Helen Adlam

Cartoon drawing of Helen Adlam

Helen Adlam

Generally speaking, we writers are a greedy lot – hungry for any opportunity to gather crumbs from the table of our peers and glean some insight into their writing process. So it was with great interest that I listened when a friend of mine recently reflected on the finer details of her craft. Her carefully worded explanations of the thought processes that went into her work reminded me of a Gardeners’ World episode I once saw, in which a sagacious, genteel woman of a certain age gently guided a novice through her well-ordered garden. The beautifully manicured lawns were like the foundations of the writing, the research and planning which underpin the narrative. Through trial and error she learned how to write effective, sensuous descriptions, how to make her characters come to life through dialogue and the subtle art of subtext – in the same way that the gardener learns azaleas thrive in acid soil and delphiniums in alkaline, whilst white Damask roses bloom shamelessly in full sun, filling the air with the heady, Mediterranean scent of lemon. I was captivated. Entranced. Envious. So how, then, would I describe my own writing process? Well, imagine someone frantically trying to save their treasured possessions from a house on fire, grabbing whatever comes to hand, then trying desperately to escape through the only window which isn’t locked. You get the picture.

What do I write? Beginnings, mostly. Some middles. The occasional end.

A potential candidate for my Litmus submission is, ‘Danny’, a re-imagining of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca through the eyes of Mrs Danvers. The soundtrack to the final scene of this piece would be ‘The Very Thought of You’ by Al Bowlly. In fact, I went so far as to download this onto a memory stick when putting together my submission for the Advanced Fiction module. Unfortunately, in my panic to rescue the dog before becoming overcome by smoke, I totally forgot to include it.

As for reading, well, a lot writers will tell you they were the bookworm in the corner, engrossed in books before they could walk. I wasn’t one of those. The whole process of reading and writing was, for me, steeped in misery. Reading meant standing on a platform at the head of the class beside Miss Thomas, with her long knobbly feet and veal coloured cardigan. Line by line she traced a hardened, yellow fingernail beneath the text of Janet and John, tutting at every hesitation or mispronounced word. The final act of humiliation came when she hauled me up before the class, held my composition book aloft for all to see, then scored a red line through page after page of my writing. My crime? All the ‘e’s were upside down. I was five. I never wrote another word nor read a single book until, aged 10, I was waiting for my mother in the library and came upon The Wickedest Witch in the World by Beverly Nichols.


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