The value of writing and reading when life is very busy…
If you’re trying to write (or do anything else difficult), you might like to hear my collected wisdom from the A Place in Words project. There’s only a few minutes of it – I think they pretty much got the lot.
Well, I’m home. I’m charging my bike’s battery in the other room. I charged mine last night. I slept all the way through until seven o’clock.
I haven’t written a word.
I’ve swept the floor, done the dishes, printed off a few things for my daughter. I’ve answered over forty emails and talked to the nice man who is going to make us a new front door. I’ve also read Matt Haig’s The Humans (if you haven’t, get it as soon as possible). I’ve had three glasses of good Californian Cabernet Sauvignon (my husband tends to express his emotions through wine) and made a rather tasty tomato and basil risotto.
But I haven’t written anything. And I won’t today.
All that careful organisation of my time that I wrote about yesterday hasn’t happened. And I feel, although I’ve done all the above, that I’ve failed. I’ve had too many times like this lately, too many days when I fail to write. There is a reason all my writing heroes, when I was a child, were men. I’d read The Obstacle Race by Germaine Greer, but I still found myself, once my daughter began attending school, trying to cram a ten hour working day (as lecturer and writer) into five or six hours.
That hasn’t been good for me or my work, or my writing. It hasn’t been good for my husband (who actually does a great deal of the housework). It was good for my daughter, who strenuously resisted any form of after-school care that wasn’t mine, but she is old enough now to understand.
I’m home. But home has to change.
The academic year is ending. I have a month to get systems in place before my mother comes for a visit. Cleaner, someone to do the ironing. Shed built. It’s been easy to be me on the road, now I have to do the hardest thing of all – learn to be me as a mother and a wife.
I won’t be blogging every day. But I’ll let you know how it goes.
It’s a hard thing for students to understand: ‘Work may be technically correct and tell a coherent narrative and still not achieve a first class mark.’
You can write perfectly nicely and tell a story perfectly well and still not be any good.
Finding out whether or not you are any good is the main reason people do higher degrees in Creative Writing. In fact, talking about whether or not something is any good is the main reason Creative Writing exists as an academic subject. In the early 1980s/late 1970s English Literature became supremely uninterested in whether or not writing was any good. I can remember it vividly, because it happened to me in such a personal way. In the early 1980s, I was such a good BA Eng Lit student that I was urged to take classes at graduate level.
I got on well with the New Critics (who were Old Critics by then). In particular, I loved Cleanth Brooks. I felt he had my back and I had his. But suddenly, I was confronted by a whole different language. It was a WWI – WWII American Fiction seminar. We were reading A Farewell to Arms. And suddenly, instead of talking about narrative structure or characterisation or anything else I was prepared to discuss, we started talking about patriarchy, hegemonist masculinity. With effort, this became of tepid interest. But truly, all the fun of English Literature had gone. I ended up taking far more distributive hours than I needed and inadvertently graduated with a minor in Geography.
So the ‘is in any good’ness is important, not just to my subject, but to me, personally. It’s the whole of my life that is in question: I am mostly, really, made up of text. When I die, I would like this question to be in some way answered.
At times i have thought, ‘Hell, yes, I’m brilliant.’ At times I have thought, ‘The reason you are obscure, Mimi, is that you are no damn good.’ I have rushed some work in the past. I have written quickly in order to feed my family and pay my mortgage. But I’ve written some really good stuff, too. Life is short and I’m over 50. I’m not going write anything but my best ever, ever again.
A friend is submitting work to agents and getting rejections. And it hurts. I have realised I need to rewrite, not revise Hospital High, a memoir, into Losing My Voice, a fictionalised account of my death in a car accident at 14. That hurts, too. I didn’t want to have to do it…there are other things I want to write, too, and I really want to have a new book out next year. But its not enough to write nicely and tell a compelling story. You have to take pains, if you want to be any damn good.
You have to take the pains.
I’ve always written in bed. Now, I’m commissioning a writing shed.
I’ve always paid all my writing money into the family account. Now, I’m only paying in a percentage and investing the rest in my own development and promotional activities.
I used to write in the early mornings, and that worked for me. Then my life changed. Now, I snatch bits of time and it doesn’t really work well at all. That’s got to change, too. Hence the shed. I need to be out of the house for the ‘Mum, where’s my socks?’ hour, the ‘I forgot to tell you, I’ve got a tasting tonight and won’t be home until ten,’ hour, the ‘I knew I could catch you if I rang early,’ hour. Now, I’ll be in my shed. You can disturb me for blood, bones and fire…and maybe zombie invasions.
I’m changing. I’m going back to being what I was all along, underneath.
A writer, first and foremost. Every day.
Most of my friends aren’t writers. I know and am fond of a great many writers, but I live in a small market town. My best mates do all kinds of things. We do the same things, too. Most of us go to my church or live on my street or our kids go to the same school in Bath. And they are, frankly, better at all the things we do the same. I’ve been trying to paint my hall for months – one of my mates has almost totally renovated her house in that time. All the mums at school keep saying, ‘Are you all ready for Christmas?’ The answer is no, not at all. Even though I’ve put all my church commitments in my diary, sometimes I forget that I’m meant to be reading or doing something else for the parish. I’m a trial to my great mates, the ushers at the Sunday morning Mass.
I know that they often wonder why I’m so…rubbish.
It’s the reading and writing, of course. And they forget.
Sometimes they say, ‘I don’t know when you do it all.’ And no, they don’t. Because they don’t understand. The writing…and the reading (which takes even more time) doesn’t go around the other elements of my life, like other work would. The reading and writing are the centre of my life. I am, mostly, made up of text. It is how I interact with the world, it is my primary essence. But that’s invisible to my friends. They may notice that there are piles of books everywhere in my house (as well as occupying the whole of one room and three other walls) but they don’t see me reading. They don’t see me writing.
My family knows my dirty secret. My daughter always used to draw me with a book in my hands. My husband calls up the stairs, ‘Mimi! We have to GO. Stop READING!’
It’s not my leisure time. It’s my life. And no, my tree isn’t up, thanks for asking.
Current ms; Hospital High, Blazing Heart
I know, I look tired. In my job (I’m a university lecturer, as well as an author), if you don’t look tired by the middle of November, you aren’t doing it right.
I do it right. I love my students. I mean, I genuinely care about every single one of them; even the ones whose names I can’t remember. Even the (perhaps especially the) horrid, difficult, spiky ones. I have about 95 students I’m teaching directly this year and another 100 or so that I either tutor, mentor or pop in to see and speak to occasionally. And I love every one of them, even the first-year-boys-who-smell-of-pub.
And they love me back. I give them my energy and they give me energy. Sometimes I get more than I give. Sometimes I give more. It’a not useful to keep track.
It’s the same way in my writing life. I got a nice forward last night. Someone who I really respect loved something I’d written. They said that word, ‘loved’. And suddenly, I’m full of energy again for my current project. The reader had felt the love I’d put into my writing and had responded to it. My love had gone to her, and so she sent me some back. I feel like I got a good deal out of that exchange and I hope she does, too.
When I wrote that story, I didn’t know if anyone would ever read it. I felt alone and very vulnerable when I wrote it. But I put the love in, anyway, like a message in a bottle. Because, really, what are we doing when we write, if we don’t? What good is it to anyone if we save our energy for ourselves and don’t spill it out into our texts, willy nilly?
There’s no safety in the game of writing. You either do it, or you don’t. And doing it means doing it with…well, there’s no other word for it…love.
Current ms: Blazing Heart
Word Count: 82,945
I was watching the football (soccer) highlights programme, Match of the Day, on Sunday morning. It was the Arsenal v Queens Park Rangers game and I was struck by a wonderful save by Rangers’ goalkeeper Julio Cesar. It was a frantic goalmouth scramble…three or four Arsenal players and two or three Rangers. The ball was bouncing around like a popcorn kernel in a hot pan.
If Cesar had gone for the ball, he could have easily missed it. But he didn’t. He waited. At last someone’s boot got a clean poke at the ball; it sailed free towards the goal. Cesar plucked it from the air easily and gracefully – as if he was alone at the goal, as if nothing was distracting him.
It reminded me of what I’ve been reading, a non-fiction book by Graham Greene about his time with Panamanian General Omar Torrijos. In it, Greene is attempting to write a novel with the working title of On The Way Back. On Sunday morning, I had just read a little about Greene working for two months in London to write two pages.
Greene never did write On The Way Back. But while he was trying, he didn’t think that he had lost his ability to write. He didn’t force it. He didn’t panic. He didn’t immediately try and write something else. Just like Cesar, he waited with confidence. His next novel was The Human Factor.
Timing seems to be about confidence, about knowing what you can do and being content to wait for the right time to do it. Knowing what you can do also means knowing what you can’t do – Greene realised that, for him, using real people as characters was too limiting. He wouldn’t do it again. Cesar didn’t rely on a pacy dive.
Currently, I have two halves of a novel and I’m not sure how I’ll make them into a whole. I’m taking a lot of long walks to think about it (in this picture, I’ve just come back from a tramp in the rain around Willsbridge Mill with my ten year old daughter and eight month old labrador puppy). When I’m ready, I’ll pounce.
Manuscript: To Hide Her Blazing Heart
Word Count: 73, 419
Twenty years ago. I am sitting on a cushion, opposite a Zen Master.
‘No hindrance,’ he says. ‘Don’t make good or make bad.’
‘But…’ I say. The day before I had told him that I had just remembered a horrible childhood memory, while I was sitting the morning four hours of meditation. Now, I want to ask him how I am supposed to live with the damage and pain I have just seen inside myself. I look at him, and he smiles at me. He pats my hand.
He says, ‘Don’t make bad. Just is.’
‘But…’ I start to say again. Quick as a flash, he whacks his stick on the table. It’s a big stick. The ‘crack!’ is so loud I can feel it in my sternum.
‘No hindrance,’ he says. I bow and leave. The interview is over.
Down I walk to the dharma room. I’ve been sitting uneasily on my cushion, ever since I remembered the horrible thing. I have found it hard to keep still. I’ve been choking back tears. I enter the room as the bell rings for the next student to attend an interview. We pass each other at the door. I bow, and settle back down onto my cushion.
As soon as my breathing settles down, I start my practice. But again, I think about this horrible thing. Then, suddenly, I understand. I don’t have to think about it. I can just feel the pain and keep in the moment. I don’t have to go back and back and back to the horrible time. I can just stay here on my cushion and do my practice. That’s what I was here to do, after all.
I sit like a rock that afternoon. I acknowledged that this memory had come up. I felt the pain of it. But I was there to do my practice. It was no hindrance.
The Olympics are on, and you know I love watching world-class sport. I will have three job interviews this summer. My department has a new head and new staff coming in. I still don’t have a publisher for Hospital High, and the puppy is being quite naughty. My daughter is off school and my husband has been home with a virus.
But I am here to write. And so I sit down and I wait for my breathing to settle and I travel into another person’s body, in another time and I put down one word after another.
No hindrance. CRACK!
Project: To Hide Her Blazing Heart
Word Count: 10,357
You can find our more about where I got my Zen training here: http://www.kwanumzen.org/
I’m working in the garden of my in-laws’ house this morning. It’s nearly nine o’clock and I’m just about to stop and feed the family. Foyle, my puppy writing companion, has already been fed and is working on a rawhide bone while I write. He’s just done something admirable, which I’ll tell you about later – he’s not just my writing companion, he’s my writing guru.
I’ve been writing about an hour. It’s still going well. If I don’t stay up late again with my far-too-interesting inlaws tonight, I might get to write longer tomorrow. But as long as I write at least one hour, every single day, I know I’ll finish the book by the end of August.
Today, I realised just how flexible and wonderful my close third person, present tense voice is. I’ve never used a voice like it before and I love it for this novel. It makes everything right, everything that niggled before is now radiant and my prose is…well, it’s downright lovely. I’m so happy that I fear I’ll sound smug if I tell you any more…
I don’t sit down with a list of narrative techniques and decide how I’ll write a project – it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes something I am writing just doesn’t feel right. It will usually feel tight, as if my imagination was being constrained by the form.
Today, while I was writing, my in-laws’ longtime neighbour, Elaine, came walking by with her two dogs, returning from the field where Foyle and I had been earlier. Her dogs took exception to Foyle’s presence, and though Foyle put his paws up on the garden wall and leaned over to say hello, very friendly, they growled and snarled at him. Foyle and I went and sat down, but he’d evidently decided that this state of affairs was unsatisfactory, because, after sitting apparently contently for a moment, he suddenly got to his feet, ran to the stone wall and vaulted over it, landing briefly with all four paws on the top before dropping to the other side and taking off after those uppity dogs.
That’s what it feels like to get something right when you’re creating with words. One moment, you are unsatisfied with the way things have turned out. The next, you are flying over an obstacle you thought was insurmountable, chasing those problems away.
Working title: To Hide Her Blazing Heart
Word count: 6983