Colin Grant, one of this this year’s Life Writing Prize judges, is running a one-day masterclass for Spread the Word on Saturday 27 April for budding life writers. Ahead of this, Colin sent us his top tips…
“After many years attempting to charm agents and publishers to consider me as worthy of their attention, I finally published my first book a decade ago. There were moments when I stopped trying, like a suitor, who realises that the game is up. But then when I did pause, I began to grieve for my lack of writing. I suppose I came to realise that the actual process of writing was as much of a thrill as the completion of a piece of work.
Keep an archive of your work
Every day, I seem to come across a line, a phrase, a paragraph, that I wrote months or years ago. I am sometimes bemused by the naivety of the writing or its lack of artistry, but more often I am amused and enthralled by it. Now I might recognise more clearly its strength and failings. Often it seems that the idea or the writing had not found the correct format or platform but it reveals itself to me now. A good example is The Recall of Herman Harcourt, a play which I began twenty years ago (it even had a rehearsed reading above a pub in Notting Hill). But the play did not have much of an afterlife following that initial reading, and it was only on rereading it in 2015 that I could see it was not really a play at all but more of an argument, closer to a long form essay than a play. I began to rework it with that in mind and the essay-story, The Recall of Herman Harcourt was published by Granta in 2017. So, don’t throw away any writing; or if you have to then throw it in the direction of a friend or family member who might be inclined to keep it.
Make a decision and stick with it
This is a phrase my ex-RAF brother, Stephen, rolls out regularly. I think it applies as well to writing as to military folk. We are all prone to hesitation, deliberation, to agonies over whether we are embarking on the right story – like choosing a lover (or hoping to be chosen). Actually, now I think of it, it might well be that the story choses you. But when it comes to life writing, there are so many stories to choose, so settle on one that you believe has the chance of sustaining your interest. In the act of writing you may well find that the chosen story will provide a route into the theme or notion that you wanted to explore anyway.
This kind of reminds me of a short story by J.D Salinger in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction. The character Seymour seems to be particularly good at playing marbles through a Zen-like act of not concentrating too hard on the outcome:
After Seymour himself shot a marble, he would be all smiles when he heard a responsive click of glass striking glass, but it never appeared to be clear to him whose winning click it was…someone almost invariably had to pick up the marble he’d won and hand it to him.
Focus on the Centre of Your Story
As is often said, the experience itself is not enough. You need to focus on the larger truth of your story. People often conflate facts with truth. This can be a mistake in life-writing. Of course you should strive for accuracy but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t remember the details of an event or moment from your life. The best life writers aim to harness facts and moods in the service of evoking the truth. But as you sit at your desk, think of the truth that you are trying to capture; keep that, as it were, at your elbow all of the time.
Write Something that Sparks Joy
Endeavour to write in a way that sparks joy. By joy, I don’t mean ecstasy, rather a way of writing or a story that gives you some kind of electric charge, and that you will find satisfies you emotionally or intellectually or both. Think about it: If you don’t enjoy what you have written; it’s unlikely that a reader will enjoy reading it.’
Colin Grant is an author, historian, and Associate Fellow in the Centre for Caribbean Studies. His books include: Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey; and a group biography of the Wailers, I&I, The Natural Mystics. His memoir of growing up in a Caribbean family in 1970s Luton, Bageye at the Wheel, was shortlisted for the Pen/Ackerly Prize, 2013. Grant’s history of epilepsy, A Smell of Burning, was a Sunday Times Book of the Year 2016
As a producer for the BBC, Grant wrote and directed a number of radio drama documentaries including African Man of Letters: The Life of Ignatius Sancho; A Fountain of Tears: The Murder of Federico Garcia Lorca; and Wheel and Come Again: a History of Jamaica’s Reggae.
He is a regular tutor of creative writing for Arvon, Sierra Nevada College and City University, London.
Grant also writes for a number of newspapers and journals including the Guardian, GQ, Telegraph, TLS, Prospect, New York Review of Books and Granta. Grant’s next book, Homecoming: Voices of Caribbean Migration to Britain will be published by Jonathan Cape in 2019.