Tag Archives: novel

What plot is – in a sentence

There are books written about plot – how to… what it is…. and a plethora of other elements. Yet I came across this today from Kate Mosse and it made me smile and go, yes….

Kate Mosse said you get to the end of a novel and say:

Of course! Because that’s what plot is – the hidden chain of cause and effect that takes a whole novel to explain.”

 

Henry Miller’s Writing “Commandments.” Be reckless and joyful. Keep human.

I know I’m not the only one endlessly fascinated with writers’ processes, rituals, ‘rules’ and superstitions. There’s been a whole spate of books lately analysing the daily traits and routines of successful artists and writers and although I haven’t yet succumbed to buying them, it may just be a matter of time…

It’s not that I think these books will give me a formula for success (whether magical or scientific),  it’s because when I’m not writing myself, or reading other people’s writing, I love reading about other people’s process when writing… Every time I do so, I learn something new, or am reminded of something I’ve forgotten.

I’m reminded today of JOY. PLEASURE. BEING RECKLESS IN OUR CREATIVITY. BEING HUMAN!

In 1932, the famous writer and painter, Henry Miller, created a work schedule that listed his “Commandments” to follow as part of his daily routine. This list was published in the book, Henry Miller on Writing and I reproduce a few of my favourites, below:

  1.    Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2.    Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  3.   Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  4.    When you can’t create you can work.
  5.    Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  6.   Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  7.   Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  8.   Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  9.    Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  10.    Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

The “commandments” seem very human, generous, and knowledgeable of process. They are precise and clear, yet not draconian. We all have days when the words refuse to flow, or the ideas feel stilted, and no matter how hard we try, we just can’t kick-start our creativity. What I liked about Miller’s rules were the emphasis on pleasure along with the hard work – and the flexibility allowed in giving up on a day when it’s just not happening… Where this really works for me is the understanding this is a temporary state and for this day only. It’s very easy to feel cursed, or that the mojo has left us – writers are notoriously superstitious and fearful about long periods of non-productivity. Miller’s “commandments” ensure confidence in tomorrow being if not a better day, then another fresh start and the failures of today will not linger into the next.

That’s really worth being reminded of.

Hemingway’s best intellectual training for a would-be writer

INTERVIEWER

What would you consider the best intellectual training for the would-be writer?

HEMINGWAY

Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.

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I’m grateful to the nef errant for this writing tip…

20 Questions: Beatrice Hitchman

I’m delighted to have novelist Beatrice Hitchman answer my ’20 Questions’ just a few days before the paperback publication of her debut, Petite Mort, and its serialisation on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’. We met in the South West of England two years ago when both working on projects, and it is the greatest pleasure to witness her success with her first novel, and have her participate in this questionnaire on process and creativity….

20 Questions….. 

Beatrice Hitchman. Photo: Sarah Lee.

Beatrice Hitchman. Photo: Sarah Lee.

Beatrice Hitchman was born in London in 1980. She read English and French at Edinburgh University and then completed an MA in Comparative Literature. After a year living in Paris, she moved back to the UK, trained and worked as a documentary film editor, also writing and directing short films. Petite Mort is her debut novel. It was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2013, is shortlisted for the Festival du Premier Roman de Chambery 2014, and has been adapted as a Radio 4 Woman’s Hour drama featuring Honor Blackman.

What first drew you to your particular practice (art/acting/writing, etc)?

Realising that the Care Bear cartoon episodes I wanted to watch didn’t exist yet. I had a serious conversation with myself and realised that even though I was only five, it was down to me to write them.

What was your big breakthrough?

Getting published by Serpent’s Tail.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

Loneliness.

Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?

I think everything you read sandpapers you down somehow.

What’s more important: form or content?

Both.

How do you know when a project is finished?

The deadline opens under my feet.

Do you read your reviews?

Yes. It helps you to cross the gap between what you think you’ve written, and what you might actually turn out to have written.

What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?

You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake, but you work is: protect it. As a general principle, give more time to advice that encourages you to take risks. Ignore the blah-blah-blah and the loudmouths; the people who talk the most about writing may be the ones who love it least. Learn not to be afraid of being tired.

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

I think it’s a myth that you should be able to write anywhere.

What are you working on now?

A story about a whale. I’m enjoying the scenery very much. And the fact I can hold my breath for an hour…

What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel.

What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

Time’s a-wasting. You don’t have to wait until your thirties to have the confidence to take your own writing seriously.

What’s your greatest ambition?

To create the perfect thing.

Cover of Beatrice Hitchman's debut: Petite Mort

Cover of Beatrice Hitchman’s debut: Petite Mort 

How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?

Strike out with firm, broad strokes, chin held high.

What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?

It’s never so bad when people talk about your work; you think, well, at least they care enough to talk.

And the best thing?

‘It’s the real thing.’

 

If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?

This isn’t mine, but it’s the best way I’ve heard to describe it: it’s like having a bath permanently running upstairs:

What is your philosophy or life motto?

I really don’t have a clue what I’m doing, but that’s OK because I really don’t think anybody else does either….do they?

What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?

It’s not a choice.

What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?

I wouldn’t change a thing.  

–    –    –    –

For further information on Beatrice, her novel, and the radio four serialisation, please go to:

http://www.beatricehitchman.com/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/proginfo/2013/44/r4-petite-mort.html

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/petite-mort,beatrice-hitchman-9781846689079

Directions: Write. Read. Rewrite. Repeat steps 2 and 3 as needed.

In December 2000 Susan Sontag wrote an essay for The New York Times on the relationship between writing and reading.

…to write she says is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading.

We are often our first and most critical judges, she maintains, referring to the stern inscription Ibsen put on the flyleaf of one of his books:

 To write is to sit in judgment on oneself.

Writing, reading, rewriting and then rereading our efforts sounds like an never-ending cycle of punishment – especially if as a writer you are as exacting and unforgiving as suggested by the Ibsen quotation – yet this, Sontag says, is the most pleasurable part of writing.

Setting out to write, if you have the idea of “literature” in your head, is formidable, intimidating. A plunge in an icy lake. Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade, edit. 

Revising after reading is a second chance (or third or fourth or fifth or…) to get it ‘right’ – to be clearer, or deeper, more eccentric, or eloquent. As Sontag writes:

You want the book to be more spacious, more authoritative. You want to winch yourself up from yourself. You want to winch the book out of your balky mind. As the statue is entombed in the block of marble, the novel is inside your head. You try to liberate it. You try to get this wretched stuff on the page closer to what you think your book should be — what you know, in your spasms of elation, it can be. 

When it goes well, you can experience that most rare of pleasures – a reader’s pleasure – of what you yourself have written on the page. Invariably, it is the love of reading which prompted you to try and write in the first place. Getting absorbed and ‘lost’ in a book  is surely one of our greatest pleasures and, I think, achievements. As Virginia Woolf famously wrote in a letter: Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.

Writing Sontag says, is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting; that is, to find your own inner freedom. To be strict without being too self-excoriating…. Allowing yourself, when you dare to think it’s going well (or not too badly), simply to keep rowing along. No waiting for inspiration’s shove.
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As someone who consistently wrestles with the demands of writing, my ambitions and hopes for the work, and my so evident short-fallings, I find Sontag’s words warm, wise, familiar and encouraging. Writers beat themselves up. Writers are critical. Why? Because, Sontag reminds me, it matters.
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With thanks to Susan Sontag and The New York Times.
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The full article can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/18/arts/18SONT.html?pagewanted=1

The difference between prose and poetry…. Marge Piercy

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In 1999 Marge Piercy wrote a long feature for The New York Times identifying and expanding upon her processes and sources of inspiration when writing novels and poetry. Moving between poetry and prose is the secret to avoiding writer’s block, she maintains, and her reflections on both forms and where they come from is illuminating and generous.

I believe that writers never stop learning. I’m always keen to hear and share what others have said about process and creativity – what this blog, in different approaches, is all about. When not documenting or reflecting on my own collaborations or processes, I’m constantly trawling through old journals, periodicals and the internet, seeking advice, camaraderie, solace, understanding and wisdom. If I’m despondent, or frustrated, or unclear about what to do with my own work, reading the thoughts of other writers invariably works as a remedy, or at least shifts something in me. So as another strand to this blog, ‘Writers on Writing’.  What follows is an edit from Marge Piercy’s original essay, but it is a masterclass. Enjoy.

Life of Prose and Poetry — an Inspiring Combination

By MARGE PIERCY   New York Times. December 20, 1999

….Sometimes I say that if a writer works in more than one genre, the chances of getting writer’s block are greatly diminished. If I am stuck in a difficult passage of a novel, I may jump ahead to smoother ground, or I may pause and work on poems exclusively for a time. If I lack ideas for one genre, usually I have them simmering for the other.

I am always going back and forth. It’s a rare period that is devoted only to one. That happens when I am revising a novel to a deadline, working every day until my eyes or my back gives out, and when I am putting a collection of poetry together, making a coherent artifact out of the poems of the last few years and reworking them as I go….

 Poems start from a phrase, an image, an idea, a rhythm insistent in the back of the brain. I once wrote a poem when I realized I had been hearing a line from a David Bryne song entirely wrong, and I liked it my way. Some poems are a journey of discovery and exploration for the writer as well as the reader. I find out where I am going when I finally arrive, which may take years.

Poems hatch from memory, fantasy, the need to communicate with the living, the dead, the unborn. Poems come directly out of daily life, from the garden, the cats, the newspaper, the lives of friends, quarrels, a good or bad time in bed, from cooking, from writing itself, from disasters and nuisances, gifts and celebrations. They go back into daily life: people read them at weddings and funerals, give them to lovers or soon-to-be ex-lovers or those they lust for, put them up on their refrigerators or over their computers, use them to teach or to exhort, to vent joy or grief.

The mind wraps itself around a poem. It is almost sensual, particularly if you work on a computer. You can turn the poem round and about and upside down, dancing with it a kind of bolero of two snakes twisting and coiling, until the poem has found its right and proper shape.

There is something so personal and so impersonal at once in the activity that it is addictive. I may be dealing with my own anger, my humiliation, my passion, my pleasure; but once I am working with it in a poem, it becomes molten ore. It becomes “not me.” And the being who works with it is not the normal, daily me. It has no sex, no shame, no ambition, no net. It eats silence like bread. I can’t stay in that white-hot place long, but when I am in it, there is nothing else. All the dearness and detritus of ordinary living falls away, even when that is the stuff of the poem. It is as remote as if I were an archaeologist working with the kitchen midden of a 4,000-year-old city.

Prose is prosier. No high-flying language here. My urge to write fiction comes from the same part of my psyche that cannot resist eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations in airports, in restaurants, in the supermarket. I am a nosy person. My mother was an amazing listener, and she radiated something that caused strangers on buses to sit down and begin to tell her their life stories or their troubles. I have learned to control that part of myself, but I am still a good interviewer and a good listener because I am madly curious about what people’s lives are like and what they think about them and say about them and the silences between the words….

 I always want to hear how the stories come out, what happens next, a basic urge all writers bring to fiction and one pull that keeps readers turning page after page. Another drive is the desire to make sense of the random, chaotic, painful, terrifying, astonishing events of our lives. We want there to be grand patterns. We want there to be some sense in events, even if the sense is that no one is in charge and entropy conquers; that all is illusion or a baroque and tasteless joke. Each good novel has a vision of its world that informs what is put in and what is left out.

For me the gifts of the novelist are empathy and imagination. I enter my characters and try to put on their worldviews, their ways of moving, their habits, their beliefs and the lies they tell themselves, their passions and antipathies, even the language in which they speak and think: the colors of their lives. Imagination has to do with moving those characters through events, has to do with entering another time, whether of the recent past or 300 or 500 years ago, in Prague or Paris or London or New York or the islands of the Pacific. It has to do with changing some variables and moving into imagined futures, while retaining a sense of character so strong the reader will believe in a landscape and in cities and worlds vastly different from our own.

Ideas for poems come to me any old time, but not generally ideas for revising poems. The notion that revising poems is a different process from revising fiction occurred to me on the treadmill, but I cannot imagine that I would ever think about actually revising a poem there. When I rewrite a poem, I go back into the space of the poem and contemplate it. I read it aloud. The only other time when I work on revising a poem is the first or second time I read it to an audience, when all the weak and incoherent parts suddenly manifest themselves big as the writing on billboards.

With fiction, since I live inside a novel for two or three years, the problem is letting go when I am done for the day. Ideas for what I am working on come in the night, in the tub, on planes, in the middle of supper. I keep a notebook on the night table, so that when an idea bombs in at 2 a.m., I will not get up and turn on the computer. One reason I learned to meditate was to control my fictional imagination and not let the characters take me over. Learning to let go except for those occasional flashes is central to keeping my sanity and my other, real relationships.

Biography from http://margepiercy.com/

Marge Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including The New York Times bestseller  Gone To Soldiers; the National Bestsellers Braided Lives and The Longings of Women, and the classic Woman on the Edge of Time; eighteen volumes of poetry including The Hunger Moon and The Moon is Always Female, and a critically acclaimed memoir Sleeping with Cats. Born in center city Detroit, educated at the University of Michigan, the recipient of four honorary doctorates, she has been a key player in some of the major progressive battles of our time, including the anti-Vietnam war and the women’s movement, and more recently an active participant in the resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

20 questions…. Philip Casey

Continuing my series of interviews with artists, writers, dancers, creatives… I first met Irish poet and novelist Philip Casey at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, County Monaghan, Ireland, more years ago than I care to remember. But what I do remember is his fantastic storytelling, and the verve and power of his poetry and novels, which I have been reading ever since. It’s a great delight to have him respond to my questionnaire.

20 Questions…. Philip Casey.

Philip Casey. Photo by Karina Casey

Philip Casey. Photo by Karina Casey

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Philip Casey has published four collections of poetry, including Dialogue in Fading Light (New Island Books, 2005), and three novels, The Fabulists (Lilliput 1994), The Water Star (Picador, 1999) and The Fisher Child (Picador, 2001). He’s a member of Aosdána and lives in Dublin.

http://aosdana.artscouncil.ie/

What first drew you to writing?

I  told stories from a young age – mostly to my brothers on the higher branches of macrocarpa trees in Wexford. When I was in hospital in my teens, my father gave me a guitar, so I started writing songs to the three chord trick.

Growing up in rural Ireland in the sixties, I hadn’t come across any poetry other than ballads, but one night I heard a poetry programme on radio and said to myself: I can do that. Then a few years later an arts centre – probably the first in Ireland – opened in my local town Gorey, thanks to the artist Paul Funge. We had a magazine called The Gorey Detail, edited with fun as the prime criterion by James Liddy.

The Fabulists

The Fabulists

When I came back from Spain in 1977, I was a round peg in a square hole, so about two years later I decided to do what I’d always wanted to do, which was to write poems. I’ve  never abandoned verse, but after trying plays, I turned to novels when a couple of characters came to me and I stopped to listen. That was The Fabulists.

What was your big breakthrough?

I can hear the sceptical laughter! No big breakthroughs, I think.  Let’s see. Finishing my second, long novel The Water Star felt like a breakthrough, and when it was accepted by Picador that felt like a breakthrough. I’d always loved Picador books, and it had been a vague daydream which I’d never taken seriously. Then for some reason I said out loud what my daydream was,  and thanks to my agent Lisa Eveleigh, it happened.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

In prose, it’s summoning up the mental and physical energy to keep myself at the heart of the story.

In poetry the challenge is to forget myself, everything,  for that fleeting moment when the poem happens – Keat’s  Negative Capability, I suppose.  I usually fail that one miserably. The last batch of poems came when I was ill a few years back. 

Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?

When I was in the aforementioned hospital, aged sixteen, I voraciously read Agatha Christie. Then the boy in the bed next to me contemptuously handed me Sean O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy (Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, and The Plough and the Stars). Here were real characters and I was changed, utterly. I haven’t been able to read horror, detective or science fiction since – not that I look down on such, and I like the latter two genres on film, but that really did change me. Then about a year after I’d read O’Casey I read Ulysses… Boom!

What’s more important: form or content?

I don’t like to think about these things.   I think form happens as the story or poem reveals itself, and is polished later.

How do you know when a project is finished?

Do you ever? Wasn’t it Leonardo da Vinci who said that art is never finished, only abandoned? Of course he was a genius.  I think there is a sense of closure. It falls quiet.

Do you read your reviews?

Yes. If it’s a reviewer’s ego trip, and there’s a lot of it about, I just shrug  – it says more about the reviewer than the work. But  I can always learn from good criticism and I always hope for it.  The best I ever got was from the poet and novelist Brian Lynch http://www.brianlynch.org  when he reviewed my first book of verse. It’s a long time ago now but from memory: ‘Casey places too much emphasis on Kavanagh’s dictum of a true note on a slack string.’

The Water Star

The Water Star

What advice would you give a young writer?

I feel a bewildered tenderness towards young writers. To get a book published is an enormous achievement, but then out of the thousands of books published every year, only a  few come to the surface. Apart from read, read, read, which I presume is obvious, I would say learn the difference between the good critic and the windbag, and listen to the good critic.  Be wary of your darling sentences. On the other hand, if you have a formula and a business plan then congratulations, it’s probably a breeze, nine to five.

What work of art would you most like to own?

I can’t get enough of art, as it happens. If pressed, Goya  is a particular favourite, somehow. Anything by him, but I’ve no desire to possess art other than the few works by friends which I already possess and love.

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

I haven’t a clue what the biggest myth about it is. I’ve noticed that some people, including scientists, believe it’s an Aha! moment. An idea. As in ‘where do you get your idea for a new novel?’ That’s probably one of the myths.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working for some years on a history of Ireland. Seeing as I’m not a trained historian, that’s pretty mad and possibly quixotic but I love it. Or rather I love it when immersed in the characters, or I’m telling the stories to friends, who in a most gratifying way, love the stories too. I don’t love it when I spend the day hunting a reference I forgot to list.

What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?

Beckett’s Come and Go,  Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Very different, I know. Or maybe not. I could go on. When I read or see or listen to something transcendent, of course I wish I’d created it. Then I’d be immortal!

What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

That time really does go by in the blink of an eye.  These days my email signature includes a consoling quote from Thomas Mann: ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ Of course I still love it, despite everything, and wouldn’t consider doing anything else.

What’s your greatest ambition?

To survive long enough to finish the current work and take a long rest, preferably in the sun. Though it’s doubtful if writers ever rest. I have the gleam of a new novel in my eye.

How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?

There have been some black days and nights, that’s for sure – many, in fact. I don’t fight it anymore. I let it do its thing as it’s probably part of the creative process for people like me. And then of course there’s love. Love of the work, love of family and friends, love of women. It all comes down to love in the end. It gives me the necessary patience.

What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?

That my novel, The Fisher Child, was racist. It was in a major newspaper, to boot. The Fisher Child has race as a major theme,

The Fisher Child

The Fisher Child

and some of the characters are racist,  but I’m certain the novel isn’t. Of course I’ve forgiven the reviewer – I couldn’t move on otherwise – but  I was stunned by the injustice of it at the time.

And the best thing?

‘How does a white Irishman know my black family’s history?’ That was the opening line from an appreciative email about The Fisher Child, around the same time as the ‘racist’ review.   Also:  a wonderful note about The Fabulists from Martha Gelhorn, about three years before she died.

If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?

Blank.

What is your philosophy or life motto?

Rothar Mór an tSaoil. The Great Wheel of Life. I interpret that as what you give, you get back manyfold if you give without counting the cost.

That goes for life as well as the work.  Alternatively,  ‘The Trick is to Live Long Enough.’ I coined that one when gifted friends died far too early.

What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?

To be open and vulnerable. I know it sounds earnest, and it can be a pain in the fundament at times,  but I don’t know any other way.

What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?

Designer

Websites

http://www.philipcasey.com

http://www.irishwriters-online.com

http://www.irishculture.ie

The Water Star and The Fisher Child are now in the kindle and iBook stores.

http://www.philipcasey.com/about-philip-casey/

20 Questions…. Jon Gower

Continuing my new series in asking writers, directors, actors, designers, poets, sculptors, artists, burlesque performers, playwrights,  choreographers, and other artists who catch the attention 20 questions about process, creativity and their work…. My third interviewee, Jon Gower…

Jon Gower. Photographer Emyr Jenkins

Jon Gower. Photographer Emyr Jenkins

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Jon Gower has written fifteen books on subjects as diverse as a disappearing island in Chesapeake Bay – An Island Called Smith – which won the John Morgan award, Real Llanelli – a west Wales tour in psycho-geography – and the fiction of Dala’r Llanw, Uncharted and Big Fish. His most recent work of non-fiction isThe Story of Wales, which accompanies a landmark TV series and his latest Welsh language novel, Y Storïwr, won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2012.

20 Questions…. Jon Gower

What first drew you to writing?    

My primary school teacher at Ysgol Dewi Sant in Llanelli, Mr. Thomas – known to us as “Tommy Tomatoes” – turned up at a talk I gave recently in the town and handed me a copy of school essays I wrote when I was nine or ten.  The fact that he had kept them all this time – they would have been written around 1968 – along with the fact that Mr. Thomas was still alive made this a life event. but the quality of the writing, too, impressed me. I was at that age reading Defoe, Louisa May Alcott and Conan Doyle. Reading avidly would eventually lead to writing, as it so often does.

What was your big breakthrough?

I’m still waiting for it.  Time enough.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?   

Finding time, as I have a young family and a lot of projects on the go at the same time, always.

Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you? 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ is the only book I finished reading and then started reading it straight through immediately, despite it’s being four in the morning.  I was a student at the time, so this was maybe 1980.  This mesmerizing novel still exerts a quiet but insistent influence on my writing which, even now, tends towards Welsh magical realism.

What’s more important: form or content?                                    

Content, though choices of  form as regards, say, length – short story or novel, essay or book – are clearly pretty important.

How do you know when a project is finished?                                                

I don’t.  Even when my recent novel ‘Y Storiwr’ was at the final proof stage my editor wasn’t sure that it was finished.  Truth be told, I was trusting a bit of the final writing to the reader!

Do you read your reviews?                                                           

Yes, and they can hurt.  A lot.  Or make the heart sing.

What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?                                                                       

Read lots.  Read attentively.  Read widely.

What work of art would you most like to own?                                 

John Martin’s ‘The Plains of Heaven, ‘ though it’s so big we’d have to move house and I’d feel to guilty about other people not seeing it to want to have it to myself.    51e9Dn3Pm4L._AA160_

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?           

That everyone has a book in them or, rather, that they would know how to write it. 

What are you working on now?                                                                      

Just finished half of a Welsh language stage play (which has given me the time to answer these questions) and am in the final few furlongs of a collection of short stories, also in Welsh.

What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created? 

Simple. John Updike’s entire output.

What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?      

That the real work comes after the first draft.

What’s your greatest ambition?    

To please the reader.

How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?  

It’s a necessary part of it all, not dissimilar to the nerves felt by an actor before curtain up or a rugby player before kick off.  You’re never satisfied, though the occasional good sentence might torch some pride in you.

What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?    

 A reviewer for New Welsh Review condemned my latest collection of stories, ‘Too Cold For Snow’  as being journalistic and cliched in their language. I work too hard on language for this to be true.  Had the critic been a proper writer it would have hurt more than it did.  It still hurt, though.

Too Cold For Snow And the best thing?                                                                                        

Richard Ford praised the self-same collection and his opinion graces the front cover.  For a moment I felt that Ford was a peer but then the old, necessary insecurity set in!

If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?                                                                                  

It’s a river, sometimes running swift and true, at other times meandering slowly, or worse, coming up to the weir, or did I mean the wire?

What is your philosophy or life motto?                                                        

Life is about creating things – be it conversation, babies, friendships, art.

What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?          

The best stuff often comes unbidden, and in the middle of the night.  Also, if you’re writing you’re always writing, even as you sleep.  So be prepared to get up to write it down.

What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask? 

Why do I do it?  Because I have to.  It’s an acceptable, realistic and manageable version of something grand, such as having a destiny.

For information on Jon’s books, go to his Amazon page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jon-Gower/e/B001KDY5WA/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1364235160&sr=1-2-ent

Too Cold For Snow http://www.amazon.co.uk/Too-Cold-Snow-Jon-Gower/dp/1908069848

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Story-Wales-Jon-Gower/dp/1849903727/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1364234258&sr=1-1

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Uncharted-Jon-Gower/dp/1848512090/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1364234364&sr=1-6

A week of balancing…

It’s been a week of balancing…. Balancing the completion of a polished draft of my first novel with a first draft commission of a performance text for Sherman Cymru Theatre. A week of seeking parity of meaning between languages, and of promoting gender parity in those working in professional theatre.

News of the novel I will keep for another time. I haven’t yet ‘come out’ as a would be novelist, and the public admission, above, of my advanced stage in the process of  writing long fiction feels quite enough, frankly, at present…. Suffice to say the ms has gone off to my relatively new literary agent and from her hands it will head out into the world…. I’m new to the process and not sure quite what to expect, but will begin covering this departure here, as and when….

Meanwhile, apart from completing drafts, I’ve been liaising with Frank Heibert in Berlin, a brilliant translator it has been my good fortune to have worked with twice before. Frank is translating my play The Almond and the Seahorse from the original English and Welsh into German, and we’re finding unexpected areas of dissonance and a disparity in cultural and everyday experience.

One of the main issues is not, as I expected, about specifically Welsh cultural traditions such as the national Eisteddfod (festival of poetry, literature, music and performance), but around the word ‘respite’.

The play focuses on survivors of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and so touches on the various systems and supports available in the UK for people to live more independently. Residential respite care is central to this – a time for those living with specific conditions and impairments and their partners or family who have been helping care for them at home to have a break, a holiday from each other – ‘respite’. Frank and I were astonished to find that there is no equivalent word in German to describe this most common of experiences in the UK. We spent hours searching the internet, and him interviewing several doctors, trying to find what would be a recognisable equivalent for a German audience. Day centres exist, but not this central concept of ‘respite’ – which is unfathomable to me and a major surprise to us both (and further cause to celebrate and protect our threatened but brilliant NHS).

Monday saw a trip to Covent Garden and Equal Writes, organised by Mandy Fenton as part of the nationwide campaign calling for UK theatre to fully engage with the need for gender parity. Equal Writes was an evening of monologues and short scenes presented at the Tristan Bates Theatre on March 11th ‘focusing on women, women’s stories and women in situations we are not presently seeing represented on UK stages.’

Mandy Colleran in rehearsals with National Theatre Wales on O'Reilly's 'In Water I'm Weightless' 2012

Mandy Colleran in rehearsals with National Theatre Wales on O’Reilly’s ‘In Water I’m Weightless’ 2012

My monologue Walkie Talkies was one of the dozen selected from over 800 submissions, and was performed by my long standing friend and collaborator, Disability Diva Mandy Colleran herself.

It was a fantastic evening – the auditorium was crammed as the event sold out. I was delighted to be part of such an important initiative and to share the stage with such a diverse and stimulating array of women characters, presented by a strong cast of female performers of all ages and cultural heritages, directed by a team of female directors and written by male and female playwrights.

For further information on the evening, go to:

http://www.equity.org.uk/news-and-events/equity-news/womens-stories-not-seen-on-stage/

I wonder whether the rest of the week will be such a balancing act…

How to write the ‘right’ ending, part two: consequential action.

I don’t like endings which are too tidy and ‘pat’. I distrust them. I feel like I’ve been processed – part of a well-oiled machine which has passed me along its predictable, dependable conveyer belt, depositing me unscathed, unchallenged and unsurprised at the end. I feel like the magical mystery tour I signed up to gave me an advance road map, with the route yellow highlighted in. I feel I have been part of a pedestrian equation, where A+B=AB.

It’s essential that there is structure and form to our writing (even – or especially – when the work is ‘experimental’), but here is a line between the well structured and the disappointingly predictable ‘I could see that coming for miles.’

But I’m not a fan of unpredictable, ‘magical’ endings either, where elements not previously existing in the world of the play fly in,  and ‘explain’ or solve everything. It doesn’t have to be as blatant as the god from the machine, deus ex machina. Think the chance meeting and deep conversation with the stranger with the meaningful past/anecdote to tell/piece of ancient wisdom to pass on which has surprising resonance with the protagonist’s dilemma and precipitates a sudden understanding and even swifter conclusion…  Or the surprise lottery win, the unexpected behest, the sudden death or illness, or the offer of a new job/house/country/lover/gender/whatever, which draws everything together in a premature ending leaving the viewer blinking and feeling cheated as the houselights come up.

The kind of endings I like are the ones where we are kept guessing until the last moment and then go ‘yes, of course it would end like that.’ We know that Hamlet will end up on a pyre of bodies, as when we think about it, this is the only possible ending, given his actions and interactions throughout the play. In this kind of writing, character equals plot, and plot equals character. They are indivisible, and there is logic – cause and effect: an action is made which brings a response, retaliation, or reward – consequential action – but not the simple binary of A + B of above, but a logarithm, a complex equation which, in both literary and mathematical senses of the word, is ‘beautiful’.

I’ve always believed that nothing should be extraneous in a play (or a story, or a novel, or a screenplay, or any kind of art or craft). Everything needs to earn its right to be there, and it all should contribute in some way to the ending. I can’t bear loose threads, or the sections included merely as a brain rest, so we can look at the attractive people, or hear a nice song, or be ‘entertained’ by something before returning to the true meat of the evening.

Of course some performances are not presenting a main or single narrative – there may not be a plot. Rather, they can be a montage working towards an overall effect at the close of the piece, rather than the resolution of a conflict, or a quest, or a psychological or emotional journey. Then I feel the power of the ending is cumulative, relying on everything that came before.

I love work which is up-close and personal, so involving and intricate it is as though I’m scrutinising individual stitches and threads, and it is only when it is drawing to a close, or complete, I can step back and see the tapestry, the full woven landscape whose minutiae I know and have followed.

That kind of experience brings great satisfaction and, for me, the most powerful ending, for everything has been created and spun out of what existed at the beginning: a fully realised world, a cast of well-developed characters whose actions and reactions create the stuff of the plot, a narrative full of twists and turns, which is unpredictable, but logical.

copyright Kaite O’Reilly 25 August 2012.