I really enjoyed reading a post by Elizabeth Kay recently over on Authors Electric about visiting the setting of a favourite book and it got me thinking about a magical experience I had a few years ago.
I’d been listening to a series of dramas on Radio 4 about George Orwell, and was particularly moved by the last one, about the last few years of his life before he finally succumbed to TB at the age of 46.
He was living in an isolated house on the island of Jura, struggling to finish his final novel, 1984, despite increasing ill health. His wife had died during an operation a year or so before, shortly after they had adopted a baby boy, and Orwell’s sister Avril had come to Jura to look after him and his son.
So much pain and loss… in that moment, and that place, he created a book I barely remembered from my schooldays, but felt it was time to read again. I decided to go to Jura and read it there, where Orwell had written it.
It isn’t easy to get to Jura. You have to first take the ferry to Islay, and then make the short crossing from there.
It’s a big island, home to only about 200 people. The ferry lands at the South end of the road, where there’s nothing except a shelter, and after a drive of maybe twenty minutes you get to the only village, with its hotel and distillery. I sat in the bar drinking coffee, where doubtless Orwell would have sat, and read a few chapters before driving the 23 miles to the North end of the road.
There’s nothing at the North end either. Just a track that begins a 7 mile walk to the house Orwell lived in.
I love wild, empty places, but I was struck by the extreme isolation that Orwell chose, so far from any neighbours and so inaccessible. I imagined him writing his dark dystopia, with its bleak vision of human nature and society, having already removed himself as much as he possibly could, before the complete departure of his death.
Have you ever read a book in the place it was written? Did being there intensify the experience for you?
Originally written 09-25-14, from Central California’s Women’s Facility, a state prison colloquially known as Chowchilla. It was posted by Dave in November, and turned to a draft on my return. I wasn’t going to repost it, but it was the message I think I needed to hear today. It should be tagged #HowIWidow, but as I wasn’t one at the time of writing, well…
I believe in fixed points of time. The idea that some things are inevitable.
Yes. Free will is rampant, and — yes — daily choices are made at the micro-level in the span of a nanosecond, over and over again.
But in the ever-evolving tapestry of life, some points are tied up by fate in advance, destined to make a knotted appearance no matter what the thread before it chooses to be or do.
A butterfly may decide to flap into a tornado, and all of…
In between books, when I’m pondering my next project, I like to read about writing, and I particularly enjoy books by other authors in which they share their own experiences of the highs and lows of the writing life – thoughtful books, personal books, such as the one I’ve just finished reading by Dani Shapiro, Still Writing.
I read this book a few days after publishing my own book on writing, When a Writer isn’t Writing, and a few days before the publication of my YA novel, Drift, so this idea caught my attention:
The loneliest day in the life of a published writer may be publication day. Nothing happens. Perhaps your editor sends you flowers. Maybe not. Maybe your family takes you out for dinner. But the world won’t stop to take notice. The universe is indifferent. You have put the shape of your soul between the covers of a book and no-one declares a national holiday.
Shapiro goes on to explore why writers keep on doing it, even though so few are heading towards any major recognition or celebration of their work.
I pondered before reading on, because of the moment I was in. I remembered when publication days really did feel like the loneliest time to me, in the days before social media, when maybe your publisher would send you a card, but that was all.
Back then, I learnt to make my own celebrations. I followed the Weatherly rule (Lee Weatherly‘s genius idea, passed on to me by Liz Kessler) and opened a bottle of bubbly with friends as soon as I finished a manuscript, rather than waiting a year or more for publication day before feeling I could celebrate.
I learnt to get started on something new as soon as possible, so that my creative energies were happily engaged in writing the next book rather than focusing on the build-up to publication day for the one I’d finished.
When publication day did eventually come, I learnt the importance of throwing a party, not as a publicity or sales event, but as a personal celebration, because writing a book is hard and, as the writer of your particular book, you know what an incredible achievement it has been to go the distance.
I still do all these things, but I must say publication day doesn’t feel so lonely any more to me now that we’ve got facebook, twitter and blogging. When I put the word out about a new book, I straight away hear back from people I know and people I’ve never met, so that instead of a solitary card on my doormat I receive a steady flow of congratulations.
Soon after that, rather than waiting several months to receive a few letters from readers via my publisher, I start getting direct messages in twitter and fb, and emails through my website, from people who have bought my book, and started reading it.
And rather than just a press review or two, readers begin to post their thoughts on my new book in amazon and elsewhere.
So publication day is no longer the loneliest day for this writer, and that’s down to all of you. Thank-you for calling by!
Years ago, a friend told me she thought that the world was divided into two sorts of people – those who had seriously contemplated suicide, and those who had never even considered it.
At the time, I felt sceptical, because thinking about suicide started for me in early childhood and I’d always assumed that everyone did it, but when I asked around, it turned out maybe she was right. Lots of friends told me it had never even occurred to them, but for others it was like a kind of home base, the place they always returned to in their dark times.
I think young people who have this mindset are particularly vulnerable because they don’t have the experience yet to know those desperate feelings do pass, and things do get better. Most of those who have made serious suicide attempts express gratitude later that they didn’t succeed.
So the message older people want to give to vulnerable young people is ‘Hold on’, as in the classic REM song “Everybody Hurts’ which was written in deliberately straightforward language, for pre-college teens.
Lesbian, gay,bisexual and transgender teenagers have a very much increased risk of suicide, and there’s great work being done for them in the It Gets Better Project, where ordinary LGBT adults share their stories of getting through horrible times at school to go on and lead successful lives in happy relationships.
Siblings of suicide are another very high risk group, and they’re the people I wanted to tell, as a survivor of sibling suicide, it does get better. I’ve done it the best way I know how to, in my new Young Adult novel, Drift, the story of a 16-year-old girl whose brother has killed himself.
It’s her story, not mine, but because of my story, I knew how to write it.
A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to teach someone on an Arvon course who, it turned out, was a branding and marketing expert. I needed help with my branding and marketing and she needed help with her writing, so it proved to be the start of a very fruitful friendship.
She helped me to create a new website where I could bring together all the various aspects of my writing and teaching, and develop a much more consistent brand for myself as an author. She’s called Sarah Mackie, and her company is Caxton Bell – I highly recommend her.
It was mostly really interesting and fun working with Sarah, but there were a few sticking points, and the first one for me was her suggestion, when I sent her the draft of my blurb for Writing in the House of Dreams, that rather than describing myself as a ‘much published’, ‘versatile’ or ‘established’ author, I should use the term ‘veteran’.
I argued it. I wasn’t technically a veteran author, as I’d only been published for 23 years and not yet 25. I had had an unusually large number and wide variety of books published in that time, so ‘much published’ and ‘versatile’ were more accurate descriptions. And anyway, I was too young!
She told me of course I was too young, and of course I was prolific and versatile, but the bottom line was there were three kinds of effective author profile, bestselling, award-winning and veteran, and as far as she was aware I hadn’t had a bestseller or won a major award.
So I had to really examine why I’d felt reluctant to acknowledge my age in my professional life, even though in my personal life I celebrate it. I’d never put the year of my birth on my website for example, and had dreaded it appearing somewhere on the net. It has recently done just that, on google search, but according to the bio I’m from the Bronx and was born in 1958, neither of which is the case.
In our culture, we fear ageing and death and idealise youth. We try to disguise the years and look as young as possible. But that is at odds with my personal values because I’ve always believed that while the energy of youth is essential for social change and regeneration, so is the wisdom of age to temper and direct it.
I feel very grateful to have had more than six whole decades of living and learning. In the fields I’ve been writing about recently – dreaming and writing – I know so much more now in my sixties than I did ten, twenty, thirty or even forty years ago, when I first started to explore them in earnest.
When I thought about the experience I brought to Writing in the House of Dreams and When a Writer Isn’t Writing, and how I should be proud of it, and flag it up, it occurred to me that it’s not just in these books that my main drive has been to share what I’ve learnt from life experience.
I think of myself as an elder in a society which doesn’t really have elders any more, writing the sort of reassuring common sense that grandparents used to be there for when families had more leisure and were less geographically dispersed
So Sarah’s suggestion that I should describe myself as a veteran author, flagging up that the value I bring is experience, didn’t only describe what I was doing in my recent books on dreams and writing, but also caught something of the essence of what I’d always done.
I mentioned in my last post that there will be reviews in awfullybigreviews and The Book Analyst – well the first of these is already up, and here’s a taster.
‘Jenny writes in such an easy, friendly and re-assuring style that it’s tempting, if you are a galumphing reader like me, to speed through the pages. I’d advise reading this book with a pencil in hand, underlining sentences that resonate, and suggestions that require deeper pondering…’ Read more
I’m very happy with that! And the Book Analyst has tweeted that she found the book ‘very informative and useful’ so I’m looking forward to reading her full review too.
This book, coming out almost exactly a year after Writing in the House of Dreams, has been an absolute labour of love, one of those books you simply have to write even though you know you may never even earn back your investment.
I feel happy and privileged just to have been able to do it. Time to crack open the bubbly, I’d say!
explore and gain mastery in our inner worlds of emotion and imagination
develop, organise and share our ideas
satisfy our natural yearning to create beautiful objects
make our own entertainment and never get bored
The way children learn to write at school completely ignores all these wonderful benefits and that’s why, ten years ago, I wrote my children’s book,How to be a Brilliant Writerfocusingnot just on the nuts and bolts of how to do it, but also why you might want to, and what writing can do for you.
I knew I’d want to write some books for adults about writing one day too, because I’m a bit of a maven – when I’ve found something great, I just have to share it.
After Writing in the House of Dreams last year, which is about dreams as much as writing, I started work on a new book just about writing, no dreams – writing as a hobby, a spiritual path, a career – the psychology, the process, the question of publication – a distilling down of what I’ve learned from a lifetime of writing and twenty three years of being published. I called it When a Writer Isn’t Writing: How to Beat Your Blocks, Be Published and Find Your Flow.
I didn’t offer the manuscript to my agent or traditional publishers, but decided instead to go straight to self-publishing. The main reason was that I wanted to get a second book out fairly quickly after Writing in the House of Dreams, as I thought two books on different aspects of the same theme might support each other in the market – if someone read one and liked it, they might take a punt on the other.
Writing my book about writing was relatively easy because I’d been thinking about it for several years before I sat down to start. Sending the manuscript out to beta readers – which is really important when a book isn’t going to go through the traditional agent+publishers vetting process – also felt unchallenging, because I was confident in the material.
Working with the editor and then the designer felt like part of the creative process of the book, so I enjoyed that too, but then I had to get to grips with some promotion and pre-publicity, and that certainly didn’t feel like part of the creative process to me.
When the focus lifts from writing to sales, my interest always dips, and with this book I began to sabotage my promotional efforts by thinking ‘what’s the point anyway?’ which made it even harder to feel motivated.
One of the things that got me thinking that way was that my experience with Writing in the House of Dreamshad been mixed. I had struggled to find my elevator pitch, because that book straddled two areas of interest, dream-working and writing, so it didn’t fit neatly into either. (My thanks again to Susan Price, who described the book perfectly in her review of it, and so helped me reframe how I describe it myself)
Not having a clear enough concept, all my efforts to get some pre-publicity for it hadn’t achieved very much, and had felt like a waste of good writing time.
I was on the point of deciding to just press publish and let When a Writer Isn’t Writing sink or swim without a shout, when I had this dream:
I’m thinking about my app Get Writing! and I see that the tasks could be represented by people sitting on a wall, and you could click any one, and they would all take you to a writing task. Just writing, so you could click with confidence, knowing what you were going to get.
When a Writer Isn’t Writing is like that, which means it will be easier to pitch and sell than Writing in the House of Dreams. That book could take a writer places they don’t want to go, but When a Writer Isn’t Writing only takes them into writing.
This dream gave me the energy and confidence to stop messing around and do some promoting, and I managed to place articles in Mslexia and The Author. Mslexia have subsequently approached me to ask if I’d like them to feature the book in their October competition. Er… yes please!
There will be reviews on the book analyst and awfullybigreviews, which I’ll link to here when they go up (if you’re a book blogger and would like a review copy, please get in touch!) I’m also organising a launch party in September.
It’s been a tough couple of months, not because self-publishing, writing press releases, pitching articles and organising events is hard and horrible work – I actually quite enjoy it – but because it takes up so much head-space that it stops you getting stuck into new writing.
My daily dose of writing – every stage from pondering and note-taking to drafting and redrafting – is what normally keeps me feeling happy and grounded. Writing isn’t just amazing – it’s addictive.
A non writing writer is a monster courting insanity | Franz Kafka
Dreams are my therapist when not writing makes me feel a bit crazy – what helps you?