Books that make me want to write

Books that have inspired me to write. How to write stories. How to be a writer. Ourstorytime.co.uk

I’m often asked how I became a writer.

I used to answer with my most self-deprecating voice. I tried to pretend like it was nothing, just some happy accident, like it wasn’t what I’d spent my whole life working towards. Like it hadn’t always been my dream.

Oh, you know, I’d say.

I try not to do that anymore. Now when someone asks me how I became a writer, I explain that I was a journalist for years but that at some point I started writing less about the news and more about myself.

But how did you write your book? they then ask.

And so I explain how an editor at a publishing company once noticed my work in the paper and how he asked if we could meet and, oh, if I could also bring along some book ideas with me.

I might then explain how I was seven weeks pregnant at the time, and that this made everything a little fuzzy because the signs of sickness were already beginning to lurch and I was otherwise preoccupied.

I’d explain, too, that the sickness was why my initial book ideas weren’t that great but that it didn’t matter because he offered me a deal right there and then, in a pub opposite Earls Court during the spring season of the London Book Fair (and here, I’d warn them: don’t sign a deal without an agent. I wish I had known this but I didn’t, not until my own agent signed me a few months later). And then I’d tell them that I don’t remember what happened next because I had to run to the bathroom, pushing past a strange man in a top hat on the stairs (a top hat; perhaps a book fair thing), where I was promptly sick - not because of the book, but because of the baby.

But really, those are just details.

The truth is, I’m a writer, because I read a lot of books and some books pull at my heart so hard that they make me want to write like that too even if I’m nowhere near as good or ready yet.

I split these books into two. There’s my inspirational books, the ones that made me want to write, and then my practical ones, the ones that help me to write. My inspirational books are the ones that tore me to bits with their beauty or their intrigue and weaved some sort of spell on me. These are the books I turn to, again and again. Some of these are the books of my childhood and my teenage years, which weave in with my memories and remind me of certain places, faces and times. These are the books that make me want to write as beautifully and simply as I can.

Then there are the more practical books, the ones that took me out of the ten-word intros of the newsroom and into more longer, thoughtful, crafted prose. These are the books that help me polish up my words instead of wasting time. These are the ones that I’ll turn to all the time when I need a good talking to about what on earth it is I’m trying to do and why I’m trying to do it.

You’ll find my two sets of books below. I’d love to know which books have made you want to write too.

The Books that Made Me Want To Write

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I was seven or eight when I first read Little Women, and I still have my childhood copy. This book made me want to be a writer because I, like so many other little girls, wanted to be Jo. Like Jo, I had wild and long and thick hair as a girl and I often wondered then what it would be like to hack it all off. But mostly, I wanted to be Jo because she was smart and she was a writer and that made me want to be a writer too. She gave me a glimpse of what it meant to be strong-willed. I’ll never forget imagining what it might have been like, to be Jo.

The Catcher In The Rye, by JD Salinger (but also everything JD Salinger wrote; see also: Franny and Zooey, For Esme With Love & Squalor and Raise High The Roof Beam)

I read The Catcher In The Rye when I was thirteen or fourteen and then I re-read it and re-read it countless times. I fell in love with Holden Caulfield and all his troubles and I remember thinking, as a teenager, that he sounded so real and I wondered how anyone could do that, how anyone could make a person on a page, who did not even exist and had no skin, feel so real. Later, I came to learn that The Catcher In The Rye was a lesson in the most amazing narrative, dialogue and character and then I read everything else that Salinger wrote. For Esme With Love & Squalor was the first short story I’d ever read and I remember pulling it apart then piecing it back together again and marvelling at the whole damn thing.

Salt And Saffron by Kamila Shamsie

After I lost my father, I began to search harder for novels in which I could see myself and find myself, my family, my history. I wanted to taste my father’s world and I wanted to somehow make sense of my own. And then I found Salt And Saffron, a magical woven tale of Pakistani family trees and stories and summers in London spent sorting fact from fiction to try and figure out who you are. I loved the protagonist, and more than that, I felt like her too. I felt like I understood her need to understand her past in order to make sense of her present. By this point, I was already writing short stories in my spare time outside of work, and I began to realise through this book that I could maybe even write about who I was, or at least about the worlds I inhabited.

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri

This book made me want to write because it showed me how the simplest of writing is the most beautiful. It showed me, too, that I could write about my heritage and my south Asian culture and let it simply sit there, without it needing to be the biggest point. Through this book, I learnt the depth of writing quietly and the importance of being an observer. These short stories taught me to shift my focus, look in the background, consider the details, and make those the story instead. I always come back to Unaccustomed Earth whenever I am feeling lost in my writing or even just in my soul. A line from one of Lahiri stories inspired the title of my very own collection of short stories, In Spite Of Oceans, too.

The Books that Help Me How To Write

I have a small section of my bookshelf set aside for the books that talk about the nature and the art of writing. These are the sort of books that help unpick the essence of writing to its seams. My favourites change like the seasons, but out of that section, these are the two I’ve been returning to again and again lately:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Part memoir, part writing-motivation, this book is warm and generous and full of everything you need to hear when you want someone to make you a cup of tea, sit down in front of you, hold your hands and and tell you what to do when you are faced with writer’s block. Allow me to explain the meaning of the title:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

So, bird by bird, I mutter to myself when I find myself avoiding my desk, rather wiping down the counters or mopping the floors or tidying the toys away again. Bird by bird, my husband says to me, when he takes over bedtime and ushers me into his office so I can have an evening uninterrupted to work on chapters. Bird by Bird. It works (almost) every time.

Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose

A well-thumbed favourite from years ago, I studied this book in depth before writing my first book. Even though I’d been a literature grad, I don’t think I fully understood the weight every single word might hold. I never fully understood the significance of every word being a choice. This book helped me re-read in a different way, in a slower way that asks questions and provokes as it ambles along.

An extra little thank you to Gemma, for suggesting I write this post.

A little note to say that this post includes affiliate links that help me run Our Story Time at no cost whatsoever to you.

Interested in crafting your writing skills? In June, I’ll be launching a brand new summer course. Sign up to my Writer’s Letter to find out first!

My Picky Eater

An essay on a little boy who doesn’t like to eat very much. Picky eaters. Fussy eaters. Small people. OurStoryTime.co.uk

I have a small three-year-old shaped person in my life who loves carrots. This is great, for he does not like many things when it comes to food. So carrots are what we do.

I slice them up in fingers, knowing that if his main meal is simply pushed about his plate as it so often is, the carrots at least will find a way into his mouth. Sometimes I roast them, drizzled with a drop of honey. He declares these delicious. Let’s build on this, I think to myself, and so we bake muffins together, healthy ones with Greek yoghurt and carrot and the juice of a big, fat orange and then we bake yet more. He helps me peel the carrots, my breath half-held for fear of a slip, and then I hold the grater still for him so he can shred his carrot, his little voice offering a running commentary as we go.

Carrots, carrots, carrots, he sings.

He sits in front of the oven, waiting for the batch of muffins to be done. He plays with his baby brother’s toy kitchen, making me a pie from a wooden aubergine and half a wooden fish. I pretend to eat it.

Yum! I say. I will eat anything you make for me!

I tell him this, hoping my little promise might slip into his own tiny subconscious.

The muffins are done; he jumps for glee, his fingers twitching like a live wire (a habit of his when he is having fun). I make tea while he blows all over them to cool them quickly. We sit down, a muffin on a plate for each of us, and just as I’m taking a poignant polaroid in my mind of how lovely this moment has been, just me and him, he tucks in.

But Mama.

(I should have known)

But.

(Here it comes)

But Mama, it’s got carrots in it!

(Accompanied with an adorable but still testing look of sheer disgust).

Well, yes, I say. Remember, you grated the carrots for me? You mixed them in?

But Mama, I don’t like carrots!

And so I am flummoxed, once again.

Perhaps I pushed the carrots too much. Yes, I probably pushed the carrots too much. But what else do you do, when some days your child won’t even look at his plate? With just one tricky eater out of three and an overall healthy approach, I tell myself I’m not doing too badly. But then I also know it’s just him, this little guy, figuring things out, learning to say no. I know he’ll get there eventually. He will, won’t he?

Still, though. I’d like him to eat.

All three of my boys fell in love with food from the moment they tried apple puree and mashed bananas and avocados as gummy babies weaning. My eldest and my youngest still eat pretty much everything. My middle one, this little one, used to until about a year ago. I never followed any particular rules when it came to weaning, choosing instead to introduce them in a common sense, simple way to the food we liked to eat as grown-ups too. He used to love avocados and hummus and tomatoes and cucumbers and olives; lunch was almost always meze. Tofu and rice was his favourite meal. Slithers of halloumi, a treat. Now, he won’t touch any of it. He tells me breakfast is his favourite meal, and I concede, this he will eat: boiled eggs or big bowls of cinnamon porridge or yoghurt with granola or pancakes on Sundays. But breakfast is not dinner (unless, of course, it could be).

The title of this blog post is a little misleading not least because I don’t intend to label him as a picky or fussy eater and forever think of him like this. Still, it’s a title. I am reminding myself if he ate well once, he will eat well again. It is hard to not feel glum, but he is happy with the choices he makes at mealtimes and I suppose that is what counts. Meanwhile, I am investigating nicer ways to deal with this all, ways that don’t include bribes of pudding or raising my voice or tears at the table. Here’s what has been helping me even when it feels like all we’re taking is the tiniest of baby steps:

  • Claire at Today We Cooked inspires me daily with her Stories of her kids helping her cook and of course, the most amazing vegetarian repertoire of dinners. She sort of throws everything together, and cooks the way I’d love to cook. Here’s hoping.

  • Claire also introduced me to Ciara’s account and cookbook, My Fussy Eater, which has given me hope to find ways to expand my own fussy eater’s tastebuds. Her pizza rolls are a hit with all three kids, made with her hidden vegetable sauce, which I had my own variation of before. Her healthier take on baked goods (almost always using a modest amount of honey over sugar) has also helped endlessly with snack boxes for school - her wholemeal oaty digestive biscuits and raspberry chia crumble slices have been a particular hit with the whole family.

  • I really appreciate nutritionist Laura Thomas’s perspective on encouraging intuitive eating for kids from a small age. You can listen to her talking about intuitive eating for kids in her podcast. I don’t (yet) have a success story to share, but the mood of mealtimes has vastly improved when I remind myself it’s not my place to force him into eating what he doesn’t want to. It’s hard not to feel defeated, but on we go.

I’d love to hear your experiences of this; let me know over on my Instagram or in the messages below. How do you deal with little people that don’t like to eat?

Ten things I have learnt about blogging so far

Blogging tips: what I’ve learnt from blogging in my journey after more than a decade of blogging. Blogging advice. Blogging for beginners. On my blog ourstorytime.co.uk desk space boho desk space white eames chairs

The title of this post is utterly ridiculous for I have only been blogging here on Our Story Time for less than a year; one might argue I don’t possess the gravitas to proffer any sort of wisdom on it. I had a blog, a long time ago, that lasted almost a decade until it was hacked (which led in part to the creation of this website) but that too was an internet age ago. I am not here to tell what I have learnt in numbers and figures. I have no useful advice on how to turn your blog into money or how to come up tops in Google search or how to bump your readership up from zero to gazillions. I have no idea about any of that, because even though I run my writing course off this site, I don’t blog just to persuade you to want to pay me. But I do have some other little snippets of, if not advice, then simple considerations that I’ve found noteworthy for myself. And in case they are in turn noteworthy for you, here they are.

1 Write for you, not for others

Those who talk of business and side-hustle and algorithms tell us to write for our audience. I can see the value in that, I truly do. But it just doesn’t work for me. I am a writer; I write what I want to write first and the rest is just a cherry on top. I don’t like to think of my blog as content, a word which sort of makes me shudder. I write best when I write as me, for me. It helps to trust yourself first; to write what you want to, what you need to, before worrying about what other people may think about what you write or the way in which you write it. After all, the beauty of writing is you choose what you say and how you say it. I guess what I’m saying is - write for yourself and don’t self-edit because of what you imagine someone else’s expectations to be.

2 Write regularly

I post once a week, because it’s all I can realistically do. But I do it. Boy, I make sure I do. I turn up every Wednesday with a long read in hand, ready to turn it in (and if I ever don’t, feel free to @ the hell out of me). So make a schedule and stick to it. Don’t do it because you’re thinking of your audience or your stats on Google. Do it because writing regularly makes you a better writer. If you can post every day, then post every day. But if you can only post once a month, then post once a month - just make it the best possible version of whatever it is you write. Commit to it. Owe it to the words in your head. Owe it to yourself.

3 WRITE LIKE YOU

Write the way you speak; it’s the simplest way to start. Never mind what you assume a blog is supposed to sound like. All that matters is your voice; the one that lilts and sways, whispers and lingers.

4 pay attention

I implore: check grammar! Remind yourself when it is it’s instead of its and there instead of their or they’re. These silly little things may be a slip of the finger, but they sure do sour if left like spilt milk.

5 Don’t sweat the SEO

I used to sweat the SEO until I realised the SEO (in fact, I’m not even sure it requires the article “the” but it rolls off the tongue in this sentence, so…) was not overly concerned or compatible with my preferred writing style. I’m not entirely stupid about it - I took a jargon-free e-course on it and I will at least try to come up with an SEO-friendly blog title if I can - but I don’t go crazy thinking about it.

This might indeed be entirely stupid of me, but right now my schedule is such that I don’t have time to look up keywords and save them in spreadsheets and then see if I can work them in. It takes the joy out of this process for me. Smart people will disagree and no doubt scoff, for SEO is not meant to be joyous.

I take a simpler approach: I blog on Squarespace and in my very simple understanding of this, Squarespace has some handy built-in SEO features which I pay for as part of the privilege of being here and as such, I’m happy to let that do its thing so I may carry on with doing mine.

6 pirouette if you must

Brand and business people talk about the importance of leaving room to pivot, but I prefer to describe it as a pirouette. It is no secret (at least not any more) that Our Story Time started as an online store with a blog comprised of gift guides that, honestly, made me cringe to compile. That was not my heart. This is.

So, I took a leap, pointed my toes and pirouetted (although for me it was more of a case of going full circle, back to my writing roots).

If at any point your blog starts to make you itch uncomfortably, then you should consider a pirouette too. Learn from what does not work out, and move on. I am not saying that you should delete your blog in its entirety and start over. I’m simply saying: pirouette. Take a whirl to where you truly want to be. It’s dramatic but exciting and mostly often all works out beautifully too.

7 What’s in a name

I have friends who tell me they want to blog but they never do because they can’t think of what to call it. This, my friends, is the finest form of procrastination. It does not matter what you name your blog. Smarter people might tell you it does, but I honestly think naming your blog ought to be secondary to the process of blogging, of writing, itself.

I came up with mine because I’d literally just read a bedtime story to my kids. All I knew was that I wanted something that conveyed a measure of where my life is, and Our Story Time is a nod to that, to this time in my life when I am still very much reading stories to little people, but it is also a nod to all the magic in those moments too.

It helped that I could weave meaning into the name for my blog, but I did not brainstorm it for months. I did not allow the naming of my blog block me from starting the thing in the first place. So act fast to pick a name. Take inspiration from a favourite song, a poem, a lyric you used to doodle in your binder at school. Or use your pet’s name or your kid’s name (or maybe no, don’t do that) or even just your very own beautiful name which leaves plenty of space for whirling pirouettes as and when you might need them.

8 let your BLOG be EASY ON THE EYE

I did not design my blog, Meg did, but I’m so glad I took the leap and asked her to. I love design in all its guises, from interiors to typography, and it matters to me that my blog, well, looks pretty. I am sorry to say that I am one of those people that is attracted to books by covers (not all the time, but sometimes) and it’s the same for me with blogs. An aesthetically designed blog is a delight to behold; it’s a reflection of the person behind the screen. You don’t even have to hire someone - I did because I’m not very good at the fiddly stuff and I wanted something in very particular colours - but it’s sort of fun playing around with templates too. Just don’t let the entire process distract you from the business of writing.

9 everything is not copy

I use my blog to write about my everyday; it helps me remember, reflect and also make stories out of small moments of my life. It is introspective but that is not to say that it is always in someways heavy or woefully serious. When I am stuck for a subject to write upon, it is tempting to go deeper if only to have something to say. But I always stop myself.

My journalism years have taught me that on the contrary, everything is not copy. I have written an awful lot about myself in the past for publication and while I do not regret any of that, I have also interviewed a lot of people for pieces who have passed me their soul on a plate as though it were a biscuit. I know I do not want to do that. It works for some people and helps them too but it is not something I am so comfortable with. So I remind myself that I write for me and in doing so, I am perfectly entitled to hold pieces of myself back - the pieces that are especially private, the pieces I would only give to those I love the most. Know that you don’t have to reveal everything about yourself, even if it feels like everyone else is. Privacy is scared and not everything must be shared, certainly not for want of anything else to write about.

10 Let your blog be a reflection of you

Finally, ignore everything I’ve said. This advice is not gold dust fallen from the stars, merely my observations en route from one point in time to another. Make your blog whatever it is you want it to be about. Claim your space to explore all the things you love or even don’t love, to work through the thoughts in your head. Let your blog reflect you better than it does anyone else’s tricks to success.