Writing to fit in

An interesting game has popped up on Facebook, it involves revealing seven things about yourself that others don’t know and then inviting two of your friends to do the same. I often feel uncomfortable being ‘nominated’ to take part in something and even more seat shifting goes on if I’m asked to nominate others. This is different. It doesn’t involve buckets of iced water or any kind of favourite (a concept I still haven’t mastered but that’s for another time). It’s for fun, or so I believe, and it’s fascinating. Over the last week I’ve discovered a range of intriguing, funny or just plain bonkers facts about friends, most of which I assume to be true but even if not, who cares? And there’s the nub.

And so to my Longer Piece of Writing (LPoW) for which progress has been slow (read non-existent) of late. I’m stuck on a technicality. Is what I’m writing fiction or non? I’m drawing heavily on my recent experience on the transplant list (non) but embellishing and exaggerating, with some imagining and inventing, to give the story pace and fill in some gaps (fiction). Yet it still doesn’t seem honest to call it fiction. Yes, I know the ‘write what you know’ adage but when does some something drawn so heavily on personal experience stop being memoir and become fiction? And just how much of myself am I comfortable giving – the facts but what of the feelings? More importantly, does anyone care? Like the seven facts, does it really matter what’s true and what isn’t as long as it’s a good story? Does my LPoW need to be defined along such lines? Apparently, yes. And no.

QuestionsSeveral articles and the literary agent who spoke to my class during the MLitt, suggest that in order to get published you need to know which genre (pigeon-hole) your work fits into – it matters whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. This not only makes it simpler for your agent (or you) to pitch to publishers but also helps you to know your audience, who you’re writing for. This makes sense, I acknowledge, from a marketing point-of-view but not necessarily from an artistic (excuse the pretention) perspective. If everyone wrote to fit-in how would literature advance (and no I’m not suggesting my writing is either ground-breaking or boundary-pushing – to be honest, I don’t know what it is yet)? And if I did set out knowing with an idea of who I was writing for, wouldn’t this have the danger of influencing how my story might unravel? How is it even possible to know my audience when I don’t know what kind of audience I am? Sure, I have preferences (William Trevor and other short story writers are right up there), as, I’m sure, does everyone but I’m also open to all sorts of writing.

These are the questions that have been fighting for airspace in my head. I grant you they’re neither sophisticated nor fully formed but they’re troubling.

I was reassured by a recent conversation recounted to me by Mr D: he’d been speaking to the director of a Scottish publisher who had just signed an author not on genre or because her work fit neatly into a marketing category – her novel was ‘part fiction, part memoir, part novel, part short story collection’ – but because it was beautifully written, well-crafted and professionally presented.

I don’t know if other writers consider how their work will be marketed and to whom. Maybe some do. All I know is that I feel most myself when I write; it frees me, calms me, makes me care less about things that matter least. As for whether it will be published, it would be great if it were but it isn’t my main motivation – perhaps that’s why I’m still an amateur. I bumped into a well-known writer yesterday in Glasgow (well actually Mr D knows her so it wasn’t as random as the start of the sentence suggests); she asked if I wrote and I said I did but as an amateur. A brief exchange as to whether all writers are amateurs followed, after all, the word derives from the Latin amator meaning lover, something I had forgotten. I liked that idea. All amateurs. It’s enough to inspire me back to my desk.

imagesRC15ZIOSAt the end of the day, the thing that really matters, and which I’ve been avoiding so far, is that the LPoW needs to be written, not just in my head (where, believe me, it’s a masterpiece) but on paper or my laptop or a bus shelter (ok maybe not the latter) but somewhere and soon. Otherwise it’s just talk or worse bluster.

Long, short, fiction or not? Perhaps I’ll just write it and see.

PS: As for my seven facts, I didn’t reveal that my big ambition is to be invited on to BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs – perhaps if I get my book written?!

All in the detail

My plan, since my last blog, had been to concentrate on the first couple of chapters and synopsis of my LPoW in preparation for my first meeting with my mentor; life however, had other plans.

Following what had initially been a successful blood transfusion, my body decided to have a further wee wobble (who can blame it after everything it’s been through recently), and I’ve spent the last couple of weeks pinging between the hospital in Glasgow and the local A&E department. My temperature walked a high-wire of degrees and my white blood cell count plummeted, recovered slightly, then plunged again. Am I concerned? Damn right I am but for now, I’ve decided to leave the worrying to the experts – after all, I’ve been warned to expect a less than settled ride in the first year post-transplant.

All of which means I’m now running behind on my writing schedule!

On the plus side, I’ve managed to have my memory nudged on the sensory experiences particular to hospitals, all good information for my LPoW. I’d forgotten, for example, how the smell of the tape used to stick down the cotton wool after having blood taken, reminds me of a pine woodland after rain; or that I could identify which doctor or nurse was about to come in to my room by the cadence of the footsteps in the corridor; or that the taste of the tea lacks coherence, there’s an individual graininess to each mouthful, despite the fact it’s the same brand we use at home. All details that add colour and form to a piece of writing, that bring it alive and make the reader want to invest in it, or at least that’s what I find when reading.

Cheating at Canasta For me, the short story writer for whom I have the utmost respect (and a slight literary crush if the truth be known) is William Trevor. In one sentence he can characterise a person with such precision and insight that you feel like you know them immediately. His stories invite you inside, you’re no longer an observer but a participant (unless he wants you to remain at a distance), and at the end of the story you can’t fail but to walk away affected in some way. His real genius is that he makes it seem so simple: the sentence structure; the POV narrative; the settings; the story. Yes, he makes it seem simple but …

Over the weekend I edited and submitted a short story to the Bridport Prize. It’s gone through numerous incarnations and I was as pleased as I’d ever be with the ‘finished’ product. To unwind, I read Cheating at Canasta by William Trevor and my heart soared and then sank just a little. What I noticed most of all was his absolute attention to detail – every word counts, every sentence adds to the story, nothing is gratuitous, nothing a distraction.

As I write this, it occurs to me that enforced tripping between hospitals might not be the worse use of my time. Not only was I reminded of the importance of detail, I also spent time in the presence of other short story writers – James Salter, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis. I edited a friend’s novella for her MLitt dissertation and helped Mr D polish the first few chapters of his novel. And I made notes and notes and more notes.

And there were other details that prompted memories: a Facebook video of a friend’s parents in the US dancing at their 50th wedding anniversary; a camping trip with friends where I got to hear a laugh I love and hadn’t heard for too long; Mr D’s smile when I caught him looking at me; an unexpected card from a newish group of friends (old friends of Mr D); the shared delight of another friend who won a competition to be pampered; a ‘phone call from a cousin I hadn’t heard from for a long time; a shaft of early evening sunlight on the chair that belonged to my late grandad.

Writing, as living, is all in the detail.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way (to procrastinate)

For the first time in several weeks my dirty laundry basket is empty, even my shower curtain has been washed. Why? The same reason random buttons have been sewn on to little-worn clothes and I’ve found five different recipes on how to bake the perfect banana loaf: it’s time to get on with my writing! It’s not that the will isn’t there, it just got a little lost on the way.

I started well, I made a list of what I wanted to complete and when (in between screen-shopping and catching up on cyber-chat). It was a rather modest list I thought: apply for a mentor through the WoMentoring Project; submit an award-winning short story to the Bridport Prize; finish off two other stories and complete my collection in time to send it to Jonathan Cape during its open submissions in June; write the first couple of chapters of my novel (for which I have more enthusiasm than notes) in time to apply for a Scottish Book Trust Next Chapter Award.

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So far so good. And then it began to unravel. One word; deadlines.

  • WoMentoring Project – asap
  • Bridport Prize – 31 May
  • Jonathan Cape open submissions – throughout June
  • Scottish Book Trust Next Chapter Award – 16 May

All the initial excitement disappeared beneath a blanket of inertia. There was just too much choice. I simply couldn’t do everything, so instead I did nothing. For several hours. And then several days. Something had to give, but what? I remember I had the same feeling in high school when I was trying to decide what I might like to be ‘when I grew up’ and realised I could do anything (except perhaps win a gold medal at the Olympics or walk on the moon – but even those options didn’t seem completely out of my reach). I had to focus; prioritise.

ImageOver a cup of tea and some banana loaf (bought not made), I decided. Mentoring. It was the obvious next step – I’d done the MLitt, had a couple of early successes, and I now needed help to sharpen up my writing and take the next step.

Hmmmm, maybe I could also apply for an Artists’ Bursary from Creative Scotland, or join NASA’s Astronaut Training Programme. Focus Angela. Focus!