08 Nov 2019 / The Stories We Tell
Take Me to Tesco’s
I like writing, but I love living more. I’ve said variations of this many times at festivals or while teaching. Sometimes there’s a gasp from the crowd or people laugh. Certainly, I’m always aware that I have veered into the slightly taboo. That as a professional writer I am expected to hold writing above all else. That the trope of the consumed, obsessive artist is still strong and that I somehow risk appearing under-committed, unserious or lightweight in saying that writing is secondary to anything, even living well.
But let me explain: writing and life are, for me, inexorably connected. They are so finely woven through one another it is hard to see where one ends and another begins.
What do I mean by ‘life’? Not the act of living and breathing and eating and shitting, but the stuff that nourishes, excites, saddens, and angers. The stuff that inspires. The parts that make me question everything. The stuff that hits me somewhere deep in my belly and lodges itself there.
Some writers need a small room, silence and routine, the same mug and a back cushion that’s an old friend to them. I am a writer who travels, who works best outside those small rooms. I wrote two of my books in Vietnam. I wrote a third travelling around Eastern Europe and onto South America. I wrote my most recent, Lowborn, on a journey to all the places within the UK that made me.
But, truthfully, as much as I relish those experiences, I do not need the frenetic noise of Hanoi or the snowy hush of a Latvian village or ten hours on a bus watching fork lightning scorch the fields of Paraguay. I do not need the exotic because what I write about is people, and I have discovered their concerns, their hopes and loves are universal.
Take me to Tesco’s. Let me sit at a bus stop anywhere, whether a bus arrives or not. Take me to a small town’s dated department store café for a dry scone and over-stewed tea. Let me sit at home and listen to the symphony of the doors slamming to the different routines and temperaments of the people who live above and beside me. Let me sign for a parcel and see how the man responds when I apologise for being in my pyjamas at 4 p.m., saying that I’ve been unwell.
For me, these are the seeds of stories. These seeds, with a little careful nurturing, with imagination and thought and the scaffolding of narrative, will grow. I hope they imbue my stories with a sense that they are not simply my words, put on a page in a certain, careful order, but that these people, places and situations are ‘real’. That there is life beating within them. That the space the reader’s imagination must breach to meet my intention is bridged by that feeling of a life we recognise, can empathise with, and do not need to strain to conjure – because the reader and I, we live in the same world.
Because of this habit of gathering seeds, my actual time writing is relatively short. I spend a lot of time watching and walking and smiling and talking to strangers. I will stop and watch anything. I am an unashamed gawker. I ask when I’m curious. I tell people outright I’m going to steal away their turn of phrase or mannerism. Sometimes I will simply stand still wherever I am and try to discern each smell, sound, taste, and texture surrounding me.
Then I will go home and write. Often, if the story is in progress, or if I know what I am about to start writing, I view the entire world through the prism of that story. So my dilapidated end of Streatham High Road, with its Somali bakeries, blocky mosque and pound shops, has had hundreds of different lives.
Sometimes I have no idea what I will write and I simply gather the seeds, trusting that I will one day use them. And I always do. Often years and years later, I will search for the mannerism of a character, or the taste of something very particular, or the perfect setting detail that will evoke so much more — and there it will be waiting patiently.
For me writing and life are symbiotic because it is writing that makes life so much richer. Unlike many writers, I have not been writing for my whole life but when I did start, suddenly the whole world unfurled for me, coming into sharper focus, and I finally woke up. Here’s one such moment of ‘waking’ that found its way, crucially, into Lowborn:
A huge field – straight green horizon as far as the eye could see – and fat-bellied old horses grazing away within it just as they had when I was a kid. Like I’d never left, there they were waiting for me to feed them Polo mints from an exaggeratedly flat palm already covered in the sticky residue of horse saliva.
The swings were gone but still, I thought, what a picturesque place to live. All this space, your own personal horses. I remembered how, in the field with the tall grass, I’d trap moths, letting them flicker in my cupped hands to catch the bronze shimmer from their wings. How I’d play with my friends on all these streets and walk with my sister to the nearby man-made ponds and dig for frogs the size of pebbles in the warm mud. I was eleven when we left – probably exactly the age when I would have begun to feel the sting of the town’s harsh limitations – but, for a while, as well as everything else, there were happy moments of a proper childhood that I’d almost entirely forgotten.
Try it yourself one day. Go gathering. Take a notebook or a recording app on your telephone or simply trust your memory. Go somewhere there are people. Be present and watch closely. If you are shy, sit in a busy cafe at the window. If you are not, then talk to people, ask them questions, make a joke. You’ll be astounded that, if you just ask, people will tell you the most extraordinary things about themselves. Take a note of the tiny details you notice. What you notice — perhaps not at first but once you go closer, deeper — will be entirely unique to you. That’s the beauty of really looking. Now imagine the same scene from your character’s perspective. Imagine it in the context of the people you are observing. Play. Experiment. Trust that writing is not all word-count goals and pages of progress, or trying to get published, but that it is also about allowing yourself time to be in the world.
It is so important to be present in the world as a writer. Certainly, if I do not write, life for me will lose its vigour and beauty. Each feeds the other, and I am extremely grateful for that. I hope the same can be true for you.
Find out more about The Stories We Tell.
Kerry Hudson was born in Aberdeen. Her first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stoke My Ma, was the winner of the Scottish First Book Award while also being shortlisted for the Southbank Sky Arts Literature Award, Guardian First Book Award, Green Carnation Prize, Author’s Club First Novel Prize and the Polari First Book Award. Kerry’s second novel, THIRST, won the Prix Femina Étranger and was shortlisted the European Premio Strega in Italy.
Her latest book and memoir, Lowborn, takes her back to the towns of her childhood as she investigates her own past and what it means to be poor in Britain today. It was a Radio 4 Book of the Week and was longlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize and The Portico Prize and shortlisted in the National Book Token, Books Are My Bag Reader’s Awards, and the Saltire Scottish Non-Fiction Book of the Year.
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