Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Heather Dyer - Brought to Book

Heather Dyer is an award-winning writer and academic whose books for children have been adapted for BBC Radio and are now studied in schools. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund and has designed and led courses for Aberystwyth University, Bristol University and the University of Worcester. Her area of interest is the psychology of creativity and how this can be understood and applied to art, writing, education and life in general. She has recently been involved with delivering workshops as part of the Arts Council of Wales Lead Creative Schools scheme. 

Here she talks to Remy Dean for The Scrawl about writing for children, letting go of our preconceptions, revealing truths and making new connections…

Heather Dyer
 (author photo by Kona Mcphee)

Having recently read and enjoyed The Girl with the Broken Wing, I was wondering what you might have been reading when you were the age of your intended readers?

That’s nice to hear! I loved books that took characters from their real world into a magical world via a door in a garden wall, or a magic wardrobe, or a chair that flew. I wanted to escape along with them. So, I loved writers like C S Lewis, E Nesbit, Enid Blyton – and I loved The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones.

What is your earliest memory of reading a book that really wrapped you up and carried you off into its world?

Once you start remembering, more memories surface, don’t they?

I remember being taken to ballet lessons when I was about five, hating it, and noticing an open picture book that had fallen down behind some chairs. I longed for it, but I wasn’t allowed to pick it up for some reason. The lesson was probably starting. I remember being read to at school at the end of the day,

 ...and I remember sitting alone, reading The Five Children and It when I was seven or eight, and laughing out loud. My laugh shocked me out of the story and I started flicking through the pages, marvelling that all those words had been put down in a certain order, and that they could take me somewhere else and make me forget where I really was.

The Fish in Room 11 and The Girl with the Broken Wing by Heather Dyer

The Fish in Room 11 won the Highland Council Children’s Book Award in 2004, then The Girl With the Broken Wing was listed as one of 'Richard and Judy's Best Children's Books Ever' in 2007 – quite an accolade! How has this affected your attitude to writing and your follow-up books for children?

I don’t know if I can blame it on publication, but I developed a long writer’s block after The Girl with the Broken Wing, which lasted years. I wrote every day but found I could no longer intuit a storyline that held together. I couldn’t understand it – neither could my publisher.

I began reading about creativity and practicing mindfulness, and that was the start of my research into the psychology of creativity. My creativity returned only when I’d surrendered all ambition, and the children’s book I’m writing now has a different theme to my previous books. It’s a time travel adventure.

So, you have been researching the psychology of creativity for some time now and are a consultant fellow for the Royal Literary Fund, and also teach courses you have designed for both academic writing and creative writing for several universities, including the well-respected Living Creatively course at Aberystwyth University… 

My doctoral research was about the links between the creative process and mindful awareness. In both, there’s a moment where the ‘self’ is lost or forgotten. It’s as though our egoic self - or conditioned thinking - must momentarily stop in order to allow new insights to appear and growth to happen.

How do you go about teaching that?

In my workshops, I help people generate creative insights by giving them activities that allow them to step outside of what they already know and let go of what they’re attached to. I help them tap into their unconscious and make new connections.

I believe that mindfulness and meditation helps by allowing us to step outside of our conditioned thinking, and gain new insights.

Was there a time when you ‘woke up’ to being a writer? 

Even now, it feels a bit uncomfortable to say ‘I’m a writer’. I’m not sure what it means, really. Are you only a writer if you’re writing a book that’s going to be published? If so, saying ‘I’m a writer’ feels like tempting fate, because the book I’m writing now may never get published.

Having lived in Scotland, Wales and Canada, how much would say your environment affects your creative writing, and in what ways?

I always draw on places I’ve been for locations in my books, so Wales features quite a bit – directly or indirectly.

Do you have any kind of ‘tried-and-tested’ writing ritual or regimen?

I just try to put in an hour in the morning, before all my other jobs. It’s always hard. But I find by doing a little bit each morning, ideas keep surfacing in bits of downtime throughout the rest of the day. It’s about keeping it near.

Is there a favourite tipple or treat when writing?

I’m trying ‘mate’ teabags at the moment. Mate is drunk a lot in South America, I believe, and it’s supposed to be a healthier alternative to coffee. It’s like strong green tea.

Where do you do most of your writing?

I write at an awful desk that’s just a folding table…

Can you describe what you can see from there?

I have a view that looks out over the oil tank in my backyard. In the other direction I have uninterrupted views of the mountains. But when writing, the view doesn’t seem matter, you only need to see the landscape of the story. It is nice to look up now and then and see a long view, though, to rest the eyes and the mind. I think the transition from narrow to wide focus helps creative insights happen.

What, if any, do you think are the duties or responsibilities of a writer?

To try and reveal truths? Or perhaps more accurately, to try and feel the ‘truth’ sentence by sentence and allow it to reveal itself to you.

Regardless of the genre in which you working - for children, poetry, academic, etc. are there any basic ‘rules’ that you feel always seem to apply?

Being truthful and accurate. Sidestepping one’s own ego.

Thank you, Heather Dyer!

Magic in the City by Heather Dyer

Heather Dyer was talking with Remy Dean

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