You Don't Need to Pay to Write

Lidl has lovely notebooks

I was troubled, recently, to see somebody posting online that she couldn't afford to pay for creative writing courses and retreats. The person in question seemed to have swallowed the myth that it isn't possible to write without them. 

I'm here to tell you that this is not true. 

If you want a recommendation for a 'how to' book, you should buy Stephen King's excellent On Writing, more memoir than instruction manual. The advice he gives is both simple and cheering. Read a lot, write a lot and avoid 'workshops' like the plague. 

I've written since I was a child, beginning with poetry, moving on to plays and short stories, and now all kinds of fiction and non-fiction. None of it has ever paid very well, and therein lies a problem. 

The numbers of writers who can earn a living from their fiction has become vanishingly small. This is why so many of us teach the thing we know most about - creative writing. For many writers tutoring classes and retreats is the only thing to keep what Robert Burns called the 'poortith cauld' - cold poverty - away from the door. They can be useful and helpful, no doubt about it.

But that doesn't mean any of them are compulsory.

'The only way to learn how to write is to write,' a novelist told me, when I was first starting out. So I did. 

You could, if you lack confidence, find a local writing group: one where you can receive encouragement or pointers or inspiration. These are usually much less expensive than the big professional courses. Joining a book group might be an even cheaper alternative, where you'll read and discuss books with other people, and gain an awareness of why some books are more popular than others and whether that matters, and what kind of  books you like best.

But don't let anyone fool you that you have to be able to pay to do courses or retreats or classes to learn how to write. If you don't have access to a computer, join a library, and buy yourself a big fat notebook and some pens. (Lidl has great, cheap notebooks. So does T K Maxx.) 

That is really all you need to get started. Give yourself permission to play around with words and ideas. Don't feel that you have to 'get it right'. Just enjoy yourself. Worry about all the rest of it later. 

Rest in Peace

Holyrood Garden Party

Some years ago - all unexpectedly - we were invited to the Royal Garden Party at Holyrood.  Well, my artist husband, Alan Lees, was. I was his plus one. You're not allowed to take photographs, but later on, Alan painted the above image from memory. It sold very quickly. He thought it was definitely a minority interest but I suspect somebody who had been there on that day recognised themselves. 

We had no idea what to expect, but it was a wonderful experience, from the ultra polite police checking passports and invitations at the gates, to the fabulous food, including little cakes with crowns on them. And plenty of fizz. The dresses were a sight to behold. As were the Royal Company of Archers, (much in evidence today at Holyrood) some of them in outfits that looked, and probably were, more antique than their owners. The gardens were beautiful, the sun shone, and everyone seemed full of good humour. 

The Queen must have been well into her eighties, but she negotiated the stairs down to the garden with ease. We were informed by the numerous helpful attendants that Her Majesty would go to one side of the garden and Prince Philip to the other, so we could choose who we wanted to 'see'. It quickly became obvious that the vast majority of us wanted to see the Queen. Philip must have been well used to it by that time. We were there with friends, none of us rabid monarchists, but not rabid republicans either, and we glanced at each other, slightly bemused by the fact that we were enchanted by the whole thing.

The Queen was in a particularly beautiful shade of peacock blue. I always admired her for the fabulous colours of her outfits, and this one was even more vibrant in real life. She stood out like a wee jewel, a lesson for all older ladies who favour the appalling beige. (And no, Eddie Izzard, she didn't look like a man at all.) She was tiny, although the kilted man in the picture, one of the people who was presented to her, was even smaller. It was clear that certain people had been singled out to speak to her. Not us, somewhat to my relief, although we were close enough to see and hear. She spent a full five minutes chatting animatedly to a young woman and her mum, and when she moved on, all they could say to us was, 'She was so nice! And she knew all about us!' 

There were, of course, attendants to jog her memory about the multitude of people she spoke to that day. But all the same, it was quite a feat for a woman in her eighties. Or for anyone. Such is the power of the office, and such - now that I think about it - was the power of a woman who has been a fixture for most of us, for most of our lives, that we could do nothing but admire her. 

News of her death made me teary in a way I wouldn't have expected. But it also brought very vividly to my mind an old BBC TV 'Castaway' documentary about artist Julie Brook. She was spending some months living in an old bothy on the uninhabited island of Mingulay. She was, as far as I remember, working with the landscape, but also painting, magnificently, the vertiginous cliffs of the island. I envied her those months of solitude and dedication. 

She told a story of how one day, she saw the Royal Yacht approaching and, as she went for her usual walk, a solitary security officer asked her if she could perhaps avoid that particular beach for a few hours. The royals were having a picnic. Later, she was painting, when she heard somebody at the gate. It was the Queen, standing there with a bunch of wild flowers in her hand, politely asking if she could see some of her work. Her overwhelming impression, the artist remarked, was just how happy and relaxed Elizabeth looked, as they chatted about her art and her stay on the island. But what a bizarre experience it was too. Dreaming about the Queen is a recognised phenomenon and not one that is exclusively experienced by dyed-in-the-wool royalists. Afterwards, the artist found herself fleetingly wondering if it had been a dream. 

We shall not see the Queen's like again. Above all, she was a role model for so many women born into a world where many of us were perceived to be second class citizens. I have no problem in pausing for a while to think about her with respect.