We often spend so much time encapsulated in our own journeys without even realising that there are over seven billion individuals, living their own narrative, dealing with their own successes and their own relationships.
My fascination with people and their stories led me to create “Voices That Need To Be Heard”. I want to speak to as many of those 7.5 billion people as my life will allow me and provide them with an opportunity to discuss their passions and express their individuality. If in the meantime it helps someone on the planet in a small way, then it all would have been worth it.
Today I’m talking to writer Sylvie Nickels about dedicating 75 years to her craft, travelling and what it’s like to get older.
I read a quote recently by F. Scott Fitzgerald where he said “what people are ashamed of usually makes a good story” Is that something you agree with?
The thing that has always interested me from a young age, and this may be because I had a childhood during the Second World War, was how ordinary people coped with difficult situations. I think it’s quite interesting. Since my youth, we haven’t had any major wars although we’ve had plenty of small ones. I just wonder how people manage now because there was a kind of feeling during the war that we were all pulling together and over the last 20 or 30 years society has kind of fragmented. Though I’ve noticed, when we have a crisis like we’ve had one or two in London, suddenly everyone starts pulling together again. I just hope that doesn’t mean that we have to have crisis in order to pull together or have a good story.
Does writing still give you the same amount of joy as it did when you first started?
I think when writing is going well, that’s the time when I get the greatest sense of fulfilment. Similarly if it’s going badly, I can get very grumpy (Laughs)
Was there ever a point where you thought about giving it up?
Other people have said to me isn’t it about time that I gave it up but when you’ve been writing for 75 years it can be difficult.
Well it becomes a part of you doesn’t it? Because you strike me as someone that has had writing as the one constant thing in your life. Do you think that is inevitable for a writer? That your life will become your work?
I think it is. Sometimes, and I mean this may be a bit fanciful but when I was younger, and everybody else was having children and I wasn’t, I kind of regarded my books as my children. On the other hand, not everybody feels that way and I can’t show them pictures of my new book like you would a new baby (Laughs)…It doesn’t go down in quite the same way.
It seems that in life, people often try to put us into little boxes. How do you stay true to yourself in moments of doubt?
Oh how right you are. I think the best answer to that is that because I had a very good relationship with my late husband, we were good at boosting each other. He had a great sense of humour and I miss that because as you know he died 5 years ago.
I have a friend who is interested in yoga and we were reading one of the yoga sutras which said “If you’re feeling low, what you need to do is move away from where you are. Go to a place and look at something which gives out a sense of peace.” Now, this could be a tree, or it could be a painting, or it could be a plant. By focusing on it so completely, whatever is negative in your head gets kind of pushed aside. Once you get that sense of calm, then you can start allowing other thoughts to come in. It’s not easy to do. You can’t just click a switch. It needs practice and I think like most human beings, I’m not very good at practising the things that are good for me.
Is that something you’ve always tried to practice?
Well, when you’re doing yoga, you focus entirely on what you’re doing. Not in a competitive way so that you’ve got half an eye on the person next to you and whether they’re doing it better than you are, but on doing the best your body can do. Now when I applied that to my writing as well, I stopped wanting to be the best writer in the world because I won’t be. However, I can become the best writer within my own abilities.
What Is the most valuable lesson that you have learnt from being a travel writer for 40 years?
I think being open to other ideas and trying to understand. We tend to, as you said earlier, put people into boxes. You know, as if to say everybody is exactly the same with whatever faith they may have. When you get to know them, this isn’t so. You find that many people have very broad ideas. The difficult thing is trying to understand those that don’t. Am I talking too much? (Laughs)
No I love that this is so conversational because who likes interviews eh? Actually, one thing that I wanted to ask you about was how you stay motivated.
With difficulty. I think this is because I still miss George. We motivated each other and I miss the friends that have been along the road with me. It’s one of those sad things of life that as you get older, so do your friends. That is why, and I perhaps should have said this earlier, that it’s very important to have younger friends. A) to keep your mind open and B) because there does come a point, especially if you’re reasonably healthy, when everybody seems to be popping off and you feel as though you’re the last one standing (Laughs)
How do you deal with it? I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through something like that.
Well, it’s very difficult to imagine until it actually happens. I suppose the first ones were probably my parents but I was already much older than you by then. I was in my forties. My friends mostly have survived until into my seventies but at the moment, now I’m in my eighties, there doesn’t seem to be many of them left.
This is another thing that I think is important though, to keep in touch with people with similar interests. I think you need an exchange of ideas to keep your mind active. Keeping your mind active is incredibly important as you get older.
Well especially as a writer. That’s what generates ideas, you know, discussion and conversation. How would you describe what it’s like to get older?
I think getting older isn’t that difficult, it’s more what other people’s attitudes towards you are. I don’t know if I ever told you the story about my nephew in Australia? He’s 25 years younger than I am. I went to see him a few years ago and I jokingly said “You know, it’s a great pity that you don’t treat me with the respect of my old age.” And he looked at me grinning and said “Well if you acted it I might.” and I roared with laughter. I thought, well that means he doesn’t think I’m old. It was lovely.
This is a question that I have been dying to ask you. For you, what are the ingredients for a perfect productive workspace? What do you like to have around you when you’re writing?
You may have noticed that I’m not very tidy. I used to horrify my sister because she was extremely organised. She was very good at cooking and all of the things I’m bad at. They used to laugh because if I decorated a room it became a major operation (laughs)…and I kind of felt inferior because I wasn’t doing the things that women were supposed to do.
So no, I’m not very tidy. One of the things I don’t like about computing although I do accept that it is extremely useful to be able to move whole chunks of text about without having to redo it, is the fact that you are tied to a screen. I’m very happy curled up in a corner with a notepad and a pencil.
So do you find that you’re more productive when you just have what you need around you?
I think so. The thing I find most difficult is too much noise. I would find it difficult to concentrate with a lot of noise. Music is fine if it’s quiet and the right kind for me.
My mother brought me up on classical music. Especially Bach. I know a lot of people don’t like Bach but I like that kind of almost mathematical sound.
What do you think that you’re space says about you? Because I don’t necessarily think that you’re untidy. I’m somebody that likes spaces to look as though they’ve been lived in.
(Laughing) well so do I but is that an excuse for being untidy?
Do you think that’s because you have a lot going on in your mind?
I think it is and I also think that one of the things that I have realised as I have gotten older is that I have to learn to reduce the amount of things that I’m involved in. You know, I find it very difficult to say no. I’ve got to learn to choose the things that I can contribute to because if you take on too much then you end up not doing anything properly.
Perhaps naively, one of the things that I always look forward to about getting older is that maybe I won’t be such a “yes” person.
That took me quite a long time to learn actually. I don’t know, it’s difficult looking back because it’s a long way. I think what they call “people pleasing” is always a danger and I’m better at saying no now.
I wanted to speak to you about George but when I sat down I just thought “how can anyone even put into one answer about somebody that they have loved for their entire life.”
I think we were incredibly lucky. I mean he said that he wished we had met sooner but I’m not sure that would have been such a good thing because a lot of the things that we enjoyed were things that we had in common before we ever met. If we’d have met earlier then maybe we wouldn’t have been able to pursue those things.
I’ve learnt to really live within the day. Because that’s all you’ve got. The past is the past and there’s always a danger projecting into the future because especially if you’re a depressive, you can predict a negative future rather than a positive future.
Is your mental health something that you ever feel embarrassed to talk about?
I’m very hesitant to talk about it with a lot of people because unless you’ve had some experience of it, either directly or someone close to you, it is incredibly difficult to understand.
Have you ever written poetry?
I only got interested in it when I was a young adult. I started reading poetry and began to realise what I’d missed but I never really had anyone to discuss it with. Perhaps I’ll start writing poetry when I’m ninety how about that? (Laughs)
I’ve tried to give it a go but I think even more so than writing, it’s not something that can be forced. For me, writing has to be such an organic process and if that means that for three weeks I haven’t created anything then that’s just how it is. If I publish something that I’m not proud of it eats away at me just knowing that it’s out there and then I end up scrapping it.
Do be careful not to be too much of a perfectionist. That will restrict your creativity. I think sometimes when I get very low and I read something I’ve written and I’m very critical of it but I might put it aside and read it sometime later and it doesn’t seem bad.
So you know, one can’t be a Booker Prize winner and I’m never going to be a Booker Prize winner and I don’t want to be a Booker Prize winner. What I need to do, what I’ve tried to do, is create stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations and wonder “how will they act?”
How would you like me to describe you in this article?
I suppose exactly what I am. As somebody who has been writing forever because that’s all that I have ever wanted to do.
You can find out more about Sylvie and her incredible body of work by visiting her website, here.