Sunday, 20 February 2011

Being a writer sucks!

Whether you're an impoverished student driven by art and creativity, or a bestselling writer with a series of successful film adaptations living in a mansion in California, writing sucks. It sucks in a myriad of ways that never go away, regardless of how successful you are, or how many times you've been on the Richard & Judy book club. The hours are long, the pay and conditions are terrible, and your boss keeps muttering words of discouragement to you under his or her breath. If there were a union, we'd all be on the phone to it right now.

Last winter, I was complaining about the need to wear fingerless gloves to work. People who do normal jobs (hello Librarians, hello office workers) get to work in lovely warm offices. The heating is always on; not for them the indignity of working in a room where ice drips from the ceiling, nor the need to drink endless cups of tea to keep hands and fingers warm enough to stay mobile. Only the writer, working as romantic tradition has decreed she must, works in an upstairs garrett room with icicles forming on the end of her nose, and the wind whistling through her hair. Readers, for the writer, a harsh winter can be hell.

But I've discovered something worse than writing in winter, and do you know what it is? Yes, that's right: writing in summer.

Writing in summer is the grown-up equivalent of taking a GCSE on a balmy summer's day. As you sit at your desk, worry crowding your head and your pens lined up neatly on the wood before you, you gaze longingly out of the sports' hall window at the golden fields of wheat bending in the breeze, reflecting hot yellow in the sunlight. Children, playing joyously with hula hoops and paddling pools, taunt you with their carefree enjoyment of the beautiful day. And where are you? Indoors, trying to write a bloody novel.

Only a lunatic would attempt writing outdoors. There are wasps out there. And you can't see, anyway; no matter where you sit, the sun is going to bounce off your laptop screen and BLIND YOU. And in any case, most writers, unfortunate owners of that occupational writing hazard the bad back, can't write without a desk. All those hours hunched over scribbling in notebooks or on napkins balanced on their knees have done for their back and shoulders. You cannot take your desk outside. It makes you look mad.

And yet we still all do it, and why? When we have a sneaking suspicion that nobody will ever love us, and when we worry that our books will end up crowding out the shelves of the local charity shops like so much Da Vinci Code? We do it because even though being a writer sucks and YOU, yes YOU will never be as rich or as successful as Dan Brown or Doris Lessing or even Julie Otsuka, we're compelled. We love it and we're driven and we can't stop ourselves.

Now stop looking longingly out of that window and get on with it.

This week, I have:

Finished planning for FICTIONS OF EVERY KIND: CUTS
Begun my first rewrites of a new draft
Worked on preparing a first chapter for a first chapter competition
Knitted a bit of a cardigan.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Save our Libraries day!

Today, Saturday 5th February, was Save Libraries Day. And what a day it's been. All across the country, book-worms have been staging read-ins and protests at their nearest libraries.

Libraries are brilliant. Free, informative, and truly egalitarian, they provide an oasis of calm for the harassed city-dweller, and knowledge and information for the eternal students among us. A librarian friend told me about the range of services that are offered at her library: reading groups for people with learning disabilities, weight watchers groups, advice for job-seekers, internet access, writer's and gardener's groups, yoga - yes, yoga - and of course, the mainstay of the modern library - internet access, and inter-library loans.

Because they are generally frequented by bookish, unassuming types, it's easy to forget how important libraries are. And for councils looking to make savings, they can become an easy target for spending cuts. But sometimes our councils underestimate just how much people value their libraries.

This afternoon, a crowd of protestors gathered amongst the stacks in Leeds Library. Those who didn't have library cards gathered together the two necessary forms of ID to get one; and those of us who did, spent a pleasant couple of hours browsing the shelves, and then bringing our finds back to the floor for a good read. Protestors had their noses in books of all kinds. All over the floor lay novels by Solzhenitsyn, Plath, Carter, Auster, and Dostoevsky; and everywhere climbed piles of reference books covering subjects as diverse as knitting, psycho-geography, radical politics, and experimental physics. In our quest to stamp out our full allowances of books, no stone went unturned, and no corner of the library unplundered .... not even the Mills & Boon section at the back.

For a couple of hours, the library floor resonated with the sounds of laughter and pages turning. It was heartwarming to see that there are so many who care so passionately about library services that they will spend literally hours on a Saturday afternoon sitting on a cold floor, staging a sit-in.

I will leave you with a photo of Jess of The Travelling Suitcase library. Amongst the Stephen Kings and M Knight Shymalans, she found a real horror story.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


Like most other writers, I loves me a good library. A good library is a true escape. The door closes behind you as you go in, closing the bustle of the city centre behind you; and you are, at last, in an oasis of calm. The hubbub of conversation and banality fades behind you as you take those first vaunted, expectant steps up wooden stairs and tiled hall.

Even in the public city libraries, room and corridor smell of books. Their scent, dusty and hallowed, overpowers the smell of freshly-ground coffee from the tea shop and staff rooms. Walk up the steps into the reading room, and you can feel yourself enter another world: a world where there is quiet, and calm; a world where all the desks are old and wooden, and the librarians all dressed in twinsets and slacks.

Every shelf, from end to end, is stacked with books. Not every book is popular. Some, like the nerdy kid in PE class with the unfortunate co-ordination of a clumsy monkey, will always be the last to be picked. They remain on the shelves, the tops of their pages thick with dust, for months, while their more popular neighbours go out and come back again, their pages thumbed almost to the margins by the hands of many. But whether stamped out daily or monthly, the fact remains the same: a good book can take you anywhere. Held by its spell, the reader finds herself transported away to far away lands; she follows its characters wherever they go, sympathising with their struggles, resonating at the injustices they suffer - turning the pages lickety-split, desperate to know what happens next.

Yet books are not only there for escapism. They're also there to edify, and public libraries let every reader educate himself. Whatever you're interested in, whether it's animal husbandry or anatomy or particle physics, you can learn about it in the library - for nothing.

It's disappointing (infuriating? enraging?) to hear that many local authorities are starting to seriously consider closing down their public libraries. Many are starting to feel the bite of government belt-tightening, and are looking to see which of their services they can cut, or at least give a sizeable trim. In a time where massive job losses are already a reality, this seems seriously unfair. Libraries allow everybody - regardless of situation or background - to gain information and knowledge free of charge, and at the moment that seems more important than ever.

All across the country, people are protesting in new and creative ways - from banding together to take out all the books to demonstrate demand to the council, to staging read-ins and protests. The Guardian is running a blog on planned protests at libraries around the country: see their interactive map for details.

Happy protesting, everyone!

Currently reading

Invisible Paul Auster
Looking for the Possible Dance AL Kennedy
Cloud Atlas David Mitchell