Tag Archives: weekend read

Life and Writing

Academy tutor Julia Blackburn on memoir and the craft of writing a life

In the late 1950s,  the jazz singer Billie Holiday was asked in a radio interview what the blues meant to her.  ‘There are two kinds of blues,’ she says, her voice as crackly as a scratched record, ‘happy blues and sad blues. I don’t ever sing the same song twice and I don’t ever sing the same tempo; one night it’s a little bit slower, next night it’s a little bit faster, depending how I feel. One thing I do say, the blues, they’re part of my life.’

I  have published twelve books, with two more coming out this April. These days I sometimes wonder how much faster or slower, happier or sadder, each one  would have been, if I had  chosen to write it at another stage in my life. I know for sure that in every case the narrative voice would have  different, because of a change in mood or circumstance.

When I started writing I kept trying to make fiction, but its wide and un-signposted landscape made me nervous and I quickly lost my  way. So I stepped into research and the more solid  structure it seemed to offer.  I am not and never have been an historian or a specialist in any particular field, but I am fascinated by the way that one can get closer to an understanding of a  total stranger, just by talking to others, by reading letters, diaries, or written accounts and by entering what Henry James called the visitable past; the places they were familiar with and that still hold echoes of what once was. I remember looking at a milling crowd of dung beetles next to an old carob tree and close to the palace where Goya  stayed with the Duchess of Alba, and  the sudden pleasure of realizing that he must have also seen just such insects, busily being themselves.

My work has been a series of studies of people whose predicaments interested me: Napoleon stripped of his empire; Goya waking up to find himself deaf; a woman living on her own in the  Australian desert; Billie Holiday hemmed in by racism and prejudice. Looking back, I realise that every book I have done, even the two novels, has been part of the process of my own slightly haphazard meditations on life and death, time and coincidence.

jblackburn3ofusI had thought that after completing a  memoir about my very bohemian family background: The Three of Us ( 2008), I would perhaps be ready to cut loose from the subjective voice that has always steered me, but I haven’t done that and now I suppose  I never will.

I have just completed a long poem Murmurations of Love, Grief and Starlings and a book called THREADS , the delicate life of John Craske. He was a Norfolk fisherman who became too ill to go to sea and so he began to make paintings and embroideries of the sea, in order to keep close to everything he missed so much. The writing  was a  challenge, because Craske, who died in 1943, hardly spoke when he was conscious and was often for months on end in what was called a stuporous state. On top of that, his work (as well as his personal papers) was not taken very seriously and much of it has been casually mislaid. The book evolved around my search for anyone who could tell me something about him and the sort of world he grew up in, the North Sea that he fished in; alongside all sorts of little stories and incidents which seemed to relate to his predicament.jblackburnthreads

When I was about halfway through, I became aware of a strange parallel in my life and the life of my subject. Just like John Craske’s wife, I was looking after my husband, an artist who kept working with dedication and devotion, but who was becoming increasingly frail. And then, in October 2012 my husband died suddenly and very  gently, while Craske was still alive, at least in my account of him. After four very surreal months I managed to return to the writing and the book became the companion that helped to pull me through my grief: my own story and the story of a man who died before I was born, moving forward, hand in hand.

 Julia Blackburn

jblackburnstarlingsJulia Blackburn has written six books of non-fiction, a family memoir, The Three of Us, which won the 2009 J.R. Ackerley Award, and two novels, The Book of Colour and The Leper’s Companions, both of which were shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She lives in Suffolk and Italy, and is the tutor on our Memoir and Life Writing course, which is now open for applications.

The Doubtful Novelist

S1152_Imageo. A new year dawns, and with it, a million resolutions. Write more. Read more. Do better at being ‘out there’. It’s a time of hope and aspiration, and a time, for a group of people to which I belong, of abject terror.

A year in which you have a book published is undoubtedly one of the most exciting there can be. For me, it’s my second: a novel, Lay Me Down, published by Vintage in February. I have loved and loathed this book during the three years it’s taken to bring it to print; it’s taken me to dark places and to extremely happy ones, through the writing, the re-writing and the major, knock-it-down-and-start-again re-writing. I was unspeakably thrilled when Vintage offered a contract for it back at the end of 2013. And now we have the cover and the proofs and, just this week, the finished copies. It’ll soon be out there in the world, this thing I did.

Which is, frankly, terrifying. It’s wonderful, of course, but it’s also scary. There’s the joy and the pride and the disbelief that swell through you when you first hold a copy of the novel. And then there are the doubts and the questions and the nagging worry that nobody is going to like this except me.

20130116_133223(2)Self-doubt is natural, especially in a career as isolated and introspective as writing. For so many stages of the process, it’s just you and the words, and it’s all too easy for those little inner voices to start chipping away at your confidence. You start to second-guess everything; you walk – and trip over – the oh-so-fine line between good self-editing and unhelpful self-bullying on a daily basis.

This time of year is one of the worst for The Doubts, with social media churning out list upon list of books to look out for in 2015. Author Claire King rightly explains here how unnecessarily stressful it can be – especially for a debut novelist – to scan those and not find your book listed. And, let’s be honest – there’s always some handy stick-shaped internet fodder you can find to beat your poor old ego with. The six-figure advances you read about when you’re still halfway through a manuscript or a handful of rejections down. The two-books-a-year author who’s also writing films and plays and working full-time. Always something or someone we can hold up and say I’m not as good as that. We can’t help ourselves; we let The Doubts in.

This time round, I’ve promised myself I won’t get hung up on the reviews or the Goodreads and Amazon ratings. I’ve warned myself not to take it personally if someone doesn’t like the book; that though the book feels like a part of me, it is, to the rest of the world, a product.

It doesn’t work. The book is a part of me, a part which has been difficult and wonderful to wrangle into words on the page. I’m scared to share it but I’m also excited too – I can’t wait for the characters with whom I’ve spent the last three years to make their first steps into someone else’s imagination.  I’m proud of it, and writing it has been a joy, a torment and a learning curve.

And I’ve realised that last part is the most important. I remind myself that the review for my first book which meant most to me was a two star one. In it, the reviewer said that it ‘had potential’ but that in the end nothing was ‘particularly engaging’. They were very careful to clear up any confusion that they might be suggesting I was on drugs, and they ended with this line: ‘I look forward to her next book and hope that she stretches herself more’.

I hope that I have, too. And I’m going to keep on trying, with the next book and the next, pushing The Doubts into the dusty little corner where they belong. Because, really, the only thing we have any control over is whether we believe our work is the best it can be. I do feel that way about Lay Me Down, and I’m going to spend 2015 doing my utmost to make it true of Book 3 as well.


 Nicci Cloke

Lay Me Down
Nicci Cloke is an author, procrastinator and literary salon organiser. She’s also Sales and Marketing Assistant at Faber Academy. Say hi to her on Twitter.

Lay Me Down is published on February 19th. 

Quit Job, Write Novel

Author Tom Savage on why taking a year out from his career gave his writing the kick-start it needed

1126_ImageSitting at a red light outside Charleston, South Carolina, I listened to Desert Island Discs – my weekly dose of Britishness. I was driving back to Beaufort (where they filmed Forrest Gump), which had been my home for the last three years. I’d taken a job teaching English and Creative Writing at a small private school, but really I’d moved to Beaufort to write. I’d envisaged sitting down on a porch, pen in hand, surrounded by palmetto trees and sipping Bourbon while the ocean breeze whispered story ideas to me.

This hadn’t happened, not even once.

On my BBC podcast, Kazuo Ishiguro was talking about taking an MA in creative writing, and how it perfectly replicated the time and space a writer needed, and as I pulled away from the light, I made a decision. I would quit my job, return to London and write full time. I would make my own MA and the final project would be a novel.

By fortunate coincidence, when I called my parents to tell them, their tenant had just informed them that she was moving out. I had a place to live, rent free for twelve months, as long as I covered all the bills. I had about six thousand dollars saved, and I sold my car and all my possessions. I figured that would get me through till Christmas.

Having decided to make such a huge change, I needed a simple outline for the year. One year, one finished novel.

My goal might have been simple but it began with a stuttering start, because I didn’t know how or where or what to write. This was a problem which led to me allowing myself to spend the first month of my year off catching up with friends and telling lots of people I was writing when I wasn’t.

I quickly realized I couldn’t write at home. When I tried, I suddenly had the world’s cleanest, most organised house. I would do anything but write. A low point was using baking soda and a toothbrush to clean in-between the bathroom tiles. They gleamed, but the pages remained empty.

One day, despite never having been there before, I thought ‘I should go and write at the British Library.’ I don’t know why. I ended up having lunch with a pretty girl, but that’s another story; the love affair with real legs was my one with the library. I began to leave the house in the morning with purpose. I commuted with people and it made me feel productive. I’d found my place to write.

Almost every day for the next nine months, I went to the library. I didn’t set a word limit; I just showed up and stayed as long as I could. All that mattered was showing up.

Taking a morning tea break, lunch and afternoon coffee alone could be hard. Writing, it turned out, was a lonely business. If I didn’t play football in the evening or meet friends for drinks, sometimes the only person I spoke to was the person behind the till in the cafeteria – the guy who made the coffee being a fairly monosyllabic chap.

In fact, the lack of interaction on the whole was difficult to get used to. As a teacher, I received lots of feedback – whether it was a pat on the back, a mention in a staff meeting, or just someone telling me how I could do something better. With writing, there was none of that. I’d hear nothing for eight weeks then get, for the most part, a generic e-mail saying ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’

There were other difficult moments. I was having dinner with some friends one evening and one made a comment about me being ‘a great teacher.’ There was no hiding the fact that what he really meant was that I was wasting my time and should get a decent job/career like everyone else at the table.

But there was also plenty of good points. I was overwhelmed with love and support – anytime a friend told me that they respected what I did, it gave me the most uplifting feeling. So many people would say ‘I wish I could do that.’ The truth is they could have. It wasn’t self-satisfaction that I felt, knowing that I was doing something that others would like to do. But I did feel a sense of accomplishment, having jumped off the cliff while others stood and rocked back and forth trying to build up the momentum. I woke up nearly every day with a sense of purpose and freedom. I definitely felt like the Master of my fate and the Captain of my soul. Certainly bloodied but definitely unbowed.

tscoverI finished my year, and I finished my book. After receiving two offers from small indie publishing houses, I decided to go it alone and self-publish.

Now that my year is over, I’m back working full-time, teaching English. I’m back to writing during the evenings and weekends, as well as marketing my novel, and I’ve found it a struggle. However, I now know I can write and, more importantly, finish a novel. Going to evening events and weekend conferences is draining, but the difference is that now I show up with a completed novel, rather than an idea for one.

I took away from the experience that I love to write. I learnt what it means to live the life of a writer, and that I can do it. The fact that I am not currently making a living writing is fine; 90% of published authors don’t make money from writing alone. I have held my novel in my hands and that’s an amazing experience. I wanted to try and be a producer rather than a consumer and I achieved that.

I don’t regret my year out at all.

Tom Savage is the author of Tracks in the Smoke. You can find him writing here, and tweeting here.

The Poet, the Pug and the Train Tracks

By Joey Connolly

1159_ImageIt’s hard to be a straight male poet. Your poetry is more likely to be published in magazines, in anthologies and in single-author collections. If you do get published, you’re more likely to have attention paid to your writing. You’re more likely to rise into senior teaching positions and to edit major poetry publications. You don’t, like tennis players, get paid more for winning the major prizes, but you are much more likely to win them in the first place. Your witty, aphoristic sayings about poetry are more likely to be quoted by young men like me, to impress women at parties. You work in an artistic field structured and interpreted by theory written overwhelmingly by men like you. The form itself has a history of – in fact, is inseparable in the minds of thousands of people from – the kind of ‘love’ poem which lovingly dwells on each element of a woman’s body, separately and distinctly. Your eyes are like . . ., you know the drill.

‘That sounds easy,’ I hear you say, ‘I could do that.’ (I assume you’re a straight man, reader, as have my predecessors over the ages). Well, yes, but there’s one last thing about being a straight male poet I’ve yet to mention. It’s hard to be an SMP in the same way as it’s hard to be a policeman; with the power of privilege (over the law, over the canon) comes responsibility. It’s unpleasant to feel immoral (and to be immoral), and it’s very very easy as an SMP to take part in – either actively or passively – a system of writing and reading which implicates your poetry in the oppression of other, less privileged, people. Exclusivity, objectification, plain old sexism – the pitfalls, for the SMP, are everywhere.

Convincing arguments about the spectrum-based (‘spectral’?) nature of gender and sexuality aside, I’m a straight male poet. It’s important to me that my poetry is tied to the world, and rooted in my own experience. But if my experience frequently revolves around my romantic relationships with women, then that’s what I have to write about. Right? Besides, it seems outrageous that honestly representing my own experience could be somehow unethical or dismissive. I don’t actively seek to say mean things about women in my poems, after all: at the worst I’m neutral, surely.

And yet. The neutrality of inaction in the face of a child asleep on a train-track, most would agree, is tantamount to murder (I know, I know, that’s far too heavy an analogy. How about ‘the neutrality of inaction in the face of a pug choking on a shoelace’?). The point is: apparent ‘neutrality’ is not always enough. The problem might even be that what we think of as a ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ style of writing actually describes the position from which a certain person – we might say a straight, white, middle-class, middle-aged English man – tends to write.


A poem isn’t as complicated as a person. A poem is complicated, but human beings are complicated. Even a knee is complicated. A neuron is complicated, and a human brain has a hundred billion of them. I could spend a hundred years describing how complicated is thine eye, my lady, but my point is that a poem about a person will always, automatically and intrinsically, be reductive of that person. Especially if it turns out (and this gives me a terrible headache about my own poems) that a love-interest described in a piece of writing turns out to be playing a bit-part in a poem which is actually about me, the straight male narrator of my straight male poem.

Is poetry automatically reductive, then? Do we write off the thousands of years of poetry dominated by SMPs as sexist and outdated? Well, it’d save me from feeling guilty about the mighty unread Collected Byron on my bedside table, but on balance – no, let’s not do that. One solution is to shift responsibility from the writer on to the reader: if we make sure the poetry audience isn’t passively absorbing the messages of the poetry, then we don’t need to worry too much about what those messages are. In fact, I’d argue that poetry almost by definition requires that kind of active, questioning response from its readers. So that’s nice.

But that old shifting-of-responsibility away from men is too familiar a trick, isn’t it, to make us entirely comfortable. What else? Well, I’d say now is a great time to start answering that question. There are a number of male poets writing today – Don Paterson and Frederick Seidel perhaps pre-eminently among them – who make this problem essentially a part of their poetry. A love poem by an SMP doesn’t have to be a picture of a woman (picking flowers, daintily knitting a Babygro etc.) – it can be a picture of a man looking at a woman, and have something to say about that man’s way of looking, too. One of the great things about poetry is its ability to point at so many things at once, to always be about the things it uses. With some attention, it’s possible to read a lot of love poetry in this way – of discussing, measuring and critiquing the desire it depicts. And, with a little work, a little consideration (and by using Word’s ‘find and replace’ function to remove all instances of ‘her eyes’ from our manuscripts) we SMPs can make our agonising slog through life a little easier.

Joey Connolly

Joey Connolly edits Kaffeeklatsch, a journal of poetry and criticism. A collection of his own poetry is forthcoming from Carcanet in 2016.