Should you pay to write?

In 2014, Hanif Kureishi, gave an interview to ‘The Guardian’ in which he stated that creative writing courses were a “waste of time”. This might seem a bit ironic considering that Mr Kureishi, who wrote ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’, teaches creative writing at Kingston University but the question is; does he have a point?  Now, this isn’t the first time that I’ve heard someone say that creative writing courses are a waste of time and money but if you ask me, they’re only a waste of time and money if you just don’t have the talent. I mean, I can sing a bit and I can hold a note reasonably well but I doubt very much that a singing masterclass is going to turn me into Aretha Franklin.

Kureishi went on to say that “a lot of my students just can’t tell a story” whilst Matt Haig, who also contributed to the article, said that “Creative writing lessons can be useful, just like music lessons can be useful.”  I don’t believe that you can teach someone how to write. You can’t teach a person how to use their imagination and create a story but a writing course can teach someone who has the talent for writing to learn how to craft a story.

In September 2016, after winning a crime writing competition, I started a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at City University. The course allows you to focus on either Literary Novels or Crime Thriller Writing. Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that I have chosen Crime Thriller Writing. Over the course of two years, I will be experimenting with writing styles, applying the fundamentals of fiction to my work and finally completing a novel. Now, you may be wondering why I’ve enrolled on this course when I’ve already written and published a book (The Sisters) and contributed to an anthology (No Way Home)? Without blowing my own trumpet, I can clearly write but I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with going on a course to improve your skills and to elevate your writing.  When I’m not writing, I’m a practising criminal defence solicitor and every year the Solicitors Regulation Authority require me to identify any learning and development needs and complete any necessary courses. It’s all about improving your skills and a creative writing course should be utilised in the same way.

So far, I have enjoyed every minute of my course. I usually write contemporary fiction but I knew that writing crime fiction required a different skill set or tool box. I have learnt to take risks with my writing and have also been forced out of my comfort zone. In addition, I have also had the luck of meeting a few of my crime writing idols and have been exposed to the reality of the publishing world.

If you go on Amazon, there a ridiculous number of ‘How to write’ books but unless you have an experienced creative writing teacher who can show you how to apply those writing techniques to your writing and provide you constructive feedback, then those ‘How to Books’, and any creative writing course, will be as useful as an inflatable dartboard. I love a good quote and I think that the familiar quote of “All the gear but no idea” is most apt. A creative writing course is only useful if it can provide you with the correct tools that will enable you to tell a compelling story. The tutors on the course need to show the students how to use the tools, otherwise, there simply is no point.

 

This post is brought to you by Nadine Matheson

 

Where are you from?

It’s the most innocent of questions, and yet, I am almost always stumped by it: ‘Where are you from?’

Do I say, ‘Just outside London’ (where I have lived for almost two decades and which is now my home)? Or ‘South India’ (which is where I grew up)?

I suppose this is why I write, why my characters tend to have the carpet pulled out from under them, why they grapple with identity, who they are. I am trying to answer this fundamental question of who I am, where I belong, what is home, via my books.

I had an idyllic childhood, growing up in a picturesque village nestling by the Arabian sea, spending the endless, sugarcane scented summer afternoons playing cricket and lagori in the fields, running amok among the fruit orchards, stealing mangoes and guavas from neighbourhood gardens, getting bitten by ants and hounded by the posse of stray dogs that roamed the village. I suppose those torpid, lazy days have been branded in my memory as they make their presence felt while I am writing my books and an echo of those somnolent, carefree afternoons weave a thread of nostalgia into the prose I am composing.

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The village where I spent my childhood was a hotbed for gossip and secrets. I used to eavesdrop on conversations and discover intrigue, snippets of gossip thrumming with undercurrents which I never fully understood until I was an adult. And, as I grew older, I also began to comprehend that secrets are most prevalent in families, that we tend to keep confidences from the people we love the most, fired by the misplaced conviction that we are protecting them.

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When I sat down to write my first novel, I looked up all the advice that new writers are given. The one which stuck with me was, ‘Write about what you know.’

Okay, I mused. I can do that.

I spent a few days pondering and finally decided to address the strange ailment that strikes me mute when people ask: ‘Where are you from?’

And this is how my first novel, Monsoon Memories came into play. Shirin, the protagonist of Monsoon Memories, wants to answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ with India, but she cannot, for she is no longer welcome there. For her, home will always be the one place which has shunned her, which she has run away from and yearned for ever since.

We all do things we regret, but the choice Shirin has to make is one that changes the course of her life forever, alienating her from almost everyone she holds dear and the country she loves.

Home, I have come to understand is where you feel comfortable, rooted. Where your family is; your loved ones, all those who matter to you. Home is where you are happiest, where you are most yourself, the place you keep returning to in your memories. Shirin, the protagonist in my debut, Monsoon Memories doesn’t have that luxury. She is bereft floating in a no-man’s land, denied the memories that are rightly hers because to access them she has to face the thing she did, the thing she cannot get past.

Home, for me, is in one sense, the wind-battered, rain-kissed house in the suburbs of London where I live now. It is also, in a wider sense a sun-warmed, bustling, multi-hued, multi-faceted country of contrasts, the constant warmth of a benevolent sun matched only by its sunnier people.

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Both these places have shaped me, India in growing me up and London in forming the adult I have become.

Where are you from? What do you think of when you think of ‘home’?

 

This post is brought to you by Renita D’Silva.

That time of the year

It’s that time of the year when the crocuses are sprouting, the snow drops nodding their heads in the breeze. The evenings are getting lighter. The weather…okay, perhaps we won’t focus too much on the weather right now but we know warmer days, sunnier days, are on the horizon.

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Spring is here, and my thoughts turn to…Christmas.

If you’re a writer, you’ll be nodding your head in understanding. If you’re not, you’ll be thinking I meant to type Easter. And of course March is the month when the sane amongst us begin to picture fluffy bunnies and baby chicks. Gambolling lambs and chocolate eggs. I, on the other hand, will be imagining pine trees, fairy lights and reindeer. Because I’m about to write a Christmas novella.

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A more organised writer would have started this book a few months ago – perhaps actually during Christmas. I was too busy finishing my last book, too busy juggling my other (medical) writing work. Now I’ve left myself just a few months to write my story so that by the start of the summer it can be edited.

And by November it will hopefully be published.

Is it hard to conjure up Christmas in spring? Actually no, it’s not. You see, I’ve lived through a lot of Christmas’s – far more than I’d like to admit to – so the atmosphere, the feeling, the spirit of the season is firmly embedded in my memory bank. Easy to draw down on whenever I need it. I’d find it much harder to write about something I’ve never experienced. I am in awe of those who create new worlds, different species. Who go beyond the human, into the supernatural. I don’t have that creativity.

Thankfully, when it comes to dreaming up characters and how they might meet, interact, in particular for me (as I write romance) how they might fall in love, my imagination is fully on board. Just as well, because writing a Christmas book isn’t about describing baubles or pretty snow scenes in perfect accurate detail. It’s about creating compelling characters people will want to read about at any time of the year. Their story just happens to occur around Christmas time.

So enjoy the spring. Enjoy the warmth of the sun on your face (when it finally decides to show up). Enjoy watching the buds begin to blossom. Enjoy those Easter eggs. And I’ll enjoy tucking into my mince pies.

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This post is brought to you by Kathryn Freeman.

 

Expressing the Inexpressible

I’d been writing and publishing for twenty years when I was brought to a juddering halt by depression. That was ten years ago, and through my recovery I have discovered a different side to writing which has helped me discover different aspects to myself.

I am not the first to posit the healing powers of writing and words. We could go back through the centuries and the human use of charms, spells and prayer (Mazza, 2003). In more recent years, experiment, research and experience have come together to give a grounding to the idea of writing as a therapy (Smyth & Pennebaker, 2008; Nicholls, 2009; Evans, 2011). For those interested in this way of working there is a national organisation www.Lapidus.org.uk

Personally, it took a while for me to gather enough of my resources to be able to write for publication again. I spent years writing for myself, exploring aspects of me, my experiences, my relationships and my story. It may sound self-indulgent, but it was also my life saver. In addition, during this time, I had therapy and trained as a counsellor. All of this, I believe, has fed into the writing which I now choose to share with an audience, it has added layers and textures which were not there before.

I am struck by writers more famous than me who have also used writing to ease them through emotional turmoil. Colm Tóibín explains his task in writing his recent novel Nora Webster (Penguin, 2015), was one of working out the truth of what had happened when his father died. ‘You’re pulling this out of yourself. This is sometimes very difficult material.’ But ‘it’s an anchor, in a way, all this pleasure [I experience] would mean nothing if this pain, if this working out the pain wasn’t there and I wasn’t writing and I wasn’t doing it.’ (Tóibín, 2016.)

Jackie Kay says that it is not just in the writing, but in the crafting that the healing can be found. When she was asked how she got through her difficult encounter with her birth father (as described in her novel Red Dust Road, Picador, 2011) she replied, ‘By writing. … By finding some way of crafting an experience, constructing a structure to create a door to let other people in so they can walk into your experience and call it theirs and in the business of doing this in itself gives you somewhere to go with it. It’s almost like telling a story back to yourself. Often the more traumatised we are, the more we’ll tell the story or else we’ll be completely silent. Writing is one of the ways of expressing the inexpressible.’ (Kay, 2016.)

When I came to write my first novel for publication (The Art of the Imperfect, long-listed for the Crime Writers Association debut novel award, 2015 https://goo.gl/JrGat2) I wanted to write about my journey through depression in a way that would both express something for myself and open it up to others. In order to do so, one of the techniques I used was to show the mismatch between the external ‘reality’ and the internal monologue of the character Hannah. Some readers have said they have found this disturbing and uncomfortable, others have said how it echoed their own experiences.

I live with depression. I still write every day in a journal. Some of what I write is about dealing with my emotional landscape and existence. I wouldn’t share what I write in my journal in its raw state. However, I do believe it gives me a greater understanding of what it is to be human which can augment the writing I do for publication.

 

This post is brought to you by Kate Evans.

 

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References

Evans, K. (2011). ‘The Chrysalis and the Butterfly: A phenomenological study of one person’s writing journey.’ Journal of Applied Arts & Health 2:2, 173-186.

Kay, J. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 28th October. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Cathy Drysdale.

Mazza, N. (2003). Poetry Therapy. Theory & Practice. Routledge, New York & London.

Nicholls, S. (2009). ‘Beyond Expressive Writing: evolving models of developmental creative writing.’ Journal of Health Psychology 14(2), 171-180.

Smyth, J.M., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2008). Exploring the boundary conditions of expressive writing: In search of the right recipe. British Journal of Health Psychology 13, 1-7.

Tóibín, C. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 8th January. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Christine Pawlowsky

 

Writing Every Day

I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of writing every day. I go through spells where I do write every day, but that’s more coincidence, it’s never a religious kind of discipline so much as a bit of a productive spell.

When I read about Jack London, who had a mad and varied life, writing 1000 words every single day in order to hone his craft, I really admired that level of dedication. But I’ve never been able to stick with it. I’ve always written, I’ve always got one piece of writing or another on the go, but I’ve never made sure to sit down and get it done every single day.

I recently visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. There was a section featuring just his pencil drawings, and there was a quote on the wall from him that said “Drawing is the root of everything, and the time spent on that is actually all profit.” I loved that. The museum was full of the paintings that eventually made his name – but to him the root of it all was these drawings, just practising his craft, flexing his creative muscles to get better and better, even if those drawings didn’t amount to anything directly. It was all still profit for his creative bank account.

I decided that I didn’t need to divide all my writing into either poems or working on my next novel – that I should try writing regularly just to keep my internal writing machinery from getting rusty. Rather than 1000 words every day, I settled on 500. It seemed more attainable as a starting point.

But still, even with a lower word target, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. If I can find a way to get out of doing work, I will. I had to come up with a foolproof system. I’ll share it with you now just on the off chance that you, like me, have always wanted to try writing every day, but felt like you didn’t have the discipline. Or maybe you just find the pressure of working on your ‘proper novel’ every day too much pressure, especially if you’ve recently hit a big wall in terms of where you think it should go next.

So, this is my system: I made a big list of things I know inside and out. Events, places, people, things that have happened to me, things I have opinions on etc. For example, the top of my list was ‘going to Amsterdam, Manchester United, Tom Waits, meeting my girlfriend’ etc. Really basic. Really broad.

Each day, I sit down at the computer, look at the long list, and choose whichever one feels easiest at that time. Then I start typing. It doesn’t matter if I stay on topic, it doesn’t even really  matter if it makes sense, it just matters that I’m keeping the writing part of my brain active. I usually hit 500 words pretty quickly – and often fly past it without even thinking to check the word count. Granted, I’ve only been doing it for a couple of months now, but I keep thinking of things to add to the list of ideas, and so far it’s been my longest sustained run of writing every day. And as far as I’m concerned, as someone who wants to write for a long time, and wants to get better and better at it, that’s all profit.

 

This post is brought to you by Jared A Carnie.

Hanging At Hemingway’s

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Writing and particularly finishing a novel is never easy (not for me, anyway), and I’m always interested in any snippets of information or clues from the greats about how they did it, and that’s one of the reasons why I love a literary pilgrimage. As far as I’m concerned all holidays are improved by the inclusion of an excursion to an author’s house.

In the UK, there are many houses with literary connections open to the public such as: Jane Austen’s house near Alton, Dickens’ Portsmouth birthplace, the Brontés’ parsonage in Haworth, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Thomas Hardy’s Max Gate, Agatha Christie’s Devonshire hideaway and Dylan Thomas’ Boathouse and writing shed.

Last summer, however, a literary trip took me further afield. After the full on, money-draining, sensory overload that is Disney, Orlando, I headed south on a road trip to Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West.

This was the place he shared with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer. It’s a beautiful French Colonial style mansion full of six-toed cats (descended from Hemingway’s own polydactyl cat, Snow White). The house was a wedding gift from Pauline’s uncle (nice uncle) and it came with a carriage house, the second floor of which became Hemingway’s writing room.

An exterior metal stairway takes you up to the somewhat gloomy writing room that now overlooks the pool. Originally, there was a boxing ring below and Pauline had the pool built at huge expense while Hemingway was away reporting on the Spanish Civil War.

So, what’s to gain from visiting such places? Does it help to see where Jane Austen or the Bronte’s lived? Yes, I think it does. Jane Austen worked at a tiny writing table squished by the window. She could watch the world go by, but was far enough from the creaky door that she would be warned of any imminent disruptions. And, similarly, it was fascinating to see where the Brontés workshopped together (perhaps the most successful workshop ever).

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However, these houses are usually preserved in a semi-realistic way. For instance, I doubt that Pauline Pfeiffer lined the walls with framed posters of all the film adaptations of Ernest’s books once he went off with Martha Gellhorn. And yet the house gives a sense of a writer’s life, the domestic set-up with kids and pets and the complications that arose from Hemingway’s appetite for wine, women and macho pursuits.

The Key West house was only a small part of his life and yet it offers insights into how he lived and more importantly it made me want to read more about him.

I visited at a time when I was struggling with the umpteenth rewrite of my latest novel, My Life as a Bench, and it helped to read about Hemingway’s perfectionism and his reluctance to give up his novel A Farewell to Arms until he was entirely happy. Apparently, he rewrote the ending as many as seventeen times. And reading this spurred me on to once again tackle the ending of My Life as a Bench. I don’t know why, but somehow it helps to know that even the greats have struggled with endings.

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Next stop, Hemingway’s house in Cuba … or more likely Dickens’ London residence.

 

This post is brought to you by Jaq Hazell.

 

When Fiction Hits The Spot

So this website is supposed to be devoted to contemporary fiction so I thought I’d write about a subject that seems to crop up in all types of contemporary fiction – sexuality. Okay, so sexuality is a BIG subject and I’ve only got a few minutes to type this before bed so let’s focus in on one aspect of sex that gets tongues wagging which is the G-spot. Now, in my (dubious) opinion, the G-spot would be more aptly named the Z-spot because I’ve heard on the grapevine that many women are prone to falling asleep or dying from boredom whilst their man is searching for it. (Especially if he’s also looking at the football results.)

Now I am not suggesting that all males are cack-handed at foreplay and finding the G-spot. On the contrary, I am sure there’s at least half a dozen men out there who know what they’re doing. And if any of you ladies know where they are please let the rest of us know and then we can all form an orderly queue.

To be fair to the male species, I admit it is well known that the G-spot is pretty elusive. Some say it doesn’t even exist. All I can say is that after having given birth to three strapping sons there’s more chance of me winning the lottery or losing half my body weight in a week than there is of finding my G-spot. My vagina is like a black hole. There’s probably a couple of lost spaceships up there. In fact, my gynaecologist once sent a search party up there to look for my cervix. Sadly, even though they were armed with flashlights and a week’s rations they didn’t find their way back for over a month.

You know, recently I’ve been wondering how I’m going to support myself in old age as writing books doesn’t pay and as I was a stay-at-home mum for years I’ve got zero pension. I’ve been trying to think creatively about how I can give my income a boost.

So far, all I’ve managed to come up with is hiring out my vagina as a backdrop for the next Star Wars movie.

I reckon if George Lucas filmed some really epic space battles in my vagina I could patent it and then make a pitch for the Star Trek movies as well. I could even set up my own stage production company. I’d probably call it Black Hole Productions.

Anyway, it’s time for me to hit the sack so to end this post on a positive note my advice is:

If you’re looking for your G-spot you might as well give up and eat a packet of chocolate chip cookies instead. It will be a lot more satisfying and you can put on your headphones whilst you’re eating them and block out the sound of your partner switching channels on the TV.

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“One more take and I think I’ve got it!”
This post is brought to you by Jane Turley.