Thoughts from a writing life…

Fay Weldon: a visionary teacher who lifted my writing to a publishable point.

Everyone is writing about Fay Weldon just now and I didn’t want to leap on the bandwagon. But truly, when I look back on the tortuous path from full time veterinary medicine (actually, full time veterinary anaesthesia and critical care, but that’s a distinction that matters only to a tiny minority of people), Fay is one of three individuals who helped me shift.

The first was the incomparable Reina James, a psychic astrologer who I went to see on a whim the day after my 30th birthday. I was a full time veterinary anaesthetist at this point, working in the clinical department of the vet school at Cambridge and while I was never what you’d call mainstream/reductionist in my thinking—I’d started training in shamanic practice by this time, and was already exploring homeopathy—nonetheless, I was still a lot more embedded in consensus reality than I am now.

Reina took a look at my chart, and, apart from telling me things about my childhood that I hadn’t at that point got around to mentioning to any of the therapists I’d seen in the previous decade, she listened to my nascent attempts to shift from vet med to writing as a career, nodded sagely and said, ‘Remember you’re a writer who happens to be making a living as a vet, not a vet who has writing as a part time hobby.’ I wept all the way back up the road to Newmarket. Barring one or two really close friends, nobody in my world took my writing seriously at that point: certainly not my veterinary colleagues who were pretty much my entire social circle. Even when Hen’s Teeth was published and shortlisted for the Orange Prize, nobody took much notice. If I’d been published in Nature, they’d have been impressed, but most of them had never heard of the Prize and those that had thought it was something to do with Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’ – a ghetto for lesbian memoirs.

So, Reina’s taking me seriously was the first step in realising that I needed to surround myself by other people who didn’t see writing as a companion weirdness to stamp collecting or live action role play. (with apologies to philatelists and LARPers – and actually, I did dark age battle re-enactment when I wasn’t climbing rocks, so I was really quite weird).

Anyway, this led me to explore the writing courses available nearby and I found one that was modelled on the Arvon system but held much closer to home. I picked a week when the students weren’t around and I was allowed to take time off and the first year, that turned out to be the week when Fay Weldon was the tutor. The following year, it was Terry Pratchett took that slot. Which is how I came to be the only person in the world who has played Dungeons and Dragons with both of these outstanding writers (it’s a long story, but the TL;DR is that Friday night was a down time which involved a great deal of red wine and I always carried my set of D&D dice with me. It didn’t take much to entice two quite creative people into what is essentially an act of live creativity). Fay’s verdict: ‘With short breaks for eating, drinking and a little sleep, one could become quite addicted to this.’ I count this as a win.

But what I remember best, were the three key nuggets of writing advice she gave.

First, was ‘Find your voice.’ For someone with a science background, I had no idea what she meant, but I took it to mean, ‘write as you speak’, which freed my up hugely and I continue to pass this on.

Second was, ‘Write the bits you can see.’ As so many people do, she likened writing to driving across a foggy landscape at night: you can only see as far as your headlights allow, so write that bit and when you’re done, your headlights will illuminate the next bit of the road. But she added the concept of the mountains on the landscape: if you can only see their peaks, write those and the fog will begin to disperse. Then you can see the landscape of the valleys. Wise words and again, it freed me up from having to know where any novel is going when I start it. In fact, it let me see that often, where I think I’m going is not, in the end, where we need to get to, but driving that road, so to speak, took me far enough out into the wilderness to see the real route. Enough of the geographical metaphors, the key is to write what you know, but not in the sense of rehashing the tedium of your life (please don’t do this), but write what you understand of your characters and what motivates them and you’ll get to know them well enough to fill in the rest.

Finally, of the many, many wise things she said, ‘Your realities can have any rules you like as long as the reader understands them and you don’t break them.’ This came only slightly ahead of ,‘Magical realism is fantasy written by your friends.’

In the context of that particular late-night conversation, she was suggesting that even way back then in the dying days of the old millennium, the restrictions of genre and literary category would suffocate us if we let them. Conversely, if we could write something strong and compelling, the genres would bend around us. So write what you want and then it’s up to your publisher to work out where it goes in the bookshops. These days, with so many people taking control over their own work and self-publishing, this is doubly true. The sub-genres to the sub-genres are huge and people who like reading may be fewer and further between than, say, the people who want to spend their time surfing Netflix or getting into flame wars on Twitter. But books have never been so accessible, or so capable of shifting the ways we think.

All of which is to say, if you want to write, please, please give it the time. As the equally great Terry Pratchett said, ‘Writing is the most fun anyone can have on their own.’ And he’s right. So get on and do it. And have fun.



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