CQ: What’s your academic background? Do you have an MFA? If so, from where? Did you find it useful professionally and creatively? What has the effect on the field of creative writing been from the proliferation of these programs?
CP: I left school at sixteen and ran a bakery for ten years. The last years there I began a part-time, evening literature degree at Birkbeck, University of London; a challenging and bracing environment. I also worked in journalism for three years, sub-editing and writing theatre reviews where I learned a lot. About ten years later, just after my daughter was born, I did a creative writing masters at the University of Edinburgh. This was a deeply important time for me; I found solidarity with poets who have remained life-long friends and committed myself to writing. Now, a dozen years later, after travels and teaching, I’ve an offer from Exeter to do a PhD in creative writing and am looking for a secondary supervisor from a Zen Buddhist background to read the critical part of my thesis.
Writing techniques can be honed by the right teacher but ultimately it is the individual’s unique voice and motivation that matters. I don’t think writers should think of themselves as professionals but rather as artists with discrete responsibilities. On balance, writing programmes raise standards. No-one suggests music or art degrees create second-rate musicians or painters; original minds incorporate influences and transmute them into their own.
CQ: A related question: what is your writing process like? Do you commit to writing a certain number of day per week? At a particular time of day? Or are you more sporadic?
CP: I have been writing for over a decade. Some of that period I have worked, setting up libraries for children in Guatemala, teaching English or creative writing. But I’ve raised my daughter and been a single mother for more than half that time, so working has been side-lined. I value my liberty to think and freedom to write. The price is a little too much isolation. I devote most school days to writing, around teaching yoga and other commitments. My process is to wake, do my practice, eat breakfast, send my daughter to school, cycle in East Devon’s lanes where I live and then sit down to write. I spend most of the day in front of the laptop, mulling over things, stopping to make coffee, eat lunch or take a walk. A lot of contemplation is done in the seams… when it looks like I’m doing nothing.
CQ: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers in terms of the technical methods you employ? Ways of finding inspiration and managing the effects of writer’s block, for example?
CP: My advice to an aspiring writer would be to shape her life into that of a writer’s. It’s impossible to write if you don’t read widely and give yourself space and time. This means a room of one’s own. And solitude. And being close to those who care about literature, art and, above all, spiritual growth; they will sustain you. Remain as open as you can; people will share it their stories if you care to listen. Be honest yet responsible about what you write and how you frame it. My literature teacher at school told me; ‘Write what you know.’ Ask writers you respect read your work. Read your own work out loud. Edit. Edit. Edit. Put your finished piece on ice for a few months. Disengage and come back to it as a reader. Edit it again. I’m still working on stories written a decade ago.
CQ: What writers are you reading lately? Who are your all-time favorites?
CP: My favourite short story writers are James Baldwin, Eudora Welty, Italo Calvino, Charles Johnson, Carson McCullers, Raymond Carver, Tove Jansson, Kevin Brockmeier, Edger Keret, Deborah Levy, Jeanette Winterson and Lydia Davis amongst others. These days I find myself reading more non-fiction, especially philosophy and commentaries on Zen.