The tidal writer: ME dictated pace of my novel’s creation

Slow writing has allowed me time to feel the flow, the emotion, and the energy of the story

I’m a writer and I’m not sure how it happened. When I was a child I wanted to be a farmer. My family had no ties to the land, but I imagined becoming a farmer in the same way as I dreamed of being an astronaut or a cowboy, setting aside the realities of being a myopic girl born in the unenlightened 1960s. I read books and anything seemed possible.

I did at least have a cowboy hat and toy pistol and was excellent at galloping to the rescue across the common behind our house. I called myself Hawkeye in our games of make-believe, despite being unable to see more than a blur, because I had no idea anyone else could see better.

Isn’t that how we all step out into the world?

Being a writer, though? It sounded dusty and indoors. I didn’t dream of being a writer because I wanted to be out having adventures, and somehow it didn’t occur to me that writers had adventures too.


But writing has brought joy, exhilaration and terror into my life even as my health has slipped down an invisible slope, a pebble rattling down a sun-baked rockface and dropping, clatter-clatter out of sight.

I don’t know where it’s taking me. I dream, probably as realistically as I used to dream of being a cowboy, of suddenly returning to full health. Of knowing every day that I’ll be able to depend on my body, push it hard, fall over and jump back up.

But it’s not going to happen, so I write. Writing isn’t the easy option – anyone who writes knows that. But writing is something I can do at my own pace. To those writers who say writing a novel is like running a marathon, I say, damn right, if that marathon takes 10 years to run, some of them slower than a tortoise, some completely stationary.

I began thinking about Starling in late 2013. I didn’t get going till 2015 when I finally mapped out the plot and characters, writing scenes as the potatoes boiled or in a snatched hour before my working day began. But it was too much. The load caused my ME to flare up so I could just about work and care for my family, but no more. I set Starling aside.

And this was the pattern – write, pause to recover, write, pause to recover. Over and over, till I had a first draft. It was terrible, clunky, frayed round the edges, but it was a whole draft.

Ready to redraft, I caught some gastric infection that my husband recovered from in three days. Three months later I was still acutely unwell and my ME was in crisis. I staggered on but finally I had to stop work for a whole year.

In 25 years of ME I’d never been this ill and for so long and I was afraid. For the first months, I simply rested. I lay on the sofa, pottered into the garden, waited and hoped for my strength to return. I couldn’t look at a screen. I couldn’t read because I couldn’t focus or think – my brain had turned into a sack of lumpy sludge. I was exhausted.

Very slowly my brain and body began to find their shape again, have more moments of strength and clarity. I started to think about the novel, to make notes, to plan the next draft, and then I’d fall asleep again, but at least I had notes to come back to. Did I say that ME has given me the ability to forget even the most brilliant idea within minutes?

As I began to recover, I ambled. Some days I made it to the end of the garden, gazing at the plants, insects, colours and shadows before I tottered back indoors to rest. Gradually, I built up to exploring a handful of fields, poking in ditches, looking up into the oaks, sniffing the air, sucking it all in.

When eventually I came back to my manuscript I wrote in the same way. I poked my sentences to make them buzz, I lay in the long grass of a scene and waited to see what was going to appear, I sat quietly at the side of the room and watched my characters rub against each other.

Slow writing has allowed me time to feel the flow, the emotion, and the energy of the story and I’m glad it’s the only way I can do it now. And living like this has brought me up close with the wild world: nature is no longer a background blur as I rush past it. I hope the same is true of the people around me. This way of being has fed my writing.

Long ago I heard Hilary Mantel talk about her experience of writing Wolf Hall, and how – as a woman who lives with an unreliable body – it was incredible to feel Thomas Cromwell’s physical power and strength fill her. As I wrote my main character, Starling – tiny, wiry, strong, always on the move - I loved dropping myself into her. I may sometimes have taken it a little too far – a friend stopped me once to see if I was all right as I half-skipped, half-strode along a lane, inhabiting Starling’s body and her anger, fear and determination at her moment of leaving. It told me I was getting something right, and that maybe next time I should check who else was around.

That might make it sound as if ME is all in the mind, as if I should pull Starling’s vigour into my body like a medicine. If only it were that easy. ME affects my nervous and immune systems, stops my body recovering and generating energy and it doesn’t listen.

ME makes me feel tidal, as if my body is an ocean at the mercy of biological surges no one has been able to map. I can’t control it, and that’s hard.

Is that why I write? To find control? I don’t think so. Writing means finding the fine balance between exerting control and relinquishing myself to the unknown. In so many ways I’m still that dream cowboy trotting alone into the distant mountains: I don’t know what’s over there, or if I’ll come out alive, and sometimes I’m afraid of what’s ahead. But isn’t that fear at the heart of the best adventures, the richest stories?

Starling is published by Fairlight Books today