Author Q&A: Elise Valmorbida

– Interview by Elena Bowes

Award-winning author, creative writing teacher and 26 board director Elise Valmorbida has come out with her sixth book and it’s a wonder – a practical writing guide that is so much more. The Happy Writing Book is life enhancing. It’s happy, of course, wise, light-hearted yet serious, practical without being preachy, broad, inclusive, encouraging, entertaining and most of all, liberating. But don’t listen to me. Here’s what award-winning author and Guardian columnist Tobias Jones has to say about Valmorbida’s valuable book:

“Writers, teachers, diarists, wordsmiths and good-lifers: get hold of this great book! It’s playful, serious, encouraging and rigorous at the same time. Elise Valmorbida is a minimalist, deep guide to what we can do with words… and why.”

“I loved reading this book. It makes the epic challenge of writing seem so manageable somehow. I felt enthused in every page. And yet, at the same time, in no doubt about the rigour and precision required. The combination of minimalist chapters with really deep, existential questions about what we’re doing when we commit words to the page made it an almost soothing read. There is so much accumulated wisdom in the quotations and anecdotes too – nudges, ideas, hints, allusions. None of it forced, but all offered generously and judiciously.”

The Happy Writing Book comes out on 30 September. It’s available for pre-order now.

Describe The Happy Writing Book in 26 words

A creative writing guide, with positive side-effects, for seasoned writers and newbies alike. A distillation of 20+ years’ experience as practitioner and teacher. Practical, literary, eclectic.

Can you tell us about the exact moment or moments, when you thought, I have an idea for my next book? Was there some connection between looking at what’s out there, and more importantly, what wasn’t? – “Forget the plodding instruction manual – think 100 parcels of inspiration and provocation.” (Page 8 of your intro).

I started work on the first pages of this book so long ago now that “exact moments” are a distant memory! But I do remember realising that to teach creative writing was also to learn. And somewhere along the way, gradually, I noticed that creative writing was having a profound and positive effect on my life. There’s a satisfying dovetail-join between creative writing and practical philosophies such as existentialism, stoicism, pragmatism, mindfulness, meditation… 

Your 222-page book is divided up into 100 short pick ’n’ mix chapters, with the final chapter consisting of just 28 words. How did you decide upon this format? Did you consciously limit chapters to a certain word count? And if so, why?

After page 222, there are three real-life stories, like case studies, where creative writing has radically altered people’s lives, then there are plenty of references for readers to explore further. But, yes, the main chapters number 100, and they’re divided into three parts: 33 happy beginnings, 33 happy middles, 33 happy ends. Plus one last hurrah. I wanted the book to have a clear narrative arc. This structure came to me quite early on, as I realised that some of my chapters were about incitement and excitement, some were more about complication and concentration, and some were about resolution and resilience. So the book as a whole reflects a ‘classic’ story structure. As for word-counting, I didn’t. I wrote each chapter to what felt like its natural length. That’s why some chapters are very short and some fill any number of pages. This feels right to me because a book about creativity shouldn’t have the rhythm of a metronome.

I am curious about how your creative writing tips played into the creation of this gem of a book. “Start small. Think inconsequential” (Page 19) Did you do that with this book?

I started small: a few insights that were sparked by teaching experiences, a few jottings in notebooks. My first chapter is now in the bin. There are quite a few chapters that have been trashed along the way. (Incidentally, this iterative process is the subject of Chapter 20: NOTHING IS WASTED.) Those first scribbles led to more scribbles, and soon I had folders (physical and digital) where I’d stash ideas, references and inspirations as they occurred: an active hoard. Eventually I found myself setting up a chart—this was my inner bureaucrat taking over. There’s nothing like a set of rows and columns to reveal structure, ordering, repetitions, gaps. It freed me up to do the creative thinking and research needed for each chapter. So the writing process itself followed a narrative arc from randomness through exploration to orderliness.

What was the hardest part of writing the book – where maybe your Chapter 23 Put Off Procrastination came into play?

I’m guilty of micro-procrastination: the dishes need to be washed, the files need to be sorted, the lawn needs to be mown—and yet I must confess that I don’t have a mower or a lawn. These little delays happen any day, any time, but once I start writing I wonder what took me so long. Then I wish I had more time. Perhaps, secretly, those micro-procrastinations are about clearing time and space to write?

Macro-procrastination is not an issue for me. I was gripped by existentialism when I was young, so I’ve built up a lifelong resistance to bad faith, one symptom of which would be living in the future or the past. I try to make the most of today. If I have the urge to write a novel, why not start it as soon as possible? It’s not a high-cost high-tech endeavour. Tomorrow I may have no brain, no breath.

And the easiest chapter to write? – where your writing flowed, where you lost yourself like author Boris Pasternak’s character Zhivago as quoted in your Chapter 71: When poet-novelist Boris Pasternak portrays a writer immersed in his work, it reads like a description of flow (a mental state identified and analysed by psychologists decades later).

Inspiration came in waves throughout. Other parts were slow and painful to write. Easy chapters? Hmm. Anyone who’s done a workshop with me will know that if their “memories came flooding back” I’ll be frowning. So I had a lot of fun writing about clichés. I found myself assembling a paragraph of clichéd phrases and, gathered together in a crowd, it started to feel like a costume party. Clichéd phrases are a simple way of demonstrating the more complex issues of clichéd characters and clichéd plots. It’s the principle that needs to be examined: clichéd thinking.

I am interested in your research process. You quote a myriad of authors, students, philosophers in your concise book. How much time did you spend researching versus writing your book? What was your process?  Does research help you overcome initial writer’s block?

As this work developed and grew, I kept accumulating notes about books and articles I was reading, films I’d seen, events, talks and interviews, conversations with wise friends, workshops, dreams, memories, observations. My notes about Psycho came from a presentation by Saul Bass I attended in 1986. It was in 2001 that I went to Brighton for a talk by a writer I love, Annie Proulx. Sometimes I wrote to students to ask if I could quote them in this project of mine that may or may not become a book one day—the emails go back a long way. It’s only when I had a real publisher and the reality of print that I had to research my sources meticulously: that line by Maya Angelou turns out to be by Zora Neale Hurston; Vincent van Gogh sold more than one painting (according to experts), and accepted truths may in fact be myths or rumours. It’s likely that I gave as much time to researching as to writing, but I see it all as enmeshed. Research inspires writing, and writing requires research. It’s fascinating and pleasurable to question and explore. Curiosity feeds positivity feeds curiosity…

Your book is liberating in several ways. I will quote a few of your wise words below with questions, always questions.

In chapter 25, It Doesn’t Matter a Jot, you write: “Even if you write the greatest story ever told, it’s possible that nobody will read it, let alone pay actual money for it. Write 20 books, and so what. It Doesn’t Matter a Jot. Nobody really cares. Is this disheartening? No, it’s liberating.”

Please expand on this most freeing of ideas…

Once you let go of Pooterish self-importance, expectation and ego, you’re free. Free to explore, to learn, to play, to create. From the inside out. 

The moment you say ‘I don’t care what others think’ is the moment you liberate your creative self. – Perfect is the Enemy of Good, Chapter 30 – When did you stop caring what others thought about your writing?

I care what people in my writing group think of my work in progress, and I heed their feedback, even if it feels tough. When my work is published, I read the reviews and ratings—it’s fascinating and compulsive. Generally I’d hope my friends and family think well of my work, just as I want to like what they do. This sort of approval is a nice-to-have. And it’s after the event. It’s definitely not a must-have. In my day-job I have to write for specific audiences with defined needs. But when I turn my hand to making fiction, poetry, even non-fiction, I tap into something deep inside. It’s a process of effortful discovery, often mysterious to me, unpredictable, and certainly not a matter of pre-empting what other people might think or feel. If I were to worry about pleasing or displeasing others, I’d be messing with the creative process.

What is a Zine? (You refer to in Choose Your Form Chapter 98)

Zines (short for ‘magazine’ or ‘fanzine’) are DIY publications, often handmade with sourced imagery and text, as well as elements of the maker’s own wording or design, sometimes handwriting, produced in small print-runs, photocopies or one-offs. I think of them as labours of love. They’re very much outside of the mainstream, but they are traded, given away, bought, sold, collected. The potential subjects are many and varied; Wikipedia lists fanfiction, politics, poetry, art and design, ephemera, personal journal, social theory, intersectional feminism, single-topic obsession, sexual content…

What’s next?

I’m deep into a new work of fiction which is like a novel, but also like a cluster of short stories.

Thank you so much for writing this book that is going on my bookshelf forever, and for agreeing to this interview, Elise.

Thank you, Elena, for this thought-provoking interview. And for all the nice things you say about The Happy Writing Book!

More praise for Valmorbida’s book:

‘Beautiful, clear, wide-reaching and hugely generous to readers.’—Bryony Lavery, award-winning playwright, author of Frozen 

‘Inspiration, techniques and encouragement… relevant to both seasoned writers and newbies alike.’ —John-Paul Flintoff, author of How To Change the World

‘Insightful, inspiring and brimming with useful tips.’ —Ella Berthoud + Susan Elderkin, authors of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies

‘A keen distillation of years’ worth of experience, imagination and wisdom – and a delight to read.’ —Warren Coleman, co-writer + co-director of Happy Feet

– Interview by Elena Bowes

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