A great deal of fuss has been made about a supposed ‘newly discovered portrait of Shakespeare’ found on the title page engraving of sixteenth century botany book. The editor of UK lifestyle magazine Country Life, in which the discovery was announced, declared it “The Literary Discovery of the Century”. The story was dutifully picked up by BBC News Online and such is the clout of the BBC that by yesterday all major news outlets were excitedly repeating the story, leading it to trend across social media. The botanist who made the discovery quickly morphed into a ‘historian’ and NBC news even multiplied him into ‘historians’ to add a little weight to the theory.
On Saturday I met a woman called Lindsey. Until very recently she was living in Hurstpierpoint, a genteel Sussex village. She has a job, but she currently can’t work for reasons that will become obvious. Her GP, she told me, was kind enough to sign her off with ‘stress’. Why? Because her husband assaulted her so badly that he knocked out her two front teeth. She went to a women’s refuge where she lived for 2 weeks but then had to leave – they have a lot of assaulted women, limited funding, limited rooms in their hostel. She went to the council but according to their criteria she has made herself “intentionally homeless” because there is a perfectly good house she could live in, her marital home, so they can do nothing at all for her for a fortnight. That’s the rule, apparently. Her husband was incarcerated immediately after the assault but is now out on bail. She is, understandably, too afraid to live in this home from which she has made herself “intentionally homeless”.
I wonder how many books have never seen the light of day, because the potential author of that book kept thinking “What’s the point?” Whether you secretly think it (perhaps so secretly that you keep it from yourself) or whether you find yourself sighing out loud when you sit down to write, “What’s the point?” is a serious book-stopper.
Lots of writers — both aspiring and published — suffer from ‘What’s the point?” Anyone who has ever seriously thought about writing a book has considered the huge number of books out there. Books in bookshops. Books in charity shops. Manuscripts of books piled high on the desks of agents and editors. All the the books that aren’t published. All the books that are published. All the books that don’t get reviewed or win prizes. All the books that sink without trace.
He wrote with all the inventive precision of a young Vladimir Nabokov. Every piece he submitted was thrilling to read. As his tutors, we discussed our most promising student over after-work drinks; wondered if we might be named in his acknowledgements, looked forward to being invited to his book launch.
Shift to the present tense. Six years after he completed the University’s Creative Writing programme as one of our ‘tipped for the top’ authors, I bump into Martin.
On April 14th I’m talking about writing style at Senate House in London, as part of the Open University’s Contemporary Cultures of Writing series. I’m hoping to attend at least one of the other events in the series, too. I’ll be talking about the difference between academic and creative writing styles.
I switch between the two all the time; I’ve just finished writing a 10,000 word article on Shakespeare and Warwickshire dialect, for example, in the same week that I was proofing my forthcoming novel, Devotion. Writing style is an interesting beast. I’m curious to know how similar (and how different) people will find the prose of Devotion from the poetry of The Marlowe Papers, for example. I know that years of poetic compression have affected my prose, and my love of imagery is impossible to bury. Creative style isn’t (for me, at least) conscious. It is just how I have come to write, after thousands of hours of practice and thousands more hours of reading. It’s what pleases my inner ear. My academic style was learned far more recently; (what I consider to be) good academic writing styles have a lot more in common with each other than creative writing styles. Academic style is a uniform I put on: practical, sober, persuasive. My creative style I’m not even sure I could categorise, but it involves changes of clothes (within a recognisable palette of cut and colour) and occasional flashes of nudity.
How does creative writing style develop? What does one’s writing style say about you as a person? How much is it about being the best (edited, revised, perfected) version of yourself? These are things worth pondering.
Come and spend a week with me in the Dordogne this summer on a fully-catered writing retreat. Each morning there will be workshops focusing on some of the key elements of good fiction. Then we break for lunch, usually by the pool if the weather is good. The afternoons are all yours: see me for an in-depth discussion of your works, take the chance to do some writing, swim in the private pool, go for a walk in the extensive grounds (with woodland and lakes), explore local villages, or a combination of all of the above. No need to do any cooking; just kick back, relax, and get inspired. A real chance to focus on you and your writing for the week.
Every participant will get two one-to-one tutorials, with in-depth feedback on a short story, or a chapter of your novel-in-progress, or any other piece of writing you’d like to share. Plus of course there’s a chance to chat over lunch and dinner, about writing, getting published, or anything else you’d like to talk to me about!
Like many writers, I have used my family as material more often than they probably would have liked. For me, poetry began as a way to find out who I was, and why I was who I was, and to process difficult experiences. Through our families we discover and construct who we are, both in opposition and through osmosis. Thus, in learning who I was, I wrote repeatedly about my family.
During that process – which now feels complete – I avoided, on the whole, subjecting my children to the writer’s lens. My family of origin felt like fair game, although I recognise that on a logical level this is nonsense. But my offspring? Quite frankly it is suffering enough to be born to a writer without becoming the focus of your parent’s pen. All the time you are growing up, a writing parent is obsessively interested in something other than you. They have these other text-based offspring growing in their heads and hearts, taking up spaces that are rightfully yours. A writing parent has no right to embarrass their child publicly, beyond the standard parental actions of singing loudly, dancing badly and the like.
The last few night I’ve slept badly; blessed with a nuisance daughter, a nuisance cat, and a time-pressured commission that keeps me gnawing at it in my head when I should be sleeping. At 3am I found myself on Twitter – and there was the kicker. The news that Robin Williams has killed himself. For the second time in a week I find myself crying because a brilliant, funny, and much-loved man who brought light and joy into the world has killed himself after losing a battle with depression.
The first, a few days ago, was the much less well known Ian Smith. He was one of the founders – and undoubtedly the face – of Brighton’s original Zap Club (when it was a quirky all-comers cabaret venue, not yet another dull thumping seafront nightclub). We were on the same bill for a couple of weeks in the mid-1980s, when I was singing/strumming in the two piece Honey Guide with Pete Sinden, and he was banging six-inch nails up his nose. I didn’t really know him, but he affected me. He was brilliantly being himself and inspiring others to be so. He was funny, and startling, and weird, when I was afraid to be. He moved to Glasgow and carried on doing the kind of performance art that makes you wonder, and laugh, and think. He made a lot of friends. He had a wife who loved him and two kids he adored. But he also had depression. And last week, aged 55, he killed himself.
Last week, I taught for the Arvon Foundation at Totleigh Barton in Devon. It was a massive thrill for me to be back there as a tutor. The last time I was there was as one of the students, the very youngest on the course at just 15. Teaching a residential week for Arvon is just one of a long list of dreams-come-true that have materialised in my life over the last three years, and follows hard on the heels of getting a permanent job in the English Department at Goldsmiths and selling my second novel, Devotion, to Oneworld.
None of these things would be possible if I hadn’t written The Marlowe Papers. And believe me, there were quite a few moments between 2006 and 2011 when I thought it was never going to get written. Or that it would be terrible rubbish, and no-one would want to read it, let alone publish it. Now, wherever I go – and last week’s Arvon was no exception – people ask me “How on earth did you write it?”
I have several answers to this question, and I usually offer a few of them, one after the other, and yet I find my questioner often continues to be unsatisfied. And it’s true, that even when all of my stock answers are added together, something absolutely critical is missing. The part I tend to miss out is the most important part of all. It is the daily practice that moved me out of frozen terror (when I realised the enormity of the task) to steady progress and eventually into – dare I say it? – genuine ease. It’s the technique that allowed someone who was timid, fearful, and uncertain of her own talents to become courageous, audacious and bold. Here it is: I obliterated all of the psychological blocks in the way of writing it by using EFT.