Club Membership – Open.

I tell my students to write, and they do.  There might be a few moments when they look at me blankly, but after a quick chat, they begin.  And so do I.  Never set a task that you are not willing to follow yourself, is the rule I set myself.

We write stories that we had not suspected existed.  Inventions and memories churn together to produce the bones of a tale in the space of a lesson.  I call it the pressure-cooker effect, and if ever anyone asks me what benefits there are in joining a writing group, this is one of my main ones.

How does it happen?  I’m not entirely sure.  It’s a safe environment, for one thing.  Everyone is there with the same idea: that writing is possible, even desirable.

Joining a writing group was a pivotal moment for me.  Up until then, if anyone came across me scribbling in a notebook and wondered what I was doing I claimed to be keeping a diary.  Oddly, it’s only since labelling myself a writer that I have managed to consistently keep any form of diary, but that’s another tale.

People tend to look sideways at you when you confess that you write.  Especially if your other job is not office based.  At that time I was doing out-door work.

So what had led to me admitting my secret?

I had to turn down an invitation.

‘So,’ came the reply, ‘what are you up to on a Tuesday evening?’

‘I’ve joined a class.’

‘Oh yes, what in?’

‘Um,’ I mumbled, ‘creative writing.’

‘Really?’ they said. ‘Why?’

‘Well,’ I said.  ‘It seemed like a fun thing to do.  English was the only subject I liked at school.’  Then I change the subject.

As an un-published scribbler-in-secret I had no way to explain to non-writers the importance of this development in my life.

Now, I can say that when I entered that room full of other people who shared a drive to write, I was joining a club.  It may have looked like a dingy and battered classroom, but it was a warm and welcoming environment: a creative-writing-playground for grown-up writers.

Those classes ran for about two years, and I loved them.  Like any good club, we supported each other, sharing our work and ideas and enthusiasm.  We drove each other to improve by taking our craft seriously, and that meant more commitment to writing outside of class time.

It sneaked up on me, that confidence to say openly that I was writing.  As stories took up more space in my life, so the people in my life, and I, grew to accept it as a part of who I was.

Can I sum all this up into one easy line?

I was going to try, but I’m not sure I want it to be that simple.

Practicing the Craft

A lot of my writing groups are made up of people who have not written creatively for a long time.  Or, if they have, they’ve not talked about it.  Life, as in work and family, perhaps travel, has kept them too busy.  But now, something in that mix has changed and they’re ready to pick up on a dream that has always been at the back of their minds.  That, ‘One day I’m going to write a …’ is now.

The trouble is, they don’t quite know where to start.  ‘Of course,’ they say.  ‘I’ll never be good enough.’

Always I come up against the old idea that a writer, a real writer, is able to dash off a story that is perfectly formed and ready for public consumption in a hot rush of inspiration, rather like Mozart does his music scores in the film, Amadeus.

No doubt some writers are able to do that.  Good for them.  But plenty more of us would not dare to send out a first draft.  We take time afterwards to polish.

‘Write and rewrite,’ I tell my groups.  ‘That is the keystone to good writing.’

Luckily, there’s evidence to back me up.  From Steven King to Ernest Hemingway, to Ursula Le Guin, to H.E. Bates, to Katherine Mansfield and a hundred more great and successful writers I owe thanks not just for their honesty in talking about the processes of rewriting and editing, but their pride in it.

I like to stress the idea of writing as a craft as well as an art.  Generally, we value artisan-made objects more highly than those mass-produced, because of the skills and imagination that have gone into them.  We know that the nature of the individual materials has affected the finished design.  So shouldn’t we writers aspire to putting the same amount of care into the worlds we build with words?

I don’t know whether Mozart ever went back over his scores and made adjustments, but I’m pretty sure that any of the great writers would be happy to admit that they had made improvements to their writing.

Writing or Typing?

I had a letter from a friend on thursday.  She usually emails, but she said that she thought it would be interesting to write without having access to cut, copy and paste or the delete button.

At this end of the process there was a sort of childish excitement about the arrival of a handwritten envelope.  It was not my birthday and too early to be a Christmas card.  Besides, it obviously contained several pages.

It was a lovely letter on several levels.  I knew that my friend had started out with a plan of what she would write.  There was a beginning, a middle and an end.  What made it special was the emotion she expressed.  Her thoughts were not deleted, or edited, they flowed from one subject to the next as a stream-of-consciousness: beautifully, poignantly.

I like sending and receiving emails.  I like to think that I’ve successfully transferred my letter voice through to the electronic medium.  Even when sending business communications, I’m prone to personal observations and pleasantries, despite knowing that I’m supposed to follow the format of a memo, and aim for brevity.  But I am also aware that email is a self-conscious form of writing.  I edit and adapt as I create, just as I would for fiction, looking for repetitions and anomalies, and swapping paragraphs round to create a better flow.

On the page, I write around my mistakes.  I use fiction strategies like flashbacks to shift through events.  Or if my writing gets away from me, I adapt my plot: I might find another way to say what I had planned, or, if something more interesting has come up, I’ll let go of the original plan altogether.  Quite often I write things I did not expect to.

I suppose what my friend’s letter reminded me was that when I want to get to the heart of something I always return to paper.  So I shall not be replying with an email, I’m off now to blow the dust off my writing pad and sort out my favourite pen.

Yes, but what did you think?

I’m re-reading Anna Karenina for my new creative-reading class.  I love these sessions, when we take a section of novel or a short story and investigate it.  I don’t wear a deerstalker, but I do study the text as closely as if I had taken out a magnifying glass.

It’s so much easier to be a detective between the pages of a novel than in real life.  For one thing, everything is neatly gathered together.  I can look beyond the text to find out background information, but I don’t have to.  And surely, I shouldn’t expect to on a general read.  After all, I don’t know about you, but I read fiction to be entertained, in the first place, and that usually means I engage in the story-world.

My copy of Anna Karenina weighed in at 817 pages of quite small text. It’s a much bigger story than I remembered, but just as with some other apparantly dauntingly hefty classics, I was driven to read on: to find out what, how, why, when and where?

This novel is over one hundred and thirty years old.  So some things are mentioned that I needed to check the notes in the back for, but not so many that it broke the narrative spell. Tolstoy’s characters and setting, combined with my own store of experiences and general knowledge, brought nineteenth century Russia to life.

As you have no doubt realised, I think Anna Karenina still works.  Someone else may not.  Isn’t that the most basic of test of fiction, not what the critics have to say about how or why it was written, or even who it is by, but whether you liked it, and why?