Always a story lover, Tor started out as a dancer and director before discovering her love for writing in her 20s. After some early encouragement from publishers, she soon had to deal with rejection. As a result she almost turned her back on writing before realising she wanted to write for the love it and in her 30s started keeping notebooks for herself. Those notebooks turned into two books – one of them, A Thousand Paper Birds, is an intimate portrait of five inextricably linked lives, spanning one calendar year at Kew Gardens.
Elizabeth Lovius: Tell us about your creative process?
Tor Udall: What I love is joining up the dots. I was really interested in the benches in Kew. There’s basically a lot of dead people being remembered in Kew, set against all this life and nature. So I knew I would do something about that. At the same time, I was interested in origami. I found this interview with a very old origami master. He said, “I spent my entire life trying to express, with paper, the joy of life and the last thought before a man dies.”
“What I love is joining up the dots”.
I started to connect these dots. It starts off very intuitively. I do a lot of visual stuff. I looked at Modigliani portraits for characters – that perhaps captured a character’s smile or the way they hold their shoulders. I use a lot of Post-its. A LOT of Post-its. Colour coded for each character’s perspective. I then start mapping out the scenes and charting the narrative arc.
I’m lucky enough to have a room and it’s covered in images. I’m literally just walking into the book. I find that’s very important because writing is such a cerebral thing. I try to bring my body into it, and external visuals, to keep things alive.
Because it’s set in Kew Gardens, it was also very easy to go to the locations. If I wanted to develop a particular character, I’d go to locations that that character loved. So I did a lot of writing in the Gardens. When it was very cold, I’d leave my writing bench and work in the Palm House to get warm.
EL: Do you ever get stuck? If so, what do you do?
TU: If have a problem that I can’t solve, I often go downstairs and play the piano. I find it helps to do something that uses a different part of my brain and yet leaves another part of my brain totally free to think. I saw a programme about creativity and the brain, and they did various tests on how people solve problems. The people who did the best were the ones who had to think while at the same time separating red cubes from blue cubes. A repetitive, mundane task. They were the ones who came up with the most creative solutions.
It’s like when people say: “While I was doing the washing up, the idea came.” Or, “I had a bath.” It’s doing something that’s a little bit different.
When you’re on the 10th draft, it’s very hard to see things fresh. So sometimes I’ll do really simple things like change the font – or change the document from portrait to landscape. I will pin it up on a washing line and walk around it. Or pin it onto the walls. Anything to make it unfamiliar to me again – that helps a great deal. If you’re doing lots of typing, change to handwriting or vice versa. You do have to trick yourself when you’re that many drafts in. It’s just very hard to see it anymore.
EL: How did you stay engaged and in the game all that time?
TU: I believed in the work. I actually love the act of writing itself. I adore it. I just get very fascinated by the problems and how to get characters in and out of situations. I would’ve carried on writing until my dying day if no-one had paid me a penny. I love the art itself. And I had faith. I had faith that it would all come right in the end.
“I love the art itself.”
It was tricky. In that final push, I had my second child and he was premature. Writing and looking after him was hard work. I’d be writing till three or four in the morning. Your priorities change – let’s just say my personal hygiene was bottom on the list!
You’ve just got to have faith that you are doing the right thing, that you’re on the right path. And the signs certainly helped. My ambition is to be a better writer than I was yesterday. The journey is with myself. Because there isn’t an end. The mountains just keep getting higher and higher.
“My ambition is to be a better writer than I was yesterday. The journey is with myself.”
EL: What would you say to your younger writing self now?
TU: Keep going. It all works out in the end. And enjoy where you are now. Although it’s wonderful being published, there’s a lot more time pressure, deadlines and expectations. There’s a really lovely innocence beforehand, where you’re only doing it for yourself.
“Keep going. It all works out in the end.”
Over the next six months I am conducting a series of talks about the Creative Power of the Mind at Studio7 in Shoreditch. Each session will involve a conversation with someone who makes a living using their creativity. Through our conversation we will uncover universal truths about the creative power of the mind that are applicable to all aspects of life.
Limited tickets to all talks in the series are available at www.studio7shoreditch.com
Would you like to access more resilience? Attend Elizabeth’s next Leadership Wisdom and Wellbeing Course November 13th & 14th.20% Discount for Creative Review Readers Enter Code: CREVIEW
Elizabeth Lovius is a Leadership & Resilience Coach who helps leaders access fresh insight, big relationships and lead real change for good. Elizabeth is an award winning facilitator, a speaker on the power of the mind and author of the creativity workbook: Facilitating Genius. She is also Leadership Coach at NowGoCreate and has contributed as Creative Coach to Claire Bridge’s book In Your Creative Element.
Claire Bridges is facilitator of CR’s Mastering Creativity, CPD accredited six-part online learning programme.