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.
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.
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