When I first began writing, more years ago than I care to think about, and although I aspired to publication, it wasn’t the foremost thing in my mind. The thing that gave me pleasure was the writing itself. I read a lot and I wrote a lot. A prodigious amount. I wrote when I was at school – often when I was supposed to be doing other things – and I wrote when I was at university and after that, I wrote in any spare moment I could snatch from several years spent teaching English as a Foreign language in Finland and Poland.
I wrote poems, plays and stories. With a combination of pride and uncertainty that is the mark of youth, I sent some poems to a Famous Writer, asking for advice. He was so very famous that I can’t in fact remember who he was, which is a pity, because he gave me the two best pieces of advice I have ever had and I’ve passed them on to numerous aspiring writers ever since.
‘The only way to learn how to write is to write,’ he said. ‘Oh – and you probably need to stop watering your Dylan Thomas adjectives and watching them grow.’
I began to be published in magazines. A poetry collection with Andy Greig called White Boats was next and then a solo collection called A Book of Men which won an Arts Council award. I was doing readings at various festivals, for BBC Radio, even on television. And I was writing radio drama, just for fun. I had my first radio play – a weird little play called The Hare and the Fox – broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland. The producer, the late Gordon Emslie, took it upon himself to mentor me. I would send him scripts. He would send me pages of questions. He didn’t edit what I wrote. He just asked questions. Sometimes they were difficult and challenging questions. But he was doing me the favour of taking me seriously. Eventually, I found the answers and learned how to write a radio play in the process. My plays began to be broadcast on Radio 4.
While I was working long but very happy hours in Finland at a private language school, (and being taken out on dates by my students, young businessmen from the local paper factories!) I wrote my first novel, called Snow Baby. I still have it somewhere, in faded typescript on flimsy paper. This was before even electric typewriters were affordable. Like the proverbial curate’s egg, it’s good in parts. A year or two later, some extracts of it were published by Scottish writer Carl MacDougall, who was editing a magazine called Words. It was the most beautifully designed magazine, a visual treat. He talked to me about the work, again doing me the favour of taking me seriously, but he didn’t edit it. He just published what I had written, the way I had written it.
The writing was – to me – far more important than any ‘career’. I’m sure I hoped for a career as a writer. But only because I thought that it would buy me even more time to write. The writing was more enchanting to me than any prospective publication or production. I sent work out, lost track of it, didn’t care. I was writing like a maniac and there was always more where that came from. There were times when the writing became so all-consuming that I felt quite crazy – as if I were living on another plane of existence.
I was also networking. But that wasn’t what it felt like and I wasn’t doing it because I thought these people might be useful to me. I was just gravitating towards writers and readers, people who thought and felt the way I did, who shared my interests and became my friends. We talked (and grumbled) about publishing and money, just as we do today. But far more often we talked about writing. We wouldn’t have dreamed of critiquing each other’s work although occasionally – when we trusted somebody enough – we might ask for an opinion, a friendly but different perspective on it. Mostly we talked about ideas. We talked far into the night, just as young people still do. Just as I still do with a few close writer and artist friends. Just as I often talk about books and reading with other readers.
I was lucky enough to find myself in the company of some distinguished older writers at that time. Norman MacCaig was a (scary but brilliant) writer in residence at Edinburgh University. Poet Robert Garioch, kindly and clever, was another, but he didn’t see himself as a tutor either. Writers in Residence were just that: writers. They weren’t project co-ordinators or opportunity facilitators or sustainable developers. They were good writers who were qualified to talk about writing. I remember him asking me a lot of questions about my poems, about what I was trying to say and how I was saying it.
In the Edinburgh pub called Sandy Bell’s I met my hero Hamish Henderson. He talked and sang, and we young writers and musicians listened, and realised that if we went on listening, we might learn something from this wise man.
Some years later, when I was more or less ‘established’ as a writer, I taught an Arvon course at Moniack Mhor in the Highlands. My fellow tutor was Iain Crichton Smith. Not only did he not tell me how to write, but I don’t think he really told the students how to write either. He questioned them and listened to their answers, and engaged in debate. He brought out the best in them. He read his Gaelic poems aloud, and although most of us didn’t understand them, it was magical. It was – in retrospect – one of the most memorable weeks of my life. It taught me a lot about the right way of helping writers – mostly that there are no certainties. And that the very best writers would never dream of destroying the confidence of beginners.
Somewhere along the way, I acquired an agent. I was writing a lot of radio plays by that time and earning a reasonable, if precarious, living. One of my plays won a major award and that was the way I got my agent. I wrote another (not very good) novel and filed it away. Then, a third, a piece of young adult fiction which was published by a small Scottish publisher called Molendinar Press.
When I finished my fourth novel, my agent neither edited nor rewrote it. She didn’t consider that to be her job. But she certainly sold it. Sales and Marketing were only marginally involved in the sale. They had no right of veto. The publisher’s editor didn’t rewrite it either. But she did ask a lot of searching questions. And she pointed out that although I was writing from my heroine’s perspective, it might help if the reader could also see things from the hero’s point of view as well. ‘What do you think?’ she said. I thought she was right. So I climbed inside my hero’s head and found out what was going on there, and the book improved no end.
For various reasons, some personal, some financial, and some to do with changes in publishing, I had an interval working as a playwright. By the time I went back to novels, I had a new agent who told me that publishers were looking for an ‘oven-ready product’. She was a good and helpful mentor and I liked her a lot but she was definitely looking for an instant hit from me. What she really wanted was a stonking great bestseller. I can’t blame her. She was just doing her job as she saw it.
For me, the writing itself was still exhilarating, but everything surrounding it had started to feel a bit like a treadmill and somewhere along the way, I realised that I had lost the joy. I had also, in a strange way, lost sight of my readers. I was no longer finding the kind of ‘mid-list’ non genre specific books I liked to read in the big bookstores.
Then along came the revolution. Like many revolutionaries, I joined in because I had absolutely nothing to lose. A novel called The Curiosity Cabinet, shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize, had been traditionally published but had gone out of print and the rights had reverted to me. People who had read and enjoyed it were contacting me to ask when the next book would be out but I had no idea when that might be. Eventually, I decided that I simply couldn’t wait any longer and indie-published it as an eBook, under the Wordarts imprint. I followed that up, over the course of a year, with two new novels: Bird of Passage and The Amber Heart. I have other plans: print on demand for those who are asking for paper versions, many more new novels, (two of them already written) some non-fiction.
There’s one thing I’ve learned, over all these years, over this rollercoaster of a career: there are no shortcuts.
There’s reading (extraordinary books, good books, even bad books, so that you can learn to tell the difference) and there’s writing. A prodigious amount of both. You begin by imitating what you love and end up by finding your own voice. Pursuing what writer Bernard MacLaverty calls ‘made up truth’. It’s about discovering the germ of truth at the heart of whatever you are writing. Everything else is a distraction.
Catherine also appears at the festival in Short Stories (Aug 17th) Auld Lums (Aug 13th) Beyond Fiction (Aug13th) and @the Festival with Wordarts (Aug 14th)