From: Kelley (kelleya1@hotmail.com)

Seems like long ago, we were on a board together–an book discussion board, where I was embarrassed to discover that one of my favorite writers was a participant (you!) right after Ammonite came out. You said at the time that you had a health issue that made writing a slower process for you than for some. But I’ve been amazed at the quality of your work over the years–are you feeling better these days? Loved The Blue Place and Stay.

Just thinking about writing, how gut-hard it is, and what a miracle that anybody can do it!

Yep, writing is a miracle. Every time I begin a new novel I wonder, Can I do it again? Except that I know I can. I just don’t know how. Art is a black box: life goes in, art comes out; the mechanism is a mystery. The most I’ve learnt over the years is to gauge the timing. I now know when to push, when to sit back and wait, how long things will take. But that’s it: a black box with a dial on the side indicating how Close to Done a thing is.

The art might be a mystery but he craft isn’t. I remember every step of my learning. I remember pulling books off the shelf in my twenties and consciously studying them to see how to put dialogue together (literally, trying to figure out where the punctuation went–because US and UK punctuation and quote marks are quite different). I remember reading the opening of three favourite books (Lord of the Rings, The Dispossessed, and Dune) to work out how to begin Ammonite. I remember years of learning how to shave off the top layer of a work, then shave again, and again and again, until there wasn’t a single unnecessary word.

But the art… No. I don’t know how that works. An artist is a shaman. We map uncharted territory so that others don’t have to. But we don’t do it for you, we do it for ourselves. We can’t help it. At least I can’t help it. And so I have an idea for a novel–and somehow I always know when it’s a novel, when it’s a story, when it’s an essay–and I begin with blind faith that I’ll find my way through to the end, that I’ll spend two years of my life on something I can’t quite see but that when I’ve finished it will all make sense. And it does. Yes, writing is a miracle.

But it’s not hard. Writing is easy. It’s like diving: terrifying if you think about it too long, but once you’ve leapt, once you’ve sprung and left earth behind, it’s easy; it’s just falling.

When I teach writing, I give beginners lots and lots of nifty rules and exercises, because beginners like that sort of thing. But the most precious advice I give is something most beginners are simply not ready to hear: Just Do It. Just run, jump, fall. You can fix it all later.

When I started my memoir, I had no idea what I was doing. I knew I had three months (mid-November to Valentine’s Day) to create the whole thing, soup to nuts. I knew that if I sat and thought about it too long, I would realise it couldn’t be done. So I just sat down and began. After three days, I knew I’d basically be writing a series of connected essays, and that they had to be almost brutally blunt. Wholly naked. No dithering. But I couldn’t have discovered this without beginning. I also would have taken much longer to figure it out without Kelley’s help. She kept tapping my subtitle, ‘Liner Notes to a Writer’s Early Life’, and saying, Focus on that, forget all the other stuff. And so with blind faith in my art, with beer (oh, lots of beer–how do writers who don’t drink manage to turn the machine off at night?), and with Kelley’s help, I created my box of Nicola. I’m proud of it. But I have no idea how I did it.

I’ve also no idea how Jacob, the designer, did his part. Perhaps he doesn’t, either. All I know is that we both worked very, very fast. There were no false starts, no hesitations. I can’t speak for Jacob, but I know I worked with the sureness of long experience. I didn’t have to understand how I was going to do it, I just knew I could. I relied on my expertise. But I wouldn’t be an expert if I hadn’t spent a lot of time just leaping off the fucking cliff; I didn’t learn how to write by worrying about it, I learnt by doing.