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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.

Marc.

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  • Marc Hamer

Updated: May 20, 2021



You might have seen my previous two books ‘How to Catch a Mole’ or ‘Seed to Dust’ described by my publisher or in reviews as Autobiographical, or Narrative Non-fiction, or Literary Non-fiction. But are they really?

In this blog I want to talk about how I write this kind of work.

The two books are above all stories, they have a beginning, a middle and an end - there is a particular story to tell. As it happens they are both love stories. They are stories of the same life, they overlap in time but they are completely different tales from each other.

Writing this kind of work is often about deciding what to leave out, what to say and how to say it. The things that happen should on the whole be truthful, but when and where and who they happened too can be a little more flexible. The work needs to be intrinsically honest, just as a work of fiction does, but if you want a true story to be readable or meaningful in any way, then you need to leave some things out, particularly boring things, that are irrelevant to the story you want to tell. But when you do that you also have to start messing with timelines, because time telescopes where events and characters have been removed.

Things might need to be written out of sequence so that relationships between people and between events are not fragmented and spread all over the place as they are in 'real life'. A pure biography would not do this, it would be a historically accurate telling of the sequence of events between point A and point B and for me, a person who is essentially interested in rhythm and poetry, words and light and shade, it would be horribly boring both to write and to read. There are two kinds of reading, one type is to take you out of yourself and experience a different life, the other is to search for facts and I am all about the first kind.

I approach this work much as one might approach the telling of a tale of something that happened to you, as if sitting around the camp fire; I’m going to tell you the tale of when ‘this happened to me’. But beyond that, I want to tell you is the tale of what I learned from this event, or how it changed me and so some things irrelevant to that particular story are left out and some things are moved from one place to another so the whole thing makes sense and the story can unfold in a logical way with events that build on what happened previously instead of jumping backward and forward in time.

Personalities change over time in response to events and so the character at the end is not the same character you started with. That for me is the essence and purpose of story telling.

In How to Catch a Mole I wanted to tell a story about being isolated, an outsider alone in nature for a long period of time, through the seasons and years, and I particularly wanted to write about the awakening of a deep and abiding spiritual life in response to that. The spiritual awaking was the core thing. I wanted to make it interesting on another level with lots of nuggets of information about, in this instance the life of moles and the weird story of how to catch them, these were kind of anchors to bring the reader back to a 'safe place'. I also illustrated each section with a piece of poetry whose function was to show something of the inner life. Facts and events and feelings kind of ran through the work.

I was clear that I did not want to make a pure memoir, or a nature book, I have lived in nature but have not studied the literture on it, I am not a collector of facts, or anything else really. I wanted to write something about being a human, about resilience and growth and love, so the events and facts that supported this particular story were brought into focus and irrelevances to those parts of the story were pushed back or left out completely. Had I put them in it could have become something about rural homelessness or child abuse. I did not want to do this, there is enough of that kind of stuff out there already and ‘poverty porn’, or ‘misery memoir’ does not appeal to me. Creativity can spring from neurosis, anxiety and fear or it can spring from a deep sense of connectedness and love, I am more driven by the latter, I wanted to tell a positive story that added more love and pleasure to the world along with a few pointers about how to find it. The love and pleasure found through self-awareness are the true ‘Mole’ of the title and that is the essence of the story, that is the mole I was hunting for and caught.

So the story and the structure are everything. There is no fiction in the book as far as I can remember I don’t think in the end I made anything up out of thin air. I did wonder about whether I would need to do this in order to make it flow and be enjoyable to read but was resistant - the sheer fact of organising the events and expressing some of them with more clarity than others was enough in the end.

So the question remains about what to call this kind of work. The works of Knausgard and Proust are shelved in the fiction categories as are Kerouak's 'On the Road' and 'Dharma Bums' and Bukowski's 'Post Office' and Pirsig's 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' - all of them Autobiographical novels. I think in America they understand this kind of work more than they do in the UK. My work is usually shelved in ‘Nature’ or ‘Autobiography’ neither of which are ideal, my books are certainly not nature writing and anybody who goes there looking for it may well be disappointed, the straight autobiography of a gardener or a molecatcher would be of limited interest perhaps, but the books have to go somewhere. I have been told they are ‘self-help’ books but don’t fit there at all comfortably either. I like the word ‘Autofiction’ this is a category that has been very popular in France for many years, stories about the author and their search for meaning or truth rather than biographical data. The writing of the book itself may appear in the book and I feel this may make appearance in the next book.


The first use of the word occurred in a blurb on the back of the French novelist Serge Doubrovsky’s book Fils in the late 1970s:


‘Autobiography? No, that is a privilege reserved for the important people of this world, at the end of their lives, in a refined style. Fiction, of events and facts strictly real; autofiction, if you will, to have entrusted the language of an adventure to the adventure of language, outside of the wisdom and the syntax of the novel, traditional or new. Interactions, threads of words, alliterations, assonances, dissonances, writing before or after literature, concrete, as we say, music.’


As for the book I am writing at the moment, it most decidedly is autofiction. It’s a new story that begins precisely where the last one ended but timescales are seriously and obviously distorted and it has some aspects of a time travel. I’m 20,000 words in and things are developing well. I need a bit of a break now while it all percolates through and I have some research to do, so days are spent with about 40 minutes of yoga in the morning then about an hour or two writing and then lots of reading and walking and in the evenings chatting to Kate about how our work is going. She has just submitted to her publisher the MS of a sequel to her very first novel, so she is feeling light and tired and wanting to rest and have fun. That is how submission gets you, there is fear and relief to deal with and a sense of ending and emptiness, but also feeling that you need to take advantage of the break before the editing starts.


Please feel free to leave comments or to ask questions if you have any.



Marc

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  • Marc Hamer

Updated: May 6, 2021

Work begins on the new book. I know the book in the amorphous way a father knows a secretive child, mostly. It is latent. I wake up 4am, with an idea for a passage that develops as I lie there so I jump out of bed, rush to my desk and get it down. As I am writing the blackbird starts to sing, it is still pitch black. I write for 45 minutes then back to bed for an hour or two. This will happen time and time again as my subconscious turns over all the fragments of what I am working on. Already the book is twice as long as it needs to be but most of it is notes and 90% of it will be cut and maybe turned into something else.


When I was young I started keeping sketchbooks because I was good at drawing back then, but I got seduced by conceptual art, John Lathams burning towers of books and Keith Arnatt’s invisible sculptures and ‘art and language’s language as art, and over time I ended up writing more than I was drawing. Eventually my sketchbooks became notebooks full of words and ideas for artworks that never become solid because once I’d had the idea, actually making the thing and using up space and materials and further polluting the earth and the visual landscape with yet more crap that somebody would have to deal with became meaningless. So I was pulled by gravity back to my first love, words. I write far too many of them, I write the same thing over and over again in different ways just as I drew the same faces over and over again from different angles. It works in art, it doesn’t work in a book, or at least I have tried to make it work but it confuses readers and I get called repetitive. So I’m giving that up because a writer needs happy readers or he hasn’t got any and has to find another job or starve.


My clock is set for 0730 but I will wake well before that and lie there then sit at my desk for a while and read what I’ve written and write some more, then yoga for half an hour to get rid of the writers hump and meditation to tune myself into the day, shower, dressing, breakfast, back to the desk for an hour or two, walk for an hour, eating, reading, to slow myself down get in the zone and build the focus. Then writing, writing at all hours. Going to bed at all hours, in the afternoon, after dinner, after breakfast, getting up and writing or reading or cooking or walking, meditating, yoga. All these things every day, nothing else. I am going to get lonely and probably end up oversharing on twitter because of it, then deleting, I delete a lot.


But first I must ‘clear the decks’, clear the desk, clear my desktop of everything that I have been reading recently, tidy the pens, find somewhere to put all the other junk that collects there, photographs, cameras, I have far too many cameras - and line up my all my notebooks. Easy.


Then I get am email from a literary magazine who published some of my poems a couple of years ago, could I write a piece about landscape, 500 - 2000 words. They are doing a feature and I would be ideal, they say nice things about my work and although it is unpaid I do not feel that I can refuse, we have a relationship. I see it as an opportunity to support them as they have supported me but also it is an opportunity to get my work in front of a few more people and maybe find a few more readers. I’ll be able to use the article in a collection of essays and photographs I’m planning to put together at some time. So I say yes, it takes me four days to write the piece, I experiment with different angles and eventually, inspired by Richard Long I write about how walking can be an art. I send it off and they say excellent, thank you so much! Just as I am finishing the piece I get another email. This time from Canada, a newspaper wants a piece about how my social class has affected my relationship with the landscape. ‘Seed to Dust’ comes out there in May and the piece would coincide with publication. Of course I say yes. 850 words. I do like to write essays and perhaps eventually I will revert to only writing essays. I think it is a fine literary form that should be more widely read. This one says there is a small honorarium, it doesn’t say how much. I don’t ask. I’ll write for anybody, well nearly anybody, if they pay me.

Marketing your work as a writer is massively important. The market is so crowded these days as it is in every other walk of life, life is more competitive than it has been at any time in the past. So as a writer you have to do your bit to support your own work. From live events at book fairs and bookshops and festivals and social media. For my last book there were no events because of lockdown so I gave away packets of seed I collected from flowers in my garden to readers on Twitter. I wanted to say thank you for reading my work, just as I would have done had I met them in a writers tent or indie bookshop. Thank you, I miss you.

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