Nasruddin and the runaway donkey…

Mullah Nasruddin was a Sufi visionary who is supposed to have lived in the Middle East during the 13th or 14th centuries (perhaps in Turkey.) Stories about him have been used for teaching in the Muslim world for centuries…

One day, Nasruddin was riding peacefully along on his donkey. Then, suddenly, the animal was startled by a snake on the path and began to gallop madly away.

As he sped off down the street one of his friends asked, “Where are you going Nasruddin?” “Don’t ask me?” Nasruddin replied. “Ask the donkey.






Today my family and I will be travelling from Brazil to the UK, for a five-week visit.

It’s a long journey over (eleven hours.) Sometimes I manage to write something while I’m up there, in between places.

Once an incident on the plane inspired this poem…


Five miles above the cold sea,
I am asleep in the sky.

Then there’s an urgent whisper.
An air-hostess swishes by.

“Is there a doctor on board?”
she asks across the seats.

Heads shift on small pillows,
“A doctor? A doctor?” she repeats.

I wish that I could nod,
then stand up looking doctorly and assured.

And I wonder if one day I’ll hear,
“Is there a poet on board?”




I was glad when I heard a weather forecast this morning and found out it was going to rain. I like writing looking out at the rain. And I’m in Brazil. When it rains here, it can really rain!

This is what I see out the window:

I can remember standing at a window, watching rain fall down where I grew up as a boy. And I remember the feeling of standing there too.

Part of it was a sense of my own smallness compared with the great skyful of rain. And there was sadness. Rain steals away some of your day’s possibilities. But there was delight in the feeling too…because it’s nice being dry, indoors, while rain is falling all around. And there was a sense of calm. Though it’s full of movement (it comes dancing down!) rain brings a stillness. Cars slow. Animals take shelter. People stop. They wait, stare and think.

I get the very same feeling looking out at the rain today. And it’s a bit like the state of mind I get into when I’m working on a story.

Writing makes me feel feel small alongside something bigger. There’s sadness in the long hours I put in on my own, but warmth and excitement too. I feel in motion, but also stilled.

Is that why a bit of rain seems to help?

Or is it just because I’m British and living in a very sunny country…and when the rain comes down it makes me feel at home?!


Writing secrets – TIME

I came across this comment about writing made by the British poet Simon Armitage: “There isn’t another human activity which combines stillness and silence with so much energy.”

Writing can come in scribbles and bursts and flashes. More often though, it happens in the sort of state of mind he describes – a kind of deep and still thoughtfulness which, I suppose, comes close to being meditation. You find your way down into valleys of the imagination. And it’s colourful down there…full of wonders, dramas and possibilities. That’s the energy Simon Armitage points to. It may be meditation, but it’s dynamic and exciting!

And how do you get down there?

I might start by reading some (or all) of what I’m working on.

I might ask myself what’s going to happen next in a story. And the question may lead to further questions. Or it may lead to an answer. And the answer may lead to further answers. (Or, just as likely, to further questions!)

I might start by concentrating on something completely different, and then find that ideas about what I’m writing come, sideways, into my mind.

However you get there, it takes time. The imagination doesn’t just get going at the flick of a switch. There’s some sort of a journey to be taken.

That’s why it’s good to have a decent block of time to do writing in.

I find a couple of hours is good. Three hours better. Four hours better still.

An hour and a half is a bare minimum. If I’ve got that, or less, I may not manage to get going at all. Or I may make the journey, and get started all right…but then have to hurry back before I’ve done what I could have. (This last scenario usually leaves me in a frustrated, half-thinking-about-a-story-and-half-trying-to-do-something-else sort of state of mind which is pretty unbearable…especially for people around me!)

How you find good-sized blocks of time for writing is down to how you organise your life. Different people will manage it in different ways. But here are a couple of things that work for me.

I like getting started early. For years I’ve been getting to my desk some time between 6.30 and 7.00 in the morning. And there are a lot of things I like about that. The world outside is about as quiet as it gets. The phone doesn’t ring. Your body is rested. And your mind’s in an interesting, open sort of place…having just come back from some dreaming.

And, whether I’m working on my computer or not, I keep the Internet switched off until 11.00am. Checking messages and letting in the news of the day eats at the time you have. (In fact, it seems to me that writing on a computer with web pages open in the background isn’t so different to writing with a television on behind you.)

Each day is its own. I’m a bit amazed by those ‘How I Write’ articles, where some authors make it sound as if they write the same amount in the same way, day after day. It rarely works like that for me. I’m not invariably up at dawn. Nor do I always keep the Internet unplugged until the end of the morning.

But when I manage those things, it gives me the kind of writing time that I like. And I get more written.


Three quotations about WRITING AND PATIENCE

“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks, ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.'” U.S. poet and author, Maya Angelou.

“Fortunately for my nervous system I had never given much credence to the phenomenon of ‘writer’s block’. I was more inclined to think of it as a writer’s impatience.” British author, Alan Garner.

“Soak and wait.” Hungarian-British author and journalist, Arthur Koestler.


I was standing at a bus-stop a few days ago, and I started chatting with an old man waiting there too.

Somehow we got talking about the way that plants and animals are being genetically modified these days. And he looked at me and said, “Well it’s nothing new. I grew up on a little farm. And I’ve got four brothers and sisters. And whenever we had a chicken for lunch, all five of us wanted to eat a chicken leg. But, of course, there were only ever two legs to go round. So that meant three of us always missed out. But what happened was my mother managed this extraordinary thing. Somehow she cross-fertilized some hens, and she managed to breed a chicken with five legs!”

I looked at him, amazed! “A chicken with five legs?” I said.

He nodded. “It sounds like some sort of made-up story but it’s true. She bred this chicken that had five legs.”

“Well I’ve never hear of anything like that before!” I said back. “What did it taste like?”

The man looked at me and replied, “I can’t tell you. We never found out. The chicken ran so fast we never managed to catch it!”



My novel A WASTE OF GOOD PAPER came out a few days ago, published by Frances Lincoln Books and available here.

It was interesting writing it. I was meant to be working on something different, but was having a read of TRACY BEAKER by Jacqueline Wilson, and the idea for the novel suddenly arrived.

I scribbled out a rough plan. And it came pretty much fully-formed. There were some shifts along the way, but I was still working from the original two-page plan when I got to the last pages of the book.

If you can make any sense of this over-excited scrawling (click on the image to enlarge, though that probably still won’t help…) you’ll see that the story is in a diary format.

The diary entries are written by a boy at a special school for young people with behavioural difficulties. I’ve taught in that sort of school. And, once I started writing, all kinds of recollections and imagined incidents…dramatic, moving, unexpected, funny…flooded out on to the paper. I wrote the novel in ten weeks.

It’s a gritty book. There’s a fair bit of violence, some explicit images of drug-taking. It’s not always comfortable to read. But if I’d written it differently it wouldn’t be right. The work I’ve done with young people with behavioural difficulties has been uncomfortable a fair bit of the time.

It has also been work marked by a lot of laughter, and some breakthroughs, and moments of effort, courage and creativity that take you by surprise. I hoped to come out of the book with some of these positive things in there too. And I didn’t have to try very hard. They were all there, as soon as the characters came to life.

What’s pleased me about early responses to the novel (reviews here for example) is the warmth people feel for the book’s narrator, Jason. I didn’t know if that would happen. He loses control, acts violently and doesn’t seem especially sorry about it. But there is another side to him, that’s typical of a lot of young people with behavioural difficulties. In spite of the low horizons of their lives, the cut-off options and unfinished stories, some, like Jason, manage to hold on to a fierce sort of cleverness and humour. Things which deserve to be celebrated…not just numbed out of them.

The back of the book says it’s “A searingly honest, funny and totally brilliant debut novel”. You don’t have to believe that. It’s just what the publishers are saying! Have a read, if you can, and decide for yourself.




This strange and beautiful photo, taken by a photographer called Danilo Verpa, appeared in a Brazilian newspaper a few weeks ago.

There’s a kind of magic to things that catch you somewhere between believing them and not believing them. It’s an effect that reading a book can have, and other kinds of art too. You can get caught between belief and disbelief watching animated films or puppet theatre. What’s in front of you seems real, but then again you know that it’s not…

What does the photo show? Avenida São João, not very far from where I’m living in São Paulo. It’s a famous avenue leading to the city’s centre. As part of an urban festival called BaixoCentro, 200 litres of paint were poured across the road.

So this time what’s in front of you may seem unreal…but actually it’s not!


A poem by Chilean poet Nicanor Parra. First published in Spanish in 1954, in his book Poemas y Antipoemas.



Write as you will In whatever style you like Too much blood has run under the bridge To go on believing That only one road is right.

In poetry everything is permitted.

With only this condition, of course: You have to improve on the blank page.


Translated into English by Miller Williams.



São Paulo (the biggest city in Brazil) is where my wife grew up, and it’s where we’re living at the moment.

It’s an explosive sort of place.

In 1870 it was a small town of 30,000 people. In 1900 the population had grown to 240,000. By 1950 it was home to 2 million. Twenty years later, 6 million. And today 20 million people live across the whole sprawling megacity.

Imagine seeing that as a sequence of photos taken from the sky! It would look like a bomb going off, as the city blasted its way outwards.

And São Paulo isn’t famous for being an inspiring place. It’s a hectic, grey, violent, smoky, money-minded sort of city…built using an awful lot of concrete and tarmac.

But it is an inspiration to me. I’ve done a lot of interesting writing here. (And by that I mean things that have taken me by surprise.)

So what is the inspiration?

Two kinds.

There are the things that I, personally, love. Relationships with family and friends (and the Brazilian warmth and easiness that comes with them.) São Paulo’s cultural life which (as one of the great artistic hubs of South America) is forever abuzz and springing surprises. Capoeira lessons with one of Brazil’s respected old masters. Warm weather most of the year round. The magical stretch of forest and coast between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, which is easy to get to and an antidote to the city smog.

All those things feed into my writing. But something else goes on too.

I grew up in Surrey, in England. A quiet corner of the world. And the contrast between there and here is so total that I’m a long way from home in many more ways than one.

And I think that helps.

Being a bit bewildered, out-of-your-depth and questioning is a good place for any artist to find themselves. And so, perhaps is being in a place where you are a bit bewildering and a source of questions to others (as I know I am to Brazilians!)

I sometimes write about São Paulo, but most of the time I’m writing about back where I’m from. And, in a strange way, being far from it means you can see it well. (The British author Rudyard Kipling once asked, “What do they know of England, who only England know?”)

Being cut off from the everyday routines, ties and responsibilities of where you’re from frees things up. Life is more of an adventure and (to use a word that doesn’t actually exist) storyful.

So, part of the inspiration of São Paulo isn’t even to do with what it’s like. It’s to do with being away from what is familiar, safe, convenient.

They say fairy tales teach 3 things: be brave, be honest and marry far from home. At least I managed one of them!


Three quotations about FAILURE

“Error can often be fertile, but perfection is only sterile.” British historian, A.J.P. Taylor.

“No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, in his novel ‘Murphy’.

“We know we’re going to fail. But that’s all right…just lower your standards!” U.S. poet, William Stafford.


Writing secrets – SPACE

It’s not easy to find space for yourself. Over the years I’ve done my writing in the bedroom, in a corner of the living room, in a glorified broom cupboard…

So I’m thankful to have a special, big studio to work in at the moment. It’s up on top of the house where I’m living, with my family, in Brazil.

Though we’re not so far from the centre of São Paulo – one of the world’s most frantic and noisy mega-cities – it’s quiet a lot of the time. I look out on rooftops and trees.

I have two desks: an ordinary one with a computer on it, and a bigger, longer one where I write by hand. (And I spend as much time at the desk without the computer as I can.)

There are also shelves for my books and the scribbled writing notes that I gather like some demented squirrel. And several comfortable chairs.

I’ve even got a little cooker so I can make some tea.

If you want to write, I’d say that one of the things that can help is getting (begging, borrowing, stealing) a bit of space for yourself.

Space to organise your ideas. Space to do more than one thing at once. Space to let a bit of light and air in. Space to play loud music or speak bits of dialogue in funny voices, without having to worry who’s listening. Space to spread out you work (and, if you need to, your self.)

At least some of the above that matter to you most.

And if none is possible then almost as helpful may be to have some space to look out on.

There’s something right about writers looking at a bit of horizon, a hill in the distance, some sky. Even if it’s the neighbour’s wall, it may help. After all, staring out the window is one of the most underrated activities of our times…