Of Sermons and Silence

I shouldn’t be surprised when I notice the persistence of the written word, and of language itself. It’s something we all use all the time, naturally, and it’s the medium in which I’ve chosen to try to express myself more than any other. Even these words, sent off to into the great wild to make their way on their own, will carry a force and a diligence greater than that which I gave them, or intended them to have.

They’ll live on, it seems: recently I’ve had some interesting comments and messages, both here and on Facebook, about words that I wrote a long time ago. And then, so unexpectedly that it made me squeak out loud, I was told that my novel had been referred to in a sermon about the power of silence. Those ancient words of mine, printed in black and white, then given colour in a sermon.

There have been some more reviews, some appreciative and complimentary, some less so, and so far the book’s sold more than I thought it would. But now it’s been used in a sermon…how do I know this? Simple – the vicar in question blogged his sermon, as he always does. A piece of oratory, crafted with rhetorical skill to be heard and received directly, is then sent off to its own wider world, and that world interacts with mine. Needless to say I’m now reading these sermons regularly, and you can too, at http://www.reluctantordinand.co.uk/.

So our words outlive us – or outlive the directions we gave them, for sure. I shouldn’t be surprised, yet when you think how many words are sent off on missions every second, it’s still enjoyable to see and hear them coming back to say hello once in a while. I recommend you tell yours to stay in touch next time they leave home: you’ll be glad to bump into them again someday, if only to remind yourself why you sent them out in the first place. And if you’re worried that you won’t like what you once said then listen to the persistence of the sermon, and only use words when absolutely necessary.

Of Cheques and Balances

springLast spring, shortly after my story, “Borders”, was published in issue 299.2 of The North American Review, I received a cheque through the post as payment for the rights to use the work.

It’s an odd thing, being paid for writing stories. It’s the same when I get royalty statements from my publishers for my latest novel, released last November. I know that I don’t write for money, naturally, but at the same time I feel that I should get paid for what I do – or, that literature has a value that needs to be measured somehow, and one of those ways can be pecuniary.

But it shouldn’t be. Art exists to make us realise what it is to be human, not to make us a financial profit; the profit we make is primarily cultural, and this exchange is the payment that artists get. It takes time and effort to produce work, and that time and effort needs rewarding: some say that reward should be in cold, hard cash…

There are various reasons why I choose which publications to submit work to: it might be that the magazine is particularly well-respected, or is international in scope, or is connected to a particular publisher or target audience. More often than not it’s simply because I prefer the style, content and editorial nature of one publication over another. ‘I like the work in here,’ I say to myself, ‘and I want my work to be in it too.’ It’s that simple.

Note that not one of these reasons has anything to do with payment, or not financial payment, anyway. The rewards I get for having my work published are cultural and artistic. If I wanted to survive only on the money I get paid for writing then I’d be writing advertising copy or promotional blurb for a living – the writer who survives on their creative output is a rare beast indeed.

And that’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. It means that folk (such as me) write because they want to, and write what they want to, rather than trying to second- or third-guess the demands of the market. Isn’t that how art exists, and why? Or am I just incredibly old-fashioned about this? Yes, I’d love my latest novel to sell a million copies, win all the awards going, and for me to be pestered to option the film rights, but it’s not going to happen and I’m fine with that. That’s not why I wrote it.

Similarly, I didn’t write “Borders” just to get it published in The North American Review and cash that cheque. I wrote it because I thought I had something to say, quietly, about leaving and returning, about being allowed to choose how to live. Once the story was finished I then thought about having it published – this story was that rarest of exceptions, the one which gets accepted by the first publication you send it to, and I was and am thrilled and honoured by this. I got to see my story in print, in a very good, very old, well-respected, influential and consistently interesting magazine. Do I need any more payment than that?

In front of me now, because I’ve just dug it out from my desk, is that same check that was sent to me when the story was accepted. Since I live in the UK it’s hard to cash a cheque in US dollars. It’s not a big check, either. And with so many magazines struggling to survive it seems kind of inappropriate to take payment beyond free copies or a subscription.

And besides, that’s not why we write. I’ve got the check to look at, if I want to, to tell me that someone thought my work was worth paying for. As an incentive to keep writing, that’s pretty good. When the cheques and royalty statements start adding up to the thousands, I’ll start cashing them. Until then, that fact that publishers and editors are willing to pay me, merely by considering the work for publication, is payment enough, thanks.

Great Writing 2015

Logo Sign

Just a few days until this year’s Great Writing conference – it’s odd to think that we’ve been doing this for 18 years now, and I’ve been actively involved in the organising, arranging and running this beast for the last eight years.

For the last four years it’s been held at Imperial College, London – which is one of the reasons that the range of countries represented continues to grow – this year we can add Brazil, Malaysia and Portugal to the ever-increasing list: we really must get a map sorted out so that we can stick pins in it to represent the many, many fine folk who’ve been and the many wonderful places they’ve come from.

Last year’s conference was an absolute cracker: many thought it the best GW ever, so this weekend’s fun has a lot to live up to. There are still a few places available if you want to attend – see greatwriting.org.uk for more details, or to register, but you’d better be quick.

For some reason I’ve managed to give myself the really difficult task of presenting for twenty minutes with no preparation – I’m part of a panel talking about plagiarism, process and pedagogy, so I’m deliberately aiming to steal, borrow or ‘be influenced by’ the words of my fellow presenters, and see what happens. It could be a disaster…but the GW folk are all fine, cheery people, so if it all goes pear-shaped then at least they’ll be supportive, and comment on my bravery/follishness. We shall see.

Of Interviews and Responses

Those lovely folk at Ink Pantry Publishing recently asked me for an interview, and it’s now online should you feel the need to read my chatterings about the novel – here: http://inkpantry.com/blog/inky-interview-simon-holloway-kevin-milsom/

It’s an odd thing being interviewed – and Kevin asked me some difficult questions on my writing process which made me think more precisely about what it is that I do. Or perhaps what it is that I’d like to do, in that wonderful ideal world of being able to write where and when you want.

I’m not one of those people who can write anywhere, or anywhen, unfortunately. But I’m equally not restricted to having to sit at my desk from nine till eleven to get anything done. Writing happens where it does – surely we all need to concentrate on just getting it done, however that may be for us? It doesn’t get written on its own.

I digress, perhaps. Read the interview and let me know what you think – how would you answer the same questions? Does it help to be obliged to consider what you do, and why? Are you worried about breaking the ‘secret code’, or should we talk about this more openly, even if only to ourselves?

Creative Writing and Education

CWE coverOut now – a new book which explores creative writing and its various relationships to education through a number of short, evocative chapters written by key players in the field. At times controversial, it talks about issues, ideas and practices related to creative writing in and around education, with a focus on higher education.

Rob Pope (Emeritus Professor, Oxford Brookes University), who knows a lot about these things, says that “This is a tremendously stimulating and timely book. Global in scope yet sensitive to local conditions, this is a collection that will help recast the future of Creative Writing in Education at large. Teeming with expert dialogues and punctuated by synoptic commentaries, the volume is unusual in spanning school, college and university, and in exploring the relations between Creative Writing, research and teaching. I thought I had thought a lot about these things. It makes me think again – afresh.”

For more info, or to buy, click here: http://www.multilingual-matters.com/display.asp?isb=9781783093526. The publishers  are also currently offering a 50% discount on the whole New Writing Viewpoints series, so you can buy the lot! Enter the code NWV2015 at the checkout – valid for both print and ebooks.

Oh, and in a small way, I’m in it. But you’ve probably guessed that by now….

Brel, A Campaigner and a Review

Here’s a thing: I have a soft spot for Alastair Campbell. You know, the man who engineered Tony Blair’s rise and years in power. The spin doctor’s spin doctor. And I don’t mean what he did in those years (although you have to admire a man who’s so good at his job, even if you don’t agree with what he did.)

But since he resigned from the formal world of politics he’s been more active in his other roles – he’s still engaged with politics, writes a lot, runs even more, and does a lot of work for charity. It’s this last bit which interests me most, as he champions the work of mental health charities to remove some of the taboos about mental health issues. Having worked for MIND myself, and taught in various locations and at varying academic levels, it’s a topic which is dear to me – we see so many vulnerable, often desperate people, who cannot get the help they need. Speaking out loud is one way we can try to change this, and Mr. Campbell does so, very loudly indeed. You can read more on his blog, particularly a letter he received from a student who tries to use writing as a way to express herself, the way we all do: click here.

And personally, it’s his love too for Jacques Brel which strikes home with me. He made a radio show about Brel a few years ago which has always stuck in my mind, so much so that I sent him a copy of the novel to see if he’d like the way that Lucy sees Brel. He was, I’m delighted to say, not only keen to read it but also happy to review it, and here are his thoughts:

Words cover“I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, especially the use of Jacques Brel’s passion and desperation to communicate as an expression of Lucy’s all-encompassing need to speak and be heard amid the white noise of her life and relationships. There are a number of complex and entwining themes that will keep you interested and which reward the reader page after page, and the plot is unconventional and therefore doesn’t let you down. Highly recommended, even though personally I could have coped with yet more Brel in the story!”

Well, thanks Alastair. It’s an honour to have you read and like the book, and if I thought I could have got away with more of Jacques then I would have done. I’ll end with a quick plug for his own new book, Winners and How They Succeed, in which he explores what it is that makes people in all walks of life succeed.

Or, as Jacques would say, “Le talent, ça n’existe pas. Le talent, c’est d’avoir envie de faire quelque chose.”

Of Wondering and Writing

Well, wonders abound. It seems I’m writing again.

Not the next novel, sadly: that will have to wait for a while. And there’s still the book for Palgrave that needs finishing by December 1st, and we’ve had an idea for another sitcom, and there’s also the chance of being able to write a full-length stage adaptation of something wonderful and difficult and awkward (although that’s at least a year and a half away, and lots of things will have to fall into place for it to happen…)

But there’s some short fiction bubbling around, and, oddly, I appear to be writing poetry again. Curious, but welcome.

My point, given all that I’ve said above, is this: are you a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a dramatist for either screen or stage, or are you merely a writer? I was at an event with Zahid Hussain recently, and we were chatting about how many writers seem to define themselves and their work according to the medium in which they write. ‘I’m a poet’, they’ll say, or ‘I’m a novelist.’ Am I the odd one out here in calling myself ‘a writer’? Do we need to categorise ourselves, to place ourselves into neat compartments? Will this make others like our work more? Will it make us write more?

Answers on a postcard, I suppose. In the meantime I’ll just keep tapping and scribbling, and try to work out what the most effective form is for each story, as it comes. There’s enough pleasure in each to keep me working.