The real sixth sense

Have you ever learnt a dance step, or a musical instrument, or a tennis stroke? Felt how it gradually makes sense, how getting your weight in the right place makes the other arm move sweetly to where it needs to be, over and over again, whether it's a bow or a golf club? How suddenly your dancing body finds its place in the music, so that you're free by virtue of being part of the pattern? Can you imagine now, this minute, riding a bicycle down the road, pedal by pedal, push and turn and swoop? No, not the road... Read more →

The pause that isn't a pause

Trust a drummer to know about silence. Over on Radio 3's Private Passions last Sunday, Stewart Copeland, late of The Police and more recently not unknown to opera houses, was talking to his fellow composer Michael Berkeley. I'm saving his comment, about how the beauty went out of modern music when it became an algorithm rather than a sentiment, for my official rant about what might happen to academic creative writing as it finally follows music into universities. But he said so much else which made sense to me as a writer. The thing about drummers (I've a feeling he'd... Read more →

The second simplicity of a bowl of cherries

One of the classically irritating things non-writers say to us is "I've always wanted to write a novel, I just need the the time to sit down." Once we're out on bail, most writers still burn to explain that just sitting down isn't all it takes to write a novel. It takes hard work, craft, imagination, a lot of thinking, a lot of reading, learning, practising, and more sitting down than most people would believe possible. It's also frequently frustrating: some days/weeks/years the words come about as readily as wisdom teeth pull out, and I'm sure I'm not the only... Read more →

A different skin

Perhaps because I was rash enough to embark on explaining Why Modern Poetry is Worth It to an assortment of people who don't think it is, or perhaps because because I've been swapping some of my old poems with a friend, a poem occurred to me yesterday for the first time in a very long time. Not the whole thing, of course: it hasn't “arrived” all in one, as stories sometimes do. It's a powerful (to me, anyway), purely visual abstraction from a lifetime of taking photographs, and a conviction that there's more to it than at the moment I... Read more →

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A friend, the novelist Rosy Thornton, went to hear Sebastian Faulks talking, and reports thus:* He said that the advice ‘write what you know’ is the worst advice given to anyone, ever. He says that when he talks to young writers he says, DON’T write about what you know. He tells them, write about the past, the future, other words, a Bohemian desert, the south pole - but absolutely not about what you know. Now, I often get asked about 'Write what you know' at readings, because it's so very obvious that I don't. And as I've said before here,... Read more →

It doesn't matter

I've been teaching myself to draw. It seemed a nice way to spend my convalescence (nothing scary, don't worry), sitting in bed with the sun and the birdsong coming in through the open window and Quentin Blake and John Cassidy's Drawing for the Artistically Undiscovered on my duveted lap. The book's very funny, very encouraging, very clever about how it gives you rock-bottom basic technique, and gets to the heart of the matter. And it's also being extremely salutary, because for the first time in a long time I'm trying to do something at which I'm a total beginner. Indeed,... Read more →

Catching on the points of light

Maybe it's an occupational hazard, or maybe it's because I'm becoming a monomaniac, but I've got to the point where I'm so sodden with what I do and think about, that almost anything that ordinary, boring life throws at me seems to connect with writing. This time it was sitting in the doctor's waiting room. Never mind the embarrassingly compelling agony column in a year-old copy of Women's Weekly (always good for sparking off some 'what if?' ideas for stories), or eavesdropping on the other patients (we do still have a National Health Service, and my parliamentary constituency is one... Read more →

Showing up for the genie

Has anyone asked about your writing recently in the voice we use for people with illnesses which aren't going to get better? 'How's it going?' they say, consciously radiating willingness to receive a terse 'Fine, thanks,' or a half-hour outburst of gruesome symptoms and existential fears. When you first declared, or mumbled, that you wanted to be a writer, did you get an anxious spiel about how agonising rejections are before you get a deal, and even worse four books down the line when even your agent will drop you? And how lonely it is! And what about the terror... Read more →

Telling stories and feeling the not-knowing

On Monday I was at the Royal Society, as Pepys might have said, always being at the cutting edge of the establishment of his day, for the launch of a book co-written by a friend of mine, Nicholas Beale, with the particle physicist Professor John Polkinghorne. I've not often been to that wonderfully grand, white building in Carlton House Terrace, but I never cease to be awed - once I've recovered from entering under the gaze of its founder, one of my favourite monarchs, Charles II - at the history of science which surrounds you: Newton looking mad, Faraday looking... Read more →

You can't have one without the other

One of the things I've noticed, among the more thoughtful and less ooe-er-vicar-ish of the reviews of In Bed With, is that they often say, 'Some of these are real erotica/only erotica, whereas others are short stories with sex in them.' The 'real/only' division is the giveaway: do they approve more of the former, or the latter? The more I think about this difference, the more I begin to feel that it actually reflects a much wider question about what fiction's for, and how it works. This anecdote is relevant, so stay with me. I think it's Don McCullin who... Read more →

Only connect... if you can

Two opposite things are rubbing up against each other in my mind, and I can't work out how they fit together, so I've come over here to try to do so. First, my friend, the thriller writer Debi Alper, who's also a photographer, has been blogging about a part of her life which I, for one, didn't really know about. Twenty-five years ago she was living in Grenada, taking part in the Revolution which seemed to have created a free and democratic state in the Caribbean. She was there when the military took power and then assassinated Maurice Bishop and... Read more →

Blood for Breakfast

Settle down now, everyone, settle down. Right, now, as you know, I´m giving two big lectures this week. (What did you say, George? Well, they´re important to me, and there were a lot of people there at the first one. No, not just idiots. Now that´s enough, George, or I´ll send you to sit outside the Head Mistress´s office...) Where was I. Oh, yes? I´m going to have to leave you to be very sensible and quiet while I´m away. And what I´d like you to do is think about the relationship of symbols to reality. (What´s that, Alicia? Yes,... Read more →

PS: Listen to The Mathematics of Love

This was going to be a PS on the bottom of Too quiet on the lit fic front, but that got too long, so here's a separate little mention: I've finally got round to getting my on-stage interview at the Brisbane Writers' Festival up on my website. When I got the Festival programme, I remember, I was incredibly daunted. A panel discussing something about history, or fiction, or historical fiction, I could handle, but an hour-long live one-to-one interview? With audience? Recorded for national radio? But in the event it was great. My publishers Headline Review (who in that hemisphere... Read more →

The Muse, if you like

I've been hammering away at the commentary of my PhD, and one of the small tiresomeness (as opposed to the large tiresomenesses, of which there are also plenty) which make it slow work is that 'writing' is such an ambiguous term. It can be an almost concrete noun - 'Some of the writing is fluent' - or an abstract noun - 'Writing is a creative practice' - or a verb - 'Writing stops me eating'. So quite often I want another word for the large body of continuous prose, the piece, that I've ended up with in A Secret Alchemy,... Read more →

Nothing remotely trivial

I've just come across this, which is Margaret Atwood talking about historical fiction in general, and in particular about writing Alias Grace: Fiction is where individual memory and experience and collective memory and experience come together, in greater or lesser proportions. The closer the fiction is to us readers, the more we recognise and claim it as individual rather than collective. Margaret Laurence used to say that her English readers thought The Stone Angel was about old age, the Americans thought it was about some old woman they knew, and the Canadians thought it was about their grandmothers. Here, surely,... Read more →

Witnesses to the spark

I've blogged before about how a novel exists whole in my consciousness long before I write it down. In Bodies crying out I described how my nameless new novel landed in my lap last February and, more recently, in Are you listening? I was wondering aloud if you could think that this whole, complete entity of a story sets about making the writer it will need if it's to be written. But it's always been very clear to me, in the kind of physical, gut-level certainty that tells you, for instance, whether you're going to be able to balance on... Read more →

Seeing a hundred colours

I was reminded today of something my great-aunt, the artist Gwen Raverat, once wrote which is just the kind of counter-intuitive idea which I love: The whole of a long life is spent learning to see, to know what one is looking at with one’s inner mind: not in gaining experience, but in losing it. It is counter-intuitive, isn't it, the idea that experience makes you see less well, but I think there's something in it. I know that to take photographs well I need to clear my head out, shed preconceptions, words and analysis. Really seeing the way light... Read more →

Not really writing -

- or so I thought, since I've been in France, researching the nameless new novel. But on the same day I read this, in John Gardner's The Art of Fiction - All three kinds of writing, it should be obvious at a glance, depend heavily on precision of detail... such detail ... that we cannot help believing that the story he tells us must be true. - I took these: and a day or two later, this: Read more →

Just for the sake of it

Anyone who's dropped by here before will know that I'm always fascinated by analogies and similarities and differences between the practice of different arts, and last Saturday the London Literature Festival obliged with something close to my dream team, for a panel discussion. I'm halfway through social philosopher Richard Sennett's book The Craftsman: how could I resist hearing what he would talk about with tenor and academic Ian Bostridge, novelist and cultural historian Marina Warner and ceramicist Grayson Perry? There was so much said that I longed for it to be three times as long as it was, and even... Read more →