Skip to content

Creating a mental bookshelf: an exercise for the aspiring writer.

June 9, 2013

I have had a couple of conversations recently about writing. Specifically, eek, my writing. In the space of a few days, two friends who are both writers themselves (one an academic, the other a journalist) each separately gave me a gentle but searching interrogation about my plans for writing something developed from Dancing Beastie: something on paper, for publication, for sale. A book, in other words.

Since we all know that the world is full of wannabe-authors who think they have a book in them, I’m not going to enter into that discussion. Suffice to say that yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am one of them. One of those children who wrote and illustrated stories from the moment she could form letters. One of those teenagers who poured her thoughts into furtive diaries, longing to be understood and terrified of being discovered. One of those students who took pleasure in scribbling copious longhand notes and ideas, whose fingers developed callouses and dents from being wrapped around a pencil.

And in adulthood…well, as career and family have taken up my creative energy, the instinct to write has often been pushed into the background, but has never faded. All over the  house, in bags and drawers, in backs of cupboards and under piles of paperwork, there are notebooks where I have found myself scrawling down something I needed to get on to paper. (It has occurred to me that some people might become writers in order to justify their compulsive blank-notebook-buying habit – but that’s another post.)

And so I must also confess that one of my reasons for starting a blog was to limber up my creative writing muscles, which I felt had not been properly exercised since finishing my doctoral thesis in the mid 1990s. The idea has always been that the blog would lead onto something more. Barely six months after I started Dancing Beastie, however, I had that brain injury, which knocked me sideways for a couple of years. And just as I felt I was starting to emerge from that, and was feeling positive about life’s possibilities, our family suffered two bereavements and all my emotional energy was directed towards their aftermath.

This year, though, I have no excuse. Hurray! So I was a bit dismayed to realise, when questioned by my two friends, that my grand plans for writing have been lying stagnant. A few searching questions were exactly what I needed to re-focus my attention. The most basic question – and perhaps the most important of all – was, what sort of thing do you want to write?

This is probably the first question which any of us who want to develop our writing should ask ourselves. How would you answer it? To help you to come up with an answer, think about the authors whose writing you have  admired over the past few years; the ones whose style and content make you think, yes, that’s the kind of thing I would love to be able to write. When I did this myself, I realised that I could immediately access a sort of mental bookshelf of selected books which are my creative inspiration. They have clearly been collecting there without my paying them much conscious attention.  Mine are (not exclusively) these:, 8.6.13

William Fiennes, ‘The Snow Geese’; Sara Wheeler, ‘Terra Incognita’; Robert Macfarlane, ‘Mountains of the Mind’; Katherine Swift, ‘The Morville Hours’; Kathleen Jamie, ‘Findings’.


Once you have collected a mental bookshelf, you can start to analyse what it is which attracts you to these books. On my own shelf, the books are:


2. concerning the natural world in various aspects

3. written with an exquisite sense of place, with evocative attention to detail

4. luminously aware of the connections between emotions and the physical world; between inner and outer landscapes. (One of my selected authors is an exception to this: Sara Wheeler consciously avoids any introspection, but I include her because she writes so well on place. Plus she is very funny.)

5. mostly in blue covers. I thought it was an odd coincidence, until I realised that it is a result of point 2: the blue is of flowers, snow and sky.

Thus in considering the authors who have inspired me, I find the answer to what I want to write about myself. More than that, I find that I am already trying to write about it: here, on this blog. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you were to discover the same.

Leafing through your mental bookshelf does not make you an author. But as an exercise in sharpening your focus, it’s a useful place to begin. Baby steps, dear reader, baby steps.


You might enjoy Time sanctified and some earlier musings on writing a blog in Birthday Beastie.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2013 3:22 am

    I like your advice about choosing books that have inspired me LATELY. My problem has been my tastes are so eclectic, I cannot narrow down what I might like to emulate. My bookshelves are bursting w/ every imaginable type of writing.
    Thinking more about what I like *right now* helps. I like the same types of books that you like and will check out some of your favorites. Unfortunately, my very favorites are mostly memoirs or journals by famous writers. So I have to become a famous writer before I can do one of those.
    Good luck!

    • June 10, 2013 1:11 pm

      Like you, there are any number of authors I admire. Hilary Mantel’s exhilaratingly intelligent, fierce, precise crafting of her books on Thomas Cromwell is breathtaking, for example. When I think about the kind of think that I actually want to write, however, rather than to read, it becomes easier to narrow down a shelf of authors.

      Meanwhile, I’ll look forward to reading your memoir one of these days! 🙂

  2. June 9, 2013 7:33 am

    As often happens, chats with friends help to clarify thoughts and directions of travel, so to speak.

    The expression “It’s time” (to start your book) comes to mind. I say this as, this past week, I have been (happily) forced to do something I am not good at – sit still and wait. A new baby has now arrived but took a long time to make her entry into the world.

    It reminds me that there is a time for everything and it would appear that yours is now.

    • June 10, 2013 1:21 pm

      Congratulations on becoming a grandmother again! I hope you will enjoy all the precious pleasures of a new baby and none of the exhaustion. 🙂

      Your telling me that it’s my time slightly terrifies me, not least because you may have more insight into my situation than I do myself. But as with having a baby, there is never a perfect moment. I guess I just have to take a deep breath and get on with it!

  3. June 9, 2013 10:49 am

    I wish you well, and I greatly look forward to reading you in book form in due course!

    • June 10, 2013 1:23 pm

      Thank you so much for your encouragement, which means a lot to me. I am scaring myself silly at the moment reading the Writers & Artists website, which I found thanks to one of your links.

  4. hmunro permalink
    June 9, 2013 8:32 pm

    Your description of the books in your “mental bookshelf” made me smile — because the first four criteria you listed so beautifully describe your own writing! Especially #4: “luminously aware of the connections between emotions and the physical world; between inner and outer landscapes.” The only one you’ve yet to fulfill, if I’m counting right, is #5 (“mostly in blue covers”). I very eagerly look forward to your own blue-covered book.

    • June 10, 2013 1:26 pm

      Goodness, thank you. If you recognise these basic qualities in my writing, I suppose that is a very good start!

      The ‘blue covers’ comment was obviously tongue-in-cheek, but I suspect that it might be taking on some kind of symbolic life of its own. My magnum opus may indeed have to have a blue cover. 😉

  5. June 9, 2013 10:15 pm

    I’ll come to your book-signing!

    I love Sara Wheeler’s writing. I immersed myself in them this year – luckily the main Edinburgh public library has most of them.

    • June 10, 2013 1:30 pm

      Ooh, thank you – nice to know that I’d have a queue of at least one!

      Funnily enough I bought the ‘wrong’ Sara Wheeler: I was looking for a book on the Arctic, and bought hers on the Antarctic by mistake. I just loved it, however. I’ll never look at the ‘frozen beardie’ macho adventurers in quite the same way again. Having now bought ‘Magnetic North’ – the one I meant to get in the first place – I’m looking forward to it as my winter read.

  6. June 10, 2013 9:19 am

    From what you say, you are a writer already, and have been all your life. I agree with commenter ‘hmunro’ in that you already have the attributes that you admire so much in other writers. It sounds as if your time is coming – don’t analyse it too much, just do it when it feels right!

    • June 10, 2013 1:31 pm

      Thank you so much for your endorsement. Thank you too for reminding me of the importance of going with instinct, rather than getting bogged down in analysis: one of my chief faults. On we go… 🙂

  7. June 10, 2013 5:07 pm

    I too have always thought of you as a writer and not simply a blogger and a writer of place and nature above all. The fact that these gentle prods have coincided with your gradual emergence from the depths of bereavement does seem to be a pointer towards your future. Add to that the extra time you will have at your disposal when your second son joins his brother at boarding school, and it does start to look as though the time, if not right now, is soon. You can put me on the list for a signed copy. 🙂

    • June 21, 2013 5:06 pm

      Help, looks like I’d better get writing! 🙂 Thank you very much for your encouragement.

  8. Anna permalink
    June 11, 2013 12:29 am

    Hurray! I’ve been waiting for this. Go for it princess!

    • June 21, 2013 5:08 pm

      Aw, thanks. I’ve been and gone and done it now, so I’d better get on with it… 🙂

  9. June 11, 2013 11:26 pm

    What a great post.
    Look at #3 – then at the books and #5. Sort of connected.
    You are an artist as well as a writer. That combination should be an assist as you write.
    Can’t wait to see what appears.

  10. June 19, 2013 10:32 pm

    I came to your blog via a comment from Conrflower’s blog. I loved the post on it being summer, suddenly. And this one too. I am adding:
    you have already started; you have been writing for ever it seems (notebooks) and more recently this blog; and now you are thinking about your mental bookshelf.
    Your choices fill me with horror, I havent read any of them, (although loved Old Ways by MacFarlane). More books to read. More and more. Look forward to seeing yours.

    • June 21, 2013 5:13 pm

      Hello Caroline, thank you for taking the time to read and to write such encouraging words. I’m interested to have discovered your blog too and will be dropping in again for certain.

      Oh, I do know what you mean about the horrifying avalanche of unread books. Perhaps it is a sign of true wisdom, when we can come to terms with the realisation that we will never read all the books in the world? Or even all the ones we would like to read. I do find that I have become increasingly choosy, however, and don’t read books just because everyone’s talking about them. So much to do, so little, little time…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: