Sunday, 20 January 2013

Being a Writer...



What is it like being a writer?

Funny - I’ve been asked that a few times in the last whatever, so I thought I'd better have a think. What ‘is’ it like being a writer?

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. 

Happy to take questions!



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18 comments:

  1. Although it's ridiculous of me to compare myself with you, Vanessa, so much of what you say here I find myself underlining in red and adding 'Yesss!!!' I was that hider-underneath-the coats-in-the-changing room-person - or, in my case, a forgotten store-cupboard of broken chairs and smelly hockey boots. I have no routine and I flit between tasks. I find that 'where do you get ideas from?' question utterly baffling. Where not? I am unsociable unless the talk is about writing and reading. I hate chit-chat and small talk...I won't go on.

    Mind you, I don't have your full diary or have published anything like as much as you have. But I do what I can and make it as good as I can. That's all we writers can do, after all. And we are never fully satisfied with it, are we?

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  2. I've enjoyed discussing the finer pointsof writing with you very much and look forward to many more conversations!

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    1. Ditto - you with a fine single malt, me with my sweet sherry... (!).

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  3. Why is it ridiculous - we are both writers. How funny that you hid from games at school too! I dont have a full diary - those are just nice things in the offing - there are acres of blank space waiting to be filled by erm, not spending time on the internet! xx

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  4. Enjoyed reading, Vanessa. I don't have a routine for writing either, though I think one would be a good thing to develop. Ideas do come from everywhere! I wish I had been clever enough to hide when it came time for sporting events at school.

    I am gregarious, and do enjoy talking to all sorts of people. So I do hope social lobotomy is not required to be a writer :)

    There are all kinds in every walk of life, and I am happy that I belong to the "writer" kind!

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    1. I am trying a belated New year's Resolution - walking and writing to order. Hmph. Thus far, walking is fine...

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  5. EXcellent post, V, and rather funny!! You now have me hankering for a retreat (again!) xxx

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    1. Sorry about that! Maybe there's one you can take very young writers too...?

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  6. A wonderful post, V, thanks for your honesty! "Social lobotomy"? I suspect that's true for me too, I have drifted off in several meetings recently, luckily because I am the only "writer" in the room, they seem to expect it of me!

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  7. T - are you going to meetings on your fast days??(!)

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    1. I'm doing everything on fast days, including going running! It doesn't affect me at all anymore, but that took 3 months to get to that point.

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  8. I am so looking forward to reading Kit and I'm sure it's helped by being written amongst bursts of poems.

    ‘Why can’t you work at home? Isn’t that just an excuse?’ produced a smile of recognition. Writing retreats are definitely the answer but not a cheap one.

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    1. Thanks Caroline - it's getting there!

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  9. Very nice post, V. Of course my anal Capricorn ways makes me quite different from you ( a plotter and a planner and a seriously prescribed day) and I'm trying so very hard to find a way to write NOT at home, so I can go on all of these lovely writers' retreats you folks speak about and actually get some work done. I always love to hear how other writers experience this life.

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  10. Tell me about those Capricorns - I am married to one! Horses for courses though, and isnt it a Good Thing we aren't all the same? x

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  11. Great post. And the bit about being less sociable and more protective of your time....oooh, know that well, and for me, it's the one that makes me feel the most uneasy. I'm always worried that people will forget about me if I don't keep seeking them out, but the idea of wasting time talking about stuff I'm not really interested in anymore fills me with dread. I'm happy to see you feel that way, too. I've revamped my 'at home' work schedule over the past couple of weeks, and it's already bearing fruit, I'm happy to say -- one new poem and one new story and the beginning of research for the next novel. We'll se if I keep it up. But in the meantime, keep going with Kit. I want it done so I can read it!!!! xoxo

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  12. I'm also a very contorted Capricorn and though sporty, have never liked having my head missed by small talk. Very elegant and enjoyable post Xcat

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  13. Thanks for writing a great post :)

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