Björk’s album covers
If there is one single person who has inspired me most in this life it is definitely Björk, and since today is her 50th birthday, it seemed only right to mark it with a brief post here on my blog.
She has inspired me as a performer, with a voice that can transcend from being frail and childlike to guttural and powerful with ease; as a lyricist, writing songs that read like poems; as a composer, crafting beautiful string and orchestral arrangements; as a visual artist, creating incredible music videos and costumes; as an innovator, commissioning mind-blowing bespoke instruments, such as one that harnesses the power of gravity; as a teacher, creating an interactive music programme now part of national curriculums that teach children about music; and as a human being, embracing and pioneering the use of new technology whilst campaigning for the preservation of nature.
I could keep gushing but instead, I’ll end with just a tiny selection of some of my favourite songs by this wonderful artist, the first of which allows us to hear her sing in her native Icelandic, and ending with the song that made me fall in love with her work in the first place.
Who inspires you?
Never give up – You never know when you’ll hit success.
A while back, I wrote a post urging budding writers to take a moment to overlook the often pessimistic view of ‘making it’ and look instead on the bright side for once. As a means of encouragement, I shared a number of examples where well-known books or authors pushed past hardships and rejection to reach the dizzying heights of success. It went down pretty well, and in the interest of spreading a little more positivity, I decided to follow it up with a few more cases.
- George Orwell was told that there would not be a market for his now classic book, Animal Farm.
- In a rejection letter for one of his books, John le Carré was told he “did not have a future” in writing.
- The iconic, world renowned book, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank was rejected 15 times before a publisher agreed to distribute it.
- Dr Seuss was told his work was “too different” to find a place in the market. He went on to become the 9th best-selling author of all time.
- The War of the Worlds was described as a “horrid book” but has never been out of publication since it was first released in 1898.
- Despite leading a troubled life and battling with ongoing mental illness, Virginia Woolf produced some of the most celebrated works of fiction in the English language.
- Rudyard Kipling was told he didn’t know how to use the English language properly. His work, The Jungle Book, is now one of the most recognisable stories of a generation.
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov was rejected by 5 publishers, who feared backlash for its controversial content.
- C.S. Lewis was repeatedly rejected for years but persisted regardless. The Chronicles of Narnia became a global phenomenon and has so far been translated into 47 different languages.
- Bestselling author James Patterson was turned away by 12 publishers before securing an agent.
- Veronica Roth became a best-selling author with the widely popular Divergent trilogy and had already secured a massive multi-movie deal by her early 20s.
- The cultural smash hit, Chicken Soup for the Soul, was turned down a whopping 140 times before it was picked up.
- A cutting rejection letter claimed The Wind in the Willows would “never sell”. It has since sold more than 25 million copies.
- Fearing her work would not be taken seriously, Mary Anne Evans decided to take on a pseudonym. Under her male pen-name, George Eliot, she solidified herself in the literature Hall of Fame, with her novels still discussed and enjoyed hundreds of years later.
There you have it; another glimpse into the lighter side of the seemingly cut-throat world of publishing. Work hard and keep chasing your dreams; success could be right around the corner.
Why not try a little optimism?
I’ve seen quite a few posts recently about the hardships faced by writers and whilst I firmly agree that being realistic in your expectations is paramount and that true success in the industry is rare, I think it’s also important not to get too weighed down by the negatives. Many of the world’s most well-known, loved and respected works of fiction were either rejected or were produced by writers who overcame extremely dire odds to reach such heights. For example:
- The first Harry Potter book was rejected 12 times before publication. Its author, JK Rowling, overcame depression and near poverty to become one of the most successful writers of all time.
- Gone with the Wind was rejected 38 times before eventual publication. It has since sold over 30 million copies.
- Agatha Christie faced continued rejection letters for five years before securing a single deal.
- Beatrix Potter was rejected so relentlessly that she decided to self-publish 250 copies of her now iconic children’s book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
- William Golding was told in a rejection letter that his classic, Lord of the Flies, was “rubbish and dull”.
- Maya Angelou faced an incredibly turbulent childhood and without the money to attend college, she turned to prostitution. She didn’t take writing seriously until she was almost 40 and soon became one of the most celebrated authors and poets of our time.
- Life of Pi won The Man Booker Prize and spawned a very successful movie. Before all this, it was rejected by 5 publishers.
- When Stephanie Meyer approached agencies with Twilight, she was turned down 14 times.
- Louisa May Alcott was told in a particularly cutting rejection to give up writing and “stick to teaching”. Her book, Little Women, published over 140 years ago, has never been out of print since.
- Mary Elizabeth Frye, having never written before, penned Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep on a paper bag, to try and console a friend. She only circulated it privately and never sought recognition, despite its growing popularity. She was only confirmed as the author over 60 years after its creation, with the poem now considered one of the world’s most enduring and beloved.
- Lady Chatterley’s Lover was rejected by so many UK and US publishers that author D.H. Lawrence initially self-published in Italy. It was banned for 30 years before Penguin decided to release it in the UK.
- Stephen King was told that books like Carrie “do not sell”.
- Simon Kernick’s first two books were never picked up for publication. He’s now a best-seller.
- Mary Shelley began work on Frankenstein when she was only 18 years old. Upon its initial publication her authorship was left anonymous, with her age and gender often cited as the reasoning behind the decision. She was later celebrated as a serious writer, even in her lifetime, a rarity for women of the era.
There are many more examples where these came from and while I would reiterate the importance of living in the real world and working hard, so long as you continue to write out of passion, it can’t hurt to dream. You never know, one day those dreams just may come true.
We all long for the next great idea
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a clear-cut, fool-proof way to come up with ideas to write about? Be it for books, short stories, blog posts or poems, I wish I understood how and why certain waves of unexpected inspiration wash over me but that in itself is the very problem, as they are inevitably always random, fleeting thoughts that can leave just as quickly as they come.
I hope this is something that most writers out there will be able to relate to, as even though there is no denying the frustration it can cause when we slam full force into a wall of writer’s block, I like to reassure myself with the thought that it is all just part and parcel of being creative and that every bout of staring vacantly at a blank page takes us one step closer to our next great idea.
Stimulus in the past has come from things as varied as news reports and nature to song lyrics and briefly overheard conversations. I can to this day remember for example the first moment I got the idea for my now available book, The Vessel. Sitting one evening watching a television report about possible government tapping of emails, I simply thought to myself: Just how far would a government go to try and keep control? And so, the bare concept of The Vessel was born and the plot of a young woman fighting to expose the truth about a corrupt government in a dystopian setting began to form in my mind. The excitement I felt meant I knew for sure, this was something I had to write.
I would love to know how and when you’ve come up with your best ideas and if, like with me, no two ideas ever come to you in the same way.
We need to protect the art of writing
I was writing something the other day. Nothing fancy, just a quick note to remind myself of something I had to do later. While I scribbled, my friend leant over my shoulder, took a quick look at the note and complimented me on my neat handwriting. This brief, casual exchange got me thinking.
I love writing things by hand, I always have done. I remember my Primary school teacher, Mrs Stephen, repeatedly telling me that my handwriting was neater than hers, something I took a disproportionate amount of pride in. I think the difference is that I have always seen handwriting as an art form that deserves time and care. I don’t rush when I write by hand; I want it to look nice, so much so I have even been known to tear a page out of a notebook and start again if I felt it wasn’t neat enough.
I think it is sad that this ancient, beautiful and artistic form of expression is dying out in the digital age. Even as someone who wants to preserve it, I still don’t write as much as I could or should. Other than the occasional memo, notes such as character information for my writing projects and correspondence with my Aunt (a habit we have kept up since I was very young), most of my writing tasks are now conducted on a laptop – and yes, I do recognise the irony that I am indeed typing this blog post. It is that I feel is where we have to make the distinction; blogging, emailing and social networking are all well and good for the incredible convenience they offer but I don’t think they should ever exist to the detriment of an art form that is almost as old as we are. We wouldn’t think it fair to dispose of paintings because of the rise of photographs, so why should handwriting suffer this cruel and unnecessary fate?
As soon as you tell someone that you write, or even simply that you enjoy reading, you will more than likely be asked what your favourite book is. This has always felt like an impossible question to me as how could you possibly pick just one book when there is such a huge range of vastly different yet equally wonderful stories on offer?
In light of this, I have always preferred – and found it far easier – to tell people who the authors I most admire are, as though my favourite books can change from day to day depending on my mood and what happens to be capturing my imagination in that particular moment, the skills of the following people never cease to amaze me and while this is far from a comprehensive list of authors whose work I enjoy, these individuals certainly had a profound impression and influence on my own love of writing and literature.
I admire Hardy’s work first and foremost because he wrote genuinely interesting and compelling stories with characters I felt completely invested in but when you consider the time in which he was writing, it only becomes even more impressive. The boldness with which he tackled what were in his day hugely controversial social issues and the way in which he was not at all afraid to criticise the status quo are to be celebrated – particularly in his representation of the treatment of women and the class divide. His use of colour to portray deeper meaning, perhaps most notable in the brilliant Tess of the D’Urbervilles, is also a technique I find especially effective and inspiring. Aside from the aforementioned story of Tess, I also love The Return of the Native and Jude the Obscure.
Being from Scotland, it feels only natural to include at least one home-grown author on this list and Muriel Spark is certainly a fine example. The way she can interweave touches of comedy with heart breaking drama is second to none and the vivid pictures she paints of the very much realistic settings throughout her stories are beautiful. My favourite of her work would definitely include The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Driver’s Seat; both wonderful novellas.
Though some literary enthusiasts may initially be somewhat dismissive of authors famed for work primarily aimed at children or teenagers, I have never known a writer to create a series of stories capable of entirely transcending ages anywhere near the extent to which Rowling achieved it with Harry Potter. The attention to detail in her writing and the clear passion for the world she had envisioned combined with her representation of relatable and relevant real world issues captured the imaginations of generations and will undoubtedly continue to do so well into the future. Her more recent endeavours, The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s Calling (written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith), show that her strength lies not only in the genre of fantasy; with the former being a hard-hitting, gritty story of political and social unrest in modern Britain and the latter, a compelling crime novel. Both prove that her ability to establish charismatic, enjoyable characters and well-paced, gripping stories are certainly not restricted to the confines of children’s fantasy.
As a budding writer still setting out on the early stages of what will hopefully be a long and interesting career, I try to keep an eye out for any particularly inspiring quotes from respected individuals that either sum up my own views on writing far more eloquently than I ever could or that inspire a new way of thinking altogether. Here are just a few of those that have had a particular resonance with me and a little bit about why I find them so motivating.
- “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” ― Lloyd Alexander
I think this reflects beautifully the idea that however far removed a story may seem from reality, the very best work in fiction always represents issues and ideas that are pertinent in our own lives.
- “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” ― Toni Morrison
I think this quote is a great reminder that first and foremost, you must always write a story that you would want to read. If you are not passionate about your work, how can you possibly expect anyone else to be?
- “You can make anything by writing.” ― C.S. Lewis
A really common question that writers get asked is; ‘What do you need to be a good writer?’ Though you could list a whole host of literary techniques that improve the quality of your writing, I strongly believe that the only thing that is an absolute necessity is an imagination and the ability to engage it. Then, as this quote says, the possibilities as to what you can achieve with your work are truly endless.
- “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” ― Stephen King
I am also a firm believer that in many cases; less is more. My favourite kind of books are the ones that provide you with enough information to tell a convincing and interesting story but simultaneously leave you with enough unanswered questions that you continue to think about them long after you finish reading the last page. Don’t quash your readers’ imaginations with too much information; tantalise them and allow them to flourish.
- “I would like to be remembered as someone who did the best she could with the talent she had.” – J. K. Rowling
It is a simple fact that no writer can achieve universal popularity. Whether one or a million people enjoy your story, so long as you know you have done your best and created something which you are proud to have your name on, then this is all you can ever hope for. Any success or admiration that comes in addition to that is only ever going to be a wonderful bonus.
- “No story lives unless someone wants to listen. The stories we love best do live in us forever.” – J.K. Rowling
Some more words of wisdom from Rowling, I love this quote as it sums up how I feel about my favourite books perfectly. No matter how many times you read them or how long it may have been since the last time, a good story that engages with our hearts and our minds never truly leaves us. It is my biggest hope that one day, even one person out there will feel that way about something I have written.