Actually, there is no difference to not being a writer, except that you write. That sounds trite - but isn’t intended to be. When you aren’t a writer, you think there’s something ‘other-worldly’ and marvellous about those who do - or rather, those who do it so their work gets published, perhaps. I can’t remember wondering what it must be like to write and then stick it all in a box under the bed. That seems unsatisfactory, to me, unfulfilling - but then it’s horses for courses. Some writers must do so, and that’s fine.
So this is what it is like for me, Vanessa Gebbie, to be a writer. And to sort that out, first of all I have to decide what differences there are in me, now, as opposed to before I wrote. I started in late 2002 - so I can pinpoint fairly precisely.
I am far less gregarious, socially. Much more protective of my space, my time. Less tolerant of small talk, meaningless hours spent discussing things I am not and actually never have been interested in, for the sake of convention. Maybe becoming a writer means you have a social lobotomy? I reckon so. However, give me a reason to debate the finer points of dialogue, or the grey area in the faultline between poetry and prose, or a chance to fire up other writers and lead a workshop, and I am happy to do so for hours.
In some ways nothing has changed - I still find it impossible to concentrate on just one thing at once, always have several projects on the go. The Coward’s Tale, for example, was written at the same time as many of the short stories in Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning, lots of flash fiction and also while I was pulling together the text book, Short Circuit. Now - its fellow, ‘Kit’, is getting written in bursts between other things, including poetry. Maybe ‘Kit’ is less poetic than The Coward? Who knows. Maybe prose and poetry are separating themselves out?
That’s just one thing I love about being a writer - the journey is unpredictable. You never know what is round the next corner. This time last year, I was planning what to say when I went to Athens for International Women’s Day at the launch of an anthology in which I had a mad story, thanks to an invitation from the British Council. This year, I am wondering how best to enthuse new writers for the Psychologies Magazine/Bloombsury/Writers’ and Artists’ workshop with Suzy Joinson on 28th Feb. And planning another couple of workshops for new novelists - and an evening in London with Spread the Word, and a retreat for me and Kit in February at Anam Cara. Wondering if I can afford to go on a course later in the year - and looking forward hugely to a month at Gladstone’s Library in September. With events already planned, and me taking a few workshops out to local schools, it will be a marvellous, rich experience. And one that the Other Half can share - Other Halves are welcome to join the writers in residence if they wish, for however long.
I love the other writers I’ve got to know, all 99.9% of them are wonderful creative spirits. There have been the odd one or two along the way who are not wonderful at all, but that’s their problem, not mine!What, if anything, do I hate about being a writer? Well, for someone who has never taken to exercise (I used to hide behind the coats in the changing room at school... go figure...) sitting down for hours on end does take its toll. There is this condition called Writers’ Bum. It is very catching, and is not helped by the consumption of salt and vinegar crisps instread of eating proper meals. That’s why going to a retreat is sooo good - at the right ones, they take all that off your shoulders, and shop, cook and even clear up...
Mind you - retreats are expensive, and the other part of being a writer that I find very tough is the lack of money. Sure, when you get your novel out with a mainstream publisher you get an advance, but it is not big - unless you are very lucky (and brilliant) - and it soon goes. I am married to a guy who retired some years back, and whose pension was hit by the banking crisis and subsequent recessions. So when payments and expenses for teaching, reading or anthology commissions take ages to come through, it really hurts. That sounds like a whinge - it isn’t meant to - but the worst thing for being creative is worry - it gets in the way big time. But there you go, it’s all part of it.
So when the chance comes along to apply for weeks at a retreat where you are fed, watered, have peace n quiet - all for nothing, I jump at it. Hence Hawthornden Castle last year, Gladstone’s Library this. Bless the benefactors of the arts.People ask the funniest questions - ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ Answer - Everywhere. Nowhere. And in between. And they ask the most sensible questions - ‘Do you have a writing routine?’ Answer - No but I should have.
Here are some questions I have been asked, and my answers.
- ‘Do you plot your work in advance?’ - No - except when I do. And when I do, invariably, as soon as I start writing that bit it veers off on its own like a train that hasn’t learned to run on rails.
- ‘Do you have a writing routine?’ - As above, no, but I should have. At home, that is. When I am away at a retreat, I am hugely disciplined. It’s work all morning, then after lunch I go for a walk for at least an hour, read or sleep for an hour when I get back , then work until supper. If I am on my own at Anam Cara, I will work after supper too, in front of the fire. If not on my own, I will be fed up with the walls of my room at that point, and relish the company of others, conversation with a glass of vino, readings, sharing of work, whatever.
- ‘Why can’t you work at home? Isn’t that just an excuse?’ - Probably. But nobody’s perfect. Tough.
- ‘What do you do if you can’t think of what to write?’ - Read. Write something flashy (as in flash fiction) using a prompt. Make it fit what I’m meant to be doing - it is amazing how that works.
- ‘How do you know when something is finished?’ - Good question. Maybe it’s a bit like putting on makeup for a special occasion - not that I wear makeup much, but bit of slap now and again, you know... and then, you take care over each bit - and define, balance, improve - but there comes a point where the improving isn’t actually improving any more. That each ‘little something’ just shouts ‘too much’ - and the tissues come out, the lippy gets wiped.. (Sorry blokes, you’ll just have to imagine. Or experiment.)
- What is the weirdest thing about being a writer? Well, that notion that for some reason writers are special. We are no more special than we were before we were writers.