Staying the distance and loving the creative journey

In the recent Creative Power of the Mind event Elizabeth Lovius — Leadership Wellbeing Coach interviewed Tor Udall, a writer for over 20 years, who this year published her successful debut novel: A Thousand Paper Birds. Tor shared her insights with us on resilience and how she stayed in the game for the long haul and how she maintains her inspiration and co-creates with the Universe.

Elizabeth: When did you start being a writer?

Tor: I was, as a child, an avid reader. I loved reading. It didn’t cross my mind to be the one doing the work to create the book. I just loved books — especially books with maps. And one exciting thing is my novel has a map in it; it’s a childhood dream come true. One of my favourite books was, “Ballet Shoes”, and I decided from that I wanted to be a dancer. That’s the path I followed for quite a while, and I also got involved with theatre. My teacher encouraged me to direct theatre and a piece we devised won a competition and ended up being performed on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre. It was very much expected of me to become a director.

But there was just something that pulled me back. There was something that said, “No, I want to create my own stories, rather than interpret other people’s stories.”

“I want to create my own stories, rather than interpret other people’s stories.”

I loved directing and found it fascinating. I did a lot of devised physical theatre and discovered that I really enjoyed writing the spoken texts for it. There was one specific moment. We were dancing at Sadler’s Wells and I’d just done this really painful solo en pointe. Afterwards I was in the wings, out of breath, my feet bleeding. And the voiceover I’d written was happening on stage in the blackout. The audience all breathed in at the right time, and laughed at the right time. And it was just really clear — that’s what I want to do.

Elizabeth: How old were you at the time?

Tor: I was doing that in my early 20’s. It took about 4 years to write my first novel. I submitted it to agents and received a phone call literally the next day. I was shy about my writing so I’d only sent them a page, which was totally wrong! They said, “We love this page, send more.” So I sent 6 chapters. They loved that. I thought, “Oh my goodness, this is all amazing. Becoming a writer is easy!”

“Oh my goodness, this is all amazing. Becoming a writer is easy!”

Then I sent them the whole thing and there was silence. Finally they got in touch — actually I think I got in touch with them. And they said, “Well, it’s set up really beautifully, and the language is great. But the story just dies out. You need to learn about the craft of story.”

As a dancer, it had been all about capturing moments. Those little interactions and glances between people. So my writing was more like poetry rather than sustaining a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. So I tried really hard to learn about story. I worked on several drafts but in the end the agent said, “You just need to take a break from this. It’s like flogging a dead horse.”

Elizabeth: How did you cope with that disappointment?

Tor: I was heartbroken. I cried as if my cat had died. It was a proper woe. “Oh my God, I’ve spent years doing this.” I decided I would never write again. I moved to London and I lived life for a bit and I partied. It was actually what I needed to do and I found that I carried on writing, just for myself. Just filling these notebooks up. I just had that urge to express myself. After a while, I started thinking, “Is there a novel here? There’s something pulling on me.”

“I decided I would never write again.”

Then I realised there were two novels in these notebooks. Once I saw that, it was like the waves parting. It became really clear there were two novels there. I was like, “Screw it, I’m going to go again.” I couldn’t keep away from it anyway. I submitted the new novel and signed up with an agent who said, “This is a masterpiece, this is perfect, we don’t need to change a thing.”

He sent it to publishers. It was around the time of the big financial crash and no one was taking risks. Every single publisher said, “No.” I had also just given birth to my first child, so I was feeling pretty overwhelmed. When we submitted the book, I’d also told them the idea for the second novel — the other novel in my notebooks. And they all said, “We do want to see that one though.” Oh shit. I’d spent 5 years doing the first one and now I’ve got to make the space to write another one?

Of course I decided to go for it, and I wrote the story set in Kew Gardens, while juggling all the challenges of being a new mother. I sent a draft to my agent, who said, “You can’t do that. You can’t mix reality and magic the way you’re doing. No way.” I told him that I really believed in what I was doing and he replied, “if you want to go with that, I can’t represent you.”

“You can’t do that. You can’t mix reality and magic the way you’re doing. No way.”

I’m in my 30’s and I get dumped! I was right back at square one. It was fine in my 20’s to be told I had potential, but to be told in your 30’s, “You’ve got potential, but you haven’t quite got there yet” was becoming frustrating. But I really believed in this book, so I carried on. I did another couple of drafts then sent it out again to more agents.

Elizabeth: When did you get your first sign that this novel would be published?

Tor: I went to the Festival of Writing, which is a big 3 day event in York every September. About 400 writers turn up, and you get 1 on 1’s with agents and all the agents there loved it. By the end of the week, I had 8 agents offering representation and I chose one.

After another couple of drafts we submitted to publishers. The foreign offers came in almost immediately. Italy were the first — within 24 hours they had read it and fallen in love with it. Then Russia, Netherlands and Portugal. It was just this mad week of all these different countries offering. Then I happened to be in Kew Gardens when my agent phoned. I was standing outside the Palm House, and my agent said, “Bloomsbury are going to publish it.” And Bloomsbury was my dream publisher.

“Bloomsbury are going to publish it.”

Elizabeth: What was it like for you achieving that goal?

Tor: It has been a dream come true. It is even better than I expected it would be. And yet there is this continuing thing of, “Are the sales good enough, am I getting enough reviews, will people want the second book? If the book does really well, then will the second book do as well?”

The goal posts keep shifting. I’ve been really lucky — I’ve had really great reviews. So actually part of my challenge now is to shut that noise off, and not worry about pleasing people or thinking ‘What did they like in the first one? I’ve got to replicate that.’

My ambition is to be a better writer than I was yesterday. The journey is with myself. Because there isn’t an end. The mountains just keep getting higher and higher.

“My ambition is to be a better writer than I was yesterday. The journey is with myself.”

Elizabeth: Tell us about your creative process?

Tor: What I love is joining up the dots. I was really interested in the benches in Kew. There’s basically a lot of dead people being remembered in Kew, set against all this life and nature. So I knew I would do something about that. At the same time, I was interested in origami. I found this interview with a very old origami master. He said, “I spent my entire life trying to express, with paper, the joy of life and the last thought before a man dies.”

“What I love is joining up the dots”.

I started to connect these dots. It starts off very intuitively. I do a lot of visual stuff. I looked at Modigliani portraits for characters — that perhaps captured a character’s smile or the way they hold their shoulders. I use a lot of post-its. A LOT of post-its. Colour coded for each character’s perspective. I then start mapping out the scenes and charting the narrative arc.

I’m lucky enough to have a room and it’s covered in images. I’m literally just walking into the book. I find that’s very important because writing is such a cerebral thing. I try to bring my body into it, and external visuals, to keep things alive.

Because it’s set in Kew Gardens, it was also very easy to go to the locations. If I wanted to develop a particular character, I’d go to locations that that character loved. So I did a lot of writing in the Gardens. When it was very cold, I’d leave my writing bench and work in the Palm House to get warm.

Elizabeth: How do you access inspiration?

Tor: I was talking to you about these coincidences. I have found in my experience that now and then you have little signs to tell you that you’re on the right path. For instance when working on my first novel in my 20’s, I was writing a scene about someone making a cake for a wake at a funeral. She’s gone a bit crazy and has decided to put forget-me-not flowers into the cake.

The next day I go to my writing desk and there’s a little vase of forget-me-nots on my desk. My flatmate had put them there. It’s a coincidence, but it made me go, “Oh, I feel a bit better today as I sit down to write this.”

“You have little signs to tell you that you’re on the right path.”

In the Kew book, there’s a pivotal scene where a character, Chloe, finds an abandoned gardener’s boot. I was really struggling with the writing and went for a walk and right there on the pavement was a single gardener’s boot. On Harrow Road for Christ’s sake! What was it doing there?

The biggest one however still haunts me. There’s two main motifs in the book. One is origami birds and the other is a song by David Bowie: “Oh! You pretty things.” I’d always played with these two motifs together. I’d written the book, I’d got the agent, and then I was picking up my kids and I stopped at the traffic lights, beside a massive NME billboard poster. The front cover of NME was Bowie, surrounded by origami birds.

So I rushed back home and googled the article and discovered that Bowie did the art direction himself — he had decided that he wanted the origami birds. The next day, I called my agent and said, “You’re not going to believe this.” She replied, “Actually you’re not going to believe this. NME has just come through my front door, and I’ve never subscribed to it, and it’s right here on my doormat.”

So I definitely had to keep Bowie in, although it’s very hard to get copyright for songs. Naively believing Bowie owned the copyright, I wrote him a letter asking for permission and explaining that my novel was about a man facing his own death and learning how to let go of life. This was in December 2015. I didn’t know, as none of us knew, that a few weeks later, Bowie would be dead. He himself was in that process of letting go.

It was a really odd thing. I became curious and put a question onto Twitter to other writers, saying, “Do you get this too? How many of you write something that then happens in real life?” The response I got back was phenomenal. So many people — “All the time,” they said. “All the time.”

Then you get into the whole thing about does thought create reality? And there’s that wonderful Einstein quote — ‘Everything is energy. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you will get that reality. This is not philosophy. This is physics.’

Elizabeth We talked earlier about how you co-create with the Universe — tell us more?

Tor: I do think there is this co-creation and interplay between me and something other.

I don’t have a lot of interest in defining what that ‘other’ is. For me, that doesn’t really serve me or anybody else. Whether it’s a muse or the sub-conscious or God or a particular brain wave or some creative force. I just want to dance with it, rather than track it or define it. And also to be grateful for it.

“I do think there is this co-creation and interplay between me and something other”.

Ben Okri sent me a congratulatory email after I was published, saying, “Don’t forget to send a quiet thank you to the realms that deserve it.” It was good to be reminded. To remember where this all came from.

I think a lot of the process is about how do you get out of your own way. I read an interview with a conductor who said, “I have to find a way for my hands to start the concert without me”. Sometimes if I am stuck, I put on some music and just start writing nonsense — just free-flow until something snags my interest.

You’ve just got to start the movement. And maybe that’s where my dancing helps. I just start the movement — start warming up. Because if you wait for inspiration, that isn’t going to happen. You’ve got to earn the magic. You’ve got to put the hours in. You’ve got to show up. Keep your bum in the seat.

“You’ve got to show up. Keep your bum in the seat.”

Elizabeth: Do you ever get stuck? If so, what do you do?

Tor: If have a problem that I can’t solve, I often go downstairs and play the piano. I find it helps to do something that uses a different part of my brain and yet leaves another part of my brain totally free to think. I saw a programme about creativity and the brain, and they did various tests on how people solve problems. The people who did the best were the ones who had to think while at the same time separating red cubes from blue cubes. A repetitive, mundane task. They were the ones who came up with the most creative solutions.

It’s like when people say: “While I was doing the washing up, the idea came.” Or, “I had a bath.” It’s doing something that’s a little bit different.

When you’re on the 10th draft, it’s very hard to see things fresh. So sometimes I’ll do really simple things like change the font — or change the document from portrait to landscape. I will pin it up on a washing line and walk around it. Or pin it onto the walls. Anything to make it unfamiliar to me again — that helps a great deal. If you’re doing lots of typing, change to handwriting or vice versa. You do have to trick yourself when you’re that many drafts in. It’s just very hard to see it anymore.

Elizabeth: How did you stay engaged and in the game all that time?

Tor: I believed in the work. I actually love the act of writing itself. I adore it. I just get very fascinated by the problems and how to get characters in and out of situations. I would’ve carried on writing until my dying day if no-one had paid me a penny. I love the art itself. And I had faith. I had faith that it would all come right in the end.

“I love the art itself.”

It was tricky. In that final push, I had my second child and he was premature. Writing and looking after him was hard work. I’d be writing till 3 or 4 in the morning. Your priorities change — let’s just say my personal hygiene was bottom on the list!

You’ve just got to have faith that you are doing the right thing, that you’re on the right path. And the signs certainly helped.

Elizabeth: What would you say to your younger writing self now?

Tor: Keep going. It all works out in the end. And enjoy where you are now. Although it’s wonderful being published, there’s a lot more time pressures, deadlines and expectations. There’s a really lovely innocence beforehand, where you’re only doing it for yourself.

Keep going. It all works out in the end”.

Elizabeth: I hear in your approach that you have nothing on it — a kind of playfulness?

Tor: I love the first bit where everything’s possible. I love the part where I’m making my walls, creating my environment. The next one I’m doing has a lot of sea, and motifs of shoe-making and butterflies. So the room is completely transformed again. I love that. Anything is possible at that point, and you don’t yet have to face into the failure of putting down this perfect thing onto the page.

One of the best questions I was asked was from Susie Maguire: what 5 stories would you write if you knew no one was going to read it? It’s actually very different from the stories I would write for the public. That was a revelation to me.

“What 5 stories would you write if you knew no one was going to read it?”

As it’s Mental Health Day, I’m reminded of the brilliant writer, Joanna Cannon. She often talks about writing helping mental health and yet it is often judged as self-indulgent. We don’t mock the people who run every day for their physical health. Whatever art form you’re working in, it’s a healthy thing to do for your mental well-being and yet it’s dismissed in society, in a way that looking after your physical health isn’t.

Elizabeth: What I notice for myself is that we can sometimes get into: Make. “Oh that’s rubbish.” Make. “Oh that’s rubbish.” And there’s no room for the thing to breathe. There’s no room for something unknown to come. There’s just you and then you go: “Oh that’s no good. That’s no good. That’s no good.” The judgement.

Grayson Perry who won the Tate Newcomers prize years ago, he says that when an idea first comes, it’s like a little baby puppy. So you don’t want to shout at it. Because if you shout at it, it will run away and never come back. And we can get mean with those puppies. Instead of — here, come here, you’re sweet, let me play with you.

I love this room that Tor’s got. It just feels magical to be in her world. Weird things happen. Things are pinned on washing lines or people are colours. It doesn’t feel harsh, it feels like it’s gentle there. And things can unfold, and become themselves. We can be so comparing and judging. And we don’t need to. It sounds to me like you can see that ‘judging’ door opening up. Like you could judge and compare this next book with the last one and instead you think I’m just going to shut that door and go back to what I know.

Tor: I’ve had to say to myself — if the second book doesn’t work, it’s okay. I just need to listen to what the book needs and wants to be.

Elizabeth: After hearing from Tor, my challenge to anyone is: listen out. Listen for that thing that just wants to happen for no reason. For no reason other than it just wants to happen. A little nudge, a little inclination. A little moment of, “yeah, why not?” A feeling with nothing on it. Just to create for it’s own sake. Whether it’s a piece of music, or a written thing, or a cake or some embroidery.

This is your nudge. Listen out for what you love, go do it. See what happens, join the dots later. Figure out the why later. Follow the breadcrumbs. You don’t need to know where it’s going. It’s just the journey. It’s there for it’s own sake.

“Follow the breadcrumbs. You don’t need to know where it’s going. It’s just the journey. It’s there for it’s own sake”.

Our next Creative Power of the Mind is November 14th with Nicki Fisher — Head of the Pret Foundation — a charity arm of Pret a Manger dedicated to helping the homeless get back to work. Nicki will be talking about how Pret reinvents business — by doing things differently and thinking about People and Planet as well as Profit. We will hear stories of how her work in The Pret Foundation is changing lives.

For six months I am conducting a series of talks about the Creative Power of the Mind at Studio7 in Shoreditch. Each session will involve a conversation with someone who makes a living using their creativity. Through our conversation we will uncover universal truths about the creative power of the mind that are applicable to all aspects of life.

The next Creative Power of the Mind takes place on November 14th, 7–8:30 p.m. at Studio7 Shoreditch

Limited tickets to all talks in the series are available at www.studio7shoreditch.com

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Would you like to access more resilience? Attend Elizabeth’s next Leadership Wisdom and Wellbeing Course November 13th & 14th.

Elizabeth Lovius is a Leadership Wellbeing Coach who helps leaders access fresh insight, big relationships and lead real change for good. Elizabeth is an award winning facilitator, a speaker on the power of the mind and author of the creativity workbook: Facilitating Genius. She is also Leadership Coach at NowGoCreate and has contributed as Creative Coach to Claire Bridge’s book In Your Creative Element.