Lily & Zoe talk writing

We thought it would be interesting to interview each other about own writing lives. It turned into more of a conversation, but we hope it gives a bit of insight into how we think! You can also read our more official profiles on the Who we are page.

Lily and Zoe, London Lit Lab co-founders

What started you writing – a book, a teacher, an idea?

Zoe: I always worry about tracing my writing life back to one point, somewhere in childhood. I envy writers who can talk about those prizes for stories they won when they were about six… I didn’t do that! I did feel an urge to write whenever I read something that I found just wonderful. For example, I tried to copy Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a teenager.

Lily: But I think this is an important question, because from a young age writing became a kind of necessity for me, something I couldn’t live without. It was a notebook that got me first writing. I was eight years old and it was a Hello Kitty diary that my father gave me with faint character pictures on every page. He told me to write a diary, which I did. Soon my diary writing turned into story writing, and soon writing became a bit of an obsession. My stories got longer and longer until they became the length of novels.

Zoe: You’re right about it becoming a necessity. I didn’t write my first stories and bits of novels because I thought I’d get published, and rich and famous. I just had to get them down.

Lily: When you don’t write for a while, and everything starts to feel strange, then you know it’s a necessity.

What’s the one piece of writing advice you return to/pass onto others?

Zoe: I tell people (and myself, sternly!) to write something, anything, first thing in the morning. Even if it’s one sentence, or less. Then whatever happens, you’ve spent a bit of time being a writer that day. Also, that sentence or thought will linger and your brain can work on it while you do other things. If you leave it until after work, it’s so much harder to do.

Lily: I won’t pretend that I write every day, but I will say that if you start the day with writing, however brief, it will be a good day. Early morning is the best time for me, because that bleary not-quite-awake state can produce some sweet words and insights, accessing buried places, a softer more authentic you. Early morning is a private time, a time to be yourself, a time to cherish, before the scattergun of the day begins: commute, work, children, housework, admin, social media, emails…

The other piece of advice I always come back to is something a family friend said to me when I was studying – or struggling to study – for my A-Levels, and that was: there are 24 hours in every day. You can be overwhelmed by all that needs doing, and overlook what it is that you want to do. You can put it off with excuse after excuse, but there are enough hours in the day.

Zoe: Another important thing to remember, however experienced you are, is to allow yourself to take risks in your writing, and to write badly. We all do it. You can’t write perfectly all the time, and certainly not on first drafts. Letting go, and remembering nobody has to see it if you don’t want them to, is helpful. When you’re able to show other people bits of your writing you know are bad, in order to get their help, that’s a huge relief! Nobody will judge you on a poor draft.

Which piece of your own writing are you most proud of and why?

Lily: I’m proud of certain moments, which may start as an observation or feeling, but which turn into something bigger when I write them down. These are often things that I am compelled to write, but don’t yet know why. It is through the process of writing that I come to understand their resonance, creatively, but also personally. These are the magic moments in writing, where it takes on its own momentum. I suppose I’m proud that I’ve come to recognize the potential of certain moments.

Zoe: Engaging with personal resonance, and even revelation, in writing, is a brave thing. I tend to want to start stories far out and away from me and my reality, and if they creep in closer, maybe that’s ok. I think that’s why I like folk tales. I think my favourite piece of my own writing is the first story that I really worked on over and over – editing it down, tinkering, showing it to others to get feedback. That was a kind of new folk tale. It felt like a really big step, exposing my work and properly redrafting, getting over that fear of cutting out words that were hard to get down in the first place. The result was better than what I’d begun with. It gave me a bit of faith in the editing process, at a stage when it simply felt that stories came from somewhere deep, a place incompatible with the rational decision-making of editing. I still find editing painful.

What are the greatest challenges and the greatest joys of writing, for you?

Lily: Trusting your voice and knowing that you have something interesting to say. Once you find confidence in your ability and view of the world, much joy can be had from writing. The challenge is not to let self-consciousness get in the way, because it’s a creativity killer. So, actually the thing to work on is not caring whether people engage with what you’re doing or not. Do it, and trust that you will get better, and that some person somewhere will love it.

Zoe: I agree – you have to write what you love, and not wonder if the world will agree with you. Lots of people won’t, and it doesn’t matter. Letting your writing out on its own, to speak for itself, can be scary. I remember one of the first stories I got published; it was in an online magazine. I saw it there, unguarded and available for anyone to read, and I freaked out! It looked so vulnerable, open to all sorts of interpretation… and that is the whole point. There is a joy in letting your work go and letting people read it however they want to. Every one brings something to fiction, and you can’t include a set of instructions on how to read your work. Letting it be whatever it will be to people, different or worse or better than it is to you, is great.

What is the purpose of reading; and what is the purpose of writing? Why do we do it?

Lily: We read in order to enter other people’s lives. To lose ourselves in a world, and get to know characters. We read in order to escape, or to better understand the world that we live in. The purpose of writing for me is probably similar: to lose myself in another world, one that I am in control of, and to explore whatever questions might be concerning me at that time. I use myself as a springboard to ask bigger questions about the human condition, and what I come back with I hope resonates with readers.

Zoe: That’s how I see it, too. I read to see wonderful things where I wouldn’t or couldn’t have looked – in other heads, in other worlds. I get a glimpse of how I might see, or think, or feel, outside of myself. I write because fundamentally I want to make beautiful things, and writing is my best shot at this (I’m really bad at pottery and painting). Trying to express the whirls in my head, and shape them into things that can whirl in someone else’s head too: that’s the great thrill.

You can find out more about Lily and Zoe on the Who we are page.