Creative writing tutor and prize-winning writer of novels, short stories, plays and poetry.
Interview conducted by Laurs Oakley.
As both a tutor and a writer, Ruth Brandt has a wealth of knowledge and skills at her fingertips. I was interested to find out how she came to writing and tutoring, and how this shaped her professionally. Is it important to learn the craft of writing? How does she define her own writing practice and what interests and inspires her to write? And what are her key tips and tricks for new writers?
Q: To start us off, tell us a little bit about yourself and your relationship with writing and literature.
I came to writing very late. I was trying to find a way to get out of the house and so I went to a creative writing class (because the painting class was full). The tutor gave us a task and I went home, lights down as my husband was sleeping, and I started writing and something just clicked! You know people who give up smoking, or people who find a diet and they’re suddenly really on it and they tell you about it? I felt a little bit like that about writing! I’m so passionate about it! Because I had no preconceptions, I had no learning to know anything different, I just thoroughly enjoyed the whole process.
There came a point where I thought, having gone on many different writing courses, I thought I’d quite like to teach adults the joy that can be writing too. And so, I phoned up Surrey Adult Education and they told me to get my teaching qualification and I did and that’s how it all started!
What I do absolutely love is that, although we’re talking about writing, it’s also about people learning something new, finding new in themselves. Often as adults we don’t do that – we are not prepared to embrace making a fool of ourselves. There are a lot of people who come to a class and they find something magical and there’s that moment of spark in them and I think ‘Oh! I recognise you! You’re my fellows!’
Q: Do you think it was because you were inspired by a tutor that you were interested in doing the same, hoping to inspire others?
Yes. And you know, as a tutor it’s not just about being inspiring, though there are those moments too, of course. But it’s also encouraging the tacit assumption that as a writer you should just do it, you know, just write, it’s those moments as well. I did an MFA in creative writing at Kingston University, which was brilliant, and there was so much of this ‘just do it!’ tutoring that made me realise – well, okay I will just do it, I’ll stop being precious, I’ll blooming do it!
I think it’s also important to be aware that writing comes from your heart. We’re writing about love, hate, we’re writing about jealousy, and we’re exposing this to people who are strangers. And I think a tutor who respects that and says, ‘yeah you’ve got it, be bold, write from that emotional honesty’, is doing it right. It makes you realise, ‘okay, maybe I have got it.’
Q: Do you think it’s important for writers to learn the craft of writing? Is that guidance important?
*laughing* I mean, you are talking to someone who obviously has been on courses and so I come with my own side of this story!
I think you’ve got three bits to your writing life. One is that natural ability, yes, to find story, to see story, to see life differently. Another is the crafting, the tools and techniques, those things that you use to make your story or poem the best it can be. Those can be learned. But the third is sitting on your bottom and doing it. You can have all the natural ability in the world but unless you learn how to use your skills, and unless you sit on your bottom and actually do it, then you haven’t got much of a chance!
You know, I’ve had a huge array of writers coming through my classes over the years and it’s always endlessly fascinating, endlessly different. Some people have written their first piece and I think, ‘oh my goodness, you are good! All I need to do is keep you safe from yourself.’ But they give up! Because it’s too easy. And I get some people coming in who just are grafters. They’re always asking, ‘what can I do?’ and they go away, and they do it, they graft. It’s those people that are successful because they bother to keep going.
So yeah! There are a lot of writers that I hear say, ‘oh no, you just need the ability.’ But I think, why not stand on the shoulders of giants? Why not see how good writers do it and try and do it the same as them? In any other realm of life, we would learn from those who have learnt before us, so why is writing so different? And I think you can, you can learn the craft, but ultimately if you’re not prepared to sit down and work at it then you’re not going to get anywhere!
Q: I love that! So, as long as we keep going, we’ll be fine?
Yeah! I mean, there’s a quote that says, ‘I don’t know when inspiration will strike but I’d prefer to be working when it does.’ And that’s the truth of it. You’re writing a sentence, for example, ‘it was a sunny day and she was really unhappy because her daughter had gone and left…’ and you think – oh my goodness hold on a minute! I’ve just noticed that thing in the grass – this is what I’m writing about! And it’s only by doing the process that you can get into those moments of inspiration.
Q: Do you set aside a specific time in the day or week to write?
No…! I really try to! But life happens, doesn’t it?
I do believe that just writing for ten minutes is better than not writing at all, wherever that fits in your day. In the last few years, I’ve been trying to write first thing. Get to my desk, first thing in the morning, don’t look at emails, don’t look at work, don’t look at anything else, just write. And there’s something about switching on that part of your head first thing that keeps you in that place during the day. There’s this little bit that’s always got that writers eye out for, I don’t even know what it is, a turn of phrase, the glint of something.
And when I say I write for ten minutes, I will always, always, whatever I’m writing, I will write to the end. If I don’t write to the end of a short story, I will never finish that piece and I know that. Other people work in different ways, but I’ve got to get the damn thing down and it doesn’t matter if it ends, ‘and then they all died’, it’s ended. And then I can rework it because it’s a complete thing. For a novel, I’ve just got to get the wordage down. If you write 1000 words a day for 100 days you’ve got the first draft of a novel written.
Q: This sounds quite easy!
*Laughing* Yes, what’s so hard about it?!
Q: As someone who writes novels, short stories, poetry, and plays, do you have a favourite form to work in? Why?
Okay, I’ll start by saying my natural form, I think, is short form. I’m a short story, flash fiction writer. However, if I am writing a novel, I can’t imagine ever writing a short story again. When I’m into my playwriting mode I don’t ever want to come out of that again. One of the reasons I’m saying I’m a short form writer is because I’m writing a lot of short stuff at the moment and I think that I can’t write anything different.
Each form is really very different. If you’re writing a novel, you’ve got huge story issues to deal with and that’s really challenging. When you’re writing short stories, you’ve got to create the world, the characters, the scenario every single time and it’s really demanding on that creativity. And when you’re writing poetry you’re looking at these depths and philosophies and it’s always very different.
So, the answer is wherever I am I can’t imagine being anywhere else, but I know that now.
Q: Is there something that runs through all your writing, no matter the form?
I like to have characters who are different, who are outsiders. Whether that’s because they judge themselves differently, or they’ve been placed outside by the people they’re around. And that sounds sort of airy-fairy but at the heart of all writing, our protagonists are always the outsider because that’s the only reason that they’re the protagonist, because they’re the only one the story could happen to.
And I like to look at features of setting that might indicate a generality and write characters that will expose those things. What are the societal expectations of the person, how does that affect those surrounding them, and therefore how might that be the core of the story? We are what we are because of those around us and so I like looking at difference, and I like to question society and how we treat people.
I guess we’re all writing about being human and all of us will have felt at some point like we don’t belong. And it’s that sense of not belonging that I like to investigate. But that’s sort of what we’re doing all the time anyway!
Q: Your masterclass at the festival is ‘Where to Begin with Your Book’. Many people find starting a writing project the hardest part, why do you think that is?
Yes, why is it so hard?! So, I’ll take the two extremes of the scenarios.
One: I want to write but I don’t want to start until I know what I’m writing. We’ve all had those days. The ‘where do I begin?’ But it’s like trying to think yourself to sleep. You’re trying to think yourself into inspiration and you’re never going to get inspired like that, it’s just not going to happen.
Two: You’ve spent a long time thinking about a project, it’s worked in your head and it’s become magical and ethereal and delightful and you want to do your best for your story. And so, you sit down and start writing and maybe you get about two or three chapters in, but the magic has gone. You’ve killed it. You think – I’m not a writer because if I was a writer, I would have done something better. It’s very easy to become discouraged.
For me, on the blank page end of it, it doesn’t matter what you write. Just write. When I’m really struggling, I get a painting and I describe it. What’s going on in the painting? The brush strokes? How might the painter have been feeling? How can I say there are three people on the beach in a different way? You know, it’s that sort of stuff. The minimum I can do is just get words on paper, and it really helps me knowing that it doesn’t need to be special or good. The more you practice these things, the more confidence you have in coming back to that blank page scenario.
At the other end, it’s the same thing. You might not have the crafting skills for your story, you might not have the ability, but the bottom line is, no Booker Prize winning novel was written in one draft. What makes me think I’m any different?! What makes me think I write perfect prose right off and the story works perfectly?! No. Everything needs redrafting. Don’t worry about ‘she looked out into the garden and saw a dog.’ Write the next sentence, and the next sentence, because you can come back and delete it or rework it. You can come back and shelve the whole chapter if you want because you were just doodling yourself into the story.
So yeah, why is it so difficult to start? Because we spoil the magic, because it’s perfect in our heads then suddenly it’s not perfect. But it will be perfect and the only way it will be perfect is if you keep at it. But yeah, it’s blooming hard! If writing was easy, everyone would do it!
Q: You’ve touched on how a painting can help inspire you, is there anything else that inspires you to write?
I have to say that whatever I am reading, I will be taking something of the style or the tone of the voice with me. Sometimes I’m not aware I’m doing that, sometimes it is a conscious exercise. I might think, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do today so I’m going to write in the style of Ian McEwan, I’ll read a chapter of his book and I’ll write in his style.’ And that does help because it takes me to somewhere different and it sort of absolves me of responsibility from what I’m actually doing.
So yes, other pieces of writing, paintings very much so, photographs as well, so long as they’re not too staged. But also… (this is my top tip!)… when in doubt, run to dialogue. I’ll take any book off my shelf and I’ll find something at random, for example, “great, well if you’re comfortable with that, then I am.” And that will be my next line of dialogue. This keeps the momentum going, but also if you’ve got people talking off point, rather than straight down the story, it opens up potential subterranean stories and themes. So, when in doubt, run to dialogue.
In longer pieces, I have a go-to novel and I will do this same technique as well. I really have cranked myself through some chapters by stealing dialogue and by the time you’ve manipulated it all, it’s all disappeared so it’s not plagiarism, it’s just giving yourself those steppingstones to move onwards.
So, yeah, inspiration: other people’s work, other writer’s work very much so. That’s my approach to it anyway, but everyone is very different!
Q: I’d never heard of using someone else’s line as a steppingstone before, I’m going to have to try that out!
Well, I mean if you’re an actor, plays are absolutely blooming brilliant! Every line has to reveal character and move the story forward in a play, because that’s all you’ve got. In prose writing, we don’t always write such characterful, meaningful dialogue. Of course, we go back and edit it all out. But, yeah, plays are great to take a piece of dialogue from.
And as I say, all you need is maybe three words of it, or five words of it, and that will get you going in a direction, it may set you off somewhere different. So yeah, it is a top tip! It’s probably the best tip I can give anyone! I’ve always got a book to hand, and if this hasn’t done anything for me recently, I’ll go and grab something else and say, ‘don’t look, just grab a book!’
Q: You’ve already given so many great tips! Do you have any words of wisdom for budding writers specifically, for those that are just starting out?
Yes, there are tips! First of all, just read. Read the sort of thing you want to write. Because without even knowing it, you’re learning what works and what doesn’t. Read with a slight critic in your head saying, ‘why did that happen? And what happened there?’ Read what people have done before and see how they work. But don’t feel you have to copy, of course, do your own thing. Because new is good, we like new!
The next thing to do is to write, and that’s the hard bit, as we’ve discussed. That getting going bit, just getting words on paper. Because we feel so unconfident! And often, if you’re older, you’ve reached a point in life where you’re competent and you’re not used to making mistakes and you’re not used to putting yourself at risk. And so just… remember how you learned to drive, remember how you learned anything was by doing it and failing and trying again. By nearly hitting the milkman as you drove down that road, you learn very quickly not to drive near milkmen. So, give yourself that space when you’re writing.
One of the other issues one has about writing, particularly in this country, is we tend to think you’ve got to write novel or nothing. You know, it’s like, novel or bust! But there is such a big market now for flash fiction. If you’ve written something that’s fifty words long and it works, there’s a place for it to go! You don’t need to worry about the shortness. So, write. I’ve got a folder and I call it exercises, I don’t even kid myself I’m trying to write something like a short story. I just write.
The third thing I would say is find a likeminded person. Find a buddy, find a critic, find someone who you trust, and not necessarily your close family. You know, they might tell you that they hated your story but that might be because you didn’t put the cat out last night and they’re getting at you. You never know! I’m forever trying to encourage my classes to contact each other outside and to start sharing, to build that level of a fellow writer that you can communicate with over the course of your writing career, because that really does help.
So yes, what tips would I give to someone who wants to start writing? Read. Write. Find people. But in all that, just be a little bit kind to yourself. We’re too hard on ourselves. By the time we get to a certain age we’re not used to failing. Fail! Fail spectacularly! Fail big! There’s no such thing as failure because it’s all learning. And this isn’t some glib, west-coast, airy-fairy nonsense, this really does matter when it comes to being a writer. Get it wrong, because by getting it wrong you learn what you need to get right.
Ruth was a joy to interview and so visibly passionate about writing, tutoring and the world of literature. Her insistence to have more confident in our writerly selves is both comforting and inspiring, as is the assertion to stop worrying so much about ‘getting it right’ the first time and to keep writing regardless. Clearly, that is the recipe for “success”, if there is such a thing: you’ll never succeed if you never try. So try.
To find out more about Ruth Brandt go to our Meet Our Guests page for more information.
Laurs Oakley is a Creative Writing MA Student at the University of Surrey, who is one half of the duo social media and website marketing team for the festival. She will be chairing Ruth’s session on ‘Where to Begin with your Book’ during this year’s festival.
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