Categories for Writing

November 12, 2015

What the author meant – a rant.  

This meme has been doing the rounds on Facebook again. There seem to be a never ending stream of people who like and agree with it, and every time I go argue. It keeps me out of the Guardian comments…



There are so many different ways in which this is wrong.

Indulge me.

First, it suggests that teachers are rubbish and know nothing of the “real world” – because that’s what this is fundamentally about. It’s an argument about the nature of reality, and who gets to define it. Now me, I’m not particularly authoritarian (pun not intended) and I like to rebel more than the next person. But just as a teacher doesn’t get to define reality for me, neither does a writer. I would prefer to engage with both before coming to my own conclusion. Which may change at any point in the future….

Second, teachers and writers are not always mutually exclusive groups.  I expect quite a high proportion of English teachers – and these are the targets of this simplistic, reductionist, ill thought out meme – also do a bit of writing.

I’m going to lose count at some point, so I’ll give up here.

If you’re reading a story and the curtains are mentioned, I’m just guessing – but if we’re beyond Ladybird books and Janet and John, there’s some meaningful thematic reason for the damn curtains to be mentioned.

Anyone who’s ever tried to write a story knows description is hard. If you write too much of it, it slows the story down – and in the words of Elmore Leonard that becomes the bit that readers skip. If you’re otherwise offering them enough reason to keep reading and not fling the book across the room, that is.

If you don’t offer enough description then you fail to create a world in which the reader can lose themselves in the fictive dream. Your writing is too abstract and fails to engage the reader’s emotions.

So the writer has to select the details they choose to include very carefully.  They must be details which make the story come alive for the reader, they must be visual or sensory in some way. But if you waste a detail like the colour of the curtains to convey something only about the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum then you’ve wasted an opportunity. Perhaps you’ll get away with it in a hundred thousand word novel, but not in a short story, that’s for sure.

There’s another question this raises. Does the author always consciously know what their intention is when they describe the curtains.

I think you’ll know what I think. Sometimes I think we barely know what we consciously mean when we converse in our daily life. But I’ve certainly had the experience as a writer when I’ve re-read a piece where I’ve written better than I consciously knew.  (I’ve also had pieces of intended symbolism miss the mark completely and fall flat, of course.) But perhaps a text that is being discussed by a teacher is more likely to contain the former – symbolism which works.

And finally – for now, at least – reading is a collaborative process. As is all communication. We all bring our own experiences to it, and every reading, every instance of understanding – and misunderstanding – takes the work of more than one conscious mind.

Note I am not saying there’s no such thing as misunderstanding. Of course there is. Sometimes it is just mistaken, sometimes it is self-evidently wilful. However the point I am making is that there is nothing clear cut about these blue curtains.  They could be a pretty floral print that represent depression because they are drawn on a bright sunny day, failing to keep daylight at bay.  Or they could be a deep blue silk velvet that represent security and safety to a girl who grew up on a sink estate with grey nets and Woolworth’s finest.

But if they’re in a story, they’re not just curtains.



September 1, 2015

Writing, illness, escapism  

There’s a famous quote from Flannery O’ Connor that sometimes floats past in my facebook feed  –

“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.”

Wrong. That’s lupus. Possibly the only thing I have in common with Flannery O’Connor.

Writing a novel is a break from all that stuff. And most of the time writing, and reading, is one of the best ways to forget the aches and pains and the everyday restrictions of living with a chronic illness. In my imagination, on the page, I can sometimes almost live a different life.

Many people have suggested that I could write about being ill – not like this in a simple blog post, but incorporate it into a novel. I’m sure it would be possible, but mostly I just don’t want to. I can’t imagine a private investigator with lupus. Okay, she might be able to make a necessary supreme physical effort if she strays into a dangerous situation – but then the pace of the novel would suffer as she retires to her bed for three weeks after the lupus flares up and renders her immobile. Not only would it be boring to read, it would be boring and painful to write.

I’m not a fan of the school of positive thinking that claims everything is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. I try to find some positives – making the best of things is clearly the pragmatic approach. Being ill is not something I’ve chosen in any daft Law of Attraction sense. It’s not a way of running away from life’s difficulties. All these things have been suggested to me. It’s just that there aren’t many silver linings. I’ve had more time to read, that’s certainly one. I’ve also found people who’ve supported me while my life has been so constrained, and not only that but put up with me being irritible and sharp tongued. Having lupus hasn’t made me a nicer person.

I look back at the novels I loved as a child, and I realise now how misleading they are. In Little Women, sweet-natured Beth is the one who is ill and who dies of scarlet fever. Her suffering makes her a better person. In Heidi too – Clara is ill and all it takes to get her to walk again is fresh air, goat’s cheese and having her wheelchair pushed off the mountain. What Katy Did is perhaps the worst of the lot. Katy becomes ill because she is disobedient. It’s a punishment. Her Cousin Helen, an invalid, comes to stay and teaches her that illness is ennobling. There’s a spiritual lesson in it.


I know everyone’s life is constrained, and that in part I have a fantasy that if I’d been well everything I could have done, I would have done.

I would have loved to travel more, to see more places. Even stuck in the same place I would have loved to get out more and ramble over the hills here. That at least I can attempt, when I’m just a little bit better.

Reading, and writing – these two activities save me from going mad with frustration. At my worst, I can make imaginary journeys through the words of so many writers. Sometimes I can even create my own escape route from reality.

To quote Neil Gaiman

“People talk about escapism as if it’s a bad thing… Once you’ve escaped, once you come back, the world is not the same as when you left it. You come back to it with skills, weapons, knowledge you didn’t have before. Then you are better equipped to deal with your current reality.”

Perhaps there’s something in that, although the examples of illness in fiction haven’t managed to turn me into Pollyanna.

But at least for a while I have escaped.