Being called a ‘Nature Writer’.

My last book, Seed to Dust has been long listed for the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing as How to Catch a Mole was before it. I seem to have been firmly planted in the Nature Writing camp. This is not a place I expected to be. Like Wainwright himself I am a wanderer but I never set out to be a nature writer, I love to be in nature, I particularly love to be in a garden surrounded by the life it creates and attracts, but I’m not a naturalist, not a plantsman or an ornithologist or any of the experts who write nature books. I am a self-taught gardener as was Vita Sackville West whose writing inspired my last book. I am by nature a meditator and the garden is often my subject, my mandala if you like. As I look after it, it teaches me about myself and as I am just like you, as we are all connected, it teaches me something about you and our lives together.

My real interest as a human being living this short and often hard life is exploring how to live, what we are, why we are here and what we are supposed to do while we are here, I have spent decades thinking about how we can be happy in a world that is full of cruelty and suffering. Much of it has been done while wandering or working in nature because it has much to teach us and working as a gardener is an ethical and honest way of earning a living that was respectful of the earth. My books are set in gardens because that is where I do my thinking and often my writing.

I have found that gardeners are very often the kind of people who ask such deep questions, it is after all a contemplative occupation, and my work is on the whole bought by gardeners and for gardeners, and it appears they are loved. With this next book I want to try to expand the audience a little, reach some people outside of the gardening/nature writing world who might enjoy what I have to say. It hasn’t started well, I’m writing about a garden again so I am not doing myself any favours, but I can't help myself, the garden is such a great metaphor not only for the world we live in but for what goes on in our own lives and I know it so well.

I don’t want to tell you in my writing how wonderful and beautiful nature is, I want to remind you that you are part of nature and so you are wonderful and beautiful. Because as you deal with many of the same hardships that the animals and the insects and the flowers deal with, it is easy to forget that you are beautiful too.

Maybe I’ll try to break out of this little niche I find myself in by not using a subtitle. I’m not a fan of subtitles really, I think they limit the readership. Or maybe I will argue with my publishers (the truly wonderful Harvill Secker/Vintage) that Tales of Spring Rain should have a more open ended subtitle something like:

Tales of Spring Rain

a story about being beautiful or

a story about change or

a story about growth?


Progress report

Well, to the book itself. I am half way through and I have gone away to a town in France for a few months where all of my books have been written, or finished at least. I have family here and access to a room where I can write intensively without distractions, a quiet meditative space where I can crack on. I am surrounded by thousands of swifts that nest in the roof and church bells at the end of the road that call out every quarter. I am deeply lucky to have this little space.

Tales of Spring Rain is at a sensitive point. I am right in the middle, a place where I am always tempted to make something happen, add some conflict that twists the story in a new direction or gives the hero a new challenge which he must overcome, it is what people do in fiction and so I am tempted to do it too, it would be easy to make something up but I want to do something harder, I want to write a story that is true, and honest, that does not slot neatly into the accepted structure of western novels and yet remains a story that is engaging and enlightening and beautiful, I don’t want conflict, I want to create peace and harmony. Above all I want it to be a beautiful thing in itself. If you ever read Japanese short stories you might know what I am talking about.

Somebody once said that a reader often does not remember what happened in a story, more often they remember how it made them feel, and I want to make my reader feel beautiful. I think this is my main aim as a writer.

There is with any piece of writing a struggle, life is not lived in words and so the writers job is to translate the rich multilayered quality of life with all of the relevant ideas and opinions, scents and tastes, loves and all of its nuances and bits of ‘meh’ into a linear structure that is readable and makes sense and is enjoyable to read in that it creates enjoyable feelings; excitement or love or joy or calmness, or fear. So the words are sometimes wrestled out, battling with and wrenching the story, beating it into a shape that it keeps on springing out of. A couple of hours can easily go by following a thread and furiously writing away at a strand that, on standing back to read it, changes the direction of everything and suddenly you realise that you are writing a completely new story and it has to be somehow incorporated or deleted, or even worse the new strand tells it better than what you wrote before and you have to junk everything up to page 200. It happens. It has happened. The book is better for it and tells the intended story in a clearer way.

There is an old zen story. Condensed into a song that is known by all old hippies like me. A few of us know what it means. This song distills the essence of how the writing is going at the moment, the key line of the song is this: ‘first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain then there is'. Already some of you of a certain age (i.e. Hippies) have the tune and some of you (i.e. Buddhists) know about the idea - at first we see the solidity of things, we live here firmly in what we think of as the ‘real world’ then some of us will see that there is no real world, no substance, that everything is just a matter of perception. Then we take another step and begin to feel comfortable living in a world that is illusory and treat it as if it were solid, walking on the firm earth with our head in the clouds. As far as the book is concerned I knew it from front to back, it was solid and clear and I just had to write it, but as I wrote I began to lose sight of it, it became something more evanescent, ungraspable, vague and illusory and I felt that I had lost my way. It was a struggle and that’s why I haven’t been blogging for a while, I have been trying to hold a cloud, to smooth it and roll it into a solid ball as if it were a dorodango. The only thing to do in that situation as a wanderer is to accept being lost, and to keep going until the truth reveals itself. I’ve just reached that third stage. Accepting feeling lost, keeping going, and the solid dorodango suddenly appears and begins to shine. But like a dorodango it is still very fragile and I can still ruin it and would have to start again.

(If you don't know what a dorodango it, please google it, it is a wonderful thing!)

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Kate and I talk constantly about our writing. We have done it ever since we met over 30 years ago. We don’t always agree but we are the first reader of each other's work and regularly flag up points for each other; passages where the writer thought they had explained something but hadn’t or where things were unclear, unravelling plot points or just letting off steam about frustrations with our work. Last night Kate and I were eating a takeaway, and were chatting about general stuff that had happened recently and our ongoing project ‘Ten Years of Fun'. Out of this conversation came the spark of an idea based on some photographs we had been taking. At first I was hesitant - thinking it was a bit radical, possibly dangerous so I asked her what she thought of it, I’m thinking 'probably not, it’s a bit too weird' and she says: ‘Brilliant! You have cracked it!’ The more I thought about it the more I realised that perhaps I had found the perfect ending to not only this book, but to the whole series of books. The risky writing that you do for your own amusement is so often your best work, and this morning I sat at my desk and roughed out the last chapter. I think it is good. Sometimes I will try something that I have got very excited about and my beloved idea just doesn’t work but this time I really think it is there.

The ending relates to everything that went before, reframes and summarises in a way and gives me an angle that I can use if I get stuck anywhere in the middle. I have been a bit stuck about how to handle certain sections which needed to be written but my rough notes were not giving me the spark that I wanted, the ending now can feed back and give me that spark. Perfect! Now all I have to do is write the bits to keep me excited from the beginning to the end.

Literary non-fiction demands hard choices be made, it takes a massive amount of creativity to find your path through the billions of random events and impressions that make up even a single day and depending on your style, can be just as risky as fiction. Often personally more so.

This is the way it goes when I write, some writers are planners and work everything out exactly. By nature I am an essayist, I explore and don’t always know where it’s going to take me, for a writer that can be dangerous, we could spend months, years even on something that cannot be completed, it happens all the time, writers get frozen into years of inaction having written themselves into a corner they can’t get out of, the book gets abandoned. For me writing is like a scientific experiment, I start with an idea of what I want to explore, and maybe even a prediction about what I will find, but I am always aware that something surprising may turn up. I am exploring an unmapped island only seen from a distance. I could get there and there’s nothing, leave on the next boat and look for another island to explore. I could get there and fall down a sinkhole and remain there until I rot. I could get there, and explore it for years, write a marvellous piece on it and then get told by the first person I show it to, that they know it well, in fact they know it so well they have a holiday home there where they grew up as a kid and have a book coming out on it next June complete with photos and maps. It’s a risky business.

My writing process is simple. I set out to write chapters that are in themselves short stories, each telling a story with a beginning a middle and an end. I want these chapters to be as beautiful as possible, I want to be seductive, or dark, or playful. I want to enjoy each and every word. These short essays link into the next one and that links into the next one and they all loop right back around to each other and to the beginning and the ending so that the whole collection of chapters have a beginning a middle and an ending. That’s a book!

When I have discovered the ending, the natural conclusion to what I have been writing I feel an enormous sense of relief. The story needs an ending, I could do it without one but it would be like an inconclusive experiment that showed only that the question found no answer. Writing, like any art, is a practice of problem solving. A painter sets out to make a work and his journey is about how to resolve this colour with that one to create harmony or vibrancy or drama, how does this line balance this with that shadow? For a writer it is no different. The ending creates a harmony with everything that has gone before.

If a piece of writing tells no story it is a manual. Lots of nature writing is like this, how to identify this bird or plant, how to nurture this species. Nature writers often don’t like my work because they think they are getting a book like this but they are not, they are getting a story about human beings with all their strengths and frailties living in nature and coping with it. So an ending and a narrative is vital. It doesn’t have to resolve everything - I quite like Japanese storytelling where endings are often easy transitions into new or continuing stories, in the way that a Haiku, a piece finished in itself, can be added to to create a Tanka which can then reframe the whole poem. But this book, 'Tales of Spring Rain', this has a clear ending which completes the book and completes a cycle of books and I am a very happy writer.

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  • Marc Hamer

There is nothing like your first book. It is the only book you will write in innocence, you’ll have all the time in the world to write it, to cut and edit and fix and patch and rewrite, to tear it to pieces and begin again. It is totally yours. Nobody in the world knows what you are doing, you have no idea what anybody else will think of it. You don’t even know if anyone else will ever read it. You will write just what you think is right. Because of the lack of constraints it may be the best thing you ever write, or the only book you’ll ever write. While you write it you will know freedom that you will never know again. If it gets published your writing world will change. There will be an expectation to do it again, to follow it up with something just as good, if not better, for the same readership, only this time you’ll have a word count. You’ll get a deadline, a year or two years. Your freedom to do as you please when you wish will go, many people struggle. Maybe it took ten years to write the last one, to come up with the idea and make it real and round and solid. Can you do it again, in two, max? I have known writers to become immobile with anxiety at the thought.

I’ve been lucky, I only ever had one book deals - I was under no pressure for each book and had no anxiety. Also I’ve been writing for decades and knew that I had three books I really wanted to write. I probably won't want to write another.

The stuff you write to make other people happy is the worst stuff you will ever write. If you write solely for a market you’ll find there are other people writing for that market who love to write that kind of stuff. They are lucky that their own personal art has a market. If your love is for money first and are determined to make it by writing, then good luck, there are people who manage that, there are a few very big names who consistently make an awful lot of money, but a bit of research will show that the vast majority of them started by writing things they loved to write and ‘hit a lucky seam’ as a gold prospector might say. Very few of them are copyists, most of them have highly original voices.

Why do you write? Do you write because that is what you would do even if there is nobody to read it? I do, many writers have written since they were children just because they loved to write. Some of these people go on to make money out of it and a very few will go on to make a living out of it. Most of us love to write in the same way that painters like to paint or singers like to sing. We do it because it is what we love doing, organising our thoughts and ideas or making up stories, fantasising about different outcomes, some people are just natural storytellers. We write because that is who we are.

Some people like to write poetry; others love to write fantasies, some people love to write blogs, or reviews of things they have read or bought. People on social media love to tell us about their dinner or their kids or their holidays. We all do it for a massive variety of reasons, the most important of which is that we can’t help ourselves. As John Lee Hooker said: If the boogie is in you, it’s gotta come out.

We write for ourselves and this is how I stared out as a writer. I wrote to organise my thoughts, I have always had a very poor memory, I can be intense & pay deep attention to things and before I realise it they are gone and I’m looking at something else. I’m dyslexic and so by nature I see patterns and connections in things that are not on the surface, relationships between events and ideas and physical things, people etc. But my memory is such that I can’t hold onto the lighter ideas, they shift and change and fade and make new patterns, so from an early age I began writing, first to hang onto ideas and explore them, turn them around and play with them for fun and soon came to enjoy it as an art form. Just as I enjoyed photography and drawing and singing in the shower and anything else that was real and happening right now.

Writing was part of who I was, it was part of what I did with my life. I wrote a novel many years ago, sent it off to an agent, I think I have written somewhere about this before, but I sent it off and got a very nice letter a few months later saying that she really loved my writing blah blah, and over two pages she explained that she wouldn’t be able to find a market for it but that I ‘should definitely keep on writing’. Well I would have kept on writing anyway, I can’t help myself.

Many years later - decades in fact, I get some work published, poetry, short stories that moved in on me while I was working or unemployed, then a book, and then another one, books I wanted to write written in the way I wanted to write them. They started to get reviewed in the newspapers, the first one was long listed for an award, the newspapers were very kind, then the second one was published and a couple of reviews in the UK were less kind, they didn’t attack the book but me personally, how I dress for instance, one printed a quote they had made up. The newspapers in the USA however were wonderful, they compared me to Laurie Lee and Jack Kerouac, Robert Persig, I’m called a ‘Desert Mystic’ in one review.

All of this can turn a chap’s head and I began to think that I must examine the reviews carefully to see what I can learn, to work out what they think is worthwhile in my work so that I can do more of it, to see what I have done they didn’t like. In effect I was without realising it, thinking about writing to suit an audience, adapting my work a little, giving it a tilt, an angle. As I did this I realised that I had stopped enjoying the writing. I wasn’t having fun or learning anything or exploring thoughts, I wasn’t even having ideas in the same way because even before they were fully formed I was considering how they would be seen by others, trying to please, trying not to offend. I wasn’t enjoying it so I started to doubt my abilities as a writer. Am I just a ‘one trick pony’ who can only do one thing? I started to feel a little insecure. I have never been insecure before as a writer. Writing was just fun, expressing myself, exploring words and rhythms and ideas and suddenly other people were seeing it and judging it.

But then my dyslexic superpower clicks in and a few patterns emerge, one is a similarity between the personal attacks and what I see every day on social media, people piling in on others who do not share their opinions or choices. What and how I wrote was being effected by the opinions of people I have never met, who I know nothing about, whose backgrounds are as shaded from me as anything could ever be, as if the opinion of these shadows are worth more than mine. Of course the correct response when somebody attacks you is to ignore them and move on, you have no idea what is going on in these poor people’s lives.

Original voices, thoughts, ideas are rarely born from the security of being part of mainstream society. Writers and artists tend to come come from a background of ‘otherness’, they are often outsiders and given the tribal nature of much of society it is inevitable that they will be attacked. Sometimes being an outsider drives people to try to fit in and this is usually disastrous for them because they will be spotted and they will be ‘outed’. If you are driven to create, then I am afraid that you are stuck with it and just need to get on with it and stop pretending to be ‘normal’. You may be able to add to your income stream or even, if you are very lucky, end up being able to make a living out of it.

My best writing is done for me, not for other people. I am not trying to thrill, entertain or mystify anybody other than myself. I am not making a product like a fridge or a blender, I am creating something more like a painting that sometimes comes from somewhere deep, often subconscious, there may be repeated images and conflicting ideas, dark and shade, wet and dry. If readers like it then that is wonderful, if they prefer to move along and look at something else, well there is plenty of other writing out there that might suit them better. For this reason I never review a book unless I loved it - if a book just doesn’t work for me, then that is the the worse thing I can say about it. If something doesn’t fit, I put it back and try another. My opinion is just another opinion. But if I read a good review I read it closely - I want to find out what was good about the book, maybe it’s one for me and maybe I’ll try it and if I like it I’ll read their other stuff too.

The lesson for me and perhaps for you too is, enjoy your writing, the very best writing is always done for this one reason alone. Write what you want and how you want. Write the best you can. Learn your craft but also take your risks, the very best of your writing is creative, exploratory and probably outside the mainstream, it is who you are.

If you are reading something you enjoy, give it a nice review, there is no better way of saying to a writer that you enjoyed what they shared with you.

If you have any topics you would like me to explore, make a comment and if I can I’ll have a go at giving you my angle on it.


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