BY FRANCESCA BELLEI / CLITERACY / OCTOBER 2017
ADVICE TO A YOUNG WRITER
Advice to a Young Writer
From a Chorus of Established Writers
It is not selfish or self-involved to write for yourself, or about yourself.
There is nothing shameful in thinking about
Ever since I first got published, I would get people coming into my shop and slamming their manuscripts on my table.
What do you think, they would ask.
They were all people who really wanted to get some sort of message out there,
Like they’d just realised that racism is bad
Or that homophobia is horrible.
It’s a dangerous trend.
You have to write as if nobody is ever going to read you.
You need to think of your readers.
You need to give us the details.
Flesh it out.
Some of my students write to tell the world about something. What they write has no personal connection to them.
I don’t know why they waste their time writing such
I really like experimental pieces,
But I can’t understand what’s going on here.
Play with form.
Nobody publishes short stories anymore.
Nobody publishes novels anymore.
Nobody publishes novellas anymore.
Nobody publishes poetry anymore.
Nobody reads anything anymore.
Find your voice.
Which authors are you most similar to?
Are you the new Hilary Mantel? Alice Munro? Margaret Atwood?
The moment you start thinking your writing is going to rock the world
You’re in trouble.
Why don’t you start thinking about the cover of your book?
Where would you place your name on it?
How big would the letters be?
What would the New York Times say about it?
You need to include that too.
I have been so
By the response my writing got.
I could have never imagined…
How much do you imagine you should get for your first advance?
How many copies do you think you’ll sell?
It would really help
If you won the Booker.
To publish a book
You need an agent
To find an agent
You need a letter
And in the letter
Something to catch the eye.
Like the LRB, or the New Yorker.
These days, they mostly publish
What agents send them.
Oh, how well they pay at the New Yorker!
Your first book
Really defines you.
You become a certain kind of writer.
Afterwards, everybody just wants more of the same.
They just want to label you.
They don’t see you for you.
I had a friend.
The first time she got published
She got a two-book deal.
Her second novel was going to be completely different from the first,
But her publisher just wanted more of the same.
And by this point she had no bargaining power,
Because she was getting old:
And she wasn’t
Non-fiction is the new fiction
Fiction is the old non-fiction
Make your fiction realistic
Fictionalise your reality
THE UNICORN OF NOW
Hush, hush. Wake up early, without a sound. His slumber is heavy beside me, but I take care to walk softly down to the kitchen. No matter how soundly he seems to be sleeping, the sound of bacon fat popping, melting, exploding-
– it drives him mad.
Tip-toeing in the dark, I open the fridge and let out a sigh – salvation is near. Two blocs of butter fly into a pan as wide as the wheel of a truck, almost of their own accord. When they begin to brown, twenty-four eggs slide in and slowly turn to gold. The granules of salt and pepper between my fingers fall like snowflakes on the yellowy mounds. Five bowls of nutty granola in as many clouds of yoghurt, a drizzle of shining honey to crown them. Ten avocados sliced into a hundred crescent moons, laid to rest on two loafs of bread.
I eat it fast, I eat it all. The chair moans under my weight as I chew, in ecstasy. I’m mhing and ahing so loudly I almost don’t hear him come down from the bedroom–
I can’t believe it – my husband says – You promised.
I’m sorry, is all I can say. He is standing behind me – I can feel his rage even without looking. It is white hot, and it burns.
The day we married, you were as slim as a doe; now even an entire ox couldn’t fill that bottomless pit you have for a stomach. There's no more money – do you hear me? You’ve eaten it all up!
Head down, I get up and leave. He doesn’t try to stop me. I haven’t looked at him for so long, I almost forget what he looks like sometimes; but he never forgets what I look like, and makes sure I don’t either. He feels cheated: this is not what he signed up for.
When I was little, my mother would take me to the market with her. She was a sharp, quick woman, who would (and could) not be fooled by anybody.
Look closely – she would hiss, yanking me closer to the counter, as the greengrocer weighed the produce for us, sliding the weights backwards and forwards, until he hit the right spot.
They always try to sneak a few pounds in – she would whisper in my ear.
Pity she forgot to warn my husband.
In the bathroom, I undress quickly, my eyes roaming anywhere but the mirror. The clothes fall on the floor like leaves: this is the autumn of my life. The shower jet hisses when it hits my skin, and I am forced to touch what I refuse to see, measure the length of my body with the palms of my hands – it pains me to survey this ever-growing land. When I come out of the shower, the first thing I do is put my ring on. It is a heavy, plain golden band, handed down to me by my mother, who got it from her mother, who got it from her mother, and so on for generations and generations of women, stretching so far back into the centuries even their names have been lost – but not the ring. There is an inscription on the inside which reads ‘Cailleach Mhór nam Fiadh’. I don’t know what it means, but it gives me strength to think that I may belong to a lost world – the present being a fair few sizes too small for the likes of me.
I cover up well, it is almost April but the cold still bites. The bag is packed, and I grab it quickly, closing the door behind me. I get into the car, and as the engine wakes up with a roar, I think about the weekend ahead – the annual retreat with the loneliest employees of the charity I volunteer for. Young people, people with families they don’t hate – they stay away from it. It is a weekend of sighing and card games, ginger beer and health complaints. I started going because it made me feel better about myself. At least I’m not like them. That was ten years ago. Every year I tell myself I won’t go, not this year, last year was awful. But by the time they start sending emails around I’m usually desperate enough to say yes.
Overgrown roadside sycamores flank the asphalt on both sides, like loyal sentinels guarding a sparsely attended procession of cars. I leave the last lamplights behind after crossing the Tay at Dunkeld, and it gets darker almost instantly, but I can still see the Loch of Craiglush, ruffled and hoary, through a screen of birch foliage. The cottage is in Butterstone; a name that sounds like it came out of a free-association game in which the first word was fat. I drive past a loch by the same name, before heading left and upwards. The gravel screeches under the tyres as I turn to park before the aquamarine doors of the cottage – an odd choice of colour for these parts, where ochre and ash, deep browns and humid greens rain down from the sky every day, aplenty.
Once inside I greet everyone half-heartedly, only six of us this year. I learn names I know I will forget. The warmth of the fire holds us in a stupor, as we feast on discount doughnuts around the hearth.
Six no-shows, this year. I wish they’d have had the good grace of telling me. Would’ve never rented a place this big. With the money we’ve spent on this … We’re a charity, not an investment bank, the manager grumbles.
A few people nod, but say nothing. I’m too tired to care, the long drive has left me exhausted.
I’m going to bed, goodnight everyone.
Already? The manager asks, feigning concern and betraying annoyance. The seal has been broken now. Soon, everyone will stop trying to pretend like they are enjoying each other’s company and follow my lead.
Oh well, sleep tight, dear, says the oldest volunteer, from the depths of the armchair she has claimed for herself.
I haul myself into bed, pulling the tartan blanket as close to my nose as I can without feeling like I am suffocating. The darkness in the country has a different depth to it, so thick and total – it can erase you, pull you into a place of non-existence.
I fall asleep almost immediately.
I dream of walking out of the house and it is snowing. The pines are bent under the weight of winter on their branches. I turn left and follow the path behind the house. A pair of scurrying pheasants emerge from the other side of the hill; their heads, gleaming red and teal against the all-pervading whiteness, give them away. They sprint up into a thicket, where I spot a herd of deer, standing proud and close together, like priestesses in the middle of a ceremony.
Among them, there is a white doe.
I stay still and hold my breath, stupefied. I never dared to hope I could see a white doe in my lifetime, never thought it could be me.
All of a sudden, she raises her tail in alarm; there’s a hiss and a thud, and the doe falls on her flank, shrieking as the arrow plunges into her flesh, while her grey-brown companions scatter in panic.
I want to dash to her side, but a man is blocking my path.
It’s my husband, and he is wielding a bow.
He hands me a fistful of banknotes.
His reward for killing the doe.
To fill your bottomless pit, he says.
He pushes the money into my hands, but it’s covered in blood, dripping out of my palms, down my elbows, and into the snow.
I start screaming, and can’t stop.
When I look up at him, I find myself staring at my own reflection in the surface of his mirrored sunglasses.
A pair of antlers is sprouting out of my head, reaching up to the sky and down into my skull.
I scream myself awake.
The numbers on my phone screen read 06:27. Darkness fills the room still, weighing me down like it’s sitting on my chest. I slowly raise my hands, and touch my head to check for antlers, but only find a mass of knotty hair. Too shaken to stay in bed, I get up to open the curtains.
There is snow everywhere.
I stifle a gasp as I look upon the paper-white landscape I have just woken up from. It’s March 29th. Not unusual for these parts, but... not normal either. I want to be out there, because something inside me is changing. I feel done with my failed marriage, done with my charity weekends, done with guilt, done with shame. My body’s expansion is what brought me here, to this place of self-pity; of slow, everyday death. But what if it – if I – were wondrous instead of monstrous?
Before leaving I grab the tartan blanket from the bed, and wrap myself up tightly. I am surprised at how many times I can wind it around my body – it looked much smaller on the bed. It will serve me well against the cold. When I open the door the air looks clean and icy as a dagger, but I feel only warmth.
I know where to go, I have been there before.
The noise of snow falling is what silence sounds like, before it crackles under my weight, crushed into the shape of my tread, but not for long. The snow will cover my tracks once more, as if I was never here. I turn left and follow the path behind the house. A pair of scurrying pheasants emerge from the other side of the hill; their heads, gleaming red and teal against the all-pervading whiteness, give them away. They sprint up into a thicket, where the white doe is waiting for me, alone, as I knew she would be.
She blinks slowly, momentarily hiding the liquid blackness of her eyes under the thick curtains of her lashes. As I walk up to her, she scuttles away to the top of the hill, weightless. The dark dot of her nose is sometimes the only thing I can see against the blank canvas of the sky. Once I reach the top, she flies a few feet down; her lithe body barely leaving a trace in the freshly woven coat of snow.
She keeps her distance, flicking her ears back when she pauses to wait for me, frustrated at my slowness. It’s harder to walk downhill; I slide and fall a couple of times, cursing under my breath while I try to shake off the ice from the inside of my sleeves. I fall a third time, and when I get up the doe is at the bottom of the slope, standing guard by a lonely hut. There is no other building around for miles, just forests, thick with Norway spruce covered in creepers and tiny white fungi, light-padding foxes, and snowbells hidden from sight.
This is where she is leading me.
This is where I was always meant to be.
As a child I was told that snowflakes were witches going to a meeting; if it were true, this hut would be where they convened. Already there were billions of them, piling up high on the roof and obscuring the windows, blocking the tiny wooden door and filling the gaps between the irregular stones that made up its walls, sealing the hut tightly against the outside world. Once at the door, the doe stops, and taps lightly on the threshold with her left hoof, three times. She is waiting for me to open the door – not because she needs me to do it for her, but because she wants to make sure I do it. As I approach her, she takes one step back: I may not touch her yet.
There is an old inscription on the lintel, roughly carved with a blunt knife: ‘Cailleach Mhór nam Fiadh’. The familiar words come to life, and now I know that they mean ‘the Huge Old Woman of the Deer’.
There is a ring-shaped indentation where the lock should be, and I smile with pride as I take my mother’s ring off, and slide it in. An invisible hand pushes the door open. As soon as I walk in, I find myself surrounded: the entire herd has taken refuge in here. Twenty pairs of cervine eyes look up to me now – in awe of my size, my girth, my strength.
They need me.
I am their mother, their priestess, their goddess – and I always have been.
I just needed to get huge and old enough.
The white doe nudges me from behind, and I move forward among them. I squat down on the dirty floor of the hut, and I finally see myself as the haggard-looking old woman I am, my hair dishevelled and wild, the pulsating heart of my herd.
Only then does the white doe come forward, and lets me touch her blinding mantle. It radiates an inexplicable warmth, and I can feel her heartbeat pulsating fiercely under a thin coat of fur. No hunter will put a stop to the flow of her blood now, for as long as I live. She does not speak, but the voice I hear is hers:
Huge Old Woman of the Deer, owner of the herd, you shall grow older than time, and your children will be tribes and races.