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Why I Write: Natalie Hart

I write for many reasons. I write because when I’m at work I live with my colleagues. I write because the security situation here means I can’t wander around the city when I need to clear my head. I write because I can’t call up one of my friends and pop out for a glass of wine to unwind in the evening. I write because I live in Iraq.

When I am in Iraq, writing provides me with space.  It offers a mental separation from my job and surroundings when a physical one is not possible. It keeps me sane and it keeps me healthy. Personal wellbeing is important in such an intense environment. While I workout in the evening as a physical outlet for stress, writing in the morning is my creative outlet. I get up most days at six o’clock and write for an hour or two before heading to the office.

Of course, being in Iraq is not my only reason for writing. I caught that bug long before I made acquaintance with the Middle East. Between the ages of fourteen and nineteen I worked part-time in a small bookshop in my village (which I maintain is the best job I have ever had). I promised the owner of the shop that I would have a book of my own on his shelves before he retired. I write because I would hate to break that promise.Natalie Hart | Why I Write | Faber Academy writing courses

It is perhaps because of that bookshop that writing has always been my retreat. During my teenage years, life at home was difficult. The bookshop was a haven of calm and I spent many afternoons drinking tea and chatting to customers about what they were reading, under the auspices of ‘work’. Literature was my safe place, as it is now. The bookshop owner became somewhat of a mentor for me and I ended up following in his footsteps by pursuing a languages degree at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Studying Arabic and Spanish opened up entirely new worlds for me, with each trip abroad providing further inspiration for my writing.

Much of my writing is set in foreign climes. I love to include splashes of different languages in my stories and to evoke different locations through scents and tastes. Bizarrely though, I rarely write about such locations when I’m in them, which I think is due to my need for space and separation. When I’m in Iraq, I don’t want to write about Iraq. I want to write about street children in Mexico or life as a military girlfriend in Germany or cold winters sat in the libraries of Cambridge. As soon as I leave Iraq, my writing will veer back to stories about the Middle East. My mind and body tend to enjoy being in disparate places!

I also have a new reason to write at the moment: I have deadlines. After enjoying online writing courses so much, I decided to take the plunge and start a distance learning Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster. I have reduced my stints working in Iraq and now balance my time equally between work in Erbil and writing from my home in Stuttgart. Knowing that I have set submission dates really helps get words down on the page and beat the procrastination monster.

Are those all of the reasons I write? Probably not! I’d like to echo the sentiment of Alexia’s post from last week: I write because it makes me happy.

Natalie Hart

Natalie Hart was a student on one of our Writing a Novel online courses. She works in public opinion research and strategic communications in Erbil, and writes a blog here.

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Why I Write: Alexia Casale

Like most authors, there are lots of answers to this question, but the one that sustains me through the love-hate process of writing and editing and more editing and still more editing is the fact that it makes me happy in a way that nothing else does. When students (I teach Creative Writing) talk to me about their ambitions, I’m always struck by how rarely they mention happiness. Some talk about fame, some about money, and some about ‘the lifestyle’, but mostly there’s little money, less fame and a lifestyle that rarely involves leisurely days sipping wine until the muse strikes, at which points words flow pristine and perfect from the fingertips.

There are other things I could do to make a living, but none of them make me as happy as writing does. The fact that knowing this about myself is among my earliest memories has been a mixed blessing – especially given that I’m dyslexic/dyspraxic and didn’t even read properly until I was ten. The upside was that I always knew what would fulfil me and make me happy. The downside was that I knew that if I didn’t get there – if I didn’t have the right combination of talent, hard work and luck – I’d never be as happy as I could be. That’s pretty powerful motivation.

But now I’m here and I’m even happier than I dreamt I would be. I love writing even when I hate it and that’s the key.

‘Why does it make me happy?’ is a harder question. My love of writing started with my grandparents: a childhood of stories. But above all I have a greedy type of curiosity about life; I want to know everything, do everything, beeverything. I hate that I have only one life and even that is limited. There isn’t enough time. But in my imagination I can live many lives. I can pursue many careers, many possibilities. I can live myself into the past, the future, even worlds that don’t exist.

How I write

It varies for each novel but for me the key is to create a mental movie of the book. I start with 2-4 points of high emotion and work out a plot that leads to and between them: the trick is making sure that the plot squeezes the maximum emotion from these key scenes by wringing it from the characters.

As I start fleshing out the story, I also start mentally filming it. I bring in an imaginary wardrobe department to costume my characters, casting to get the right people in the right roles, props to sort out the sets and make sure there’s stuff for the characters to interact with, and cinematography to capture the sets, to set the mood and make sure the world of the story is magical and emotive. I’m the director: I ‘run’ each scene, calling “cut” when something doesn’t work, then giving out new lines, getting the various departments to make changes before I run the scene again. I inch forwards, developing the perfect cut of each scene until I have a whole movie.

The Bone Dragon by Alexia Casale | Faber Academy writing courses

And then I write up enough information to capture the important things, including key words to describe the sets, the people, phrases to use in dialogue. Finally, I set to work converting it all into prose. All of that lets me focus on creating a voice for the book and making sure that the prose doesn’t just tell the story: that it has layers and subtext.

The Bone Dragon is a mix of things I learnt while working in mental health charities and human rights editing, plus the experience of having one of my own ribs put in a pot. My second book is about intelligence and loneliness: it’s set in Cambridge, where I did my first two degrees and also worked as a researcher studying dyslexia and intelligence. An upcoming book is loosely based on my grandparents’ lives during WWII. Another started as a dream. Another grew out of reading a bad book and watching a terrible TV programme then thinking ‘That idea from X was great, and that idea from Y: I could have done so much more with those ideas.’ I also collect newspaper stories and photos and music… You never know how little things may suddenly connect: that’s the alchemy of writing. Putting things together – ideas, words – to create something that is so much bigger than the sum of its parts.

Alexia Casale

Alexia is the author of The Bone Dragon and House Of Windows. You can find her here and on Twitter.

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Why I Write: Nikesh Shukla

Writing is a hard thing. Lonely, strange, wonderful and awful. And everyone who writes will, at one point or another, in a whisper or a heavens-directed bellow, ask the question: WHY?

Every Monday, we’re going to be inviting a writer to tell us why they write. We might ask them to tell us a bit about how, too.

This week, the unutterably wonderful Nikesh Shukla gives his answer:

Nikesh Shukla

Nikesh is the author of Coconut Unlimited, The Time Machine and, most recently, the extremely excellent Meatspace. You can find him here, and on Twitter.