The proof copies of my new novel have arrived, and I love the cover design! A User’s Guide to Make-Believe is a thriller about virtual reality, addiction and personal and public freedoms, set in a near-future world – you can read more about it on the publisher’s website. Publication date is 23 January 2020, and you can pre-order here.
Umbrellas of Edinburgh (Freight Books) is a new anthology of poems and stories about Edinburgh, including my short fiction ‘Candlemaker Row’. Here’s the story behind the story…
The city of Edinburgh has been thoroughly explored in literature, and to write about it is to enter unavoidably into a dialogue with a lineage of authors from James Hogg, Robert Fergusson, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, through Muriel Spark and Norman McCaig, all the way up to the present day and Ian Rankin, Candia McWilliam, Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith. The city is a literary palimpsest, the opposite of Alasdair Gray’s Glasgow:
‘Glasgow is a magnificent city,’ said McAlpin. ‘Why do we hardly ever notice that?’ ‘Because nobody imagines living here,’ said Thaw […] ‘Think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or golf course, some pubs and connecting streets.’
– Alasdair Gray, Lanark, A Life in Four Books (1981, London: Picador)
By contrast the ideas and images of Edinburgh as a split city – its towering heights and its great depths; its clean, wealthy elegance and its dark, seedy poverty; its convenient embodiment of Calvinist notions of good and evil, and the dualism that’s strongly associated with Scottish fiction – have become so familiar as to verge on cliche.
And yet … they’re strongly present in my direct, lived experience of the city; they are woven through my perceptions, shaping my imaginative response. When I tried to write about the place I’ve lived for twenty years, the ghosts of so many literary Edinburghs created a very specific anxiety of influence: it seemed there was no part of Edinburgh that hadn’t been imaginatively claimed; literally, no space for a fresh response. I realised I would need to find a way to create this space, if I was to write a story that offered anything unexpected, any kind of new perspective.
To achieve this, I employed two strategies. The first was destructive: razing the city in an unspecified disaster, I thought, would clear the ground and allow me to imaginatively reconstruct the city afresh. The second was more subtle: privileging smell as a sensory response to place, rather than the more usually dominant sight and sound, held the possibility of creating a different map of the city. The story that emerged was of a specialist in the technology of virtual smells, working on a project to recreate the lost city as a virtual reality – an idea inspired in part by Kate McLean’s ‘smellmap’ of Edinburgh.
In the early stages of writing this story I knew I was exploring the idea of home, but other, interconnected ideas quickly emerged – of what we mean when we talk about the ‘real Edinburgh’; of one small part of a city so much reproduced that it comes to stand for the whole; of the validity and veracity of the imaginative reconstruction of a city based on second-hand source material – a copy based on copies; of ownership of place. All of these layers of story can be read as illustrative of my initial difficulties in writing about Edinburgh. In another way, too, this is a story about the process of writing creatively, since in writing the city I was engaged in the same kind of imaginative recreation as my narrator: both of us rendering a physical place in code (binary or linguistic) and employing sensory detail to create a convincing setting for a future participant (virtual reality user or story reader).
Perhaps any story about Edinburgh must be built on unsettled foundations, since it could be argued that the city itself is uncanny: the Old Town embodying the city’s dark, haunted past, surmounted by the order and rationality of New Town but refusing to remain hidden, persisting instead as central to representations of Edinburgh. ‘Candlemaker Row’ turned out to be a double ghost story: haunted (perhaps) by the narrator’s lost lover, a literal ghost in the machine of the virtual Edinburgh; and by a disembodied city that’s ‘built from code and light’, an Edinburgh raised from the dead.
It’s the first day of September, and Edinburgh breathes again.
For locals, whether we love or loathe the culture, chaos and crowds of the Festivals, their departure can feel like a special moment. The circus is packed away, and the city begins to settle back into itself. The sudden peace is often accompanied by the first hint of a change in the weather, a suggestion that autumn won’t be long.
This year I’ve spent a lot of time at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Edinburgh Book Fringe. As well as readings, discussions and literary cabaret there have been book launches and parties and a steady and very welcome stream of guests – plenty of opportunities to meet up with old writing friends, and to make new ones. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s also been distracting; I’ve written very little in the past couple of weeks, and lack of time isn’t the only reason. Just as important is the lack of mental space. Of silence.
I recently came across an article that describes how mice exposed to silence (rather than white noise, music or baby mouse calls) developed new, functioning neurons in the areas of the brain associated with memory and the senses. The study hasn’t been replicated in humans, but the idea of silence as actively beneficial resonates with my own experience of quiet as something restorative. In common with many writers I’m more introvert than extrovert: though I don’t think I could go as far as Sara Maitland, embracing silence as a way of life, frequent spells of quiet time and time spent alone are essential to me. It’s why I work in a studio space with no internet, away from the noiseless noise of email and social media – and why I’m hopeful about what will happen to my work rate when I take up a Hawthornden Fellowship this winter and experience a whole month of silence.
Yesterday, walking through the quiet city streets, I found myself talking out loud. Voice, for a writer, is a kind of metaphor encompassing what is said and how it’s expressed as well as technical issues like characterisation and point of view. As I heard myself narrating my thoughts, it struck me that what I was doing was literally tuning back in to my own voice, now it was audible again in this emptier, quieter space. Preparing to get back to writing, now the party’s over.
This quiet moment reminds me that a writer’s job is to make the work, and to make it as well as she can. The rest of it – the events, the reviews, the interviews, all the stuff that Helen Dunmore calls litbiz – is just glitter and confetti; as shallow as those artfully arranged instagram pics of colourful notebooks or shiny MacBooks accessorised with coffee and croissants, filtered and hashtagged: #amwriting #writerslife.
The truth of it is, no matter how perfect your notebook-and-coffee still-life seems in the sun streaming through the cafe window, you still have to take yourself off on your own to a silent place – actual or metaphorical – and focus on what matters. #shutupandwrite. #writerslife. #nofilter.
I’ve always been in awe of writers who can turn out a book every year. It’s often a contractual requirement for writers working in genres like crime and thrillers, but some literary fiction writers too are immensely prolific, from the firmly established like Joyce Carol Oates to the up-and-coming like Iain Maloney, whose latest novel The Waves Burn Bright is on top of my towering to-read pile.
Myself, I’m a slow writer. Sometimes – often – I find this frustrating. At every stage, from the emergence of a new idea and the first scribbled notes and maps to the multiple rewrites and edits, my progress is slower than that of most writers I know.
Recently, I listened to a repeat of Grayson Perry’s On Creativity and Imagination, an exploration of what we mean by creativity and how we might encourage it. I like the way Perry talks about art: he has a fine sense of the ridiculousness of much creative endeavour, as well as its importance, combined with what seems like an endless curiosity about the world around him. In this programme he describes the sign he has hanging over his workspace that says CREATIVITY IS MISTAKES – which dovetails neatly with my own favourite mantra, NOTHING IS WASTED (okay, that short story really didn’t come out like you meant it to, but look at it from another angle and there may be the germ of a novel in there, or at least a 1000-word flash fiction; and yes, you may have spent years working on an unpublishable novel, but you needed to write that mistake in order to write the next success).
But what really struck me in Perry’s exploration was a piece of research that suggests the most creative people may be those who think more slowly than others. The hypothesis is that the neurons in our brains are wrapped in white matter largely made up of fatty myelin sheaths, and the lower the integrity of this white matter the more slowly our neurons transmit information in the region connecting the pre-frontal cortex to the thalamus. This slowness is associated with greater divergent thinking – a common test of creativity.
That a ‘slow brain’ should be particularly creative seems at the same time both counter-intuitive and absolutely spot on. We tend to associate creativity with a quick intelligence – and indeed it seems this ‘slow brain’ creativity can co-exist alongside higher integrity white matter in the cortex, associated with increased intelligence; so the same brain can be both fast and slow. But a slow model of creativity makes sense of much ‘pre-writing’ activity which we might otherwise see as procrastination. Sleep. Daydreams. Meandering walks. Andrew Motion’s mild flu and Lem-Sip. All of these more or less passive activities can work as active strategies to allow material to emerge, to give our brains the space to start making new patterns, new connections.
What does this mean for how we organise ourselves and our work? It might help in understanding our relationship with deadlines; when they might be helpful, and when they’re more likely to be counter-productive. For me a deadline can be incredibly useful, forcing me to commit my words and thoughts to paper or screen – but this is only possible once the slow, organic phase has done its work. Until then, the only thing I’ll produce to a deadline is stress, tantrums and ultimately failure.
As well as a slow writer, these days I’m also a slower reader than I used to be, and at times I feel I’m a slow thinker too, taking a while to build up ideas and arguments and to process new pieces of information. The idea of a slow creative brain makes me feel better about this. It’s only by allowing the time for unexpected connections to occur that later – in the act of writing – I can learn the shape of the new thing I’m making, and understand what it is that I mean to say.
Over the years a number of people have told me how they’d love to write a book – only, they don’t have an idea to write about. I used to be fairly dismissive of this. My view was that if someone doesn’t know what to write about, they don’t want to write but rather (lord knows why) to ‘be a writer’.
The longer I teach creative writing, though, the more sympathetic I’ve become to this attitude.
We are born creative creatures – as children we know how to play, how to make-believe. If you’re lucky, you’ll have encouraging parents and a good teacher or two; if you’re lucky, your creative instincts will survive and even thrive into adulthood. But for many of us, creativity is something that is not nurtured, is not developed. Pressures on schools to deliver academic results above all mean creative subjects are often sidelined (and sometimes, as by UK Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan, actively discouraged). For many, by the time they leave secondary education, those creative instincts that were once so strong have been all but forgotten.
So when someone says they want to write but they don’t have anything to write about, they’re voicing a genuine need – an urge toward self expression which, carefully supported and nurtured, might well develop into an ability to write for a wider readership.
When I run creative writing sessions, my work often centres around helping participants to rediscover their creative skills – and when it comes to generating ideas, there are plenty of techniques that can help. Some of the activities I use involve striking two dissimilar things together (a snippet of overheard conversion, for instance, with a childhood memory of a place you once visited) to make new sparks; freewriting, using the prompt ‘I don’t want to write about…’ (this comes from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones); asking ‘what if?’ questions (What if London was flooded? What if a computer virus became conscious? What if sugar was banned?).
Even reading widely and noting what catches your eye can be a useful approach. In a recent series of workshops on creative writing about science and technology, we used copies of the New Scientist as source material. We selected interesting stories and news items, and made notes about possible themes that might emerge from this material (for instance, a theme of watching and being watched emerging from a news item about surveillance technology) along with any personal experiences that connected with our chosen material. By the end of the session the room was buzzing with scores of promising ideas.
Of course, some people have the opposite problem: they want to write, but they have too many ideas and can’t decide which to pursue. What then?
One option is to combine them all in a single project (probably a novel, since that form is stretchy enough to contain all kinds of disparate ideas). In her guide to novel writing Monkeys With Typewriters, Scarlett Thomas describes how she uses matrixes to harness all the ideas that are currently interesting her.
Or there’s another option, one I prefer: with each idea you have, pay close attention to your own reactions. I find this helps me distinguish between a promising idea that might be perfect for another writer but is just not for me, and one that feels like mine. If I can practically feel my pupils dilating, my mind’s eye focusing, I know I’ve got something worth exploring. In Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, Adam Marek describes how he experiences this particular sensation: ‘It’s a feeling a bit like delight, a bit like surprise, a bit like weightlessness.’
Once you’re attuned to this sensation, it becomes far easier to recognise an idea that really resonates with you, and to become generous with all those ideas it feels like anyone might write. You can become profligate: spread them around, give them away … and what you give you shall receive, tenfold.
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been absorbed in rewrites of my next novel. It’s not the first set of revisions, and perhaps my writing process is unusually inefficient: it’s not until the second draft that I’ll share the work-in-progress with a couple of trusted writer-readers, then the third draft goes off to my agent, and comes back for more (thankfully, relatively minor) amendments.
Writing is hard: all writers say it (sheepishly, because it’s not like we’re working down a coal mine). And some days, rewriting is the hardest thing of all. Every word, every sentence, has to be hauled up from the deep, to lie motionless on the page – if not dead, then at least in a critical condition. I worry that if I’m boring myself I’ll certainly bore the reader; I know every word will have to be rewritten yet again. But as I tell my students, you can’t rewrite a blank page – so there’s no choice but to carry on.
When it’s a slog like this, when everything I write seems flat and awful, that’s when I find myself wondering if it’s too late to retrain as a gardener or a dog-walker. Something useful and energetic, with plenty of fresh air.
But then … then I reach a part of the book where it’s like I’ve remembered all over again how to write. And the difference is in the unexpected. It’s about whether or not I’m surprising myself – with the turn a conversation takes, or a connection I hadn’t known was there, or just a sentence that has energy and voice, that seems to write itself rather than lurking around half-formed until I clumsily patch it together.
This is why some writers prefer not to plan their novels at all: knowing where they’re meant to be going takes away the sense of adventure and the joy of discovery. If you know what you’re going to write, what’s the point in writing it? And even though I’m a planner, I still need that sense of unexpectedness. Making minor changes to a scene may seem more efficient than rewriting that scene from scratch, but I’ve realised it’s actually harder and more time-consuming – because if you’re tinkering round the edges of something that already exists, there’s less room for surprise, less pleasure in making something fresh and new and alive.
And as with most things I learn about writing, I’ll forget this – and have to discover it all over again when it’s time to rewrite the novel after this one.
The start of 2016 has been particularly grey. Something about the low cloud and the near-constant rain makes it difficult to look up, to look ahead. I’ve been reminded over the last week of Douglas Adams’s planet Krikkit, where the sky is so completely featureless that it never occurs to the planet’s inhabitants to raise up their eyes: they have no concept of sky, or of what might exist beyond their planet.
But today has been mercifully clear, low sun in a high blue sky. It feels like the horizon of the year is suddenly visible, twelve months away from here. So I’ve been looking up, considering the shape of the year to come.
Though September has always felt like the month of new beginnings more than January, I’ve dabbled with new year’s resolutions in the past. Often these resolutions were to do with writing goals: finishing this draft, getting those stories accepted for publication. Writing goals can be great motivators, of course, but they can also set you up to fail. One problem is that for writers so many of our markers of success are largely outwith our control – dependent on agents, publishers, markets, judges. ‘Publish novel’, for instance, is an achievable goal now in a way it wasn’t even in the very recent past, but for writers in pursuit of a traditional publishing contract so much is about luck – getting the right book in front of the right person at the right time. And optimism can be another problem; though mine has kept me writing through the last ten years, it means that even when I think I’m erring on the side of caution my goal-setting is hopelessly over-ambitious.
When I think of goals, achievements and the year ahead, I see myself climbing a mountain. Here I am, halfway up: I can look back at the view, feel a sense of satisfaction at how far I’ve come – then turn around, and gaze up at the distance still to climb. Does anyone ever feel like they’ve reached the summit? And if that ever happens – what next? Is the descent all that’s left?
But it strikes me that this image is not quite right. It wants a shift of perspective. Perhaps the mountain doesn’t represent success. And perhaps it’s not a single mountain. Zoom out, and it becomes a mountain range. My half-way up position is not so much about goals achieved or out of reach; it’s about time. About the span of a life, and a life’s work.
In January, the years seem long – but they’re not, of course. They fly past anti-clockwise / like clock hands in a bar mirror, as we well know.