Wednesday 23 January 2013

Bridport Prize blogger in residence...

I am delighted to be The Bridport Prize's first blogger in residence for their lovely new website.
The first  post has gone up - in which I natter about my win in 2007 and what it has meant.

I will be writing something every couple of weeks for the next few months - so if you have anything you'd like me to address, please do say and I will do my best!

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!


Wednesday 2 January 2013

My month as a Hawthornden Fellow

Hawthornden Castle December 2012

Hawthornden Castle
I guess a month cloistered with four other writers in a Scottish castle is not for everyone - but for this writer, it sounded perfect, and I was thrilled when my application was successful. But then, I started looking up this place, this fellowship - to see how other writers had fared, and found... almost nothing. Which, in this age of information overload, is extraordinary. So I am rectifying that. 
and again...

one of the many paths in the grounds
It’s such a brilliant gift, being able to step off the planet for four whole weeks, staying in an extraordinary place, being looked after by a housekeeper, an assistant housekeeper, a cook, the whole experience overseen by an on-site administrator. Acres and acres of tangled, steep, and atmospheric grounds to wander in, a rushing river - the North Esk -whose sound lulls you to sleep each night, no need to so much as think about shopping, cooking - you can even, if you wish, have your bedroom tidied every day. Not that one would, you know - but the thought of it is such a luxury!
So - what is Hawthornden Castle? As it says - a rather unique, solid and sometimes beautiful castle built high on a rock overlooking a bend in the North Esk river, a few miles south of Edinburgh. One of my colleagues described it as something like a safe stone ship for writers, and I can do no better. 
Once, this castle was home to the poet William Drummond (1595 - 1649). In the grounds there is a superb double seat overlooking the river, carved from solid rock - dubbed Drummond's Seat. 

Drummond's Seat

All five writers were collected at Edinburgh Waverley, and driven to the castle by Hamish the administrator - fount of all knowledge, protector of silence, writer of libretti and general good egg. In the car, conversation was light, and undercurrents churned along as we eyed each other up. What is it going to be like having to have dinner with these people every evening for a whole month?

It is such an odd thing - I think we were all bowled over by the surreality of the opportunity, as well as by the generosity of a benefactress of the arts called Drue Heinz who keeps a whole castle just for writers.
My four companions for the month were  a good mix. I count myself hugely lucky - all were terrific company, great conversationalists, great players of Scrabble and Outburst after dinner, and above all, hard workers. I guess one thing about telling adults to be quiet is that many will make their own rules - luckly we didn’t - and I am sure that is the same with every intake. I won't emblazon their identities here.
my study-bedroom
the wonderful spiral staircase to the top floor
Four of us were allocated study-bedrooms on the ‘writers’ floor’ - in the attic - a series of simply furnished, homely rooms on the old servants’ floor, I would guess. Accessed by a stone spiral staircase, every trip up or down was a reminder of the age and the uniqueness of where we were. I soon grew to love my room - its view over the ancient courtyard, the ruins of the original medieval castle, and up to a steep wooded hillside. 

Like all rooms, it had a desk and desklight, but as usual, as in Ireland at Anam Cara, most of my writing got done curled up on the bed. With or without hot water bottle. 
The days ran to their own rhythm, effortlessly. We would meet for breakfast in the ‘hearth room’, a gorgous dining room next to the kitchen, lined with portraits of Scottish heroes. We would eat porridge from old pewter bowls stamped appropriately enough, ‘HMS Hero’. We’d make toast, talk about plans for the day. One or two would go out for a morning walk round the grounds. And on or before 9.30, we’d be back in our rooms, with the hours stretching ahead, and no excuse but to focus, to read, write or revise. 
a gorgeous hall

No - you do not have to work in your room. There are three libraries, including one that is new, large, purpose-built and beautiful. One, built at the end of the castle, has the most wonderful views out over the glen. Another, in the ruins of the medieval castle, is reeking with atmosphere. There is a vast and pretty sitting room,  a Sunday dining room, the hearth room where we had breakfast each day and supper during the week, a hallway where there was sometimes a roaring fire, a summer room, and of course, the grounds - they would be wonderful to work in in warm weather. But this was November and December - and it was chilly. So I stayed put.
Can you go out? Yes, of course. Edinburgh and its delights is only a bus ride away. You can walk in the grounds, go into the local town of Bonnyrigg with its shops, you can walk on the old railway line. I didn’t go to Edinburgh, as my colleagues did at weekends, but worked on.  I went to London instead half way through, to collect a poetry award - but the lack of a proper break soon started to tell, looking back. I felt very stir-crazy despite short walks in the grounds now and again (More again than now - thanks to a dodgy foot - I’d had a small op just before going, which refused to heal , but it did in the end).

So stir-crazy me took a day off in the last week and walked to Rosslyn Chapel. It isn’t far - about 3 or 4 miles, I suppose, but it is a must-see when you are there. They have a jolly nice caff too. I had toasted haggis and sweet potato and mozarella isnt that interesting?!
The evenings were a good foil to the days of work. A quick snifter of sherry would be followed by supper in the hearth room in the company of Hamish Robinson the administrator. Conversation flowed, as did the wine from Bonnyrigg Co-op. When we had finished, the immortal words would be uttered by Hamish, ‘Shall we go upstairs?’ - which being translated means, ‘Shall we repair to the drawing room?’ So we did, and games of Scrabble were played, or something called Outburst - made in the 1980s, it taxed our memories something chronic when we had to remember parts of a camera before the digital revolution. 
(Oh dear - I can see the equivalent in fifty years time - Name 10 things that are part of a book, era - 2012 -  Paper. pages. print. spine. binding. endpapers. cover. hardback. softback.  illustrations.)

 Four weeks went by incredibly fast. For the first few days it felt like we had a year stretching ahead, and before you knew it, you were over half way, then into the last week, wondering where the time had gone. Without exception, we were amazed at how much work got done. (See end).
I loved every minute. I made four new writing friends, all of whom were just a delight to get to know. I surprised myself with what I wrote, some days. Even on those days I thought ‘nothing is going to work today’, it did, somehow. 
Once you have been a Hawthornden International Fellow, you can not reapply for five years. I’m thinking of changing my name just so I can. 
Huge thanks to Drue Heinz for giving us this extraordinary gift. She is not at the castle when writers are in residence - but her presence permeates the place. Bless her. 

*Work done on next novel - I took 40k of fast scribble done in Ireland earlier in the year.  I edited hard, wrote new stuff hard, spent a lot of time thinking and dreaming. I came away with 70k - some of which I am happy with. And I now know where I am going. I also wrote two poems, one article for Psychologies Magazine (out in February) and started another for The New Writer.