Earlier this week, in late March 2019, I went to listen to Ian Rankin talking at Liverpool Hope University. He’s one of my favourite novelists and I was interested to hear him talking about why and how he writes with the students there. It also reminded me of this article on why I write this blog and how it got started, from back in 2014.
A friend has contacted me this week and asked me to take part in a sort of blogging chain letter. Naturally my normal response to this kind of thing would be a firm ‘No.’ But the request was gently done. And pondering the questions asked in the chain letter, I thought my answers might contribute to my own chain of thoughts in my ‘Year to live’ series of posts. So I’ve decided to start writing and see where my thoughts take me. Let’s go, four questions:
Q1 Why do I write what I do?
Well I didn’t start out by writing on this blog at all. My early blogging all happened to help out my partner Sarah. She was running a blog called ‘Being Sarah’ about a book she’d written and her continuing experiences as someone who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. A couple of times she’d encouraged me to contribute some of my own experiences whilst caring for her through her treatments and recoveries. And over time I became a fairly regular guest contributor, writing particularly about the walking we’d do to shake out all the hours we were spending in surgeries and waiting rooms. The walking we’d do just because we liked it.
In writing and generally helping with the editing of ‘Being Sarah’ I found myself in regular contact with Sarah’s friends in what they called ‘the Blogosphere.’ Women from all over the world who’d had breast cancer diagnoses. And it was several of them who began suggesting I start a blog of my own. Because I seemed to be enjoying writing and to have ‘found my voice.’ For a long time I resisted the idea. Having no common and binding subject to write about, as they all had, I thought I wouldn’t have much to say.
Well, years in and hundreds of posts later I’m nowhere near running out of things I want to write about. And this week it’s someone from the Blogosphere, my original encouragers, the breast cancer community, who has asked me to take part in this chain. So how could I refuse?
Having said all that then ‘Why do I write what I do?’
Well I write because I’ve got things to say, places to show you and stories to tell. Causes to support and life and people to appreciate. And I write because I can. Because I find it easy and I love doing it. I also love writing as a blog because so many people read it and comment and agree and even argue with me. More on Twitter than directly on here, but I enjoy engaging with the people who read what I write. Before it became a blog this was just a website for the work I do. And on a good day it might get 30 views. Now the things I write are read by thousands of people. And I like that, having an audience, so I’m not just writing for my own amusement.
Q2 How does my work differ from others of its genre?
A question I almost entirely disagree with. I don’t think of this as work and I don’t consciously think of myself as belonging to any genre.
Early days I was nominated for an award as ‘Best City Blog in Northern England.’ I didn’t win and I don’t think of this as a city blog anyway. It’s about my life, my interests and my opinions. And yes, much of it takes place in Liverpool as that’s where I live. And I love the place intensely. But lots of what happens, even in Liverpool, doesn’t interest me at all and so I don’t write about it. This is not a City Guide. Even though the occasional reader will pull me up for places they think I should have mentioned on one of my walks, it’s never been my intention to be comprehensive.
Early on a few readers compared me to SevenStreets, because that was all about Liverpool too. And to How The Light Gets In, again because because of Liverpool and lots of walking. But they are both very individual, like their writers, and really nothing like this ‘A Sense of Place.’
In fact, thinking about it, everyone’s blog needs to be very individual. That’s the point and the joy of it, isn’t it? If it’s not as individual as you are, then maybe you need to interest things up a bit?
Q3 What am I working on?
As I mentioned at the start, I’m working on what it would feel like and what I would do and not do, if I thought I only had a year to live. And I’m regularly writing down my thoughts.
There are several reasons for this thinking about mortality. Sarah’s life threatening diagnosis with breast cancer seven years ago, of course, brought mortality from ‘somewhere out there’ to right in our faces. Then two years ago Sarah’s best friend Rachel dying from metastatic breast cancer gave mortality a name. And since then Sarah has moved on from working with me to being an Independent Funeral Celebrant. So now mortality lives in our house, day upon day.
But I’m also thinking about mortality because I finally slowed down long enough to listen to myself.
For the nearly 20 years of ‘A Sense of Place’ the business, I’d been running a thing called ‘Finding the work you love.’ Two days of conversations to help individual people find work they would love, the work they’d be best at. And throughout this time one of the conversations we’d have was called ‘A year to live.’ I’d set up an imaginary situation where the person working with me would learn they only had a year to go:
“You won’t be ill, apart from the normal coughs and colds. But in a year’s time it’s just like your light will go out. Your life will be unplugged. So what will you do with your year? You can’t not work. But you only need to do enough work to keep going, to eat and pay the regular bills. So what else will you do with your time? Will you want to travel, spend time with particular people, say your goodbyes? And what will you not want to do? In this final year of your life what work won’t you do, what things won’t you want, what people and activities will you clear from your life so you can concentrate on what really matters to you?
We’d then go out for a quiet walk while the person thinks about all this.
After a while, and to the person’s surprise, we would turn into a nearby graveyard, sit down and talk.
And in all the years of sitting there and listening to what people would then say, I’d never thought to have this conversation with myself. Until the last time I ran ‘Finding the work you love.’ At which point the thought of having ‘A year to live’ changed my life. Because the point of the exercise is of course:
“Why don’t we always live as if we only have a year to live, because none of us is ever likely to know when that year is starting?”
So you can read about the effects this had elsewhere on the blog. But in short, lots of possessions went to charity, offers of work I would previously have accepted were rejected (I’m currently finishing the last paid film work I will ever do for example), much more walking is now being done and great care is being put into how I spend my dwindling days. My life has calmed down. Everything being judged by ‘Would I do this if I thought I had year to live?’
So I’m not working on any big plans or planning any major trips. Just living quietly in my beloved Liverpool, with my beloved Sarah. And writing about various aspects of my life and my place that particularly interest me. As I said on one of the early ‘Year to live’ posts:
“There has been a quietening down of the rage to succeed.”
A rage I hadn’t even realised was there until it stopped.
And last question?
Q4 How does my writing process work?
You’ll hardly be surprised, I’d guess, to hear that there isn’t really a writing process at all. Or at least not one single approach.
I suspect this is where blogging might differ from writing a book. There I’d imagine you’d need rhythm and rigour to put something big and coherent together that holds together. Whereas the average blog post is only a thousand words or so and can be approached in a much more random manner.
Often I’ll have a vague idea, which might have come to me on a walk or a run, and I’ll just sit down and start typing. See what comes out.
Sometimes it’s the story of a walk itself, or a place or a person, and is based on photographs I’ve taken or found. So I’ll put them in some sort of order and then write the story around them.
Very rarely I’ll roughly plan out what I think on a mind map. And then riff around that. That’s what I’ve done with this one, as reflecting about writing isn’t something I’d normally do.
And early days I would plan out ‘Blog ideas.’ I don’t anymore, other than have a few categories I can regularly add to. Like ‘Great bus journeys of the world,’ like the ‘Story of a sense of place’ (which I’ve now finished). But generally now, when I complete a blog post I’ve no idea what I’m going to write about next.
Because life is happening and that’s what interests me. That’s why I’ve paused to do this bit of reflecting. As I said earlier, normally I’d say no to taking part in any sort of chain letter. But in this case the automatic no changed to an ‘It depends.’ And the main thing ‘It depends’ on in this ‘Year to live’ of my life is ‘whether I feel like doing it.’ In this case I did and that’s all the justification I need.
So then, I’ve learned from my reflecting today, from thinking about what I write and why, that though I’ll only occasionally write a blog post in this ‘Year to live’ series, actually all my posts now are influenced by the central thought of:
‘Would I do this or write about it if I had a year to live?’
This doesn’t, I hope, mean all the posts are doom-laden or even serious. But it does mean I’ll only write about things that bring me joy, or arouse my passions, or often both.
So I’ll write about record shops, Hillsborough, wildflowers, public libraries, books, Bill Shankly, football, Granby, empty homes, Liverpool, Liverpool 8, Deaf School, Adrian Henri, street markets, politics, photography, LPs, the Wirral, the Great War, spring, Sarah’s allotment, Ormskirk, the Shining Shore, the Everyman, New Brighton and bus journeys – as I have in the last month – whenever I feel like it and however I feel like doing so.
What I don’t feel like doing though, is the chain letter expected thing of passing this on, not directly anyway. I don’t have a genre-full of relatively like minded friends to pass it on to and also, to be quite honest, I’m the world’s worst ‘joiner in’ and so simply won’t generally do what might be expected of me. That’s me.
Thanks to my friend Jan Hasak, from California and frequent commenter on this blog, for asking me to write this. I’ve enjoyed doing it and you may well want to go and read what Jan’s written in response to the same four questions: ‘Words are all I have.’ Thanks also, in turn to Philippa Ramsden from Myanmar who, I think, started this particular thread of the ‘Blog Tour’ off.
And long belated thanks to all the women in the breast cancer sisterhood for telling me firmly to get out of your blogosphere and go and write about football, music and Liverpool somewhere else!