“The covers of this book are too far apart …”

I have never found it easy to take criticism. Lots of family history in that – don’t go there. So, in my new life as a writer, I have realised this is something I need to come to terms with. When I eventually sort out the technicalities of loading my first novel onto Kindle and CreateSpace – I’m working on that – I’m going to get reviews whether I like it or not. Supposedly, part of ‘growing’ as a writer, is the ability to listen to critique of your work and use it to ‘become a better writer’.

I’m always in two minds about this. I am lucky enough to have had several readers supporting me through the two and a half years it took to get my novel written, and all of them were perfectly happy to tell me what they liked and what they didn’t. The problem was they all mentioned different things!

One person would tell me how much they’d enjoyed the fast-paced action based in London but couldn’t see why I’d included a detective living on the Isle of Skye. Another would say how much they’d loved the descriptions of landscape and wildlife but had found the complexities of the plot difficult to follow. Yet another would tell me they’d liked the whole thing but why hadn’t Helen (my girl in the red coat) done such-and-such instead of running away?

I quickly realised everyone had their own take on the story, the style, the characters and the venues. In fact, in their heads, they were all writing their own stories. When mine happened to match theirs, they felt it was good. When it didn’t, they were disappointed.

This discovery has taught me a valuable lesson. (Several valuable lessons, actually, including the fact that there are lots of different kinds of criticism. Topic for another blog?) When people talk about the need to write for an audience, this is generally absolute nonsense. Let me explain.

Some years ago, I took a fabulous class in Creative Embroidery. It was something I’d always wanted to do but had previously lacked the time, not to mention any inherent ability. Finding myself suddenly too ill to work, I joined a C&G group class and risked having a go. For a long time, I lived up to my expectations of being complete rubbish. Fortunately, I had an excellent tutor who knew more than a thing or two about actual creativity – as opposed to simply teaching us how to make French knots.

Each week, we would be introduced to a new design idea and given an entire morning to explore and play within it – no end-results stipulated. Wonderful! Then, in the  afternoon, this would be translated into a particular embroidery technique. We would be sent home at the end of the day with instructions to complete a sample.

What fascinated me was, despite the fact that we were all given the same brief, the samples that arrived back in class the following week were all completely different. Even the very simplest of ideas would be both interpreted and executed uniquely, according to the personal style of the stitcher. Lesson number one.

Lesson number two was something I learned as we moved deeper into the course. No matter how beautiful their samples, I often heard my fellow students expressing doubts about whether they were good enough. I found this astonishing because the work I was viewing was mind-bogglingly brilliant. Of a standard I could only dream about. What was going on?

It was when I listened to the conversation that I realised their mistake. “I showed it to my husband,” they would say, “and he asked me what it was meant to be.” Or “When I asked him what he thought, he wondered why it was all frayed down one side.” Way to hand over your confidence!

I, on the other hand, was in the fortunate position of having only my beautiful border collie, Molly, to ask for an opinion. She invariably answered: “That’s great. Can we play ball, now?” Consequently, I learned to rely on my own sense of judgement. I was realistic enough to know my samples were never going to match up to anyone else’s, but that didn’t matter since I wasn’t competing with them. I was busy discovering what I could do.

Ultimately, I discovered that creativity – of whatever variety – is primarily an expression of who you are. When others view your ‘stuff’, if it matches something about who they are, they’re going to like it. If they can’t identify with it, (or don’t want to – whole other story,) they’re going to criticize. This says to me, if I try to create something deliberately for others to like, if that’s my prime criterion because I don’t want to receive poor reviews, then I’m onto a loser … My creativity, then, will never be authentic and will, therefore, touch no-one.

My biggest aspiration in this regard is to emulate my current hero, Jodi Taylor, who says her favourite review is one which reads: “Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish, rubbish, rubbish!”

The Water Element

The sound of the rain pounding on my kitchen roof is phenomenal. Within the deafening, protracted drumroll of water being heaved out of the sky, I can hear a huge variety of percussive, dripping sounds. Some are loud plops – created, I think, by the gap in the guttering above as it releases its contents in steady, measured amounts. Others are collective trickling and splattering sounds – the music made by the impact, then the run-off, of the raindrops on the sloping glass windows of the skylight, as the intensity of their descent first rises to a crescendo, then settles to a background of repetitive pattering.

When the volume of the main event decreases, I can begin to make out other, distinctive taps and rappings, as if the rain is knocking to come in – which, of course, it does. Whenever it rains, life in my kitchen becomes an adventure. The water, in its mystery and wisdom, never uses the same entrance twice. It prefers, with each new visit, to explore a different route through the inner workings of wood and plaster, bypassing those incredible human inventions of impenetrable rubberized black plastic roofing and completely impermeable mega-sealant.

It arrives unexpectedly, with a quiet – oh, so quiet – ‘plash’. This is followed by a lengthy silence, just long enough to allow me to believe I might be mistaken. That this time, the gang have managed to fill all the gaps and repair all the leaks. Then – there it is again. I set off on a tour of the floor, looking for the give-away sign of tiny puddles. Was that one where I dripped earlier when rinsing off the cat bowl? Or this one here, a melted patch of ice from when I dived into the freezer first thing to get out the dogs’ tea to defrost?

There’s only one way to be sure. I stand over the wet patch and wait to see of something drips on my head.  Yes, there it is. A new crack in the ceiling, through which the water is gently seeping. Stage three of the action plan involves re-arranging anything that matters into a temporary holding – like fresh washing on the overhead airer – and then cracking open the dog towels. Fortunately, I have plenty of these. And, I have discovered, they have the interesting effect of changing a ‘plash’ into a ‘splat’, and eventually dampening it down to a muffled ‘thunk’.

Over the years, I have come to accept this eccentricity of my home. Lacking the resources to do a third major re-roof, and actually having no desire to live in a hermetically-sealed box, anyway, mostly I enjoy my own personalized version of ‘the weather’. Sometimes it proves inconvenient – cooking my Christmas dinner last year included standing hunched over the gravy-pot as it bubbled and reduced so that it wasn’t continually diluted again! And occasionally, it is disastrous – if it rains in the night, I have once or twice woken to a ‘lake’, newly formed from, presumably, previously-stored reservoirs in the ceiling cavity which have finally reached tipping point and have, consequently, been ‘gobbed’ all in one go. (Like I said – thank God for dog-towels.)

But strangely, I find something comforting about sharing the rain with the bees and flowers I can view through the window from the relative ‘safety’ of the kitchen table. The bit where I sit to write falls just inside the backroom so is free from watery-interference. I love to watch the colours change as the rain brightens them to richer, deeper hues. I revel in the unexpected waterfalls and rivulets that appear, cheerfully flowing off the log-store, or jumping from seed-head to leaf … to leaf … on the finished columbines next to the pond. And when the rain stops, everything glistens and sparkles. The remaining raindrops, resting on the plants, turn to diamonds in the light and shine like stars underneath my garden bench.

And perhaps the best gift of all … the melée that is my life gives me plenty of opportunities to discover the best words to describe it.

The Perfect Blog

I’ve been taking a holiday. My annual leave – except I haven’t left! I’ve been glued to the TV, watching the tennis at Roland Garros. It has been an unexpectedly surreal experience – sitting in scorching hot sunshine in the North of England, watching an unbelievable deluge in Paris. The wettest May there since 1873, I believe.

Inevitably, one of the key themes of the fortnight has been Andy Murray’s performances, and his strange transformation on court from a quiet, thoughtful and reserved ‘gentleman’ into a rude, obnoxious, argumentative ‘yob’.  Personally, I find it very difficult to watch. Others seem to enjoy the controversy and the meltdown which invariably ensue. One thing we agree on is that it does Andy no favours in terms of his performance. (Unlike the infamous John McEnroe!)

Several of the commentators suggested that his explosive behaviour was due to his perfectionism, and his resulting frustration when he failed to execute precisely the shot he’d intended. This, I don’t doubt. What I found interesting, however, was their assumption that perfectionism was a good thing. I’d like to let them into a powerful secret: perfectionism is a killer of all things good.

I think, perhaps, that people confuse perfectionism with having goals and ambitions. They talk about ‘standards’ and ‘expectations’, as if these measuring sticks are the best criteria to support one towards achievement – as if the process of reaching the goal is defined by its attainment, when in fact the truly successful are those who let go of expectations and rules, and allow themselves to be ‘in the moment’. (Like Roger Federer.)

This is not to say that practising techniques and honing skills are not important, but however perfect anyone becomes in executing the dry bones of a dream, they will always remain merely a perfectionist and never a true performer. Being ‘in the zone’ is not attained by technique alone. It is a surrender to something much bigger.

When it comes to creativity, being a perfectionist is the quickest way to kill the spirit. I once heard a perfectionist described as ‘someone who takes great pains – and gives them to others’. Whilst being a very clever and accurate definition, this surely runs contrary to the inspiration and soul of creativity. It does, though, explain why there are so many adverts these days for writing schools, workshops, classes, courses …..

One can learn as much as one likes about the techniques of writing – the best use of punctuation, the construction of flowing dialogue, the need for less adverbs, not to mention ‘show, don’t tell’ – but these strategies will not, on their own, make one a good writer. You may write a perfect piece in terms of grammar, use of adjectives, character development and plot-line, but unless you have released something of your soul into the writing, it will touch no-one.

This is what makes ‘being perfect’ the constant illusion that it is. Because what comes from my soul is always going to be different from what comes from yours. There is no one perfect way to do anything, except to be perfectly yourself. And by attempting to achieve perfection, you will inevitably bypass your own reality on the way to someone else’s.

For me – a self-confessed former perfectionist – I am thankful to have learned how the Persian rug-makers do it. Every one of those magnificent creations has, somewhere within it, a deliberate mistake, because ‘only Allah can be perfect’.