Childhood Revisitations

This is a writing experiment for someone who wants a boost of energy to take their revising deeper, or anyone who’s come to a bit of a halt in their drafting. It could also be a valuable exercise in the early stages of planning a book.

Writing experiment: Reread a favourite book of your childhood, or a favourite fairy story or myth you first encountered as a child. Perhaps choose something that was once important to you, but that you have not read in ages. You might have even forgotten most of its details, or there might be several variations – in which case it could be interesting to compare them.

It’s also good to listen to audio versions, or maybe to get someone to read them to you. Sometimes listening can arouse memories and deep feelings in a way that reading a printed page cannot. (Though audiobooks were not an option back then, I now am remembering my vinyl 45 Read Alongs of Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat and Disney’s It’s A Small World …)

As you read/listen, jot down any details that strike your attention. Characters, objects, settings. Turning points, emotional shifts, inexplicable but enthralling twists and reversals. Look out for powerful archetypes, or currents and themes that have played a role in your future life. Also jot down any particular lines or scenes that really pop out to you, or things you didn’t notice before.

Now: consider how these striking ingredients can serve as vectors for your work-in-progress in some way. VECTOR: a quantity that possesses weight and momentum as well as direction. How can these new ingredients add ballast and depth and forward-moving energy to your story?

You could add details in a literal way: the Little House books invite you to trap your characters in a snowstorm, or Alice in Wonderland gives you a disorganised tea party. Or you could translate more deeply, if indirectly, e.g., developing a character’s princess complex (remember that men can be princesses too). Or rereading The Secret Garden might help you see how a clearer focus could be built around the loneliness of a protagonist. Or you could introduce, however loosely, three wishes into a story to help give it some shape and pacing through repetition and progression.

I recently reread ‘The Pomegranate Seeds’ from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales. I was reading an edition originally read aloud to us at primary school; my teacher gave it to me on her retirement – yes, I was teacher’s pet – so this particular volume already had magic powers.

Hawthorne’s retelling is forty pages long, more fleshed out and fictionalised than some of the sketchy renditions I would later encounter in other contexts. It uses the names Proserpina and Pluto from the Roman version, which in turn is based on the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades; there are always retellings.

There are plenty of archetypes: innocents and predators, and mothers – in this reading, Ceres (Demeter) figures more strongly as the protagonist, and this time I felt this story more deeply as one of loss and reconciliation and compromise.

I found myself latching on to a few details in this read too. The number six of the pomegranate seeds. The dryads and naiads: I’ve always been fascinated with these spirits of woods and water, and I realise that this was probably the first time I encountered them, at the age of seven.

I was also intrigued by the line that tells us that Pluto pats Proserpine’s cheek, ‘for he really wished to be kind, if he had only known how’ – an oddly human (or inhuman) detail.

I also noted that the seven-year-old me had no idea he’d be reading Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter as an American Studies undergraduate some eleven years later, or buying the collected novels of Hawthorne in a used bookstore in Provincetown at the turn of the century.

And rereading this little red Tanglewood I was whisked back to Mrs Bentley’s classroom. I remembered the nature table, and the portable shelf of library books. I remembered listening to her read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Wind in the Willows.

And I also remembered the time I played Rumpelstiltskin in a school play. I had to wear green tights and a green crepe paper tunic, and spin a polystyrene spinning wheel and sing a song, and I still know all its lyrics OFF BY HEART. Spin wheel, spin / Turn wheel, turn / And every straw / Upon the floor / Turn to shining god. I probably need a therapist to unpack all this! A Jungian, please.

And Rumpelstiltskin is not only a story of hiding your name, your truth, but also the story of HAVING A FUNNY NAME. Duh, I only just saw that one! Seriously: I’ve only recently realised the burden and trauma of GROWING UP WITH A FUNNY NAME. Millions of words have been devoted to critiques of white male heterosexual privilege and the inequalities of economic class, but has anyone ever studied the psychosocial effects of the name you inherit?!

But: we all come to live with our truths, and I’d never change being a Wille.

All these triggers, all these elemental details. All these haunting and defining motifs – these themes of a life. It’s rich stuff that wakes something inside us that brings our writing to life. Many of these stories from childhood are so deeply part of who we are. The flying carpet, the magic wardrobe, the talking animals, the little details we’ve forgotten or read differently as adults: they captured our imaginations as children, and they trigger our imaginations today.

I guess we could worry about copyright and the use of other people’s ideas, but hey: the school for wizards existed before Harry Potter, right?! So many of these stories are retellings, based on archetypes. The important thing is to make these ingredients our own, and to shape and express them in our own way.

Later you might want to explore this rich field further, but for now don’t overthink this task. Just reread the magical texts of your childhood with a notebook to hand, and see how you can relate various themes and details to your work today.

Where do your eyes and heart and mind take you, and how do you bring your findings back into your writing? How do they give you details or currents to work through in your drafting and revisions?

Further resources on archetypal stories, childhood reads and fairy tales
Library of Congress, Classic Children’s Books
Folktexts: A Library of Folktales, Folklore, Fairy Tales, and Mythology
Maria Tatar, ed., The Classic Fairy Tales
Jack Zipes, ed., The Great Fairy Tale Tradition
Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
Victoria Lynn Schmidt, 45 Master Characters (my go-to reference for frameworks for balancing masculine vs feminine journeys in story)
Marie-Louise von Franz, The Interpretation of Fairy Tales
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With The Wolves 
Liz Greene and Juliet Sharman-Burke, The Mythic Journey
Maureen Murdock, The Heroine’s Journey
Ursula Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction

If you are looking to buy any children’s books, I *highly* recommend The Alligator’s Mouth in Richmond (now able to fulfil online order requests in the UK). SUPPORT YOUR INDIE BOOKSHOPS! The book world relies on them.

Also check out Zoe Gilbert’s London Lit Lab workshops based on analysis of fairy tales and folklore.

Working With Feedback On Your Writing


If you’ve recently received feedback on your writing, e.g., after attending a writers’ conference or sharing with your writing group or getting a manuscript critique, here are some broad suggestions towards working out what to do next.

* First, check your ego at the door. You will collect it later, but for now be open to suggestion. Disavow yourself of attachment. What you shared with readers was just a draft anyway – wasn’t it? You might also have been looking for validation (or even a book deal) – which is fine. But if this is a moving and fluid process leading to a desired outcome (that deal), you might need more than strokes to the ego. Patience and some crafty application are probably what will count most. Be reflective, be contemplative.

* Ideally, feedback won’t be too prescriptive, particularly at early stages, and it should not be regarded as such.

* Some feedback will make sense right away, some might suggest alternatives, some will not really work. Some might suggest the reader doesn’t get you or your vision, in which case: also ask yourself if you need to be clearer, or maybe find other readers.

* Some feedback might be contradictory, even from the same person. Good feedback often is. Tussling with the contradictions can force you to go deeper to really figure out what needs to be done. Embrace the idea of negative capability, and even revel in the contradictions. In many ways, after all, contradictions are simply different choices. Which will you take? Be decisive. Or be experimental with different decisions, at least for a while.

* Maybe avoid thinking in terms of agreement or disagreement with feedback. In some ways, agreement and disagreement are irrelevant. The ideas of right and wrong don’t really apply in creative writing; you’re not writing a technical manual (and clear-cut ideas of right and wrong don’t always apply even there). Instead, simply listen, then hold everything that seems relevant in suspension (maybe along with some of the stuff that seems irrelevant), and then act upon it through revising and drafting to take the work where it needs to go.

(I admit I sometimes get irritated when writers tell me they ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ with what I say – and not just because I am NEVER wrong! But it can suggest we’ve been talking at cross purposes. I’m delighted if writers ‘disagree’ 100% with things I raise but are then prompted to act on their writing in ways that make it stronger. The suggestions I make are not meant as hard and fast ideas waiting for acceptance, but intended as ideas for thinking about. Feedback is often about exploring departure points for future drafts, and sometimes it’s good for a reader to get provocative suggestions or comments, which can often spur. Sometimes writers need to be challenged. Or: writing needs a challenge. There is too much undercooked writing out there. Come on, we can do better! So the idea of disagreement/agreement seems moot at this stage, or premature. Or simply not really relevant.)

* Be systematic. Create a system – not least as it will take your ego and neuroses out of consideration.

* E.g., lay out on a table in different piles each piece of feedback, whether these are edited scripts you go through comparing them page by page, or a memo from a book doctor, or emails from beta readers you’ve printed out, or Post-its on which you jotted notes and impressions given verbally by readers. You’ll start to ground all of these words of feedback in something tangible; for some weird reason, I think that interacting with things physically makes a difference. It steps you out of yourself, and if you do a lot of your writing on screen it can lead you out of that locked-in work of constant scrolling through a document.

* E.g., you’re a writer, so do what writers do: write. Write yourself a memo or an editorial letter in which you synthesise all the feedback you have received, perhaps summarising different takes with a paragraph each.

* Or write lists of pros and cons.

* Or write yourself a manifesto or a mission statement that brings focus and clarity to what you are trying to do with and for this piece of writing. Maybe rewrite this – or write several manifestos – as you go through different drafts: give your project freedom to evolve. Maybe write a manifesto for yourself as a writer, too.

* A manifesto can help clarify your intention, which is often at the start of a project quite amorphous. Keep coming back to your intention. You may be able to integrate different responses while remaining true to your vision. Your intention might also grow or move on.

* Separate matters of technique from matters of taste. Matters such as uneven pacing or awkward transitions or clunky syntax or a lack of sentence variety are often things that could/should be fixed. Matters such as excessive adverbs (or some of the above, such as sentence variety) could be changed, but they might also be matters of style (a few adverbs are fine and even essential, else why else would the Goddess have invented them?). I guess the important thing is: don’t be careless.

* If several readers question the same thing, this could be something that requires a fix. Or it could be something that presses buttons. In which case, maybe fix it, or do something to press those buttons even more strongly, or more effectively.

* Be open to experiment. Do try things out free of attachment. E.g., you might not end up using first-person, but it could be worth trying if a couple of readers have asked if you’d thought about using it; just travelling in a character’s first-person narration for a few pages might give you new insights into the world of your book.

* Draw up a checklist of things to do. Things you can do, things you must do, things that you need to think about for a little while.

* Separate these checklists into rounds of edits, then go back into the text and start revising, rewriting, redrafting. Expect further feedback on future drafts, and possibly seek out fresh readers. (The matter of revising is another post, or set of posts.)

* Consider who is giving the feedback. An agent, an editor, a book doctor, a teacher, a beta reader, a writer, a general reader, a member of your writing group, a friend or loved one: each will have a different relationship with you and with writing and reading, and might have different expectations or priorities. (This covers a broad subject, and might be another post too.)

* Ask questions of your readers. In some contexts, this is not possible (in which case, maybe you can make it possible?). And it is possible for discussion to get too circular or unfocused. So make any questioning pointed and specific (as, ideally, feedback should be too). It can often, in fact, be good to raise questions in a note or two when you hand over work for feedback, though too it is often good to solicit views cold (yet another post).

* Tame your monkey mind. Understand that going through feedback can invite all sorts of doubts and chatter, and feed all sorts of anxieties and neuroses. Calm down. Some meditation or mindfulness techniques can help. Or just take the dog for a walk or bake a cake or do some work in the garden.

* Be patient, mostly with yourself. Writing a book takes a long time, and sometimes takes many drafts.

* Give yourself some time and space, too. A pause. Maybe put the writing to one side for a while. Understand the value of emptiness; when you stop thinking about something, your instinct can develop. Ironically (as it’s good not to be too outcome-oriented at this stage), taking some time away can eventually make the task ahead easier, once you return to it. You’ll be surer of what needs to happen.

* A pause in the writing can in fact be a good time to go away and do the other work of a writer.

* E.g., reading. Read widely and deeply in your own genre as well as others. Read this year’s bestsellers, but also read the classics, with a view to understanding how your book might sit beside them. And this is not just about reading for pleasure or reading for your book group or reading because you like an author. This is about reading as a writer, and reading to learn what writing can do and what you can do as a writer. Most every book that has been published can teach you something: aspects of craft, style, conventions, taste. And why did an editor choose to publish this book?

* E.g., identify gaps in your knowledge or obvious areas of improvement, and maybe in the mid- or long-term embark on some self-improvement. Read some books on writing, or take a course, or simply carry out some writing exercises to help with things that could be stronger.

* Sometimes, too, rewrites come quickly. Have confidence in them. Spontaneous writing for a project, even if it is later on edited, often taps into something vital. Follow those tangential thoughts, play around with things at the edges, stop all the clocks to do the rewrite commanded by that brainwave you just enjoyed.

* Know when to stop. At least for now. Revising and editing can go on forever. But …

* Keep writing. Maybe not all of your next books at once, but make some plans for one of them, and be starting work on that. Sometimes a project is put to one side for now, or till later. Sometimes, first major projects are overly ambitious, and it might make sense to work something more manageable in the meantime. If you are writing a novel, that might include, for example, practising the art of fiction by writing short stories.

* Importantly, don’t be harsh on yourself (which you shouldn’t be if you checked your ego at the door!). Try to be as clear-sighted as possible, using that clarity of vision to stop you from feeling wounded or offended by what you hear. Or excessively pumped up: praise can be as harmful as criticism, sometimes.

* More than anything: Listen.

If you have other suggestions or things to say about feedback, do raise in a comment below, and if I have anything to add I can try to follow up on that. In future posts I intend to address more specific aspects of revising and self-editing, and discuss related matters such as ways to solicit feedback, setting up a writing group, and readying your work for submission or publishing.

Links to another post and articles that consider the idea of feedback in other ways:

* Rejected, or Declined? (another post from my blog)

* The Most Useful Class You’ll Take In College Is Not Science, Math Or Economics

* The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck (which doesn’t mean you totally don’t have to)

* Lucy Van Smit on the experience of working with her editors on her first novel The Hurting


Friday Writing Experiment No. 29: Great Annotations


A fascinating article called ‘Writers’ Second Thoughts’ in today’s Financial Times describes a remarkable auction that’s being organised by rare book dealer Rick Gekoski on behalf of English PEN:

J.K. Rowling is one of more than 50 authors who have agreed, at his invitation, to go back to a first edition of one of their books and annotate it at will. However unlikely it sounds, that a writer would revisit a work he or she finished decades ago and risk uncovering its errors, to say nothing of the potential agony of rereading a younger self, this is exactly what they have done. The resulting copies, with their anecdotal scribbles, deleted paragraphs and occasional exclamations of self-loathing, are to be auctioned at Sotheby’s next month in aid of the writers’ charity English PEN, which defends the rights of writers and readers and promotes freedom of expression around the world.

The list reads like a roll call of major British, Irish and Commonwealth authors from the past half-century, including 16 Booker prize winners and plenty more shortlisters, two Nobel laureates and winners of other literary gongs. Seeing the spines all lined up on a shelf at Sotheby’s is like seeing a collection of paintings made by a collector with a judicious eye: Julian Barnes, Seamus Heaney, Tom Stoppard, Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Bennett, John Banville, Joanna Trollope, P.D. James, Howard Jacobson, Philip Pullman, Nick Hornby, Frederick Forsyth, Colm Toíbín, Helen Fielding, Nadine Gordimer, Graham Swift and many more.

Do read the original article in full; I imagine many writers, readers, and editors will want to read some of these annotated texts, where the great and the good offer insights into their own creative process and maybe even have second thoughts about what got into print first time out. The doodles alone would be fun. You can get glimpses of some of the pages at the auction’s website: First Editions, Second Thoughts.

It also makes me think how in the age of ebooks it’s going to be easier to produce director’s cuts and variant editions, possibly all bundled into one text.

In this week’s writing experiment, let’s reread our younger selves. Take a piece of writing from your past – probably not from something you’re currently actively working on, but something older. If you’ve published work before, that might be particularly relevant, as it will force you to face down any atoms of self-loathing, or perhaps allow you to give yourself a pat on the back.

Then go to town with your own annotations. Delete, insert, cut final sentences (I once did this for a story of mine at proof stage, and this was a story that I’d had kicking around relatively unedited for a couple of years, and I know the story gained much from it). Add rewrites in the margins, rewrite on the line. Scribble, doodle, illuminate initial capitals, correct typos or continuity errors (oops). Add notes of commentary, explain a point of origin for a particular image, or just say where and when you were when you got the idea for that piece. Use Track Changes and Comments, if you’re working in Word, or simply find your favourite pen and fill it with your favourite colour of ink (mine: Levenger’s Always Greener). If you are feeling bold, you could even write your former self an editorial memo offering deeper suggestions. Maybe this could lead into an entirely new work …

If you can, share the results with a reader of the original text.

Also support the work of PEN!

Updated 18 May 2013: The Guardian has a gallery with close-ups of what seem to be most of the annotations. As I type this, the Lynne Truss selection is labelled with a misspelling of her name (happens to me all the time …).