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Things I Learned While Writing Something That Resembles A Memoir (A List Of Half-Advice)

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Sarah Griffin © 28 November 2013.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Memoir · Non-Fiction ).
Writing stories anchored in reality is like pulling teeth out of your head with a pliers. In my case, it was like pulling teeth out of my head with a pliers alone in an apartment in America with a cat for twelve weeks straight, working to a killer deadline. Every time I pulled out a tooth that was bloody and gorgeous and shining, it was too much of a precious thing to show other people in the pages of a book. I did a lot of planting teeth back in. I kept a lot of things for myself. There are many lost chapters of Not Lost.I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that I can’t listen to music while I write. Music feels like too much. Everything is too heightened with music in the background, too cinematic. Not my style. Voices are a nice distraction. In the background, as I worked on Not Lost, I listened to my upstairs neighbor’s divorce, my next-door neighbor’s new extension being built, and every single episode of The X-Files.I firmly believe that writer’s block does not exist. It only exists if you let it, that dull grey nothing that takes over your brain and neuters all the art in you – it can be cleared, like fog, by fresh light. I wrote a lot of other weird stuff while I wrote Not Lost. As a warmup exercise, when I felt the creep of boredom with my project in direct contrast with the weight of the deadline – I would go and look at clothing stores online. I’d pick out the most fabulous clothing that I’d never be able to afford, and write fanfiction about it. Like this shirt turns me into a shark, like this floral headband makes me immortal. I’d recommend this, something like this. Find something you love, and start your day writing about that. Something specific.

Social Media is not your enemy. Well, it isn’t my enemy. It is all fiction, every tweet, every post, every update. You use it, it does not use you. Sure, it can be a time suck, but if you don’t surrender to it, it can be helpful. Writing is lonely as all hell, when it comes down to the doing of it. But there’s a little box in the internet that you can call out through and people will respond. I think this is why people pray. I’m not sure if my generation pray. I think we tweet or update and it does the same job, gives us the same feeling – I’m out here, please remind me I am not alone. Retweet, favourite, like, reblog. Writing is lonely. Do what you have to do.

Once I decided that writing is work, as well as art, I started to feel a bit better about stuff. Like, ultimately, I love writing and it is my link to the world and it helps me understand being alive: but it’s also a job. This also helps eliminate the whole ‘writers block’ thing. Accountants don’t get ‘accountants block’ and while that seems reductive I honestly won’t give into it. Over time, everyone gets better at their job. I’m barely just out of my apprenticeship stages. I like the idea of keeping up the hard work, and becoming more skilled over time. I like the idea of building something.

sarah grffinNonfiction is scary. Lying is easy. Stitching them together is complicated.

Poems are really important. I read a lot of poems. They are like real, true shards of humanity. Tiny and enormous and easy and hard. Poems make me cry a lot. Poems helped me make a book. They really did.

I felt lots of things that I’d never felt before, while going through the process of writing a book and it appearing in the world. It is a whole new set of emotions. Weirdly, very few of these emotions were even on the spectrum of excitement or pride. I have settled, now, the week it hits the shops, on hope. I hope the people who read it like it.

Get yourself some decent word processing software. Open Office is hell. Ugly, confusing hell. I’m saving up for Microsoft Word.

Take the advice that makes sense to you, leave the advice that doesn’t. Listen to your gut, but remember you are always standing on the shoulders of the giants who wrote before you.

I can’t write drunk. I just can’t and I have no idea how all those famous lads did it. I’m not that cool. I have acknowledged and come to peace with my lack of cool.

Writing real world things for me is 80% watching and listening and 20% feeling. I take notes all the time. I am that person transcribing (or Tweeting) entire conversations on public transport. Stray cats are angels if they are white. We live in a dense, rich, world. There are always a million things happening. Your perception is the magic bit: how you write reality into something less fleeting.

Also, writing real world things can potentially hurt people. Ask permission, or try your best to. Honour peoples’ requests, even if they are one word here, one word there, if they are great, gaping omissions. Make people invisible if you need to. There are lots of invisible people in Not Lost. It doesn’t mean they weren’t there.

Read everything, even when you’re so bored of Times New Roman that you dream in Times New Roman. When the clatter of the keyboard makes you sick. Read everything. Essays. Poems. Short stories. Flash fiction. Entire novels. Poems, really, poems are so important.

Last one. Don’t emulate anybody’s voice. Be authentic to the way you sound. It’s hard work, and can be totally head-wrecking but when you nail it, you nail it. Read everything you write aloud to yourself, or a confidant, at least once. You’ll hear the music of it, the moments of truth, and also the discord and the bits that don’t sound like you. This is something I’m kind of obsessed with. I read everything to my husband, or my cat, if my husband isn’t around. You’ll catch them before your readers do. Some of the best writers I know have called me aside in bars, parks, wherever we are and gone, ‘Hey, can I read you something?’ and I always say yes, please do. This is how we learn. This is how we grow.

(c) Sarah Maria Griffin

At once brazen and terrified, Sarah Maria Griffin’s beautifully written memoir, opens a doorway into the interior life of the Celtic Tiger Cubs who have left Ireland to escape the recession and in search of prosperity.

Thrown into life 5,000 miles away from home, Sarah’s tale echoes that of many of her generation — forced to forge new lives and build new homes on distant shores. She describes in open, honest, detail her experience of her first year in San Francisco, a year of struggle and strife, of newness and oddness of adventure and excitement, of loneliness and despair, but also of incredible happiness and joy.

Not Lost is a book about growing up, about friendship, about love, about life and living it well. It is by turns heartbreaking, funny, tender and gutsy, it is assured but never cocky and marks Sarah Maria Griffin as one of the major voices of her generation.

Not Lost is available online and in all good bookshops now.