Writers – dispelling the myths

Glendurgan maze cr Judy DarleyMany writers love myths, but what do they feel when the myth in question is what it’s like to be them? Award-winning short story writer and children’s author Rebecca Lloyd examines the myths that surround writers, and sets about dispelling a few, beginning with the concept of the writers’ muse.

Myth: Writers are unable to write without a muse
Fact: Writers who believe this are denying their responsibility for their creations

In the non-writer world, there are not muses so much as ideas. Ideas may not come thick and fast, but when they do, the one who thought of them doesn’t attribute it to something ‘out there,’ but rather to their own ability to think something up.

I believe it unlikely that writers who wait for the arrival of the muse will ever be able to turn out very good work because they haven’t taken on full responsibility for their own creations. When a writer who believes in the muse has written nothing, it can’t be his fault, can it?

But sometimes the bus doesn’t come either, and then you walk. In other words, there are some days when your writing is better than it is on other days, but the important thing is to write consistently. Djuna Barnes wrote: “… working every day is important – one may write the most lamentable balls but in the end one has a page or two that might not otherwise have been done…”

Myth: Once, created, characters do much of the work for the writer
Fact: The characters are much of the work of the writer

The myth of the muse is supported by another declaration you sometimes hear even from respectable novelists, and it is that their characters “take life and form all by themselves,” – outside the will of the writer. This is a way of implying that writing is somehow magical. Yet, if you consider that we are only knowingly engaged with about one tenth of our brain and the rest is subconscious, it is little wonder that some of the hidden 90% leaks through onto the page, and it is that gives the illusion of characters coming to life by themselves.

Myth: Writers are born, not made
Fact: Many people are born with writing talent, but it’s those who work at it who progress into writers

The ‘born not made’ myth must put a few potential writers off the whole business – at least for a while. As a creative writing tutor, I come across students who haven’t told friends and family about their writing aspirations for fear of ridicule because it suggests they’re attempting to be someone less than ordinary. So, the would-be writer with little confidence is unlikely to assume their identity as a writer easily in the face of this.

Cat on wall cr Judy Darley

Myth: Anyone could be writer, if they wanted to
Fact: People who quite fancy the idea of being a writer rarely actually put the idea into action

Myths about writers can contradict one another. Most suggest that the writer is ‘special,’ but there a few myths that attempt to keep the writer in his place. For instance, there are people who, on meeting a writer, will declare: “They say there’s a novel in all of us.” Few people who say this have ever tried to write anything more substantial than an email. Equally, they are unlikely, however when meeting a bricklayer to state: “They say there’s a brick wall in all of us.”

The person is trying to tell you that writing is easy; anyone can do it if only there was enough time, and they say it to make themselves feel better in front of you. This is in direct contradiction to the myth above.

Myth: writers need to know who they’re writing for
Fact: While writers need an idea of a target audience, you can never truly know who will read your work

Then there’s the myth of writers needing to know whom they are writing for. If you were a writer of romance, you’d know that you were writing for people who read romantic fiction, but who are those people? How can the writer know? They could be anyone.

If you’re a children’s writer, you have to target your work to the age group you write for, but who are the children who are reading your work?

Myth: Writers should write about what they know
Fact: Writers are imaginative creatures with the ability to carry out research

Sometimes you hear the idea that writers should write about what they know. Novels would be very limited and utterly boring if writers only wrote about what they knew, and it would make historical novelists into supernatural beings for knowing all that stuff automatically. Writers do research. Research is good.

Myth: Writing talent is all it takes to be a successful writer
Fact: Marketability and persistence are just as important, if not more

It’s widely believed that you have to be a great writer to be a best seller. This doesn’t stand up to scrutiny if you think about the chick-lit novels that sell in their millions. That’s not to deny the right of these types of writing to exist, and more importantly to make money for publishing houses so that they can then risk, if they dare, taking on writers whose thoughts about life go deeper than sex, lipstick and daft shoes.

Of course, there are good writers who have had best selling works, but I would bet that there are far more mediocre writers who have hit the big time.

Myth: Writer’s suffer from writers’ block
Fact: Writers can overcome writers’ block – by accepting it doesn’t exist

The myth I hate in particular is that of writers’ block. Ordinary folk, lesser mortals that is, get tired at work, but writers have to have a special name for it to distinguish them from other people. Whether or not your writing is going well or not, a writer still has to get the words down on paper – that is the job, never mind about being tired, you have to do it anyway. Later it can be done better, and that’s not true of many jobs, so writers should just be grateful, and not believe in this daft idea.

Myth: Writers need a special space in which to write
Fact: Finding the perfect space in which to write depends on the individual

Virginia Woolf talked about a writer needing a ‘room of her own.’ I go along with the notion that to do your best work you need to be in favourable conditions, but these will differ from one writer to another. A crowded café could be a person’s special place to write. Many writers carry a notebook with them in which they work out storylines and/or make notes about things they notice, so a lot of writing and writing ideas happen on the hoof. I think that as long as when you are writing nothing else matters at that moment, then wherever you are is that special place because you are fully concentrating.

Cornwall shore cr Judy Darley

Myth: Writing is the loneliest of lonely professions
Fact: Writing is solitary, but rarely lonely

People talk about writing as ‘a lonely occupation.’ To call it lonely makes it sound sad. Writing is a solitary occupation, that’s true – as are millions of jobs. How can you actually be lonely if you’re fully concentrating on writing? The loneliness myth is part of the old stereotype of the artist working alone for months in his garret, and he must face the universe single-handedly – he’s ‘one man against the wherl’ isn’t he? Well, no, not necessarily.

The important thing is for writers themselves not to believe in these myths as none of them do the business any good. The more the act of fiction writing can be de-mystified the more confident people will be to become writers themselves, and in my opinion we always need new writers. When asked recently if a writer needed to be ‘full of angst,’ my reply was not angst, but passion, and an equal measure of discipline to go with it.

Rebecca Lloyd cr Rosie Tomlinson

Rebecca Lloyd cr Rosie Tomlinson

About the author

Rebecca Lloyd is a short story writer and novelist. Her short stories have been published in the UK, Canada, US and New Zealand. Rebecca’s story The River won the inaugural Bristol Prize in 2008.  She is the author of Halfling (Walker Books, 2011) and co-editor of the anthology Pangea (Thames River Press, 2012).

Her short story collections include The View From Endless Street and Mercy and Other Stories.

Remember Me To The Bees – Travelling North

Travelling North cr Louise BoulterThe 20th story in my debut collection Remember Me To The Bees is Travelling North. The artwork is by Louise Boulter.

Before I even began compiling this collection of short stories, the title of it settled on me like a bee on a flower, and refused to flit away. Initially I thought it would be the title of the short story that became Travelling North.

I knew I wanted to write something about following the crops, through Britain, but couldn’t find my way into the tale, until I saw a news story about a man who had frozen to death while camping on the Scottish island of Skye. It wasn’t the story I wove in, but it gave me an image of an older man travelling with the crops, with a far younger companion to offset his beliefs and impression. This pairing became Alun and Shiv, and gave me an opportunity to explore the assumptions we make about one another, as well as the lies we tell ourselves.

In case you were wondering, the phrase Remember Me To The Bees is explained in this story. You’ll have to read the tale to discover the meaning though!

A short excerpt from Travelling North

Alun was a surprisingly good travelling companion. Something about him was deeply reassuring. He was good at deciphering bus timetables, charming waitresses into giving them a bit of extra blood pudding with their breakfast, that kind of thing. She had a feeling people assumed she was his daughter, despite the milkiness of his skin next to hers. The confusion on their faces as they tried to puzzle it out alternately amused and irritated her – she’d experienced it often enough with her mum.

Couldn’t they see she was too old to be travelling with her dad in any case?

Their time together was full of misunderstandings. She couldn’t work out whether it was an age thing or a culture thing. Sometimes they’d be in the middle of some great conversation and she’d gradually become aware that they were talking about completely different things.

Last weekend, for example, on their free day, they’d journeyed to the beaches at Claigan, north of Dunvegan Castle, staying there till the sun began to slip down towards the waves. The sky was still blue in places, but the clouds were golden, rimmed in pink like sea creatures with vulnerable undersides. He’d reached forward suddenly, towards her, stopping just short of touching her face. She’d been wary, realising she no longer wanted to be kissed by this man who had become like an uncle. A friend.

“My daughter would be your age now,” he’d breathed, and she felt her insides chill, sensing some terrible tragedy. She looked at him, full of pity, but he shook his head, almost seeming confused.

“Is, I mean she is. Your age or thereabouts.”
No tragedy then, at least not in her terms.
“You miss her?’ she asked, trying to account for the grief in his eyes.
And he nodded, looked alarmingly like he might actually cry, and said, “For the past fifteen years. That’s how long it’s been.”

Then clammed up, refused to speak another word on the subject, leaving her completely bemused. What kind of man doesn’t see his daughter for fifteen years? She tried to imagine it, if, say, her dad had wanted to move back to Niger rather than England, if her mum hadn’t wanted to go and they’d separated. But even if that had happened, surely he would have visited, wouldn’t he?

Midweek writing prompt – delayed mail

Belated xmas giftThis week I received a very belated Christmas gift from my American cousins.

A Christmas present, in May! Apparently it set off from their hometown in November, spent a bit of time socialising with postal workers, skipped over to England, didn’t like the look of us, so hurried back, only to be dutifully re-sent to us. I can only assume it ran out of energy, so is now here, waiting to be unwrapped.

And what a great premise this kind of scenario makes for fiction writing. The letter that arrived too late, or fell into the wrong hands. The parcel that contained something unexpected, or sinister, or just, as someone I know once experienced, with a nibble taken from one corner and a sincere apology from a mail sorter who’d felt a bit peckish and couldn’t wait till their break.

What kind of interaction could this lead too? What misunderstandings might arise? Oh, there are so many possibilities!

Have fun with it.

If you write something prompted by this idea, please let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. With your permission, I’d love to publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Remember Me To The Bees – The River

The River cr Louise BoulterThe 19th story in my debut collection Remember Me To The Bees is The River. An earlier version was published by Gemini Magazine – actually it was one of my first published stories, and really encouraged me to keep writing.

The story enmeshes you in the world of a small girl for whom losing a pair of shoes in a river is at least as worrying as the concept of death.

The exquisite artwork at the top of this post is by Louise Boulter. The others are my own.

A short excerpt from The River

Phoebe sat on the bank and unfastened her patent leather shoes. She dipped her feet into the cold flow, giggling as mud oozed between her toes and small hidden things tickled her soles. Her shoes bobbed in the shallows like a pair of tiny dinghies.

The River near bank cr JDarleyTucking her skirt into her knickers, she slipped off the bank into the river, wading along with gentle waves lapping at her pale, freckled thighs. She heard a splash behind her as Alec joined her in the swirling water. Phoebe led the way, taking care to put each foot down gingerly to test the depth before putting her full weight onto it, just as Alec had shown her.

Alec knew everything there was to know about animals and nature. He pointed out a heron as it unfolded into the air from the bank, transforming from a motionless grey stick into a billowing sheet like a magic trick.

As they followed the river from one field into the next, Phoebe saw something caught in the reeds ahead: a few bright flowers tangling with something more solid. Intrigued, she walked as fast as the water allowed, but as she neared it a small paw was loosened by the current and swung out. She stepped back in surprise and almost fell.

“What is it?” she asked. “An animal?”

Alec picked up a branch and prodded the small corpse, turning it so that a neat whiskery face was revealed: shining, vacant eyes and a pair of astonishingly long ears. A dark red mass glistened where the fur of the stomach should have been.

“A hare,” Alec said. “Killed by a fox, I reckon. Dying, dying, dead and it’s not coming back.”

“Really?” Phoebe asked, disconcerted. Dying was what Mum said was happening to Granny.

“Dead,” Alec repeated, sounding equally unsettled. He heaved himself out onto the riverbank. “Come on, out. That water’s disgusting. We’ll walk back along the lane. Where are your shoes?”

Phoebe gasped in horror, realising she’d left them floating amidst the weeds. Alec took her hand and they ran back to where they’d entered the river, but the shoes had disappeared, gone forever, as surely as the life of the hare.

The River far bank cr JDarley

Midweek writing prompt – another’s eyes

Bunol graffiti cr Judy DarleyThis week, i want you to consider the ‘write what you know’ adage, and turn it on it’s head. Make your protagonist someone as unalike you as possible.

Consider the scene above. I took that photo in Buñol, Valencia, on a particularly peaceful day, when not a single tomato waited to be thrown. The only life I saw there was a scattering of old folks dressed in black sitting together and chattering, observing the hours passing.

I challenge you to write about this graffiti from the viewpoint of one of these old people. Are they saddened, enraged or stirred in some other way? What does it remind them of from their own youth? How does it make them feel about the youth of their village today?

Alternatively, write it from the point of view of the young person who did it. What were they feeling? What motivated them? How did they feel afterwards? Scared? Proud? Ashamed?

And in your writing, don’t forget that Buñol is a very small village, which means that this old person and this young person almost certainly know each other, may even be related to one another. How does this heighten or soften their response?

If you write something prompted by this, please let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. With your permission, I’d love to publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Remember Me To The Bees – Flyleaf

Flyleaf cr Louise BoulterThe 18th story in my debut collection Remember Me To The Bees is Flyleaf. A few years ago I spent several months travelling up the west coast of America, pausing in Portland for a couple of weeks. While there I dipped in and out of one of my favourite ever bookshops – Powell’s City of Books.

As I had been travelling for a while I’d accumulated a few books which, now read, I couldn’t justify the space for. I needed that space for new books to read! Powell’s buy second-hand books, but didn’t want the ones I had, so quietly, when nobody was watching, I ‘rehomed’ those books on Powell’s shelves.

But what if somebody had seen? What would they have thought of my actions? The thought amused me afterwards, and became the initial seed for this story.

The artwork is by Louise Boulter.

A short excerpt from Flyleaf

She glances around furtively, guiltily, stuffs the book onto the shelf, and flits away. The reverse of stealing: surreptitious gifting?

I follow her at a distance, looking at the shelves she has been adding to, and find I can’t tell which books she has inserted. It seems that whichever volumes were retrieved from her bag have been placed in exactly the space for which they were intended.

Then I reach one where there was clearly no gap to fill, and see a book resting atop of the others, the same title and author, but not yet catalogued by Powell’s – an outsider in their midst. I pick it up, rifle gently through its pages, look- ing for… what? A note? A stray hair? A clue. I even raise it to my nose and quietly inhale, but it smells only of paper, perhaps of dust; pleasing smells but certainly not telling. The book itself is perhaps the one clue: Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’. And scribbled onto the flyleaf: To Mara. Hope the journey is every bit as much of an adventure as the destination. Love N.

So now I have the woman’s name. The book is well-thumbed, presumably well-read, or possibly just worn out with being shoved into the bottom of a backpack. But why abandon a book that evidently meant so much to her?

She’s leaving the bookshop. I follow as fast as I can without visibly chasing her. I try to appear aloof, perhaps even a little self-obsessed, trying to maintain the persona I assumed on leaving the gym earlier this morning.

Midweek writing prompt – history speaks

Leslie SkinnerThis week I received a really moving press release that got me think about how the past can influence works of poetry and prose. It included this handsome image of Captain Leslie Skinner, an army chaplain who landed on the coast of Normandy on the morning of 6 June 1944 with the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry tank regiment. It also included the following snippet from his diary.

Up 0500 hours; cold, wet, sea rough. This is it. Running for beach by 0700. Under fire by 0710. Beached 0725. Man either side of me wounded. One lost leg. I was blown backwards onto Bren Carrier but OK. Made it to beach, though I had hell of pain in left side. Bed on ground about 0130. Dead beat. Fell asleep beside half-track.

It’s an extraordinary glimpse of history, and definitely something that could sow the seed of a powerful piece of writing, especially as the 70th anniversary of D-Day – 6th June – nears.

As part of the commemorations of D-Day, IWM Duxford, Britain’s best-preserved Second World War airfield, will be sharing Captain Skinner’s experience of being one of the first chaplains to make it ashore on D-Day, using his vividly written diary extracts. Why not let his words provide the starting point for yours?

If you write something prompted by this, please let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. With your permission, I’d love to publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Remember Me To The Bees – Drops of Wax

Drops of Wax cr Louise BoulterThe 17th story in my debut collection Remember Me To The Bees is Drops of Wax. I wrote it while visiting Cyprus with my family, thinking about how powerfully location can match or contrast with our emotions, and how a single moment can change everything in your life.

The artwork is by Louise Boulter.

A short excerpt from Drops of Wax

At the nearby tavern I order a strong shot of Cypriot coffee, no sugar. The shock of bitter caffeine helps to keep me in place, preventing me drifting inwards to replay that night again and again.

To the left of the harbour, rock pools glint. Michael loved rock pools. I remember him hunting for hours beneath sea- weed fronds for crabs and small quicksilver fish.

I pay for my coffee and skitter down the road to the pools, pretending Michael is skipping along beside me. I even imagine his voice, nattering away about some sea beastie he intends to hunt down and capture with his small blue net. But the rock pools, when I reach them, are oddly still. No seaweed wafts in this salt water; no crabs scuttle for shelter as my foot descends. It’s like stepping into a warm bath.

I wade in the water, disconcerted by the jagged volcanic rocks surrounding them. Nothing seems to live here at all.

“Karen? How are you?”

I turn and see Nola, Gigi by her side wearing a pink swim- suit and a pair of jelly shoes. They both beam at me.

“Nola,” I manage. “Kalimera, good morning.”
“Oh, you speak Greek.”
“Just a few words.” I’m self-conscious suddenly. “What are you doing here?”

“Gigi likes to look for crabs. They don’t live in the pools though – we find them in the sea, where it is cooler.” She says something to Gigi who holds out a small plastic bucket to me. Several miniscule white shells lie inside, spiralled into sharp points. The child picks one up, showing me the thin spiky legs that poke out. Look, I want to say, Look at that, Michael.

“Lovely,” I say, and Nola laughs.
“I think they’re horrid,” she says. “More like, what is the word? In Spain we call them araña. Oh yes, spider. I think these are more like spider than crab.”
“Spain?” I ask. “You’re on holiday here?”
“Georgios, my husband, is Greek Cypriot. Gigi and I just flew back from visiting my family in Madrid.”
The word husband makes me swallow hard. “You must miss your family when you’re here.”
“And I miss my husband when I’m there,” she shrugs, accepting the situation with a matter-of-factness I crave.

St Georges rock pools cr Judy Darley

Midweek writing prompt – an intrusion

Lake, Madeira cr judy DarleyImagine this – it’s a hot, beautiful day. Your protagonist has a day of tranquil indolence planned, and sneaks to the grounds of an abandoned stately home where they know there is an ornamental lake just perfect for whiling away a few quiet hours in.

But when they arrive they discover that someone else is already there.

Who is this person? Are they allowed to be there, or are they trespassing like your protagonist? Does your protagonist dare approach them, or do they simply hide in the shadows and watch?

What happens next?

If you write something prompted by this idea, I’d love to know. Just send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. With your permission, I’d love to publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Lake and waterfall, Madeira cr judy Darley

Hiding out in Bloom & Curll

Bloom and Curll interior cr Judy Darley

Independent bookshops seem few and far between these days, but if you know where to look and what to look for, you’ll discover they’re far from extinct.One of the finest I know totters on a sweep of road just above Bristol’s Christmas Steps. Currently sans signage, it’s easy to spot thanks to the heaps of books piled inside and out.

This is Bloom & Curll, owned and run by Jason, though occasionally ‘babysat’ by his mum (her words). What a treasure trove this is. Modern classics nestle alongside works be emerging local authors, shiny new volumes next to previously own and beloved texts.

Lanterns hang from the ceiling, toy trains sit ready on tracks (in the adult department, no less), and clocks show a random assortment of times, as though to remind you that inside this shop the only times that truly exist are those mentioned in the passages of the books.

And should you need sustenance to fuel you through your literary treasure hunt, there’s almost always a plate of Jaffa cakes near the till.

My short story collection Remember Me To The Bees recently took up residence at Bloom & Curll, and I find myself both proud, and a little jealous that it gets to spend its days there, waiting to be discovered by some reader seeking a few short stories to transport them in the way Bloom & Curll does me.

Bloom & Curll, 74 Colston Street, BS1 5BB Bristol, United Kingdom.

Remember Me To The Bees at Bloom and Curll