In Between Tangoes

Photo on 2014-03-27 at 15.01

I’ve talked about failure and rejection. I’ve talked about despair. I’ve talked about lethargy and procrastination.

But I haven’t talked much about joy.

This post is about the joy in a writer’s life.  I have joy to spare today.

For the first time in quite a long time, I wrote a book my agent simply loves. A simple, uncomplicatedly good book, which easily fits into the market’s requirements. It will be going out to publishers soon.

And that’s heavenly. That’s such good news, that I’ve been tangoing around the house, literally dancing around in utter glee. The dog thinks I’ve gone mad, and I’ve had to go to our new Waitrose in order to make myself sit down properly and write this post.

My new novel is a wonderful story, about a girl who befriends a wounded grizzly bear…but I won’t go any further than that. You’ll just have to trust me. It’s a cracking tale, and it’s set in a spectacular part of the world that I know quite well. The setting is so strong, it’s almost another character, and it gave me a great deal of excuse to let loose with my inner poet. I loved writing this book – I wrote 33,000 words in 11 days.  The ending made my husband (a hardy Northerner) cry.

thought it was pretty good, but Sophie had reservations. I’ve overcome her reservation with the polish-up, however, and she’s now just as keen as me.

And that feels…amazing. Out of all the people in the world, this story came to me. I got to write it, and I did a good enough job that other people can now experience it for themselves. Before I sat down last spring, Darcy and the bear and her father did not exist. Now, they live in at least two readers’ minds. Where there was nothing, now there is something.

All the stuff that comes after; money and reviews and (please God) award nominations and etc, that’s not the reward for the world. The reward is this moment, when I know I’ve made something good.

Excuse me. I’m just going to tango around the produce.

Riding the Just-broke Horse

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I’m waiting.

I had a phone call with Editor O’ My Dreams this week and we talked about what she wants from the beginning of my fictionalised-memoir-of-dying-in-a-car-accident. What she’s asked  is going to be quite challenging. She wanted the fiction to show more than the memoir about my life before the accident, about what I lost when I lost my voice. But now that she has that, she misses the immediate sympathy and hook of the original beginning, which took you just to the moment when I was struggling to stay alive. Somehow, I now have to weave both into the beginning.

I tried to work on it yesterday, but my imagination wouldn’t come when I called.

It’s like that.

And I really wouldn’t want it any other way.

One of my first jobs was as a cowgirl. Well, I could ride and we’d all had to leave the ski hill where I was working early because the snow just…stopped. In Montana. In January. It wasn’t like there were tons of jobs waiting for us. I could string fence and I could ride and I knew how to move cows around. I have no idea how I knew how to move cows around. I’d never done it before. But on my trial, I motivated them through a gate as if I’d been born doing it. The rancher ‘s wife was impressed and I was hired.

I also got involved with training horses (and, later, mules, but that’s another story). I was working as a waitress in an all-night diner on the graveyard shift and feeding cattle and riding fence in the early mornings. I slept from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, but then I had some free time. I was also usually still wearing my jeans and boots, having collapsed on top of the quilt. I thought I might as well make some extra money, so I took on the training.

Some of the horses were just-broke. You could get them to come to you, eventually, and you could get the saddle on, usually. What happened when you got into the saddle was not predictable.  There was only one thing about them of which I was certain. They loved to run.

They were still young. They could still remember the freedom of the big fields and ranging the mare/foal pastures. They couldn’t wait to shake the fidgets out of their legs. I stopped riding not long after that time, after a bad fall which dislocated both arms and my nerve. But back then, I was still totally fearless with ten or twelve years of riding under my belt. I’d raise up a bit in the stirrups (I’ve always liked them a bit short), lay down on their necks and just fly.

The mountains were high and snowcapped. The air was angel-pure and burned your lungs with cold. It was, I suppose, about as close to heaven as we mortals get.

And that’s just what it’s like when the writing comes. I lose track of my fingers and what they’re doing. I forget that I’m making a world with pixels on a screen. I just fly.

But first, I have to catch the horse. It will come to me, eventually. And I’ll be able to get the saddle on, usually. But sometimes I can’t and sometimes it won’t come when I call.

It’s like that.

On Being Irrepressible

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I’m going to talk about writing. I’m going to say something very profound and important. But first I’m going to talk about my hair.

My hair. Sigh.

Some of you have always known me with straight white-blond hair. The fact is, I thought I’d bleach it white and that made it straight (I also made it break and made my scalp bleed a little, too, but hey, ho). I couldn’t keep doing that (even though I loved how it looked) so I’ve had to go back more to my original colour. And my curls are starting to boing up. Straightening them takes me half the day. Cutting them off seems to be the better option. There’s just no stopping my hair, once it starts.

And, now that I’ve given myself permission to start writing again, there’s no stopping that, either. I’m still waiting for the Editor O’ My Dreams to come back to me. I delivered two new manuscripts to my agent last week (well, one new, one rewritten after her comments) and, over the weekend, I started another, which will be a follow-on to the based-on-a-true-story ms with the Editor O’ My Dreams.

And something else seems to be happening, too. I’ve always read every book I started. All my life. Some, like James Joyce’s Ulysses (which I read far too young) I threatened to leave, but I didn’t. Every crappy romance found on a rainy day at a B&B, every sports biography opened during a sleepless night at a relative’s house, every Rainbow Magic Fairy book my daughter pressed into my unwilling hands – I read them all to the last horrible page.

Now, I’m not. I’m saying to myself, ‘That’s too self-indulgent. I’m not reading any further.’ Snap shut the cover. I’m saying, ‘This is too densely referential and all the research is ruining it for me.’ Regretfully pat and put back into library bag.

I’m not reading anything else that I don’t like. Even if the writer won the Nobel.

The fact is, when I became  a professional writer, I started listening to what people told me about writing. About mine, about other people’s… I rather lost my own sense of taste, my own understanding of what is good and what is not. I’ve got no beef with Louise Rennison – she’s dead funny. But I’ve had the fiction director of my publishing house sit down with me and ask me if I thought I could write more like her.  And felt bad because I didn’t think I could ever say yes.

Well, goodbye to all that. Life is too short to read books you don’t like…and much too short to write them.

I’m afraid my taste in writing, like my hair, is becoming, once again, completely irrepressible. My hair colour might change again. But that won’t.

Afore Ye Go

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At railway stations, there used to be large signs advertising Bells Whisky. ‘Afore Ye Go’ was their slogan – in WWI, they gave away drams of whisky to disembarking troops.

The last time I wrote this blog, I thought I might be about to die. I’m not.

I also wrote about considering giving up writing. I’m not doing that, either.

But to be honest, I’ve considered giving up writing for years now. It’s been a hard time for me. I’ve had some rotten luck with publishers; good editors leaving or being forcibly retired and then me and my books pushed onto editors who didn’t want or like them, a publicity director getting sacked just when one of my books came out – so no review copies sent out – and then being pulled into a meeting for poor sales… I know I shouldn’t moan, but it does get to you, eventually.

I’ve done extraordinary things in order to write. I was engaged to a man who left me because I ‘spent too much time writing’. I used to wake up at four a.m. to write before cycling into Oxford Circus from Stoke Newington and working a ten hour day. I cycled because it was quicker and I could write longer. When we lived with my in-laws and I was trying to rewrite my first novel, I’d get up at five and get a lift with my father-in-law to a condemned house, which had been owned by friends. I had a small paraffin heater, and I’d take a flask of tea. Toilet facilities were a bit grim.

I used to be passionate about my writing. But I’d taken so many punches (at work and in publishing) that all the passion had been punched out of me.  I kept on writing in fits and starts, but I had no confidence, so I had no passion. It certainly didn’t seem more important than, say, the laundry, or a pile of marking. Nobody seemed to value it, so I didn’t either.

When I thought I might be about to die, I really had to ask myself: do you want to keep doing this? If you only have a few years left, do you want to spend any of it alone in a room, typing?

Something extraordinary has happened as a result. I’ve rediscovered my passion. I’m saying, ‘No, I can’t make breakfast, sweetie, I have to write.’ I’m saying, ‘I can’t finish this marking in the time I’ve got because I can’t work ten hours a day unpaid.’ I’m saying, ‘Mummy loves you very much, darling. Now go and do something else for another hour.’

And I’m writing, writing, writing, writing, writing, writing, and writing.

Afore I go.

So Little Time

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I’m sorry not to write lately. I haven’t wanted to write much of anything. 

I’ve evidently got a heart condition – who knew? I’ve felt breathless most of my life, but I’ve been a bit extra breathless lately. Then I phoned my doctor to say I had some chest pain and the next thing I knew I was in the back of an ambulance. I have angina…and on Monday I’ll find out if it’s take-a-few-tablets angina or open-heart-surgery angina or something in between. They told me the finding out procedure kills one in 1000 people who have it. It starts heart attacks in 20 more. And in some, it causes strokes. 

I’m waiting for this procedure. I’m also waiting to find out if Editor O’ My Dreams likes my latest manuscript. 

I hate waiting.  I’ve already died once, in a car accident when I was fourteen. I constantly feel time ticking away. And Monday seems to be rushing towards me. 

So I started wondering – do I really want to spend the time in between writing?

And then I wondered: Do I really want to spend the rest of my life writing at all? My writing life isolates me. To fund it, I work in a stressful environment (doing what I love, teaching other writers, but in the increasingly competitive academy). To really succeed at the combination of them both, it’s not enough to write well enough to be published. I must try and write world-class, award-winning fiction. The whole thing really is quite stressful – I haven’t had that big break-through book and might never have it. It means my place in the academy and in publishing is always uncertain. The whole thing can’t be good for me or my heart. 

After all, I don’t just live for me – I have an eleven-year old child and a husband and an elderly mother. It might be actually selfish to keep writing. 

Since I had time to think, I’ve thought. I’ve thought about the great relief it would be just to live – to go to work and come home and make dinner. To see my friends lots and keep my house nice and have parties…to GO to parties. And then I thought the parties I really want to go to are usually other writers’ book launches. And that I’ll still be reading. And that I doubt very much if I could actually stop writing altogether. 

Then I went to breakfast with a friend who talked about one of my books with such fondness that it made me cry. And I read a few fan letters. And I read this article from Science. And I thought some more, about why I really write and how if it helps just one person, just a little bit, it will all have been worth it.

My life will all have been worth it. 

So I started writing again. 

 

 

Don’t Listen To Anybody – For David and Susan

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Writers make millions of decisions. Some are easy…should I use double quotation marks or single?… but some are tough. One of the toughest is about listening to advice.

Advice on the single or double quotation mark question might be very useful, especially if your publisher has a house style. Advice on whether or not anyone is picking up on a subtle plot hint is useful, too.  And if everyone who sees your book hates the main character or the narrative voice or the way you’ve used third person, it’s time to rethink.

But when someone tells you what to write or what not to write, you really shouldn’t listen.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, don’t write X. Nobody wants to read X anymore,’ to an emerging writer. Sometimes it’s an agent or a publisher, who really believes that the X form is dead. Sometimes it’s a next door neighbour, who heard someone say it on Radio Four. Sometimes it’s someone who couldn’t sell their own X project.

It doesn’t matter. What’s nearly guaranteed is that sometime in the next five years, someone will have a big hit with X. And if that poor writer actually listened, they’ll be gnashing their teeth in the wilderness, looking at their abandoned manuscript and moaning that it could have been them.

We have to write what’s in our hearts and write it the best we can. The next big thing might be X or Y or even Z. Nobody really knows.

But we do know it will be really good. It will have meant everything to the person who wrote it. He or she will have been unable to stop themselves from telling that particular story. And it’s absolutely certain that someone, sometime, somewhere, will have told the next big writer not to bother, that nobody wanted that kind of book, that they should write something else.

But they won’t have listened.

Money, Money, Money

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Most writers can’t just write. The last number I saw was 43…that’s the estimate of how many writers can make a living from just writing fiction. ‘A living’ is a semi-detached house with three bedrooms, two cars and school fees for two children, plus one foreign holiday a year.  ‘Ha!’ we say, and ‘ha!’ again.

Most of the writers I know do something else, too. Lots of us do more than one something else. We might teach in universities or colleges, go into schools for day or week-long workshops, go into residencies, write journalism, give public workshops, review or do public speaking. Many of us do combinations of several of these.

It gets complicated. In any one week, I might be doing two or three of those things AND writing. And then, I have to remember to claim the money I’m owed for the first one while doing the other one or two. Sometimes, I forget. For weeks, even months.

Then there’s the nature of fiction publishing in general. You get a whack of money (and smaller and smaller whacks, these days) up front and then nothing for quite a long time.

It makes for a very confusing and irregular income. You often ‘lose’ money as an author, after expenses, for years. That means you rather forget about your tax bill when a good year comes along and then, boom! That’s how I ended up driving such a horrible little car. I had to sell mine to pay my tax bill…

If you are a very organised person with good budgeting skills, you can do quite well from your fiction. You can do three or four events a week, booked well in advance, do some teaching where you carefully monitor hours given and hours paid, save for your taxes and invest your advances and end up coining the stuff.

But if you are a very organised kind of person, you probably won’ t be a writer.

So you’ll be like me, at the end of a carefully budgeted summer, having forgotten to claim the income I was going to buy food with in September.

Beans on toast, anyone?

Writer on a Train: Home

Photo on 2013-06-18 at 09.30

 

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.

Writer on a Train: You Can’t Do Everything 2

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I’ve always done too much. I died when I was 14 and, since then, I’ve tried to cram as much as I can into every day. I go for weeks, months, not getting enough sleep and then collapse into illness that goes to my throat and lungs. Every time I get an illness in my throat and lungs, I think it might be the one that will eventually carry me off. And so, once I’m well, I throw myself back into life with the same urgency.

 That’s why I have not one, but four books on the go. It’s why I have several research interests. It’s why I grew my own vegetables, baked my own bread, have a dog and a cat, became a school governor and a children’s liturgist, external at three universities, etc, etc, etc.

But there are a lot of things I don’t do. I don’t go out much at night. Most writers either don’t go out much at night or don’t get up in the mornings. (There is no earthly use in scheduling a poetry class at nine a.m.)

I don’t do birthday and anniversaries, except for my very, very closest friends and family. I don’t iron. I don’t have beige carpets (in fact, I don’t have carpets at all – I have wooden floors). I don’t follow fashion. I don’t go shopping much. I don’t go to fairs or festivals (except literary ones when I’m working for the university or for myself).

Two writing friends recently admitted that they don’t even dust. I’m not quite that bad, yet.

I don’t watch television series. I don’t keep my nails painted. My skin care regime is skimpy and faulty and, when I’m working, I don’t even know what I’ve eaten…I just see the pile of plates when I’m done. I also don’t get to the hairdresser often enough – something regular readers of this blog will have noted.

I don’t see my friends as often as I should. I don’t write or Skype my cousins as often as I’d like. I don’t go to morning Mass, even though I theoretically could and actually would like to. I don’t pick my daughter up from school. I don’t take her, either. I don’t schedule her into a variety of activities (she has two dance classes a week). I don’t arrange a lot of playdates and sleepovers for her and I often forget when she’s due to do something special at school. I am the parent who is always late in with her permission slip and fee for the field trip.

Because I am writing a lot and reading a lot and I can’t do everything.

Writing is part of every aspect of my life. From the time my alarm goes off and whether or not I can walk the dog to if I can have another glass of wine and how much fervour I put into my goodnight kiss. To do this thing – which includes so many false starts and reworkings and blind alleys it’s an absolutely ridiculous eater of time – it has to be my life’s priority. To remain in a relationship with me requires patience and fortitude I myself do not possess. I am absurdly grateful for how much love there is in my life.

Those who love me, who truly love me, leave me alone to get on with it.

I wish I could show them how much I appreciate it. But you can’t do everything. 

Writer on a Train: Taking Pains

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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.