Monthly Archives: April 2013

Do writers really need a routine?

Writers should write at the same time every day. It’s one of those pieces of advice that you read in creative writing books, are told on creative writing courses and is repeated on Twitter Tips for Writers. I read it again yesterday. Routines are good for writers, apparently. It puzzles me. What kind of life allows writers to have these routines?

I guess people with regular work commitments, people who have to get their kids off to school every day, people with compulsive behaviour patterns, these people might benefit from this advice. Or rather not benefit from this advice because they already are constrained by their schedules to write at the same time every day. It’s the only time they have.

For the people with irregular lives it’s no help at all. I prefer Dorothea Brande’s idea of making an appointment each day, a commitment to write*. You make it for the time that day that suits you, fits in with the other things you have to do – take the grandson to pre-school, lead a coaching meeting, catch the Mayflower Express from Paddington, attend a Pilates sessions, meet with co-writers and with the writing group – that kind of thing. You make the appointment and you turn up and write. Dorothea Brande calls it engaging to write. She also warns

Your agreement [to write] is a debt of honor, and must be scrupulously discharged; you have given yourself your word and there is no retracting it. (Becoming a Writer p77)

I don’t respond well to this kind of moral pressure myself, anymore than to prescriptions about routines. But sometimes writers need to treat themselves with more respect by keeping to the engagement, ensuring it takes precedence over sharpening pencils, emptying the dishwasher and checking emails.

21 Brande

She recommends a second exercise, which she calls early morning writing. If it weren’t a bit clunky I’d prefer to call it First Thing in the Morning Writing, because I see no intrinsic value in it being early. Becoming a Writer was published in 1934 and Julia Cameron credited it as ‘the best book on writing I have ever found’. She adapted the idea of early morning writing in The Artist’s Way in 1993, using the phrase Morning Pages.

21 Artists Way

I’m hooked, but it’s the closest to a routine I’ll get. Every morning – except Saturday – I get up at a good hour, make a pot of coffee and go to my writing room. I write two A4 pages by hand in a notebook. I’ve been doing it for nearly three years, and have filled 23 notebooks, about 2000 pages. I’ve recently been thinking that I should change and start my day by going for a walk instead. But I haven’t tried it. I think there is something too active about having to get up, dress and go outside. I shuffle upstairs in my dressing gown and hand-knitted socks with my coffee tray and that’s about enough effort for me.

I am a bit of a sucker for courses in books – six week diets, two months to get fit by walking, write a novel in a week … that kind of thing. I had some difficulty sticking with the 12 weeks of The Artist’s Way. Partly this is because I am not at ease with it being ‘a spiritual path to a higher creativity’ but I stuck with it because of the idea of the Artist’s Date. No this is not the renaming of the engagement, but a deliberate arrangement to indulge your artistic nature: a walk, a visit to an exhibition, an old movie, that kind of thing, by yourself – or as Julia Cameron puts it, in the company of your artist self.

Since I started I have modified her routine of Morning Pages so that

  • I write two pages, not the recommended three.
  • I reflect upon my writing life, successes, problems, challenges and so on.
  • I identify insights, learnings, ‘to do’ points and achievements in a monthly review.

Morning Pages loosen me up for the day’s writing, enables reflection and problem-solving. I explore my writing fears and problems, include liberal and useful comments from my Inner Critic (I wrote about him earlier). I rehearse ideas, images, sequences. I record my Artist’s Treats. I comment on books as I read them, ideas for the blog …

21.Morning `Pages

Writing about her own diaries (which she might have called After Tea Pages) Virginia Woolf recorded this:

‘… the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and stumbles … I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my causal half hours after tea.’ (A Writer’s Diary, April 20th 1919)

‘For my eye only’, except that her diaries were edited and published, but the point was that these were for her own purposes, to loosen the ligaments. I’ve no idea which ligaments, perhaps just metaphorical ones, but I’ll not argue with the good practice, even if I can’t write at the same time every day.

Do you need routine in your writing? Which do you find helpful?


*Thank you Lynda from the King’s Place Writing Group for first pointing out the idea of the writing appointment to us.


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Do we need biographies of writers?

I used to think that a writer’s work should stand by itself, that biographies could not add anything to the reading of their books. But I find that I am changing my mind, especially as I have been reading about the lives of writers to whose work I often return.

I recently reviewed Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. As I prepared for the blog piece I found that other reviewers frequently referred to her character, her life and her reputation. It led me to read The Other Elizabeth Taylor, by Nicola Beauman, published by Persephone Books in 2009. Persephone Books have published exquisite ‘reprints of neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly women) writers’ since 1999. Fortunately for readers, Virago picked up Elizabeth Taylors books in 1982 and has been publishing and promoting them ever since.

20 other_elizabeth_taylor

And now I know much more about her work within the context of her life, the influences on her writing, something of her writing practices and a better sense of her skills as a writer.

Here she is in a letter to a friend in 1944:

‘Those are the happiest of times – sitting at the table in a warm room … some warm, weak gin & water & the words spilling from my pen. There is no happiness like it, I am ashamed to say.’

She struggled, as so many women do, with the conflicting demands of motherhood and their talents.

‘I feel instinctively that women who have children can’t write. A certain single-mindedness is denied to them. In the end, children and writing suffer. Women writers do not have children – Sappho, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Miss Mitford, Fanny Burney, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein.’ (From another letter in 1946)

But Elizabeth Taylor had two children and she did put them first. But she clearly found it hard:

‘Writers shouldn’t be mothers, for they cannot be ruthless.’

From this biography we learn something of her writing practices – not just the warm gin, but that she was a woman who thrived on her routines, sitting every morning in her armchair writing in her notebook.

We learn about her friendships (with Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, Kinsley Amis) and how she suffered acutely from criticism. She might be described as self-effacing and chosing not to mix with the London literary set. In their turn they questioned the quality of her work, and she was hurt by this. But she had her champions, including her literary friends and the New Yorker Magazine which published a large proportion of her short stories.

We find she was not born into the middle class life that she came to represent in people’s minds, indeed was a member of the Communist Party until 1948. The reputation of having a life where nothing ever happened is contradicted by the revelation of an affair and abortions, the murder of a local friend and her son’s near-fatal accident. The experiences of the final months of the lives of her father and of her friend the author Elizabeth Bowen provided material upon which she drew for Mrs Palfrey.

However, she was in no sense an autobiographical writer. Each of her main characters is very different. Rather she is a very close observer of human behaviour, especially when her characters do not behave as society expects. In my review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont I suggested that describing the residents of the hotel as eccentric was inaccurate; she observed how older people can behave when they are neglected and fearful.

Elizabeth Taylor’s reticence and concern for privacy extended to posterity. Most of her letters, for example, were destroyed at her request. And her two children have dissociated themselves from the biography, despite Nicola Beauman’s sensitivity.

I was reminded of two other biographies that helped me understand the writers and both have led me to reread their work with richer perspectives and understandings:

  • Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin, published by Penguin. I recommend the revised edition of 2000
  • Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee, published by Vintage in 1997.

And now I find that as I am thinking about WG Sebald’s life, as we approach the readalong of The Emigrants for late May. His writing appears to blur the distinctions between autobiography, memoir and fiction. He poses so many questions about memory, stories, survival, what the lives of other people mean … I have not heard that a biography is planned.

And so now I have a project to read Elizabeth Taylor’s novels in the order she wrote them, and have already finished the first – At Mrs Lippincote’s, published in 1945. Julia is it’s lively protagonist, more interested in experience than convention and must therefore encounter the double standards of expected behaviour by men and women (as Elizabeth Taylor did). The dilemmas of Julia and her husband are beautifully handled.

Next on my list is Palladian (1946).

So reading writers’ biographies leads me to read more … What other biographies would you recommend?

Now, I’ll just top up the warm gin with a drop of water …


Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reading

What are they telling us? Reading the signs

Many years ago, in 1986, we were camping in Zimbabwe with my brother. (I’ve always wanted to start a piece like that! It sounds so exotic. And it was.) When we arrived at Lake Kyle at an official but deserted campsite it was already dusk, (getting mimpsy they say in Devon, I believe). We pitched our tent, lit a fire and cooked our supper ready to enjoy our evening. In the dark my brother tipped the stew into the fire as we were serving it up and after a very late replacement meal I managed to mistake the instant potato mash for washing up powder.

There were many mishaps on that trip, but also wonderful experiences. When we woke beside Lake Kyle in the morning we found ourselves in a magical place, surrounded by msasa tress and not far from the water. A sign  cautioned against swimming in the lake. Dangers of all sizes lurked in the water.


A note for those who are not familiar with the parasites of Africa, bilharzia (medical name schistosomiasis) is a nasty infection caused by a parasite 7-20mm long that lives in fresh water and buries itself in human skin before moving into the organs, causing skin rash, raised temperature and muscle ache to begin with …

Despite the medical note, this entry is a light-hearted look at some notices or signs that have amused, confused or perplexed me. It seems that simple signs often fail to get across their message without ambiguity or confusion. Sometimes you see read signs that are just odd, and other times it seems that a joker has been at work. Here’s my favourite joker sign.

19 Ped Xing IMG_0116

And perhaps the humour of this next sign was also intentional, posted on a toilet door in Tate Britain.

19 Inconvenience

And, for goodness sake, what’s the point of this sign, seen on a walk in Essex, near Audley End House.

19 Weak BridgeDSC00212

So what should I do? Tread lightly, run across or offer encouragement and sympathy?

Some signs are plain confusing. Here is a station sign that says it’s not Saffron Walden, although it is the town’s nearest station. And as it happens it is not in Audley End either. It’s in Wendens Ambo. Really.

19 Audley EndDSC00213

The theme of railways signs is a rich one. Adlestrop, which you remember from a poem by Edward Thomas, is no longer an active railway station, but the sign has been preserved, in the local bus shelter.

And on the subject of railways signs, when my daughter was learning to read she sounded out the letters to find out the name of the station we had stopped at: L-A-D-I-  ….

As I passed through Reading one time (and I pass through Reading very frequently) I overheard another young girl practise her literacy skills on the platform signs. Then she asked her father – do they have a lot of books here? I think it was her first joke.

Later on that Zimbabwe trip we travelled up to the hills that border Mozambique, our destination was a house near the wonderfully named town of Chimanimani. Our road passed through the grounds of a hotel golf course where the sign warned of the simultaneous danger of low flying golf balls and bullets. (My brother claims that the sign did not mention the bullets. Fanciful he calls it. Well, he’s not writing this blog.)

Bullets or Bilharzia? – luckily we never had to choose between them.


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Writing Together (part 2) – What have we learned?

Half my voice is you.

Some notes can only be reached

Singing together.

I’m delighted to present the second part of the conversation about writing collaboratively with my co-writer, Eileen. You can find the first part here.

Caroline. We’ve been writing together for eighteen years now. How would you say we have developed our ways of working together?

Eileen. Over time and through different ways of experimenting, a bit of trial and error really, so that now we write better together than we do on our own – like that haiku you gave me says.

C. So what have we learned?

E. Writing is still hard because we want to get better and better. Now I’m more aware of things than I was at the beginning – like economy of writing, ordering and making points, being more upfront. I’ve been learning those things from writing with you.

C. I think I’ve come to trust the process more, seeing how first off one writes to clarify ideas and then writes to be read and that we have developed ways of doing this together in which I trust. And we’ve consciously reviewed and reflected on our processes from time to time. Including when we decided to write for this blog!

E. When we finished our first draft of that last book we were asked to write it with more edge. We rewrote the whole book (C: 12 chapters!) and it became much better because it had to be more precise.

C. I think we had some good conversations about how we did it, like having a good hook, or being colloquial but avoiding clichés, and putting the important things up front.

E. It was a really good exercise. And it’s interesting because I can’t write like that at the beginning and have to go through the same stages again. There are no shortcuts.

C. I think it’s always lengthy, but at least we can now say to each other this bit of writing is at this stage, or needs editing or whatever.

E. That’s a really good point.

C. I know!

E. One thing I think is different about our individual approaches is that you can go further with that on your own. I spew it all out and need some thoughts from you before I can continue, whereas I think you give me more thoughtful pieces on your own. Perhaps I’m just lazy.

C. You’re just lazy.

E. Seriously, I think it’s about the essence of collaborative writing – I want to check with you that this is the sort of thing we really want to say, rather than steaming ahead on my own and just writing my bit.

C. Perhaps to some extent we have internalised each other’s writerly voices?

E. When we’ve extended the collaboration to include our reader there were several points she made and I did hear her voice, especially about the opening of the chapters not matching the content.

Writing tog

C. So what would you advise people who want to write together, based on our experiences?

E. It’s difficult to start off in a new collaborative writing relationship and what would be helpful would be to talk about, and make explicit, how they see that process happening and what approach they would want to adopt as they go forward.

C. We’ve both had experience of failing to write collaboratively with very brilliant writers. So would we agree that if it doesn’t feel good don’t do it?

E. Yeah! They need to be open all the way through and make clear the processes and feelings.

C. It probably helps that we are good friends then, although of course the friendship has also developed as we have written.

E. I don’t think its necessary to be good friends, although nice, (C: thank you) but I could imagine writing professionally with people. It’s talking openly – that’s the important thing.

C. What can go wrong then?

E. That someone isn’t prepared to adapt. So you need to listen, be flexible, be prepared to change things, see the writing as shared and not your own, not holding onto it, otherwise it’s just joined up pieces of writing.


Caroline and Eileen had this conversation, then edited it together.

For Christmas 2012, Caroline commissioned David Varela to write the haiku quoted at the top of the piece as a present for Eileen.

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Souvenirs and Writing Home

Writing takes one to some surprising places and to meet some amazing people. Writing as therapy may sound dry and self-indulgent, but the Freedom From Torture’s Write to Life Group are lively, thoughtful and funny. They were also very welcoming when I joined them at one of their meetings. The group was established in 1997 and is currently co-ordinated by Sheila Hayman, assisted by a team of mentors. It supports twenty torture survivors through writing, a therapeutic process.

The evening I was present, one of the mentors led a workshop on place and home, starting with a discussion that explored English words for home (abode, mansion, accommodation) and then moved on to consider the concept of home in different countries and languages. We wrote for 20 minutes about home and listened as some were read aloud. We heard nostalgia, memories, homesickness, connections with the people of childhood and of the people still at home. And some poignant details about people and places left behind.

FFT On My Way

This was not my first meeting with members of the group. During Refugee Week last summer I went to their performance at Tate Britain, Where are you from? The Tate was showing the exhibition Migrations and writers from the group had chosen artworks from the exhibition or the permanent collection that resonated with them in some way, and responded in writing. Two in particular stood out: Hasani reading his poem The Land, in front of Turner’s etching: Hedging and Ditching. And Yamikani reading I’d never seen the sea in front of Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shallot. And the group as a whole supported, encouraged and applauded each other and welcomed strangers to hear and talk about their writing.

Souvenirs, based on the words of five of the group’s participants and on which they worked with two theatre companies: iceandfire and Tamasha Theatre Company is being performed at Jackson’s Lane this week. The writers played themselves.

Tracy said: What happened to me, the marks on my body, the memories, they are going to be my souvenirs. …I want to show people how I feel. In my struggle I did not have a voice and I want the world to know the truth. Talking, acting, writing about it, it’s another way to free myself.

‘The woman sitting in front of you…’ Jade, sitting centre stage, inescapable, speaks the first line. We, the audience, cannot escape. Her words, perhaps first spoken to Christine Bacon, the scriptwriter, are repeated several times in the short production. Jade sitting on the stage, is speaking to me, to you, to the other members of the cast.

The writer-actors tell us what we would rather not hear:

  • This country, my country, refuses asylum to some victims of torture
  • My country does not allow asylum seekers to work
  • My country treats people as if their needs for food, shelter, comfort, transport, communication with home, are irrelevant
  • Children in other countries are forced to become soldiers
  • Children can and do kill people
  • Parents leave behind their children and partners
  • Parents don’t know when they will see their children again
  • Refugees fear memories of torture and are made to repeat details in claiming asylum
  • Individual acts of small kindnesses are treasured
  • Suffering does not stop when they reach the UK, and can be made worse by treatment here
  • Suffering and healing are all around us
  • Witnesses are sitting in front of us, on the stage.

Tracy says to a member of the audience that she tells other sufferers of torture to speak out. This is part of the healing process. Another participant in the Write to Life group said, ‘talking, acting, writing about it, it’s another way to free myself.’ An audience is like a mirror in front of her, after all the horror and degradation, she is still powerfully and triumphantly alive. This is the mending power of words.

After a previous performance of Souvenirs at the Bath Literature Festival, Mohamed said:

When I saw the audience, I found myself saying it to them with my whole heart. Saying that script – it took me right back. … I want to change people’s perspective of asylum seekers – this is a kind of advocacy for people who are voiceless, which is invaluable. (from the Freedom From Torture blog)

I knew from the participants that this was an emotional experience for them. And so it was for the audience. The applause was emotional and prolonged.

Words bear witness to these things we don’t want to know. But we cannot now unknow them. We are the people in front of whom stood Jade, Mohammed, Tracy, ‘Uganda’ and Hasani. Words allow us to know and share, to change. Words lead to action. Now we know, what will we do?

‘Uganda’ said: This is the only way to speak out. It is a way to let the world know what is happening – we are alerting people to get things done.

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The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

I don’t often use this word, but Anne Tyler is one of my favourite novelists. And one of the things I admire about her novels is that her characters are engaged in managing ordinary lives, and she continually challenge stereotypes, especially of the adult, male, American protagonist.

Another reason to reread The Accidental Tourist (1985) is that it seems to me to be an exception to the disappointment of film adaptations. Starring William Hurt and Geena Davis, this film captured Macon’s maladroitness as it is slowly smoothed out by Muriel’s openheartedness.

Accidental Tourist

Macon Leary and his wife Sarah are trying to come to terms with the random murder of their teenage son. The novel starts with their early return from a holiday at the beach to Baltimore. Anne Tyler describes how they are sit and what they wear. ‘They might have been returning from two entirely different trips,’ she says. Such observations are one of the delights of reading Anne Tyler.

Macon is the author of series of guides for people forced to travel on business called Accidental Tourist in London, Paris, …

Macon hated travel. He careened through foreign territories on a desperate kind of blitz – squinching his eyes shut and holding his breath and hanging on for dear life, he sometimes imagined – and then settled back home with a sigh of relief to produce his chunky, passport-sized paperbacks.

I love the word ‘squinching’. This is pretty much his way of careening through life, the separation from his wife, the increasingly difficult behaviour of his dog and his inability to deal with his losses.

After breaking his leg in a self-induced accident, he returns to his childhood home, where his sister and brothers also live. As a family they have some interesting patterns of behaviour; they get lost whenever they venture into the streets of Baltimore, they never answer the phone and their favourite food is baked potatoes. In a kitchen scene Anne Tyler describes a particular kind of order that Rose observes:

Rose stood on a stepstool in front of a towering glass-fronted cupboard, accepting groceries that Charles and Porter handed up to her. “Now I need the n’s, anything starting with n,” she was saying.

“How about these noodles?” Porter asked. “N for noodles? P for pasta?”

E for elbow macaroni. You might have passed those up earlier, Porter.”

Macon is rescued by Muriel, the dog trainer. Her life is chaotic, but she is open, generous, logical in her own way, and, as several people observe, unlikely. People will wonder about such an ill-matched couple, his wife tells him.

He felt a mild stirring of interest; he saw now how such couples evolved. They were not, as he’d always supposed, the result of some ludicrous lack of perception, but had come together for reasons that the rest of the world would never guess.

As readers, we do know that Muriel’s efforts, her persistence, her kindness are just what he needs, and by the end of the book, so does he. And in turn he will ground her.

In the very few interviews that she has agreed to, Anne Tyler asserts that she writes, not what she knows, but to see what it’s like to be inside someone else’s life. She asks the question, ‘what does it feel like to be this kind of someone?’ (Read Lisa Allardice’s Guardian interview and listen to Mark Lawson’s Radio 4 Front Row interview).

And she does it gently, wittily, wryly, in 19 novels. She says that she has to like her characters, and even when they are behaving in absurd ways, the reader recognises something of themselves, their fears or foibles: perhaps you don’t alphabetise your kitchen stores, but people do organise stuff in their homes in very particular ways (see book word post on arranging books here, for example). Macon’s strategies for coping with the exigencies of travel are only a little more idiosyncratic than yours or mine. We can’t help sympathising with the hapless Macon as he is assailed by grief, the departure of his wife, breaking his leg, a badly behaved dog and a dog trainer.

Families are another constant theme in her novels because, she says, people are forced together in them and she wants to know ‘how they grate along’. That theme can run and run. Your family probably has some rituals, sayings and episodes that you don’t boast about.

Is she a women’s writer? She has been accused of being sentimental, homely, homespun, even anti-men, but she has many male admirers, including John Updike. It is true that her male characters, including Macon, are quirky,  ‘rather a forlorn bunch’. But they are not wimps, unpleasant, grasping or self-promoting. And Anne Tyler herself claims that growing up with a loving father and brothers and having had a good marriage, her experiences of men have been good. ‘Isn’t everybody quirky? If you look closely at anybody you’ll find impediments, women and men both.’


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Writing together, how do they do it? (part 1)

I’m delighted to welcome Eileen to the book word blog and to present part of the conversation we had about writing in collaboration.

Caroline. In February we sent the complete draft of our book to the publisher. When I tell people I write collaboratively they often ask – what do you actually do? How do you answer this question?

Eileen. We write in several different ways. The most intense is actually sitting together and almost writing every other word.

C. You mean, you dictate, and I type –

E.  – or take over and finish –

C. – the sentence?

E. That’s the side-by-side model. Another approach is that we brainstorm all the things we are going to write about and clarify ideas through that brainstorm about purpose, the learning etc.

C. Does that depend on the stage of our writing?

E. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, but it can occur at any time as we go through a project.

C. Like when we were working on a particular chapter, which needed more development? Or planning this blog?

E. Yes, we might decide that one of us takes those ideas and works on them individually and emails it to the other. It goes back and forth with additions and editing, until you get to the point where we don’t know who’s written what.

C. The back-and-forth model.

E. Another way of moving from brainstorming is that someone will take on a particular section and do all of that and just get feedback. It may not need all that back and forth stuff.

C. We often read out loud to each other …

E. … and when we are on our own! And we often send it to another reader for feedback as well. That’s an extended form of collaboration. There are other approaches. Say one of us has a particular angle, idea or thought, and we allow the other to get on with it. It’s their territory.

C But we would talk about it when it’s written…

E … and see how it fits and makes a contribution from our own angle. Like the introduction to our most recent book. We had decided on a short version. But then we came together and decided there were some overarching themes and we divided them up and came together and talked some more about which bits worked and which didn’t get the point across so well. Then we refined it again, came back together and finished it off together. We don’t always do it that way.

C. It takes a lot of time sometimes.

E. But that means it is much better written. It’s based on more thoughtful reflections. And it’s tighter. And we even mix the different forms of collaboration altogether – a dolly mixture approach. And then we do something else altogether for a different kind of writing like for chapter titles.

C. Yes, but it’s not worked for the title for the book, has it, yet?

E. No indeedy. But it might have, we just didn’t find it.


This photo, by Robert Taylor, was used in our co-edited book Retiring Lives, published in 2007. Eileen is on the right.

In Part 2 our conversation is about how we developed our writing partnership – coming soon!


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