• Dawn Robinson-Walsh

A fine balance between ego and insecurity

I love the concept of a literary festival, where successful, established published authors talk or are interviewed about their writing, for there is so much to be learned.

Especially, I adore the Appledore Book Festival, logistically close, professionally organised, with some amazing speakers. Writers can always glean wisdom from listening to others about their thought and writing processes.

One visiting author this year was Joanne Harris (famous for Chocolat ) who often employs multiple first-person narrators in her books without (as she commences) a necessarily clear idea of where the plot is going. Each narrator guides her writing. A difficult technique, but obviously worthwhile as Joanne's books ably demonstrate.

Three comments she made were of special interest.

1. That her characters weave their own stories over a period of time, sometimes years. Her powerful character descriptions are based on memories, thoughts dredged up from the dark recesses of her brain.

2. She does not write about what she sees every day. For example, she lives in Yorkshire but her views are not what she sees from her window, for she largely writes from memory about life in rural France. She has many childhood memories tucked away from village life in France, creating such a developed sense of place. French is her mother-tongue and the tongue of her mother. That said, her village setting in France could be any village, anywhere. The implication is that experience of something is vital within fiction writing, but it is easier to write from that experience if it is matured, mellowed, even partially-hidden so one truly thinks about it.

This makes great sense to me. If you think about the past, with the benefit of time and hindsight, then the elements you recall are the important parts, the aspects which affected, for good or ill, behaviour and your psyche. We will not know the monumentalism of for some time of what happens to us in the current moment. Politically, Brexit may seem important now, but in ten years, it might not be, not to us as individuals. An example, Joanne gave was that she did not feel prepared to write about motherhood until she actually became a mother of a maturing child.

3. The importance of editing/being edited by a competent external source who can say: that doesn't make sense to me, why did you describe it like that? She explained how writing is an uneasy balance between ego and insecurity. Some people are so egotistically driven that they assume their work is extremely good and brook no changes or challenges to it. These are people who churn stuff out; alas, the content of the churn is often poor quality.

Others feel too insecure in their writing to ever put it forward for public scrutiny at all. This is a common issue among fledgeling writers. The time to go public is never clear cut but eventually, you have to take the plunge to be published. The answer seems to be to listen to your professional editor, to take time out to make appropriate amends, perhaps, but also to have inner confidence in what you write. This will only happen if you are writing what you feel compelled to express.

I learned less about writing technique from another speaker, Jenny Eclair, who is primarily a comedienne. However, fascinatingly, her books always start with a place, a house, space, a location. That is interesting to me, as I always assume that character is key with location secondary, but perhaps if you choose your setting, then the characters are born from within it. She mentioned social anxiety, where she is happiest performing on stage (perhaps writing a book is a stage equivalent).

Finally, Jeremy Vine, a TV/radio presenter. He is very entertaining with many tales about politicians met, including Boris Johnson, so it was fun to listen to a broadcaster's experience. One interesting assertion was that power is no longer quite as top-down as politicians imagine. The ordinary people can bring a politician 'down', as everything they say or do now is recorded and all over social media. That said, society here and in Trump's US strikes me as increasingly toxic, a life lived with people saying exactly what they think, not filtered. So things which may once have ended political careers are now lauded. Political correctness is making an exit, blunt, bludgeoning honesty and conflict is taking its place. For good or ill.

His comments on the Eton-based confidence of numerous top politicians were also fascinating. This is something I noticed in previous dalliances with the public schools where children often develop confidence the state sector fails to provide.

Does this later become political arrogance? Maybe. It rather returns us to Joanne Harris on ego! Don't listen, learn or brook any challenge and keep churning out the same old rubbish!

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