On being a letterer*

*no not the comic book kind. My kind of letterer. Deal.

Today I have written three letters, the first ones for a while. It takes something out of me, which I can’t always tap into or give. I hadn’t noticed when writing one or two a time, but when I wrote four one Saturday, I realised how much energy was going into each one. Just as much as a story. More maybe. They quite often become more personal that I aim for, especially knowing that there won’t be a response. I often get more philosophical than I mean to too, but somehow that can make me work out what is buzzing around my head in that unreachable space. The process is a little like meditation.

Letters

I started writing letters for From Me to You in March. I already sent irregularly timed letters to friends which is why Alison invited me along to their letter writing workshop at Waterstones Piccadilly. Working with From Me to You, I often write to complete strangers who are currently dealing with cancer. This was something I wish I had done for loved ones in the past but these letters have provided so much that I couldn’t have foreseen.

When you’re ill and dealing with the onslaught of treatment, having some escape is vital. You may not have the energy to read a whole book, or the conversations you have with friends may have a habit of coming back to your illness and the limitations it can bring. I have written about my fears around depression, and I can only relate in that way – having never had cancer, but there have also been frank conversations with loved ones who have had cancer who didn’t want to talk about themselves but wanted to hear my stories about my day, or what I was passionate about right in that moment.

So that’s what I try to share with the recipients of my letterees (yes, I just made that word up. If you can be a letterer – I know it’s not the right context, who cares – then you can be a letteree). At first I used to try to justify why I was writing. I felt selfish because I couldn’t ask and listen to what was happening with them, until I realised that was part of the point. This way, the letteree gets to access a whole other life in a moment. Occasionally From Me to You send me the name and a little info about someone who has been nominated to receive letters. I’ve been writing to one man for a little while now, and it was so rewarding to hear that what I’m sending is making his days easier and making him smile. We both have a love for Marvel so I’ve been sharing my theories about the current Netflix series and the latest films. It doesn’t have to be Plato-level philosophy!

The fact that I get something from it also feels selfish, but it’s a thought I’ve learnt to put aside. I give more than I would if I were just making a monetary donation, and instead of a sticker or a badge I get some insight back. If it’s not something that person wants to read, I can’t stop that or fix it – but there is something beautiful about the serendipity of just sending words out into the wider world. That in turn has helped me relax about the stories I write and where they will end up finding homes. See, it is the gift that keeps on giving.

If you’d like to find out more about From Me to You, and how you can become a letter writer (or letterer in my world), then visit their site.

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Shhh. Top secret plans afoot.

Okay, so it might seem like I’ve been ignoring you all for some time, or more to the point ignoring this blog, but there are lots of secret squirrel plans coming together whilst I piece together my short story collection.
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Most secret (not so secret anymore) is the news that I’m becoming part of Team WHQ. I’ve spoken highly of Writers’ HQ in the past (used to be called Brighton Writers, until they decided to take on the world). From July I’ll be running monthly retreats in Cambridge – so get signed up here for when all the details are confirmed when you’ll get official type invites with discount codes and everything!

It’s also worth knowing that I’m running short story workshops at the Evesham Festival of Words on Friday 30th June, and at the Jersey Festival of Words at the end of September – so I hope to see you at one of these events too.

On time, gratitude, and new views

A year ago I let my voice be loud enough to tell the ether that my debut short story collection would be published. Deadlines were placed, my work began. Today, my work continues. The deadlines have moved, publishing schedules being as they can be, and there is now more time. Yet to be Determined will be in your hands in 2018. The irony of the title is not lost on me.

At the moment it is in my hands, but I am not alone. Thanks often comes at the end of the process, but in the steps we take for a book to live in other peoples’ lives, it’s not just down to the author. The encouragement from my friends, writing colleagues, and particularly my wife is not forgotten at any stage. Thank you, you know who you are.

I did not foresee this extra time but I am now grateful for it; the space in which to continue the journey, both for the book and myself. I’ll try not to question talking about this now, and last year, before the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. I could try to pass over it, hide. I’m not going to. I will remind myself of the gratitude for the honesty that my writing peers have been kind enough to share; and I can hope that it will helps others as well as myself.

Often the question of ‘right’ comes up – right words, right time, right way. I’m a believer in fate, but don’t always have the patience for it. I’ll keep reminding myself that it’s worth the wait. For example. This. Was. Worth. The. Wait.

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My thanks to Cathy Galvin (that blissful woman on the right who founded the Word Factory) is unending. Not least because she gave me the chance to help Neil Gaiman with his signing, and generally hang around with his amazing assistant Clara before the masterclass.

Being on the other side of the desk with this ‘literary rock star’ gave me a new view of being an author that I am yet to experience. So far there has been one person who took note of my name when I was at the Cinnamon Press fest last year and came up to me to congratulate me on my story ‘Once there was a bear’. I was so taken aback that I quickly thanked her but couldn’t think of the next thing to say. Like a normal person. Neil Gaiman, like many authors of course, has his stage presence – the rock star Neil – which slips into place and off again when he then becomes Neil the writer who still gets excited about seeing the work he is most proud of in front of him. I feel very fortunate to have been able to witness that, in someone I am so in awe of.

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So this weekend I spent time talking hard things and writing hard things. I allowed myself to crash into innocence (waking up in a bed full of cuddly toys will do that), enjoyed the sunshine on my face, learnt how to make origami stars (my new stress relief), and dipped into Neil Gaiman’s collection of non-fiction The View from the Cheap Seats. A wise woman (Caitlin Moran) said this of it – and I feel it’s the perfect sum up:

“If this book came to you during a despairing night, by dawn you would believe in ideas and hope and humans again. This is a beautiful, beautiful book.”

Another book to add to your list. If you want to read the Once Upon a Time article pictured, its available here.

On being ready to tell

20160312_182813I first went to the opera eleven years ago. I vividly remember the train journey into London, the panic on my then-girlfriend-now-wife’s face as we arrived late to find the doors closed, the view from our first seats and the move to our actual seats during the interval, the little bar in Covent Garden where we drank champagne and de-constructed ourselves on our first valentine’s. I do not remember anything about the opera itself.
On revisiting the Coliseum for Philip Glass’s Akhnaten last weekend, I explained that I couldn’t remember the finer details of the opera, or even the building, from the last time. I feel I wasn’t emotionally or mentally ready for the experience, that it was too big for me to connect with. After the second opera experience I was left with the memories of how the music made me feel, the way the symbolism on stage fulfilled the story in my mind, my relation to the height of the seats and the grasp of a hand in mine as we waited for the next act.

So why am I telling you this on a writing blog?

I have found myself drawing parallels with this experience and my current writing processes. Stories need to be given time to be told but the story teller has to be ready to to tell the tale.

I have never been a “one draft wonder” and I don’t really believe there is such a writer. Developing your characters, understanding the story’s theme, time, place, all takes redrafting. Some stories take much longer, the ones where you think you’re finished and then you get a hint of something misplaced or missing. If you find that happening, this is my advice.*

Look inwards. Try not to get lost in there, just look. What does this story mean to you? Who is this protagonist to you? What do they mean to you?

This is where that creative writing “rule” comes in – write what you know. I don’t think that it’s true for everything and finding out about new things or writing from a perspective utterly different to your own is part of the creative process but understanding what you know about yourself, your characters, those emotional and mental connections, is vital.

You don’t have to literally put this in the final draft – you just need to know. When you’re redrafting with this knowledge you will connect with the story you’re telling – that’s where the readiness lies.

What did the * mean above? This is advice for myself too, I tend to forget. I have been writing a story that I already thought was flying. Turns out it came back, and sat pecking at my feet until I really began to understand what the story meant to me. Stella Duffy gave me this advice last year at her masterclass for Word Factory – Stay at your desk until it’s all out. It won’t be comfortable, you may find yourself crying it out, but it will be worth it. Sometimes it takes time for advice to sink in. It will always be worth it.

Resources that rescue

This afternoon I’ve been lured into the depths of the internet whilst working on the next stages of some new stories. Normally I would later bully myself, as many of us do, on the procrastination of this act. Should I really be watching these videos, reading these articles, when I should be writing? Today, however, I am going to celebrate this wandering off the page and onto the screen.

As may be obvious now, I am obsessed with fairy tales, myths, magic realism; their function and imaginations. They feed my work, and free my mind. If I’m not reading stories then I am often dipping into the theory that works to bring further understanding to these tales.

Whilst reading an email from the London Review Bookshop (one of my favourite places), I came across their YouTube channel and the video of Edmund Gordon introducing Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. This of course led to the leapfrog onto other videos and I found this video which has delighted me this afternoon whilst thinking on my stories.

I desperately wanted to go to this event last year but it sold out very quickly, so I’m thrilled that the British Academy have shared it in full on their channel. It might have been naive of me not to have already made the most of these resources, but it is something that has rescued me today.

If this introduction to fairy tale and Marina Warner’s expertise is something that interests you too, then you might like to come along to the Word Factory events next month where she will be leading a masterclass and then reading at the evening salon on 27 February.