“Leave me alone – I know what I’m doing.”

I confess that for a while back there – when I was laid up with a seriously bruised leg and a double bout of grief – I lost my confidence to write. It was a strange process; it didn’t happen suddenly. Things had been slipping gently away from me for some time, seemingly hidden under a pile of suddenly very urgent, and very important, tasks. Tasks which have to do with other parts of my life.

Make no mistake, these tasks were real. All part of my commitment to various groups I belong to, or related to the management of my self-employed status. They were genuinely tasks that had to be done, and done to a deadline. But I knew in my heart that something was going on at a deeper level, because I was finding it harder to find the time to write – and that’s always the first sign.

As these tasks crowded into my daily routine more and more, I realised there was apparently less and less time to sit and write creatively. I began to compromise – by doing writing-related tasks. These, again, were all tasks that needed doing. Like editing, formatting, research. Tasks that I’ve never tackled before – such as understanding keywords and discovering how to use the headings function in Word.. All tasks that will, in the end, contribute to my success as a writer, I’m sure, but tasks that currently involve a lot of learning and therefore a lot of time. And none of them including any actual new writing.

And so when I came to  the unbearably sad place I found myself in, during August, unable to do much moving about, but with plenty of time to write – I found I couldn’t. That is to say, my inner critic – a voice I haven’t listened to for years – suddenly took unfair advantage of the situation to inform me, in no uncertain terms, that I was rubbish, I didn’t really have any talent for writing and my dreams of getting anything published were ‘pie in the sky’.

To my shame, I listened, then told myself this was just a phase I was going through, then decided to ‘be kind to myself’ and take some time off from writing while I convalesced. All three actions were, to say the least, misguided. The more I didn’t write, the more I couldn’t. And of course, the more I couldn’t, the more I didn’t.

I suddenly had a glimpse of what sportswomen and men mean when they say they’ve lost confidence. It’s a strange and very bizarre place to be because you know perfectly well that you have ability, the necessary skills, a degree of experience, even previous successes, but somehow, in the midst of a crisis of confidence, none of this has any meaning. It’s as if you no longer believe the things about yourself that you did before.

The experience for me is akin to being the heroine in a fairy tale – the heroine who falls under the spell of the wicked stepmother or the night-visiting ogre. Those whispering creatures of the forest who mock and challenge every step the princess takes in trying to find her way, until she feels so tired that falling asleep becomes an easier option than remembering her path…

I love fairy stories. I love the secret truths they hold for us if we take the care to look. I love that they will never quite relinquish their hold on us, despite our best efforts to mock and belittle their importance.

Somewhere, somehow, after weeks of attempting to write using all the ‘writing-by-numbers’ methods the creative-writing gurus offer, and feeling myself becoming smaller, tighter and drier as a result … Somehow, watching the spider in the garden and writing about her astonishing webs last week, reconnected me to this beautiful process of tapping into what my soul has to say.

I began to write again, the way I have before. No preconceptions, no planning, no expectations. Instead, I sat and listened. I listened for the next scene, the next character, the next line of dialogue. I listened very carefully and then I wrote it down.

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Equinoctial Arachnophilia (not the Java version)

The spiders in my garden are telling me it’s autumn. I have woken every day this past couple of weeks to a glorious, and ever-changing, exhibition of creative ‘webbery’ strung across what is supposed to be a lawn (now turned into a field since I haven’t been able to wield a lawn-mower), hung precariously between drooping branches of wild rose and tendrils of climbing clematis, and constructed delicately across the stone steps outside my back door at the perfect height to get in my face if I forget to ask permission to pass.

As we’re also into dew season, aided and abetted by overnight showers, these beautiful artifacts begin each day adorned in glistening diamonds, made even more stunning by the morning sunshine as the sun tips over the sycamore at the end of the garden and pours its low-angled rays onto the gallery. The light at this time of year is very special.

One particular spider has been here for several weeks now. It has taken up residence just outside my kitchen window where I have a small pond set into the banking. A multiplicity of ‘zebra-striped’ green reeds grow there, towering above head height from where I stand to do my washing up – and making the perfect scaffolding for web construction.

Several spiders have experimented on the site recently, but most seem to move on after a few days. Perhaps my dog’s busy day of rushing in and out of the garden at frequent intervals (her job, apparently, is cat-watch duty) causes too much of a disturbance. But this one spider has stayed, weaving her webs nearer to the fence than the garden steps, which is probably a quieter option, and in the process, granting me an amazing daily opportunity to follow her story. For it has not been an easy one.

Her first unstable attempt lasted only a couple of days. I don’t know what happened to that one, only that it wasn’t particularly dense and wasn’t securely attached by all its ‘corners’ – if there is such a thing as a corner on a web. I only know that it quickly disappeared. Maybe it was only meant as a try-out.

It was replaced by a spectacular specimen, stretching nearly a foot across, hanging perfectly in the crook of a bent reed stem and presenting row after row of intricately placed gossamer threads, glimmering in rainbow colours as the light shifted slowly across the scene during the day. It was the ultimate, classic, fairy-tale web. And she sat in the middle, legs akimbo, waiting patiently, just as a fairy-tale spider should. The magnificence of her creation brought tears to my eyes.

Then it rained! Heavily! And when I looked out the next morning, there she was, clinging to the remnants of a small, damp piece of cobweb-cloth, now utterly useless.

I wondered what she would do. I expected her to move on to a more secure, sheltered spot, as her sisters had presumably done. Find a safer place to set up shop, less exposed to the elements. Not a bit of it. She proved to be made of sterner stuff, and by the afternoon had created what might be described as a make-shift web, nowhere near as pretty as its predecessor but perfectly functional.

She then proceeded to use this as a base around which, over the next few days, she constructed a fascinating and elaborate patchwork of cobweb pieces, all linked together with shimmering threads and ultra-fine stitchery. What an accomplishment!

We’ve had several different webs since then – some breathtaking in their construction, others – like today’s – a cleverly-repaired sequence of tatty holes. Each one is a work of dedicated love and concentration, totally deserving of my admiration and respect.

You know what I’m going to say, don’t you? Ever heard of Robert the Bruce?

Wax On, Wax Off?

On Saturday last, my leg now recovered sufficiently for me to drive again, I finally got out for the day. I went to the Weavers’ Guild Sampling Day – an event which I had initially planned and set up many months ago, and which I’d recently handed over to a colleague to complete the final arrangements.

It was a splendid occasion, at least for those of us who love to spin. Different and unusual fibres flying everywhere, thirty spinning wheels in a huge circle, fabulous colours and fascinating bits of equipment on the tables round the room, courtesy of our visiting tutor and her travelling shop.

The disappointment for me was that although I managed the journey to get there, my leg wouldn’t also manage a day of spinning; but this had the advantage of creating more opportunities than usual for conversation with fellow participants as we pored lovingly over hanks of pretty fluff and bags of scrumptious fleece.

During the course of one such conversation, someone – and it may have been me – mentioned something about ‘discipline’. A passing Guild member, catching the word on the air, laughed and remarked “Discipline? What’s that, then?” In the midst of all the glorious treats on offer, a totally appropriate comment.

But something came out of my mouth unexpectedly. “It’s the ability to make a priority of the things you want to be a priority.”

Ever since Saturday, I’ve been reflecting on this, and the implications for me, personally. I realise that the word has some very negative connotations in our society because it is often used in connection with things we don’t want to do, and things which it is probable other people have insisted are ‘good for us’. And everyone knows how that story goes.

But just suppose that discipline is actually about personal choice. Suppose it’s the act of creating life the way you’d like it to be. Take me, for example. I am slowly developing a writing discipline.The reason is because I love to write. It makes me happy, it is an enjoyable enterprise and I love the process of discovering what will appear on my page.

However, recently, with the experiences I’ve been trying to live through, I seem to have lost my way a bit. Making myself sit down every day to write has been really hard work – because it has been painful to remain in one position for too long, because I have had too many deep emotions getting in the way of the writing I was ‘supposed to be doing’, because I couldn’t get my brain to work properly …

Consequently, the more I’ve tried to be disciplined about my writing, the harder it’s been to do. And the more I’ve heard those nasty little voices from the past telling me: “you’ve no sticking power”, “you need to be more disciplined”, “if you really wanted to be a doctor, you’d study physics”. Whoops, where did that last one come from? I never wanted to be a doctor.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Jumping to another’s tune just isn’t going to work. It’s only going to build an inner resistance which will likely become an inner resentment, and that kind of negative energy isn’t leading anywhere nice.

So it’s been important for me to look at what’s important for me. To make a list of my own particular priorities, especially those relating to my writing. Priorities which include enjoying myself, loving what I do, and allowing myself enough time to look at the sky and walk my dog in between.

And having established what my priorities are, I then need to be disciplined enough to organise my life according to those. This discipline, therefore, also includes the ability to dispense with the images and assumptions that other people make about what a writer should be like. How often do we allow our lives to fill up with things that actually aren’t important to us?

I look forward to the next few weeks, with recovering health and a fully functioning brain, to see what my new priorities will create, because if I’ve got it right, my new discipline will be a highly pleasurable and rewarding experience – not hard work at all!

Take It From The Top

So, the editing’s done. The main text of my novel is ready for uploading. That has been a surprising outcome of being rendered more or less stationary for the last three weeks. Silver linings and all that jazz.

It has been an interesting experience – going back to the beginning and starting again. Remembering where my mind was as I got going, with no conscious intention to write a novel at that stage. I began by tackling an exercise in class – a few outlines for a character, a single plot-line, and suddenly, there was Helen on her way to an audition. All the potential one could possibly need for almost any kind of novel.

But I’d always fancied having a go at a murder mystery. (This from the woman who’d only ever written a single short story in her entire life.) So I thought I’d ‘throw in a dead body’ and see what happened. Imagine my amazement as a plot began to unfold in front of me.

Okay, so now I need a detective, I thought. All good crimewriters have a personal detective, who seems to be a loose extension of the author. Oh well, that’s easy then. My detective will live on Skye. The place I have always wanted to live since discovering it in a children’s novel, many moons ago. Well, if it’s not somewhere I can live in reality just yet, it’s definitely somewhere I can live in fantasy. I know the island really well, having visited often over the years. I may not be able to live on it, but it certainly lives in me.

Unfortunately, they don’t have detectives on Skye. There’s no need. They survive perfectly adequately with a small community police force based at the single station in Portree. How to make my plot realistic, then? I went on-line for my first bit of research. How amazing that, at the very time Katriona McShannon became a reality in my head, the Scottish police were re-organising themselves into something called Police Scotland, with a group of ‘heavy-weight’ detectives making up a team to be known as the Serious Crime Division. In the Highlands, the team would be based at Inverness, with experts called in as required.

It couldn’t be better. Katriona could easily be part of this team, acting as a part-time detective consultant, (well, Lewis is only a consultant these days, isn’t he?) which gives me plenty of scope to explore the other aspects of her life if I want to, as well as discovering how she arrived in this unusual position. Aha! Now I have a history to create, as well as a potentially difficult scenario to resolve. If the murder has happened in London (the original plot-line from class), how is it going to be investigated by a detective on Skye?

Enter Gavin – Katriona’s former colleague when she worked in London, before she had to take early retirement due to ill-health … By the time I’d got here, you can probably see I was ‘well-hooked’, and round about chapter four, I knew I was in it for the long haul.

It has been fascinating for me, over the last couple of weeks or so, to go back and remember how it all began – and to see whether I still like what I wrote. There have, of course, been whole sections that have needed re-doing in some way. That’s inevitable, and it’s proved to be an interesting exercise in itself. But there have also been huge parts of the book which I’d forgotten (yes, I know that sounds incredible) and which I’ve thoroughly  enjoyed re-reading, even occasionally thinking:  ‘How on earth did I come up with that?’

What has been most gratifying is the discovery that the further I got into the book, the less I felt the need to edit. I hope this demonstrates I’m getting a handle on how to do this writing stuff, rather than getting better at self-delusion!

So, onto the next bit: formatting, choosing a title, acquiring a book cover, writing a ‘blurb’, creating keywords, applying for an ISBN and a US EIN, writing front pages, writing back pages, …

Maybe I need to get that walking stick out again.