Last night I went to see Laura Barnett at a book event at Clapham Library, and found myself inspired not just by her beautiful novel, but also her honesty and clarity, and her very human appreciation of how very hard it is to find time to write
Laura Barnett, author of the wonderful 2015 novel The Versions of Us, is rare.
As her first ever published book, the novel was a Sunday Times bestseller, has been translated into over 20 languages, optioned for a TV series, and has enabled Barnett to put aside her previous journalism work and take to writing fiction full time. For a writer, it’s the dream.
Except, it wasn’t quite her first book. As she explained at her very own literary event at the opening night of the Omnibus Clapham Literary Festival last night – twinkly, friendly, articulate, funny, blonde and stylish as she was ‒ it was actually her third novel, and had been, at times, bloody tough to write.
Not that you could tell from reading it. It’s lyrical, beautiful; stunning in both description and characterisation – the individuals within it as real and flawed and insecure and loving and sexy and fragile and scared and fabulous as any actual human ‒ and as expansive and detailed in its descriptions as in its depiction of life and all its infinite tiny decisions and worries.
Much of it is set in Cambridge (my old uni), whose colleges are centuries-old and whose streets are seemingly impervious to the restless decades, and Rome (one of my all-time favourite cities), and Cornwall (where one of my best friends lives), so much so that I felt like it was almost written for me.
Following a couple through three possible versions of their lives, it was creative, moving, complex yet touchingly human, and wise beyond its years.
Pretty fantastic for a “debut novel”, no?
But – it’s her third novel, not her first. How’s that for perseverance?
I mean, here’s me, wondering if I have it in me to write even one novel, and here she is, only seeing success after having slogged through two previous labours of love before even getting this far. And even then, achieving incredibly rare success that most people never get? Wow. It’s a long old road, this writing thing.
And yet, the most memorable thing about her talk? That she just started writing, and then…just carried on.
Working as a full-time journalist (like me), she had to fit her novel-wrangling around her day job, and, if all else failed, she used running as a physical means of propelling herself forward when the writing got tough.
It would be a stretch to call myself a “runner” – although I did complete the Couch to 5k programme last month, if that counts? But I’d definitely like to call myself a “writer” (leaving aside the dreams of a TV adaptation for now, ha).
And apparently, the key to that is simply…to write.
It sounds ridiculously simple, but when life is so busy – between work, the commute, cooking, eating, washing, cleaning, tidying, seeing friends, having a meaningful relationship, reading, hobbies, Netflix, blogging, and everything else – actually sitting down to write properly can seem like a totally lost cause.
I hardly ever have any time to just sit and think and write – there’s always something else more immediate, less soul-searching, more demanding, more “high priority”, to be doing.
But then, that’s the same for pretty much everyone, isn’t it. Beyond successful full-time authors, who has hours and hours to devote to writing? And even authors probably started somewhere, lunch breaks and clothes washing and commuting permitting.
Write, Laura told me. Even if you only have 15 minutes. Write during your lunchbreak. Write on the train. Just write. Write anything. Write, and it will happen.
I think it was Michelangelo, she said, who famously described a sculpture as a piece of rock already containing the figure within – it just needed someone to take the time to chip away at it until the shape emerged. It’s the same with writing, she said.
This is actually my third book, she said.
And she explained how she only really started writing novels aged 19, and continued in her twenties without success or publication until, aged 30 and consumed with journalism and getting married and all the other stuff of life, she thought – all I’ve wanted to do is write, and I’m not doing it.
So she did.
With a few nice similarities to my own story – she also went to Cambridge, she also lived in Clapham mere streets from my flat, she also goes running, she’s blonde, she writes loads of lists, she seems like she’d be a great laugh over a cocktail…oh, and she also nursed big dreams to write ‒ Laura really made me feel like writing a novel might just be achievable.
Even if it were a tenth/hundredth/millionth as successful as hers; even if no-one bought a copy except my dad and my grandma, that would still count, at this point.
Yes, Laura had help in the form of a supportive husband and did a course from City Lit university, which offers short courses on a wide variety of subjects (to be fair, I am lucky enough to have a supportive boyfriend too, and there’s little to stop me doing a writing course except time, and justifying the cash).
But mostly, she just wrote.
She set out the plot on three A4 pieces of paper (I’ve done the same for my book), and then, despite difficulty and time restraints, wrote it.
It’s so ordinary and simple, and yet so transformative to actually hear it from someone in the flesh.
Along with the recent podcast I listened to – from one of my absolute faves, Nicole Antoinette ‒ featuring Steve Kamb and the power of breaking writing goals down into manageable daily chunks, plus my current life coaching from all-round online badass Sarah Starrs, I feel like I might just be breaking through my year-long writing block.
After all, I’m writing this blogpost aren’t I?
Write, she said.
And this, as small and tiny and blogposty as it is? This is what you might call “a start”.