Monday, 23 April 2012

The Swimmer - The Old Stile Press

Almost two years ago I wrote my first short story.

I'd begun plenty of stories before, but when the going got tough, I'd always abandoned them - I was unable to close my editorial eye long enough to finish an imperfect beginning. And of course most beginnings are imperfect. They need work, revision - but only once you've reached the end.

This was the first one I'd seen all the way through to its conclusion, and it was a  scary process. I had to force myself keep going, to refuse to let myself put it aside and start another.

So when I finished I was ecstatic - but I'd no idea if the story was any good. I was far too close to it and the process of writing it.

I showed it to Susan Wicks, who's almost entirely responsible for me coming to believe that I can write fiction. She read it and suggested strongly (that's about as strong as Sue gets) that I send it out. So I did, and it was rejected. She suggested I try again, and Michael Hulse at The Warwick Review published it, in the December 2010 issue. I was overwhelmed - I'd been a jobbing writer for years, but writing fiction was something else. It matters too much to get wrong, but Michael's approval meant I could turn away from my decades of self-imposed fictional  silence.

'The Swimmer', that first story, is about a woman addressing her fear of going down to the river that she watches every day, of stripping off and slipping into the water.

It's not about me - though me and the river in the story have a long history - but maybe me and the woman were in some way addressing our fears together.

I couldn't have predicted what happened next - Nicholas Royle at Salt chose 'The Swimmer' for The Best British Short Stories 2011, where it sat alongside writing gods like David Rose, Hilary Mantel and Michele Roberts.

I almost froze at this point - could I ever write another story people liked as much? But I got writing again, and more of my stories were published.

I told my friend Steffi Pusch about 'The Swimmer' - she's a photographer who takes fabulously instinctive pictures - and we wondered if we could make a book together, blending my words and her pictures. I showed Steffi the place on the Medway where I'd set the story, and she spent sunny days down there creating images that capture perfectly the heat and intensity of the story.

We started to look for a printer - we both love letterpress - and each came across The Old Stile Press, who make utterly beautiful hand printed books. I didn't think they'd be interested, because they're publishers rather than printers, but Steffi was optimistic and wrote to Nicolas and Frances McDowell, describing our joint work.

To our amazement they wanted to publish our book, and last week they received the first bound copy - that's their photo of it at the top of this entry. Doesn't it look gorgeous? I haven't received mine yet, but I couldn't wait to celebrate its publication here.

Nicolas and Frances have written a lovely blog entry about the book at The Old Stile Press Blog with more pictures, showing off Steffi's photos and the fabulous typography.

Thank you Steffi, Nicolas and Frances - and Michael and Nicholas - for backing my first short story!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Finding time to write

I skimmed a piece about The Golden Notebook in the Guardian Review over breakfast this morning - I've never finished the GN, despite being told by many people I should, so I was quite glad to see that Diana Athill at least also found it hard going.

Anyway, the bit that made me grit my teeth was where yet again I read that there's no excuse not to write - in particular that children aren't an excuse. How many times have I felt admonished by other writers to stop making excuses and get down to writing?

You have children? Pah! Ignore them!Write at midnight! Find a partner who'll look after them!

You have a job? Write at 5am before you leave!Or give up work and starve - but you'll be able to write all day!

One of the benefits of being a bit older is that I don't feel I have to listen to this rubbish.When I read profiles of writers who gave everything up - or who forced their families to give everything up - so that they could do nothing but write, I'm not envious.

I like being part of a family. I also like my work , and it pays the bills.

The problem is that I also love to write - it's what wakes me in the middle of the night, it's what has me talking to myself as I walk the fields, telling and re-telling stories and finding the words, it's what makes me impatient for everyone to leave the house on a writing day so that I can have space and silence. Writing defines me.

So how to find time to write? Midnight's out - years of ME taught me it's not sustainable. Instead I award myself writing days - I block them out in my work and family calendars and guard them jealously. Of course I write at other times too - a couple of hours one morning if work's not urgent, an hour after dinner if I really want to finish something. But I hate the bittiness of that.

Writing days are where all the steam I've built up through a week or two of not writing - or at least of not writing stories, as I'll have been writing copy and features - it's where all of it comes out. And though no one could call my writing domestic, the time I spend with my family and my friends feeds into my writing. I'm hearing rhythms, seeing strange juxtapositions, wondering why, or what if. And after many years of forgetting it, nowadays I do always carry a notebook and everything goes in there.

It works well for me, although I have had to learn to be patient. I've discovered that when I've finished a story, even if it's short, only a couple of thousand words, I need a break. Even if I had another week free, and a brilliant idea for the next story, I couldn't start it straight away - I need the old story to seep out of my mind, and the new one to sidle in slowly, while I explore its possibilities.

I did try earlier this year to be more productive - after all, in my professional life I often have to produce copy day after day for different clients, in various voices, telling a new story each time. So surely I can do the same with my short stories?

Well no, I can't. I can churn short stories out, and they're not bad, but they're not good enough.

So I'm going to stick to my pressure cooker style of writing - and while the pressure builds up, I'm going to spend some time with my family. Sod Doris Lessing.