To Write or to Read? That is the Question.

I have a pile of books I’ve been meaning to get around to reading. I’m hoping to review some of them in the not too distant future (take this time frame with a pinch of salt!) but before I get ahead of myself, one major factor needs to be considered. As I look at the pile, it becomes apparent that this requires some serious time management allocation. A skill that I’m not even sure I possess. There’s a fine balance to tread as a writer when it comes to your reading/writing ratio. I think it’s a widely accepted notion that the art of writing is preceded by the pursuit of reading. Most writers would agree that it is a necessity to read in order to season and hone your writing skills. I wonder though how necessary it is to separate the two experiences instead of marrying them together.

Reading for Fun

As a bookworm, I like to isolate my book reading experience to just that, one of sheer pleasure. Sifting through pages to simply find those Aha moments of spotting nifty literary techniques or the like makes the experience about as pleasurable as pulling teeth. I’m a sleepy reader anyway so it wouldn’t work for me. I’m the type of bookworm who loves to curl around a paperback at night and fall asleep, page to cheek.

How Reading Shapes Writing

I definitely feel that my reading history has shaped my writing overall over the years but not in a way that is entirely specific. My voice is my own but being an avid reader has definitely tapped me into the general conventions of fiction writing such as creating irony, humour or creating the type of lingering sentences that poignantly end a chapter.

The line between a bookworm and a writer is definitely fine. We read for pleasure and we also knowingly or not take nuggets of information onboard about a number of things whether it be tone, cadence, sculpting a protagonist or creating humour. I don’t really like to consider these things when reading as I want to benefit from all the cosy things about being a reader and not wracking my brain thinking about how it will improve my own writing. This process of learning from reading is somewhat organic anyway.

My Current Reading List

So, back to the original point of my impending reading list. I have a few oldies in there as I love to reread past books- if I get around to one of my listed books Never Far From Nowhere by Andrea Levy will be my fourth read! For those obvious reasons though, it’s at the bottom of my current to read list. One past read that I will be prioritising however is Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. I don’t often read Science Fiction novels but once my now late uncle recommended this to me over a decade ago, I had to give it a try and I was not disappointed. I look forward to revisiting the world of Anyanwu, an immortal shape shifter and you can watch this space for an impending review. This book literally changed the way I look at Science Fiction books forever.

I started reading This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins last year and ended up putting it down because of a stain in the book. Yes, I know it sounds silly, but I purchased the book as new and to find a damaged, stained page in it really put me off as I am easily grossed out. Call me an OCD reader but I like my pages to be clean: they can be worn, discoloured through age and curved but they can’t be dirty! I was really engaged by what I was reading up until that point however, so I will make it a point to finish and review. It was also refreshing to commit to a non-fiction read, which I don’t often do (note to self, more non-fiction reads!) Why should I deny myself a reading experience because of a dodgy seller? Humph!

Other upcoming reads high on my list are Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid and Leon by Kit De Waal. The last three books I have mentioned are high priority reads but the others are subject to change as I flip through my book collection and make more purchases. Nothing makes a bookworm/writer like me happier than having a to-read pile of books on my bedside table and who knows? If the beliefs of giants before me are to be considered, it will inform my writing process in some meaningful way.

WRITING FOOD INTO FICTION

Recently I’ve been thinking about the significance of writing food into fiction. Yes, that arguably minute detail that often gets neglected in a story. But is it so minute? Eating plays an integral role in most people’s lives whether our relationship with it be problematic or the joie de vivre. For me it’s a little of both, however that hasn’t stopped me from appreciating descriptions of food as a book lover over the years and incorporating it into my own fiction writing.

A CLOSER LOOK AT FOOD IN FICTION

This fixation with descriptions of food in fiction came about when I read books as a child and began to associate feelings with the descriptions. Feelings which I still distinctly remember today. For example, I have a vivid memory of reading The Perfect Hamburger by Alexander McCall Smith as a ten-year-old in class one day before lunch time. The vivid descriptions of the character’s pursuit to make the perfect hamburger with the right selection of ingredients had my stomach rumbling and made me crave burgers! That precious memory has never left me and it’s all owed to the ‘minutiae’ of food in fiction. Who says that a fiction story has to be all plot and characters? I would argue that the subtle ways in which they relate to something such as food really can offer a broader sense of who a character is and offers yet another branch for analysis for book lovers.

EXAMPLES OF FOOD IN FICTION AND NON-FICTION

Through the often-overlooked lens of gastronomy, we get to understand what it is that drives a character, how they react to scenarios, how organised or disorganised they are or even how healthy their bank balance is. For example, The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s non-fictional ethnographic pursuits into the life of the working class of Northern England led him to the home of the Brookers. His description of breakfast in their home included a ‘pale fried egg’ and bread and butter which ‘always had thumb-marks on it.’ I always found the vivid description of the food utterly repulsive yet brilliant in communicating the squalid nature of his lodging abode. On the contrary ‘runny fried eggs’ are used in Toni Morrison’s Beloved as main narrator Denver recounts a second-hand story about her absent father and how ‘a plate of soft fried eggs was Christmas to him.’ Food becomes the medium through which we understand the distance between herself and her father and how this distance metaphorically becomes smaller with an endearing recount about his favourite food. This makes him appear more present and attached to her life in some meaningful way, however trivial.

HOW I WRITE FOOD INTO FICTION

As a writer who is a self-confessed foodie, I find it hard not to write food into my fiction. There is something comforting about rendering an appealing description of food into a scene. It’s almost like a piece offering to a character, something for them to relish. I must admit, upon reflection, I don’t seem to incorporate unpleasant experiences of food or food of an unappealing nature in general. Certainly nothing like the disgusting bread and butter offering Orwell received in The Road to Wigan Pier. A consistent pattern that I have spotted in my works is that food represents relationships. In my upcoming collection of short stories, food consistently rears its head. In one story, a family express their gratitude when the husband returns home with soggy bags of fish and chips, especially the burdened housewife who no longer needs to cook. In another short story I have written about Post-Natal depression, a new mother has forgotten to cook and love expresses itself when her empathetic husband takes over and gently suggests they pick a take-away of her choice instead. Elsewhere in the collection an estranged mother and daughter have a brief run-in over what they are going to order, a detail I used to represent the awkwardness of their encounter. The mother eventually settles on what the daughter is having, showing a willingness to cooperate and make the meeting run smoothly. Here food moves away from being a medium of pleasure to more of a negotiation barometer of how much are we going to get on today? As a writer I definitely find food to be an alluring tool to map out relationships that characters have with themselves and their issues and how this arises from the presence of food or whether food becomes a remedy to aid this. The latter becomes apparent in one of my stories where a woman battling a failing relationship and disused gym membership turns to food for comfort.

FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD

I find descriptions of appealing bites to eat too difficult not to include and as a reader feel it enhances the experience in a very subtle sensory way which can sometimes be taken for granted. As a booklover, the small details really catch my attention so if a protagonist is in a café, I want to know what they’re having. On a superficial level it adds decoration to a scene. It’s oddly satisfying to be privy to the contents of a character’s meal. For me, the more attractive the better as opposed to the mundane or repulsive.

CHARACTERISATION AND FOOD

On a deeper level it can add to the characterisation aspect of a story. For example, if a character has chosen to eat something superfluously indulgent or on the contrary meagre, It leads us to think about why this is the case. Simply writing food into fiction can inform us about the underlying circumstances of a character and of an extra layer of intrigue. It can support the theory that a character is greedy, self-medicating, rich, broke or whatever else the writer is attempting to convey through their choice of words.

A SPECIAL PLACE FOR FOOD

Food will always have a special place in my writing. It’s too interesting not to and I’m sure many (well, perhaps a humble percentage) of my fellow writers would agree. Additionally, as a bookworm I am certainly grateful for the morsels offered up in my favourite reads. Let me propose this to my bookworms out there: the next time a scene includes a description of food, don’t skim over it. Think closely about what is being signified, it might sound boring but it could actually enrich your reading experience! Seriously, try it. I promise it won’t bite.  

I Rarely Look for Inspiration in the Middle of a Fiction Project. Here’s Why…

As a writer, inspiration is something that I don’t often look for. I know it sounds strange as us writerly people are known for digging and delving through the crevices of life to find hidden gems that serve as inspiration. I, on the other hand allow inspiration to come to me in spontaneous form. I let my ideas flow at whatever ungodly time that they pop up and then capture them. Remember the BFG? Rahl Dahl’s giant who was also a dream catcher? He used a net to catch good and bad dreams to put into bottles and store in his cupboard. As an author I take a similar approach because forcing myself to conjure up ideas just highlights the fact that writer’s block is around the corner. Instead when my ideas and inspirations pop up, I take note and capture them.

Never Let an Idea Go!

It’s really important to never let an idea go as a writer. Many of us can attest to scribbling on receipts in the supermarket when our phone battery has died. Better yet, miraculously holding that idea in your head before you reach home looking vacant, mumbling to yourself and dodging conversations with others in the process so as not to drop your genius idea. I have been known to spend the wee hours of the morning writing illegible notes on my phone’s notepad when I should be sleeping. Worse still, when the notepad ran out of space, I made notes in the form of text message and sent them so that they would be saved – maybe that’s just my dramatic #writerslife, however you get my drift. Writers do crazy s**t to hold or retain ideas in our heads when pens aren’t near!

That spontaneous eureka moment of inspiration

One of the upsides to not looking for inspiration is the feeling you get when it appears. That magical eureka moment releases some serious endorphins and that feeling never gets old. A few recent instances stand out in my mind. Take for instance a period of writer’s block that came about a few months ago. It was regarding the main character of my upcoming novel and a male love interest. I wanted them to go on a date but the thought of conjuring up a samey restaurant scene- which I knew was needed- left me feeling really uninspired. I deliberated about the scene and even started to dread writing it which made me postpone working on the project altogether. I didn’t want to move forward without having written it because it was pivotal but I was also too uninspired to write it. The break I took enabled me to work on other projects in the meanwhile and though this may sound cliché, I allowed myself to trust the process. I didn’t know when I would feel inspired to press on with the scene without deeming it a chore but I didn’t allow myself to ponder on it.

Inspiration Will Always Come and When it Does, it Feels Great!

When the idea did eventually come, it was instant. I found myself looking out of the windows of a vehicle as it crawled through traffic one day and the road happened to be one lined with restaurants, most prominently South Asian restaurants. A lover of this type of cuisine, rich curry dishes in cartons began to spring to mind. Did I fancy a take-away curry that night? Nope. My main character and her man did though! Out of nothing, a hiccup in the construction of my novel was remedied without me once ever having to suffer the ails of writer’s block.

This recently happened again when my main character was returning home to get on with some errands whilst considering major life choices. I wanted to document her journey home from the address that she had previously been staying at but couldn’t think of anything other than a monotonous description of her walking through the street, holding her bags and possibly catching a train or bus. Then one day the idea of her bumping into someone significant came to me and I decided to zoom in on the details of their interaction opposed to her journey home, the prospect of which, even bored me to oblivion.

I make it a thing to grasp at ideas that pop into my head IN THE MOMENT during a work in progress. Never take it for granted- being a human being, you might actually forget it and that could be disastrous for progress. So, unleash your inner BFG and capture those ideas and treat them like the magic they are.

Why I Love Literary Fiction

There are so many reasons to love Literary Fiction, the first being that it does not fit inside the distinct markers of a genre such as Science Fiction or Romance. Literary Fiction does not come complete with the plot conventions of some of our well-loved commercial fiction. Take Romance for instance: boy meets girl, they fall in love, something or someone gets in the way, a struggle ensues and they find themselves in each other’s arms again. I mean they don’t all go specifically like this but you get the general gist of the plotline. You can pick up any Romance novel and expect to see the same linear narrative plot- nothing wrong with that and millions of avid Romance readers would definitely agree that there is comfort in the predictability of a certain type of storyline. However, with Literary Fiction you get to go down the rabbit hole of gritty realism and what could be better than that? You get to let yourself go without any expectation about where the storyline will go. It reads like a sobering fly on the wall documentary and really offers food for thought in its best moments.

It Acts as a Panoramic Lens

Literary fiction zooms a panoramic lens into the mind of the protagonist and we see how they deal with the challenges that they face. Take Pauline Breedlove in The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison for instance. She is the burdened wife of redundant and abusive drunk, Cholly Breedlove. Trapped in a loveless marriage, she takes refuge in the cinema and immerses herself into the romanticised notions of love offered by white Hollywood movies with their glamorous starlets and debonair suitors. The escapist glamour procured from her cinema trips ends abruptly however, when she loses her tooth, an apt symbolism of her youth and beauty. She finally gives up on this notion and focuses her attention on being a superlative domestic servant for a white family, whose home she appropriates as a new source of romanticism. It is the focus on the human condition and mapping out the way in which characters navigate their social landscapes that makes Literary Fiction so compelling as a genre. Getting firmly between the pages of a Literary Fiction novel, you potter about in the character’s shoes, begin to hate their nemeses and even taste their supper. You get to assume a warts and all position firmly within the lives of the characters and as a reader, that is a very privileged place to be.

It Can Get Uncomfortable

Of course, as with any other genre, there are downsides to being an avid reader of Literary Fiction. It requires having an unconditional relationship with a story that often has a bumpy ride and this can be uncomfortable. Take for example a scenario in the world of Romance or Chick Lit: Rosie has had a series of unsuccessful relationships and has given up on love. We observe her quest for such through a series of comical mishaps with a chatty best friend in tow and a hypercritical but somehow harmless mother. Rosie however, is lucky because she is the main character of a Romance or Chick Lit novel and so these genre conventions dictate that she finally gets her man in the end.

Now let us envision the sombre world of Marta. She has had a string of unsuccessful relationships owed to the fact that she had an abusive father who often spent all of the family’s earnings at the bar or in the betting shop. She suffers from severe bouts of depression and lives life through a gloomy lens. The story is littered with constant descriptions of squalor and poverty. As a reader there is little to find funny about her predicament and to make it worse, just when you think she has found Mr Right it turns out that he has a family on the other side of the world and by the end of the novel has left her to return there. Sigh. This is what I mean about Literary Fiction requiring you to have an unconditional relationship with the story. We may not like the dark twists and turns that it takes. Moreover, these moves are downright unpredictable and I can understand the predictable plotline patterns that genre fiction enthusiasts have come to love and look out for over and over again.

The heaviness of the themes in Literary fiction may be unsettling to some and that’s why I as a booklover enjoy mixing my genres depending on my mood. Not everyone wants to be forced to witness the trauma of human hardship and strife, often without a tangible happy ending but one that’s often centred on the main character’s melancholic reflection on their grim predicament. For me however, it is the flouting of a perfect end resolution that makes Literary Fiction so attractive. It makes it all the more real and thus more interesting.

It Zooms in on the Ugly Underbelly of Life

When I was a child, I would spot someone in public and wonder who they were, where they were going and who was waiting for them to come home. Reading a novel within this genre is like zooming in on a real person and for a curious being like myself, it’s an alluring factor. That there are a million Pauline Breedloves in the world makes the novel a more attractive read. It isn’t a far-fetched tale that requires me to use my imagination when I’m too tired before bed or acts as a light read that leaves me wanting to know more of the nitty gritty. Literary Fiction gets into the ugly underbelly of a novel and doesn’t succumb to the pressure of tying the ends into a neat resolution at the finale. It is this sense of unapologetic realism that makes it so attractive.

How I got Started Writing

I can trace how I got started writing back to being a young child. Remember those Disney themed exercise book sets? I remember pouring my thoughts and ideas into them. I wrote sporadic one paragraph diary entries, lists of things I wanted and most significantly now, short stories, often remakes of fairy tales.

When I entered secondary school, I discovered that I loved creating written tasks. Whether I had to produce roleplays, leaflets or articles, I always relished the challenge of producing written work and embellishing them with my own illustrations. When the class would groan in unison at the proposal of an essay, I would find no problem with the task.

One of the first writing tasks we were given by our English teacher Ms Bainbridge, was to create an autobiography. I wasted no time recounting details of my young life’s history. Similarly, in Personal Social Health Education class we were required to create informative magazine articles and leaflets on subjects such as drugs, abortion and contraception. I created an eating disorders leaflet in the shape of a pair of scales which I can remember spending days on to complete and which went down very well with my peers, who voted it the best leaflet in the class. In the five years that I spent in secondary school it came to me that I quite enjoyed writing and found myself at ease with it in all its forms.  

 Fiction writing prevailed in my spare time when I began writing Fan Fiction at the age of thirteen to entertain myself at home. I can honestly say that my affinity with writing is linked to my history of reading. For as far back as I can remember, I had a healthy relationship with books as a child. I was read to practically every night and books and their vivid pictures formed a huge part of my entertainment growing up. I always had my own bookshelf with a library of books and would spend chunks of time leafing through them, fixated on the pictures when I couldn’t read and the words when I learned to. I was particularly obsessed with the library of Childcraft books that I had. An expansive volume of books covering topics such as astronomy, wildlife, science, biology, world climates and engineering. These books offered me a variation of materials and gave me the tolerance and discipline needed to engage in topics that fell outside of my normal pool of interests.

This clearly helped in secondary school and enabled me to see the joy and value in writing even if it was a boring History essay on the Treaty of Versailles. I eventually left secondary school with an A in English Language and an A in English literature. The writer in me wasn’t quite born yet but I did decide to pursue both topics combined at A level in college where once again I ravished the materials given regardless of how ‘relatable’ they seemed and immersed myself within the various contexts which helps now as a writer because I enjoy consuming literature from different genres and we all know that an avid reader makes a great writer right?

These were the little writing buds which eventually blossomed out into me taking writing more seriously. After a few sporadic short stories and working on my debut novel for an absolute age, here I am!