Writing life: Helen Dunmore

Orange Prize-winning writer Helen Dunmore, author of The Siege and The Lie, on the alchemy of writing

typewriter and paper

Protecting the nest

When you come too close to a lapwing’s nest in spring, the bird will run along the ground, pretending to have a broken wing. It believes that you are a predator and it will do anything to decoy you away from its young. When someone comes too close to the process by which a writer creates a new book, that writer will also do almost anything to create a distraction.

Very few writers, I think, tell the truth about writing. It is too bizarre a process; too embarrassing, sometimes, to admit that one spends hours, days, weeks, years, in devotion to characters who do not exist, places that are not real, emotions, thoughts and words that have never been felt, thought or spoken. The rhythm of a sentence can haunt all day, and a few lines of dialogue will appear in the dead of night. 

And yet somehow, sometimes, it works. I don’t know how, any more than I did when I began to write my first stories and poems in childhood. In many ways I don’t want to know, because I’m afraid of scaring away the thing that lies at the centre of my life. 

The little rituals

I can tell you what I do in practical terms: that I don’t work at home, but in a small studio about a mile away, and that it is high up, slung above the city with a view westward towards the Mendips. 

I can describe the ancient men’s black cashmere pullover that I bought from TK Maxx many years ago and still put on when the studio gets cold in winter. It’s easy to write about the draft after draft, the discarding and changing, the frustrations or the rare moments when the writing goes so fast I can hardly keep up with it.

I can even describe my small superstitions, such as always giving the file of a novel a name that I know will not be its title. It is a stand-in, and it hides the real nest even from me. I’m aware of all these things and of how ridiculous they are.  The one thing I can’t say with any truth is how I write.

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