KINDNESS, COMPASSION, JOY, GOOD FELLOWSHIP, GENEROSITY, THANKFULNESS, TRUTHFULNESS, HEALTH, COURAGE, EARTH-WISDOM, CREATIVITY, SOUL-SEARCHING, NOURISHMENT, FORGIVENESS, LOVE, INSPIRATION, CLEAR-SIGHTEDNESS, A WIDE GAZE…
…because there was a time in my adult life when I read no fiction at all. I went from avid child-teen reader (some favourites above) to wilful adult non-reader. The reason was not reasoned. As a child I decided I would be a writer ‘when I grew up’, and when I grew up I further decided that reading other people’s works would block the ethereal visitation that, any day soon, would deliver the lightning bolt of writerly inspiration, that in turn would drop into my mind the fully formed novel idea, and thus spur me to sit and write the thing.
It was not a good start – a case of locked-in block before I had written one word.
There was a further obstacle, one I did not even see until I had returned to reading. By then it had also occurred to me to buy a writing magazine, and that was a turning point. Instead of a lightning bolt of inspiration came a thunder blast of reality: I might be a whizz at writing dissertations and museum guide books, but I knew nothing of the mechanics and craft of writing fiction. I was astonished to discover that people had so much to say about it: story arcs, characterisation, foreshadowing, pace, mood and setting etc etc. Good heavens. Who knew!
Of course it might be said that you can become too knowing, that absorbing too much ‘how to’ can lead to self-consciousness and a lack spontaneity or originality. I think my answer to this is you need to cover the ground, embed what you can through practice, then move on. It is rather like a painter learning how to prepare their canvas and mix their pigments before the real composition can begin. It is also about opening up mental pathways that clear the way for the story-making. This means reading other writers critically, and not simply reading with your discretion turned off. Two and three readings might be needed to see how and why a piece of fiction works. The best writers, after all, aim to be seamless, not to display their working methods.
So for some swift and pleasurable enlightenment on the fiction writing process I can suggest no better start than to visit the children’s section of your book store or library. Some of the most impressive and imaginative fiction around is for young adults. Works for this age group are tightly written, multi-layered, have memorable characters, affecting themes and energetic plotting that is character-driven. The writing will be economical, but also resonant, and often very deep. The best and most telling words will be chosen. There may also be a repeating motif that is more suggestive of poetry than prose, and which may lift the tone of the book in unexpected and magical ways. There is also the overall impression of the story having been well distilled, and thus being refreshingly free of the kind of self-indulgence found in some adult literature. In other words, every word will count.
My own favourite writers for this age group include Geraldine McCaughrean (The Kite Rider), Sharon Creech (Walk Two Moons), Kate di Camillo (Because of Winn-Dixie), David Almond (Skellig and Kit’s Wilderness ), Philip Pullman ( Dark Materials Trilogy), Frances O’Roark Dowell (Dovey Coe) and Gillian Cross (The Great Elephant Chase). All these stories may be characterized by the fact that they have something worth saying, and that this ‘something’, framed in highly original ways, gives their stories stature and substance as well as making them darn good reads.
And aside from learning fiction’s nuts and bolts, there are other good reasons why writers must keep reading. It is not so much about borrowing (stealing) ideas, but more about drawing on the creative energy of other works, and using it to fuel your own writing. And I am not talking about plagiarism, but of tapping into the spirit of someone else’s creation. Reciprocating, if you like. Striking up an engaging conversation.
If you think about it, it is obvious. As children, we learn to speak our native tongue through exchanges with others. We learn not only vocabulary, but also rhythm, inflexion, idiom, innuendo, puns, riddles, jokes, and narrative skills – all the tools we need to communicate effectively.
With writing we thus have a paradox. Writers, as some of the world’s great communicators, generally struggle to wring out their words in isolation. It has to be done that way. There are no answering voices except the writer’s own. But if that is the only voice, how is the writer to learn, grow and and test the boundaries of their art? How will they keep their edge? And yes I do know that many writers, new ones especially, fear losing their own voice if they resort to reading other writers’ fiction.
I would argue that through continuous reading, writers replenish their imagination banks, hone their language skills, explore different modes of expression, learn new things, grow wise, develop insight and understanding, find new ways of telling a story. What they read in the external world, and their reactions to it, will all be stored in the subconscious for further processing and reworking. And I believe that this is all part of learning how to make oneself heard, of building one’s true and distinctive voice.
Best of all, if a project has stumbled into a dead end, then visiting another’s writer’s world may provide the very thing to turn the work around. I personally find that I write best when I am reading a book that carries me away. My most recent writer’s refuelling came courtesy of Malaysian writer, Tan Twan Eng and The Garden of Evening Mists. This is an adult book, but I will also return to Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Kite Rider whenever I need a fix of this writer’s airy prose.
So for those of you writers who have not been reading much lately, time to join the big fiction conversation. Read, read, read. You will be glad you did.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell
I’ve posted this photo of my last summer’s allotment produce to prove something. I thought it might be a good antidote to my dreary state of writing stuckness. (And may be yours too). For one thing it shows conclusively that if I can’t get to grips with the several novels now backed up in brain and filing cabinets, then I can at least produce beautiful vegetation. (In season of course). Most of it is edible too, although I would not recommend the zinnias. Marigolds are fine however – in salads and as herbal tea. Excellent for the immune system, or so a herbalist friend tells me.
I sometimes think my allotment life is a metaphor for my writer’s life. Sometimes I think it’s the other way around. This reminds me of the great Welsh poet, R S Thomas. In my post about him the film link shows him, in his elder years, out bird watching on the Welsh coast. Speaking to camera, and with a wry smile, the Nobel nominee says he is supposed to be a poet, but that when the poem is going badly, then he is a birdwatcher. Likewise for me, when the writing stalls, then I am a gardener. I am mostly a gardener.
The common ground between growing and creating is obvious: seasons of productivity followed by dead times when the creative flow seems to be, well, DEAD. This is the natural order of things. I know it. And so I am forgiving when it comes to the garden. I do not expect it to grow things in December and February (or at least not much). But when it comes to writing, I fret, fume and grow ever more despondent with myself because the ideas in my head cannot be rendered, as I would like them, to word, to screen, to finished work. And I do not forgive this. I consider it a grave fault.
Yet I know, too, that good growing and writing, require a fertile medium, one that is well turned and appropriately nourished. You need plans and timetables, while remaining open to alternative courses of action. You also need the right medium for the job in hand. All this takes time: years of learning, of preparation, and the application of improving strategies. You have to understand your ground from the inside out. And that brings me to another essential condition – good drainage. And in my home town poor drainage is a problem; both brain and allotment, then, are equally afflicted. They are not free-draining. But at least I know how to improve the soil. Grit is good.
In the absence of creative flow, ungoverned gathering of new material can start filling the gap. This in hopes of finding a spark, some fresh inspiration to jump start the writing. The activity can of course have its good points. You may indeed find the very thing you need. Besides which, well rotted down and aerated compost improves content and structure for any future cultivation. On the other hand, ever growing stagnant piles of poorly decomposing matter simply overwhelm and add to the stalled flow problem. In other words, there comes a time when you simply have to give your brain a rest, leave the compost heap to rot down, and allow the period of dormancy to run its course. The hard thing is to keep faith during this process of seeming inactivity; to believe that you WILL recover and complete the works you began.
That wonderful woman, poet and Jungian psychoanalyst, Clarissa Pinkola Estés has some very heartening things to say about this. In her autobiographical exploration of the nature of story, The Faithful Gardener, she says that new seed is faithful, and that it roots most deeply where the ground is the most empty. In The Creative Fire she also says that everyone is an artist even if they have not lifted a brush to the canvass or opened a new Word file (I paraphrase). Finally she tells us that the only thing you need to create is to get out of the way.
And so in a bid to get out of the way, I leave you with some summer marigolds. Before your eyes they are passing through their natural cycle from bud, to falling flower to newly forming seed head. Perhaps if we stare at them long enough, absorbing all that very creative orangeness, we stalled creators will ‘hear’ what they are telling us.
© 2014 Tish Farrell
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