“She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it),”
I recently spoke with Jake Gillingham of The Cardiff Review as part of their New Welsh Writers series. The answers I gave to his questions made me realise that I need to make more time for myself to write, and that I really need to practice what I preach in terms of writing unselfconsciously. It’s so important to just try things out – if they don’t work, they don’t work, but you’ll have learned something anyway.
Here’s the interview transcript, which you can also see in its original form via The Cardiff Review.
New Welsh Writers: Mari Ellis Dunning
New Welsh Writers is an interview series in which we speak to new voices in Welsh literature, delving into how they got their start and what advice they might have for other emerging writers.
Jamie: When did you start writing?
Mari: I’ve written for as long as I can remember. When I was little, it was mostly just fantastical stories and information pamphlets! As a teenager I began to take writing more seriously, and used poetry to process and work through the difficulties of adolescence and mental health challenges. It was a way to express myself, and to form in writing what was going on in my mind.
Jamie: What do you find are the most enjoyable and most challenging aspects of writing/being a writer?
Mari: I enjoy brainstorming new ideas, and that break-through moment when you’ve written something you know really works, but I struggle with self-doubt, which often hinders my motivation to put pen to paper. Knowing your words have touched someone or had an effect on someone is fantastic, and keeps me going when I’m uncertain.
Jamie: When and where do you write?
Mari: As a writer, anywhere and everywhere can be your writing space. I write at home, in coffee shops, on trains, and in summer, outdoors. I like to write on paper before sitting at the laptop—I find working with a pen and notebook more freeing, it encourages more creativity. Typing up afterwards affords you the space to redraft as you go, so it’s a win-win.
Jamie: What starts a new piece of writing for you?
Mari: I’m fascinated by people, by their lives and their inner workings. Hearing a story about an interesting character or something strange that’s happened usually gets my creativity kick-started. My poetry collection, Salacia, is filled with poems centred on my own experiences, mental health, and narrative poems in the voices of various women whose stories I was completely compelled to tell. I like to get inside a person’s head and let the writing stem from there.
Jamie: Do you plan your writing or discover along the way?
Mari: A bit of both! If I’m writing fiction, I like to have a rough scene by scene account of the story, as it helps keep me motivated. It’s less daunting facing a blank page when you know what’s coming next. It never pays to be too rigid though—the story will go where it wants to go and the characters will take the lead.
Jamie: What has your path to publishing been like? Can you speak to some of the challenges you’ve faced?
Mari: Publishing my debut poetry collection came as a result of years worth of work, and some failed publishing attempts. I was lucky enough to win a couple of competitions, through which I met some really wonderful people, who’ve been able to advise me with my writing and help me along the way. I think my biggest challenge as a writer has always been finding the self-confidence to bring the stories to life and believe that people will want to hear them.
Jamie: Was there a moment when you started to think of yourself as a writer?
Mari: I’m still waiting for it! When people ask what I do, I often struggle saying “I’m a writer” as I worry it sounds pretentious, although it shouldn’t. I think it’s sad that the first thing people tend to ask is what you do for a living, so even if you’re only writing for your own gratification, you should still be able to call yourself a “writer”, since it’s something you do that you enjoy.
Jamie: What role, if any, has Wales played in your writing?
Mari: Wales has played a huge role in my writing. The rolling hills and wild coastlines in Wales have always influenced me. My poetry collection is filled with imagery surrounding the sea (Salacia was the Roman Goddess of the sea) and my fiction tends to always be set in Wales. I’ve written a horror novella which is set in the Welsh countryside—I feel the landscape lends itself well to mystery and unease, which is probably why they film a lot of crime dramas in Wales.
Jamie: Which writers do you admire most and why?
Mari: There are so many. I admire poets who can write about their own experiences with dignity and grace and beauty, poets like Rebecca Goss. I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction lately, and I’m really enjoying stories with a touch of magic realism and strangeness—Daisy Johnson’s writing continuously astounds me, and I’ve always been a big fan of Murakami.
Jamie: What advice to you have for other emerging writers?
Mari: It’s important to remember to be playful, without the pressure of creating something perfect. I’ve always been a perfectionist and struggled to write freely, without trying to tighten everything as I go along, but no creative process can work that way. I’d advise anyone to write unselfconsciously, as though no one is going to see the piece—they won’t, until you’re ready.
The above was originally printed in The Cardiff Review on 1st February 2019 as part of their New Welsh Writers series and can be seen here.
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