Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Q&A with Elise Valmorbida, The Happy Writing Book

September 26th, 2021
Calling All Authors

Award-winning author, creative writing teacher and mentor to many, including yours truly,  Elise Valmorbida has come out with her sixth book and it’s a wonder – a practical writing guide that is like no other.

The Happy Writing Book: Discover the Positive Power of Creative Writing  is happy, of course, but it’s also wise, light-hearted yet serious, practical without being preachy, beautifully written and most importantly, life enhancing. British author and Guardian columnist Tobias Jones is full of praise:

Writers, teachers, diarists, wordsmiths and good-lifers: get hold of this great book! It’s playful, serious, encouraging and rigorous at the same time. Elise Valmorbida is a minimalist, deep guide to what we can do with words… and why.”

I loved reading this book. It makes the epic challenge of writing seem so manageable somehow. I felt enthused in every page. And yet, at the same time, in no doubt about the rigour and precision required. The combination of minimalist chapters with really deep, existential questions about what we’re doing when we commit words to the page made it an almost soothing read. There is so much accumulated wisdom in the quotations and anecdotes too – nudges, ideas, hints, allusions. None of it forced, but all offered generously and judiciously.”

The Happy Writing Book comes out on 30 September. It’s available for pre-order now.

I had the pleasure of asking Valmorbida, who grew up Italian in Australia and lives in London, some existential questions about reading, writing, living and where she buys those crucial notebooks. Her chapters are short and punchy, ideal fodder for my interrogation.

  • You write on page 15 of your book, “I will not compare myself to Rupi Kaur or Margaret Atwood – this is not a competition. I will find my own writing voice. I will write because I want to. Because it opens my soul, wakes up my brain, makes my heart sing, connects me more powerfully to the world.”  When in your life did you realise it wasn’t a competition?

A favourite story of mine as a child was Aesop’s fable about the dog with the bone in its mouth. I read it again and again. I loved it and learned from it, but it was years later that this story about envy and greed connected with the notion of competition which is instilled in us through schooling, sports, games, business, careers. I was in a yoga class and we were all marvelling at this guy who was more flexible than plasticine. His knees were flat on the floor, ours were high in the air. Instead of focusing on doing our best, we were distracted, looking at him, and whimpering about our inadequacies compared with his apparently effortless pose. The teacher in her wisdom said “it’s not a competition” and somehow she made the link to life in general. The penny dropped, even if my knees didn’t.

Well, I am definitely going to reread (or possibly just read) these books. Are there new authors you can recommend whose works excite you, who care a lot about words and telling a good story?

Under The Blue, the debut novel by Oana Aristide, remains the most powerful work of fiction I’ve read in a while: a love of language and ideas, with utterly immersive storytelling. Another recent work I loved for both language and story: Borgo Vecchio by Giosué Calaciura.

  • Find Material in Misfortune, chapter 79, you write- “With the practice of writing, as with the practice of mindfulness, I’ve tried to train myself to observe thoughts, feelings, events, rather than be overwhelmed by them… In 1945, Anaïs Nin wrote in a letter that ‘great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.’ You add, “I’d lose the word great.” 

Elise, this is another helpful example of how you make the act of writing less intimidating, by removing the word ‘great’. We don’t need to be great, good is fine. Was this a common block for your students? For you?

I think we all hold this notion of ‘great’ or ‘perfect’ in our heads. It’s the antidote to creativity, to boldness, to venturing. Who am I to write a play? After Shakespeare there’s no point. But imagine if Tennessee Williams said that, or Samuel Beckett. And anyway, since when do we not do something just because we won’t be great at it?

  • Chapter 94 is titled No Need to Make Money. You write, “This lack of money, or expectation of it, is wildly liberating. Just think: no pressure to earn. You can be true to your art. No need to keep up with the Joneses. No conversations about ‘net worth’. No need to hire staff who can clean the chandelier to your satisfaction. No chandelier.”

Did you ever have a second where you thought, ‘Wait, maybe I do want a chandelier. Should I become a banker or a lawyer…?’ Have you always been so certain about your path?

I’ve never been certain about my path. I’ve made it up as I go along. I’ve been lucky to have day-jobs that pay the bills, and this takes the pressure off creative writing: I can afford to write what I want to write, even if it’s not commercial. The downside is that paid work necessarily takes priority and creative writing gets done in the fag-ends of time. This was especially tricky when I was in full-time employment, and being a creative director was a stressful job that spilled into hours beyond the time-sheet. I quit corporate employment to launch my first novel, become self-employed and make more time for writing, but it’s taken me a long time to carve out proper, regular, meaningful space in the diary for this low-paid/unpaid employment.

The chapter titled Love Your Notebook, begins with  “Start a notebook. Papery or digital or both.     Keep it active. Fill it with scraps and titbits. Keep it on you at all times – except when bathing. Don’t use it for admin or chores.” Which are your favourite notebooks?

Do you mean the actual thing? My notebooks used to be quite random: big, small, posh, flimsy, whatever. And then there was Moleskine. I love the paper, the inner pocket, the elastic ribbon, the feel of them. And I’ve just found out they’re Italian, so now there’s no turning back.

Elise, thank you so much for writing this book that is going on my bookshelf forever, and for agreeing to this interview.

Readers, you can read the rest of my interview with Valmorbida here on 26

September, 2021