look past the rhetoric and maintain a clear eye and a steady pen. This is how to write beautifully but more importantly, it is how to live without betraying your freedom.