On being a writer...

A celebration of the writing process, of being a writer, of all the weird things that pass through a writing brain...

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

What do you do with your time, dear lady?

I went burrowing through the library for a good old-fashioned read over Christmas and found a Trollope I'd never heard of called Miss Mackenzie.  Crazy book.  Clearly a bit of a potboiler, if you'll forgive me for saying so, Anthony. With weird, completely redundant chapters such as one entitled 'The Negro Soldiers' Orphans Bazaar' - which our heroine attends in figured muslin.

The novel is purportedly about two things:  money and matrimony.  But to me its theme is what on earth  are genteel women supposed to do with their time - especially if they have the merest smattering of cash?  Miss Mackenzie inherits some money which makes her prey to a set of despicable, money-grabbing suitors, including a clergyman with a squint and a chancer called Rubb, and her own cousin who's a fifty year old widower with nine children.  While Miss Mackenzie waits for a lawsuit to be settled she spends acres and acres and acres of time in a room, doing NOTHING.

What was Trollope thinking of?  Miss Mackenzie
stays in lodgings or other women's houses so there's no housework.  She doesn't read or write or sew or receive visitors.  She does NOTHING.  And this is the source of my frustration with the novel.  I like my heroines, even Victorian ones, to be busy.  Jane Austen ladies are ever busy - even if just engaged in sniping at each other as in P and P.  They walk and talk and sew and play the piano.  If they are poor they work.  What did Trollope think a woman did if he simply placed her in a room, without purpose and without books?  How can you suspend a heroine in time and space like that and give her nothing to do?  Or was the reality that thousands upon thousands of genteel women of limited means actually did NOTHING all day.  I don't think so.  My burrowings into history have taught me that women with busy minds are rarely still. They might get into mischief like Miss Woodehouse or the younger Bennetts but they are certainly busy.

Women have always had minds.  A mind must feed on something.  And if it does not, then that is a theme of a novel in itself. So come on Trollope, think again.  Give Miss Mackenzie something to do, or let her howl with the pent up frustration of a prisoner in solitary.  Don't just suspend her in time.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Let's talk about windows

Last week I visited a care home with a relative - it had been recommended to us and we wanted to check it out.  Not bad at all until we went up to view the bedrooms and found that all the windows were at shoulder height - in other words, you couldn't see out unless you were standing.  What kind of lunatic designs bedrooms in a care home with windows which nobody but the hale and hearty can see out of?

Novelists know all about the importance of windows.  What is a novel but a window on a fictional world, a particular view of a particular set of circumstances and characters.  Look no further than the opening page of Jane Eyre to find a character who is trapped inside and wants out.  In crime novels the predator is on the outside wanting to come in.  Lovers wait at windows.  One of my best ever holiday weekends was when we took our young son to Skegness during a football final.  He was glued to the match, I sat in the bay window of our guest house watching those on the outside battle with a tearing wind on the beach.  I love windows and sitting in them, that moment of stillness while others pass by.  A window frames the world beautifully - it is the fourth wall in other people's worlds.

My mother loved autumn afternoons when the light dims outside and people put on their lights but don't yet want to draw the curtains.  She loved peeking into other people's lives.  We are human and we need to take imaginary journeys into other worlds. 

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Katharine McMahon's Blog: Thomas Hardy - the opposite of mindfulness

Katharine McMahon's Blog: Thomas Hardy - the opposite of mindfulness: Every Easter we go to Bude near Cornwall.  Primroses, lambs, seals, clifftop walks.  This year the sun shone and the surfers sailed and lung...

Katharine McMahon's Blog: Katharine McMahon's Blog: New Books Galore - and M...

Katharine McMahon's Blog: Katharine McMahon's Blog: New Books Galore - and M...: Katharine McMahon's Blog: New Books Galore - and Marie Stopes : I am in the strange and rather wonderful position of finishing the first...

Katharine McMahon's Blog: New Books Galore - and Marie Stopes

Katharine McMahon's Blog: New Books Galore - and Marie Stopes: I am in the strange and rather wonderful position of finishing the first draft of a new book, whilst waiting for the imminent publication in...

Saturday, 13 June 2015

New Books Galore - and Marie Stopes

I am in the strange and rather wonderful position of finishing the first draft of a new book, whilst waiting for the imminent publication in paperback of my latest:   The Woman in the Picture.

The two books are entirely unrelated.  It's almost impossible for me to hold both worlds in my head.  When I think about them it's like the difference between visiting an old friend (The Woman in the Picture), and a new, rather edgy acquaintance. I'm excited to see what will happen to The Woman in the Picture but it's off my hands, launched on its own little fair ground ride.  Whereas I'm still nurturing the new book along.

When I think back to the writing of TWIP (as I call it in my head), I remember so many adventures into research.  A bit of a theme in both TWIP, and The Crimson Rooms, its prequel, is birth control - or the lack of it.  Evelyn's beloved nephew Edmund was born out of wedlock and TWIP pursues this theme of illegitimacy.  In researching Meredith, Edmund's mother, and her journey, I found myself delving every deeper into the life and views of Marie Stopes.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/stopes_marie_carmichael.shtml

She was quite a woman, and some of her views, notably on eugenics, are singularly unattractive.  But some of the letters she received from married women, and the amount of ignorance and misery they revealed, were desperately sad, hauntingly so.  That was a century ago.  The Catholic Church was of course a fierce opponent.

That's why writing about the past is so achingly relevant.  Some themes are eternal: sexuality, motherhood, wedlock, relationships, who writes the rules...  Eternal.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Thomas Hardy - the opposite of mindfulness

Every Easter we go to Bude near Cornwall.  Primroses, lambs, seals, clifftop walks.  This year the sun shone and the surfers sailed and lunged
on brilliant white foam. 

But here's one of my favourite expeditions: a pilgrimage to The Hardy Waterfall, as it's called, on Beeny Cliff.  Here are the cliffs, and here is Thomas Hardy's sketch of Emma Gifford, the girl he fell in love with at a nearby rectory.  They went for a picnic together and she dropped her water glass into the waterfall on Beeny.

So a hopeless romantic such as I walks over the cliff tops and remembers Hardy, who was passionately in love with his Emma, a flighty wench with long blond hair and a blue dress and a taste for riding her sister's horse beside her besotted lover, and I am enchanted by the idea of  those star-crossed lovers, because through his poetry Hardy forces me to see the past through his eyes.  A few years later he married Emma, fell out of love with her but remained married to her until she died of a stomach disease, whereupon he remarried and in a turmoil of grief, regret and loss, wrote a series of heart-breaking love poems to his lost first love. 

Hardy was a rotter. But he was so much a writer - seeing himself dead centre of every scene he lived out - more conscious than anybody else I've read of his place in the landscape.  He regarded himself as a man who walked in the footsteps of countless ghosts, right back to Roman Britain.  He was the complete opposite of mindful. Every handful of soil bore resonance for him.  And so for me he epitomises the writing mind at work - always rewriting, reliving, recycling every feeling, every thought.

He met an ordinary girl, the ordinary sister of an ordinary rector's wife.  You can visit St Juliot, the church he restored and walk his walks.  And the past throbs all about you, because he writes with such conviction of how we inhabit our present as if on a tightrope which quivers with memory and what ifs, but one onto which our reluctant feet are pinned.  For all his haunting, Hardy knew that we can go back only in imagination.

Beeny Cliff by Thomas Hardy

O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.
The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away
In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say,
As we laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day.
A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain,
And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain,
And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main.
- Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky,
And shall she and I not go there once again now March is nigh,
And the sweet things said in that March say anew there by and by?
What if still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore,
The woman now is - elsewhere - whom the ambling pony bore,
And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

controlled panic

I found myself using this phrase when explaining to a friend my current frame of mind when writing my new book.

And I was talking to my son in his final year at university who describes a similar state (sometimes not controlled).  It sounds like a ridiculous contradiction - controlled panic - but is there any other way of writing to a deadline?

The point is that no piece of writing is ever perfect, and unless it's a shopping list or such, most writing is going to have an element of the unknown about it.  Essentially the unknown is:  Will my brain produce the write words, any words, in time?

There doesn't seem to be a way of being entirely calm about this.  Creativity comes at a price.  What's inside has to come out, and the process of writing is like the unlatching of a box of tricks.  We just don't know what's inside.  Perhaps that's why we're all so scared.

A novel is a particularly tough mountain to climb because there's just so much of it.  I always have a slight feeling that if I don't write fast enough, I might not capture all the words that are out there.  It will all just flit away - not what I know for sure what the 'it' is.

I crave work that is just calm and final - like washing up or making beds.  I've craved all my life work that is finite.  But goodness knows what I'd do with my spin drier psyche if there wasn't a book to write.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Wednesday, half past four

Every Wednesday at about this time, for the past twelve years, I've saved my latest file, closed down my computer, applied a bit of lippy, fetched my car keys or my Oyster card and set forth to visit my Pa. 

Since our move the journey has required a couple of trains and a hike, before then it was a car journey through the rush hour.  When I arrived I'd ring the doorbell and after a minute or so I'd hear his feet shuffling up to the door which he'd fling open with a beaming, toothless smile:  'Hello.  I didn't expect to see you today.'

'Dad, you knew I was coming...'

And he did, because a tray would always be set out ready in the kitchen with the teapot and mugs, and biscuits or a doughnut if he'd been shopping, or I would bring cake from home.  And we'd sit in the front room, he in his fireside chair, I opposite, near the window, and we'd mull over the latest news.  Sometimes we solved problems - he needed a new vacuum or he'd lost ground in some way - was a bit wobbly, needed to think about giving up driving, or one of his outings.  Always we talked about his grandchildren and the rest of the family.  I would tell him a little about my writing.  He was my greatest fan.  He had all my novels on my shelf and he read them on a loop.  He always said:  'I don't know how you do it,'  and I would say:  'It's my job, Dad.' 

As he grew frailer I grew more bothered.  It was harder to leave him.  Sunday visits became trickier - he was less mobile, we could take him out less.  But he hung on at home until six months ago.

And now this constant in my life is gone.  97 years snuffed out.  It's autumn and the leaves fall and part of me is rested by this knowledge, that there isn't an old man longing for me to arrive, waiting for the doorbell.  And part of me, the orphaned part, knows there has been an extraordinary and seismic shift I have only begun to comprehend.

The world is a remorseless place for a wobbly old man.  Everyone rushes past.  He left a planet full of bad news and crowds addicted to a technology he couldn't share.  But he'd detached himself.  He had stepped away until he was hardly bothered at all by any of it. 

He has made me think that politicians, writers, all of us, are forever asking the wrong question.  We should not be saying: What world do we want to live in?  But:   What world do we want to die in?  Would we not be rather gentler if we worked out the answer to that, a little less short-sighted, a little readier to sit back and think for a while about what really matters?

Friday, 10 October 2014


I want to direct you to a great Ted Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The Signature of All Things, which I so enjoyed this summer.

Her talk about 'genius' is just so invigorating for anyone who is writing - or indeed doing anything creative.  To summarise her message:  she says life becomes a whole lot easier for a writer (and in some ways more difficult) if genius is seen as something which visits from the outside. 

What the writer has to do is 'show up'.  By this she means, sit at the desk. Obviously it's no use sitting there half asleep all the time, but there is no substitute for actually being there. 

I'm so conscious that she's right, even though sometimes I have to bribe and cajole myself to stay at that desk and write away at something that feels tedious and turgid and earthbound and the opposite of creative.  I have to write my book, as well as I can, and hope that I'm going to be visited by that little genius of creativity, that some might call God, which will transform what I write to something a little bigger and better than I thought possible.

But I have to show up.  I have to write.  I can't expect the muse to strike (if that's the right word), if I'm somewhere else all the time.

After all when I go to the theatre, I show up.  I'm not half hearted about it.  I switch off the phone, I sit in the dark, I don't speak, and I pay attention.  And that's what I have to do when I write.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Letting Go

I don’t have an answer to this one.
We are in the second tranche of house clearance – we downsized a year ago so it's time to look at all the things we should have thrown out then and decide whether they really deserve to stay.

I’ve worked out that the problem I  have with letting go is that in taking something to the charity shop I think I'm giving away more than the object itself; a whole bundle of memories.  Consider, for example, the piano stool we bought in an almost junk shop when the children took up lessons.  It’s an ordinary hollow stool with a tapestry seat that was never the right height, never comfortable, but quite useful sometimes for 'putting things in'.  It’s not an antique and it’s not beautiful but it’s so hard to let go because it's an archway to the past, and as such feels too important to part from.
Then there’s a pair of wooden exercise sandals I bought when I was a Saturday girl at Boots.  My parents hated them because they chipped paint from the skirting;  I loved them because everyone had a pair of Scholls in those days (mine were the cheaper Boots version).  Now I couldn’t possibly wear them, but I keep them because of all that they represent in terms of my fourteen year old self and her activities and taste and desires.

So how on earth do I let them go?  Reading this, the answer is obvious to me. The piano stool can go but the sandals will have to stay (until the next cull).  But what a painful process, and how pitiful, given the millions and millions of people who have nothing, or have to let go of everything, all the time.

But actually the same dilemma applies to the writing process.  Some ideas and ways of writing really really have to be let go.  I worry at them and turn them upsidedown and bash away at them, because they’ve worked in the past and they feel familiar.   And of course the whole point of practising a craft is to build on skills and tried and tested methods.   But how to create room, to be wide open, to innovate if I’m all cluttered up? 

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Woman in the Picture

The book is launched.  I had a lovely party with as many of my favourite people who could get there.  I was given license at last to talk about my book, and had the sheer bliss of hearing Niamh Cusack read a couple of extracts.  The book is out of my hands, floated off, just like the Queen Mary, into the ocean. 

Snip snip went the ribbon.

And now?  The  new book, as yet nameless, which has been bobbing away out of sight has to be towed into full view and paid attention.  Enough of this nautical imagery.  What I mean is, I need to get down to work and write it.

But not today.  Today I'm going to take a bit of time to rejoice in an ending and a new beginning. 
Today, hooray, is a good day to be a writer.