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13 March 2017

Lisa O’Donnell: ‘With two books behind me, I decided to do a creative writing course’

Lisa O'Donnell, Author and Creative Writing Tutor
by Jack Hadley

Ahead of our spring creative writing courses, we’ve asked some of our tutors to offer their thoughts on the writing process. Here, The Death of Bees author Lisa O’Donnell – tutor on our online writing courses – explores ideas of fiction and truth in writing, as well as her positive experiences both teaching and studying creative writing.

When I was about 7 years old I wrote a story about a happy Witch and her magic mouse called Maggie. They went on all kinds of adventures together and I can’t tell you how proud I was. I even added a drawing, it was a mouse and it was on a broomstick. The story was maybe 200 words, but when you’re seven years old that’s War and Peace. At the end of my incredible tale I felt my prose was a little lacklustre and so I wrote “This is a True Story” in bold letters across the top and then I stood in line to get my gold star with everyone else from Mrs McKenzie, an elderly red-head who played the piano and loved God. Mrs Mackenzie read my story with a sigh and with a felt tip pen she scored through the assertion, my story was the truth.

“You can’t write something like that,” she said.
“But why?” I bubbled.
“Because, it’s a lie and you can’t tell lies when writing stories.”

I was devastated, and no star by the way. The world was a terrible place that day and writing stories at the end of a Friday afternoon with the god-fearing pianist became a massive chore. I wanted to write about fairies and talking cats and witches and ghosts and I wanted to write about vampires who made you ice cream and I wanted to say it was all true because I wanted people to believe in the things I believed in because that’s the truth when you are seven years old.

Fast forward decades later and I’m receiving The Commonwealth Book Prize and they’re telling me my tale about two little girls burying their parents in the yard is “authentic” and “human” and “real”. In The New York Times Isabelle Allende said The Death of Bees was “…the kind of edgy, crazy and horrible story that may well happen anywhere.” And though it wasn’t a true story, my parents are very much alive and living on the Isle of Bute, amidst all the creative lying you’ll find truth, but to reach it I needed to disguise it and that meant telling lies, but only to make it easier to write and to give my reader an experience they believed to be true. And that’s what writers do.

They say you should always write what you have seen in life, but that can scare us as writers because it’s not always easy for us to share our lives without fearing exposure; but the best stories in fiction, in my opinion, possess a knowingness about life, about what it is to be human, whether it’s fantasy, horror, science fiction or magical realism. I don’t love Harry Potter because he’s a wizard, I love Harry Potter because he’s a million very real children hidden under the stairs, who are neglected and abused in life when they shouldn’t be, but he survives the abuse, like my own characters in The Death of Bees. JK Rowling created a fantastical world, but it reflects our own and in so many beautifully illustrated ways and if Harry can survive that world, then maybe we can survive this one and that’s the truth.

Let me bore you with another tale. When I was a young girl my father got drunk and left a chip pan on. The house went up in smoke and two little girls and their dog survived what we might not have if I hadn’t woken up to get a glass of water. I kept a diary back then and when my mother discovered it and what I’d written about the fire she ripped it into a million pieces. “Don’t you dare write about this house,” she yelled. “You can’t tell people about our lives. Think of the trouble this could cause.” And so, truth, that was out of the question also.

“What do writers write about it?” I wondered and that’s when my life as a reader began.

It took me years to find the courage to write my first novel and not because I had writers block, I don’t believe in writer’s block, but because I couldn’t find a truth that interested me and when I did find a truth I was afraid it wouldn’t interest other people. Then I read an Allen Ginsberg quote. “To gain your own voice, forget about having it heard.” And that’s when I realised I was a woman in her late thirties afraid of a god fearing felt tip pen that called her a liar once.

And so, I plucked up the courage to write reflectively and it led to The Death of Bees. Over the last few years I’ve been a little braver, writing about things I’m not supposed to write about and it feels bad and it feels wrong and it feels good and it feels honest. Writing has become a cathartic tool in my life, a therapist of sorts and I’ve tapped into all kinds of stories aided by memory mostly, the biggest liar of them all, but it doesn’t matter. I have to write, I must write and I’m compelled to go wherever I’m inspired.

This is going to surprise you. With two books behind me, one of them an award-winning bestseller, I decided to do a Creative Writing course. I know that sounds crazy, but it turned out to be the best thing I ever did because writing is such a solitary profession. The course rekindled my confidence and working collaboratively became a life line because suddenly I didn’t need to wonder anymore if the plot was working or this character or that character was believable because there was a symphony of opinion around me and a novel began to emerge, my third novel and I have a roomful of strangers to thank for that.

I’ve been teaching for four years now and I’ve watched my students flourish and not because they got published or because they got an agent, but because they could begin and that’s always the objective for me as a tutor, to give my students the tools they need and the courage they require to write the story they came to tell. I treat every student in front of me as if they are me and I give feedback that will enable, empower, and evolve voice, the kind of feedback I would want. The book a student brings to the table at the start of the course, in my experience, is never the same book they take from that table. And the student changes too, how they feel about process changes and if they walk away with this kind of knowing then I feel confident I’ve sent a writer into the world and a writer who believes that about themselves.

I remember a student who kept saying “I’m an unpublished writer” and I said “What’s with the adjective? You either write or you don’t.” Easy for me to say, I’m published, but I’ve been a writer my whole life, back when I was writing about magical mice. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now and I knew it better when I stopped worrying about the gold star I never received, but in reflection it has been the most important star in my life. And that’s a true story.

For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:

Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Sunday 21 January).

Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Sunday 28 January).

For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for: 

Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sunday 4 February).

We are also offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ online courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:

Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).

Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).

Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).


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