What do I know?

I’m back to thinking about weather again.  You might remember that’s how I started out last week, but I quickly moved on to other things.

So let’s try again.  Remember September?  I notice in the diary I’m about to put away that for the first five days of that month I wrote, ‘hot’.  This week I am, as I type, toasting next to a well-stoked woodburner, and my old Fahrenheit thermometer in the corner reads seventy.  So this room also, you might say, is hot and perhaps that covers the subject adequately.  After all, we’ve all experienced all kinds of temperatures and the writing rule these days is less is more, especially with descriptions.

We could be satisfied with memory and perhaps some photographs or pictures to trigger them.  That’s good, it’s what imaginations are for.  We take what we know and embellish it, recreate our own versions of events, scenarios, situations according to our own designs.  But, and there is a but, beware the chances of falling into cliché.  I’m not talking of language now, rather I’m thinking about how far the things that remain with us are universal.  Take summer time as a topic, for instance.

summer holidaysLet’s think about writing a description of a British family beach holiday.  You might include the sensations of being dried with a sandy towel, or the texture of gritty ice-cream, the call of seagulls, the sounds of fairground rides and the smell of fish and chips.  They’re all good, valid approaches, but what makes them specific, applicable to one particular place in time and space?  More importantly, how do you make the description your own?

Okay, you could just tell us, this is Bournemouth, Barmouth, Tenby, Yarmouth, Brighton or Blackpool.  Then again, perhaps the geography doesn’t matter.  If you’re writing a nostalgic piece, perhaps you are looking for common experiences. Fine, but surely you still want lively writing.  You want to intrigue your reader, to engage their attention.

Small children know the trick of that.  It’s the unusual, perhaps even the outrageous behaviour, that causes adults to turn from their conversations to what the child is up to.  That’s a good principle to remember when writing, because unless they’re related to us, most readers do have to be won over, by the power of our words to transport them from the present into another world.

I am on a beach.  I don’t know where – Southwold perhaps.  I am very small and wearing a blue ruched swimming costume, which scratches the tops of my legs and fills with bubbles of water when I go in the sea.  But I’m not in the sea.  I’m sitting on a big striped towel, shivering.  My dad is sitting beside me and I’m thinking how hairy his legs are, like gorilla’s legs.

So writes Leslie Glaister, from memory, in an essay for The Creative Writing Coursebook.  I don’t know about you, I’m hooked.  I both identify with this image, this moment, and am intrigued by the way she gathers together these so specific images to make them clearly only hers.

Sometimes, our recall can be precise enough for us to create something as specific as this.  Or as lyrical as Katherine Mansfield’s, At The Bay.

Very early morning.  The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist.  The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered.  You could not see where they ended and the paddocks began.  The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was beach and where was the sea.  A heavy dew had fallen.  The grass was blue.

I’ve never been to New Zealand, and yet the precision of these details makes me feel that I might have.  It also reminds me of other early morning views.

In both of these pieces specific, telling, details create convincing prose worlds.  It may be that you also are able to evoke a sense of specific place in your writing without too much effort.  How does it happen?  I think it’s through having an eye for detail, and here’s the bit where I link my train of thought back to the start.

I think I could write about a hot week in September, not because my memory is special, or my creative ability any better than the next person’s.  The notes made as I waited in a car outside a Portsmouth house on a Sunday afternoon are enough for me to recall the affects of that unexpected heatwave.  For a moment I forget the woodburner, and that it is evening.

It’s not important that I’ve identified a specific date, what worked was the process of keeping a writers diary.  It focuses my attention.  I observe my surroundings more closely, and instead of passing on, I’ve learned to record it.

My notes are rarely lifted word for word from the diary into a text, they’re a draft to be worked on.  What they give me are ideas and inspiration to translate into stories, or blog entries.

And that’s it.  Here endeth the lesson on Writers Diary keeping.  If you’ve not started one yet, I hope this might have helped convince you to sit down now and start by writing about the weather, whatever manifestation it appears in.

Thoughts about the pitfalls of writing plans at Christmas.

You’re rushing about preparing for Christmas, aren’t you?  No time to sit about writing.  Perhaps you’ve earmarked Boxing Day for settling into some serious writing time, or the day after.

That’s what I did last year, and the previous one too.  In fact, I’ve probably done it through all my writing years.  Once the rush is over, I tell myself, I’ll have time to myself.  You’ve already guessed that things never work out that way, haven’t you?

writers diary christmasSo this year I’m going to be less ambitious.  I’m going to treat myself to the truth.  I don’t want to miss out on Christmas.  The festivities are fun.  They’re a time to unwind and meet up with the friends and family I don’t make enough effort to see through the rest of the year.  I don’t want to have an ember of guilt burning a hole into my enjoyment if an unexpected invitation happens.

That’s why I’m not earmarking specific days or times to spend at my desk that week.  I might not visit my work area at all.  Because lately it’s occurred to me that I’ve got slack with one of the basics of a writing habit, The Writer’s Diary.

For the uninitiated I’m not thinking of a desk, pocket or other personal diary that we attempt to fill in according to the time spaces arbitrarily assigned by the printer. I don’t know about you, but I’ve a long and disastrous history with that kind of diary keeping.  I’ve always begun well, buoyed up no doubt by some new-year resolution, but by the middle of January my entries were usually lagging, tagged with the confession that I was filling in details from memory three days later than the page claimed.  After that entries were sporadic, marked by long gaps and filled with mundane details.

The writer’s diary is different.  For a start, it doesn’t have a specific form.  It can be any collection of blank pages that suit you.  My writers diaries have been made from beautiful notebooks, school exercise books, stapled scrap paper, reporters notebooks, and even, to completely mess up my original statement, ancient unused desk diaries.  The only rule is, there’s no right or wrong way to fill it in.

After a gap of a few days, or several months, you just carry on to the next empty line.  There are no reproachfully blank pages of weeks and months to give away how lax you’ve been.  In my case, no dates are given to indicate the distance crossed between entries.  I’m no longer forced to fill in spaces with descriptions of what I ate for breakfast, lunch or tea, unless I want to.  Instead I scribble down notes, ideas, thoughts, observations, quotes, plans and any moments of inspiration.  Or in other words, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, as Yul Brynner’s King of Siam liked to say.

Although these are usually private spaces where we can experiment with our writing, on the Imaginative Writing BA our writer’s diaries were part of our course-work in the first year.  I’ve thought a lot about how important that was to me.  For a few months I kept it because it was required.  I remember that at first it seemed like hard work.  I was finding my way with so much at that time, and there was no blueprint to show us how A Writer’s Diary should be done.  I know now that there could not be, that each has to be collated according to the individual.

All we had was Edmund’s advice to, ‘write something in it everyday’.

When we asked, ‘Write what?’ he said, ‘anything,’ and rattled through a similar list to the one I’ve given.  ‘Not finished pieces,’ he said.  ‘The workings-out, the notes, the wrong turns and right ones. Write anything.’

It was a valuable trick, a lesson we should all try to learn.  I’ve since found a quote that puts it beautifully,

The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you did not write.


Keeping that Writer’s Diary was good training on so many levels, but the fundamental one was the way it helped me to establish a regular writing habit.  It may have started as a chore, but once I’d gone through the first term and found that what had seemed a scrappy effort was indeed correct, I grew braver.

I learned to always have a notebook and pen to hand.  After all, like Cecily Cardew (The Importance of Being Earnest) you ‘ should always have something sensational to read on the train,’ and her diary seems to have been organised as a kind of Writer’s Diary.

Looking back through some of my old diaries, (yes I have kept them, and a tatty well-thumbed bunch they are too) is a form of time travel that is just as vivid as my conventional diary fragments.  Here are moments captured as they happened, not filtered at the end of a day, or week.  There are snippets of conversation overheard on a bus; fragments of encounters, real and imagined; the view across the Mersey from the top floor of the Dean Walters Building; the movement of the ferry crossing the Irish sea and a sketch of a story.  I’ve captured a kaleidoscope of sights, smells, sounds, tastes, textures, mood and emotions that sometimes launch off into fantasy.  It’s rough stuff.  But I’m glad I have it to skim through.

So, why call it a diary, rather than a notebook?  Because the aim is to put in something every day.  The dictionary definition of a diary, is ‘a book in which one keeps a daily record of events and experiences’.  Which sums it up nicely.  I do aim to record daily from this point on.  When I call my pages a notebook, they becomes less demanding.  I’ve a fraction less incentive to be rigorous, and these days I can’t afford that, can you?