Q&A: In conversation with author Ali Smith

Ali shares her top tips for people wanting to give creative writing a go, how she generates her ideas and what her writing process looks like

Ali Smith is one of the leading writers of her generation, having authored  many outstanding works of fiction including Hotel World (2001), The Accidental (2005), AutumnWinter, and Spring (2016, 2017, 2019), five collections of short stories and most recently the ‘remarkable’ conclusion to that celebrated quartet, Summer (2020), a novel which has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

After joining Trinity College, Cambridge as its first Senior Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts in January 2019 Smith set up the Litmus schools creative writing project as an invitation to UK pupils to join “a writing collective like no other”.

Now in its second year, young writers in years 9-11 attending non-fee paying schools are being encouraged to respond creatively to the phrase “the green light”.

5 ways to improve your creative writing – blog

In her letter of encouragement Ali says: “Are you […] interested in writing fiction, or non-fiction, or poetry, or maybe graphic novel writing, or blog writing  – or  writing and storytelling in any shape or form you like. If NO, then this invite isn’t for you.  Pass it on to someone who wants to write and would like to be published. If YES: Good.  Continue reading this message What comes into your head when you hear or read or think about these three words: THE GREEN LIGHT?

“What does the word green mean?  It’s a really versatile word, one which can refer to the colour of leaves and grass, or to a colour there are so many different shades of that it’s astonishing, or to the colour of envy, to the colour of someone feeling off-colour or seasick.  It’s a word that can mean naïve, and at the same time it’s a key word behind a savvy and urgent environmental revolution.  These are just a few of its meanings.

“What happens when the word green, with all its possible resonances and implications, meets the word light?”

You can read her full letter here.

In the below interview, Ali shares why she loves creative writing, believes students should get involved with the Litmus, details of her writing process and more with this year’s Litmus Project Co-ordinator, Lauren Brown.

1) What was the first piece of creative writing you ever did?

I was seven or eight years old.  At school we’d been assigned an exercise, to write a poem which had to include the lines

“Isobel, Isobel didn’t care.
Isobel reached out for what was there.”

In the poem I wrote Isobel meets a snake.

‘”Hello Isobel,” the adder hissed.
“I’m afraid you are going to be sadly missed.”‘

But Isobel survives this meeting fine, and I wrote several poems about the ingenious Isobel and made a booklet of them, which I sent to my elder sister as a present (and she promptly lost ! –– which is probably why I remember it so clearly).

2) What do you love about creative writing and why would you encourage others to try it?

When you write, language meets the imagination, and anything and everything both become possible.  Writing, and language, have much to do with how we live and how we make the world.  “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”  The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said this.  I think language is itself a kind of expansive life.  I’m including the kinds of language that don’t use words –– from the wag of the tail of a dog, to all the unsaid or silent things that wait round a thing that gets said out loud.  Language is a real shapeshifter, which is just one reason why I love it.

3) What does your writing process look like?

I always put a desk in front of a window.  A large part of writing, for me, involves what looks like doing nothing, just looking out of the window.  But what a window is in reality is a hole in a wall.  A way to see through something else.  And writing is often about how we open a structure up (any structure – a house, a life, a sentence, a situation, a society, even a brick wall that it looks like there’s never going to be any getting over or going through it) to perception, perspective, air, sky, light.

4) What would your top pieces of advice be for people interested in trying creative writing but don’t know where to start?

Firstly, just start.  Just write a word down, any word, the first word that comes to you.  Then write another word down beside it.  What happens when you put those words together?  Write about that.  Life happens when one molecule meets another, that’s what a favourite writer of mine says. It’s the same when a word meets another word.

There are no rules. Don’t listen to me or anyone about how to do it. Just write the way you want to, the way that’s right for you. Don’t panic or feel like you’re under pressure. If you want to write something but you can’t think what to write, focus yourself as if you’re your own phone camera, on anything, anything at all, even something quite random, and write down what your eyes and ears, all your senses, tell you about what you’ve focussed on.

When you read what you’ve written back to yourself after you write it, I guarantee there’ll be a story, or a poem, or a drama, a dialogue, there waiting in it.  There always is, as soon as words are given a voice, because there’s no voice without story, and no story without voice.

5) What’s your favourite thing you’ve ever written?

It’s always the thing I haven’t yet written!

6) For all the students who’ve asked us ‘how are you supposed to know what to write about’, where do you get your ideas from?

From the Ideas Library. Membership is free, and everything and everywhere’s on the shelves.  All you have to do is put whatever you take off the shelf into your own words.