This very enjoyable Q&A took place on the last Friday of Januar. I’m archiving it here, but it’s also a pretty good FAQ for those new to A Writer’s Diary.
I’m going to be hosting similar discussion threads every last Friday of the month.
thank you for reading A Writer’s Diary. Thank you for subscribing and for spreading the word. I hope it is becoming part of your day (usually your teatime).
A friend who is following along just told me, ‘It’s like you, only more so.’
That’s it – exactly.
It’s my life, only more so.
As it’s the last Friday of the first month, I’d like to open things up for a Discussion Thread. (I have no idea how busy or quiet this might be.)
I’m going to be here, live, for an hour – around 4pm UK time. This Grab-bag thread, and the next few, are going to be for everyone. But at a certain point, like the Inserted Pages, they’ll become just for paid subscribers.
There will be no spoilers here – as far as I can avoid it. I don’t want to let anyone know what’s going to happen or not happen later in the year. (It is written; it will be rewritten.)
Once we’ve finished chatting, I’ll be archiving the discussion on my blog (tobylitt.com), and deleting it here – so that the Diary can be continue to be read uninterrupted.
You can ask a question now, if you feel like it, by making a comment. Otherwise, I hope to hear from you another time.
All best wishes,
Hello Toby. I was sitting behind you and Leigh on the number 68 bus a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t want to interrupt what looked like a nice evening out (I’m not stalking you, promise). I noticed as I got off the bus in Camberwell that you were writing in a little notebook. What’s your favourite type of pen? Mine is the black Papermate Flair.
Dear Grace, thanks for the question. Good to hear from you. Now I remember, I did see you crossing the road, looking very stylish. That evening we were heading for the BFI Southbank (National Film Theatre as was) to see Memoria, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and starring Tilda Swinton – which was just my kind of film. The notebook you mention is, I think, an embarrassingly bright yellow. I tend to buy them from ebay, and often the yucky shades are a good deal cheaper than the Bible black. As for pens – I try to use fountain pens with refillable cartridges, to avoid plastic waste. My current favourite does get a mention later in the Diary. It is a grey Pilot Kakuno with a blue cap. I bought one in Tokyo, lost it, had to replace it. But there are many pens on the desk, and I will return to this subject another time. Love, Toby
Expect you know that Pilot was Beckett’s preferred brand
No, didn’t know that at all. Any particular model? The one I use is marketed as a beginner’s pen – sort of a ‘If you’ve ever considered handwriting, why not try…?’ But it’s nicely chunk and mostly starts first time. The Pilot Metropolitan, by contrast, is a reticent little so-and-so that I am now reluctant even to pick up.
Hi Toby, Do your own writing preferences try to influence your teaching?
Dear Ian, thank you for asking one of the biggest questions there is. At least, one of the ones I ask myself most often. But I do it another way. I ask myself ‘Should I let my own writing influence my teaching at all?’ Because my attitude to anyone I’m teaching, whether at Birkbeck College, or on an Arvon course, or as a mentor for The Word Factory, is that I should try to understand what they want to do (as well as I’m able) and then help them write it (as well as they’re able). I am very aware that a lot of the things I love to read are a bit off the main road – or are, to be truthful, a desire line across a minefield. So, I will mention my reading, if I’m asked, but I’ll generally only recommend something to a student if I think they’ll a. enjoy it and b. get something very specific from it. The worst thing is a casual mention in a workshop that sends someone off to read a book that’s nowhere near their genre or taste. However, there’s another question. (You can ask, if you like.) That question is, ‘How do the writing preferences of students or mentees influence my writing?’ All best, Toby
I’ve been following with interest recent discussions about what it is ok to write about real people in one’s own writing (see, for instance, the furore over Kristen Roupenian’s ‘Cat Person’ which turned out might not be based on her own personal experience but someone else’s who she didn’t credit – but I was more interested in who gets to ‘own’ a personal story or an artwork made my ‘me’ but about ‘them’). Writing about other people can sometimes reveal intimate knowledge of that person’s life. But if that knowledge becomes part of your own lived experience, if it speaks to you, is it always right that you should be able to write about it?
Dear Kayleigh, you get right to it, don’t you? This is a very acute question. I have very rarely taken someone else’s specific experience – in other words, heard someone else tell a story from their own life, then used it in my own work. (Although, in my *actual* diary this is one of the main things I do: record what I’ve been told as well as I can remember.) On one occasion, a student submitted a story to a workshop (this is years ago), and I really wanted to write it as a film script or a comic. They said they weren’t planning on doing anything more with the idea. I decided not to. But if I had done something based on their idea, I would have contacted them and asked them. I think where it gets really tricky is shared experience. Writers narrate break-ups – sometimes you can read both sides. Writers observe and record and remix their families, and their families are often not best pleased. So, to answer your question, I don’t think it’s ‘always right’ to write about anything. Every sentence is a separate case. But there’s much more to say on this. All best, Toby
Your answer is incredibly diplomatic. There have also been plenty of times I wished I could take someone else’s idea and adopt it as my own. When I was at school I started writing a story with a friend and when she found out I’d written the rest of the story without her, using her ideas, she was understandably furious. And that was never even intended to be put out in the public domain. As you may have guessed, I have selfish motives for asking such a question! I’ve been thinking about writing something semi-autobiographical for a while, but it would involve a potentially hurtful analysis of someone else’s life and motives as well as my own. Perhaps it’s a moot point because I’m not sure I would ever publish it or share it with anyone. It would probably be best for me to keep this particular writing project as a cathartic or possibly therapeutic experience. Still, I’m a ‘just in case’ kind of person, so I can’t pretend that if the option to publish ever came along I wouldn’t take it. Or pounce on it, more like. Thanks for opening this discussion thread! I’ve been enjoying your daily meanderings very much and will continue to follow with interest.
Hi Toby, Are you writing the entries to A Writer’s Diary fresh every day, or are (as your email seems to imply) pre-written, and you’re editing and rewriting daily? Or doing a week’s worth in a day then doling out daily? If pre-written, was that over the course of a year, or longer, or a shorter time?
Just curious as to whether and how daily writing works for you. I find it very hard to maintain!
Dear Katy, good to hear from you. Thank you for following the Diary. This is the question I wish I could both answer for anyone subscribing but also avoid answering completely. I’d like readers, if they want to, to take the Diary as a day-by-day involvement in someone’s life. But I don’t want them to feel conned or deceived, so I’m being open about the fact that – yes – there are Diary entries written for every day between now and December 31st. A very few other people have read what exists of the Diary, or have heard me read out a later entry. But I am rewriting every day as it comes along, and I’m also thinking ahead – considering some bigger changes. So, yes, you’ve got that absolutely right. The first entries were written around four years ago; the bulk of the writing was done in 2021. Although it isn’t ‘a lockdown novel’, no more than it’s a zen novel, it emerged through the time we were all locked down, and there’s zen in there, too. All best, Toby p.s. Maybe you have a follow-up question.
Hi Toby, Thanks for the diary. Is it Fiction? Autofiction? Autobiography? Do these categorisations matter – to you? to publishers? to readers? Why, or why not?
Dear Vana, and thank you. I hope that some of the later entries will give something of an answer to this question. If I was forced to choose from a drop-down menu, with only the options you’ve given, I’d take ‘Autofiction’. But Autofiction is usually a short story or a book, delivered all at one go, without the timescale of a year, and without Discussion Threads or tweets. The Substack form of A Writer’s Diary is very much part of it. And that includes the fact that I’ve been going back and tweaking entries even after they’ve gone out. So, the hope of any writer is that they’re doing something new. Or new-ish. I didn’t know it before, but I’ve now learned about Mario Levrero’s The Luminous Novel – which I’ve started reading. Maybe A Writer’s Diary has other forbears I still don’t know about. But what I hope is that – taken as a whole thing – it’s a form that can do just about anything. (To begin listing would be to begin spoilering.) I know that’s a huge claim, but maybe we could look back to this exchange in December? All best, Toby
So that sounds like you do not intend to publish A Writer’s Diary as a “book”? Are you done with “books”?
No, I’m not. Not yet.
Hi Toby. Your Writer’s Diary already has a place in my daily life that would otherwise be occupied by Wordle, so thanks for that. As you’re currently doing your tax returns should we expect a temporary lapse in content?
Dear David, yes, I am trying to compete directly with Wordle. Sadly, my retweets are far less succulent. (Yours are very welcome.) And, yes, I have just in actual real life been completing my tax return – for this is the day. The lapse is temporary. Tomorrow we will be back to full entries again. (It’s almost like I can see the future.) All best, Toby
Thank you for the opportunity to observe. And think.
I’m not a diarist but I’ve been keeping pace with your entries and find your honesty reassuring, humbling even. A couple of entries are a masterclass in the unspoken.
I’m wondering if perhaps, on darker days, you consciously shift your diary focus to preserve mindset for other tasks. Will be watching.
Look forward to seeing the accused, Mouse. He can’t be a claw-meister with a name like that.
I’ll answer this question next time.
Dear Grab-baggers, thank you for taking part. I’m really delighted I wasn’t here all by myself. And thank you for the thought-provoking questions. I will be back, last Friday of February, to answer some more questions. Next time, there will be a theme. As for now, I’ll be moving this thread over to tobylitt.com in a couple of days. If you want to contact me before then, I’m easily findable on twitter and elsewhere. You really are a very friendly bunch of desk-ghosts. All best, Toby