Saturday, 4 February 2012


Are writers ever off duty? I ask. You know - the way doctors always respond to that cry 'is there a doctor in the house' and stop on their journey to wherever they might be going to tend to some poor soul who has fallen in the street? Is there some sort of unwritten/unspoken oath a writer takes to absorb copy wherever they go?
Take the experience of my writer friend - let's call her X. She rang and said could I go over. Now. Right this minute. She had something she had to get off her chest and I was the only one of her (local) writer friends who would understand. So, rather anxious and taking a bottle of wine to drown sorrows if sorrows needed to be drowned, I went. X had not long been widowed after nursing her much loved and loving husband for the better part of a year. What might she be about to tell me?
"I feel terrible," she said, the second she opened the door to let me in. "Promise you won't hate me."
"Promise," I said.
Now, I never, ever, break promises unless there's some outside influence that means I have to - like bad weather closing roads and railways so I can't get to wherever it is I've promised to be.
But I nearly broke that promise because I have to say I was shocked at what she had to say. X, her voice barely a whisper, told me that as she held her dying husband's hand she knew there was a part of her brain that was recording everything in case it might be useful to her writing later.
Well, dear reader, it was.
I've just said I was shocked - but should I have been? X has written millions more words and is much more widely published than I am. But as my word count mounts up I find myself remembering things I thought I'd forgotten. Or consiously putting a very personal memory from long, long ago - long before ever I thought to get my words in print - into a short story. One of those personal memories was my father telling me that when he was in Italy during the war he was surprised to find orange trees growing on some of the railway stations. Oh yes? I thought at the time.
But...I wrote - and had published some 40 years later - a short story in which I wrote about orange trees greeting my heroine on a railway station. I hadn't even been to Italy at that time! But, when I did get there I saw for myself that yes, there were indeed orange trees on some railway stations, albeit the very bitter variety.
I'm fortunate in that I've only ever known real fear once - the night my daughter (then a teenager with all the angst that some teenaged girls get) went missing. It was October. Wet and wild and cold. I remember thinking at the time that I would never forget that dreadful fear - and I haven't. However, I can conjure up that feeling if ever I need to when writing fiction - and I get that shoulder shudder, that icy ripple up my spine, that jagged breathing, when I do.
These days I find myself conciously, in many situations, stepping back a little - mentally, that is. I log the mood, the scent, the colour, the temperature and at some time hence I will find all those things falling into a story.
I often wonder if others notice I do this If they notice I'm not 'with them' as it were? The truth is I'm probably more 'in the moment' than they are.
This morning my husband said he fancied a long walk across the beach and over the cliffs. Did I want to go? (I was doing some editing at the time). Well, I couldn't get my hat and coat and boots and gloves and scarf quickly enough, because as he spoke there was a flurry of snow outside. I rarely set stories in cold weather. Perhaps it was time I did?
Well, the walk was good. Very good. Hardly a soul about. The rough seas of the previous day had littered the beach with razor clam shells and starfish and crabs of varying sizes. And mountains of seaweed piled haphazardly.
"Glad I dragged you out?" my husband said.
"Very," I replied.
Excuse me.....I feel a short story coming on..............

P.S. My daughter was found safe and well!


  1. So glad the daughter was found safe and well!

    And yes, I do feel that - consciously or unconsciously - there is something in a writer that gathers up experiences just in case they can be useful. We are writing about lives, ours and other peoples, and this is how we can understand them, isn't it?

  2. I have just left a long comment but it has disappeared into the ether apparently. I shall keep this short and say I agree Linda, we are continuously absorbing experiences and emotions subcosnciously.

  3. I've always found it a useful defence mechanism as a human being that, as a writer, you can be in the most distressing or uncomfortable of situations, yet part of you is standing back and observing them, how you're reacting, how other people are reacting.

    There's a saying that writers have a sliver of ice where their hearts should be but I don't believe that. I think we're feeling the pain acutely but have this advantage that part of us can remain calm as we file it away for future reference.

    Sometimes I even forget where I got something in a book from until a reader tells me it connects with something in their own life and that's always a very moving moment, a real, valuable and worthwhile connection between writer and reader.

  4. Gosh yes, Maggie....I definitely feel emotion more acutely than have a sliver of ice for a heart....thanks for your comment.....and Gwen and Gill, too.
    I have Tweeted this blog site....who else will read us all????

  5. I think all our experiences and emotions must be distilled into our writing, whether we're conscious of garnering them or not. Sharing painful experiences and deep emotions can bring comfort to readers in similar situations.

    Are we ever off duty? probably not.

    1. Thanks for this Joan....and you are so right about the bringing comfort ....I had a short story published about a woman diagnosed with cancer who wasn't sure if she'd live to see her granddaughter born.....and i had the loveliest - and most heart-rending - letter from a reader who said it had given her huge comfort.

  6. Great post, Linda - I think the sum of a writer is her experiences and emotions through life, as well as imagination! However, I only seem to use personal experiences many years after they happened. Maybe we need that distance to recall the emotion?

    1. Thanks, you I tend to use my own experiences long after they have happened .....there's a little less personal pain, perhaps?

  7. Spot on, Linda. Was it Joanna Trollope who said older women make better writers because of the experiences they have had?

    1. Great to see you back, Jenny.....I've missed you. Thanks for the comment....not sure if it was JT or not, but right!!

  8. I agree with what everyone has been saying here. It's a thought provoking post, Linda, and I think it's true to say writers are never off duty. Everything we experience and all that we witness other people experiencing is potentially usable material, even if it may be months or years later before we write it. I suppose this could make us appear to be hard-hearted but I believe it is more to do with how we connect to other people, sharing experiences with readers.