T + 802 Writers' Toolkit Part 6 The Writer's Smoking Jacket

Posted by raetsel at Saturday, November 27, 2010

For the final plenary session of the day we all filed back into the slightly chilly main auditorium to hear an address from the novelist Graham Joyce entitled The Writer's Smoking Jacket.

The Writer's Smoking Jacket

Graham Joyce began his talk by holding up a paperback book and saying "This is a Tardis. It is bigger on the inside that it is on the outside and it can transport you in time and space." Which is a brilliant metaphor for a book. However, he intoned that in this time of the digital age writers must face up or fossilise . "They have invented a better Tardis".

He then, in a similar vein to how Jim Crace had started the day, explained how he grew up in a mining village near Coventry and after taking himself off to a greek island for twelve months he returned to the UK with a deal for his first novel. Before that he too, like Crace, had a romantic image of a writer as someone who wore a brocade smoking jacket, ate kedgeree for breakfast and smoked cheroots.

The reality he had found was that smoking jackets look ridiculous, cheroots keep going out and kedgeree tastes bloody awful.

As a result of his upbringing he used a lot of industrial metaphors in his writing and so he said he had seen a lot of changes from his twenty years in the "word mines". To understand the effect of these changes on the modern writer Joyce began with a little history lesson. He said the book industry had always been afraid of change. Initially books were hugely expensive hand produced, illuminated manuscripts available only to the rich and powerful. With the Gutenberg printing process this changed and there was an explosion in writing and the dissemination of knowledge.

Then came the rise of the middleman, the publisher. The printer once the be all and end all of books became just the producer of the item itself. The publisher handled the distribution to the market, this in turn gave rise to the marketing department and that led to Katie Price.

However the important thing about writing and books has always been the value of the content not the technology used to produce or distribute it. Amazon say that this Christmas the split between kindle editions and printed books will be 50/50 and that only includes the paid for books not the many free ones that are available, but in ten years time the kindle device will be like the old VHS cassette, the content will have moved on to a new platform.

Whether you write plays, poems or novels, Joyce said, it didn't matter. If you could have success in one medium then you could have success in another. Here he defined success as the capacity to sell work but only for its ability to "buy time for more writing" echoing the phrase used by Helen Cross earlier.

Therefore in this digital age Joyce said it was important for a writer to have a number of micro-streams of income and be active in at least three or four of them all the time. He then went on to list ten such streams.

  • The Tradition Advance : He mentioned this first in a sense to get it out of the way. Once the main way a writer made a living, advances are falling with close to a 25% drop over the last few years. However Young Adult writing was a burgeoning market, partly he felt because a lot of disenfranchised adults were also reading these books. He said he had been motivated to try YA writing after a senior literary figure had been very dismissive when asked if he would ever write for YA. At this point Joyce did a very good impression of said literary figure who had better remain nameless.

  • Digital Publishing : Put your own work out there for paid download. Make the publisher redundant. The publishers' reaction to the digital download was still being worked out. The author's cut of the cover price was about 10% for a hardback and 6% for a paperback, but with 50% of the price of a book going to bookseller, who was cut out by the digital download, what had the industry come up with to offer an author for the ebook rights? 25% How did they get that figure? Especially when Amazon, despite their many faults, claimed to be able to offer a digital author a 70% take.

  • Spoken Word Events : The success of poetry slams was now being followed up by book slams where a paying audience is only too ready to attend an evening of readings and music.

  • Teaching : Writing workshops, course development and direct class teaching were all valuable sources of income for a professional writer. There was an odd approach by many writers to the idea of teaching. Claims are made that it can't or shouldn't be done as it would just turn out writing clones. This idea seemed preposterous to Joyce who drew a direct parallel with the music industry. No one would dream of saying you can't or shouldn't teach music to people. Not everyone wants to be the next Beatles or Oasis but that didn't mean they couldn't enjoy creating their own music and so it should be with writing.
  • Lectures & Speaking Engagements : At this point Graham Joyce turned to Jonathan Davidson, chair of the conference and said "I am being paid for this, aren't I?" Receiving an affirmative nod he explained it was important to practise what he preached. If you are able to speak well publically ( as Joyce certainly could ) then the after dinner circuit could also prove a useful source of income. He recommended wearing a brocade smoking jacket to engagements just to keep the image up.
  • Non-fiction : Many of the skills for writing fiction are very transferable to non-fiction. He himself had ended up writing a memoir about his love of cricket after playing a match for a Writers XI.
  • Screen Development : Though many projects never got as far as the screen, it was much easier to get development project money. Hollywood is rarely short of ideas for films but they are short of narrative.
  • Online Drama : Here the writer can even get involved with the directing and producing or leave that to others but this is a coming medium. The online drama KateModern that "aired" on the social networking site Bebo had received over 66 million hits in the year it ran. Once again it's narrative that is at the core of the success.

  • Games Writing : In the last year the games industry was worth more than films and music added together. The problem was that games were starting to seem more and more similar. What differentiated them now was the story behind the game play. The narrative is what kept players wanting to come back to the game. He had worked on the story for the fourth incarnation of the Doom series of games.
  • Find your own : He had said he had ten streams, in fact he only named nine but challenged the audience, "you are creative people. Go and find your own tenth stream."

In summing up Joyce said the reason to diversify was not just financial it was also so "they can't break your heart." Even for an established writer rejection still hurt, he had known it to actually bring on physical illness in some people. So why "hand your heart to one person." Use the medicine of optimism that comes from knowing you don't have just one outlet.

These streams gave you the chance to maintain your independence. He saw a future where editors and agents were still vital friends on the writers' path. As for publishers well, why join others on their road? Put your shoulder to the wheel on your own path and let them come and help you if they want to.

His final words were that there would always be a place for story. "As writers we take nothing from the Earth. We take everything from the Sky."

This was an excellent end to a really enjoyable day which was neatly bookended by the opening and closing addresses from Jim Crace and Graham Joyce. The consistent messages of the day were the importance of narrative to society and the need for writers to always be on the look out for ways to tell a story.


Having been involved with running a couple of community conferences and events I know how much hard work goes in to setting them up and running them on the day. This was an extremely well run and enjoyable conference that must have taken a lot of work to put on.

There is a well worn image of a swan seeming to glide majestically across a lake whilst under the water two big ugly yellow feet are paddling like mad. So to all the big ugly yellow feet of The Writers' Toolkit 2010, I say "Thank you". ( A back handed compliment if ever there was one).

T + 801 Writers' Toolkit Part 5

Posted by raetsel at Friday, November 26, 2010

The last seminar session I attended before the closing address from Graham Joyce was one of the sessions that had been held on the same topic earlier in the day but this time it was with a different panel.

Real Writing Lives – 2

Writers sustain their creative careers in different way. Our Real Writing Lives panel sessions give you an opportunity to hear established writers talk about the reality of their writing lives.

Brenda Read-Brown: writer
Helen Cross: writer
Naylad Ahmed: writer, former Development Producer: BBC Radio
Ceri Gorton (Chair): Relationship Manager, Literature: Arts Council England, West Midlands

In this session the three panelists spoke about the experience of being a full time writer and what that really means in terms of earning a living and how much time is actually spent writing.

Helen said she had been a full time writer for 12 years and to some extent she will do any sort of writing that pays. She had written articles and reviews when asked and also done writing workshops and worked in schools.

She did however temper that "if you pay me I'll write it" approach by saying that as primarily a novelist who therefore needed to spend long periods of concentrated time on a book she sometimes had to turn work down. She expressed her attitude to these pieces of work outside the current main project of her latest novel as being the necessary way to "buy time for writing". She also tried to find paid work that would feed in to her writing. For example having worked in schools it helped her when writing a twelve year old protagonist in one of her works.

Naylad started by outlining her writing career which began with having a poem publish in a book as a child and continued through to the point where as a teen she would compose award acceptance speeches in the bath. At university she took some modules in creative writing and ended up as a BBC Radio Development producer but then took redundancy and became a full time writer.

She spoke about her writing for radio and commissions for new writing from the Birmingham Rep theatre. She felt it was important to be able to write in a number of media from short fiction and novels through to radio, theatre and screen plays. Any medium could be the right one to tell a particular story.

When it came to fitting in writing round other demands on her time, be that work or family commitments she said it seemed that she did some of her best work when she had the most other demands on her time and some stories "just have to come out."

Brenda's initial talk focussed on the theme of "seven plus or minus two" which related to the number of active projects and work engagements she had on at anyone time and also applied to the number of days per week she worked. ( A nine day week must be hard).

As well as being involved in working for various festivals she had also worked as a writer in residence at a number of sites and done lots of projects where it was about helping other people find their words through writing workshops. Much of the work was through being commissioned or approached by organisations for whom she had worked before. Along side all that she did her poetry writing and performance.

On some days she wondered if she should call herself a word smith rather than a writer but then she thought of the likes of T. S. Elliot and Philip Larkin who had "proper jobs" most of their lives and yet no-one would say they were not writers.

Brenda said one of the reasons she had so many projects on the go was because they were all temporary and short term so she needed to make sure there was always something in the pipeline. However she was always looking to fit in writing around these other activities like people do with full time jobs and even during the activities. When doing writing workshops she, herself, always completed any exercises she gave her students. As well as being good for the students to see the teacher still felt it important to practise she also was able to find new and surprising things when she completed the activities again.

Brenda said a professional writer, a bit like any self-employed person, had to develop skills aside from the craft of writing. It was important to get invoices in on time and to handle the publicity for your own work. (On that point when writing this blog and looking for links for the speakers I found it interesting that only Brenda had her own website and it came up in the first page of a Google searc,. For Helen I was only able to find her Bloomsbury bio page and for Naylad it was just the Writers' Toolkit reference. Maybe, as someone who lives on the Internet, I am biased but it seems to me Helen and Naylad are missing opportunities to get their voice more widely heard relatively easily).

It was clear that all three writers felt it was important to be able to work in different media not only as a way to maximise earning potential but to be able to find the best medium for the story you want to tell. Their final advice, and something that is commonly said to new writers, was that you had to love your writing and stay true to doing what you enjoy alongside whatever else it took to allow you to do it.

T + 799 Writers' Toolkit Part Four

Posted by raetsel at Wednesday, November 24, 2010

After a nice buffet lunch and chat with a couple of other delegates, during which I managed to give away 4 of my business cards (246 to go ), I attended the ante-penultimate seminar session of the day.

Writing and Science

Many scientists have been excellent writers, both about their subject and in other genres. Arguably science needs good writers and writing is a way into science. Discuss…

Prof Chris McCabe: Professor of Molecular Endocrinology:University of Birmingham
Prof David Morley: poet, ecologist, Professor of Creative Writing: University of Warwick
Philip Monks (Chair): writer, Board Member: Writing West Midlands

David Morley began by putting the whole two cultures debate in a nut shell. Whilst at school he had a passion for poetry and the hummaties but was also good at science and his teacher said he would have to make a choice. So it was that after a degree in Biology he became a cold water ecologist obtaining his PhD whilst working at a research station on Lake Windemere.

After eight years working as a professional scientist, with the massive cuts to funding in the 80s, he was made redundant. He also found it hard to as he called it "get back on the fast moving train of science." He was working at the edge of knowledge in a subject so even a few months out of the loop put him at a disadvantage.

During this time he turned back to look again at poetry and writing ( not that they had ever been totally out of his life ) and won a Eric Gregory Award for some of his work.

He know runs a very successful set of creative writing courses for science and engineering students at Warwick University and it was to this mixture of science and creative writing that he spoke.

He quoted a couple of examples of where at its best science was a process of imagination (such as the work of Crick and Watson for the structure of DNA or Niels Bohr and the structure of the atom). Science had much in common with the practice of creative writing and poetry in particular. Both are concerned with the precision of observation and describing things in exactly the right and best way.

In opposition to the two cultures argument he quoted from Leonardo Da Vinci's Principles on the principles for the development of a complete mind:

"Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses- especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else."
David Morley also made the interesting point that at its best all writing is creative. It is the act of expressing thoughts and experiences in a way that has not been done before. Even something like reporting on this seminar session has that element of creation as I search for the right words to adequately describe what happened and my reactions to it. ( I like this definition not least because it salves my conscious as I write this blog instead of attending to my creative writing studies with the Open University).

Chris McCabe started by saying that he two was faced with a polar choice of the humanities or sciences and ended up doing a PhD about "what time fruit flies go to bed". Whilst working as a scientist in his words "he read a couple of crap books and thought. I could do that."

After the precision and prescription of scientific writing for his day job he took up writing anarchic comedies as a reaction and contrast to that. However his later fiction has been in the form of thrillers involving forensic science so he is drawing on his science background for them.

He expressed more of a contrast between the two disciplines than David had and said he enjoyed having a foot in both camps.

Both speakers made reference to the idea that scientists may often have artistic or humanities interests and there are perhaps lower barriers of entry for a scientist - who is in one sense only a scientist for 40 hours a week - into the arts than for an artist into the sciences. David Morley expressed the opinion that he knew many scientists who were "encultured" but the reverse was not often true for whatever reason.

In the open discussion the point was made that the Cheltenham Festivals were started by researchers at GCHQ and encompass arts and music. It was far less common for a group of writers to put on a science festival.

A particular bug bear of mine was also aired namely the almost pride with which some people may say they are no good at maths, computers technology etc. Whereas people might be more circumspect about expressing their illiteracy. ( Not that I think people should be ashamed of not being good at science and technology, far from it, but don't try to make a virtue of it either).

I made the broader point that it is not just an issue for writers but it goes to the whole problem of science education and the lack of basic scientific understanding in the population at large and this permeates through all aspects of life.

The role of popular science books was highlighted as an important area for bridging the gap and David Morley's courses for scientists may well go some way to helping more and more of them be able to write well and reach a larger audience.

This session was probably the one of the day where it felt like we had only scratched the surface of the issues involved before it was time to wrap up.

One thing I didn't get to mention was the portrayal of science and scientists in creative writing and entertainment culture in general. The stereotype of the mad scientist is all too common in popular culture and the scientific method horribly traduced. Oh and don't get me started on the portrayal of dedicated IT professionals in modern cinema.

T + 798 Writers Toolkit Part Three

Posted by raetsel at Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The second session I attended was about the use of digital media and tools.

Doing Digital

Working on digital platforms and using social networking is now part of our lives. How can writers make it work for them, both creatively and to manage their careers?

Peggy Riley: writer, Director: East Kent Live Lit
Chris Unitt: Managing Director: Meshed Media
Ros Robins (Chair): Regional Director, West Midlands: Arts Council England

This was probably my favourite session of the day which I guess might be performing to type for me as a professional Geek, but even so I think it is a subject many writers are interested in today.

Chris started by explaining a little of his background and what his company does, which you can find out more about via the links above. He was keen to point out digital tools should be just that tools to achieve another end. Tools to be used imaginatively by creative people and they need to be "taken out of the hands of the geeks".

His other main blog Created In Birmingham which has a readership of about 3000 is an example of how tools can help to reach an audience that would be far harder to build up via more traditional means.

Chris was also interested in how digital tools could be used to create new forms of the writing arts. He was particularly interested in using twitter and mentioned that thanks to how the Japanese language works the 140 character limit was effectively close to a 140 word limit and so some authors were now writing twitter novels and issuing them in daily instalments. That might not be directly applicable to English but it showed the sort of inventive uses to which digital technology can be put. ( I didn't get chance to mention at the time that the Drabble Cast actually runs a 100 character story competition for what are known as twabbles. )

Other areas on interest and ones which Peggy Riley would expand upon included the use of digital tools to allow audience interaction with the creative process and the use of non-linear story telling.

Peggy Riley's opening remarks addressed two areas. Firstly the use of social media such as blogging, Facebook and particularly twitter as a tool to help writers network and secondly tools that can be used directly in the creative process.

Peggy said the social networking and blogging tools were ideal ways to help a writer build up a network of contacts and establish relationships with both readers and people in the publishing industry. In particular it was useful to follow various twitter feeds from publishers and editors to get a feel for what was happening right now in the industry.

The blog for Peggy was a place to lodge a quick impression of where she was with some aspect of her novel to be of interest to her readers but also as an archive for her own use later. It was also fascinating to see the statistics of how people got to her site and what they were searching for to find it.

For the actual creative process Peggy mentioned a number of sites and pieces of software that can help with both traditional and new forms of story telling and a few are listed below:-

  • DreamingMethods.com is a site that describes itself as "...... a fusion of writing and new media exploring imaginary memories and dream-inspired states" it allows for the creation of interactive link based non-linear fiction that can be guided or completely free form. They also licence the source code for their tools so you can implement them on your own site. Peggy said the projects on this site could be particularly useful for "reluctant readers" (which usually means teenage boys I guess ) as the writing could be made to feel more like a game.
  • TheLiteraryPlatform.com is ".... dedicated to showcasing projects experimenting with literature and technology. It brings together comment from industry figures and key thinkers, and encourages debate." Peggy described it as a great place to find out about tools for digital technology in the creative writing arts.
  • Two sites she mentioned that showcased the way digital fiction could be used were webyarns.com and stayconscious.com . Ether Books is a company that publishes new works directly to people's mobile phones and they are looking for more authors to take on.

In the open discussion section there were a number of interesting points made.

One person was concerned about the copyright issues and if it was possible or advisable to subsequently submit material published online to a traditional publisher.

Peggy was quite firmly of the belief that you should not publish the entirety of a work online if you wanted to get it picked up subsequently by a traditional publisher, though it was perfectly reasonable to put extracts on line to build interest .

I can see the logic of this especially for full time writers but I did chip in to say the author Drew Gummerson wrote a series of short stories about two characters and published them on abctales.com ( where I publish my stuff ) and they subsequently formed the core of the novel Me and Mickie James published by Jonathan Cape. So it needn't close down a traditional publishing route if you publish online. Of couse the risk is the publisher just sees the free online content a diminution of potential readers for the printed book.

The $64,000 question about how to build an audience for a blog came up and the advice was to decide who you are blogging for and try to keep a focus and then becoming involved by commenting (constructively and legitimately) on other blogs that have an audience you would like to address is a way to get "click through"

One person in the audience said she felt in something of a quandary about how to balance time spent Writing ( i.e. creative writing) and blogging. In her case she really enjoyed blogging about the writing process but felt it kept her from the actual writing even though people had commented very positively about her blog. (As I write this post my eye is drawn to the Creative Writing Workbook for the Open University course I should be studying right now.)

Peggy was very astute in pinpointing that one of the attractions of blogging was the immediacy of the tool itself, after all you get to click a button that says publish whereas the time between writing a piece and it being delivered to an audience could be months or even years. She said one option is to use the blog as a creative writing notebook as well as for writing about the writing process so you can get the quick hit clicking the publish button whilst still moving your writing forward.

She also mentioned the excellent product Scrivener which I have used on the Mac to write most of my fiction and is currently in Beta test on Windows. ( But all writers use Macs surely?) This writing tool first has an excellent full screen no internet access mode to stop the distractions and also allows use of, for example, cork boards for moving individual scenes about to aid in the creative process.

What I liked about this session is that it avoided the rather tired debate about "are eBooks a good thing or a bad thing for writers?". The delivery or consumption method for eBooks may be different but the content is largely the same. Chris and Peggy were talking about new and exciting ways to create whole new forms of literature.

Chris Unitt used a distinction I have heard before which I think is just a brilliant way to describe the difference, books be they on paper or a digital device are "leaning back media" where as interactive non-linear digital literature one accesses on a screen is a "leaning forward media."

...and so to lunch.

T + 797 Writers' Toolkit Part Two

Posted by raetsel at Monday, November 22, 2010

After the initial plenary session of the conference there were separate symposium/seminar/panel sessions with a number of different topics being addressed.

The first one I attended was:-

Different Fictions

This had the topic of:-

It is too easy to assume ‘literary’ novels when we talk of fiction. Excellent writing sustains other genres. This session looks at how we can support and celebrate this work.

Ian Macleod : ‘fantastic’ fiction writer
Catherine Rogers: Project Manager: Writing East Midlands
Damien Walter: Writer, Director: The Literature Network
Jonathan Davidson (Chair): Chief Executive: Writing West Midlands

The panel spoke about some of the pre-conceptions they felt that genre fiction was up against when being considered as Literature ( with a capital "L"). The main areas discussed related to science fiction, fantasy and horror writing but were equally applicable to thriller, crime, romance or any other genre.

Ian Macleod made the point that the demarcation of genre had become more noticeable in recent years and when he was reading in the 1970s for example things were less delineated with writers like J G Ballard and others being considered mainstream and science fiction seemed to be one of the best ways to address the issues concerning society at that time.

Ian went on to say that he now feels when pitching his work he has to say "I write science fiction but...." and go on to explain his novel The Light Ages for example has a very Dickensian feel to it and if you like Dickens you'll like that.

Damien made the point that all writing ultimately emerges from ideas and concepts that have gone before and could always be said to be of a genre.

He also made the important distinction between a genre novel and one that was generic. There may be many formulaic fantasy epic novels out there and people may enjoy them and want to get what they expect but there were also lots of writers with new and original things to say.

Naming was also an issue and Damian preferred the terms Alternative, Weird or Speculative fiction to avoid the preconceptions people have of horror, fantasy or science fiction.

Catherine explained how, as part of Writing East Midlands, they run a very successful alt.fiction literary festival for all aspects of writing in these genres. The key she said was to bring literature to the fore and change the emphasis as compared to a fan convention.

She said she was impressed by the writers who talk at the festival and the things they have to say are relevant to any form of writing.

All the panel members felt that by having separate sections for genre fiction in bookshops and review sections of newspapers ( if indeed genre fiction is reviewed at all ) these "ghettos" where depriving a wider audience of good writing.

There was a lot of talk of "mainstream" that the panel members seemed to tie in with literature and literary fiction so in the general discussion I made the point that the reality is that "literary fiction" is almost as much a ghetto as the genres. The mainstream for most people was populated by Jeffery Deaver, J K Rowling and dare I say it Dan Brown and genre fiction was in one sense thriving. (Indeed after the conference I had occasion to visit Waterstones in Birmingham and virtually the whole of the 1st floor is given over to science fiction, fantasy and horror writing. It was more of an enclave than a ghetto.)

Responding to this, Damian took what he said was a sometimes controversial view that there was a class association with types of fiction and at inner city schools where he had done work there was little accessible literary fiction to interest readers as they felt it was not about them.

The genre fiction however was able to take issues not being addressed elsewhere and weave them into the stories they tell. Iain M Banks was cited as a writer with strong socialist messages that are expressed in his Culture science fiction series.

Another member of the audience, who worked in children's literature, said that in the emerging Young Adult arena genre is far less of an issue or even noticed as it is all subsumed into the overall grouping of Young Adult and this was a positive thing.

I wonder if perhaps as these readers move into their 20s and beyond they will start to demand or at least seek out genre fiction and the booksellers and reviewers will have to react.

Jonathan asked what positive steps could be taken to get genre fiction to a wider audience.

One view was that it needed to be given more space in mainstream literary reviews but how this was to be achieved was not really discussed. I think there is a negative feedback loop there, it's not reviewed so only fans find out about it; because only fans follow the genres it's not reviewed for the mainstream audience.

Ian suggested short fiction was a good way into a genre to get a feel for good writing without having to invest a lot of time. Though short fiction doesn't exactly do that well in book stores or reviews either.

On the review point he quoted the now famous Sturgeon's Law , when told that 90% of science fiction is rubbish writer Theodore Sturgeon responded "well 90% of everything is crud" ( or "crap" if you prefer ). This is a really valid point, in any field of endeavour , by definition almost, only a small amount will be really really good. It can't all be above average.

One thing I was unable to mention during the discussion but would like to plug now is the use of audio podcasts as a way to get a taste for the current state of genre fiction. For me the best place to look is the Escape Artists group of science fiction, fantasy and horror podcasts. With the Drabble Cast also very worthy of note.

T + 796 Writers' Toolkit Part One

Posted by raetsel at Sunday, November 21, 2010

Yesterday I attended a one day conference for writers and people involved with the creative writing profession entitled The Writers' Toolkit. This is the 3rd annual conference of its type run by Writing West Midlands.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable and well organised event held at the Digbeth campus of South Birmingham College and over the next few blog posts I'll be writing about what I saw and heard at the conference.

Beginnings - No Messages

After a witty and well delivered introduction to the day from the Chief Executive of Writing West Midlands , Jonathan Davidson, the opening keynote talk was delivered by the author Jim Crace.

In an entertaining and heartfelt talk entitled No Messages Jim Crace spoke to what it means to be a writer and how the reality of it differs from many people's perceptions.

He began by explaining how for Christmas one year at the age of 11 or 12 in about 1956 his father bought him a copy of the Everyman Roget's Thesaurus, a copy he still uses to this day and indeed he had in his hands as he spoke. Apparently his father had decided his son already "quite a little liar" might best put his talents to use as a writer.

This was not something Jim had ever considered before and he began to look at what being a writer meant. Thus it was he formed the romantic image of the writer as hero. From Jack London driving huskies in the arctic and Orwell in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, through to Jack Kerouac, unbelievably cool and handsome pictured in Madmoizelle Magazine with his 120ft long continuous manuscript typed on telex paper in three weeks of "bop prosody." How could you fail to be excited by the prospect of such a life? Plus you can write a book in just three weeks.

Jim Crace's most enduring and contrasting image was that of Omar Sharif in the titular role of Dr. Zhivago, sweeping down the stairs of an elegant Siberian Dacha in luxuriant robes to sit at a Louis Quinze escritoire and pen, in a perfect hand with no mistakes, the love lyric to Lara.

Having painted this wonderful picture of the image of a writer he brought us all down to earth with a description of the reality that was probably very familiar to many working or aspiring writers in the room. Your desk, probably in some corner of a shared family space or if you are lucky a cramped shed, will not be an Louis Quinze escritoire but a cheap one from IKEA (indeed as I type this I am in my shared study seated at an IKEA table that cost about £25) Here you will be faced with the writer's worst nightmare the tyranny of a blank page or screen.

In expanding further on the modern writer's life he now also explained where the No Messages title of his talk came from. When his daughter was about five and had just learnt to do some joined up writing she also became passionate about stationery, a passion she now shared with her father and something that seemed to get a murmur of acknowledgement when he spoke about the pleasures in looking through stationery shops on foreign holidays for new and interesting notebooks. ( This is certainly one of those Irrational Pleasures I should add to my list I've expounded upon before).

Enthused with this passion his daughter bought him for one Christmas a note bloc, a 2.5" block of pastel coloured notes and after he had opened it and expressed genuine delight his daughter went and placed it with due ceremony in the middle of his desk. The next day when he went to his shed he found his daughter had written in her best hand on the top sheet of the bloc the words No Messages and so it was for several more days before his daughter's attention was taken elsewhere, each day he would find the new top sheet of the block had "no messages" written on it.

That is how it can be for a writer faced with the tyranny of the blank page. Jim Crace described his profession as a terrifying way to earn a living (notwithstanding people who did real work of course ). When he was a journalist he had no chance to have writers' block or say the muse had abandoned him . He had to get his words in on time but now he was doing creative writing there was no urgency. When his editor called and he would say, rather embarrassed, that he hadn't written much that day he would be met with a jovial, "Don't worry, take your time, take your time. It's the creative process."

So it is with writers. They are volunteers. There is no real need for any one person to write a book or play. The bookshops are full of books and there are no blank spaces in the Radio Times where they just don't have a programme. If you don't write a book then the world will not miss it.

You are a volunteer and if writing makes you unhappy then you should just stop. In a strong statement and in parellel to the statement by Enoch Powell that "all political lives....end in failure" he said the overwhelming sentiment for writers seemed often to be one of bitterness. From the bitterness of the new writer who can't get published through the single novel writer who can never repeat the success even up to writers he knew in their seventies and writing better than ever but to coin a phrase I heard the other day "couldn't get arrested".

With this in mind and all the distractions of a normal life including Cyril Connolly's famous "pram in the hallway" and the shame and anxiety of the blank page, how are writers to make any headway. The answer Crace said was that expressed by Flaubert, "Writing is in the re-writing." ( Something I personally struggle with a great deal).

You need to get words down, to splash on the undercoat so you can prepare for the gloss. You have to have something to respond to.

Finishing on an uplifting note he said that although in one sense writing is a solitary profession when you write you are not alone for you have the spirit of Narrative with you. He meant this in more than just a poetic sense for he said the fact that narrative and story telling had endured for so long meant, from an evolutionary point of view it must have some purpose. Indeed he said at the core of our being we are narrative creatures.

The process of writing becomes ecstatic when narrative itself is working through you. Then there was the balancing act of using your skills to stay in control like a child flying a kite which was part controlled and part left the vagaries of the wind.

When writing is at its best you write not for your own sake but for the sake of the thing itself you are writing.

T + 792 Grapefruit and Swimming Pools

Posted by raetsel at Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I went to the clinic yesterday and finally after 792 days I have been told I can stop taking ciclosporin.

This is quite a symbolic step even though the 10mg once a day dose I was on wasn't doing that much it was enough to partly suppress my immune system and keep any last rumblings of GVHD down. Hopefully the GVHD won't return.

One of the immediate consequences of this is that I can now drink grapefruit juice and eat grapefruits. I was not allowed them whilst I was on ciclosporin as it reacts with it and increases the levels carried in the blood. It's one of the less onerous conditions of my treatment that I have had to bear but even so I may celebrate tomorrow with a glass of chilled grapefruit juice.

I had a nice long chat with my consultant about how you classify the state of my immune system and I also asked him a couple of questions about how antibodies work just for my own curiosity. He explained the key points of the immune system as simply as he could and even then it is still pretty complicated but I won't bore you with the details. Google and wikipedia and a lot of time will enable you to find out more if you want to.

Suffice it to say that when you consider it takes a child getting on for 10 years to develop a mature immune system and mine is only 2 years old and has been suppressed and molly coddled for most of that, my current immune status can best be described as naive. However with the help of vaccinations and the basic process of exposure this will improve over time. The problem will be that exposure may mean me getting sicker for longer than someone with a mature immune system would be when exposed to the same pathogen.

I asked the doc a couple of questions about more steps towards normality. One was being able to take sinus and cold symptom remedies that have decongestants in them ( again previously these interacted with things so I couldn't have them ) this got an ok. Finally the big one, was it ok to go swimming as before treatment this was my favoured form of exercise.

The doc said yes he felt that was ok though he did preface that by saying "well swimming pools are cesspits of disease but at least they are cesspits with chlorine in". On the plus side I have had a bout of verrucas since my transplant so I should be ok on that score. ( Odd co-incidence that it is a year to the day since I blogged about having verrucas).

My next appointment is in two months which I think might be the longest I have been between appointments. Hopefully then I may be able to stop taking the blood pressure medicine amlodipine as it was the ciclosporin that caused the high blood pressure and it wasn't something I suffered from before I went on it.

T + 783 It's Story Time

Posted by raetsel at Monday, November 08, 2010

I'm pleased to say the antibiotics have cleared up my secondary infection and my annoying tickly cough had all but gone. I'm at the clinic for a regular appointment next week.

Creative Writing

As mentioned previously I'm doing a creative writing course with the Open University.

Here is a link to the first full story I have written for this course. ( It's only 750 words as that was the limit). http://abctales.com/story/raetsel/end-pier

Here's the teaser for it.....

He woke with the now usual flicker of confusion then the weight of remembrance came crashing in upon him. He was cold, that was always the first coherent thought he had.