The Question Every Writer Hates…

There comes a point in every published writer’s life when they receive a questionnaire from their publisher’s publicity/sales department. And on there is a question that no sane writer greets with any degree of enthusiasm: What writer are you like? Whereas your editor and agent may have charmed you by suggesting that they love your book because of its stunning originality, all the bloody sales department wants to do is put you in a box marked ‘Like this (hopefully a bestseller),’ and put ‘Girl’ in the title. This is the point where you realise that your book is a commodity like any other and shops need to know what shelf to put it on. Eggs go on the egg shelf. Beans go on the bean shelf.

It is dispiriting.

It is where you and your precious creation hit the market place and it’s broken egos all round and not even a tasty omelette as recompense.

But don’t despair. Here is what you will now reply:

‘As it happens my book is unique and may I refer you to page 160 of Pen in Hand by Tim Parks and what he has to say on the intensification of conformity. However if you would like to know what Pen in Hand is like I would refer you to the section of the bookshop marked: “Writers who write books about writing which make other writers laugh when they are feeling depressed in late August.” Oh, actually these books should be shelved in the “Gods and Goddesses” section and there should perhaps be a shrine in front of that for small offerings.  Thank you.’

Pen in Hand: Reading, Rereading and other Mysteries

The book’s full title is Pen in Hand: Reading, re-reading and other mysteries. Here are some of the chapter titles to tempt you:

  • why read new books?
  • the pleasures of pessimism
  • the books we don’t understand
  • how best to read auto fiction
  • in search of authenticity
  • raise your hand if you’ve read Knausguaard
  • the books we talk about (and those we don’t)

Do I have to go on? Buy it now. That is all. You don’t have to be a depressed writer to enjoy it but if you are it will certainly cheer you up.

This last bit from the ‘authenticity’ chapter made me laugh:

“The artist,” Simenon remarked, “is above all else a sick person, in any case an unstable one.”

To which I would reply: Speak for yourself you sex-crazed loon.

But to which Tim Parks replies:

“This is not an easy concept to teach in a creative writing course.”

Well, at least I’m not trying to do that.

P.S. When I first replied to that question, I was writing crime and as I remember it I said I was like Sara Paretsky, a writer I greatly admired. But to be frank the only thing I had in common with Sara Paretsky was that my main character was a female private investigator. And there was one really significant difference between her books and mine. Mine weren’t nearly as good.




My typewriter did not look like this beauty!

Unfortunately my typewriter did not look anything like this old beauty!

I came to writing relatively late in life. I was in my twenties before I even dared articulate to myself that was what my dream was. I sat on my bed looking at a clapped out old electric typewriter on the other side of the room and feeling this huge space between me and it. It seemed impossible. The only thing occupying the space at that time was my longing to be a writer.

But how to begin?

In the end I did three things:

1.  I did a writing course taught by Sahera Chohan* and Nigel Watts;

2. I did The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron with my friend, Francesca Howard*;

3. I began to read books on writing and creativity in general.

 * See my blog roll for their inspiring blogs.

Books on writing

Books on writing…

The first book I read was Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Still one of my favourites. It was Francesca who suggested doing The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. She wanted to become a painter and I wanted to become a writer and she suggested we do the course together and talk on the phone weekly about how we’d got on. Without those weekly telephone calls I’m not sure I would have finished it. As I remember it, I was appalled at Week Four, the reading deprivation week, and extremely stroppy when it came to collages (which I loved doing when I got down to it) but at the end of it the seeds of hope and possibility were planted in me.

More books on writing

More books on writing…

I have read many other books over the years and I’ll give a list at the end of my favourites but one which I’m reading now and absolutely love is by Anne Bogart: A Director Prepares. Seven Essays on Art and Theatre. These are her chapter headings: Memory; Violence; Eroticism; Terror; Stereotype; Embarrassment; Resistance. It’s a brilliant inspiring book and I can’t recommend it highly enough. She uses examples from the world of theatre, painting, dance and literature.

Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:

‘The saving grace in one’s work is love, trust and a sense of humour.’

‘Every creative act involves a leap into the void.’

Here she is on resistance:

Laziness and impatience are constant internal resistances and they are very personal. We are all lazy. We are all impatient. Neither are evil qualities; rather they are issues that we learn to handle properly…. Attitude is key. Naming something a problem engenders the wrong relationship to it… Try not to think of anything as a problem. Start with a forgiving attitude to laziness and impatience and cultivate a sense of humour about them both. And then trick them.’

To find out how to trick them buy the book!

And some more books on writing...

And some more books on writing…

When I look back, books played a crucial role in leading me across that room towards the typewriter, towards the moment when I put my hands on the keyboard and began to write. They play a crucial role in keeping me there. I continue to buy these books (71 and counting!) and I continue to explore the whole subject of creativity. I find it endlessly fascinating.

The questions I’m looking to have answered are how do other people do it – create? How do dancers dance, painters paint, actors act, writers write, singers sing, directors direct. How do they persist? How do they deal with setbacks? What can I learn from them?

Here, in no particular order, are twenty of my favourite books on writing and creativity.

1.Negotiating with the Dead – Margaret Atwood

2.Teach yourself Writing a Novel – Nigel Watts

3.The Courage to Write –  Ralph Keyes

4.The Writer’s Book of Hope – Ralph Keyes

5.Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg

6.Wild Mind – Natalie Goldberg

7.The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron

8.The Right to Write – Julia Cameron

9.On Writing – Stephen King

10.Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande

11.Writing for your Life – Deena Metzger

12. The Poetics of Space – Gaston Bachelard

13. The Paris Review Interviews – all volumes

14. The Master and his Emissary – Ian McGilchrist

15. The Gift – Lewis Hyde

16. Which Lie Did I Tell? – William Goldman

17. One Continuous Mistake – Gail Sher

18. Walking With Alligators – Susan Shaughnessy

19. If You Want To Write – Brenda Ueland

20. A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre – Anne Bogart

There’s also a book coming out in February 2015 called The Art of Creative Thinking written by Rod Judkins, a lecturer at St Martin’s School of Art, which looks very interesting.

Do you have a book which had a big effect on your creative process? Are there any books you would recommend? What do you think of my list?