The Magic of Iceland

Following on from my previous blog, the question many friends have been asking me since my return is, how was Iceland? As in Iceland, the place, not the writing retreat. I feel somewhat unqualified to answer. Firstly, I spent very little time indeed in Iceland and most of it cooped up in a hotel attending writing workshops. Secondly, the brief time I did spend out and about was largely marred by my own incompetence.

Take, for example, the Blue Lagoon, which I visited on my way from the airport to Reykjavik. As I basked in the milky blue waters amidst the alien volcanic landscape, I noticed people all around me sporting selfie sticks. I realised this wasn’t, after all, the most original or trail-blazing experience. That evening, a fellow retreater told me how she’d taken herself off instead to the local geothermal beach, which was selfie-free, and joined the locals in the practice of rubbing coffee granules onto the body before bathing.

My fellow participants, mostly from the US or Canada, were far more intrepid than me, and far less defeatist about the short amount of time on offer. They managed, somehow, to catch the northern lights, visit glaciers, eat sharks and discover underground comedy clubs and experimental music performances in downtown Reykjavik.

When I ventured into Reykjavik during a free workshop period, I got lost in the suburbs and, running out of time, had to give up, having visited precious few key landmarks. ‘It’s not a city with an obvious gravitational pull towards the centre,’ I explained to a new writer friend back at the hotel, trying to justify my failure. ‘Gee,’ she said, imagining an adventure, ‘I just love to get lost.’

Writing workshops concluded, the third day was to be given over to sightseeing. On offer were two bus tours: the well-trodden Golden Circle tour or the alternative ‘literary’ Borgarfjordur tour. I opted for the Golden Circle. I wanted Iceland’s gems handed to me on a plate. However, when the bus stopped after only ten minutes at the Kjarvalsstadir art gallery for a reading by an eminent Icelandic author, I realised I was on the wrong tour.

I was devastated. I would return home without seeing the geological triumvirate of the magnificent Gullfoss waterfall, the great spouting Geysir and the Pingvellir rift valley where the North American and Eurasian continental plates were tearing apart. I climbed back on the bus feeling bereft and stupid.

Our tour guide introduced himself. He was a geophysicist who had published forty textbooks on subjects including geology, volcanology and glaciology. He had also published seven volumes of poetry and four novels. Ha, I thought. Now, at least, everyone else on the bus feels stupid too. As we skirted Hvalfjordur Fjord, site of the Allied Arctic convoys, he pointed towards the mountains and remarked, ‘I am also a mountaineer.’

We lunched at Snorrastofa, home of celebrated medieval chieftain and writer Snorri Sturluson. Standing by Snorri’s old geothermal bathing pool a fellow passenger told me, ‘You know, I’ve done the Golden Circle before but, to be honest, nice as this tour is, I wish I’d done it again.’

‘Oh yea,’ another chimed in, ‘the Golden Circle is absolutely spectacular.’

I descended the bus at our next stop with eyes downcast, traipsing disconsolately after the others. The sun came out to illuminate the turquoise swirls of the Hraunfossar and Barnafoss waterfalls. Wait. Did someone say waterfalls? Yes! Ribbons of water cascaded down the lava riverbank, spooling out of the landscape. By now, my fellow travellers had taken it upon themselves to cheer me up. They slapped me on the back as I took out my camera. ‘We’re boiling eggs at Deildartunguhver next!’

And so it was. We ate the eggs cooked by our guide in the bubbling hot springs, accompanied by smoked salmon and ginger beer. The sun came out again and brought with it a rainbow. Steam rose in the air and enshrouded the pipe carrying hot water to Icelandic homes, stretching away into the hills.

‘I hear The Golden Circle tour has experienced heavy precipitation throughout the day,’ said our guide. Whoops of glee broke out on my behalf.

On the way home, our guide recited an ancient Icelandic poem before treating us to an in depth account of the current political landscape. He concluded by saying, ‘Four years ago, I myself ran for president.’

Far from feeling inadequate, I returned to Reykjavik strangely empowered. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

And that, my friends, is how Iceland was.








































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The Writer’s Chair

I have recently returned from a writers’ retreat which involved, amongst other delights, two full days of writing workshops with an impressive line up of authors. The biggest draw for me was the author, Miriam Toews, whose book, All My Puny Sorrows, I read last summer and loved. The other draw was the fact that the retreat took place in Iceland.

Putting Iceland aside for the moment, it can be cause for apprehension when you meet an author you admire. You want so much to like them. In the case of Miriam Toews, because her book deals heavily with autobiographical content, I felt I had a pretty good idea of what kind of person she was. I felt certain I would like her. In fact, my notion of myself as a discerning reader depended upon it. 

The room for her workshop was laid out with tables in the shape of a U facing a single chair at the front. Toews chose not to take up residence in the facing chair. ‘We are all writers,’ she said. ‘There is no divide here. I should be sitting with you.’ Compare her words with those of a celebrated visiting writer on a different retreat I attended some years ago, who said from his position of splendid isolation, ‘You too could be sitting here one day.’  

I was right about liking her. Toews’ workshops were disarmingly laid back. We basically hung out as a group chatting about various aspects of writing. There was no mystique or pretension about her. She spoke passionately about the writing process and gave an honest appraisal of her own limitations.

This comradely approach was shared by the other authors. Neel Mukherjee told us, for example, about the rejections he had encountered on his journey towards the Man Booker shortlist. Adelle Waldman divulged how the failure of her first novel to achieve publication made the writing of the second so much harder, because she no longer laboured under the dreamy expectation of success. She also described the awkwardness of justifying her existence to friends and family when all she had to show for herself was a string of part-time jobs and a word document.

These successfully published authors agreed that the dividing line between recognition and anonymity was very fine. Once upon a time, they had been on our side of the line. They had the courtesy to suggest that what separated ‘them’ from ‘us’ could simply boil down to luck. But, of course, it isn’t only luck. There is also the writing itself.

Many people want to be ‘a writer.’ There is a whole industry built around fanning the aspirations of wannabes, including creative writing courses and retreats such as this. And now, with the advent of self-publishing, pretty much anyone can get to live the dream, however transient and flimsy that dream may be. But what really matters isn’t which chair you take in the workshop. The important struggle isn’t the struggle to get published. It’s the struggle to write well. Fortunately, we also talked about that. We looked at ways to make our writing better. We looked at novel openings, first person narratives, subverting the rules, changing point of view, character psychology and other useful topics.

There is the tortured genius type of artist who cannot bear to converse with mere mortals about his or her creative process. But most writers, I have found, are more down to earth people who aren’t interested in promoting a mystique about themselves, but are genuinely eager to communicate whatever lessons they have learned about how to make their writing work.

Of course, authors also do these gigs merely to pay the rent. But I suspect that, as empathy is a necessary attribute for a good writer, so then good writers naturally incline towards reaching out and helping others along the way. Which brings me back full circle to Miriam Toews and my relief and happiness to discover that I liked the ‘real’ person behind the quirky, funny and soulful prose of All My Puny Sorrows.

Talking of circles, what about the Golden Circle? What about Iceland? Ah yes. That was pretty good too…


For those interested, details of the retreat can be found here

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Writing as Therapy

I am just emerging from one of those stressful periods in life that come along every so often. One of those periods when you wake up in the mornings with your heart racing and your mind whirring. Days filled with tasks that are both mentally and emotionally draining.

The date of my previous blog shows how I’ve failed to keep up with my posts on here. You might naturally expect that, at a time such as this, I wouldn’t have managed to keep up with my fiction writing either. I wouldn’t have had the time. I wouldn’t have had the inclination. I wouldn’t have had the creative energy. I wouldn’t have been able to muster the concentration. I wouldn’t have had the inspiration.

This expectation, however, would assume two things that aren’t true. One, that external circumstances have to be conducive to writing in order for it to happen. Two, that writing for me is a hobby: something I do to unwind or to occupy myself with when there’s nothing else that requires my attention. For me, writing isn’t like that. Writing is something I need to do, come rain or shine.

It’s true I haven’t been in the right frame of mind to blog for a while. I’ve steered clear of writing that involves any kind of personal reflection, because life itself has foisted enough of that upon me. But, when the chips are down, I’ve found writing fiction to be not just a basic necessity, but positively beneficial to my mental and emotional well being.

This is true for a number of reasons. Like physical exercise, writing focuses the mind on something other than the problems you face. Writing fiction, in particular, focuses the mind on something unreal, which is a wonderful let up for a mind beleaguered by reality.

Writing fiction, like reading, is an escape. It’s a better form of escape than watching TV because it requires a far deeper level of concentration and engagement. It requires, to a degree, a suspension of the conscious mind, or, at least, a conversation between the conscious and the subconscious. If this means that some of the anxieties from your life may leak into your fiction, they must be allowed to do so only in the service of your story.

That is why writing fiction, as opposed to life writing, isn’t therapeutic in terms of catharsis or self-expression. But, in terms of a meditative experience, an imaginative release and an exercise in problem solving, it is brilliantly effective self-medicated therapy.

When I enrolled on my masters degree in creative writing, it was following the most stressful period of my life. At the time I wasn’t sure I’d be able to cope, but attending those weekly lectures and undertaking those writing exercises and workshopping my work and that of my fellow students proved to be an absolute lifeline.

Now that this latest storm has passed, I’m able to undertake a bit of naval gazing and to blog again. It’s a relief to do that. And I’m writing my fiction now without a sense of huddling under a cloud in desperation, but of stretching out in the light. Looking back on the last few weeks, I find myself wondering, not so much how I managed to carry on writing, but how people who don’t write manage to survive.


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Warning: Writer in Residence

I recently took the opportunity of a few clear days to book myself into a hotel for some dedicated writing time, away from it all. I splashed out on a really nice hotel in the Cotswolds. I splashed out on a really nice room too, with a four poster bed. Who says writers can’t enjoy a bit of luxury from time to time?

The room turned out to be beautiful. There was a glorious mullioned stone window with a cute little cushioned seat overlooking the garden. Granted, you needed a cute little bottom to go with it if you were going to manage to sit there for long. The bed, with its vast floral canopy, had a mattress so high off the ground it looked like I’d need a running jump to hop on board. I pictured myself lying there and felt vaguely ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the receptionist explained to me about Wifi and dinner times. But I was only half listening. I was distracted by the sound of a man’s voice intruding from below. Was someone talking in the garden? Was someone hard of hearing watching television? No, the receptionist explained, it was the manager in his office. But, I said, I wanted somewhere quiet. Is he there very often? Well, she looked at me curiously, he does work there, but he’s also out in service a lot of the time. Ah. Ok-aa-ay.

Half an hour later, my suitcase remained unpacked and I stood surveying the opulence of my room, the manager’s voice still booming through the floor. I went back to reception and said I wasn’t happy. Couldn’t they find me another room? Forget the four poster bed, I just wanted somewhere tucked out of the way.

An incredulous, but friendly, porter came and showed me a room in the attic. No four poster bed, no window seat, eaves that cramped and rather overbearing wallpaper.  I bent low to peer out of the rickety window. It gave out onto the rooftops. Perfect, I said, and threw open my suitcase.

I didn’t actually do much writing in my room. I wrote mostly in the hotel ‘library’ in front of a well stoked fire. This welcoming room attracted residents and non-residents alike through the course of the day. They came and went with their dogs and their newspapers and their books and their chit-chat and partook of cream teas and aromatic coffees. I remained in the corner, tap tapping away on my laptop, an array of empty plates, tea and coffee cups accumulating on the table before me, my shoes kicked off, my body half sprawled upon the sofa, my cheeks reddened by the fire. People looked at me as if I was one of those strange types you sometimes get in these places: best ignored, not to be encouraged.

You might argue that it was contradictory of me to complain about the manager’s voice intruding into my room whilst electing to write in a communal space where people congregated. But, the two aren’t at all the same. You’re just going to have to trust me on that.

‘Would Madam like this nice table by the window?’ the waiter asked as I walked into the dining room. No, thank you, Madam would prefer to sit over there underneath that spotlight so she can see to read her book. Thus, Madam inadvertently made herself the restaurant’s illuminated centrepiece.

‘Would Madam like some coffee?’ (When you’re dining alone, dinner doesn’t take very long.) Yes please: I’ll take it in the lounge by the fire. Out came the laptop again. A young couple arrived with their after dinner drinks and settled down to some serious canoodling on the sofa opposite. They were very much in love. But this woman tap tapping away on her laptop soon put a stop to that and they were off looking for somewhere else to smooch. I have to say, if I were them, I’d think I was a public nuisance.

Being a writer in a place where no one else is writing is a lonely business. But being a writer is a lonely business wherever you are. In the end, there is only you and the page. Of course, you can go to retreats where other writers reside. There, you can convene with sympathetic souls and talk about writing and, hopefully, no-one will think you’re weird, or annoying. I’ve done that and loved it and will do it again. I have also taken myself off into complete isolation where the only distraction is the compelling phenomenon of absolute silence and I’ve enjoyed that too. But, sometimes, it does you no harm to plonk yourself in the midst of a regular social milieu, amongst people who aren’t writing and to write there too. It’s all good. Writing is an eminently portable activity. You can vary your workspace as much as you like. A bit of variation here and there is, I find, a useful way to keep the creative juices flowing. Some occasional luxury thrown in doesn’t do any harm either.

Another cream tea for the weirdo in the corner? Don’t mind if I do.



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A Few of my Favourites

There are a lot of blogs coming out now comprising ‘best of’ reading lists for 2015. For want of anything better to write, I’m going to join in. Why anyone would care about what I’ve read this year, I don’t know. Except that, one or two of my favourite writer/bloggers have introduced me to some great books in the past, so it’s possible I might do the same for someone else. You never know.

I’m not a prolific reader and am often astounded by the amount of material other people manage to get through. I read slowly and sporadically. I also forget what I’ve read, although I do try to log books on Goodreads. So, here are some books I can actually remember reading this year, the reason being that I loved them all.

Elena Ferrante, Days of Abandonment. If you want to know what my (unpublished) novel is like, in subject matter at least, this is about as close as it gets (though not that close). Mine of course is nowhere near as good. (Like, obviously). This was a revelation to me, as it appears to have been to many other people. A dark, brutal and honest account of a woman on the edge. I shall have to read a whole load more of her in 2016.

Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster. Classy. Subtle. Quiet. Moving. Someone who really understands about living.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. A fictional account of the author’s sister’s suicide wish. Miriam Toews features on the writers’ retreat in Iceland I’ve booked to attend in April. Please, please, let me get onto one of her workshops. I think she’s fabulous.

Naomi Wood, Mrs Hemingway. This is one of those books where you just think, how? How does a writer (and such a young one too grrr) write about people from the past in a way that is so un-researchy and yet so vivid and convincing?

Villa America, Liza Klaussmann. Ditto.

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway. Having read the above, I had to read some Hemingway (I’ve only read his short stories before). Novels do date, but not so literary genius.

Hausfrau, Jill Essbaum. I read an article about the ‘domestic noir’ novel, in which this was listed as an example. I think it’s a much better novel than that rather trite sounding label implies. Another woman on the racks, this time in Switzerland. Trying to find some purpose amongst the cold landscape and her unsatisfying marriage. A very honest account of womanhood. Not self-pitying, but not pretty either.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro. One of my favourite writers. This was a departure for him, but every book is a departure for him. I love the restrained and profound quality of his writing. I struggle, however, with quest stories and mythology and this wasn’t my favourite of his books, but it still managed to cast a spell.

The Infatuations, Javier Marias. It’s fascinating how European literature, such as this and the Elena Ferrante, goes against so much instruction given to the UK creative writing student. This book, if presented to an MA workshop, would draw all manner of fire for telling not showing, for passages of description without dialogue and for a shifty point of view. It’s a dramatic tale that manages not to be told dramatically and is all the better for it.

Mr Loverman, Bernardine Evaristo. How many books have you read about a 70+ Caribbean man who lives in Hackney with his wife and is finally coming out about his lifelong relationship with another man? Thought so. Here’s one that’s witty and touching and full of great characters.

Pondlife, A Swimmer’s Journal, Al Alvarez. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but this book made me feel I should read more. Here is another ‘quiet’ book: a favourite word of mine, it seems, in relation to good literature. Ostensibly about Mr Alvarez’s year-round daily swims in Highgate and Hampstead ponds and the restorative effects of cold water, the book develops into a reflection on old age, nature, endurance and companionship. A book that seems slight on the surface, but has the power to move you deeply.

My Year with Salinger, Joanna Rakoff. This is one of those books I was directed to by another writer/blogger (thank you Julie). What a great insight into the pre-digital publishing age and the literary phenomenon that was/is JD Salinger. I loved this account of a woman setting out on her career who eschews the books of her employer’s number one client, whilst engaging in forbidden correspondence with his fans. When she does finally get around to reading Salinger, well, I won’t spoil it.

Like the Hemingway books, this inevitably led me to go back and read more Salinger. To be precise, Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey. Rakoff’s critical musings made these readings even more enjoyable. Yes, what a truly original writer, both witty and devastatingly sad, a huge empathiser with the limitations of being human.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. A non-fiction account of a man’s quest to commune with the wilderness of the Alaskan outback. This inspired my far more modest communion with the Scottish Cairngorms in my week long summer retreat.

Into Thin Air: A Personal account of the Mt Everest Disaster, Krakauer again. Simply desperate to read more in the same ilk. This charts human ambition and fallibility and its deadly consequences.

A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland. This is the book that led me, by recommendation, to Krakauer. A wonderful exploration of silence: the mythology and spirituality surrounding it; how difficult it is to obtain and the surprising and liberating effects of immersing oneself in it. Again, inspiration for my Scottish retreat.

There were a number of books I read which had received a lot of positive attention and glowing reader reviews, but which I thought were pretty awful. It would be churlish and unsporting to name them. It seems I often find myself disagreeing with common opinion, which probably doesn’t bode so well for me as a writer.

Reading a book you love, however, is a wonderful thing. Occasionally, when I hit a difficult patch in life, my reading falls by the wayside. Sometimes reading gets the happiness back. Sometimes happiness gets the reading back. So, for 2016, I’m going to wish for myself and everyone else, lots of happy reading.



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On Failure

The other day, a pretty miserable day in general as it happens, I discovered my novel hadn’t made it from the longlist to the shortlist of a well known competition. All in all, it was a ‘I’m this close to throwing in the towel’ kind of day.

It set me thinking about another, very different day, some time ago, when I was invited to an event hosted by an Olympic swimmer. This personable and articulate man in his late twenties was giving a masterclass to a group of talented young swimmers, which began in the pool and ended on dry land with a talk and powerpoint presentation. The powerpoint opened with a photo of the swimmer at the end of his race after making his Olympic debut. Clenched fist pumping the air, broad smile on his face. Living the dream.

After this, there appeared on the screen a long list of failures. Failure to qualify for national competitions as a youngster. Failure to make national finals. Failure to be selected for European teams, Commonwealth teams, World Championships teams. Failure after failure after failure. Often he came close to these goals, only to fail by a few hundredths of a second. Sometimes, he simply came nowhere near.

Still, he had a dream: to swim at the Olympics. And after all these failures, one day everything finally fell into place and he made it. He swam at the Olympics. It wasn’t a complete fairytale ending. He didn’t win a medal. He didn’t make a final. He didn’t make a semi-final. He didn’t even win his heat. But, he did realise his dream and the photo of him punching the air and grinning broadly showed that he was absolutely over the moon about it.

Now, he gets to wear the GB kit and travel the country talking to potential young Olympians about his success. Or rather, about his failures. And how all those failures preceded, nurtured, and made possible, his success.

You know what I’m going to say next, right? Yes: the same is true for the majority of successful writers. They too are acquainted with failure. Instead of rejection by team selectors, they have known rejection by agents and publishers and competition judges. The comparison is easily drawn, the message simple: keep swimming; keep writing; learn from your failures; never give up.

But then, I ask myself, what about all those writers who don’t make it? The ones for whom rejection never ends?Just as there are plenty of supremely talented swimmers in the world who train like dogs, but who never quite make the team, so there are bloody good writers out there whose work never sees the light of day.

Successful people in any field will tell you that if only you keep going and believing, one day it will happen for you too. But, there are no guarantees. The chances, in fact, are much more likely that it won’t.

So, what should I do? Go take up patchwork? Well, no, I guess I shall keep writing. Not because I believe in the dream (whatever that is) but because I believe in what I’m doing. Or rather, I believe in myself doing it. Writing is the thing for me. It makes me tick. It keeps me sane. On the shortlist, or off the shortlist. With a publisher, or without. For a readership of one thousand, or one.

Let’s think about this for a moment: was it purely just that one minute and a few seconds’ worth of racing (100m breaststroke) that gave that Olympic swimmer’s life its meaning? Was it worth all the pain and misery of years and years of hard training and harsh knock backs just for that fleeting moment of relatively unnoticed glory?

Or was there something in him that actually liked getting up at 4.30 on a dark winter’s morning to go pounding relentlessly up and down the pool? And that liked going back again in the evening for more physical and mental punishment? I believe there must have been. Something in him loved the process. Otherwise, why, in the face of all the odds, would he have kept at it?

In the end, there is no success or failure. There is only doing what you want to do.


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Does it Matter if Novels Aren’t Plausible?

Does anyone care about plausibility in novels anymore? Or are readers just so hungry for twist upon twist, they don’t mind how improbable this renders the story line?  

Read a book like ‘Gone Girl’ and you could well believe the latter is the case. In an age where so many books are being published, the author is perhaps under more pressure than ever to come up with ways of taking the reader by surprise. They can achieve this by feats of imaginative ingenuity or by making the story, frankly, ridiculous.

It’s not just genre novels that seem to be prone to this trend. The literary novel in recent years, particularly in its quest to hit that literary/commercial sweet spot often referred to by agents, has often stretched the limits of probability.

Of course, there needs to be an element of the fantastical in all but the most rigorously naturalistic fiction. That’s what makes it engaging. Readers of fiction want to be lifted out of the everyday and to be immersed in fresh experiences and scenarios. We want to be asked to suspend our disbelief. So, surely, there is nothing wrong with straying from the realms of plausibility if it makes for a good read? 

Whilst thinking about this, I chanced upon an essay by David Lodge called ‘The Novelist at The Crossroads’ (Routledge 1971) in which Lodge argues that the constraints of plausibility in the realistic novel is like a regular rhyme and metric scheme in a poem. Whilst it may at first appear that the discipline of regular verse would fetter the poet’s imagination, it actually forces him or her to reach for a higher plane of expression. It prevents the poet from accepting the first set of words that pops into the head, which are almost always banal, cliched, or exaggerated, and makes them come up with something more interesting and unique to comply with the rhyme or scan scheme. Similarly, the novelist who has to ground their work in plausibility must be more resourceful and skillful in the story line they conceive and in its execution.

The reason, of course, why I’m grappling with this issue is because I am in the process of planning my next novel. I am trying to negotiate that fine line between what is likely and what is exciting: to exploit the tension between fiction and reality which, when done well, makes reading such a joy.

In short, I want to take my reader on an invigorating and captivating journey, without taking them for a ride.

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Writing for No-one

Writers are often told they should keep a journal. I imagine a writer’s journal to be something erudite and practical: the exposition of process, working through problems and strategies, accruing material and ideas. I’ve never written a journal like this. What I have done, however, is to sporadically keep a personal diary, ever since the age of seven, when my first entry read: ‘Today I ate a Curly Wurly.’

Diary writing is the strangest kind of writing. Who is it for? Posterity? Well, I’m certainly no Samuel Pepys. My diaries would be of no use as historical documents because I include very little in them about the society in which I live (apart from its chocolate bars). It’s true that during some of my teenage, self-obsessed years, I was writing with half an eye to future fame and glory. But I soon got over that.

So, if not for posterity, or the development of craft, what purpose does a diary serve? I’m not sure what made me keep writing. Perhaps, it was simply the compulsion to write something, when I didn’t know what else to write. At times my diaries have been flippant and joyful. At other times, they’ve been the repositories of unspoken, secret emotions. A valuable means of expression and catharsis whenever I’ve felt myself to be overwhelmed, or silenced, by life’s circumstances.

Given that they are very personal, I don’t want anyone to read them. Not even when I’m dead. Nor, surely, do I want to read them myself. Why else would they have remained stuffed in boxes in my loft? Why should I want to read them? The catharsis is surely achieved and exhausted at the moment of writing. Why not just burn the lot and keep burning them every couple of years?

To find the answer to this question, I took down my old diaries from the loft and carted them off with me to my Scottish retreat to re-read them, possibly one last time. I expected them to be cringe worthy. They were. But they were also fascinating and revealing in unexpected ways. People often ask, ‘What would you say to your younger self with the benefit of hindsight?’ Reading my diaries turned this question around to, ‘What would your younger self say to you?’

I found my younger self saying things like, ‘See here, you always wanted to do such and such, you’ve wanted to do it ever since you were very young – why, oh why, have you left it undone?’

Also: ‘That story you’ve been dining out on all these years: you do know it didn’t happen like that at all?’

Or: ‘See how you let yourself be pushed around here, are you going to carry on like that for ever?’

And: ‘That time you harp back to when you were really happy? You were miserable.’

And: ‘You do realise you’ve always loved writing stories? Don’t give up now.’

Our memories are a narrative written in the past tense, edited and refined for our own consumption, as much as anyone else’s. We put a spin on our memories to make us feel better about ourselves, to excuse our failings, to mollify our self-doubts. But in a diary you have a first person present narrator talking right back at you, telling you how it really was. Although this narrator, too, can be unreliable.

One of the most fascinating facets of human beings lies in the gap between perceived self and real self. A lot of fiction, my own novel included, explores characters for whom this gap is unusually wide. It can have comic or tragic consequences, or both. Either way, the reader gets to delight in their superior understanding of a character, in knowing that person better than the character knows him, or her, self.

Well, for once, I gained a superior understanding of a character straight out of real life: me. IMG_3346

I won’t be burning my diaries just yet. They are little missives to myself that I haven’t quite done with. But one day I most certainly will, apart from the Curly Wurly entry, which I believe should be preserved for posterity.

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Season of Hope

Right now is my absolute  favourite time of the year. I love it. Whilst people around me are bemoaning the passing of summer and the return to school runs, stews and soggy weather, I’m relishing the absence of barbecues, bared flesh and general all round joviality. I’m getting out the hot water bottle (actually I never put it away), readying the grate and closing the curtains on the world earlier and earlier each evening. What bliss.

To me, despite the fading light, Autumn always feels like a new beginning. Perhaps it’s because it’s the start of the academic year and anyone with children knows how this acts as a marker for change: much more so than the start of a new calendar year. For me, ever since I was a child, September has seemed like a time to gather my bearings and look to the future.

Amongst other things, I’m naturally taking stock of my writing. I think we all pretty much know where I am with that: I’m looking for an agent. So… how’s that going?

Although I’ve had my little moans about agents along the way, by and large I’ve found they do get back to you eventually and they often have some nice things to say. I’ve been circumspect in my submissions in that I’ve kept the numbers small. This means I can use the feedback received along the way to improve my submission and I still have many more avenues to explore. I try, of course, to target those agents to whom I think my work will appeal. It’s not always easy to tell. I’ve misfired a couple of times. I should have known better, for example, than to send it to an agent who spends all her time tweeting about cuddly kittens and handbags.

I’ve had some success with competitions. The opening eight thousand words were shortlisted for an agent-run competition. And the first page of my novel came first, as in actually won, the Words with Jam First Page prize. If you’d like a sneak preview of the opening of my book, it appears on their website here. (You’ll see what I mean about kittens and handbags).

Which all points to me thinking that I’m doing okay. Things are generally heading in a positive direction. I’m still in with a chance.

And now that the clamour of summer is dying down, I can enjoy getting on with the next novel without the need for ear plugs and Piriton. Yay!

I could have spent my prize money on groceries or pet insurance, but I decided instead to re-invest in my writing by purchasing this rather gorgeous desk chair.

I could have spent my prize money on groceries or pet insurance, but I decided instead to re-invest in my writing by purchasing this rather gorgeous desk chair.



Posted in On Getting Published | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

A Writer’s Escape

For the past couple of summers I have taken myself off to the wonderful Retreats for You for some dedicated writing time. Here I was given a room, a writing desk, good food, drink and company.

This year, however, I decided to do something different. Instead of a communal writers’ retreat, I would escape into complete isolation and silence. My decision was in part influenced by two books: one was ‘Into The Wild’ by Jon Krakauer about Chris McCandless’ ill-fated sojourn into the Alaskan outback and the other was Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence, in which the author’s investigation into the experience of silence, its psychological, physical and spiritual effects, culminates in her building a house for herself in a remote Scottish landscape.

Yes, that was how I wanted to live, well, for a week at least. Before I could talk myself out of it, I booked the remotest dwelling I could find: a two-bedroom cottage in the Cairngorms. No neighbours for miles, no mobile phone signal, no internet reception, no TV. Just woods and mountains, deer, red squirrels and birds.

I took with me two dogs and, along with a small suitcase, a rucksack stuffed with books, some old diaries of mine I’d found in the loft and my laptop. I didn’t know if I’d actually manage to read or write anything and it didn’t matter. I didn’t go with any agenda other than to spend some time with myself.

I consulted the map the night before and discovered I would be driving no fewer than 550 miles. Some trepidation crept in. How will I manage the journey? How will the dogs manage? How will I feel on my own in the cottage? Will I miss my children? Will I be frightened? What will it be like?’

The eight and a half hour journey ended up taking nearly twelve hours with breaks for the dogs factored in. I left at 6 am and I arrived at 5 pm. The last part, off the main highways, took the longest, but the spectacular scenery spurred me on. Soon I was unpacked and had got the wood burner going, albeit mid-July.

The owner had kindly left me some homemade fudge, shortbread, ginger cake and a bottle of white wine. Three months before, I had given up alcohol and now the last thing I wanted was to waste my evenings here in a maudlin stupor in front of the fire. So I popped the wine away and cracked open the Highland Spring Water I’d brought with me.

It took a long time for darkness to fall. I hadn’t appreciated how the light lingers this far north. It was still only dusk at half past ten. I let the dogs out and, as soon as they were outside, they began barking and staring rigidly at a fixed point in the dark woods beyond. Thanks, girls. Naturally, I assumed an axe murderer was making his way towards me. I called the dogs in, locked the door and took a kitchen knife and a pair of sharp scissors to bed.

I awoke to find myself alive and well the next morning and still in ‘mum’ mode, trying, and failing, to call my son to check he was up for his paper round. But a walk in the countryside soon knocked that nonsense out of me. Actually, ‘countryside’ is too twee a word for it. This was wilderness. As I took a steep narrow track up a local low mountain, pheasants flew out from the dense heather all around, a bird of prey wheeled above and the clouds cast fleeting patterns on the desolate hillsides.

I thought I must strike an incongruous figure: a poorly equipped woman from the south east roaming the Cairngorms with two dogs and an old SLR camera slung around her neck.

I had decided I would take proper photos on this trip, on film, like. Normally, I snap away with my mobile and upload the results within seconds to my computer and/or Facebook without much care for quality. Here, I wanted to pay attention to matters such as depth of field and composition and light.

After lunch back at the cottage, I felt tired from my journey the day before, but was reluctant to give into an afternoon snooze. Already, I was beginning to worry about how little time I had left.

I needn’t have worried. I soon discovered how expansive time becomes when there is nothing – nothing – to interrupt your day. And it’s not just the not being interrupted: it’s the not anticipating any interruption. It made me realise how much this anticipation lurks in the back of my mind at home all the time. I’m always half expecting something to break into my concentration, be it the children, the telephone, the dishwasher cycle, some outside disturbance, or whatever. I realised how distracting this sense of anticipation is.

Here, in clear open time and space I could get truly lost in what I was doing. I might decide to make a cup of tea and then find a couple of hours later that I hadn’t made a move towards the kettle. The longevity of each moment was a most precious discovery.

And the silence itself. On that first day sitting in the easy chair of the living room, all I could hear was the blood pulsing in my head.

Such profound peace and quiet is something I imagine lots of people would cherish, but for a writer, it’s especially blissful. It gave me a chance, not only to become deeply involved in my work, but, conversely, to change from one task to another without fear of losing the thread. When I picked up the writing after a break, no junk had infested my mind. It was like that mental freshness you have first thing in the morning extending right up until bedtime.

I found the life of the mind, combined with bracing walks, gave me an appetite for a particular kind of food: the good old heart warming, comforting kind. I wanted none of your bistro frippery. I cooked my frozen steak and kidney pies and baked beans whilst eyeing the leftover balsamic vinegar from a previous occupant with deep suspicion.

The only human contact I had was at the checkout in the local Co-op (12 miles away) and the few other walkers I passed by. Whilst hiking up Cairn Gorm towards the end of the week, I came across a couple of families all kitted out in full outdoor regalia. I felt envious of these children whose parents were initiating them so early in the great outdoors and then I felt guilty because I wasn’t one of those parents.

I received my one and only phone call half way up Cairn Gorm. My mobile reception suddenly kicked in to allow my youngest son to get through and ask me about putting out the bins!

On one occasion I thought I’d lost my mobile. Normally this would send me into paroxysms of panic and despair. Was I bothered? Not remotely. All week the only thing I used my mobile phone for was to time the pies in the oven.

Did I get lonely? No. I loved being on my own. Except for one time immediately after I’d finished reading the first novel I’d taken with me. I realised then how a good book can become such a close companion. But I soon found a new friend in the next one.

I did, however, at times feel low. But then, this wasn’t meant to be a holiday. I’d come in part to think about some personal stuff and there was no reason why this would be a comfortable experience. It did help though.

‘Longer,’ I wrote in my logbook at the end of the week, ‘I really need longer.’ I avoided totting up how many books I’d read or how many words I’d written (a lot). I didn’t want to look upon the week in terms what I had ‘achieved.’ I wrote effusive thanks in the visitors’ book, left the keys in the shed and began the long journey home.

Half an hour in, I couldn’t work out what was wrong with the sat nav. A tangle of confusing gridlines and signs appeared on the screen. What did it all mean? Sadly, it meant I had hit civilization. All week, wherever I’d gone, the screen had shown just one meandering line: a solitary road surrounded by green.

Back home, I wasn’t able to rush straight to the computer screen to remind myself of where I’d been. I had to wait for my photos to be developed and posted back to me. Can you imagine? When they arrived, the memories were all the sweeter for having waited.

Meanwhile, I ploughed through hundreds of emails. Unbelievably, there wasn’t a single one from a literary agent offering representation for my novel. How strange.

Oh well, sometimes all you need is a bed, a book and a running burn in the woods nearby to gain a real sense of affirmation.



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