Well, it is my turn to contribute to the writing process blog tour. Thanks to http://thornemoore.blogspot.co.uk/ who nominated me to contribute to this tour, whose blog provides a fascinating insight into her current works in progress, and to all the other writers who have contributed. I am pleased to answer the four questions in the tour, although somewhat in awe of my fellow women writers who seem to be both productive and highly original.
1. What are you working on?
Way too much at the moment – but that’s nothing new. I seem to have been working on one hundred and one things at once for years. At present, I am copy editing my novel Inshallah which will be published by Honno on 17th July this year. http://www.honno.co.uk/dangos.php?ISBN=9781909983083. I still find it hard to believe it is finished as it has been a powerful experience writing it, and of all my writing, it has been the work that has taught me the most about being a writer. Inshallah is the first person narrative of a Welsh woman, Amanda, who is raped by a Saudi Arabian man, falls pregnant, marries him and converts to Islam. She moves in with his family in Saudi Arabia where she learns to be a proper Arab wife, and bears him five children. Her relationships with other women provide her with support when he becomes abusive, but over time the threat to her life and those of her children escalates. Set partly during the time of the first Gulf War, it is a snapshot of her life over ten years.
At the same time, I am writing another novel, with the title of My Beautiful Boy, which looks at love and loss, and most importantly, truth and lies. It explores the unstable nature of ‘truth’ and its relationship to identity. Mia is a writer, lecturer and world-leading authority on infant loss, having suffered a still birth at the age of 18. But 18 years later, a young man appears on her doorstep, claiming to be her son. This feels like the book I have been waiting to write for the last 23 years, as it is inspired by some personal experiences. Writing is a strange process, part self-exploration, part-self-exposition, but all defined as fiction, as an extrapolation from the original ‘fact’ or idea. These were some of the themes I explored in my PhD, looking at the blurred boundaries between biography and fiction, the intersection of two worlds of historiography and creative fiction. I find writing this book can be challenging at times, dragging the words out from some place deep inside myself, but I also find this to be a powerful experience, so I persevere.
I currently have another idea on the back burner, which is more risqué, and I wrote the treatment for the book and a few pages of the narrative whilst on a recent holiday in Goa. I won’t go into details but it’s yet another moral dilemma! At the same time as working on fiction, I have my other life, my academic life, and at present I am working on some book chapters. The first is for a book called Queer Wales, an edited collection, and the second is for a book on Representing Motherhood. My chapter for the latter is about the representation of motherhood in public spaces, especially the broadcast media, but also in film and in fiction. I have already done some work for a poster presentation on this topic, looking at how women are represented in a subject position which emphasises their lack of control and lack of knowledge, ascribing power and control to health professionals. I am also working on a chapter on writing a research report, for a healthcare research book. I have a couple of journal articles in the works, and two boxes on my desk at work with red files full of materials for future articles, once I get a chance to write them!
Finally, I am editing a midwifery memoir, which is built on the bones of my blog onceuponamidwife.wordpress.com, and explores my experiences of being a midwifery student. So far it has been rejected by one agent and I am sending it out to others, and to a number of publishers. The editing process involves me trying to make it more ‘alive’ rather than a dry, retrospective account. I truly believe that people in general have no idea what midwives really do, and what they go through during their training and beyond. And I want to lift the lid on the way that women fuel society by bringing the next generation into the world, raising them, and setting them on their paths to the future.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This is a tough one. As far as Inshallah is concerned, it is radically different and original in a number of ways. It is not a misery memoir, but instead a personal account which dips into the experiences of a woman, told entirely through her eyes. At one point it was suggested to me that I explore the perspectives of other characters in the narrative, but for me, the book had to be only from Amanda’s perspective, flawed as it is. The writing is uncompromising and the sexual violence is dealt with explicitly, in Amanda’s voice. But at the same time, the love and affection she experiences with her best friend Grace is referred to more obliquely. Writing only from Amanda’s perspective, with ellipses of time which increase the pace as the novel progresses, is perhaps innovative, I am not sure.
I hesitate to place my work in any genre, and again, some of my PhD work looked at the issue of genre and its limitations. Whilst I would call my work fiction, it is based on certain realities, and is inspired by real experiences or events in my life. The closest thing I could come to labelling it would be women’s life narrative because while the events and characters are created, their feelings, perspectives and insights are, to my mind, ‘real’. Having said that, the most important thing about Inshallah is that people read it, and I think placing it within one genre or another would limit its audience. It is, simply, a novel.
Having said that, my writing over time has never fitted in with any real genre. My first novella, still unpublished (but one that I might self-publish one day) is a kind of post-apocalyptic teen story, way ahead of its time in the face of the current marketplace as I wrote it in 1996. I have written one lesbian romance, which is truly terrible in its naivety, and a pagan novel which was written for my MA in Creative Writing. Again, flawed, Dark Harvest remains on the back burner until I have the time and inclination to rewrite it along more conventional lines in terms of supernatural fiction.
As for my memoir, Once Upon a Midwife, well, it doesn’t paint a rosy picture of some golden age of midwifery. It deals frankly and openly with the process of becoming a midwife, as I feel I would not be doing myself or my readers any favours by blurring the edges of such life changing experiences. Again, is this innovative? I couldn’t say. I just want to write, and I want people to read my writing, to feel something when they read it.
3. Why do I write what I do?
Well, I started answering this in the last question, but I think I need to break it down. Firstly, why do I write? Because I absolutely love writing. I love the process, picking up a pen, or sitting at a keyboard or typewriter – it’s a simple, honest and deep pleasure to find a narrative voice and give it life. I write all the time – whether in my diary, fiction, teaching materials for work, academic work, memoir, blogs . . . working in a University is the closest I can get to being paid to write, frankly, and this is one of the reasons I love what a do. But in terms of writing fiction – why do I write what I do? Because I have spent my life looking for stories that seize me and make me feel, that hold me in their grip and won’t let me go. I am an avid, lifelong reader, a true bibliophile, and to me there is no greater pleasure to be had than being carried away by a truly wonderful story. I was seven years old when I made up my mind that I wanted to be a writer, and started writing stories, and I wrote about my life, my dreams, my feelings. Later, at 15, I confided in a teacher at school, and she told me that I would have to read more and to keep on writing. I never stopped. Through years of self-doubt and life lessons, I always wrote what I felt, what moved me. As my life moved on, this coalesced into a true belief in the power and wonder of women and the lives that they lead, unheralded, uncelebrated. The woman walking down the street, perfectly unremarkable in appearance, may be carrying the most poignant, powerful or heartbreaking story inside her. The woman who rises in the morning to face a world of pain and loss, and still turns to her fellow traveller on the bus and smiles, or the woman who makes difficult, inexplicable choices and then lives with the responsibility of her actions – these are the women whose stories I wish to explore, to understand. These hidden worlds, these vast oceans of passion, the infinite capacity to love . . . such things inspire me. These things make me want to write.
4. How does my writing process work?
I’d like to say I am one of these disciplined writers who gets up at 5 to do a couple of hours before work, but that’s not the case. I am a bit odd, in that I have no set routine, but I do a few motifs that run through my writing process. Firstly, there is the diary – I write in it most days, and often it will segue into something like an idea for a story. Usually, I write in it when my mind is idle – such as when I am waiting for articles to load at work, or during meetings, or on the train, or whilst watching television. That keeps my own inner narrative running, and frees my mind and imagination for when I can truly engage with fiction.
Fiction writing is a particularly interesting process, as I write best either with music playing, or in busy places, or both. Inshallah was written predominantly in cafes, either during visits to Aberystwyth to see my supervisors, or more often in a well known coffee chain in Cardiff, whilst my son was in Games Workshop on weekends indulging in 6 or 8 hour marathons of playing with tiny plastic fantasy armies. Armed myself with my Ipod, a regular supply of tea with soya milk, and occasional snacks, I would sit with my yellow A4 pad (don’t know why yellow, it just happened) and my special fountain pen, and read the last few pages I had written, then take up the narrative. At times, I would play certain songs over and over and over to capture a particular feeling or mood, writing as fast as I could to get things down. Some parts of it had to be written at home as I had to explore certain experiences – such as wearing Hijab, or exploring Arabic recipes – and this involved a kind of ‘method’ writing. Every couple of months, I typed up what I had written longhand and pulled it into some kind of order, which then put the narrative into perspective and helped me to identify where I needed to go next in Amanda’s story. During the editing and shaping process, I worked both in longhand and on the screen.
I am following a similar process for My Beautiful Boy, but unfortunately (or fortunately) my life has moved on, in that I am in a wonderful, loving relationship and so do not spend my Saturdays and Sundays alone in a coffee shop! My son no longer spends all his time playing games, but has grown into a moody teenager who spends his weekends with his girlfriend. Writing still happens on yellow legal pads, with music playing, but now I have to schedule times to do this. I am lucky enough to be able to work at home from time to time, and usually my fiction writing occurs sometime during a working at home day. Typically, I get up at around 7 and do my paid work until around 12, then take a long lunch break, during which I will write some fiction. This involves locking myself in my study, putting on appropriate music, and sitting in front of the yellow pad with a fountain pen, forcing my brain back into the narrative voice. If I can’t find it, I will do some editing and re-read what I have written so far, and maybe jot down some character notes and potential plot elements, but I don’t have a detailed plan. The story tells itself. I have to let the characters come into being, and speak with their voices.
On a typical working day, I have an early morning commute (I leave around 6 am). Now that the sun is up I have a beautiful drive to work through some lovely scenery, and I just let my mind do its job and ruminate on my writing whilst I am driving. By the time I get to work, I either give myself half an hour at my desk to jot down my thoughts, or I have a brief nap in the car before starting work at 7.30 or 8, then again, I let my mind wander during my commute home. I get home, have a cup of tea, make dinner, then put on the music again, and write. If my partner is working in the evening, or on a weekend, I shut the door and put the music on loud on the stereo, and write until my hand and my butt are both numb from being in the same position for too long. I stop only to pee, make more tea, and occasionally eat.
For some reason, my mind loves busy places. Often, when out with my partner in a pub, I may be left alone while she goes for a cigarette, and out comes a small notebook and I will write furiously until she returns. I get a lot of odd looks and comments when this happens, but I don’t care. I don’t know why such places are inspirational, but I won’t let any opportunity to write pass me by.
Once a full draft is written and typed up, I let it sit for a while, and don’t do anything creative for a few days or even weeks. Then I print it out and spend a couple of hours reading, editing and making notes, before returning to it on screen and filling in the blanks. Then it’s time to send it out and see what others make of it. I guess that’s a rather jumbled account of my ‘process’ but it works for me. I know that the key for me is an end point. The story has to run until I know in my mind where it will finish, and then it’s downhill all the way to the finish line. Then the real work begins, to make it say what it was I wanted it to say.
So that’s my writing process. I have to finish by saying that I love writing. I would do it even if I wasn’t published, but I am utterly delighted that Inshallah is going to be published and I get to share Amanda’s story with the world. Now on to the next women who will continue this writing blog tour. I believe these are:
Catherine Marshall, author of Excluded and Masquerade. Read her blog (as Kate MacCormack) at http://www.katemaccormack.blogspot.co.uk/ and visit her website: http://www.catherine-marshall.co.uk/
Judith Barrow, author of the brilliant Pattern of Shadows and Changing Shadows (and soon a third instalment of the trilogy I hope): visit her website and blog at http://www.judithbarrow.co.uk/