Coping with the Tide of Life

Photo by Richard Smith

Photo by Richard Smith

Today I feel lost and broken and sad. I’m sitting in the conservatory of the house we rent in Geneva. The doors are open and a light breeze is playing with the hem of my dress. The sky is a blue blanket dotted with wisps of cotton. I want to fly into it and disappear. I’d prefer dark clouds and cleansing rains. Black kites soar above me, casting shadows on our lawn, noisy and ominous as they search for prey. Just ahead, past the swing set, stands a tall lavender bush surrounded by splashes of colourful tulips. The beauty does not lift my mood. All I am conscious of is uncertainty and my own inadequacies.

I’m not sure what brought me to this place. A sense of having lost an anchor, perhaps. A mixed bag of niggling worries. Worrying, according to Buddhism, is a useless emotion, a waste of energy. Usually, I can identify the reason for feeling low. I find a solution or apply a plaster: a hug, tea and biscuits, sleep, write lists to keep from feeling overwhelmed, listen to music, dance in the kitchen with the kids. All of these usually help. But emotions are complex and cannot always be controlled, soothed or even recognised. Sometimes, they are just a murky mist of shapeless ghosts. A fog that eventually lifts.

I am grateful for the silent expression of writing, the soothing rhythm of my fingers as they move over the keyboard, that I don’t have to articulate my thoughts out loud. There is magic in surrendering to a blank page, of savouring the words which appear, a reflection of self. There is wisdom that comes with not rushing to analyse, of not having a conversation partner trying to fix you. Because sometimes a black tide of sadness comes in, and we have neither to make sense of it nor ignore it. What helps is just to be with it, to accept that the sadness will recede and we will find our footing again.

As a child, I was honest about my feelings, clear when I didn’t agree, unwilling to be artful. My parents sent me to a small primary school with a home away from home philosophy. They felt I wore my heart on my sleeve and needed to be protected. As an adult, I understand that there is both strength and fragility in baring ourselves to the world. Life is messy. It is nothing like the polished images we present of ourselves on social media. It twists and turns, and that is part of its beauty, the bright dawn against the night sky.

All we can do is cope in our own way, ask for help when we need it, do the work, make progress inch by inch, and remember what we are grateful for.

The Joys of Sisterhood

Photo by Parée

Photo by Parée

I’ve been thinking about the beauty of same sex friendships. For me, there is an emotional security – the German word is ‘Geborgenheit’ and describes this more accurately – about friendships between members of the same sex.

I don’t have any sisters though I always wanted one. The bond between sisters seems a magical one, be it in literature – take Jane Austen novels, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or Angela Carter’s Wise Children – or in real life. My mum is one of six siblings, only one of whom is a boy. My husband, an only child, went to a sports school where the fellow pupils became like brothers for him. I’m glad, looking back, that my parents decided to send my brother and me to single sex schools. Along with the rivalries and hurts that go hand in hand with school years, I formed lasting relationships there.

I was spoilt by intimacy growing up. My family on both sides is boisterous. They talk incessantly, a noisy battle of stories and jocularity, of stormy, steadfast affection. Then there was school and the strong friendships built through my parents’ insistence we attend Friday prayers. I was both anonymous and part of the fold. Looking back those relationships were a gift. The boys and girls used to hang out by the radiators at the back of the mosque after prayers, each on their own side of the room until we became old enough for the members of the opposite sex to become interesting.

As I grew and with the advent of mobile technology, my friendships began to develop independently of my parents. I’d spend hours on the phone talking to female friends using the free talk plans that were so generous in the early days of mobile phone companies. Even today I take huge pleasure from throwing on shoes and a coat and heading over to a friend’s for a cup of tea. No frills, no huge planning, just a few minutes of conversation shared over a mug of Tetley or Twinings.

Photo by Neil Krug

Photo by Neil Krug

It’s different here in Geneva, partly because we’ve only been here six months, and well, friendships develop over time. There is a large population turnover here. Ex-pats invariably arrive to take up jobs with international organisations and their cycles seem to be 3-5 years before moving on. So far I have made few good friends, but in a way this is a blessing for my writing. And there’s always visitors, loved faces that Skype does not do justice to. Even so, when the visitors are gone, I struggle with the need to put on my game face for acquaintances, to reply without frustration when asked daily:

“How are you?”
“Well, thanks. You?”
“Yeah, fine.”
“Good weekend.”
“Can’t complain.”

What a polite dance. I get that time is often short, or you don’t fancy delving into your life troubles with strangers at the school gates. I’m just not very good at repeating this script time and again. It is what irks me when I go to the mosque nowadays. The prayers bring me comfort. But afterwards it is like getting through a rugby scrum. Everywhere there is someone making a beeline for you, catching your eye and asking those same stock questions.

What I really want to say is:

Are you seeing the real me?

I love that when good female friends come together, the default mode of conversation is intimate. I thrive on intimate. It’s one of the reasons I like to read and write fiction. I like being catapulted inside a character’s head. It must have been over a decade ago, but I still remember being enthralled by a performance of The Vagina Monologues. The staging was bare, the lights were dimmed and the performers sat on high stools, a spotlight focused on them, as they told their stories in turn. Their stories, yet we were all on the same page.

There’s a strength to friendship between women. Relationships between women past a certain age are often judged to be secondary to heterosexual ones. Too often they are dismissed as gossipy or opportunistic, or recast to be competitive in nature. To me they have a beauty all of their own. The truth is that female friendships are often profound love stories and they can last a lifetime, accompanying us through puberty and into adulthood, through career choices, various relationships, ill health, the birth of children, the breakdown of marriages, the death of parents and the ageing process.

Of course, there are times when friendships between women falter. Sometimes we grow in different directions. Harder still are the times when previously harmonious relationships suddenly jar for no apparent reason. In my own past, two female friendships suddenly combusted without warning. These ones leave behind sadness, a common his(her)story erased over a perceived slight or out of sync expectations. Worst of all is trashing. I’ve never been able to understand why women disparage each other. Personal attacks borne out of petty jealousies, competition and hatred poison everyone involved. There is room for more than one woman at the top, and there is room for differing viewpoints and personalities.

Happily there is no shortage of women (and men) who are able to celebrate other people, who are there with words of encouragement or a funny story, who are successful and not afraid to pay it forward, to share their time and skills with others. I’ve been blown away by the energy and sharing in writing communities on Twitter (#MondayBlogs, @A_WritersStudio, #wwwblogs, #FridayPhrases, #MyWANA) and on Facebook (Write Better Stories, Writers Soapbox, not all encompassing lists).

Blogging Award

sister-hood-awardIt’s been a while since I did a blogging award. They can be time-consuming, but on the upside they are fun and supportive. A big thanks to Jess West for nominating me for the Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award. I first met Jess on Twitter. She is fearless and inspiring. We have rubbed elbows at Flash! Friday, Prose Before Ho Hos and recently did a story collaboration together. Jess lives in the States; I wish she lived closer. I sent her Maltesers; she sent me a handwritten letter. Now that’s love.

To accept Jess’s nomination, I have to answer ten questions she has devised, nominate seven female bloggers and ask them my own ten questions. So come on into my living room, I’ll turn the lights down, you can tuck your feet up under you and I’ll whisper random somethings into your ear.

Jess’s Questions

▪ Of the five senses, if you absolutely had to lose one, which would you prefer to be without?

My sense of smell is the weakest of all my senses I think. There are men in my life who let off some pretty rotten smells but thankfully I tend to get the hit quite late, just before it evaporates. Powerful scents tend to give me a headache. Some writers I know would balk at not being able to smell their coffee, but I’ve always been more of a tea drinker anyway. I’d miss the smell of the sea and freshly baked cakes. I’d miss the smell of my mum’s home cooking and knowing when my son needs a nappy change. Still, if I had to choose it would still be scent. I’d struggle more losing one of the others.

▪ Which is your favourite meal, breakfast, lunch, or supper?

Lunch is out, that’s usually rushed for me. I try and maximise writing time while the kids are at school and nursery and often skip it. There’s nothing quite like soggy Cornflakes for breakfast and slurping the remaining milk from the bowl afterwards. But my favourite meal of the day is supper. It’s cooked leisurely with my favourite tracks or BBC Radio 4 on in the background. When it’s time to eat, we take turns telling each other about what has happened that day and playing silly games with the kids. At the moment it’s animal noises. I do a pretty mean eagle.

▪ When is the best time of day to get something accomplished?

First thing in the morning straight after a shower. I find that if I start early, I can keep up my motivation. If I dawdle or get waylaid by chores, then I just don’t end up hitting fifth gear. Last thing at night works well too, when everyone is asleep and the house is quiet. That was my favourite time of day to write when I was still working in regional government.

▪ What’s your stance on tattoos located on the lower back, just above the tailbone?

I thought about getting one when I was seventeen. Back then in Croydon it was all about black cherry lipstick, poker straight hair and lower back tattoos. I thought they were sexy. Now I think that stretch of skin is beautiful bare. I never managed the poker straight hair (thank you Dad) and in the end I went for a tattoo on my left hip. It’s a butterfly – rock and roll! – and when I was pregnant one of its wings stretched out towards my belly. After the children were born it returned to its usual place. I still like it and sometimes think about getting another.

▪ If you could stop time and become a fictional character for the duration of a book, who would you be and from which book?

That’s a toughie. My favourite characters have been put through the mill. I might admire them, but would I want to go through their trials? I’ve always wanted to do magic though, so possibly Molly Weasley from Harry Potter. She has integrity, passion and is made of love. It pours from her. And that is one hell of a moment when she duels with Bellatrix Lestrange in the final book. Although her son dies, doesn’t he? I think it might mean something that I identified with the mum figure and not Hermione Granger. It just occurred to me I’m no longer a spring chicken. But I have depth, baby.

▪ With regard to the previous question, how would your time as that fictional character change how you live your life when you get back?

I’d get more frustrated with housework. Molly uses a fair amount of magic shortcuts in the home. I’d be fiercer in my courage and love, and be more comfortable in my own skin. I would hold my children close.

▪ What’s your favourite TV show and why?

I’m loyal to books but I am flighty with TV. At the moment I’m really enjoying Broadchurch. Great performances and beautiful landscape shots in romantic hues that contrast with the difficult subject matter. But then equally I love the cleverness and directing of Sherlock, the chemistry between the central characters there, and Strikeback, for its dialogue and crowd-pleasing action scenes. Past favourites have been Spooks, Merlin and The Sopranos. There was a time when only Friends could make me laugh out loud at the screen. Any or all of the above hit the spot depending on my mood.

▪ If money were of no concern and you could visit anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

I’d go to Belize for the Maya architecture, caves and beaches. Australia and New Zealand would be a close second, for the landscape, wildlife and because growing up watching Neighbours and Home and Away make me think it’d be a lot of fun. In third place would be Russia for its literary and political history. I can imagine it so well. I’d love to see how my constructions match up to reality.

▪ If you won a million dollars tomorrow, how would you spend it?

I’d pay off the outstanding mortgage on our house and put aside money for the children’s education. I’d buy a flat and split the rental income between my gran and our parents. I’d take a holiday (I lost a bet a long time ago and am supposed to be taking my husband to Budapest) and if there was still enough in the pot I’d buy a Mini Cooper: five doors, in a bright colour, leather seats and wooden finishing inside. The rest I’d save for a rainy day.

▪ What are your plans for 2015?

To keep writing and learning; to try my hand at poetry more often; to learn to play a few songs on the guitar, which is gathering dust in the corner of our living room; to pay 100% attention to the people and things that matter, without a phone in my hand or my thoughts elsewhere. To find a yoga or a zumba class somewhere (I miss my old ones in London and have yet to find somewhere in Geneva). They’re not big plans, just small steps, repeated every day. It’s the repetition that matters I think.

***

We are all trying to steal pockets of writing time for ourselves. If I’ve nominated you for this award and you are unable to accept, just take this as a public declaration of appreciation for your words and your support for other writers. My nominees are:

My questions are:

  • What was the first book you got lost in?
  • Which animal would you like to be and why?
  • What and where is your favourite restaurant?
  • Where is your safe place?
  • Describe a moment from your childhood which makes you smile.
  • Which of your own creations has meant the most to you and why?
  • If you could spend the day with anyone from history, who would you choose and what would you do?
  • Name a song which would get you on the dance floor or which you sing to lift your mood.
  • Which one book would you recommend to your friends and why?
  • Which three places in the world have you really enjoyed being?

Write on, sisters.

On Self-Criticism, Compassion and Progress

Photo by Alice Popkorn

Photo by Alice Popkorn

Hands up if you wrote a list of your priorities at the start of the year and if you have failed to maintain them. A new year holds such promise. Why do we set ourselves up to fail each year and end up feeling miserable? We try to give our lives meaning but what if it has none? Or what if it’s not about the grand gestures, but an accumulation of the small ones?

A few weeks ago friends came to visit us and we stayed up until the early hours. The conversation was happily disjointed. Thoughts were flung around the room and some we examined and others were left discarded with the empty chocolate boxes on the floor. We talked about how it was usual in our generation and circles for girls, as a by product of feminism, to have a dream. In many ways this is a good thing. Still, we questioned whether we were more or less happy than our mothers. Were our mothers more nuanced in their approach to happiness, less single-minded perhaps?

Serenity. For me, it is the most beautiful word in the English language. To me it says contentment and peace; not striving, just being. Have we forgotten how to find contentment in the present? It is important to set goals and live our dreams but let’s not write off the everyday moments that make us happy, the ones that keep us connected to ourselves and to others.

For me it is:

  • The moment of quiet when I first sink in the bath
  • The look that passes between two people when they are on the same page
  • Singing when no one is listening
  • Being present with a story, so much so that I forget myself

This year my resolution is to remember that happiness is the whole picture. It is not the small things we are critical of. It is our intentions. It is our effort. It is growth and resilience, not just a tally of failures and successes. It is all the colours of the rainbow. Happiness is not perfectionism. It is compassion for ourselves and for others. Don’t let self-critical thoughts crush your potential. Let me know the small moments that buoy you in the comments. Whether your start to the year is smooth or bumpy, you’ll get there, as will I.

Why I Write

I’m it! Thank you Graham Milne for asking me to take part in the ‘Why I Write’ blog hop and for providing a balm for me on what had been a tough day with your honeyed words.

For those of you new to Graham’s writing, check him out on Twitter, at his blog or Huff Post. Sometimes in the blogging world, you find posts that don’t really touch the sides. Not so here. Graham’s posts tend to be long form. They are thoughtful, honest and he’s not afraid to address topical issues. He’s a feminist in the vein of the UN #heforshe campaign, and one of the original group of people who made me feel welcome on Twitter.

I’m it then. Did you play tag when you were younger, or stuck in the mud, kiss chase, cat and mouse, all those variations on chasing games that were so exhilarating as a child? I usually laughed as I ran, my lips pulled wide apart by the wind and my mirth, my bottom tucked in awkwardly lest someone be near enough to tag me. There’s not much that brings that sense of abandonment. Being tickled as a child, perhaps. Or being thrown up in the air by your dad, the strands of your hair lingering in the sky as you make your decent into his embrace. Or riding a rollercoaster and laughing despite the pain and fear.

Life grounds us. The longer our feet stay on the earth, the more roots come twisting out of it to bind us. Responsibility beckons with each passing day of our childhood. We become distanced from simple pleasures, like the crunch of an apple, the feel of springy grass between our toes or the fizz of a lolly on our lips. Writing reconnects me. It allows me to forget the bills, the illness and yes, the wars, and cocoons me in a world where anything is possible. Is that what writers are? Anarchists, egotists, foolish God impersonators?

Let’s stick with the it analogy. I’m trying to remember when I decided that physical exercise wasn’t for me. It was in my pre-teen years, I think, when I felt clumsy and ungainly. Now, I look at athletes and dancers, honed gym bunnies and yogis with a sense of awe, not so much for their physique but for the strength, radiance and litheness their bodies retain.

Power. We all seek it in different ways, don’t we? Over our bodies, in the workplace, the petty wars at the water cooler or with our neighbours, the respect and submission we seek in our relationships, the beliefs we impose on others, the money we seek to fill our wallets with, the bombs we rain down on foreign soil. Me, I seek it with the pen. With a pen in hand or my fingers flying over the keyboard I feel like The Bride in Kill Bill: poised, vulnerable, uncompromising, in charge of my destiny. That’s why I write.

Spoken words I sometimes find tiring; written words are for me a source of energy and understanding. I can take the time to weave intricate sentences or get the nuance just right without worrying that it is already someone else’s turn to speak or that I have bored my listener. I can examine a thought carefully, tangibly, without it slipping through the fog of my brain like a wandering child at a funfair.

I write because in this world of constant change and fleeting lives, it comforts me to leave a record of my thoughts. The physical act of writing, the tap of the keyboard, the soreness of my fingers after a long day’s work, the crease of the page and the glare of the screen that blurs my vision are satisfying. They mean I have done an honest day’s work. Fiction may be a lie, but writing is truth. It helps to write in a world that often feels destructive. It helps to create, imagine and make sense of the confusing. It’s a tool for self-insight and healing. It’s the closest I’ve come to magic.

There you have it. That’s why I write. I’ve seen lots of fantastic posts for this blog hop. If you’re still nursing your cuppa take a look at Joanne Blaikie’s, Mark T. Conard’s and Siofra Alexander’s responses. For now, I’d like to invite B.G. Bowers and Natasha Ahmed to tell us why they write. B.G. Bowers has just completed the first draft of her novel and is a blogger and poet. I was blown away by this recent piece of hers. Natasha is a blogger and novelist. Her novella Butterfly Season is on my to read list. Read about the origins of it here. Blog hops and awards can be time-consuming as Paula Reed Nancarrow discussed in her excellent post this week, so ladies don’t feel pressured to pick up the baton if you can’t manage it. Look forward to your next words whatever form they take.

Routines: A Door to Increased Creativity

I’ve spent the past month yearning for time to write, to dive feet first into a pool of creativity and find truths in made up worlds. Today, with the kids back at school, London visits behind me and chores done, I climbed the stairs tentatively to the attic we have set up as my writer’s studio. It’s a calm, beautiful space, away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the house. I sat at the great expanse of my dad’s old mahogany desk and realised that the urgency I had felt to write had disappeared, only to be replaced by fear.

This cycle is so familiar it’s painful. Do you find that falling out of a writing routine is destructive for you? For me, it causes a disconnect from the psyche of my characters. The breath of reality can fill up our creative wells, but it can also interrupt our focus. It can be the prelude to a slow creep of crushing self-doubt. Writing is an introspective process; no amount of external validation can replace the need for self-belief. We are reliant on ourselves to find our rhythm again. I’m starting to realise that it pays not to interrupt that beat.

Perhaps that’s why Stephen King writes every day including his birthday. Or why Haruki Murakami mesmerises himself with a strict routine of early rising, writing and physical exercise when he is working on a novel. Or why Maya Angelou wrote daily in the writing hideaway she created for herself in a hotel room. Masters of the written word find the routine that works for them and deviate from it with great reluctance. They know the value of the dream-like, meditative state which aids creativity.

You may hear the word ‘routine’ and think of chores, repetition and drudgery. Creativity shouldn’t be a straitjacket. It’s freedom, a rush of pure oxygen, a fleeting bubble of awareness. Routines bypass fear, doubt and indecision. They put you on automatic pilot. A routine makes creativity part of your lifestyle, not just a hobby to tinker with. A creative routine is an affirmation that you are more than just a consumer. It makes it more likely that you will act on your creative impulses, rather than let them pass you by.

I choose to make writing a part of my routine because I don’t feel grounded without it. Words anchor me to thoughts which would otherwise pass through me unheeded. Words are a weapon against a disposable society. They allow us to examine our choices and make sense of the unfathomable. Words on paper are unhurried. They are both a luxury and a necessity. They connect even the loneliest people to each other. They build understanding. Without expression, we are merely empty vessels.

Writing is not a business of overnight successes. Whatever success means to you – finishing your writing project, a loyal readership, critical acclaim, financial independence, awards, fame, your name on book sleeves – to get there you’ll need to put in the work. Whether you’re at your desk, on a park bench or sprawling on your bed, writers write. I used to think talent was the key to success, but without perseverance we fail without even having started.

I’m still sitting at dad’s old desk. Its surface is marred by peeling paintwork. I find comfort in running my hands over the roughened wood. Autumn is on her way. A biting breeze has slipped through the balcony doors and has carried in a hum of cars from the road. The mountains are shrouded in cloud. It suits my mood. I’m going to delve into the stillness in me and work on a short story. When autumn comes, she’ll bring relief from the mosquitos, and fiery hues of burnt orange and mustard yellows. By then, I’ll be back in my writing routine, and this time I won’t be letting it slip.

‘Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about…say yes quickly, if you know, if you’ve known about it since the beginning of the universe.’ – Rumi

‘It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.’ – Seneca

‘I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.’ – Duke Ellington

Are you a Dreamer or a Tigress?: Setting Goals to Get Ahead

I’m going to be 33 years old in a few weeks. Hardly any age at all perhaps, although the white hair springing up around my temples would tell you otherwise. I remember how at 14 years old those in their thirties seemed to me to be dinosaurs. As a child I was sure that by my mid-twenties the confusion of youth would have dissipated. I would arrive at my successes by design rather than by accident. The truth is that many of us feel our way through life from the starting line to the finish.

I look with envy sometimes on those who discovered their passions in childhood. Do you, like me, mourn lost time? Oh the hours I whiled away as a teenager. Back then, all I wanted to do was to fall into novels and let them swallow me whole. That time devouring books was wonderful. I wish though that I had picked up my pen sooner. Imagine little Johnny Robinson, barely four foot tall, practicing drop shots on the neighbourhood courts as the light dims. Or Leila Coombes, her fingers perpetually blackened by lead from the pencils she has been sketching with. Or Samir Khan, who can play the sax, piano and violin to grade eight standard by the time is 12 years old. Those kids start clocking up their Gladwell hours from childhood. They jump-started their careers.

For many of us it takes a while to realise where our talents lie. As we get older we are less prone to outside influences. We stop robotically doing what is asked of us and begin questioning our reality. We find our courage and our drive. This extra time isn’t a bad thing. It always seems strange to me that in the UK we ask our children to take crucial decisions about their path in life at the tender age of 16. With life expectancy on the rise, what’s the rush? In the UK in 2014, a woman can expect to live 82.5 years, up from 58 years in the 1930s; UK men are at 79.5 years and 62 years respectively. We have time. The world is more fluid, we can exploit international opportunities and many of us will work in more than one professional field.

Besides as a writer, each new life experience strengthens our creative muscles. Age matures our story-telling abilities. That niggling feeling you get as a writer, that feels like you haven’t done your homework, the one that feels like a heavy weight in your gut? Let’s just ignore that. The muse will appear eventually, shining in her sheer robes and looking at us benevolently, right? The thing is that you and I both know that when we switch into neutral gear, we are doing ourselves a disservice. It may be that we work into our nineties, hunched over our desks as we squint into the distance envisaging the fate of our protagonist. Even so, it would be foolish to ignore the sense of urgency we feel. Writing is, after all, a time-consuming occupation. We only have a finite amount of time in which to breathe life into our stories.

I am happiest when I am productive, aren’t you? The demons of idleness sing their mournful lullabies and we succumb, sacrificing endless hours at their altar. In the cold light of day we know it is the work that nourishes us. We leave our laptops languishing in the corner of our rooms because we are running away from ourselves. I know. It’s been two months since I resigned from my job at City Hall ahead of our move to Geneva this summer and I have yet to establish a regular writing routine. We are governed by fear. We live half lives in love and our careers because we don’t want to be vulnerable. We let our dreams escape through our fingers like ghosts because to fail at something we want badly would be painful.

Newsflash: ambition is not a dirty word. It is up to you to pull your dreams into the blazing sunlight. Don’t let yourself be consumed by the hazy twilight, that half-way house where you know what you want but are too fearful to go after it. We are bound by our conflicted natures. Shrug off that dusty mantle of doubt. The path to success is paved not only with talent, but with perseverance, commitment and labour.

I recently read an article in Forbes by Ashley Feinstein who advocates writing down your goals. In her article Feinstein mentions a survey of Harvard MBA graduates (class of 1979): ’Only 3% had written goals and plans, 13% had goals but they weren’t in writing and 84% had no goals at all. Ten years later, the same group was interviewed again […] The 13% of the class who had goals, but did not write them down was earning twice the amount of the 84% who had no goals. The 3% who had written goals were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97% of the class combined.’ The Harvard research only takes earnings into account as a measure of success, but it still shows how powerful it can be to write goals down.

Whether you are a pantser, planner or fall somewhere in between, here is a list to help you get started if you wish to have a go at some written goals:

  • Summarise your overarching vision including both personal and career goals e.g. I will write a novel, I will learn the guitar etc.
  • Set yourself up for success by creating achievable goals e.g. I will focus on improving my dialogue writing in the next three months, I will find a critique partner within six months.
  • Break down your goals into short, medium and long-term e.g. I will practice my guitar chords for ten minutes a day over the three months, I will have learned how to play three songs within six months, in a year I will perform for my family.
  • Each goal should be include a time-frame and should be measurable e.g. I will query my book once a week until there is a reason not to.
  • Turn larger goals into smaller steps e.g. I will write five pages a day.
  • Don’t forget to celebrate your successes. I promised in a previous post to upload a video of me dancing in the style of Hugh Howey and Ksenia Anske once the first draft of my novel is complete.

As for me, I prioritise my life according to my passions and the needs of my loved ones. I have never been the type to go obsessively after goals. I get distracted, pulled into family life. I dream. But there is a seed of urgency in my belly that is growing, and I am no longer happy to relinquish my ambitions. Often the needs of my loved ones come out on top but to be whole I need to give my writing ambitions a real shot. Tomorrow seems more fragile than ever before. To that end, I have been working on a list of written goals to clear my mind of clutter and focus me. There is something to be said for planning your course (my husband is German, after all) while factoring in some flexibility (that’s the Indian in me talking). The list will provide me with armour against the guilt I feel when I say no to loved ones because I want to concentrate on my writing. Now I am working from home, it will also allow me to see and celebrate my progress. I’m not going to view my list as concrete cladding, rather a loose framework that can be amended. Perhaps I’ll show you it when we know each other better.

In the meantime, let me end with a story about Jim Carrey you may have heard. In 1987 he was 25 years old and a struggling comic. He drove to a spot overlooking LA and wrote himself a check for $10m. The check was dated 1995. Carrey wrote on the stub that it was ‘for acting services rendered’. In actual fact, in 1995 his price for a movie was $20m. All that matters is that we continue chipping away at our dreams, that we have belief and drive. Happy writing, folks.

In Praise of Slowness

I’ve been neglecting my writing practice of late. We’ve had a whirlwind few weeks with visitors and getting our ducks in a row ahead of our move to Switzerland this summer. My husband has been offered a job there and we are looking forward to the adventure. Right now, I’m sprawled across our bed, watching the yellow light flicker on the leaves of the oak tree at our window. It feels great to have a moment’s pause to put pen to paper. Already the cloud of thoughts in my head is refining as it prepares to filter through my fingers onto the page.

We spent a few days in Geneva last week to visit schools, nurseries and houses. It was my first visit. What struck me most, beyond the beauty of the environment with its vineyards, gleaming lake and snow-tipped mountains, was the pace of life. We arrived on Sunday and spent the day driving through sleepy villages around Lake Geneva, trying to get a feel for where we would like to live. Most villages had little more than a church, a post office, a butcher and a bakery. The roads were empty. The few cars we did see were driven leisurely, with none of the haste intrinsic to life in the Big Smoke. On the Monday we had a packed schedule of appointments before our flight home. The very air in Geneva seemed still and heavy, as if it was nudging us to take our time and savour the strangeness of this new culture.

That evening we returned to London in the pelting rain. Exhausted, I ran late getting our daughter ready for school the next morning. I rushed the children to compensate. It would have taken too long to let my son walk. He grumbled as I hoisted him onto my hip and strode along the familiar route to school with my daughter scooting along beside us. His smile reappeared only on the way home when he was free to amble along at this own pace. At one point he stopped and pointed in wonder to a flock of birds passing overhead. I hadn’t even noticed.

Too often we rush through life as if we are ticking off a to do list. Our daily responsibilities are undertaken in clockwork fashion. Each night we lay our weary heads on our pillows and wake to a new dawn when we do the same all over again. We get pushed along by life’s currents, living as if we are running a track race, hurdling over obstacles and looking to the future like blinkered robots. We forget that it’s the quiet moments that steady us. They allow us to recoup, connect and contemplate what we have to be grateful for. Often it’s the quiet moments that bring us our eureka ideas.

Why is it then that we live our lives at an increasingly fast pace? We are so proud of how well we multi-task. How clever of me to change my son’s nappy while holding the phone under one ear and keeping an eye on the telly in the background. I text, read and email while I walk. Sometimes I am too focused on getting chores done that I zone out the children’s chatter. At times, food becomes more about refuelling than enjoyment. I wolf it down and am packing the dishwasher before I have finished the final mouthful. There is no time for smell and texture in this speeded up ritual.

It’s not just me. I notice this furious scrambling in almost everyone around me. If science would allow, it is not a big leap to imagine that many would resort to food pills à la The Jetsons. ‘I haven’t had time to brush my teeth this morning,’ says my mum. Hidden beneath her complaint is pride at how much she has achieved. It is often past lunchtime before she has time to eat a single morsel. Her body, tricked into thinking it is either feast or famine, is at risk of diabetes.

When was the last time you had a shower and concentrated on the feeling of the water pounding your body rather than planning your tasks for the day? When did you last go for a purposeless walk and take in the faces of the homes and the shape of the landscape around you? How often have you bruised yourself and not even been aware how it happened? How many times have you read a paragraph but can’t recall what it says, locked the door but forgotten that you did or driven a route and not remembered the journey? In our pursuit of happiness and success we perceive everything but ourselves.

I’m afraid that we convince ourselves as we grow older that we understand the meaning of life, but perhaps children understand it better than us. For our children, life is about simple pleasures: a walk in the rain in their wellies; a trip to the park; a jam sandwich and jelly; a bedtime story. When is it that we forget our sense of wonder? Is it possible to rediscover our joy in simple pleasures, to prune back our lives and give priority to a few things rather than a superficial attention to many things? Have you seen Banksy’s Mobile Lovers artwork? We have forgotten how to be present. We document our lives in pictures, videos and social media anecdotes, removed from living our experiences first-hand by the lens through which we view ourselves and the alternate realities we create.

Our minds are filled with a myriad of thought pathways competing for attention. The problem is that unless we focus on what we are doing, our attention is splintered and the rewards are fewer. Our happiness and success depend on how clearly we perceive and how skilfully we negotiate the world around us. Why is it then that as the information available to us reaches saturation point, we are more blind to the world and each other than before? How can we feel so deeply about crime or losses on both domestic and international stages only for them to be wiped from our memories a moment later?

I used to worry that my memory has worsened. In fact, there is so much information available today that the mind sends that which it deems unnecessary to its deepest caverns. It’s also likely that I don’t listen as well as I used to. Take song lyrics for example. As a pre-teen I could listen to a song a few times and would know the lyrics off by heart. Nowadays I rarely focus on a song long enough for that to be possible. My mind has become so used to endless stimuli that it is as if there is an anchor missing. We have retrained ourselves to leap consistently onto the next most interesting thing at the expense of taking value from anything.

I don’t buy that we have to live our lives at a rate of knots to be successful. That seems to be fool’s gold. Life sweeps us along until we make a stand. But I have a newsflash: Life. Can. Be. Slower.

Slowing down can be more meaningful.

Slowing down can be more pleasurable.

What could you achieve if you set your own pace and direction?

On Belonging and Individuality

Do you remember how it was when you were a teenager and you were unsure of who you were? Social situations were a clumsy affair whether at home or further afield. You wanted to be understood, but communication was not always your forte. You preferred to hide away in your room with your nose buried in a book, or the company of confidantes. Clashes of personalities, even in your loving home, fuelled flickers of annoyance or full blown rage. High-pitched giggles when you rounded a corner at school made you wonder if it was you they were laughing at. Then there was the way that clothes fitted your changing body. Are these trousers too tight? This top hangs in all the wrong places… You listened to Alanis Morissette or Nirvana, while your poor parents stuffed their ears with cotton wool downstairs, wondering when someone would finally get you. Oh growing pains. Then something magical happened. You started to feel more comfortable in your own skin. You gravitated towards those who had similar interests and you had more power to decide who you wanted to see and what to do with your time.

I left those feelings behind a long time ago but they resurfaced unexpectedly a few weeks ago. I found myself feeling like a teenager, prone to sulking and close to outbursts. It was sobering to walk in those shoes again. I’d like to think I know who I am, what my boundaries are and how to communicate effectively. So what did trigger my behaviour? I think the answer is that certain situations cause us to fall into familiar patterns we left behind a long time ago. For me, it was a holiday with my extended family. I have a wonderful family. They are loving, kind, generous and a little bit crazy. When we all come together it seems as though everyone is an extrovert. Nobody waits their turn to speak and the voices get ever louder. There is always huge saucepans on the stove filled with spicy curries my gran has made. The television is on in the background. Everyone sits in the same places around the dining table. The children run around and are fed sweeties secretly. My aunt and uncles tell Indian jokes that take ages to get to the punchline. There is spoon-playing and spontaneous singing. It is wonderful and almost always exhausting.

I am blessed to have a supportive family, but sometimes I don’t want the trappings of food and gifts or the roundabout of visits to one another. I want to say to them: stop. I don’t want the roles of mother, daughter, father, son, aunt, uncle, grandmother to dictate how we behave. Those are just layers we add to our core. My dad is more than a provider. My mum is more than a nurturer. My grandmother is more than a feeder. I am more than a daughter, wife and mother; I am the sum of all my parts. I don’t want to dig through layers of routine and social construct every time I meet friends and family. Next time you meet me, show me who you really are, not the role that has been prescribed to you by others, the one you accepted out of a desire to please and to serve. Let’s laugh together and just be, and reveal the whole. If we don’t, one day, we’ll realise that the mould we have filled will be too strong to break, and our true desires and thoughts will have faded in the background.

Slipping back into the murky waters of teenage insecurity was a reminder to me about how wonderful it feels to really connect. The world moves quickly and time is fleeting. That is all the more reason for us invest in those we love. Do you ask questions and really listen to the responses or are you like me, guilty of already mentally moving on to what you are going to say next? Do you look to perceive the truth at the core of your friends and family or is the image you have of them an assumption? I treasure the moments of complete connection I have with family and friends: finishing each other’s sentences, shared mirth at a joke, knowing looks across a table, a hand at my back, weighted with familiarity, those discussions early into the morning that you don’t want to end. We are, by our very nature, tribal.

Do you remember the stories after Avatar was released, about how it triggered depression in some of the audience members? They were so taken with the beauty of Pandora and how effortlessly all living organisms were connected, that the real world seemed grey in comparison. Belonging is associated with better self-reported physical and mental health; conversely loneliness and isolation can lead to depression. However wonderful belonging is, it should never be at the expense of individuality.

Owning Your Choices in Story-Telling and in Life

I am finding it really hard to pick a novel to commit to at the moment. My hard drive is littered with the promising beginnings of half a dozen novels, each of which is clamouring for me to devote my time to them alone. Last week, I announced on my Facebook author page that I would be writing a dystopic science fiction story about a girl whose father has gone missing. I love this story. It has started to take shape in my head. I have plotted the story arc and sub-plots, one character in particular has started to take shape on the page. But I find myself retreating into other story folders, desperately bouncing between them like a woman with many lovers, unable to decide which one is her one true love.

I recognise my old enemy. Fear is creeping its way into my garden of dreams, feeding on my doubts and blocking out the sunlight. It is natural that every now and then, we come across decisions that we agonise over. We overthink our options and worry about making the wrong choice. We wonder if there was a better path that we ignored. Our hang-ups act like perpetual boomerangs and sabotage our success. We are paralysed by doubt and indecision and make excuses about our reasons for stalling.

‘I didn’t write today. There just wasn’t enough time.’

Now what I really meant to say when my husband asked me how my day went, was that I did the filing and the washing to avoid writing, because I can’t decide which project to commit to. Why is it that we get so defensive when we are called out? Is it really easier to stay within the comfort of our own boundaries than to strive for what we want? How liberating it would be if we could be honest with ourselves and each other.

If your fears have become bogeymen lurking at the edge of your consciousness, whispering doubt into your ear, call them out. Join me in writing them down, together with your goals, in stark black ink on a pristine page and maybe they won’t seem as scary in the cold light of day. Hell, let’s draw some ridiculous doodles next to them to bring them down a peg or two. A bug-eyed monster with a goofy smile perhaps, or a frenemy with her knickers round her ankles. Whatever floats our boat.

What is it that is holding me back right now, you ask? Well I think bubbling underneath the surface is indecision about whether to commit to literary or science fiction. That’s all. My head is saying: what is the clever choice? I’ve read the genre advice, and it’s better for branding to choose one direction, right? One thing is clear, finishing novels across multiple genres is definitely going to find you more readers than never finishing one.

Nobody cares as much about our choices as we do. Twenty years from now it won’t matter whether we take a small step towards success today or a large one; all that matters is that we keep moving forward. And the way to do that is to own our choices. Dressing up our decisions for the sake of external perceptions and expectations is to erode our self-determination and to fall into the trap of believing our own pretty white lies. It hinders our happiness and success.

I’m not going to stress over which novel I decide to commit to. I’m working on a short story collection at the moment, and if I find that the stubborn, plucky girl from my science fiction novel keeps intruding on my thoughts I’ll know that is the one. I forget that to be a writer is to learn infinite patience. It means to chip away at a project bit by bit until its form starts to take shape underneath our inky fingers. With writing, as with other choices, the trick is to commit to investing time and effort until the finish line. Sooner or later, my girl will have a story. And even if the novel doesn’t work as well as I want it to, I’ll have more skills and learning in my armoury to help with the next story.

Wishing you luck on your writing journey.

 

On Passion and Integrity

My head has been a whirr this week, as my final day at City Hall came and went, amidst leaving cards and speeches and the sense that a significant phase of my life has come to an end. I was a school girl when I first became interested in politics. I’d gone along to a talk that Tony Benn, diarist, campaigner and Labour party politician, was giving on the sanctions against Iraq. I can remember flashes from that evening: a small, humid room, the shuffling of papers, the anticipation of the audience. Most of all I remember how moved I was by Benn’s eloquence and his ability to really connect with the audience. He had a clarity of expression that helped even the very young grasp complex issues.

On Friday, Tony Benn passed away at the age of 88. I am hugely saddened by his death and it was remarkable to me that the man who first inspired my interest in politics died on the day I stepped away from it. The death of a public figure gives rise to a wave of commentary about their person and deeds, and I have watched with interest how those across the political spectrum reacted to Benn’s death. Remembering someone’s life well in the immediate aftermath of their death is a difficult task. Sometimes nostalgia colours perceptions and characters are subsequently whitewashed; at other times poorly timed criticism verges on the distasteful. When we remember those who have passed away, we should strive to reveal them in vibrant technicolour, in all their complexity. Our behaviour and decisions as individuals are borne of circumstances that twist and turn, and no man is without his flaws.

How limited our control is over the memories of us which remain with our children, the imprint we leave on strangers and how history remembers us. For my part, when I remember Benn, I’ll think of the stories I’ve heard of party conferences where he could be found sitting cross-legged on the floor, his pipe in hand, surrounded by young people who hung onto his every word. I’ll think of the plaque that he put up to the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison in a broom cupboard in parliament, where she’d once illegally hidden. I’ll remember that he fought for the right to give up his peerage and how when he quit as a member of parliament in 2001, after serving as an MP for fifty years, he said he was quitting to spend more time on politics. And I’ll remember how he proposed to his wife after knowing her for little more than a week, and decades later tracked down the bench on which he proposed to her so that it could sit at their graveside after they died.

But what I will remember most about Benn isn’t his ideas or even his deeds, but rather his values. I did not agree with him on key issues – his opposition to Europe, for example – but I believed that he would fight tooth and nail to defend his principles, even if they were unpopular, and that he was wholly invested in making society a better place. There has been criticisms of Benn since his passing that he wasn’t very successful as a practical politician. Indeed, Benn’s latterly role outside the central political arena – he last served as a cabinet minister in the 1970s – allowed him to act and speak more freely than others who are constrained by the practicalities of senior positions. I found it joyful that his idealism wasn’t clouded by age. Our world of compromises and secret boardroom deals needs men like Benn, men of conviction and passion, who aren’t governed by fear or self-interest, and who dare to challenge the establishment, even when they are part of it themselves.

Regardless of what history may make of Benn’s politics, I’d like to think he had many qualities we should uphold. It seems that today’s society promotes a cardboard cutout version of success, that we applaud self-interest. In a world of technological prowess we spend too little time talking and listening to one another. I think we can all learn from the humanity and thoughtfulness that Benn showed until the end. We can go a long way with passion, integrity and commitment.

Fear of Change and the Promise of New Beginnings

Excitement is fizzing and popping underneath my calm exterior at the moment. Change is afoot, with its candy-scented promise of success. It’s not the type of change that happens out of the blue, when you are unprepared and unsuspecting; it is the sort I initiated myself.

You see, for a long time my career choices have been shaped by the fact we have young children. I valued a secure salary and flexible working options so I went back to my job at City Hall after the children were born. The problem is, I’m no longer the same person I was when I started working there seven years ago. The tussle of politics has lost its sheen and I crave more creativity. I’d been carving out small pockets of time around my job in London and childcare for both my own writing and building up my writing business, but there just wasn’t enough time in the day. More than that, I got more fulfilment from writing a small article for a client, than from delivering a big budget project in London.

My husband and I toyed with the idea of whether I should leave the day job. We did our sums and worked out that we can afford it and that now is a good time to concentrate on my fiction and expanding the writing business. Writing fits in beautifully around when one of us has to be there for the children. It also means I will be closer to home for school performances and those inevitable phone-calls telling me my child has projectile vomited across the room and needs to be picked up immediately. The thought of having more time to write is exhilarating but inexplicably, I found myself saying: ‘Security is so important. I should stay in the job a bit longer.’

Change is unsettling: it breeds fear. It is much easier to focus on what we lose through change than what we may gain. Why would you risk certainties for uncertainties? Isn’t it much better to cling to safety than to risk losing face? For me, it was about about realising that the status quo didn’t measure up any more. Uncalculated risks are foolhardy but so is continuing on a path that you know doesn’t allow you to live up to your potential.

Leaving City Hall was hypothetical until the first day back at work in the new year, the day on which I’m told most resignations and applications for divorce are submitted. I rolled out of bed that morning in the dark to gusts of wind and sheets of rain, and had no idea that I was going to resign. I sat down as my desk with a coffee, started up my computer and began catching up on the emails I had missed over the holiday period. It hit me that I was in the wrong place and had been for some time. I called my husband.

‘Can I resign? It feels right.’

‘Wow…Well, we’ve done the math. Sure, do it.’

‘Am I being stupid?’

‘We can make this work.’

After that phone call, I went upstairs and typed out a resignation letter. It still feels right to have acted as I did, but the fear remains. It’s daunting to be leaving a secure income behind. There is a lot to wrap up at work before I leave, so for the moment writing has taken a back seat. I can see the shadows of looming monsters at the edge of my consciousness begging me for attention, asking me to succumb to anxiety, uncertainty and regret before I have even started on my new path.

The truth is, uncertainty is part of life. Yes, I am taking a risk, but we have made sure this is viable financially. Although change is intimidating, I am buoyed by what I now know. Taking risks is liberating. Surrounding yourself with supportive and inspiring family and friends helps keep fear at bay. Success is not assured, but we learn though our endeavours, not by hiding. Resilience and courage can take you a long way.

I’ve dipped a tentative foot in the unknown. We’ll see what strange, beautiful creatures come swimming my way.

‘I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.’ Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point

‘Change, like sunshine, can be a friend or a foe, a blessing or a curse, a dawn or a dusk.’ William Arthur Ward

On the Courage to be Yourself

I remember reading interviews with famous women when I was younger where they talked about how comfortable they began to feel with themselves when they hit their thirties. At fourteen years old, thirty seemed a long way off.  I was an awkward teenager, full of doubt and eager to please others. The years have, of course, raced by, and at thirty-two now, I have finally learned what is most important to me. I am more myself now than ever before. While I still struggle with the weight of other people’s expectations of my behaviour and actions, I am more likely to do what makes me happy despite the push and pull from others.

The doubting years 

At school there were children who, even then, were brimming with confidence and able to express themselves freely. Looking back, I was filled with wonder at their seeming lack of inhibitions and at some level, their prowess reinforced my sense of inadequacy. Who knows, why some of us find it harder to find our place in the world? My best guess is that it is a combination of personality, culture, upbringing and opportunity. Finding happiness is after all a personal journey; the courage to be ourselves is often not something that friends and family can help us with. We can be surrounded by the most loving people, yet feel both lonely and suffocated. And there is no guarantee that we’ll hit our stride once the teenage years are behind us.

Taking responsibility for our own happiness 

I know someone who for many years has been deeply unhappy.  From time to time, she opens the gates to her soul and the unhappiness comes flooding out like a thick tar, sticking to anyone who will listen.  She has everything she physically needs: health, youth, food, clothes and a warm home.  She has a loving family, which supports and nurtures her.  The problem is that unhappiness, a natural part of life for everyone, has become such an integral part of who she is that she no longer knows how to be happy.

Her dreams, once so bright, have faded and escape like ghosts through her fingers.  She sees those around her moving on with their lives and instead of wishing them well, she is overcome with bitterness.  Her equilibrium is so fragile that a rain shower or a broken nail ruin her day.  Her weary family walks on eggshells, buffeted by her many rages. She has love to give and talent, but she is lost and it is everybody else’s fault accept her own. I see the toll she has on those closest to her.  I look at her elderly mother with her bent back and roughened hands from years of caring for her family, and I wonder if she will ever see her daughter find peace.  There is nothing this mother would not give to be able to wipe her daughter’s pain and bitterness away.  When does too much love become a liability, a paralytic agent that smothers self-determination? Is it ever right to walk away from someone so that they can find their own wings?

Moving forward

I’d like to think that soon enough this person will turn a corner.  She’ll be in a job she loves and on the road to building healthy mutually supportive relationships with those around her.  She’ll start to chase those long-buried dreams. It won’t be easy for her to regain her perspective or her confidence. It could be that she needs professional help to get there. When she is ready to listen I will tell her that there is something wonderful about turning a new page. A fresh page, smooth to the touch, before a first mark is made, is full of promise.  I will also tell her what little I know about happiness. Happiness is impossible without being comfortable with who you are. Setbacks are part of life. Just as we have talents, we all have limits and there will always be things we can’t control. And, learning to appreciate the blessings we already have is the most important lesson of all.

‘Happiness is a direction, not a place.’ Sydney J. Harris

‘Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.’ Mahatma Gandhi

Divinity and Self-Expression

When I was pregnant with my daughter a little over four years ago, I remember my mum bringing up religion with my husband, who is an atheist. ‘The moment you see the baby born, you’ll hear hallelujahs, I’m sure of it,’ she said, only half teasing. ‘You can’t witness something so magical without believing in God.’ After Hana was born, mum brought it up again. ‘So, do you feel any differently about religion now?’ she asked. ‘Errr, it was really special, of course, but no, not really!’ he said.

Which religion (or not) we grow up believing in is more often than not a matter of coincidence: my husband grew up in East Germany under communism where there was no room for religion. I am Muslim, but neither my brother nor I go to the mosque as often as my parents would like. There is no pressure to attend from them, although I know it would mean a lot to them if we were to show more interest. Growing up, I found their über-involvement in the community a little difficult to deal with and craved freedom to act away from it. I much prefer religion to be a personal form of expression than a communal one, but that’s just an individual choice.

I guess many Muslims would say that the way I practice my faith is lackadaisical. From time to time, I remember loved ones we have lost and I say prayers for them. I pray more since having the children as a way to say thank you for the joy they bring us and because I feel it protects them and keeps them safe. I recognise that for me as for most people, faith is not based on logic but reflects my upbringing instead. If I dissect my behaviour, I must admit that I act selfishly because although I believe in God, practicing my faith is tied to what’s in it for me.

I have begun to wonder though if there is a purer form of divinity open to everyone, one that does not discriminate between believers and non-believers. The sort that makes you catch your breath when you see the sun glinting on the ocean or when you feel a real connection with another person that serves to remind you just how special this world is. And there are the whisperings. I can’t be the only one that feels them. The tiny flashes of knowledge that pass through your mind when you are otherwise occupied, telling you to write that story, spend more time with that person, do that course of study, jack in that job, because something better awaits if only you open yourself to it and apply yourself.

If you dare to blink, these thoughts disappear as quickly as they appear, and  you are left with a remnant of brilliance that has escaped, leaving you to continue your usual trajectory. You can call these moments intuition, the whisperings of muses or even divine wisdom. Whichever camp you fall into, it seems to me that we should be listening out for those internal voices and giving them the credence they deserve. Too much of the way we live our lives today is about keeping up with the Joneses, of making sure we haven’t missed the latest trend to rock Twitter. We are buffeted this way and that, and in keeping ourselves so exhaustingly busy, we miss the signs that really count.

I’d like to make a tentative stand for keeping our eyes and ears peeled for the doors the universe opens for us, for the quiet hum of our muses and for the truthful voices we silence in ourselves. You see, there is something divine about the potential we all have. There is something holy about being true to ourselves. It is far too easy to ignore our talents and conform to the standard social templates around us. There is a time for logic and there is a time for reckless abandonment to our dreams, and who knows, maybe your dreams aren’t as crazy as you thought. Maybe, just maybe, they are exactly who you are supposed to be.

‘Every man is a divinity in disguise, a god playing the fool.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Ebb and Flow of Words: Interruptions, Muses and Emotional Well-Being

This post was inspired by @JEdwardPaul, who wrote a brilliant piece recently that touched me about writing frustrations.

I’m not feeling my usual self at the moment. That’s probably why I’ve been a little quieter on social media than usual. My sense of equilibrium is off kilter, and the standard quick fixes to make myself feel better haven’t been working. I’ve turned to the page, hoping that spilling my thoughts out will purge me of this emotional low. You might ask why I have decided to blog about this rather than confide in the pages of my journal. Right now I have a small following. I feel safe sharing my words with you and less alone.

You see, life has been taking over recently and as a result I’ve had less writing time than I have become used to, and that has an impact on my emotional well-being. I feel ten feet tall when I am writing. I am more resilient to life’s downs if I am writing. I am happier.  With young kids, it has been important for me to learn to take advantage of every small window of writing time. I’ve learnt to focus quickly and knuckle down when writing non-fiction. But to be able to write good fiction I need to take myself out of the fray. I need the time for my breathing to slow, for reality to fade and my make-believe world to begin unfolding around me.

CloudsI’ve seen this cycle before. If I let the pen slip out of my hand for a few weeks, it becomes hard to pick it up again. It’s as if that internal writer’s voice that we coax out of ourselves begins to evaporate. My characters turn their back on me. In my mind’s eye, I see them curt and growling at me because I have abandoned them. There are no short-cuts in this business. The solution is simply to start writing again even if I feel rusty. The ink won’t flow as readily as I would perhaps like but eventually I’ll get back to the place where the writing feels true. So, step 1 of my road to recovery is fighting off those creeping commitments and picking up my regular writing schedule again.

This time though the disruption to my writing schedule has been compounded by National Novel Writing Month. I’ve blogged before about how I love NaNo. I started the month with a spring in my step; the first week of NaNo went wonderfully. Then life took over, and I resented it. All those NaNo pep talks which landed in my inbox served as a reminder that my word count was slipping behind, and it made me feel like a loser. Incidentally, @ChuckWendig wrote this week about how NaNoWriMo’s language of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ is unhelpful. I’m feeling a little deflated that I didn’t see the month through, so step 2 on the road to recovery is to commit to finishing my NaNo novel at my own pace.  I will also, in the wonderfully crazy manner of @kseniaanske, post a video of me doing a victory dance when my first draft is done. Are you with me?

I’ve been wondering for a few days about why I’m in a particularly difficult downwards slump this time, and I think the fog has cleared. To be at our best as writers, we need to quiet our fears, dig deep and let intuition lead the way. Taking my foot of the gas allows my writing demons to return. And you know what really helps with those demons? It’s knowing that even if my self-belief is running a little low, there is someone who believes that I can do this. For me, that someone is my husband. I blogged last week about J not being a big reader, but what I didn’t mention is the impact he has on my writing. On good days, I can soar across fictional worlds without him; on bad days, without him, I lose my fragile faith in my writing ability. He’s back from a business trip this Saturday and I can’t wait.

The Benefits of Publishing Anonymously or Taking a Pen Name

Have you ever been tempted to publish your work anonymously or take a pseudonym? If yes, you’d be following in the footsteps of some of the literary greats, such as the Brontë sisters (Ellis, Acton, and Currer Bell), Cecil Day-Lewis (Nicholas Blake), Jane Austen (A Lady) and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), who all decided for one reason or another to mask their true identity. Voltaire is thought to have used at least 178 pen names during his lifetime. But what is the difference between writing anonymously and taking a nom de plume, you might ask? Using a consistent pseudonym allows readers to group together your body of work. Publishing your work anonymously means that the reader has no context at all about the author, other than what is within the pages of that particular text.

So why do authors, often a vain breed (is it not presumptuous to believe that our ideas are worth reading?!), decide to take a pen name or remain anonymous?

  • If you have a name that is too similar to another writer’s, or if your birth name is Angelina Jolie, for example, you may wish to use a pseudonym to ensure there are no mix-ups and to create your own unique brand. Sometimes authors choose a name that is easier to pronounce or spell, or just sounds better than their own. American romance novelist Julie Woodcock (Angela Knight) writes under her nom de plume because her actual name is suggestive within the context of her genre.
  • Writers living under an oppressive regime may feel they have no choice but to hide their true identity if they intend to be critical. For example, Chinese writer, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, who has been imprisoned for dissident activities and whose writing is banned and considered subversive by the Chinese Communist Party, published many of his works abroad, and chose to take the pseudonym Lao Xiao when publishing in mainland China. Another example is the pen name Ibn Warraq, which has been adopted by various dissident writers critical of Islam.
  • History has been littered with examples of female authors taking male pseudonyms such as Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Nelle Harper Lee (Harper Lee) and Louisa May Alcott (A. M. Barnard), who opted for male pen names to ensure their work would be taken seriously.

anonymouse

  • Some authors want to branch out into other genres without jeopardising their reputations. Take J.K. Rowling (Robert Galbraith), for example, who decided to use a a pen name for her 2013 work ’The Cuckoo’s Calling’, when she was branching into the crime genre. On her website, she writes that she wanted to ‘go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation.’ In fact, Rowling chose to use her initials rather than full name for her Harry Potter novels because her publisher insisted that they would be more appealing to young boys if it was not evident that she was a female writer. Last year it was revealed that Russian crime author, Grigory Chkhartishvili (Boris Akunin), had taken additional pseudonyms, including the female one Anna Borisova, as he did not want to be confined to the crime genre. He even photoshopped an author photo of his female pen name by mixing his own picture with that of his wife’s.
  • If you have been tempted to write about workplace scenarios you may fall foul of your colleagues or employment contract if you divulge secrets. Remaining anonymous can be a better route but does not necessarily protect you from legal proceedings. Take David John Moore Cornwell (John Le Carré), for example, who began his work as a spy novelist while he himself was an MI6 agent. Or The London Paper’s City Boy column, which ran under a cloak of mystery for two years from 2006 until the author was unmasked as Geraint Anderson.
  • Series fiction, such as the Nancy Drew series, is sometimes published under one pen name although a collective of writers have ghost-written the books.
  • Sometimes, like for Stephen King (Richard Bachman), using a pseudonym is a way for writers to find out whether their work is successful on its own merit or because of their fame.
  • Some Indian authors used to publish works using a pseudonym or under the name of a deity because they believed it to be egotistical to publish under their own name. To this day, many early works by Indian writers are untraceable because of this practice.
  • And then there’s authors who choose anonymity or a pen name because it gives them the freedom they need to write without worrying about what friends, family or the world will think of their work. Perhaps they want to be free to recycle family history or let their characters be violent, deviants, or whoever they need to be for the story, without any raised eyebrows or backlash.

I used to wonder about taking a pen name. Mostly because it took me a while to take my dreams of writing fiction seriously, and it seemed too soon to share them with anyone but my closest friends and family. I wanted to hug that part of me close, like a secret, because it is fragile and special, and I’m not sure how it would stand up against the weight of their expectations. I wondered whether anyone reading my stories would assume that they are grounded in reality, that a part of the author must be in every character. I was afraid that anticipating their opinions would make me less free as a writer. It is sometimes easier to be yourself with strangers than with friends. The risk of personal judgement is higher with those who are in your daily life. But I am not willing to censor myself. So a pseudonym sounded like a brilliant idea. It sounded like freedom.

I’ve changed my mind though. My journey so far as a writer has taught me that I am stronger than I expected. Not everyone will like my work. And as long as I am true to myself, that’s okay. And actually, it’s quite freeing to finally be able to peel back the layers and let the real me breathe. The air was getting thin while I was wearing all that armour. I feel so much lighter now. And my name is just fine, thank you. Have you ever considered taking a pen name?

‘We live in an age where anonymity is growing in magnitude like a bomb going off.’ Jock Sturges

Protecting our Space as Writers

It’s happened time and again over the years, others intruding on my boundaries. It happens repeatedly, determinedly, in a steady drip-drip that eventually causes me to let down my defences. A slow, stealthy creeping into my personal space, a disruption of carefully planned routines. It is the neighbour who comes by for a friendly cuppa too often, a box of Jaffa Cakes in tow. It is my mum or gran, making an over-abundance of steaming, hot curry, bringing us a portion and gently wrapping those threads of family life even tighter around me. It is the friend who asks haltingly, if I can possibly make time for her. It is the kindly man from the mosque or the distant uncle who says, you are missed, where have you been? Leave me be, I think, nothing is for free.  My ungratefulness seeps out of every pore, like a putrid gas, waiting to poison us all.

But oh, my stories, they yearn to get out, and they require solitude.  Solitude.  How I love that word.  My stories, you see, long not to be rushed and crave the time to simply be, to blossom into a wondrous narrative or wilt on their own terms.  And this life of mine, with its great swarms of loving people just waiting on the sidelines to be entertained, supported and loved in return, isn’t accommodating of this writing dream.

‘Are you coming tomorrow?’

‘No, I can’t.  I’m writing.’

‘You should really try and come.’

‘I have a project I’m working on and I’d really like to finish’.

‘How about you just pop in for an hour or so?’

The fault is also mine, of course.  Why am I unable to articulate my needs so that they are acknowledged? When I manage to create some space, how do I end up back at square one with a diary full of commitments I would rather not have, feeling loved but suffocated?  Perhaps it is my failing that friends and family can’t accept a ‘no’ graciously. Should I be clearer or more forceful? Can I enforce my boundaries without causing hurt to those I love? Can I love them selfishly on my terms or will my part-time love be ridiculed, like a half-baked meringue that refuses to live up to its promise?

Maybe this writer dream is too implausible for my family and friends to buy into.  Who makes money with writing nowadays (money being the only measure of success, of course)… and why would I flitter away my time without the certainty of a return on my investment?  Or perhaps they think I am not the writer type.  Maybe I need to shout my dream from the rooftops with Bollywood backing dancers behind me for them to take me seriously.  Or should I aspire to be more writerly, say, hang out at chic writer parties or in coffee-shops, or try to look more like a brooding, angst-filled loner? Do I need wilder hair or to be more emotional?

stick figureNow that would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?  So this here, is my battle-cry.  RRRRROAAAARRRRRRR!! And this stick figure here, with the door closed, is the new me. I won’t feel guilty about it.  I will let you in when I can, but sometimes I won’t be able to because I don’t want to risk losing the magic in this wonderful scene I am writing.  Please don’t take it personally.  I love you very much, I really do, but this part of me has to be private.  It needs time to breathe.  My writing is a priority, you see, and no, it isn’t a hobby.  It’s much more than that.  I might tell you about how it feels one day.  I will support you to achieve your dreams in any way I can, so please, if you love me, just take a little step back and respect what it takes to achieve mine.

‘I don’t think people should have boundaries put on them, by themselves or society or another gender, because it’s our birthright to experience life in whatever way we feel best suits us.’ Hilary Swank

‘Once you label me you negate me.’ Soren Kierkegaard

The Danger of Pleasing Others

Do you ever feel that your life is not your own? Sometimes life throws a curve ball, which disrupts our plans and we have no choice but to deal with the fallout.  However, just as outside forces can limit our freedom, our own attitudes and behaviours can keep us imprisoned.  There is one trait that I recognise time and again in those around me: the desire to please others.  It sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it?  A good characteristic, even.  One that you would like to have in your friend, child, spouse or parent? Think again.

Compromising yourself

Making other people happy is admirable, but if you extend your generosity repeatedly to all and sundry, you risk burn out and compromising your own dreams.  By always agreeing to meet the demands of others, you risk becoming a shadow of yourself, a vessel for their projected desires.  Ultimately, your health is at risk, your uniqueness is diluted and with it your potential.

A female, Indian perspective

BarrenLooking at this through the prism of my own experience, as a woman of Indian origin, I am aware of the differing cultural expectations for men and women.  Even within our small Indian diaspora, we are subject to unspoken expectations and behaviours learned during childhood centring around honour and duty, which continue to be held up as virtues.  It is more acceptable for Indian men to display self-serving behaviour than Indian women. It is almost impossible for some Indian women I know to exercise freedom of choice without guilt. Strip away the people pleasing and little else remains but frustration and emptiness.  But what should that matter?  Duty. Responsibility. Good girl. Respect for others can be taken to the extreme and it should not mean disrespecting yourself.

Teaching our children to please others

Like in many other cultures, the Indian ideal of motherhood is based on sacrifice and servitude. Daughters in particular emulate this mode of being.  It seems to me, however, that in teaching our children to follow this example, to be obedient and please others, we are actually doing them a disservice.  It is important to teach them the difference between right and wrong.  All too often, however, we teach children not to question the established status quo and to do as they are told.  We school them to suppress their own desires, ultimately leading to less fulfilled people.

People pleasing as a writer

I like to be liked.  One of my hardest lessons as a writer, one which I am still learning, is being able to say no.  We have two young children, who are wonderful, and while it is sometimes hard work, we really enjoy our young family.  There are other relationships too, which are very important to me.  But I have learnt that we cannot be everywhere or do everything we are expected to do.  Time is too scarce and the little time I do have to write is precious.  In this way, people pleasing as a writer is impossible.  Sometimes, you have to shut the door and it has to stay shut.

Then there is the other writer problem. Readers, particularly those known to us, seek to make connections between our written work and our lives.  That novel, that short story, that poem, cannot possibly be a work of fiction… What material have we used from the real world? What topics have we addressed that should have been off-limits? As a writer, we cannot hope to please all our readers and it is even less likely we will please our immediate circle. While writers should make every effort to deal with their subject matter sensitively, they must tell the truth and examine human nature fearlessly, without being shackled by concern for the reactions of those closest to them, lest a far inferior work ensues.                                                                                                                                     

Putting your happiness first

So, why do some people find it difficult to assert themselves?  It may be because they worry about how they are viewed or fear being disliked.  Perhaps they are frightened of disappointing others or being alone. But always saying yes to your friends, family and colleagues isn’t the surest way to form lasting, mutually satisfying relationships. The more you commit yourself, the more you risk being taken for granted and the more pressure you will feel to maintain expectations.

If you struggle to set the boundaries needed for your own personal growth and happiness:

  • Set priorities.  Decide who exists within your inner circle and be firmer with everyone outside of this.
  • Practice being more comfortable with being disliked.  You cannot please everyone all the time.
  • Experiment with asserting your authority.
  • Realise that saying no to unreasonable demands of you is the first step towards greater success and happiness.
  • Choose to be with people who are supportive of you.

‘Women often have a great need to portray themselves as sympathetic and pleasing, but we’re also dark people with dark thoughts.’ Zadie Smith 

‘The art of pleasing is the art of deception.’ Luc de Clapiers 

This blog post also featured in the September 2013 First Friday Link Party for Writers on Carol Tice’s website Making A Living Writing

The Power of Words

depressionLike many other families, mine has been touched by depression and eating disorders.  Here are two of the most powerful non-medical descriptions of depression and anorexia I have ever read:

‘Depression is about anger, it is about anxiety, it is about character and heredity. […] It is the illness of identity, it is the illness of those who do not know where they fit, who lose faith in the myths they have so painstakenly created for themselves.’  Tim Lott, The Scent of Dried Roses.

‘I am forever engaged in a silent battle in my head over whether or not to lift the fork to my mouth, and when I talk myself into doing so, I taste only shame. I have an eating disorder.’  Jena Morrow, Hollow: An Unpolished Tale

Parenthood, Creativity and Time

It is birthday season in the Stelter household.  The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of familial activity, so much so that I have had barely a chance to put pen to paper.  With a four year old and a ten month old, even at relatively quiet times it is difficult to create the space to write.  Sometimes my writer side is wholly swallowed by my family life.  Each night I hear the whisperings of my characters as I stumble into bed, too exhausted to give them the ink they need to flourish.  Then, as the days turn into weeks, it is harder to bring the characters back to life.  My thought processes move on and the work feels stale and heavy because my absence from the page has sucked the life out of it.  The problem is that without time to create, our writer selves all but disappear.  So, partly sparked by Lauren Sandler’s article in The Atlantic  last month, which many of you will have seen, I decided to write this week’s post about the challenges of combining parenthood and creativity.

Time faceParenthood as a threat to creativity

In her article, Sandler lists women writers she admires, linking their success partly to the fact they only have one child.  The sensationalist headline of the article itself – which was apparently an editorial decision – states that having one child is the secret to being a successful mother and writer.   The article provoked a backlash.  Zadie Smith, amongst others, commented that the real threat ‘to all women’s freedom is the issue of time, which is the same problem whether you are a writer, factory worker or nurse.’

My husband plays as full a role in the upbringing of our children as I do, so although Sandler focuses on mothers, I am going to stick with talking about both parents.  Let’s just nip this in the bud straight away.  To suggest that motherhood is a threat to creativity per se is simply ridiculous.  Parenting is equally wonderful and tough.  Sometimes your sense of your old self is threatened, but as with any change to circumstances, we are supremely capable of adapting.  Zadie Smith is spot on when she suggested that time is the real issue and that supportive families and affordable childcare are part of the solution.  Each of us experiences motherhood differently and what may be right for Sandler, may not be right for you and me.  We all have a different approach to motherhood and a different reality, largely dependent on our personalities, support networks, cultural and economic circumstances.

What if you want it all?

Sandler does make valid points about how many cultures define motherhood as being nurturing and sacrificial above all other qualities.  In addition to nurturing our children, is it not a parent’s job to show by example that each of us can follow our dreams? Let’s reframe the age old feminist question about whether we can have it all and apply it instead to writers of both genders with familial commitments.  What if you, like me, want to be as committed to your family life as you are to your writing? I am not willing to be any less present with my family. Does this mean I am any less committed as a writer or that I am less likely to be successful?

I think you can have it all, just not all at once (I think it may have been Oprah who said that first!)  For now, for me, winning time to write is a constant state of negotiation and this is a compromise I am willing to make.  Besides, the experience of being a mother, like any other new experience, will ultimately fuel my craft, not destroy it.

Protecting your writing time

So to that end, here are my tips for writers in busy households:

  • Claim a writing sanctuary, however small, just for you
  • It is ok, Joan Didion, to say ‘Shush, mummy’s working.’  Just not always.  Judge your moments.
  • Take advantage of every five minutes you have to write
  • Keep a journal or bath crayons, whatever works, to make sure you capture those fleeting writerly thoughts

Parenthood vs creativity 

The balance between parenthood and writing will always be a delicate one, I expect, and never more so than when children are young.  But just as I miss writing more regularly right now, I will miss my children being young when they are older.  There will be plenty of time later for uninterrupted writing.  For now, I’m going to be patient and resourceful and use the time available to me well.  I’m not going to wish away these years when our children are dependent on us.  How do you negotiate the balance between selfhood and the demands of others?  Do you have any techniques for winning time that you can share?

There are no guarantees in life.  There is no single route to happiness or success.  Writing is my dream, Lauren Sandler, but if it’s okay with you, I won’t be following your advice.  We have two children and I would love to have another.  Just like the writing, I’ve seen her in my dreams.

‘We must use time creatively.’  Martin Luther King, Jr.

‘Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.’  Carl Sandburg

How Good a Listener Are You?

Last week, someone I love confided how in me about how low she was feeling.  We spent nearly an hour talking about her feelings, what she felt had gone wrong and how she could get to where she wants to be.  I walked away from the conversation hurting for her but when I replayed the conversation in my head, it wasn’t her voice that I heard, but my own.  The whole episode got me thinking that good listening skills are not only invaluable in every conceivable relationship we have, but also a key part of a writer’s toolkit.

Do you carry a notebook with you to jot down thoughts during the day or snippets of conversations you have heard?  What if you are missing out on little gems of writerly wisdom because you are not really hearing what is going on around you?  Could you be a better friend, parent or writer if you listened better?  According to research, most people only remember 25-50% of any given conversation.  That means that up to 75% of what we say is wasted effort.  So I’d like to ask:

  • how good a listener are you?
  • do you interrupt other people when they are talking?
  • do you know the answer before you have the full picture?
  • do you listen with an open mind?

For me, the answer to all those questions is sometimes.

External barriers to listening well

The world is getting louder and there are competing demands for our attention: the roar of road traffic, the constant buzz of the radio and the omnipresent glow of televisions in our living rooms.  Business, media and advertising continue to look for ways to hold our attention for a brief few seconds but we have become desensitised to all the tricks of the trade.  I’m as reliant as the next person on my mobile phone, but let’s face it, they are technically a pocket-sized on call and distraction device.  According to statistics published by the United Nations in March, substantially more (6 billion vs 4.5 billion) of the world’s population have access to mobile phones than working toilets.  Ironically, as the world has become more connected, we have learned to listen less.  How often is your mind on something else when you are listening?

Internal blockers to listening well

Let’s not just blame it on the big, bad world though.  I’m not going to pull any punches here.  Are there certain people who cause you to mentally fill your ears with cotton wool before they have even started?  The truth is that there are blocks to listening well from the very start. The words we hear are distorted as they are reflected through the prism of our own beliefs, knowledge and experiences.  Language itself is a subjective medium; words are not a precise instrument and may not be interpreted as we envisage. We have become huge consumers and producers of information, but our lives are busy and we tend to want sound bites.  The question is, what wealth of information and which subtle nuances are we missing out on?

violinThe art of listening better

I’m no expert, but for what it’s worth, here are my tips for listening better:

  • Take a second to distance yourself from what has been going on so you can give the speaker your undivided attention
  • Show that you are listening with your body language
  • Make a note of your internal motives for listening
  • Try not to interrupt and prepare for what you want to learn, not just what you want to say
  • Understand that you don’t need to fix everything

Listening as part of the writer’s toolkit

I don’t know any writer who would be happy with their characters being endless variations of themselves.  The truth is, to write well, we have to observe others and seek to understand their deepest motives and dreams.  So, listening well to others becomes an endless resource for our work.  Next time I’m listening to a friend or eavesdropping on a conversation out of curiosity or writerly ambition, I’ll be leaving my ego aside, stepping into a place of neutrality and open-mindedness.  Will you?

‘The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see – every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.’  Graham Greene

‘Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure.’  Henri Nouwen