This afternoon was glum and rainy as Storm Barbara rattled across Cumbria, so Dora and I made a film starring her toys. The idea was hers. I helped with the technical stuff and a little narrative guidance here and there.
It was the best way to spend a rainy afternoon that I know. Being with Dora, and seeing her play, seeing her imagination expand and explode and take flight — that’s something truly humbling. Human imagination is a ferocious engine, and to witness it in children is to see it pure and whole, before the hooks of self-consciousness and adulthood begin to pluck and nip and pull it down. Picasso was right — every child is born an artist, and the challenge is to remain so.
As anyone who’s met her already knows, Dora is a challenging girl. We’ve never known anyone like her. She is hot-headed and obstinate and fierce and contrary and rude, and there are times when she drives us up the fucking wall. She is also clever, funny, wildly inventive and capable of staggering compassion, and we adore every fragment of her wild and fizzy heart. She lives as much in a daydream as the real world. As her parents, we’ve decided that our job is getting her to adulthood with as much of that intact as possible. At the moment, she’s an artist. The challenge is to keep her so.
In the nine years since I started writing fiction, I have completed three novels and a novella. All of them have been written in the first person, and needed me to immerse myself entirely in another character, another world; and so I’ve been a veteran of WW2, flitting between London and Burma; a 17-year-old girl, desperate to escape her Scottish island; an arthritic fisherman walking across Morecambe Bay; and a fortune-teller seeking herself in a world of swamps. My stories are becoming steadily more fantastical. They’re taking me further from myself. That’s fine in terms of what I want to write about, but it also makes it harder to come back. My friend Ali Shaw once compared writing to being underwater, and I think that’s right; the deeper you go, the further you get from the surface.
After finishing each of these four stories, I’ve experienced a few weeks of manic creativity, cartwheeling through handfuls of shorter pieces. Most recently, on wrapping up a first draft of The Hollows, I redrafted and typeset Dare in a week. But then, after these bursts, I’ve always fallen into something of a slump, and that’s where I am now, casting about for what to do, suddenly convinced that all those months of work are worthless.
I’ve talked before about how I write to drown. Over time, that immersion—especially in something as big as a novel—becomes total, until it’s the real world that becomes disorientating. I’m so fortunate to have in Mon someone who understands that stories leave me stoned; she helps me find my way. But returning to the real world feels odd. I’m struggling to get excited about things I should be excited about. I’m distracted and quick to gloom. I suspect that almost all creative work is built on a measure of doubt, and right now that’s all I have, needling and nagging all the time: what if it’s garbage? All of it? Everything I’ve done? The last year was wasted work. What if this year is too? How would I start again?
I would start again, because I have to. But the further I get from The Hollows—and it’s vital, I know, to get some perspective, to put distance between me and it before I go back to redraft—the more that doubt creeps in. Almost everyone I know, and certainly all the writers and artists, struggle with doubt. Carving out and sharing these inside parts of your head is an excruciation. I couldn’t write without that doubt; it keeps me lean, questioning, pushing myself to do better, to be better. Doubt is the compass of when I’m not good enough; and so to cut, rewrite, cut, rewrite, cut. But here’s the crux: when I’m not writing, not working on a story, that doubt—the same doubt I need to write in the first place—has nothing to gnaw on but me. It bites harder than ever after spending so long in another world, and then leaving it behind. That’s the Slump.
So quit wallowing and start something new, right? It’s not so simple. I have several ideas lined up for what I’ll do next, and I’m 2,000 words into my first proper short story in over a year. But from a pragmatic point of view, it’s senseless to start another big project before I’ve polished off the last, and every redraft is distinct and demanding. The Slump goes beyond that anyway. It’s a spiritual anticlimax. It’s hitting a wall after running a marathon. It’s a burn out, an exhaustion of ideas. I don’t really know how to get myself out of the Slump, other than to take heart from the knowledge that I always have before. This morning I played hide and seek with Dora. That helped. This afternoon I’m going back to my short story. That may help too.
Half-a-dozen people have now read The Hollows. They’ve all enjoyed it, I think, and they have all suggested a few things that don’t quite work; thankfully, these things have pretty much been the same for all of them, and they also tie into my own sense of the story, now I’m getting some distance from it. Redrafting would be impossible without that sense of triangulation, which is, in turn, why writing needs community. I’m gearing myself up for potential edits, but I’m not there yet. I think I’ll be ready by the time this slump comes to an end; or perhaps the slump comes to an end because I’m ready. It’s coming closer, but it’s not here yet.
Writing is doubt. Writing is perspective. Passion. Immersion. Empathy—books are empathy machines. Writing is the witch in your kitchen in the corner of your eye. If you spin to look at her directly, she’s gone. Writing is a sideways mirror. Writing is accidents of words, like wind chimes are accidents of music. I don’t know what else to do but play on through it.
Last night, I had the second of three gigs this week, supporting Joan Shelley at Penrith’s Old Fire Station for Eden Arts and New Writing Cumbria. I rattled through new stories, Marrow stories and selkie stories from The Visitors. I think it went OK. I always misplace my critical faculties while reading. I simply have no sense of how it’s gone across, whether people have liked it, hated it, how long I was reading for – nothing. But I think, I hope, it went well. Here’s the space and me wittering on about something:
The headline act was just fantastic. Joan Shelley’s low-key, heart-rending folk and country songs were absolutely wonderful, at once crystalline and compelling, delicate and beautifully raw. She was joined by multi-instrumentalist Colm O’Herlihy for a few pieces, bringing new depths into the sound. Banjos and guitars, foot taps, a box of harmonic tones. It was mesmerising.
Have a listen here:
It was an honour and a privilege to share a stage with Joan and Colm, as well as a reminder to keep striving, to keep aiming high.
We drove to Penrith in dusk. On the way past Shap, we passed right beneath a gigantic murmuration of starlings – perhaps the biggest I’ve seen firsthand – curving and ballooning in twilight, speckles of black against the blue. We drove back beneath a full moon, trees silhouetted against the night, clouds above in grey and silver, an ocean lapping at the shores of the horizon. The mornings are beginning to bloom.
Dora has a lot of favourite books. We try to keep them on her own wee bookshelf in her room, but as the days and weeks roll on after a big tidy-up, they inevitably gather in a strata by her bed. That teetering stack becomes an archaeology of her favourites. There are all sorts in there, but some books are never far from the top. Where The Wild Things Are. The Gruffalo, Zog, Room On The Broom. We’re Going On a Bear Hunt. The absolutely terrifying Tailypo. Mrs Gaddy & The Ghost. I Want My Hat Back.
Dora’s current favourite is called The Sea Tiger. We spotted it in Waterstones while we were in Scotland last month, and we couldn’t resist. It’s a extraordinarily beautiful book:
The Sea Tiger is Oscar’s best friend – his only friend. They do everything together. Where the Sea Tiger leads, Oscar follows. They explore, they have adventures, until a point comes where Oscar needs the strength to go alone. It’s a book about being brave.
To celebrate World Book Week, all the children at nursery were asked to bring in their favourite story. Dora chose The Sea Tiger without hesitation. We packed her off for the day, lunchbox and wellies, slippers and book. I didn’t think another thing of it until I came home that night.
‘Did everyone at nursery like The Sea Tiger?’
Dora thought about it, then remembered. Her face clouded over. ‘No. It’s a silly book.’
I was astonished. ‘What? Did someone not like it?’
‘They thought it was silly,’ she said, face scrunched into a frown.
I was dumbstruck. She was repulsed by her favourite book. Why would other kids have disliked it? Too weird? Too odd? Too magical? Compared to what? All the books she loves are weird and odd and magical. Children are weird and odd and magical. All that anarchy, that chaos, exploring and categorising this insane planet for the first time.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. I’ve been absolutely shaken by my daughter’s first true experience of shame. She was ashamed, ashamed of something that she loved. That’s heartbreaking. Three years old, and another step on the long path to adulthood checked off the list.
I read The Sea Tiger again, to myself. It is everything a children’s book should be. Surreal, wild, enchanting, transporting. It’s a book about imagination and courage. It’s a book about finding your own way. I thought of Robin Williams and that little spark of madness we mustn’t lose. I thought about what I write, why I write, seeking out those kernels of magic and madness and paying them whatever meagre tribute I can muster.
Dora wouldn’t even look at the book last night, but this morning I read it to myself until she came to join me. She was as entranced as ever, thrilled and enchanted by Oscar and the tiger and their undersea adventures. That helped, but I feel very much like it was a finger in the dyke, plugging up an overwhelming inundation of the ordinary, the acceptable, the normal. I hope Dora clings to her spark of madness. I hope she never lets it go. For her next years of play, of princesses and pirates, of dinosaurs and monsters and treasure and kittens, it’s up to Mon and I to nourish it, to feed it, to fuel the fires of her imagination. That is our role as parents: curators, not makers. But then will come the homework, the tests, the clothes, the friends and the not-friends anymore, Dad, the cycles of approval and rejection. When she leaves us, she’ll have to feed her own fires.
I know all this is melodramatic. I have always tended towards extremes, especially in my words, but that’s who I am. I hope we can give Dora both the space and the guidance to be whoever she is. And I hope, with every fibre of my soul, that she stays more a tiger than a princess.
This year has been both breathtakingly excellent and occasionally extraordinarily hard. I’m focusing on the good stuff though, because we’re all spinning through the mind-boggling vastness of space on a giant oxygen machine and really, when you think about it, where’s the sense in dwelling on the rough?
So here we go; in no particular order:
1. The Visitors being published
The culmination of two years’ work and the start of an awful lot more to come; in June, the wonderful folks at Quercus Books were kind enough to publish The Visitors. I wrote about the publication here, and it kept on running. Somehow, people keep enjoying it. I’ve summed up the reviews here, and there are reviews from actual real life readers on Goodreads and You-Know-Where. Writing was hard, editing was very hard, and now it’s out there in the wild – it doesn’t need me any more, if it ever did. I haven’t really come to terms with the book being published, other than it makes me scared, humble and really, really happy. Writing is all I want to do, but sometimes every step feels like the first step.
2. The Hollows
In the twelve months – to the day, madly – since I started, I’ve probably written about half The Hollows. Unfortunately, for reasons like this and especially this, I’ve had to cut gigantic chunks of it; so much, in fact, that I’ll basically have to start again next year, and crib the pieces I can still use from the manuscript. This would be a very bad thing, were it not for how excited I am about those pieces that are left. It’s been bruising, definitely, but the process is now beginning to tip me in positive directions I probably wouldn’t have gone by myself, and that’s terrific.
3. Flashtag short short story slam
Over the last two years, I’ve been trying to read more of my work aloud; I pushed myself further this year by entering a story slam in Manchester. I memorised my three stories so I could concentrate on performing them, rather than reading them, and I was lucky enough to win. That was great, and I was delighted, but what really blew my mind was the culture of live literature I witnessed in Manchester. It’s raw, it’s funny, it’s friendly, it’s immediate. It’s everything short stories and poetry and flash fiction should be about, and it completely affirmed the value of storytelling as an act of community. Stories are a thousand things, and one of those things is churches.
Way back in February, I attended a clowning workshop run by Belgian storytelling maestro Fred Versonnen. This is the best £25 I’ve ever spent, and it’s true to say that my life hasn’t been quite the same ever since. I see things differently now – I write differently now.
5. The Year Of The Whale
I started this novella more than five years ago. Getting it finished was a thrill – I surged through the final chapters, and I’m pleased with it. It still needs redrafting, but I’m not quite ready to get back into it. It’s waited five years – it can wait a little longer.
6. Marrow/Cerys Matthews reading Circle Stone
Finishing Marrow was another big deal in my writing year. I haven’t written as much flash fiction this year, because I’ve been mentally wasted from work, and that kinda gets in the way, but I did, finally, finish and self-publish a flash fiction collection called Marrow. Of the hundred I printed, I have about twenty copies left, and people seem to like it, which is a source of constant wonder. I wrote about my decision to self publish here. I sent a copy to the excellent Cerys Matthews, and because she’s absolutely awesome, she read out one of the stories on her BBC6 Music show. This is, and will always be, the coolest thing that ever happened to me.
7. Gruff Rhys at Kendal Library
Gig of the year, hands-down. I wrote about it here, but in summary, Gruff was majestic, wise and funny.
One of my favourite ever holidays. A week of sunshine, warm evenings, seashores, swimming and the boundless comedy available on tap from my daughter Dora. We had a fantastic time: ruins, eagles, Mythos and pizza. I love holidays because I’m with my favourite people, I get to read a lot, and I get to think a lot. It went like this.
It’s been another good year for my friends. Iain Maloney published First Time Solo, his excellent debut novel, with Freight Books; also with Freight, Anneliese Mackintosh’s debut novel/story collection/autobiography Any Other Mouth was released to stupendous acclaim, going on to win the Green Carnation Prize; Salt published one of my books of the year, The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan; Kirstin Innes landed an agent and then a publishing deal for her debut novel Fishnet; and I was lucky enough to read a draft of Ali Shaw’s new novel, The Trees, which is simply scintillating. I’m delighted that Bloomsbury are going to publish it, because Ali is a wonderful human being, an outstanding writer and a great friend.
10. Getting married
Just amazing. We did damn near all of it ourselves, and when I say ‘us’, I mean that I did 10% after I’d finished work, and my tireless, hilarious, wonderful, perfect new wife Mon did the rest. It was a lot of work to pull it all together, but we basically hosted a mini-festival in a back garden with a marquee, a stage, a band, a PA, scores of hay bales, lighting and decoration. We then partied till the following morning with our wonderful friends. My brother gave what was widely considered to be the best best man’s speech anyone had heard, and local legends Seven Seals played their very finest. It was phenomenal. What a day – a thousand thanks to everyone who brought it all together.
Mon is my everything, and I’m beyond proud to call her my wife.
So there we go. It’s been a good one, despite the harder stuff. Some of the things that have knocked me hard – like the Hollows, like the Scottish independence referendum – will come around again, and next time we will get them right. And other things – like working too hard – will change, because they have to.
Dora’s gone to bed. This is the first year she’s been old enough to really understand what’s going on. We helped her write a letter to Santa, which she signed herself, then made sure to leave a whiskey for Santa. (Jura, in case you’re asking. Santa’s quite particular about that.) I read her Where The Wild Things Are, and we roared our terrible roars, and gnashed our terrible teeth, and she asked me what the words mean: “…and …it …was …still …hot.”
These are the moments we’re working for.
Happy Christmas, folks.
A very worthy work was published last week, and I wanted to take a moment to shout about it. In The Empty Places is an anthology of art and short stories published by the Bantuan Coffee Foundation, an amazing organisation that provides shelter and education for victims of child prostitution and trafficking in Indonesia. It’s a fantastic cause delivering real, practical solutions on the ground, and I’m honoured that they considered some of my work for the anthology. The editors accepted a short story about the Chinese cocklers that drowned in Morecambe Bay in 2001. I lived in Lancaster at the time, only a few miles away, and I never managed to shake off a sense of uncaring tragedy; relentless winter skies, the media circus, the restaurant owners protesting their innocence.
My piece is in the extraordinary company of writers including Toni Davidson, Rodge Glass, Tendai Huchu, Kirsty Logan, Anneliese Mackintosh, Iain Maloney, Suhayl Saadi and Chiew-Siah Tei. Some of these stories are appearing in translation for the first time. The book also includes artwork by Tomi Muller, Mayra Martins Redin and my wife, Monica Metsers.
In The Empty Places is helping to provide real solutions and real escapes for children who have been forced into prostitution. If you’d like to help too, then follow this link for a copy of the book; there are far worse ways to spend your money this Christmas.