On Doing Stuff We Think We Can’t Do

Photo on 2013-04-30 at 11.44If you had asked me this morning, if I could ride my electric bike up the steep hill to campus without the electric bit working properly, I’d have said no.

You’d have to understand: Firstly, when I died in a car accident, it made my breathing tube very small…I can’t pump air in and out quickly enough for a game of tennis or a run around the block. Then, you’d have to know the bike. It’s a second gen electric bike. It’s mainly steel and it weighs about five million pounds. The battery itself weighs two million. I never bother to lock it up. I just take the battery. If someone steals it, I’ll find it…about ten feet away. The thief will be nearby, holding onto their legs and gasping.

Then there’s the hill.

2003-071-students-on-drive

 

Here it is, looking lovely. It always looks lovely when you are looking DOWN the hill. Like all horrible cycling hills, it starts with a long, slow gradient that gradually gets tougher and tougher until it is the horrible hill you see in the photo. Then you have a moment and then another gradient begins. It’s like Capability Brown, the Regency garden designer who landscaped Newton Park, thought to himself, ‘One day, people will use bicycles. Let’s make it really hurt.’

So, anyway, halfway up the gradient part, the engine stopped working. I could get it to work for little ten second spurts, but then I’d have to get off and resettle the battery to get it to go again. With a student waiting for me, I had to think strategically…by spurting and then pedalling the beast without help and then just walking/hauling it up the worst bits and then resettling the battery and etc, etc, etc, I finally got to my office.

When I’m out of breath, the scar tissue in my throat makes my breath VERY noisy. People offered me inhalers (they always do). People laughed (they always do this, as well). People looked at me with scorn, as if to say ‘how could you let yourself get so unfit’ (they always do this, too). Sometimes people offer to give me lifts. Sometimes people ask if they should phone an ambulance.

God, it’s humiliating.

But trying hard always is. If you try something you’ve never done before and try really hard to do it, kind people will advise you to stop, or maybe to get professional help. Less kind people will laugh or be scornful.

But it will be you that, eventually, gets to the top of the hill.

Mind you, you might need a little break once you get there…

 

Something Funny

Photo on 2013-04-25 at 11.49 #4

 

I’m writing a book that makes me laugh.

I’ve sent the first ten thousand words of my dying-in-a-car-crash rewrite off to Sophie. I’m waiting to see if she thinks I’ve got the narrative voice just right. So, in the meantime, I’m working on another book – a funny book.

I actually laugh out loud when I’m writing it. And giggle almost all the time. I’m writing it with my 11 year old daughter. We make up what happens over our afternoon tea. I go away and write it up and then she reads what I’ve done and asks for edits. It’s more fun than anybody really deserves to have.

For years and years and years, I’ve been trying to be serious and grown up in my work. To be honest, I don’t think that’s worked all that well. And one reason it hasn’t worked all that well is that, although I am well educated and think seriously and deeply about all kinds of current issues and philosophical concepts on which I am fairly well-informed, I’m also rather…silly.

Silly by choice. Silly because, damn it, there’s enough to cry about and be shocked by and worry over in life without me sitting down at the keyboard and adding to it. Silly because I have thought seriously and deeply about all kinds of current issues and philosophical concepts on which I am fairly well-informed.

I’m not silly because I’m too stupid to understand the dark side of life. I’m silly because I think the best thing I can do with my talent is help get my readers through another bloody day.

God, I wish I could share this chapter with you right now. The part where the teachers all fall off the back of the stage makes my eyes water with pure joy. Instead, have this selfie of me that got photobombed by the labrador. Hope it makes you smile.

 

 

Long Time Gone

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I balance my literary life with my other commitments. Of those ‘other commitments’, the largest are work and family. I’ve been away because of family.

In three months, both of my in-laws have died. My husband is an only child – and so I’ve been helping with…with all the stuff that you have to do when someone dies. In a way, there’s a lot of it and it takes forever. And in a way: Poof! It’s all gone.

Death. We don’t talk much about it anymore. When I was a kid in 1960s America, we lived closer to death than we do now. Coffins were open, old people stayed in their families and their neighbourhoods. You saw people decay…you saw the inevitability of what happens. An attractive woman would become ill, age rapidly and still do her shopping and water her flowers and then you’d see her stagger in her garden and then it was her funeral. I remember being led up to open coffins and peeping over the edge, disappointed by how undramatic it was, how normal the deceased looked.

I’m writing about my own death again. When I was 14, I died in a car accident. Of course, I came back! I wrote a memoir about my injury and recovery. Now a publisher wants me to fictionalise it, for a larger readership. It was hard to write and it’s still hard to write…I feel like death is all around me right now, like I can hear a long scythe being sharpened just behind my left shoulder.

Being conscious of our own impending death is, some people say, the main defining characteristic of the human. It is the root of all our neuroses and also of our altruism.

It’s also a great motivator. I’ve got four books on the go at once and I really need to finish some of them, get them out, get them published and let them go. I have other ideas. I have other things to do. And I’m not getting any younger –  none of us are. So I’m starting to wake up just that little bit earlier and work just that little bit longer. As my Irish grandmother used to say, ‘There’s plenty of time to rest when you’re dead.’

My Glamorous Literary Workshop I – February 17th – Bath, Somerset

I’m very much looking forward to this working with Writing Events Bath on February 17th. It’s easy to get blown off course when you’re in the middle or near the end of a long writing project. This workshop helps writers connect with and articulate their own literary aesthetic; and remember what they love about reading and writing. Participants will take away a series of self-generated expressions of their taste, choice and passion in and for prose fiction.

If you’d like to come along, there are still some places left here.  If you’d like me to run this workshop for your group, contact me here.

The Doctor and The Mate – Friends Every Writer Needs

Photo on 2013-01-10 at 23.51

I’ve just come back from the emergency ward/A&E, and since I’m pumped up full of steroids, I thought I’d share an insight about the writing life I had while I was there.

I have a health condition that I manage by basically ignoring it as much as I can. And that works until once every ten years or so, when it stops working and I need someone with a very specific and acute understanding of throats. And by that time, I need them quite quickly.

And then they do their thing and I’m okay again, which is where we came into the story.

It’s a lot like my new MA student. He is writing a certain kind of book (and if it’s as good as I think it’s going to be, I’ll be telling you about it later). It’s a very specific kind of book, a kind of book not all my colleagues like or read. In an hour together today, we saved his book’s life. It’s going to grow up to be a really brilliant story now.

I was his book’s throat doctor. I knew all the ins and outs of what had happened to it and what we needed to do to get it going again.  And we need people like that, in our writing lives. We need folks who give it to us straight, who say: Take This Particular Steroid Or You Might Die.

But we also need people like my great mate, who has been in and out of a few emergency rooms and specialist wards in her own life. People who will come get you and drive you to the hospital. People who will walk beside you and hold your hand. People who know absolutely nothing about your book (and perhaps won’t even like it or read it) but people who know about you.

People who, when you are saying, ‘I don’t want to take another steroid. That’s three today,’ say, ‘I think you better go ahead and take it. You’re upsetting the doctor.’ People who drive you to McDonalds on the way home and give you a hug once you’re there.

Your book has to work in order to survive. But you have to survive, too.  Sometimes you need to hear the tough advice. Sometimes you just need to hear that someone is behind you, caring that you achieve your dreams.

MS

Hospital High, Blazing

On Stretching ‘Till It Hurts

Photo on 2012-12-04 at 11.48 #3

I like my hair white. God is making my hair white, but he’s too slow. My hairdresser tells me it’s too dangerous and she won’t help me. And she’s right. I regularly destroy the ends of my hair and have to cut them off. And I often burn my scalp, bleaching my hair. I bleached it for two four-hour sessions yesterday and destroyed the ends. (I cut them off this morning.) And it’s still not really white – there’s a bit of yellow left in places. I’ll need to do more purple shampoos before it goes the colour I like.

On the other hand, it IS utterly fabulous.

My daughter, aged 10, is an ambitious dancer. She likes to see The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden (we get cheap seats and book the train months ahead of time). She fully expects to be dancing that well in ten years’ time (although she really is interested in becoming a choreographer). She’s just started training at a Russian Ballet School in Bristol, as well as at our local dance school. The Russian Ballet ask for a great deal more extension than my daughter has, and she’s been stretching assiduously. One day, in P.E. at school, she pulled an adductor muscle in her right leg. She’s having physio on it now, and off dance for the rest of the year.

On the other hand, her ballet has really improved.

Sophie has been in talks with a publisher I very much like, about Hospital High. They’d like me to make it more fictional than memoir, for me to ‘base it’ on my life experiences, but not conform to them. They’d like more about my relationships and about the 1970s setting. It’s a stretch. I might hurt it if I try to do that to it.

But on the other hand, it could be absolutely amazing.

To be amazing, you have to risk. To get better at something is to leave the way you’ve done it before completely behind. You don’t know it will work: you might lose, you might get hurt. But that’s art: being injured is almost guaranteed in ballet. Failing, regularly, is almost guaranteed in writing. You can live in the safety of what you know and do what you always do, I suppose. But it doesn’t sound much like living to me.

Current Manuscripts: Hospital High, Blazing Heart

 

Chaos and Order in the Writing Life

I meant to write this Thursday. I meant to have my hair done this morning. My husband didn’t really want to run to the Post Office to tax his car before giving two wine tastings in two separate cities (both with flood warnings). I didn’t really want to miss my daughter’s Taster Day reception at the school we are hoping she’ll attend next year, but I mis-read the time and scheduled teaching, instead. Oh, and the house looks like we’ve been burgled.

Chaos.

I can’t write when things are this messy and chaotic.

But they get this way, when I’ve been writing.

When things are going well with my writing, I don’t really notice that I tracked in half a ton of twigs, rosemary needles and dead leaves when I go out to garden and think about what happens next in my latest book. I don’t care that I have forgotten all the paperwork to do with my daughter’s school activities. I’m not bothered about dirty dishes or the fact that we still haven’t started the decorating (and the walls look horrid). I don’t answer my phone calls and I put emails about things I should do to one side, to think about ‘later’. But then, one day, I go to write and I am noticing it all. I think to myself, ‘Really! Why is this house so horrible? I can’t work in an environment like this! I can’t deal with all these people, phoning me, wanting me to do things, asking me questions!’

I get quite shirty about it.

But it was my fault (writing too early and then too tired to cook at dinner time) that there are big pizza boxes on the kitchen counters. It was me that left all my teaching books scattered on the dining room table (getting an hour or so in on the manuscript before my daughter came home). It was me that didn’t care about filing my class registers. Now it’s time to get out the shovel and clean the place, and spend a few hours on admin, so that my writer self can get back to work…and mess it all up again.

She’s horridly selfish. But I love her.

With Love, From Me To You

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

 

Out of Control

 

My hair…

I went for a walk in a rainy forest and it’s completely out of control.

So is my manuscript. I told Sophie I’d have it done by the end of summer. I told myself I’d have it done by Christmas. I’ve been writing it three years. Right now, I don’t know if it will ever be finished.

I have a first half I love and a second half I quite like. I’m trying to write the first half to meet up with the second half. But it won’t go. It won’t do it. My characters keep doing other things, instead.

And this, this maddening state of affairs, is actually a good sign. I finally finished that Graeme Greene book about General Omar Torrijos (I read a few novels in between chunks). Greene talks about talking about characters that begin to do things you didn’t plan, and how it’s a good sign. He was chatting to a girl when he remembers talking about it…which goes to show you. It’s so true, it’s nearly a cliché.

So, it’s a good thing. I keep telling myself. It’s a good thing.

But when I look in the mirror, or when I look at the first part of the second half of my manuscript, I have moments of despair.

Manuscript: To Hide Her Blazing Heart

Word Count: 75,692

The Best

This is a post about starting over – about thinking to yourself, ‘no, that’s not good enough,’ and going on to get it right.

I have many role models in my life for this…lately Andy Murray, the British Tennis Champion. Murray is an extremely good tennis player. He’s been ranked in the top ten male singles players since 2007. He’s made it to the finals of all Grand Slam tournaments and once qualified for every final in the same year. But he hasn’t won a single one. Last year, he got a new coach, Ivan Lendl, and this year he nearly won Wimbledon. In his emotional thank you speech, he told his supportive fans that he is ‘getting closer’.

That’s what you need to be a champion – you need to want it badly. You need to be driven to do the best that you can, to be the very best that you can be.

And that means, when you’re writing something wonderful, you may need to start the whole thing over again.

My manuscript was coming along very well. I was storming ahead on writing it. But the voice wasn’t right. The pace wasn’t right. And even though the story is an amazing, breathtaking tale (I can say this, because I don’t feel like I made it up – I feel it was already there, waiting for me), it wasn’t being told as well as it could be.

And that’s not good enough. I’ve started it again, with a new voice. Because being really good isn’t good enough. Not for Andy Murray, and not for me.

Manuscript: To Hide Her Blazing Heart

Word Count: 1346