Helpful things that have stuck – advice from Kamila Shamsie, Toby Litt, Diriye Osman

I’m not talking about all the ‘How to’ books I’ve read that all give great advice, the Sol Steins, Stephen Kings and A.L Kennedys who have entered my subconscious and are deeply embedded (or should be) in the general hum of accepted creative writing teaching, but something else. Those writers have undoubtedly given me confidence but as I embark on my new, scary writing project which is the novel Joanna Brown, I realise that I am carrying 3 things with me that I actually hear in my head as I write.

All from other writers, this is what has stuck :

I was fortunate enough to hear Kamila Shamsie speak some years ago and if I can ever get on a course where she’s the teacher, I’ll be taking planet apart to get there. I remember clearly that she talked about the ‘connective tissue’ that exists in the creative process and hangs in a sort of void between the handholds that you already have. She painted a picture of swinging from bar to bar in the dark, towards these almost known locations – having to release hold of the last one behind you before you can catch hold of the next one in front – it is having the faith that you will find the connective tissue that will sustain you and allow your work to have spontaneity and freshness. Of course it was beautifully expressed and has often translated in my terms into something more like – ‘carry on regardless’, or ‘what could happen’, ‘can it get worse’ and even at times ‘feel the force, Luke’, but that image has become a mechanism for allowing myself to finish something, to achieve a body of material a chapter or a story that I can go back to and re-write. It helps me avoid the panic in the dark.

Toby Litt is a great teacher and if I ever do an MA, I’d love to study under him at Birkbeck, although I’d probably want to do a poetry MA, but then again wouldn’t it be wonderful to do a fiction one, and so goes one of my favourite little daydreams. Before I eddy round in that little pool again, l will get to the point and say that Toby Litt’s advice on first drafts is an absolute goldmine. Here it si in a nutshell – he tells his students not to start at draft #1 but to have a DRAFT #0 – simple enough, but it’s DYNAMITE. Gone is all the pressure to achieve, to fill the page, to adhere to some sort of pre-imagined requirement. With Draft 0, I just go for it, I am playing, doodling, allowing the ideas to come… Then I tweak that a bit, cut it up, move bits around, big up this, play down that and Bingo – I’m already at draft 2 or 3 without ever having had the fear of starting off. Toby Litt has set me free.

The third thing is a little different – not very long ago I met the most wonderful person. He treated me like a writer, a real one. I have my first collection coming out in February/ March 2016. It’s been in the pipeline for three years and all that time I have asked myself  am I a writer yet or not?, am I ‘out’ as a writer yet? I know it’s something people often struggle with at the tender early stages. When do you tell people you’re a writer? When do you think you are?

Diriye Osman is a gay Somali man, he’s exactly 20 years younger than me. His collection Fairy Tales for Lost Children is deeply personal and has won the Polaris Prize for LGBT fiction; he says he uses his writing as a way to humanize himself, to counteract the malevolence directed at him. I’m not saying I can get anywhere near to knowing what he’s been through or that my life is anything like his (although I get my share of shit) – what I AM saying is that this man reached out to me with acceptance, and that was a profoundly moving thing. Oh yes Tamsin, we’re all in the same boat, we’re all trying to find our way. You just keep going, keep putting yourself out there. So if he can put himself on the line like that, so can I.

I bought his book, of course I did, and this is what he wrote in it for me:


Good luck with your book and Stay Excellent.

So lovely. Nobody else says anything that kind, so of course I keep that in my head when I write now too.

(Just for the record – if anybody wants to tell me Diriye writes that in everybody’s copy, I’m not listening)

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