On Lynne Truss & writers not telling their friends

I couldn't resist a reply to the excellent Lynne Truss's piece in today's Daily Telegraph about writers talking about their works-in-progress to their friends: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/lynne-truss/9677079/Lynne-Truss-on-supportive-friends.html. It's a hugely bad idea, she yells! They'll put you off, with their ludicrous/sensible arguments! Don't talk to them about it at all!! Not even other writers - Truss, the writer, almost put C J Samson, the writer, off the idea for his latest work....

This warning struck me quite forcibly because I've just agreed to collaborate on a novel with another writer, something I've never done before (have never even contemplated doing it either) and I'll soon be blogging about the process. Yes, that's right, I'm going to to be blogging about a work-in-progress, talking about the pleasures and pains, the ideas taken up and discarded, the darlings I've had to kill and so on. And I'm sure many will throw in their tuppence-worth of advice to me, some of which I'll take and some of which I'll weep over.

Will that all 'input' put me off? I don't know yet. But I do know I've discussed plots with friends before. It was a writer friend, Nick Brooks (My Name is Denise Forrester, The Good Death) who gave me some great advice in the early stages of my historical novel. He pointed me in the direction of Hogg and Scotland's 'schizophrenic' literary tradition when I (incredibly, given that it's all about madness and Gothic horror) hadn't seen the connection between that and what I was doing. That awareness really helped me expand and deepen what I was doing. I'm sure he probably told me to leave off some things I was doing, too - I can't be sure, I wouldn't have listened to those bits! Because, in the end, we take the advice we want - It's important to remember, Samson didn't take Truss's advice in the end. Writers tend to be a harder bunch to shake, for all the impression of fragile egos.

But don't take my word for it. As a biographer and reviewer, I'm steeped in those literary letters where writers divulge what they're doing and how they're doing it to friends and relations and anyone who'll listen. And thank goodness for it, too - I shudder to think what we'd make of Joyce's work without his letters to Frank Budgen, detailing chapters, asking for information. Elizabeth Smart's letters are full of personal anguish but also plans for her work.Ted Hughes and T S Eliot talk about the inspirations for their poetry, thrash out ideas. What about Virginia Woolf's discussions with friends and her husband, Leonard? Penelope Fitzgerald was a lovely writer but bless her, her letters are so lacking in any discussion about her creative process, what inspires her, they drove me to distraction. How I wish she'd had a Budgen to tell it all to!

I'd hazard a guess that more literary couples than fewer talk to each other, too, about the ideas for their work, and how it's going. While there will be some who guard their work protectively like a new-born child (I can't even imagine what that would do to a relationship - cries of 'no, get out, don't look!' You'd have to be a very successful author to afford the separate space you'd need to write without that. I write in the kitchen), I suspect most will be very open with what each other is doing (Sylvia Plath finally felt she and Hughes were too open with one another, and did retreat into keeping her work from his creative 'interference')

It doesn't always work, of course - Truss is right that sometimes one opinion can be an opinion too much. Charlotte Bronte's husband reputedly exclaimed, 'not another one set in a school?' at her unfinished, last novel, which distressed her so much, she put the novel away. But by and large, discussing your ideas is a good thing - how would creative writing classes work otherwise?

With my new 'collaborative' partner, we'll have to thrash out ideas together, there won't be any keeping it to ourselves. Maybe I'll like the openness of the process, maybe it won't be any different from writing on my own. But having another writer to communicate with on the arduous way to the finished product - I think that's a gift I'm overjoyed to have been offered. As long as they don't tell me what I'm doing is rubbish, of course....


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