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Why I Write: Joanna Cannon

I called them my Kodak Moments.

The snapshots of my day as a doctor, the patients who managed to creep across the brick wall which medical school had instructed us to build, between our profession and our emotions. The desperate, the alone. The children who would never know a future, the elderly who struggled to search for a past. One day, I stood by the bedside of a woman with metastatic breast cancer, a woman whose birth date was just a few days from my own. We had grown up with the same posters on our walls, we knew the lyrics to the same songs. I watched her for so long, searching for the difference between us, because I knew that if I couldn’t find it, I would never be able to turn away.

These Kodak Moments took over my life. I would pull into my drive at the end of a shift, and not remember how I got there, and I would lie in the dark each night, trying to make sense of what I’d seen that day. I decided I must be too absorbent for medicine, and if I didn’t find a way of dealing with these moments, perhaps I really wasn’t suited to this job after all.

So, I decided to do what I had always done, since I was very small, and I started to write about how I felt. Of course, I didn’t write about the patients themselves. Instead, I wrote about my reactions to the situations in which I found myself. I tried to make sense of them.

When I was a child, I lived for library day. I spent all my time with Meg and Mowgli and Aslan (some of my best friends lived within the pages of a book), because they allowed me to explore a very confusing world, without ever leaving the safety of my own chair. I think of writing in a similar way. I think, at least for me, this is what writing (and reading) is all about. It’s a way of understanding, a way of choosing a new perspective. Without writing, I know I would struggle to process everything around me, and finding the words to explain my experiences leaves me free to absorb a little more of the world.

As a teenager, I watched an Alan Bennett series on BBC1 called Talking Heads, and it felt as though someone had opened a door into another room. For the first time, it made me appreciate the power of words. The power to move, distract, and entertain. The power to shift a viewpoint. The power to explain. I decided then that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to learn how to harness the power of words, and use them to make the world an easier place to understand.

For me, I think life will always require more than a little explaining, and as long as I need those explanations, I will continue to write.

Joanna Cannon graduated from Leicester Medical School and worked as a hospital doctor, before specialising in psychiatry. She was born and raised in the Peak District, where she continues to live with her family and her dog. THE PROBLEM WITH GOATS AND SHEEP is her first novel, and will be published by Borough Press (HarperCollins) in Spring 2016. Say hi to her on Twitter.

Jo was also a student on one of our online novel-writing courses. Writing a Novel Online: The First 15,000 is open for applications now. 

Why I Write: Morgan McCarthy

The short answer is: I don’t know.

Wait! Don’t go away. I haven’t finished. I may not know exactly why I write, but I do have some ideas, and – true to form – I have written them down…

1. Money

Sad and grubby as it is, this has to be acknowledged as a significant spur to my creativity. I may be in the gutter and looking at the stars, but I’m also trying to work out whether my gutter would benefit from faster wi-fi, and whether an open-plan gutter-extension would add value. When it comes to content, I write the books I want to write without – as my readers would no doubt confirm – much consideration for marketability or commercial appeal. But I can’t deny that I daydream sometimes about film adaptations, and not only because I want to brainstorm with Meryl Streep over coffee.

And yet! There was a time when I didn’t have to think about when my next pay-check was coming from – because I already knew: £1 a week, plus 25p sweetie allowance. And back when I was a child, I was at my most prolific. I wrote incessantly, churning out page after page of stories about aliens and time-travel, princesses and monsters, even a (poorly researched) epic about the Aztecs. I didn’t get any money for this, and I certainly didn’t have any readers. One teacher admitted he had no idea how to begin to mark one of my 150-page efforts and gave me 10/10 and a gold star purely on the basis of weight. No – something other than cash compelled me.

2. Praise

This is also, undeniably, one of my motivators. I am an inveterate teacher’s pet (10/10 is still 10/10, after all) and while I no longer crave the approval of my parents and my old English teacher Mr Pepperpot*, this longing has transferred itself onto readers, reviewers, organisations. My wildest dreams basically boil down to a need for the Booker committee to pat me on the head and tell me I’ve done a great job. A gold star wouldn’t go amiss, either.

3. To change the world

Um, nope.

4. Because it’s fun

This is only partly true. I had the most fun writing when I was eight, when it was all about volume and quality control was just a twinkle in my future editor’s eye. As an adult I am a perfectionist, a procrastinator and a self-doubter, and as a consequence, writing can frequently be a fairly un-fun process.

5. Because not many other jobs will let me work in pyjamas

Now, this is undoubtedly a factor.

isbn9781472205810-detailOkay, it’s becoming apparent that I’m no closer to understanding why I write, and quite frankly this analysis of my motivations isn’t making me look great. The truth is, none of these reasons come close to explaining it. It’s more that I find that there are characters I long to write about, and situations I long to explore. I am passionate about capturing the feel of a place that exists only in my head; trying to express an imagined atmosphere, even when I’m not sure it’s even possible. If the prospect of riches and admiration was taken away, I’d still do it.

And I don’t really know what that’s about.
*names have been changed

 

Morgan McCarthy

Morgan McCarthy is the author of The Other Half of Me, The Outline of Love and Strange Girls and Ordinary Women. Say hi to her on Twitter.

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.