Doing less to achieve more

23 03 2013


One of the most valuable lessons I learned from working with my acutely perceptive editor Kate Parkin is how to let go of what I don’t need. Over the course of two books, Kate showed me patterns in my writing and made suggestions on how I could improve clarity. As a writer it’s humbling to watch your stylistic tics and idiosyncrasies slither into your work despite your best efforts to keep them out. In my case, some of my habits were tenacious. In early writing, I had a tendency to overdo description because I suppose I felt that I just hadn’t painted the scene in enough. Anything less than full saturated-colour felt lazy and lacklustre. Now I know better how to nail a scene with just the essential details. My choices as a writer have become simpler and more confident.

A good editor, and Kate is more than good, acts like an air traffic controller guiding the pilot author in the right direction so that she can deliver the book and come home safely. Sometimes the editor might have to step in and prevent the book from crashing. That’s not a situation I have yet had to face, but it’s comforting to know that were I to go veering completely off-course, Kate would find a way to gently bring me back.

A good editor, then, is grounding. One of my idiosyncrasies is a difficulty in understanding timing and that includes knowing when I’ve given enough. My tendency is always to do more than I think I need. Some parts of The Beautiful Truth were written at breakneck speed not only because I had a deadline to meet, but also because I was terrified that if I stopped to look up from the laptop and come back to real time I would never return to the scenes spooling across my mind like crackly old black and white news reels.

Knowing that I was delivering first to someone whose critical judgement I trusted before my work met the wide world was enormously encouraging in the same way that I imagine cross-channel swimming is made all the more bearable by knowing that there will be someone with towels and hot drinks ready for when you reach the far shore. Just someone to say: you made it. Well done. It’s enough.

Writing a novel is such a monumental effort of will that it’s hard not to chuck everything at it as you go along. My first two novels were written against the grain of my own resistance and the process of working on them not unlike the feeling of pitchforking sodden clay soil into a wet wheelbarrow. As this is something I do daily, I know how after a few weeks of this my shoulder muscles have packed up. Tired muscles can’t do the work they’re supposed to.

A year ago I didn’t know this, but my writing muscle needed a good rest. Years of pushing it to carry loads beyond its natural strength had weakened it. I found that whenever I started something new, instead of writing freely I was reaching for sentences that felt easy and familiar. I was also filling notebooks with plans for ever more ambitious projects and spending sleepless nights wondering how I was going to achieve them. I didn’t intend to stop working – I still don’t and will write until I’m ninety nine if I stay alive that long – but something in me made me slow down. Instead of racing into the next project, I let myself have a bit of drifting time. Colm Toibin calls this ‘staying in your mental pyjamas,’ and it is an essential part of the creative process.

I’m a little less drifty now. As spring approaches, I can feel my energy rising along with the urge to get back onto my hard little chair and hammer out another book. But even in my excitement and impatience, I’m trying to remember to take it easy and leave something in reserve.

This time around, I’m going to take another sound piece of advice from my editor and try to do less to achieve more.

Some ways of looking at light

13 03 2013


Learning photography has made me pay more attention to light. As soon as the cloud lifts, I find my eyes drawn to my camera which has been sat in darkness for the past month. My photography teacher is uninspired and so am I. We’ve agreed to put lessons on hold for a while until the light improves. There was a bit of sparkle in the sea today and I felt my spirits lift. The season is turning, and spring is pushing up from the ground. A woman in Turn of the Tide, one of my favourite local shops, noted that the birds are sounding sweeter.  

I bought an emerald green scarf, jewel bright, soft. It’s still too cold to wear it, but I imagine lighter days will be here soon. People seem more open as spring approaches. March feels like it’s the true beginning of the year, the time when light grows stronger.

 I’m noticing lightness in people, too. The young woman in the co-op was only too happy to thinly slice ham for me even though she had never used the machine before. She took five minutes or so to get the slicer going and apologised all the way through the procedure: you must think it’s like being served by a clown. At one point the manager arrived to see how she was getting on. Clearly slicing ham was not part of her job description, but she was happy to have a go and make a hash of it, which was why I didn’t begrudge her the five minutes she needed. Her light-heartedness inspired me to be generous.

It’s only when people are light with each other that true generosity is possible. It’s only when people give up holding on to what makes them heavily important that they become people who inspire. As part of my professional life, I watch many presentations and have developed an aversion to the laboured point, the overly spelled out, the heavy emphasis, the worthy yet dull. I expect to endure presentations rather than enjoy them.

An inspired presentation by a professor from the University of Washington has got me thinking about the nature of shared ideas in scholarship. Too many academic presentations deliver theory like a hard brick of knowledge, built on the foundations of previously cited identical bricks; it is rare to encounter theory that lets in the light and air in the form of an invitation to comment and connect with pieces that may not precisely fit.

Perhaps I’m stretching the metaphor here, but a dry stone wall composed of irregular stones is a much stronger structure than a brick wall, and can last for centuries. Facts and data can always be quickly manufactured and will always feel flimsy. Knowledge built from ideas that have had time to ripen and season can feel like the beginning of a work of art.

Listen and Trust

5 03 2013


One of things I find dismaying about the use of text and, to a certain extent, email is the lack of trust involved. It is easier to issue commands through text, to make your point without concern for nuance or tone, to act in pure self-interest. Each text is a flat communication. I have taken to ignoring texts I find offensive and the effect has been somewhat liberating. My lack of response may indeed seem rude in return, although I have yet to be challenged on my silence.  My response I have decided shall be this:

I’m always happy to talk with you. Please come and talk to me. I will listen.

All communication is a two-way process, a dialogue between those who wish to speak and those who listen to what is said. A text which denies the recipient the opportunity to listen short circuits the communication process.

If we have something valuable to say, we need to ensure that we have someone who is prepared to listen. Every time we write, we open the door to someone to listen. Every time we write and we acknowledge that there is someone out there who will listen, we build trust. Writing even a text without acknowledging the listener is not communication, it is shouting. And shouting erodes trust.


Have you ever been in a situation where someone is trying to make their point by forcing someone else to acknowledge their words? I have. I have witnessed this form of emotional bullying countless times. Unfortunately it has often been children on the receiving end. I shall never forget the visceral disgust I felt on witnessing an autistic teenage boy being yelled at by a senior teacher whose rage was so extreme it reduced all the classrooms in the corridor to silence.  I have had people try to force their opinions on me, and my response, too, has been silence.  

Silence is not the protest of the weak; it is the voice of the strong. Silence is the only response to any form of communication that abuses trust.

Trust begins when we can listen without fear of manipulation. Trust begins when we stop playing status games and start to listen.

In order to listen to others we must listen to ourselves. I realise that when I’m with a person who is determined to make their point without acknowledging my role as a listener that I get defensive. Instead of listening harder to myself, I start to lean in harder to what they are saying. In this way I become deaf to my own voice, my own thoughts, my own ideas. Rarely in my professional life do I meet someone who is truly interested in my ideas – most people talk because they want to share their ideas. A lot of people talk to writers because they think the writer can help them with their own writing project.

I’m getting better at going quiet on people who stop the communication process. It has made me realise that the people who value trust have the most to say. 

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