Waking Up, Writing Down

Last month we looked briefly at what it might mean to approach our writing from a ‘mindful’ perspective. This month we shall get down to some specifics. While there are many ways of engaging with the process of mindful writing, some styles are more conducive to meditative ruminations than others. Haikus spring immediately to mind.

Most readers, I’m sure, have heard of haiku, and know that they utilize a unique and precise structure. Traditionally each haiku consists of 17 syllables divided over 3 lines of 5 – 7 – 5. There is a marvellous freedom to be discovered within the confines of such a disciplined approach. Writing haikus is my personal preferred form of mindful writing, my go-to genre when feeling uncertain and perplexed. It never fails to ground me in a broader, deeper field of light-filled consciousness. Writing haikus lands me directly in the heart of the present moment, for a haiku is always a record of what is occurring right here, right now.

Here are a few of my most recent haikus:

Waterfall of rain,

curtain of transparent lace,

streams down my window.


Winter’s cold breath still

drifts over field’s feathered wisps,

farewell kiss of frost.


Transparent curtain

envelops world in grey shroud –

rain falling again.


Sudden summer storms

blustering across the fells,

orchestrated dance.


Hills etched like blue veins

horizon melts into mist,

gale squalls whipping up.


Torn buds, white and frail,

summer tries to show its face,

battered as it bloomed.


Blowsy blossoms fall

half-drunk with fragrant splendour,

summers whispered sighs.

Similar in brevity, though less rigid or formal in intention and technique, there is another, slightly different, approach to ‘mindful’poetry. Satya Robyn [http://www.writingourwayhome.com/], refers to them as ‘stepping stones’. Sam Green, in his poem ‘The Grace of Necessity’, prefers ‘small noticings’. Names may differ but intentions remain the same. A rose is still a rose.

To take the time to write a ‘small stone’ or ‘small noticing’ is to engage in a practice which helps us to focus and observe what is going on in our worlds, both inner and outer. We begin our practice by slowing down, allowing ourselves to find the still point of silence deep within. Using our senses we turn to that which we have decided to observe, and look, look closely, listen, touch, look again, waiting to hear with the ‘ear of our heart’ the first murmurings of our souls desires. Then, with senses saturated with sensual stirrings, we write down exactly what we have seen, heard, felt.

How much should I write? The answer to this is simple – as much or as little as you feel called to do. When I write ‘small stones’ I usually write something akin to the length of a haiku, eg a few short, descriptive lines filled with vivid imagery and luscious detail. But unlike haikus, I don’t restrict the structure of what I write to any pre-ordained or set order. Essentially ‘small noticings’ capture those moments when we are fully aware and engaged with the present. Nothing more, nothing less.

There are typically two main steps in writing ‘small noticings’ –

(i) Look and see, observing what is directly in front of you very closely, perhaps focusing on one particular aspect of the object. Be careful that you don’t rush through this step. Take your time.

(ii) Write down what you have noticed. Breathe into your noticing. Enjoy the sensual experience of conveying what you are experiencing through your opened senses on to the pristine white page of your mindful writing note book. Rest. Breathe.

And that’s all there is to it! As you engage in this practice, especially if you make it a daily practice, you will slowly begin to notice something else, something about yourself which perhaps you might not have realised before. Over time you may notice certain themes, symbols, images and metaphors which continue to manifest in your writing. Welcome them, sit with them, explore them. Most of all write your way into them. This is what it means to write yourself home.

Try and aim to write something every day. Remember this is not a practice which requires a lot of time. Indeed it may not call for much more than 10 minutes each day. But if you engage with it on a regular basis, you will notice a difference in how you see the world you live in, the everyday world which surrounds you and which you normally hardly notice. Writing mindfully, we are learning to see again with new eyes, new vision, so that everything old is new again.

· Let go of trying to direct your writing and the flow of your words. Let go of judging and worrying and criticizing your work. Let go of what you think your writing should be. Let go of all the ideas you have accumulated over the years about what it means to write. In mindful writing we just write.

· Especially for this awareness practice, I recommend that you carry a small notebook with you through your day and capture those small moments of heightened awareness as you move through the hours.

· Perhaps you might like to share some of your ‘small noticings’ in the comments section below.

There is nothing to achieve here, no goals to be reached. Mindful writing has more to do with deepening and enriching our daily lived experience than in producing a body of work, though of course it is more than likely that much of what we find ourselves writing here will serve as springboards to future works, whether these will be poetry, memoir, creative non-fiction or fiction. But for now they are simply small offerings, glimpses through the veils behind which lies visions and vistas yet to be seen or even imagined. Enjoy your mindful writing, and remember that ultimately it’s a practice designed to get us to slow down and notice the world we live in!

Check out the following website for lots of examples of ‘small stones’: http://www.ahandfulofstones.com/

- Edith Ó Nualláin lives with her family in a small village on the east coast of Ireland, snuggled between the mountains and the sea, where she reads, writes occasional reviews, and spins exotic fibres into yarn. Some day she hopes to learn how to spin straw into gold.

[This article was originally posted on the SCN blog Telling Herstories, The Broad View]

Singing our souls back home

[This post was first published over on the Story Circle Network’s blog, Telling Herstories, The Broad View.]

“Instructions for living a life:

pay attention

be astonished

tell about it.”

-Mary Oliver

summer field

Since its inception the mindful writing group I facilitate has largely focused upon the penning of haikus, or haiku-type poetry, sometimes called ‘small stones’ or ‘small findings’, either name conjuring an image of stopping, looking, noticing, each a gesture requiring long, lingering glances, drinking and imbibing images of wonder and delight, captured immediately, or stored for later translation into words dripping with sensuous detail. This is mindful writing – standing still, watching, listening, touching, tasting. Being here, now.

But, one of our members recently asked, must mindful writing focus on the poetic forms of haiku and ‘small noticings’ alone? The simple answer is ‘no’, of course not! The beauty of choosing the practice of writing haikus or ‘small stones’ is that they are both simple to learn, and easy to implement, making either the perfect choice for anyone who wishes to engage in a daily practice of mindful writing. [Next month we shall look more closely at both of these forms.]

Mindful writing is not a genre of writing, a particular form like, say memoir, or mystery, or magical realism, though the latter could at its best be mistaken for mindful writing. For, while mindful writing is not an immediately identifiable type, or format, it is recognizable by its effects. Mindful writing rings true, it shimmers with a brilliance and gloss which only the recognition of the extraordinary in the ordinary can bestow upon a subject, whether the theme is fictional or non-fictional.

There is a sense of the universal in every mindfully penned piece, the sum always greater than its parts. It is as if the simple gesture of slowing down, turning our inner faces away from the turmoil of our never-ending thoughts and fast-running streams of ideas, desires, and feelings, is enough to quieten our minds. Then we cast our gaze outwards upon a world no longer (at least for a little while) shadowed by the stains of our ego; we see with new eyes, with awakened hearts, with beginners’ mind. A peace descends upon us, enveloping our inner turbulent emotions, quietening our souls, until we are like nursing babes upon our mothers laps, a growing sense emerging that we belong to something much greater than ourselves, that we are connected to a web of life which, while we cannot properly say we can see, yet we intuit it through our awakened senses. Something deep inside begins to resonate in timeless time with the throbbing beat of the wondrous world we share and inhabit with all creatures, human and non-human, with all life which stretches riotously across the globe, its web of threads connecting even us, here, now, with all the streaming, gleaming life enveloping us exactly where we stand.

Any writing, any type, any genre, which captures this ultimate sense of meaningfulness without attempting to pin it down to any particular belief system or philosophy, whether fictional or non-fictional, no matter which, is mindful writing, recognisable always by its effects. It makes you stop suddenly in your steps, it catches your breath, makes your heart beat faster. And if you are a writer, it makes you want to write.

But lest you think that writing mindfully must result in an end product, a complete, polished piece of work, let me remind you of our discussion last month which focused upon the necessary open-endedness of mindful writing, how we always begin with no end in sight. We are simply conduits to the vibrational rhythms of a pulsing world, or rather receivers of the wonder and beauty of an earthly paradise we mostly ignore. So that at least so long as we are engaged in the practice, just that long, we are not thinking beyond the present moment. What we do later with our ‘findings’, belongs to later. Perhaps we will, after all, incorporate our mindful moments into our poetry, our memoirs, our stories. Or perhaps not. Perhaps our words will remain locked up inside our notebooks and our hearts, their only ‘purpose’ the marking of a series of moments which, arising over a period of time, ultimately enrich our deepest, inner selves, singing our souls back home.

Writing Prompt:

The following is an example of ‘mindful writing’ from the journal of artist and writer Emily Carr. Read slowly and mindfully. Then take a walk in your garden, or the woods, up a hill or down by the sea; stop, look, listen. Write.

“Everything is green….Everything is alive. The air is alive. The silence is full of sound. The green is full of colour. Light and dark chase each other. Here is a picture, a complete thought, and there another, and there……There are themes everywhere, something sublime, something ridiculous, or joyous, or calm, or mysterious. Tender youthfulness laughing at gnarled oldness. Moss and ferns, and leaves and twigs, light and air, depth and colour chattering, dancing a mad joy-dance, but only apparently tied up in stillness and silence. You must be still in order to hear and see.” – Emily Carr, artist and writer.

Not Just for Poets

[Note: The following review was first posted on Story Circle Book Reviews.]


There’s a brand new tarot deck in town, but this deck is unlike any you have seen before. The Poet Tarot and Guidebook has been designed by poets Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding-Convy, co-editors of Crab Creek Review literary journal, and co-founders of the small independent publishing press Two Sylvias Press. Their aim is simple—to help creatives in any genre, whether poets, fiction or non-fiction writers, artists, or indeed anyone working on an artistic project, to explore the nuances of their creative process.

Using the tarot to help generate writing prompts is not a new idea. What makes this venture innovative is that, instead of a book, we have a brand new deck, which (as anyone who is familiar with traditional tarot decks will appreciate), is a rather wild and wonderful thing.

The Poet Tarot uses poets to represent each card in the major arcana, and follows the traditional tarot deck with a few variations. The major arcana is in direct correspondence with the traditional tarot, and is made up of poets including Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov and Emily Dickenson, among others. The guiding criteria when choosing who to include were simple—an equal number of males and females, and American and English poets who wrote, or write in English. A lot of time and care obviously went into the consideration of which poet was best suited to represent each card, as evidenced by the choice of Edgar Allen Poe for the Devil. And who else but Emily Dickenson could be the Hermit?

The minor arcana represents the stages of the creative process, moving through inspiration (the traditional Cups have been re-named Muses), creation (Wands transformed to Quills), revision (Mentors takes the place of Swords), and completion (Pentacles becomes Letterpresses). The traditional court cards have been altered slightly, with Pages and Knights removed, while Kings and Queens remain as poets.

Included with the deck is an 80-page guidebook, with card explanations, layouts, and ideas for using the cards. The Poet Tarot is an excellent tool for writers and artists who are looking for innovative approaches to their creativity, new ways to generate fresh work, and assistance in focusing on long and short term goals.

The poets in the major arcana function in a similar way to the cards in all traditional decks, offering archetypal imagery which leads to ever-deepening layers of psychological insight. If you pull Edna St Vincent Millay, for example, from the Poets (major arcana) you are been called to explore the rhythmic cycles in your creative life, the highs and the lows. From a philosophical perspective your attention is drawn to ponder upon your attitude to change, impermanence and uncertainty. So what if you have received nothing but rejections from the publications to which you have submitted your work—the message of this card is never give up, keep submitting. The accompanying Guidebook poses the following set of questions for this particular drawing:

“Ask yourself: Am I able to discern whether setbacks are within my control or out of my control? At this moment, am I in an “up” period or “down” period? What is my reaction to the word “karma”? Where do I see my current manuscript / project a year from now?” [Page 16]

The minor arcana, on the other hand, offer more practical suggestions and hints. So, turning to the Muses suit for inspiration, I might draw Six of Muses. If I draw this card I am directed by the Guidebook to “consider how past experiences and memories are sources of inspiration for your writing / art.” This is followed by a list of various suggestions and prompts. The Mentors suit has many practical recommendations for the revision process, for example, the Ten of Mentors suggests that I give myself “creative permission to break out of a situation that is no longer working…” [page 57].

One common experience shared by tarot users has also been discovered by those exploring The Poet Tarot. If a particular poet or suit card keeps turning up, then you can take it that its meaning is something you definitely need to explore until you mine the message it holds just for you. This is the nature of the tarot!

The Guidebook concludes with a number of suggested spreads, from a single card reading to a five card reading, and ends with ideas on how to take The Poet Tarot further by pursuing resources for using more traditional cards.

The deck itself is both lovely to hold and behold. As pieces of miniature art (the cards measure 2 3/4″ x 4 3/4″, so they fit perfectly into the hand) they are quite lovely, featuring faded photographs upon collaged layers of varying imagery, and symbols specific in meaning to the card itself. An interesting game, especially for those familiar with traditional tarot decks, is to relate these Poet cards to the more familiar ones, an exercise which can only serve to deepen the experience of both.

Though I have only had these cards in my possession a short time, I have already experienced the depth of meaning and import they are bringing to my writing, but more especially to my attitude and approach to the process. Like any other tool, they gain in proportion to how well and how often they are used, to the extent perhaps, that the associations formed over time will render the drawing and pondering of a card, impetus and encouragement enough to forestall any writer’s block. I highly recommend the use of these cards in your personal writing process. My deck holds a place of importance upon my writing desk. Where will you keep yours?

Two Sylvias Press was founded in 2010 by poets Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding-Convy (Co-Editors of Crab Creek Review literary journal). Two Sylvias Press draws its inspiration from the poetic literary talent of Sylvia Plath and the editorial business sense of Sylvia Beach. We are dedicated to publishing the exceptional voices of writers. Read more on the publisher’s website.

Walking mindfully through the world

[This article was first published over on Story Circle Network’s blog, Telling HerStories: The Broad View.]

Mindful writing is essentially writing which wakens us up, which asks that we open our eyes to what is right in front of us, here, now. Through our engagement with the process we will learn to see with new vision, to explore our world with ‘beginner’s mind’. Day by day, moment by moment, we begin to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. We no longer see a tangled mass of flowers, bruised and almost dead after the storm. Instead our attention is captured by the curved contours of a single quivering tulip’s stem, pausing to watch in wonder at how something so fragile could hold the weight of something so beautiful. A pink tulip whose petals, on close encounter, are not florid pink after all, but flushed with deep crimson and carmine tones rising from a dark maroon centre, like a monk’s begging bowl, then shading into tones of cerise striped with threads of ruby-coloured claret, before paling to a tinted blush of watered-down pink along its outermost extremities, as if astonished by its own superfluous beauty.

Walking mindfully through the world, our perception of everything we encounter is altered, so that what had previously seemed so complex and difficult and even harsh at times, is, after all, utterly simple and beautiful. It all comes down to the one thing which lies beckoning, waiting, calling to us to come and look. Or maybe not quite calling, but just here, simply present. And we too can learn to be present to what is here, now, in this place, at this moment. All we need do is open our eyes and hearts and look. Be. Here. Now. Gradually, bit by bit, the manner in which we write is altered too. By its very nature this is a slow process. In all things mindful there is never any need to rush.

Mindful writing reveals what is hidden in the deepest recesses of our unconscious minds too, bringing to the light what has been lying hidden in the darkness, leaving traces of its unacknowledged presence in the detritus of our lives. We feel its presence, we sense it’s there, but we have yet to recognise it for what it is. Through the process of writing mindfully we pay attention to all our inner voices, whether they are whispering or clamouring to be heard. And gradually our thoughts, feelings, perceptions are enveloped by an ever widening circle of openness and inner spaciousness. We let go of our ego mind, our over-thinking and conceptual mind, and instead learn to go with the flow. Writing mindfully, we follow our river of words wherever they take us. And it is often a heady ride!

A few points to bear in mind when writing mindfully:

· Mindful writing is directed towards process rather than product, although you may discover much rich material for use in your other writing, especially for memoirs and creative non-fiction.

· Try not to allow your critical mind to take over. If your Inner Critic starts shouting too loudly, then stop and take a moment to return to your breath and, without trying to force it to be quiet, simply sit still and wait for it to dissipate. Do not re-read as you write for this invites your Inner Critic to take control. Just write. Let your words spill out on to the page. Words lead to more words which lead to sentences and paragraphs. Just keep writing.

· Writing mindfully is a meditation practice.

· Over the next few months I will include some simple meditative breathing practices to incorporate into your mindful writing practice. However please remember that these suggestions are not necessary to engage in mindful writing. They will simply be offered to you as an additional practice for those who might be interested in exploring other avenues towards deepening their mindful writing experience.

· You might like to develop some simple preparatory ritual/s which you engage in every time you sit down to practice mindful writing. Apart from serving as definite markers separating your solitary silent mindful writing practice from the rest of your hectic day, such rituals serve as bells of a sort, like those in a monastery calling the monks to prayer. Your writing ritual will be your call to write mindfully. They can be as simple or as complex as you like, eg light a stick of incense, or a small candle, or perhaps burn some aromatherapy oil in a burner, or drink a cup of herbal tea while pondering and observing the world.

· Choose to write either with a pen and paper, or on your lap top. If on your computer, then set up a special folder for your mindful writing exercises. Personally I prefer to use a pen and notebook for my mindful writing even though I can keep up with my thoughts more easily on the computer. The beauty of a simple method is that it can be used anytime, anywhere. This dovetails perfectly with my personal concept of mindful writing as a spiritual practice.

· Mindful writing comes in many guises. It is more disposition than method or technique. Next month we shall look at one particularly fruitful approach to writing mindfully. Over the next few months we shall explore many potential options to choose from.

· Finally, I would strongly recommend that you consider making some sort of personal commitment to your Mindful Writing practice. Make room for writing every day, or every second day, or three times a week, or whatever you decide will work for you. But whatever you decide commit to it. Make your writing practice a priority in your life. Doing this will reap benefits not just to the quality of your writing, but to your life.

Until next month, I wish you the blessings of many peaceful hours of mindful writing. And if you care to share some of your experiences, please leave your comments below. I’d love to hear how you are getting along!

Link to last month’s introductory post to mindful writing:


On Mindful Writing


My inaugural posting on the topic of mindful writing over at the wonderful Story Circle Network blog, ‘Telling HerStories – the Broad View’. Check out the other marvellous contributors!

Originally posted on Telling HerStories: The Broad View:

I first came across the concept of mindful writing many years ago when I was anything but mindful as I surfed the internet, enjoying the sheer pleasure of mindless distractibility. Clicking first on this link, then on that, I eventually landed on the web site of a Zen teacher who was offering classes (not online unfortunately) combining the art of meditation with that of writing. Instantly I knew I had hit upon something both important and exciting.

The concept of writing as a spiritual practice is not new. Christina Baldwin’s book ‘Life’s Companion’ had been my own companion for some years. It is still a book I recommend and use. But the difference between Baldwin’s approach and the class advertised, was that while Baldwin encouraged the use of deep writing to explore feelings and thoughts about spirituality, the Zen-like approach I had alighted upon, quite by accident, appeared to be…

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Girl Reading, a review

GIRL READING, Katie Ward. Virago Press, Little, Brown Book Group,100 Victoria Embankment, London EC4Y 0DY,United Kingdom. 2011, 342 pages, £7.99 paper, http://www.virago.co.uk;

Scribner, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020, 2012, 352 pages, cloth,www.books.simonandschuster.com.

There’s something about stumbling upon a girl reading, something mildly subversive about the image, her head bent low over the pages of an opened book. The girl herself, of course, is not open. Her eyes are closed off, hooded, shielded from view. Her vision is turned inwards, her being inaccessible to any who look upon her.

This debut work, Girl Reading by English author Katie Ward, renders a series of evocative narratives, seven variations upon a theme of a girl reading, each linked, some more tenuously than others, so that while this book may at first glance appear to be a collection of short stories, it is, in fact, a novel of sorts.–unlike any novel I have read before.

While it is possible to read each ”chapter” as a separate tale, much would be lost in taking such an approach, for these stories build one upon the other. Thus we notice that Pieter Janssens Elinga’s portrait, ”Woman Reading”–the subject of the second tale–is based upon his studies of Simone Martini’s altar centrepiece ”Annunciation”, the theme of the first story. Further on, Angelica Kauffman makes a sketch of a composition of a maid alone in a room with her back to the viewer. We discover, in time, that she is drawing Janssens Elinga’s painting. And so the links remain chained, unbroken.

The novel too shifts from one historical era to another, the author skillfully penning each section in a different voice, creating scenes and landscapes so disparate as to seem written by different authors. Except for one noticeable idiosyncratic feature–her love of writing in tripartite mode. These function as her leit-motif, her trademark even. Ward runs her images, verbs, adjectives together, punctuation-less, word paintings that roll off the tongue, flowing like water washing everything clean–rendering all pristine, bright, clear. Thus she entices our literary senses, delighting us with word spills as captivating as sheet ice as new paper as porcelain; floating diving soaring; over wilderness over cliffs over the sea.

Within each tale itself, much is left unsaid: silences, ellipses, gaps, hanging like misty backgrounds, hazy and out of focus, redolent of the scene that serves as the epicentre of the narrative, like the ring setting for a beautiful multifaceted diamond.

Ward writes in simple, direct, spare sentences whose lyricism dances around the edges of her half-formed, unfinished sentences. Sense and meaning are expressed more through suggestion than direct, declarative statement. Her beautiful prose is reminiscent of poets who turn their hand to fiction, like the Canadian poet Anne Michaels. Ward shares Michaels’ love of a certain kind of prose, beautiful in its utter, stark simplicity. Only a poet can write like this, slipping between the cracks, free-falling to the deep, dark horrifying beauty of it all.

Word pictures are mostly left as sketches, albeit vignettes painted in glorious colors against a background, hazy, uncertain, unclear. The settings of her scenes are as much a part of the story as any of the characters, so skillfully drawn that it is impossible for us to imagine the characters anywhere else but placed firmly within its frame.

Each tale brings the reader face-to-face with some horrifyingly familiar aspect of reality, forcing the reader to recognize something that we would rather leave undisturbed–no need to waken the sleeping dogs, we are doing just fine as we are, thank you very much. But Ward disagrees. And this is what her novel is really about. Each portrait, each image, each story is an attempt by the author to unsettle the reader, to force us to look a little deeper, delve a little further into the dark continent of the subconscious.

Though the author deprives her readers of a complete resolution to all the uncertainties suggested, rather than leave the reader dissatisfied and somehow cheated, the effect is to enhance the ever present aura of ambiguity and doubt, generating a perception of enigmatic and evocative mystery. Ward’s writing is somewhat experimental. We watch while she plays with forms, adapting her approach in subtle ways to render each tale in a unique way. Her writer’s voice never repeats itself, never sounds quite the same as before. The timbre of her tones matches exactly the era it depicts, the landscape in which it is set.

The final tale is the story that gathers all the threads together, presenting them as a unified whole, encapsulating them in a philosophy of aesthetics about the beauty of humankind’s imperfect art. It is almost as if the author herself speaks through the voice of Sincerity, her protagonist. Here Ward fleshes out the theme of her novel, unveils it, uncovers it, and makes it clear so that if we have so far failed to understand, then through Sincerity, she will help us see:

Let’s say I did it for beauty. I did it because we humans intuit that beautiful objects can tell stories. We believe they have power. It is why we cherish things, because of the way they move us. They have voices, and would speak to us. They are imprinted with the past.

Ward’s debut is a thing of beauty with the power to speak to us. She ends her absorbing novel with an ode to love, Without you, life is entirely possible but hateful. The same could be said of beauty, and art, and words. And girls reading.

Edith O Nuallain

[First published in Calyx, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, Summer 2013, Vol 27:3 ]


MY WRITING PROCESS – ruminations on the writing process of a writer mama

First I have to express my gratitude to Tania Pryputniewicz for inviting me to participate in this blogging tour entitled ‘My Writing Process’. I feel very honoured to be part of this illustrious event, and more than a little bemused to find myself claiming the moniker of ‘writer’ as I sit alongside such wonderful and inspirational authors such as Tania herself. To follow the tour backwards as it were, click on the link for Tania’s blog, and follow her nominations as well as the writer, Marilyn Bousquin, who tagged Tania herself. I can promise you a wonderful and stimulating afternoon exploring the writerly stratosphere of online blogging.

Tania Pryputniewicz is a poet, a teacher, managing poetry editor and art editor of The Fertile Source, and co-founder of Mother, Writer, Mentor. She teaches online workshops with the Story Circle Network, covering topics from Transformative Blogging, to writing with the Tarot. She also teaches the Poetry of Motherhood and the Poetry of Fatherhood. She blogs at Feral Mom, Feral Writer, as well as here. Her poetry and prose has been published in various literary journals.

I first became acquainted with Tania when I stumbled across her blog devoted to the concept of Transformational Blogging. Intrigued I followed her postings for a while before finally plucking up the courage to invite her to participate in an interview on my blog. To find out more about Tania’s innovative and inspirational concepts on the transformative effects of blogging, check out her interview here and here.

The desire to be a writer has been running through my veins for my entire life, though it wasn’t until I was older that I recognized it for what it was. So all those years spent reading and dreaming, scribbling stories on scraps of paper, even studying philosophy in university, I was writing, though not realizing at the time, but oh how I wish I had, that it was the actual writing of the essays which thrilled me most, the letting go, the sheer exuberance and joy of letting the ideas spill out upon the page, words and concepts rolling and tumbling, following their own natural course, like a river gathering momentum as it flows down the mountain. I was that river. But I didn’t know it. I forgot to take the time to look upon my reflection in the swirling pools of the rushing waters. But maybe that was just it – the gushing foam and the roaring ripples would hardly have allowed me glimpse the shadows of the self I could not see. Maybe it has taken me all this time to get to know who I am and what I yearn to do. Reflecting on my process of writing enables me to discern patterns of assonance and dissonance, to see what a picture of myself as writer might look like.

1) What am I working on?

Some time ago I walked into my local bookshop and asked my favourite bookseller to recommend a novel which would grab me and refuse to weaken its grip; a book that would infiltrate my dreams and float across the vision of my days, leaving me with the disquieting sense that either I had entered the world of the novel, or it had become part of me; either way, reading it, I would inhabit a kind of half-world, a numinous becoming, a barely sensed intimation that I was living someone else’s life (mine? a shadow self, or alter ego?). I told her that I needed this novel to change me beyond recognition; it had to transform me so that when I closed the final page I would not be the same person who first pulled open its binding. And it had to do all this, work its magic, using language which reverberated with the rhythms of music, whose words were poetry dressed up as prose.

What I didn’t tell her was that it also needed to be a tome which left my fingers and heart itching to pick up a pen and write. This book had to be the very novel which would cause an internal battle within me every time I opened it – read or write? My friend, the bookseller, laughed and told me to go and do that one thing that perhaps every author is ordered to do – write the book you want to read. Tall order indeed! Would that I could, but even if I can’t, I can still try. Albeit slowly, piecemeal, in between a myriad of other things to be done, each one more urgent than the last, the lot of all mothers everywhere. We must live our lives out, give voice to our creative dreams, in the spaces and gaps between what must be done to ensure the orderly running of a full and active household, and what needs to be done to save a mother from growing insane.

My guides are books given place of distinction upon my over-crowded bookshelves, cheap imitations of the floor-to-ceiling shelving system I shall, one day, erect. They include notable titles such as May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, and Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and a host of other marvellously inspirational memoirs penned by writing women – each one special, each one a mentor and guide to the possible if I can only keep on believing. Of course often I don’t. I fall into despair and wonder why I bother. I have no way of knowing whether I merely talk only to myself when I write. If I attended classes at least there would be lecturers and tutors to guide me. All I have is my own blinkered seeing. How difficult it is to judge one’s own work, to see as if with another’s eyes. But then I suppose this is true for every writer, for there comes a time when even those lucky enough to have enrolled on such dream courses, even they have to step away from the shore and set sail upon the river on a raft of entirely their own making. So maybe it’s not so very different for me after all.

Have I answered the question, or have I done what I so often tend to do, and dithered only, playing around the edges, refusing to actually jump in and swim? Am I swimming yet? Let me try again. What am I working on right now? I’m researching the background for a novel, but somehow the research has taken on a life of its own. I need to learn how to streamline my method, and to acquire a skill in note taking which so far has eluded me. Still on the upside, I am picking up lots of juicy bits of information which may or may not yet turn out to be useful. I am also writing background sketches for my principle characters, getting to know who they are and where they have come from. Most of this writing is pre-writing, and is unlikely to find its way into my novel. On the other hand, it will form the backstory upon which the novel is built, the foundation if you will, without which the tale would crumble. Plus its ‘safe’ writing for nothing really depends upon it, at least not the words. There is no pressure to this kind of free writing. Open the lap top and fly way. Scrivener is perfect for this too as it helps me keep order on what could, very quickly, develop into an unwieldy mess.

But I also write book reviews and poems. My book reviews are published in Calyx, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women as well as online at Story Circle Network Book Reviews. I love writing reviews, though they tend to take forever. It is a challenge to write about a book without divulging the story line or the conclusion. It is also stimulating to attempt to write a piece which both reflects the author’s intent while allowing a little bit of oneself to flicker through, so that in the end this particular review could only have been penned by me. I am speaking of course about that most elusive of qualities – the writer’s voice, which only emerges in and through the process of writing.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

–I write to understand, both myself and others. I write in an attempt to open myself to the discovery of something new, something worthwhile. I write to find meaning in otherwise meaningless events, which appear to occur haphazardly. Writing helps me find the pattern, even if only for a little while. None of this makes my work different from other writers who follow a similar path. The only element which differentiates one from the other is our unique voice. I cannot write like you any more than you can write like me. Oh yes, I can imitate for a while, and not all imitation is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. Studying the masters and mistresses of literature and letters helps me find a doorway through, a portal to the other side. But once I arrive in the landscape of my soul or dreams, then it is time for me to let go of the reins to which I have been clinging , and let myself soar on my own wings. They may not take me far as of yet, but they are mine, and it is entirely up to me whether I choose to use them or not. They will not, however grow strong, unless I exercise them. Perhaps this is the most frightening aspect of all, that it is me and just me who decides where to focus my attention. One can only get so far ‘blaming’ family commitments! Even those eventually ease up leaving pockets of time and solitary spaces in their wake. And then what a to-do, or rather what to do…… What to write – a poem (just like that??], a short story [for what, for whom?], a book review [always safe in the certainty and clear delineations of its accompanying expectations], or heaven forbid, The Novel [ not just ‘a novel’ for I have many of those waiting in the wings to be written, no shortage of stories there], but ‘The Novel’ is the tale I have longed to tell, the one which will tick all my boxes for the perfect read, and which carries such a weight of perfection already even before it has been written, that I baulk at the prospect. What a to-do indeed!

3) Why do I write what I do?

I write book reviews because they force me to slow down and read the book carefully, paying attention to every word, image and metaphor. When reading slowly I prefer to read out loud so that I can hear the rhythm of the language in my mind, feel the lyricism in my body, taste the magic on my tongue. Reading for book reviews is akin to taking a master class with the great writers of yesterday and today, a private mentoring session between their words and mine. Sometimes I simply pick a paragraph and re-write it in my own words, like a student artist sitting with her easel in the gallery painting versions of the great artist’s pictures.

Writing poetry is an entirely different animal, less lean or muscular, soft rather than sinewy, feeling rather than form. At least for the first or second draft, until the revision process comes into play. But even then the approach is not so much analytical, requiring the sharpness of a well-tuned mind, than sensory, calling for a deep listening with the ear of the heart. Unlike book reviews, the aim of which is always to publish and share, my poetry is written primarily for my own satisfaction.

Finally, writing my novel is a gesture of belief, a personal statement that, yes, I will try to trust the process. Sometimes I teeter and fall between the stools of novel or short stories, and even occasionally I play with novelettes. Sometimes I long to indulge in romance, for then my writing helps me escape from the harsher aspects of life.

Have I alighted on one single genre? Not yet, nor am I certain that I wish to. Everything I write plays a part in what is written next, everything is a step upon the way. Where it will end, I cannot say, nor would I wish to know. For now writing poetry and book reviews, side by side with short stories and tinkering with my novel is enough, which dovetails very nicely with my philosophy of life that enough is just perfect.

4) How does my writing process work?

And now at last we reach the heart of the matter, the focus and theme of this particular blog tour. What exactly does my writing process entail? Mmmm, let me see. It involves oodles of procrastination, and huge dollops of dreaming, occasionally interspersed with a flurry of activity when all the words come rushing out all at once so that it is almost impossible to pin them down upon the page. But oh, how good it feels, when they have landed. That moment when the last word has been written, when you know you have said all that had to be said, when the afterglow of cathartic release fills your veins and heart with that deep inner sense of utter contentment and peace, when your head feels heavy with the welcome weight of being, when all is right in the landscape of your soul and what lies beyond seems all of a-piece with what rests within, this moment is what writers pursue, this is the meaning and motivation which drives writers to keep on writing. Everything hangs on this.

So is this the process? Yes and no. Yes, because this is often enough, no need to share it or seek publication. No, because it doesn’t always happen and there’s a bit more involved in writing than simply picking up a pen and beginning, though nothing happens unless this occurs. I suppose the writing process would be better named the pre-writing process, all those elements which together drive the writer to the empty page, soul needs like intention and desire – why am I writing instead of say, sitting at my spinning wheel and creating yarn, what does writing gift that hand crafts don’t? Then there are the more practical questions like what exactly do I want to write? The approach to journaling or free writing is very different from how I tackle a book review, and then again working on my novel is an entirely different beast, requiring not just different tactics but also a very different mind-set, probably the most important element being the need to believe in the story I am telling.

In a nutshell, my writing process is very simple. Decide what I am going to write [this is the most important element] and then start writing. Don’t revise until the first draft is done. Set aside for a day or two, then begin the editing process, cutting and chopping, deleting and replacing, until the piece is as good as I can make it. Then wait a little while again, re-read, re-work if necessary, and finally submit.

So all that remains to be done is to introduce you, my dear readers, to a wonderful trio of intrepid writers, Julie Christine Johnson, Juliet Greenwood, and Autumn Maccarthur, each one a storyteller beyond compare, who will be sharing their writing processes next week, April 28. They are all novelists writing magical stories, spinning tales of mystery and magic, using words and images which sparkle like dew drops falling through the sun drenched mist. Each one of them pens novels which I eagerly and even greedily devour and read. You could not do better than to indulge yourself in a little spoiling by running right now to your local bookshop and picking up a novel or three. [Julie’s novel, ‘Refuge of Doves’, is awaiting publication. As one of her beta readers I can assure you that this is a treat for the heart and soul not to be missed!]

Julie Christine Johnson, Chalk the Sun

About Julie:

A native of the Pacific Northwest, Julie Christine Johnson lives where the Salish Sea meets the Puget Sound. She has called many places home, including France, Chad, Japan, New Zealand, Colorado, Ohio and Illinois, and emerged in 2013 from careers in international higher education and wine buying to embrace the writer’s life full-time.

Julie has been writing fiction and personal essays since 2011 and her work has been featured in the anthologies Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers (2014), Three Minus One: Stories of Love and Loss (2014), Flash of Fiction (2013), Stories for Sendai (2011) and in the literary journals Cobalt, Granny Smith Magazine, River Poets Journal and Cirque. Her stories have been shortlisted for the New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction (2013), the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Award for Fiction (2011), and awarded First Place, Romance, by Short Story Competition HQ (2013).

She is revising her first novel, Refuge of Doves–set in contemporary and thirteenth century southwest France–and wrestling Draft One of her Ireland-based second novel, The Crows of Beara, into submission. Visit her blog www.chalkthesun.org to say hello and read the latest of her writer’s journey.

Juliet Greenwood, http://www.julietgreenwood.co.uk/

About Juliet :

For the past twenty years, Juliet has lived in a traditional Welsh quarryman’s cottage between the mountains of Snowdonia and the romantic island of Anglesey. She has a large garden that would have been used by original inhabitants to grow vegetables and fruit to supplement their wages. Juliet tries to follow in their footsteps with the aid of a polytunnel and plenty of experimenting with the results.
After studying English at Lancaster University and King’s College, London, Juliet worked in a variety of jobs, from running her own craft stall at Covent Garden Market to running puppet and storytelling workshops in North Wales.
A severe viral illness over 15 years ago led to years of debilitating M.E. As she fought her way back to health, the experience inspired her to pursue her life-long passion and finally fulfil her ambition to become a published author. Her first novel for Honno Press, Eden’s Garden, became a Kindle bestseller and is now a finalist in ‘The People’s Book Prize’, with the results to be decided in May 2014.
As well as novels under her own name, Juliet writes serials and short stories for magazines as ‘Heather Pardoe’.

Autumn Maccarthur, Faith, Hope and Heartwarming

About Autumn:

Autumn Macarthur is an Australian writer of inspirational romance
living near London with her very English husband, three spoiled cats,
and a guinea pig with a dandelion addiction. She loves reading,
cooking, gardening, and writing deeply emotional stories to make you
smile and remind you how big and wide and deep God’s love and
forgiveness can be. When she’s not talking to her strawberry plants or
cherry blossoms, she can be found occasionally blogging at
www.autumnmacarthur.com, on Facebook as Autumn Macarthur, and on
Twitter as @autumnmacarthur.

Take it away girls!Smile

April’s Charms, or writing and reading poetry in April


Since this is the month when all things poetical are marked and celebrated, I thought it would be a good time to introduce you to a few exciting poetry resources.

The first of these has to be, of course, NaPoWriMo  where you will find daily writing prompts along with reviews of poetry resources, including poetry related podcasts. There are simply too many offerings listed throughout the site to be able to share them all here. Far better that you click on the link yourself and explore all that is on offer. Don’t forget to keep scrolling down through the page to avoid missing any of the wonderful suggestions shared.

The second is the web site and blog Tweetspeak, where the facilitators have issued a ‘Poetry Dare’ for the month of April. Rather than focus on writing poetry, they have instead chosen to highlight reading poetry. Their premise is simple – read a poem a day and your writing, whether poetry or prose, will improve. Taking this idea even further, the author recommends that you choose a single poet to focus upon. Read the poem carefully, before copying it out on to a page. Feel the poem kinaesthetically through your fingers; feel the connection between your writing hand and your heart-soul; breathe, live the poem through your body.

Then read the story in ‘How to Write a Poem (or a hundred)’about how one poet adopted the practice of reading a poem, or multiple poems, every day, and her book of poetry which evolved and grew from this daily practice.

For daily writing prompts throughout the month of April, truck on over to Mslexia, where every week day between now and April 30 a new poetry prompt will be posted. And while you’re there, why not explore the site of this brilliant resource for women writers. Then check out the subscriptions or single issues available of their not-to-be-missed magazine. I’ve been reading their mag for years now and it is definitely one of the few I buy which I never throw out. Plus every year they host a series of writing competitions, from short stories and novels to poetry and memoirs. Every issue of Mslexia runs an interview with a working poet analysing the inspiration and steps involved in creating her poem. Here’s a link to one of the articles based on a poem by Polly Clark.

Scroll through the archives for more workshops on writing poetry.

These are just three resources which will help grow within you a love affair with poetry, feed the soil of your soul, until the words bloom like buds opening in springtime, before falling, like apple blossom in images of mystery and beauty, upon the virginal page of your being. Click on any one of the links above and you will discover an amazing wealth of diverse riches, any one of which will serve as an immediate inspiration and prompt. Enjoy the poetic month of April!

[The title ‘April’s Charms’ comes from a poem by William Henry Davis.]

NaPoWriMo 2014


Today is the first day of NaPoWriMo 2014. Each year April is devoted to the practice of penning poetry for an entire month – a poem a day. The aim is not to produce a polished poem every day, for such an expectation would be impossible to fulfil. Rather the intention is to generate one new poem every single day for 30 consecutive days. See if you can do this without being changed utterly from within!

Nothing more than a desire to write poetry is required, except perhaps a pen and paper, or a lap top if that is your preferred mode of expression. Personally I write with whatever happens to be nearest at hand. I try to be organized, but after years and years of failed attempts at becoming something I’m not, I have finally had to admit that I am, at best, an ad hoc performer. Still all that matters is that the deed be done, and this I can do. More than this, it is what I have to do.

Fooling around with word play is food for my soul. Whether the poem arrives fully formed, or merely gifts me with a word or image to explore in the next draft, matters little. Without fail, each time I sit down with the intention of writing a poem, I always rise up afterwards sighing contentedly. The world has been restored to rights, meaning has been re-assigned to the chaos which constitutes my life. I am whole again. At least until the next day when I pull the poem back out from its hidey-hole where the scrap of paper was unceremoniously stuffed. Most often then I simply cringe and wonder how on earth I ever believed this drivel deserved to be called a poem! No matter. The suspicious device touting its ill-fitting garb is merely consigned to the back of a notebook or drawer, with a vague promise to be worked on again, before I head off into the wild yonder with a new vision, new hope in my eyes and pen.

For writing poetry is FUN. Anyone can do it. Why not give it a go for the month of April? And if you do, let me know how you get on. Tell me what you learned from the daily practice of mindful writing.

In the meantime check out http://www.napowrimo.net/ for more information about the venture as well as prompts and related articles.

How Emma Darwin scratches “this itch of writing” *

[*phrase courtesy of John Donne, 16th Century English Metaphysical poet]

Yesterday I posted a review of Emma’s debut novel The Mathematics of Love here on my blog. (It was originally posted on Story Circle Book Reviews web site.) Today it is my greatest pleasure to introduce you to the author herself.

Welcome Emma, and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. It is such a pleasure to have you here!

My Photo

1) You have been blogging for five years now, initially setting up your blog as a means of scratching “this itch of writing” while you were heavily engaged with the act of writing your novels and other works. Perhaps you would care to expound more fully on this never-ending, impossible to satisfy, desire to write and then, write some more?

Goodness knows where the desire to write comes from – it can’t just be to tell stories, or I wouldn’t enjoy writing analytically and journalistically. I think it’s about exploring things – stories, ideas, connections. It’s only by trying to put something into words that I really begin to understand it – whether that understanding is an idea about Showing and Telling, or about how human relationships work, or what a sunset makes you feel.

2) Indeed why did you choose, all those years ago, to write on such a public platform? What inspires and motivates you to keep blogging? Do you write on or for any other public forums?

I keep blogging because I go on wanting to explore writing in that way – how it works, from grammar to inspiration – and because people seem to find it useful. It’s also useful for teaching, both to help me work out how to explain something, and to send students. It’s also more immediate than a book; I can respond to what I encounter in talking to other writers, and they can respond to my posts. I have contributed to other blogs, including The History Girls and Writing Historical Novels, but it’s quite a commitment, and my own blog does have to come first.

3) Would you mind telling us a little about your experience studying for the M. Phil in Creative Writing followed by your Ph.D. , from your initial decision to sign up for the courses to the benefits you gained from participating in them?

I signed up for the MPhil at the University of Glamorgan because I’d taught myself to write a decent novel, over several years and several novels, but I just couldn’t get over the bar into getting published, and I didn’t know what else was missing. At the time, the MPhil was the only Masters which was built round a book-length project, and that was exactly what I needed: support to make the novel I’d be writing anyway even better. That was the novel that became The Mathematics of Love. I don’t know if it would have been published without that extra help, but it certainly, certainly wouldn’t have made the impact it did, or been shortlisted for prizes.

I’d decided I didn’t want a conventional MA where you try most forms before settling for one, but when I came to teach Creative Writing for the Open University and had to teach a poetry module, I was profoundly grateful for having been in the MPhil workshops: it was a privilege and a huge education to hear the likes of Gillian Clarke and Sheenagh Pugh workshopping my poet peers. So I always say, even if you’re convinced you’re hard-wired for a particular form, as I am for novels, don’t neglect the chance to learn about how other forms work.

The PhD was a bit different, as it was just me and a supervisor. It was fascinating to connect my process in writing it with some of the great contemporary writers of historical fiction, and fantastic to find myself in the creative hothouse that is Goldsmiths. And it was support for writing A Secret Alchemy, which was under contract, in among the hullabaloo of The Mathematics of Love being published.

4) Doubtless it would always be better to sign up for a post-graduate university level degree course in creative writing, but in these economically difficult days, do you have any suggestions for an aspiring author who needs to create her own DIY Creative Writing course?

The best DIY course I know is the textbook for the Open University A215 course I teach, Linda Anderson and Derek Neale’s Creative Writing: A Workbook With Readings. You can buy it anywhere – you don’t have to do the course . Unlike most how-to-write books it’s structured week-by-week, because it’s designed for people working at home on their own, and it contains all the readings and texts that it talks about, for the same reason. It’s absolutely brilliant and I raid it all the time for the rest of my teaching. But it’s worth looking around for shorter courses and online courses too.

Other than that, I’d say, learn to read like a writer:- Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, and David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction are two of the best guides to that. Then try to find an online forum or a writer’s circle or both that suits you: one that’s the right mixture of supportiveness and ambition. Don’t be afraid to try a few, and walk out of a few, till you find the right one for you.

5) While preparing for this interview I read, and loved, your first novel ‘The Mathematics of Love’, [see my review here]an historical novel set in two time periods, post-Napoleanic Europe and England, and 1970’s England.

Writing historical fiction is about more than simply identifying your characters, doing a little research on the period and inserting your protagonists into a period setting.

The following are a list of questions which occurred to me as I devoured your novel, wondering “how did she do this?”

· How do you go about researching material for your novels?

I read around a lot, before I start, for flavour and atmosphere and to get a feel for things. I try to research the basics that will cause chaos if I find I was wrong, but I prefer to leave a lot of research till later. Otherwise I get bogged down in it, and writing the novel becomes an exercise in using data, which is disastrous. Then the first draft throws up a whole lot more I need to know – and I’ll do that later, if possible.

· Which comes first – the time period or your characters?

It depends – sometimes I have a story, and go “location hunting” to find a period which will mean it can flower with maximum drama. Sometimes I’ll have characters, and look for a story and a period that will give them a real work out. But periods have characters as strong for me as if they were people, so sometimes I want to work with a particular zeitgeist, and then I’ll start trying to dream up a story that will flower and be exciting in that period, and find characters that will work in it.

· Do you have any tips for carrying out research, any particular methods which might be considered ‘best practice’?

I never write worse than when I’ve got my research in the other hand. As Rose Tremain puts it,

“…all the research done for a novel … must rise into the orbit of the anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the novelist’s mind before it can acquire its own truth for the work in question… “Reimagining implies some measure of forgetting. … Data transferred straight from the research area to the book will simply remain data. It will be imaginatively inert.”

In other words, you have to leave the research behind – let yourself forget it – and then let the needs of the story draw on the researched material just like any other material, and shape it to the story.

· How do you balance the needs for historical accuracy with the requirements of excellence in fiction writing, a balance you have personally achieved?

Thank you for thinking I’ve achieved it! My job as a writer of any kind of fiction is to persuade the reader to agree to forget that none of this actually happened, by evoking a world which feels authentic. Historical accuracy is important because if readers don’t feel that it’s authentic, then the contract between me and them is broken – so I must be accurate where it matters for them. And I can be as right as right, but if they don’t believe me, then the novel doesn’t work: I have to persuade them to believe me. And, of course, readers do partly read for the “non-fiction pleasures” of finding out about times and places. But if they want History, they should go and read a history book. I’m writing fiction, and the needs of storytelling trump everything else.

· What are the difficulties in writing historical fiction as a contemporary genre?

I don’t think there are many – we’re in a bit of a golden age for historical fiction, and it’s easier to research than ever, now you can see original documents and places without stirring from your computer. There will always be readers who don’t understand why anyone would write about any time except 2013, but that’s their loss.

· Are there any special resources which you would particularly recommend to a wannabe writer of historical fiction? Where to start? Would you recommend reading a number of novels set in the time period one wishes to use as the setting? Or might one be better served by starting with the actual historical research?

I myself avoid novels set in a period I want to write about like the plague, thought I know other writers who read loads of them. I need my history first-hand, not second-hand: other historical fiction has pre-sifted the history, and their needs and interests for their story are different from mine. I absolutely do read the fiction and plays written in the period, though: that’s immensely important for the voice, as well as for the nitty-gritty of everyday life. Letters and diaries of the time are fantastic resources too. After that I would always start with the big outline – a general social history of the time, say, and books about your characters’ professions and interests.

· How much time did you devote to research when writing both your novels?

Oh, I don’t know. I’m always brewing the next novel, so perhaps a year or more “reading round” while I’m finishing the previous one? Then a bout of some weeks hard reading, and another bout once the first draft’s finished and I know what else I need. Though it always depends on when I can fit in the travelling, or the libraries, or whatever else.

· Any special tips for blending fact and fiction?

What I said further up, really: let go of the facts as facts: don’t let them have more priority or importance than the rest of your material. Having said that, if your imagination has led you down a particular road – especially with real historical characters – you may have to go and check whether you can get away with it. Brace yourself, though: what will you do if you find your research contradicts what you imagined? Can you compromise? Find a work-around? Or will you have to choose between good storytelling and good history

· Did you take copious notes? How do you organize all the material you must amass and gather?

I do take notes, but mostly as a way of getting stuff into my head – into Tremain’s “anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing” sphere of the mind. I try to ignore them when I’m actually writing, for the reasons I’ve talked about, except when I really need to check something. I buy books as much as I can, because then I can mark the margins (in pencil!) with headings, so I don’t have to take swarms of notes, but I can thumb straight through a book later and find what was useful to me ready-indexed. I also have a folder of Favourites in my browser, and of documents and images on the desktop, and magazine-files of stuff on my physical desk. I often forget they’re there, though!

6) The structure of your novel is somewhat different from that of other historical novels which shift and alternate between different time periods. Where they often allow a chapter per period you chose instead to move between periods almost without warning, thus setting up a series of connections which both develop and add layering to your novel as it moves towards the end. What considerations led you to structure your novel in this way? Did you plot your novel first laying down the various plot points with an outline of where your tale would go, or did you instead write your story first and only then try and organize it into a coherent whole? If you plan your novels would you mind sharing your plotting methods please?

I had a Waterloo veteran and I wanted to write about voyeurism and war and photography, but it was too early for photography. So I developed this parallel story from the last, pre-digital generation of photojournalists. It was for The Mathematics of Love that I developed my Novel Planning Grid, which seems to be helpful for lots of people. It’s a way of seeing how each strand works in itself, while also how it relates to the other strands. I always write novels in the order that the reader will read them, otherwise I get in a horrible muddle. But the beauty of the grid is that you only have to fill in what you know so far: blank squares just sit there reminding you that they still need working out. And I could track the interrelation between the two strands – things like themes, and nightmares in one strand which are reflected in the other.

On the moves between the two, the reader does get an asterisk, and the name of the new narrator. But I also had a rule that the first sentence after the switch needed to have at least two things to help anchor the reader quickly: a name or an object, and a very characteristic sentence which the other narrator couldn’t possibly have said.

7) In your blog post here you mentioned that part of your post-graduate studies involved writing a lengthy commentary about your work. Anything you’d care to share from your reflections on your own writing?

The commentary did have to be academic, and discuss my own writing in the context of past and contemporary historical fiction and theory. But I meant what I said at the beginning:

“The central theme of my novel A Secret Alchemy is storytelling, and this commentary itself is also an act of storytelling. It extrapolates backwards from the finished novel, and attempts a coherent account of what is an often incoherent and mysterious process of creation. Although that creative process may be put to the service of an artistic purpose which can be discussed and analysed, how the process served that purpose is only partly accessible to the creator.”

That was partly covering my back with the examiners – “trust me, I’m telling you stories” – but it’s also true, and it’s what most of “This Itch of Writing” is all about: how at the core of any creative act is something profoundly mysterious, and yet we have to try to understand and handle that mystery consciously and coherently.


There are probably far too many tools and suggestions sprinkled all over the landscape of your blogging world, for anyone to attempt to pick out any over and above the others. Yet even allowing for the sheer diversity and richness of content to be found within the archives of your blog, the following are the links I continuously return to, over and over again. I am listing them here for any readers of my blog who might care to check these out for themselves. Indeed, dear Reader, do yourself a favour and sign up to receive updates from Emma’s blog by e-mail!

· Books on Emma’s bedside table

· Emma’s favourite books about writing

· Blog posts and resources from Emma’s archives, covering the gamut of writerly concerns from the difference between showing and telling to learning how not to be afraid of long sentences, and much more besides.

·  Where Emma places a paragraph taken from Elizabeth Bowen’s novel ‘The Heat of the Day’ under the microscope of her literary detective eye; and teaches her readers how to study and learn from a mistress of the literary world.

· Where Emma recommends and reviews the incomparably excellent book How to Read Like a Writer by Francine Prose, a book which opened my eyes about how much wealth awaits the aspiring writer between the covers of some of our best literary masterpieces.

A heartfelt thank you to Emma Darwin for agreeing to this interview, though it might be more apt to call it an inquisition! Smile


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