Getting It Just Right

I’ve had an interesting writing experience this week. I wrote a short story – a little under 1000 words – to match a given brief. The story was our required ‘homework’ at a writers’ group I belong to. My response to the suggested title received universal approval.

I tell you this, not because I’m trying to prove I’m a good writer – and not just in my own opinion! But because the fact that everyone in the group appeared to like my story is crucial to the ideas I’m about to explore.

Whilst it was highly gratifying to receive only compliments for my work, it was also disturbing. Now, I’m not talking about any inability on my part to hear and accept praise – I grew past that particular hurdle a long time ago.

I practised for a while simply smiling and saying ‘thank you’, silencing the other voices in my head that wanted to tell me I didn’t deserve it, etc. etc. etc. After some time, the smiling and thanking became second nature.

Then, I started to believe that the people speaking actually meant what they said and were not being sarcastic. I gradually began to hear what they were saying, and to be able to listen carefully to the detail. And to enjoy the acclaim.

This was followed by a short period – when my book was published – of a few glorious occasions of sheer congratulation. Groups I attended regularly actually broke into applause at the announcement, and I revelled in that for a while. I thought I had finally ‘arrived’.

Foolish woman. It did not take me long to realise that such intense esteem does not last, cannot last. I knew this already, of course, as an intellectual theory, but the emotional reality of it was one I had yet to experience. People’s memories are short, especially if they already know you in another context; not to mention that no-one has the energy or the desire to keep telling someone else how brilliant they are.

And even if they did, the repetition would soon pale. On both sides of the interaction. The plain fact is that unless you feel that self-esteem for yourself, no amount of external verification is going to provide it for you. Yes, there were a few magnificent moments that I’ll never forget, that made up for a lot of childhood ‘crap’, but in the end, if I can’t get out of bed every morning feeling happy to be me, I’m onto a loser.

So back to the story for my writers’ group. I enjoyed the challenge of writing to a brief. I was pleased with the technical standard I produced. I took pleasure in the fascination of the editing process, searching for replacement words so that the piece never became repetitive, and so that it flowed gracefully from one section to another.

I revelled in my ability to remove extraneous phrases, odd bits of text, unnecessary script, making the story economic in its telling and using every single word to its maximum, since I had so few. I even enjoyed reading the finished item to the assembled gathering (I can be quite a performer when required). And I’ve already expressed my delight at the response.

The problem was that this story wasn’t actually that good.

Technically sound? Yes. A neat little tale? Definitely. A delightful piece of fun? I would say so. But did it really say anything that was worth saying? Did it have any part of my soul in it? Did it carry anything close to a deeper meaning? Absolutely not.

It was, as far as I’m concerned, a mere piece of frippery. An academic exercise. A trivial slice of entertainment. Nothing wrong with that per se. Sometimes, I enjoy reading that sort of stuff myself. No, the problem was that it didn’t deserve the praise it got – at least as far as I was concerned.

I used my nicely-honed skills of accepting compliments without objection, and was pleasantly surprised by the group’s reception of the piece, briefly feeling quite pleased with myself and enjoying the accolade.

But underneath that, I came to a new realisation. However much I may (or may not) be celebrated for writing superficial ‘stuff’ – and even if it earned me gazillions – I could never make it my main enterprise. It would feel dishonest. As if I was cheating, somehow.

I know that if I consistently work at ‘lower’ than the best I can do, I will always feel I have deceived myself, and my self-esteem will reflect that. For me, there will always need to be a deeper picture, a touching on the profound or the spiritual, a revealing of some essential truth.

Will this put some people off reading my work? Of course it will. But will it be the right thing for me to do? Of course it will. Because if I ignore this inner perspective, I’ll be ignoring the essence that drives me to write, and the energy that gifts me the stories. I have to be true to myself in how and what I need to write.

If I’m not, to slightly misquote Kirk, the cost will be my soul.

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Back To School …

There’s a gorgeous reassurance about September. A delightful sense of things both ending and continuing, coupled with a feeling of invitation to venture into pastures new. My word – I’m definitely a romantic at heart!

I love September. I love the harvesting of fruits and vegetables that have taken all year to grow – or not, in my case. I seem to have had a particularly bad year in terms of being organised enough to bring my allotment to fruition. Fortunately, there are enough people on the plot who are willing to share their excess.

In June, it was my turn. I shared as many strawberries as I could rescue from rain damage, as my plants were the envy of all who walked past. Now, I’m being offered sweet peas and tomatoes in exchange. The beans are actually mine.

I also love September for its ‘start-of-the-academic-year-ness’. Having spent a large portion of my life associated with education, I still retain that flutter of excitement at this time of year, with its opportunities to study something new, or to dive deeper into something you’ve already started learning.

That’s my current writing book above, with some of my second novel, begun last year, and now approaching the halfway point, I think. I don’t always know. It’s the way I write. Like September, I pick up and go with the flow, incorporating what has happened, what needs finishing and what needs to be revealed.

Each morning, I sit down to write. I read what I’ve written the day before, see if I like it, use it as an inspiration to go forwards with the story. I listen for what I need to write next: who is in the scene? what will they say? or think? where will the plot go?

It’s very exciting to be inside the detectives’ heads as they unravel the clues and build their theories. I always feel as if I’m listening in to their conversations and their musings. Often, I don’t know where the story will lead, any more than they do.

This second novel has proven to be a real challenge so far. It was easy to start, right off the back of finishing the first. I had my chief characters established, and their ways of working and thinking. I decided to leap straight into action and began with the discovery of a dead body. Up on the Isle of Skye, where one of my detectives lives.

Then I shifted focus, to London – venue of my second detective. Suddenly, he was called out to a dead body, too. And both bodies are unidentifiable, but with lots of interesting facts about them – the way they were both killed, the strange news report that named one of them as the person they thought they’d found at the other place …

I found myself following new characters for inexplicable reasons. I had no idea whether they were ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’. Then they would disappear, only to surface again in a different context, driving my detectives mad with their lack of tangible consistency, the absence of useful identity, the inability of tracking them down …

Great fun! Until I realised I’d teased the reader enough and needed to start putting some semblance of order into the story. But it’s so important not to reveal too much too soon. Just as well, as I didn’t have a clue myself how it would all resolve. I spent the summer in a fog, tip-toeing my way from one scene to the next, as bemused as my characters.

I love September. Everything starts to resolve. Previously laid plans come to fruition, old plots get revisited and reworked, new directions beckon, things start to make sense. As the spiders start to create their webs, and the trees begin to paint themselves in magnificent colours, there is a general reassurance that all will come good if we let it. We just need to honour what has been so far, let go off what we no longer need and welcome what comes to replace it.

Engaging With The Void – My Own Personal Eclipse

Most of you, I’m sure, will know that America experienced a total solar eclipse last week, hot on the heels of a total lunar eclipse, only a couple of weeks previously. Whatever your take on the skies – whether astronomical, astrological or simply aesthetic – something very special was going on.

An eclipse has always been considered by human cultures as highly significant. Various peoples down the centuries have clothed the event in meaning – personal, apocalyptic, scientific … There can be no denying that the temporary shutdown of the primary source of energy for our planet, and the consequent plunge into utter darkness, is a dramatic and moving experience, at the very least.

For me, the disconnection with my known world is a profound and deeply spiritual adventure, though rarely comfortable, and the presence of a physical replica to match my private journey is more of a ‘stage-prop’ than a cause. I have, you see, suffered (is that the best word, I wonder?) with depression for the largest part of my life.

It is a great joy to me that this is no longer a place I have to frequent. Though I recognise the importance of having inhabited it. And actually, would not swap my experience with anyone else’s because of what it taught me. Now that I understand what this weird and painful sojourn is about, I can, if necessary, begin the pilgrimage early before it becomes unbearable. That way, I have my ‘weapons’ to hand because I am in charge of the navigation.

However, a while ago, I got caught out. Because this time, the disconnection from the structure of my life came about as a result of an illness. What most people would call a ‘bug’. (Personally, I am not a great fan of blaming our microscopic friends for everything we don’t like, or are afraid of, in our lives. That feels very species-ist to me.) Suffice it to say, I obviously had a need to negotiate this particular passing package of energy, and found myself completely wiped out for the duration of over two weeks.

The language I’ve just used has not escaped my notice. It was as if everything I thought I knew about myself was negated, rendered unavailable – even irrelevant. I am, these days, a very healthy person, rarely being laid low for more than a day or two at a time, albeit I remain careful about how I use my energy. So to be out of action for such a long period was a trial. And to be unable to find my way back, even more so.

I found I had to adopt a strategy I’d learned many years ago – in the days when my illness stretched from days to weeks, and eventually, years. Acceptance. Surrender. Honouring. Words which are unusual, not to say unpopular, in our present culture, with all its talk of fighting, rights and power. In the face of a total eclipse, a confrontational stance will merely leave you vulnerable and empty, whereas embracing the opportunity has the potential of enlightenment.

How rare it is, given our way of life, for any of us to step into nothingness – to allow the release of everything that holds us in place, to relinquish stability, to let go of security, to look willingly into the void beyond the constructs that usually shape our days – just to see what might be there.

Do we fear to explore because there might not be a way back? Or because we might not like what we find? Or because we might love what we find? Probably all three.

One thing I know for sure: moving forward with your life, striving to achieve your dreams, is not possible if you insist on taking with you everything you have now. Ever seen Up? You have to be willing to let go, to leave some things behind. And you have to be willing to clear out old thoughts and emotions as much as the jumble in the attic.

I’ve had a bee in my bonnet for a while now, about creating new neural pathways. The human brain is capable of so much more than many of us demand of it. I’m often fascinated, as well as frustrated, by the way people give up on trying to learn something new. ‘I can’t do that’ seems to be sufficient justification. It is, of course, a lie. The truth would be nearer to ‘I can’t do that, yet’.

To learn anything unfamiliar involves the laying down of a new network in the brain, a delicate and increasingly complex pattern of interconnecting neural pathways – starting with the simplest unaccustomed thought, rehearsing that enough times to make it secure, then allowing another to gently link with it and spark off a third. It takes both practice and patience to make this work but it is perfectly possible.

What we often fail to realise, however, is the necessity to put up ‘roadblocks’ on the old, familiar pathways that we have used for decades previously. Otherwise, the new initiative will simply be lost by dissipating through the well-practised routes. And what is the most effective mechanism to block access to the traditional way you’ve established of doing things?

The word you’re looking for is ‘eclipse’.

Monday, Tuesday, Happy Days …

Last week was a very happy week. I haven’t eaten and talked so much in ages. Last week was the week when I officially launched the novel – complete with champagne!

My two readers – Claire and Kayren – and I had talked for a while about getting together to celebrate the completion of this amazing project, and we finally managed to coincide with dates and aspirations and put together the perfect idea.

Claire travelled ‘up North’, accompanied by a bottle of ‘fizz’, Kayren transformed the conservatory and baked like fury. I made a chocolate cake and burnt it! (That’s not like me.) I then went on to burn the icing! (I didn’t think that was possible.) I believe I may have been a trifle excited.

But finally we were all able to get together, along with a husband and two dogs, to join in the most perfect fantasy English tea-party. Here is what greeted us as we arrived:

The food was incredible: pretty, delicious and ethical! Mostly vegetarian or vegan, as well as gluten-free.

The cakes were extraordinary: chocolate, lavender and rose flavoured.

The sandwiches were finger-thin and intermingled with crostini.

 

There were magnificent delicate fruit tarts.

And all served with beautiful pots of earl grey tea and carafes of fresh spring water,

with traditional table dressings

and beautiful flowers.

And just when we thought we couldn’t eat any more, we lit the candles on the celebration cake and popped the champagne.

And toasted the book’s success.

And even Rosie decided to join in.

A big thank you to everyone who contributed to such a fabulous day.

Don’t Be Satisfied With Stories …

I find I want to write something about creativity this week. I’ve had several conversations recently about the subject, around the subject and alluding to the subject, and each time my conversational partner has surprised me by suggesting that not everyone is creative.

Since I experience creativity as absolutely essential to my well-being, I cannot agree with this supposition, and wonder what has led to people thinking that the human species is divided into two: those who are creative and those who are not.

I think that part of the problem lies in the way our current culture defines creativity, and another part of it lies in the way our culture values it.

For many people, to speak of someone as ‘creative’, means they consider that person as ‘artistic’, innovatively productive, specifically successful in a particular field … at the very least, ‘they can knit’ or ‘they enjoy playing an instrument’. The concept that creativity is inherent in everything we do, is not one which many people seem to consider.

Our society has neatly confined creativity to specific areas of human experience, or sometimes to specific procedures. Painting definitely counts as a creative activity but mathematics rarely so, yet the thought processes involved must be just as ‘creative’, in that they must reach beyond previously visited boundaries and stretch into the unknown.

Creativity in common parlance is often perceived as the ability to imagine a completed project, and then to materialise it. The goal is the focus. But in reality, it is the process that is creative, regardless of the outcome. The ability to sit inside a task, not knowing where the application of attention will take you, perhaps not even knowing where to start, is at the heart of true creativity – and don’t all of us do that every day?

When we plant a garden, bake a cake, conceive a child, move house … we cannot possibly know what the end result will be. There may not even be one. What we are experiencing may be part of an on-going process. But one thing is sure, we could not do any of these things, nor a million other, if we did not have the essence of creativity within us.

Creativity is the way in which we express ourselves in the world. It is the relationship we have with the things and beings around us. It is how we respond to the sights, sounds and other sensual experiences which impact on us. It is inherent in the way we live. It is how we convert mere survival into actual living.

To be creative means to interact with something outside ourselves, as well as something within ourselves. It is to be open to discovery, to experience and to the unexpected. It is the ability to surrender control and to wait and see what comes of it ‘if I go that way’ or ‘if I go this way’.

And because our culture has reduced the concept of creativity to one which applies only in restricted circumstances, and one which is judged by the achieved – or nor achieved – end result, and has therefore allocated conceptions of perfection and accomplishment to what should be a process-oriented journey, it finds it has also created other unhelpful assumptions.

Not only does society believe that only certain people are creative, it also only perceives certain procedures are creative, thus resigning the rest of the populace to the aspiration of finding ‘a proper job’. Further, it attempts to contain the meanderings of a creative mind, with its dangerous tendencies towards challenging the status quo, within a designated creative community, whose productions we may go and visit – theatre, art gallery, cinema, etc. – but may not bring back home as a different perception of living and being in the world.

Imagination, that precious and indefinable energy at the heart of creativity, is just about allowable in the very young, barely tolerated in the young and completely dismissed as nonsensical in the old. Instead of encouraging a new generation to explore what can be explored in their mind’s eye, and teaching them how to question, how to perceive and conceive new ideas, how to collaborate with the unknown, the common curriculum is still – perhaps more than ever – focused on what is merely material, provable and functional.

And the idea that creativity might be encouraged as the activity which enables us to unfold into who we truly are, each as a creative individual, is most definitely discouraged, in favour of moulding people to fit predetermined stereotypes who can function-by-numbers.

The world is a beautiful, astonishing, surprising place and we should, I believe, allow ourselves to match that, and be willing to offer our best both to our communities, our culture and, ultimately, to ourselves. Otherwise, what’s the point?

To complete the quote in my title:

Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.    Jalaluddin Rumi

In  my opinion, the best advice a writer could get.

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

One of the interesting aspects of taking a holiday is – coming home!

If you’re lucky enough to be able to actually go away for your holiday, the transition you make on your return journey may help you ease back into your former routines and concerns.The nearer you get to where you live, the more familiar the surrounding landscape, the more your brain switches back to pre-holiday mode – but hopefully with the added benefit of having had a good rest in the interim.

Of course, that may not be everyone’s experience. For some, the increasing sense of gloom, depression and anxiety that accompanied their life prior to the break, returns ten times worse than before, because now it can be compared to lazier days, more interesting enterprises and fewer worries. The trauma of returning to a life you don’t actually want to be living, must be devastating.

For me, because I’ve holidayed at home, and filled my days with only tennis, eating, tennis, dogwalk, more tennis and more eating, the impact is two-fold.

On the one hand, I have now accumulated a long list of tasks that I put off just before, and during, said holiday period, and which now all seem to have assumed high priority status. On the other hand, it’s been a while since I wrote any chapters from either of my two ongoing novels, and this is not something I can just pick up and do, as I can with the washing up or the vacuuming.

I know that some writers struggle with this issue on a daily basis, believing they have to have inspiration to be able to write, and becoming adept at procrastination techniques as they grapple towards a solution.

I am lucky. I know I love writing. I know I am better for writing. I know it’s not inspiration that provides the trigger to re-engage but the willingness to re-connect. And I have a well-practised routine for enabling this. Just as procrastinating begets procrastination, so writing begets writing.

Sitting down and simply writing something – anything – will begin to free up my slightly rusted writing-joints and encourage my brain to spark and my imagination to flow. So this is where I start: writing a blog here, a piece of description there, flirting with an exercise or two, making up a dialogue between two previously unheard-of characters …

Along with this, because writing a novel requires one to be consistent within the plot-line, particularly in a detective story, I need to remind myself what’s happened so far.

That may sound strange. Since I’ve created the narrative, it might be a reasonable assumption that I’ll remember what I’ve written. But often I don’t, and that may be  a function of the way that I write. I never know where the story is going, what clues will be discovered next and what they will mean. Sometimes I don’t even know who has committed the crime!

It’s essential for me to get back inside the tale I’ve told so far, so that I can relate the next bit, because the following chapter won’t reveal itself until this one is finished. So I re-read the work up-to-date – doing a chapter log as I go of important details. When I’ve done – and this may take a few days – I pick up my pen and listen for what comes next.

This process happens naturally if I write every day because, it seems, a part of my brain remains connected to what I wrote yesterday. As if I have a special length of thread joining me to my story, from which I can walk away for a short while and which will still be there if I return soon enough. Still throbbing with life and energy, waiting for me to hook back in and ‘do’ the next section. My regular visits keep the thread alive and it can then feed me the story.

But if I’m away too long, the vibrations slow and the story drifts into the distance, looking, perhaps, for someone else to tell its tale.

My post-holiday task is to re-energise the trail, to pick up the thread and re-engage. To make myself available, be willing to co-operate and play my part in this mysterious enterprise. I don’t question it. I am, these days, too wise to risk that. Bringing my logical left-brain into play here, will kill the vibrations instantly and deny me access.

Gently, gently, I open my heart, awaken my spirit and allow my pen to flow. It takes only a day or so, once I begin writing again, for me to re-establish my writing routines and to feel re-connected.

Then the thread re-vitalised, transforms itself into a fabulous web of possibilities, each awaiting its appropriate place in the unfolding story. It wraps itself round me, like a butterfly’s cocoon, as we learn to speak each other’s language once more. Its shimmering energy is now accessible as pure inspiration.

I am home.

Celebrations!

Well, the tennis genius that is Roger Federer did it. Won a record-breaking 8th Wimbledon title at the age of 35. And, in conventional terms, you would have assumed he was nearer to 25, judging by the way he moved around the court. After Rafa’s 10th Roland Garros victory at 31 years old, and the fact that both of them have taken things a whole lot easier this last year in terms of entering tournaments, I’m delighted to see that they’re challenging accepted ‘given’s of the game.

The rules for achieving the ultimate goals in tennis, according to those who know about such things, consist of items like: ‘You have to work very hard’, ‘You have to train for six to eight hours a day’, ‘You have to enter warm-up tournaments before a Grand Slam’, ‘You’ll only get a few years to succeed’, ‘By the time you’re in your late 20’s, you’ll slow up too much to be capable of wining big titles’ …

As you know I love saying: so much for rules.

Listening to Roger talk about his approach to Wimbledon, I was caught by a particular phrase of his. He talked about his need to ‘get smart with [his] scheduling’. What a brilliant attitude. Here is a man, in love with what he does, wanting to continue to participate at the highest level beyond the usual ‘constraints’. Instead of complaining about his lot, or raging against the world, he takes full responsibility for his situation, ‘does the sums’ and makes some powerful decisions.

The result? He becomes even better at what he does, even happier with who he is, even more balanced at finding his way in the world and enjoying everything he’s lucky enough to have in his life.

As I write my fiftieth blog, (which I acknowledge as a terrific achievement for me, being someone with a tendency to start new things enthusiastically, on a regular basis, and still learning how to get to the promised ends,) I want to celebrate Roger’s strategy for being whole-heartedly inside his life. I want to learn from his willingness to take good care of himself, both physically and emotionally. I want to emulate his ability to be both realistic and idealistic at the same time.

The world of tennis – and possibly any sport – is a fabulous place to witness life-lessons. As a writer, I’m constantly re-assessing  my way forward, judging the validity of my next step, reconnecting to my inner truths. On the tennis court, I can watch people doing this continually.

Navratilova talked the other day about how tennis is full of contradictions, such as ‘You need to forget the mistake you just made, but you also need to remember your mistakes to learn from them’. I find it more helpful to think of this as ‘paradox’ rather than ‘contradiction’. Within a paradox, two apparently opposing positions are true at the same time – such as being realistic and idealistic. It’s pure quantum, and it’s beautiful life advice.

If I want to succeed as a writer, I have to be able to hold the reality of a slow start to selling my first novel, alongside the ever-building collection of 5-star reviews my book is receiving. I have to allow my disappointing progress in the short-term to have no bearing at all on my daily writing discipline, yet I have to address the implications of the low sales by spending some of my precious writing time learning about, and executing, effective advertising.

I have to be conscientious about creating new work, as well as fastidious about editing and formatting. I have to remain faithful to my ‘old-fashioned’ methods of generating ideas and listening to my characters, at the same time as being willing to learn about social media and building a website.

And alongside all of the above, I have to make sure I take care of my health and well-being, that I stay fit, eat well and rest plenty, that I remain in love with my new profession and continue to enjoy the process. Because without the process, the goal will always remain elusive. (Thanks to Jo Konta for that one.)

Being smart about my scheduling feels like a really good decision right now.