Wise words from Eudora Welty


Here’s a thought from a prolific writer, about one of the things that we might not have expected, but can get from life-writing.

I never in my wildest dreams thought I would write anything autobiographical.  Of course, many things in my life were used in the stories, but they were very much transformed.  I never expected to write about my mother, or anything like that.  The unhappy fact is that usually by the time you’re ready to think about your parents they’re gone, and can’t tell you anything.  That happened with both my parents.  But I’m awfully glad I did do this book [One Writer’s Beginnings], because it made me explicitly know what I owed things to.

From an interview with Hermione Lee published in Writing Lives: Conversations between Women Writers.  Virago 1988.

I’m a big fan of making a record of our lives.  Aside from this interesting personal outcome, have you thought about what you leave for the future?

Imagine the joy of some future family researcher, stumbling across an account of what your life was like?  Perhaps they can guess things from your electronic footprint, but how will they interpret that intriguing purchase you made in July 2014?  Was it really for you?  If not, who could you have bought such an item for?

We will always be too late to find some things out, and the longer we leave it…

So, if you’re looking for a deadline to get you started, I came across this interesting competition the other day, a memories competition that will benefit Alzheimer’s sufferers:


National Memory Day Creative Writing Competition Closing: 5pm Friday 20th January 2017

Theme: MEMORIES. You may enter as many times as you wish.

Each entry must consist of:

  • A completed Entry Form • A copy of your poem or short story on separate sheets for each entry • The entry fee.

All funds raised go towards placing Poets-in-Residence in Memory Cafes around the UK to work with people living with memory loss. This project is delivered in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Society, Plymouth University and the Poetry Archive.

Word Limit:

  • Max 100 lines for a poem • Max 1500 words for your short story

Entry Fee: £3 per first entry and £2 for all subsequent entries which are entered at the same time.

All funds raised will be invested in the Memory Café Poetry project which places Poets-in-Residence with Memory Cafes provided by the Alzheimer’s Society. Poets will work with people living with memory loss to recite poetry to stimulate and share memories.


Prevarication, displacements and motivations.

This week, in an odd ten minutes when I went to my office to write, I began to tidy.  Yes, it was a displacement activity, but to be fair, my desk had disappeared beneath an avalanche of papers and books.

The papers had been dumped on my desk when we were expecting visitors earlier in the week, and I needed to clear them off the kitchen table.  What had started on Saturday as a couple of ideas about a lesson on the back of an envelope, had by Tuesday afternoon, multiplied into a phenomenal heap also containing grocery lists, outstanding jobs, appointment reminders, some junk-mail and a recipe book (so that was what I’d meant to do with those courgettes).

edward_collier still_lifeBecause time was short, and there were other aspects of tidying to be done, I weeded the recyclable portion of this heap straight into the recycle-bin, and put the rest on the only surface available in my tiny office, the desk.  In the next few days I added to that.  A couple of writing magazines arrived, then Nancy gave me four paperbacks she’d finished with and thought I might like, and there were several reference books I might need again.

So you must, mustn’t you, agree that the desk clearance was a necessity?  What’s not quite so certain is whether I can justify moving on to the collection of quotes pinned to the inside of my office door.

It’s true most of them are curling at the corners, but obviously that hasn’t bothered me…for years, judging by the way the paper had discoloured.  I twitched the nearest one down but instead of screwing it up, gave it a quick glance, and…

‘…and nobody could write about Danny the way I might if only I had the courage to fail.  Someone no doubt could write it all more perfectly, but no one can say what I have to say unless I say it myself.  It’s the doing that counts…’

Ann Netzke

…the reason I’d kept those words in the first place caught me squarely in mid-procrastination.  I’d stuck them at eye-level to my chair, and then looked above, below and to the side of them ever since.

I can’t remember who Ann Netzke is or was.  I’ve tried an internet search but only found a series of ancestry sites.  It doesn’t matter.  One of these days, now that I’ve remembered where to look, I’ll stumble across her, and think, aah, of course.

But if I don’t, her words are back on my door and this time, I’m keeping them in sight.

And, since I’ve cleared the top of my desk, I’ll need a different set of excuses for further procrastination.


*Illustration, Still Life, by Edward Collier 1699.

Steinbeck and ‘the craft of writing’.

Lately I keep stumbling over a John Steinbeck quote.  The first time I saw it, I liked it.  He said:

Ideas are like rabbits.  You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.

It’s taken from the opening of an interview he did with Robert van Gelder for Cosmopolitan in 1947, which was reproduced along with some other conversations about his publication history, in a book: Conversations with John Steinbeck in 1988.

I see the attraction of posting this metaphor on visual mediums, and marrying it to cosy and comic rabbit images.  And, that key word, ‘ideas’ is applicable to so much more than writing.  I’m not surprised it’s become popular.


Detail of the Blagojce Stojanovki mural in Salinas, California, photograph by David A. Laws

Yet, the more I thought about how the rest of those words fit together, the less useful it seemed.

What Steinbeck threw at us so casually, ‘and learn how to handle them‘, takes me back to my earliest thoughts about writing, the belief that there was a closely, maybe jealously, guarded secret to creating fiction, known only to a privileged few.  I used to envision it as a formula, perhaps a recipe, that once learned would produce instant success.

That second sentence seems to speak to those who already know the secret, or the beginning of it.  It describes something already understood, rather than explains to the novice.  It made me wonder what the context for the quote was.

A quick search brought up the original interview, and I soon found another segment to add to the metaphor:

Each of his books has represented to him a stage in his own growth and when the book is completed he feels that he is through with that stage. ‘A good thing too.  I don’t want to write the same book over and over.’

Steinbeck went on to talk of ‘the craft of writing’ as something that had to be practised.  He said that it needed commitment.  Then he referred to the difficulties he’d had.  They’re not the same as mine, nor was his approach to writing.

Steinbeck writes his books in his head.  He remarked that if he made notes he’d probably lose them anyway.  He plans his stories even to the dialogue  and when he starts writing he makes very fast progress, keeping up a pace of twenty-five hundred words a day.

Insights like this helped me to overcome that idea that there is a simple set of rules to good writing.  I like ‘the craft of writing’ better than the rabbits.  In my experience, rabbits frequently multiply because their keepers have not learned how to identify and separate does from bucks.

Sometimes a quote needs to be seen in context.





The writing tight-rope

Here’s something that I believe: the best stories are written from the heart.  But what does that mean?

tight rope 1Statements like that are tricky generalisations.  Do I mean that writers should always have an important message to deliver?  No, and no again.  Save me from fictional lectures, please.  That’s a blog post for another week.

What I mean by heart are stories that are rounded in the way that E.M. Forster said good main characters should be.  To read them is to exist within their reality , and when I’m writing, that’s what I aim to achieve.

Transporting someone into my fictional world is a tall order, so like most other writers, I’m always looking for the best way to do that. One method most of us try at some point is to draw from our life experiences: it fits with the principle of “writing what we know”.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Well Hilary Mantel’s take on this is worth considering:

I have sat, at moments of purest heartbreak, in mental agony, and put my thoughts on paper, and then I have taken those thoughts and allocated them to one of my characters, largely for comic effect.

The heart, she seems to be saying, should not always translate directly onto the publictight rope page.

I take the warning.  I’ve dusted off an old diary and am seeing for myself that feelings at their purest, or rawest, tend to generate ‘purple’ prose, or poetry, with plenty of comic potential.  At the time it was a form of therapy, now it’s something I could transform: I can see segments that would help to round-out my imaginative writing.

It’s good to think that some of that energy might be used constructively after all.






Something inspirational to prepare me for the new year.

greene ways of escapeFrom, Ways of Escape, by Graham Greene, a collection of essays that gather together thoughts about his writing.

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.

I put this book at the top of my Christmas list. Santa tracked down a copy for me, and it’s living up to my expectations.  So I must have done something good this year.

It’s not just that Greene says things that resonate for me, he was such a careful wordsmith.  I love his economy: his precision.

I too believe that writing is therapeutic*.   There is a great sense of achievement in putting words together to build a piece of writing.

And the magic is that sometimes, we create meanings we didn’t plan to, even when we think we’re concentrating on telling things ‘straight’.  When writing works, and a reader tells me that I’ve evoked a mood, a feeling…an atmosphere through my writing, that’s a buzz.

It makes sense to me that just as I do, and have always, read to be transported into other worlds and lives, I write for the same reason.  First of all, it is an escape, and perhaps it’s when I forget that, that I can go wrong.

So I’m putting this quote on my wall, alongside the ‘write what you know/write what you don’t know’ one.  Because for me, these three things together say more than I can possibly explain here…

I pass them on with the hope that they have a similar effect on you.


Graham Greene by Anthony Palliser National Portrait Gallery, London Date painted 1981 to 1983

Graham Greene, by  Anthony Palliser, 1981 -1983 National Portrait Gallery, London


*There is a whole branch of the writing industry that is devoted to using writing as therapy, called LAPIDUS.  They use a variety of writing skills to provide valuable personal development coaching.