‘How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live,’ wrote Henry David Thoreau, the great American writer who famously retreated from life for two years to live in a house he’d built in a wood. In the work this retreat inspired, Walden, he explained:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Thoreau is by no means alone in being a writer with a need to both experience and retreat. The openness and clarity with which he described his need and journey on which it took him has inspired many writers since to journey similarly; and it has led, in modern times, to two offerings for keen writers: the writing retreat and the writing residency.
Open any writing magazine and you will find advertisements for retreats all over the world – beautiful and interesting places to which writers can travel and immerse themselves in nature, in history, in silence; in solitude, where preferred, but also in companionship with fellow writers who are on the retreat. The idea is that the writer is able to breathe and reflect, and he or she has the space in which to write, free from the constraints and distractions of daily life.
Writing residencies work a little differently. Whereas a writing retreat is essentially a kind of holiday, for which you pay, a residency is free of charge (sometimes even subsidised) and is based on exchange. The organisation offering the residency grants the writer free use of space – an opportunity to experience a new place and new people, and retreat from everyday life. In return the writer gives his or her skills and/or art to the organisation. The writer’s input can be in all kinds of forms, from poems to stories, workshops to creative writing teaching.
Writing residencies (part of the artist-in-residence scheme) are available in all kinds of places. They are not about retreating from life, going deep into the woods like Thoreau, but about connecting with it: using the art of writing to forge meaningful cultural exchange. All kinds of writing residencies are offered; writers can be resident in places like galleries, museums and theatres, but also in places not immersed in the art world. Recently, for example, Lit Hub published an article entitled ‘8 highly unusual writing residencies’, which included opportunities for writers to write in a bridge control tower in Seattle, an off-grid treehouse on a Scottish mountain, any Amtrak train and… Antarctica.
Would I apply for a residency like this? Well, I can’t say that Antarctica appeals! In a warmer climate, however, it would be wonderful to connect with writers and readers in an inspiring space. For me, it would have to be somewhere beautiful and very romantic; a place where lovers come together, fall in love, pledge to love each other always. A wedding venue, perhaps? I can imagine that the experiences there would be thought-provoking and inspirational for my fiction.
But I doubt very much that I will ever apply for a residency, or book a retreat, because while I love to travel while researching a book and have the experiences that Thoreau rightly says writers must have, I do not feel the need to retreat when I am writing. Here is why:
* I enjoy writing within my everyday life. I enjoy writing at home, in my office with everything I need within reach; in the garden with views of the flowers, the trees, the ocean.
* Writing is wonderful, but it is a lonely pursuit; it is emotionally draining; and it is so easy to become consumed by the story world. After several hours of writing, it does me good to step away from my novel and return to the real world: to cook a meal or tend my garden or take a walk to the local village and meet a friend for coffee.
* Writers like me who want to keep writing, keep publishing, can’t afford to write in fits and starts, to write only when alone or in a special place. We have to write every day, whatever the weather, the mood, the state of the muse. When you write this way, you fall into a rhythm that becomes as reassuringly constant as your heartbeat. Like Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’, your philosophy becomes ‘I write because I am’ – because you are a writer.
‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.’ So wrote Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.
How many book lovers have since taken these words to heart? Here are just a few of the gifts on offer for those who find affinity with the quotation:
What is paradise? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is:
1) (in some religions) heaven as the ultimate abode of the just
2) an ideal or idyllic place or state.
Certainly, that fits my idea of a library: cool, quiet, serene; a place of beauty and decorum full, as Thoreau put it, of ‘the treasured wealth of the world’.
I have written before of my love of libraries; in my blog post ‘The roots of a bibliophile: The Ancient Library of Alexandria’ I shared how that love began, in my birthplace of Alexandria, home to the most significant library in history. Since leaving Egypt I have travelled widely, and wherever I go libraries are on the ‘must see’ list. Whenever I take a research trip for my writing, I visit the city’s library, where not only can I read all about the local history and culture, but I get a feel for the spirit of the city. (In Venice, setting for The Echoes of Love, this was especially inspiring; the city has no less than seven libraries. My favourite was the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana [National Library of St Mark’s], which is in a beautiful Renaissance building that holds some of the great classical texts, including illuminated manuscripts.)
Visiting a library, in many ways, is a simple pleasure in life; but for so many of us it is a powerful one: educative, inspiring, comforting. Libraries are so important, I believe passionately that they must be preserved and open to all, like this one: the Philosophical Hall at the library of the Strahov Monastery, Prague.
The headline of a recent article in Guardian caught my eye: ‘The most expensive library in the world?’ Intrigued, I clicked to read the article expecting, based on the image of a sumptuously decorated library, to learn of a new library that had been expensive to open. No doubt the stunning Book Capella in St Petersburg – designed in the fashion of an ancient library, complete with tapestries, murals, sculpted woodwork, stained glass windows and religious statues – did cost a great deal to create. But in fact the article’s headline was referring to the entrance fee to the library: £100 for a four-hour reading session.
This is not a public library, but a private collection owned by a publishing house spanning some 5,000 books dating from the 16th to 19th centuries – and available for purchase, we are told, for £400 and £700 each. For around £3,000, you can buy an annual pass to the library; a lifetime pass will cost you… £69,000.
Who is willing and able to pay to access this library? According to the project’s director, the library’s users are academics and book collectors – and businesspeople who can afford to meet in such luxurious surroundings. The director states:
Book Capella is not a library in the traditional sense, and it is not a museum, although elements of the museum are presented. It’s also not the bookstore, although you can buy our books here. [It] is a new way for people to communicate with rare books.
The motto for this ‘library’? ‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library’ – Jorge Luis Borges.
But is Paradise exclusive? A place only those with means can enter?
Remember Thoreau’s description of books: ‘the treasured wealth of the world’. That is an excerpt from this quotation from Walden:
Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.
I wonder what Thoreau would make of Book Capella.
Are libraries important to you? Do you think we should preserve them, and ensure equal access to all? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights; Anna Sewell – Black Beauty; Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind; Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago; JD Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye; Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man; Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar…
What do these authors have in common? They published only one novel. One book whose style and substance has resonated for readers ever since.
Was one book enough for these authors? In some cases, it seems that is the case – to write only one novel was a choice. In other cases, it may be that life intervened; might Margaret Mitchell have published a second novel, after the Pulitzer success of Gone with the Wind, had she not been hit by a car and killed? If we can take anything from the publication of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee it is that authors can surprise you with a new work, and it is never too late to publish again.
Of course, plenty of authors write more than a single book (some, indeed, become known for being prolific). They write for either or both of the following reasons:
1) A desire to be read (the more books you write, the more you are read)
2) A need to write
The first reason may ebb and flow through a writer’s lifetime, or indeed dissipate entirely if the experience of publishing novels does not marry with expectations. But the latter reason is something entirely different …
It was an article about the author AS Byatt, entitled ‘I Have Not Yet Written Enough’, that made me ponder the question of when enough is enough. The interview asks:
‘Do you feel you’ve written enough?’
To which Byatt, who has been suffering ill health, replies: ‘No… I’ve got this great big book… I shall go on writing it as though I shall live long enough to write it well enough for me to finish it. And if I don’t, I won’t know. There is that.’
She talks also about times in her life when she did not write – for several years after losing her son, for example. But her answer to ‘Have you written enough?’ is a resounding ‘No’.
My feeling is that once you have opened the door to writing, to publishing novels, then that is not a door that is easily closed again. For periods of time, when life intervenes or you need time to reflect and rest and read, the door is ajar. But for most authors, closing the door entirely, and then locking it and throwing away the key – that is like sucking all the oxygen from the room and expecting still to breathe.
I am reminded here of Anaïs Nin’s words: ‘If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.’ We writers do breathe out in writing. When writing is part of who you are, there is no ‘enough’, there is only the desire to keep breathing, keep writing.
Isaac Asimov was one of the most world’s most prolific writers; he wrote or edited more than 500 books. When asked in an interview, ‘What would you do if the doctor gave you only six months to live?’ he replied, ‘Type faster.’
My own answer to that question would be different, I know – time with family matters more to me than words. But still, I would try to finish my work in progress, to infuse it with the very last of my mortal spirit so that it stands, along with my other books, as a legacy to my family.
As AS Byatt puts it so beautifully in her novel Possession:
‘I am a creature of my pen. My pen is the best of me.’
I do not know that I would be a writer today were it not for fairy tales. I was fortunate to have parents who had a well-stocked library and who believed in reading to their daughters; it was on their knees, as a very young child, that I discovered the Arabian Nights and the folk tales put into print by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson – and into my head burst genies and dragons and princesses and knights and castles and cottages… and loss and darkness and love and light.
It was not only books, however, that awakened in me a fascination with fairy tales. My governess, Zula, harnessed the age-old tradition of oral storytelling (which of course predated the formalisation of fairy tales in print). She could weave a tale from her own imagination that rendered me completely spellbound; her words painted the most captivating scenes in my mind. Over the many years that Zula told me stories, she taught me how to be inspired by an age-old tale and turn it into something new and exciting; in essence, she taught me how to be a writer.
In 2004, writer Christopher Booker published a book on storytelling entitled The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. In this seminal work, he introduces seven core stories that are at the foundation of all stories, from ‘ancient myths and folk tales via the plays and novels of great literature to the popular movies and TV soap operas of today’. Fairy tales feature prominently: Cinderella, for example, is the core rags to riches story; Beauty and the Beast is a rebirth story; Goldilocks is a tale of voyage and return.
A fairy tale, then, is not a literary form to dismiss as childish or fantastical. It is the foundation for any modern fictional writing. Certainly, readers of my own romance fiction will feel the resonance of the stories of my childhood, and that is where they will find their security, their comfort with the story. They can hold fast to what they know as I take diversions from the old and familiar, to I tell my own story.
I was inspired to think about the appeal of fairy tales this week by a recent news item on the subject. Have you heard that a new Mark Twain fairy tale is to be published in September, on the 150th anniversary of his first book’s publication? The story, entitled ‘The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine’, is described thus in the publisher’s synopsis:
In a hotel in Paris one evening in 1879, Mark Twain sat with his young daughters, who begged their father for a story. After the girls chose a picture from a magazine to get started, Twain began telling them the tale of Johnny, a poor boy in possession of some magical seeds. Later, Twain would jot down some rough notes about the story, but the tale was left unfinished . . . until now.
Plucked from the Mark Twain archive at the University of California at Berkeley, Twain’s notes now form the foundation of a fairy tale picked up over a century later. With only Twain’s fragmentary script and a story that stops partway as his guide, author Philip Stead has written a tale that imagines what might have been if Twain had fully realized this work:
Johnny, forlorn and alone except for his pet chicken, meets a kind woman who gives him seeds that change his fortune, allowing him to speak with animals and sending him on a quest to rescue a stolen prince. In the face of a bullying tyrant king, Johnny and his animal friends come to understand that generosity, empathy, and quiet courage are gifts more precious in this world than power and gold.
Illuminated by Erin Stead’s graceful, humorous, and achingly poignant artwork, this is a story that reaches through time and brings us a new book from America’s most legendary writer, envisioned by two of today’s most important names in children’s literature.
This publication of a newly discovered manuscript by a respected writer of old is following a trend in publishing (I wrote about this last year). It’s fascinating that there is such excitement over a new fairy tale – and not only because it was written by the author of ‘The Great American Novel’.
I think the interest in this new story comes down to a recognition that fairy tales are not ‘just for children’; they are for life. They are the foundations of stories, because the archetypes within them are timeless. More than that, though, they are a source of comfort, solace and strength. A fairy tale transports you back to childhood, when dragons were real and, most importantly, could be defeated.
As Albert Einstein said: ‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’
‘What’s the formula for a bestselling book?’ So read an attention-grabbing headline in the Guardian last week.
The article was prompted by a list of those books that have sold more than 250,000 copies in the UK since 2000, compiled by Specsavers for their inaugural ‘Bestseller Awards’ (I confess I am a little bemused as to why an award is required for sales; I would think the sales were reward enough).
The top-50 list is fairly eclectic, ranging from classic fiction like Of Mice and Men to new epics like Game of Thrones; clear blockbusters like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code to quieter word-of-mouth hits like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Kite Runner; long-time children’s favourites like Dear Zoo and The Very Hungry Caterpillar to fresh stories like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Gangsta Granny.
What really stands out in this list is the number of titles that have been explosive sensations, creating a new trend. From Fifty Shades to Twilight to Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to The Alchemist to Gone Girl, these are books that set imaginations on fire and caused readers to say ‘have you read?’ and publishers to say ‘we must find the next [insert bestseller] and quickly capitalise on this trend’.
So what are the common factors of these bestselling books? What’s the formula for emulating their success? Is it about style of writing, type of protagonist, length of book, name of author (gender-neutral seems to do well)? Does success come down to cover and price point and the creativity and budget of the marketing campaign?
No doubt all of these factors play a part, but no one can definitely analyse these books and deduce a formula that writers can follow in order to secure a quarter of a million sales or more.
In fact, in analysing these books only one commonality stands out to me: many of these books (and, I would argue, the best ones) were written with heart – with passion, from a place of authenticity. The writer wrote the book that had to be written, the book that was in them to write; they didn’t write to please the market, to chase or start a trend, to attempt to crack the bestseller formula.
I believe that writing authentically, perfectly in tune with the muse, is the only way to meaningfully connect with readers. No one can predict exactly which books will make evangelists out of readers, forging so powerful a connection that the reader feels compelled to encourage others to read the book as well. Attempting to create such a connection is pointless; it is not within the author’s control.
‘What’s the formula for a bestselling book?’ My answer: there isn’t one. The more important question is this: ‘What’s the formula for writing a book that moves a reader?’ Writing a bestseller shouldn’t be the aim of an author; that’s writing with hunger – for riches, for fame, for glory – rather than writing because you are a writer, because writing is as necessary as breathing.
The true goal of an author must be to write a book that moves readers – to wonder, to tears, to laughter, to love. How does an author do this? By being courageously, starkly honest on the page, and then leaving the rest to fate, chance, the universe, serendipity, God, whatever force you believe in.