The Gift

Photo by Shiv Shankar

Photo by Shiv Shankar

I dreamt of you when I was a girl
a hazy promise,
alien and enchanting
The vision bore fruit decades later,
a happy union of God,
luck and human biology

When the time came
you slithered out covered in vernix,
beautiful from the moment I saw you,
a part of myself I did not recognise:
pure, unmarred,
miraculous

Each sunrise brings growth and learning
though often it is you who are the teacher,
gracious when I disappoint myself,
encircling me in childish arms of forgiveness
before toddling off
to wear your sister’s pink boots

A boy whose character came fully formed,
already propelling away from us
into your future, where you will carve out
a small space in the corner of your heart,
that will always be mine
though I want more

My love is for you is a rolling beast,
the last of my own childhood
dispelled with the birth,
a baptism from which
faith was reborn and
a handmaiden and warrior emerged

Sometimes I dream
my hand on your brow heals,
that God has bestowed mothers with
not just nurturing hands but powerful ones
How we turn away from science in our fragility
preferring to cling to beggar’s beliefs

We are guardians not jailers
Though you were born of me
you are not mine to keep
First a thought, then a bean,
now a boy, and one day, I pray,
a man

And I will pray.
I will pray.

For your safety, and your health
That your passions sustain you
and do not burn you
That the war ravaged Earth
remains a haven for you
even if it does not for me

From the moment of your conception
I cannot envisage any other way
but for the soil to be my bed
before it is yours
Happy sadness, that though I rot
there is yet life in your bones

Still, I mourn the distance
that stretches ever further
from the day the cord was cut
under the bleak hospital lighting
when I heard your first wail
and I knew

That forever would not be
long enough to be with you

And we are at the mercy of fate.

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Loving You

Photo by Blentley

Photo by Blentley

My love for you is burned
onto the pages of my journal
It pools in the grooves
where my pen has pressed
The past in a capsule

Let me savour the man I knew –
the one hidden by cares
I’ll hold the memory of us
on my tongue
and let it mellow there

In unguarded moments
we buoy
Interlaced fingers,
lingering kisses I want
to keep in a glass jar

By night our feet are magnets
Lumps of flesh melting together
Warmth that spirals up
to where my heart is
And yours

I mourn for the day
we will be separated
by a force greater than me
I will rip the cries
from where they are buried

And try to follow you

Dear Santa: the Best Kind of Present

Christmas is over five weeks away and I just bought myself a present. I grew up in the UK and my Indian parents would bring a plastic Christmas tree down from the loft. It was small. Fast forward thirty-three years and I am married to a German. Christmas is celebrated on 24 December with a real tree that is chosen for its magnitude and I spend a significant amount of time during the festive period on my hands and knees sweeping up an avalanche of pine needles.

Over the years as our family has grown, choosing gifts has become stressful. Despite the best intentions not to go overboard, our desire to please each other inevitably results in a mountain of gifts that are ripped open and quickly forgotten. The kids are beside themselves with glee, and torn pieces of wrapping paper fall from the sky like snow as we lose track of who gave what to whom. It is happy and exasperating mayhem.

I think long and hard about what gifts to buy. Kids love the same en vogue toys which make their mothers groan. Do you play to the likes of family (“no, I am not buying you a box of cigarettes, granddad”) or go the education route (“how about this book on Imran Khan, dad?”), or try and force some much needed relaxation on them (“we couldn’t possibly take the time out for that spa day, Nillu”)? What’s wrong with another perfume or scarf for mum, or a pair of socks or aftershave for dad, you might ask?

Photo by Kevin Dooley

Photo by Kevin Dooley

But what if there are some significant misfires in your present history? Like the time I was given a clothing item I turned upside down and inside out, none the wiser to what it was, before dissolving into fits of giggles in front of the mortified present giver. And when my mum visited recently and brought us some toothpaste and a box of tampons. Make of that what you will!

It’s the thought that counts. We are lucky enough to be in a position that all of our needs are fulfilled. The rising wave of seasonal materialism can leave a bitter taste in the mouth especially when the world feels bleak. There’s nothing to say we need to give presents, or that we shouldn’t give them to others instead.

Except we all want to feel loved and it is a joy to open a thoughtfully chosen present wrapped up in glistening red, green and gold on Christmas morning. So what if we disregard the surprise factor and ask for what we want? I’m not very good at accepting gifts or compliments, for that matter. When I am asked what I would like to receive, all sound thoughts evacuate my mind and I am left with a very guilt-ridden “oh, but you don’t need to buy me anything”.

Still, let’s face it, there is enough potential for clashes during the festive season – over what kind of gravy to make and whether Brussels sprouts are a must-have or a smelly no-no – to be coy about what we would like. If pressed, my wish list would read:

  • A new set of pans because frankly the ones I still have from university are embarrassing
  • Some free time for a lie in and then a whole day of writing
  • A massage not restricted to one hour (who doesn’t feel disappointed when the time is up?)
  • A bath without my two year old coming in and shouting “boobies!” at the top of his voice
  • A weekend at a yoga retreat to see if the enlightened me I think may be lurking inside is really there
  • A glass of wine that is invisible to my stricter-than-me Muslim parents for when the conversation gets really boring

My favourite presents tend to be the ones I buy myself. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s a very happy mix of self-love and control-freak. The present I just ordered for myself is this planner, which is a hybrid of journal, calendar and goal setter. I am very excited (although I will break down and cry if the second edition has the typos which reviewers said were in the first edition).

What makes seasonal festivals special – Eid, Christmas, Diwali, Thanksgiving, you name it – is feeling loved, connected and grateful for what we have. Presents have somehow become central to our experience of Christmas, but my favourite parts of it are: the quiet moment when everyone is round the table and too busy eating to speak, carols being sung unexpectedly in the street, and the lights. The lights are awesome. As for presents, here is my letter to Santa.

Dear Santa,

please bring me a present which is cheap and useful but shows me you know who I am.

Love,

Nillu

Over to you. What is in your letter to Santa? What are the best gifts you have received and have given?

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.

WordPress Family Award

wordpressfamilyaward_2Taylor Eaton of Little Write Lies has just nominated me for the WordPress Family Award, which is given to those who make other WordPress bloggers feel like part of the family. What a lovely way to start the new year! For those of you who haven’t checked out Taylor’s blog yet, please do. I’m in complete awe of Taylor’s energy, passion and her prose. Taylor is also co-founder of The Sprint Shack, a home for word sprint lovers and writing advice.

In order to accept the award, I must nominate six other bloggers who have made me feel at home here on WordPress. I’ve made some wonderful friendships since I started blogging last year, and what a wonderful way this is to say thank you to bloggers who have inspired me and been so welcoming and generous with their support. Here goes:

Rachael Spellman – CelenaGaia – Rach was the first blogger, who caught my eye when I joined WordPress. She blogs both articles and fiction, and has the courage to be personal in her writing. Her short story Terminal is a gem. Her writing wisdom is second to none and is full of useful examples.

Jessica P. West – Jessica blogs fiction and writing advice. She got me hooked on flash fiction. Her stories can be under 200 words and she can still move me to tears. Always supportive, always fun. I wish I had more of her drive.

Graham Milne – Graham’s Crackers – Graham blogs about a range of topics including writing and movies. He has a keen eye and a beautiful turn of phrase, and even better, writes perceptively about the the portrayal of women onscreen. I cannot wait to read his novel, a fantasy written in the first person about a woman with magic.

Amira Makansi – The Z-Axis – Co-author of The Sowing (which has a knock-out opening scene and a great cast of characters – seriously, go buy it) who blogs articles, writer interviews and book reviews.

Roger – An Ark Hive – Horror isn’t usually my thing, but Roger’s writing has changed my mind. He blogs short stories and micro-fiction.

Drew Chial –  Drew blogs poetry, lyrics, stories, audio-shorts and articles. There’s been times when I’ve read his blog and his words have crystallised what I had started to think but not arrived at yet.

If you haven’t checked out the work of these wonderful writers and bloggers, please do. Each of them has quirks and a unique voice. They inspire, make me smile and they don’t hold back on the truth.  Just what I like in my writers ;-)

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.

A Man Who Reads Fiction

This post was inspired by @JEdwardPaul, who posted a link to a spoken word piece by Mark Grist called ‘Girls Who Read’.

My man and his reading habits

The last time my husband read a book we were on honeymoon. That was five years ago. In the intervening years the most I’ve seen him read is news on his phone, bedtime stories to the kids and – because he’s wonderfully supportive – my writing. He says it is not because he doesn’t like to read, it’s just that when time is short, reading isn’t top of his list when it comes to relaxation. To be fair, it could be my fault. I never seem to hit the right note when, on the odd occasion, he asks me to recommend him something. He was completely weirded out when I suggested Will Self’s Great Apes.

Gender divides in reading 

Reading differences between the genders emerge during early childhood and, whether due to conditioning or biology, these differences continue into adulthood.  I do remember reading that the books that have a film franchise tend to do really well with boys, and that more boys have read the Harry Potter series than girls. In general though, women out-read men in every category apart from history and biography. According to research conducted in the US, Canada and Britain, men account for only 20 per cent of the fiction market.

Ian McEwan’s experiment

In 2005, Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian about handing out free novels in a London park. He and his son gave away thirty novels; it was a tiny but telling sampling.  McEwan later wrote that the women they encountered were ‘eager and grateful to take a book.’ The men ‘frowned in suspicion, or distaste. When they were assured they would not have to part with their money, they still could not be persuaded.’  At the end of his piece, McEwan concluded that ‘reading groups, readings, breakdowns of book sales all tell the same story: when women stop reading, the novel will be dead.’

A man who reads fiction

The reasons I’d like my husband to read are selfish ones. Sinking into the sofa with a good book is wonderful, but can feel anti-social. Guilt wouldn’t be an issue if we were both curled up with a book. I like roses and chocolates as much as other women, but if my husband were to read to me I’d melt on the spot. It would be great to be able to discuss plots and characters together and for him to understand first-hand why I am suddenly feeling so sad, or why I have laughed out loud. Instead of dinner, a movie or the theatre, we could go to the local bookshop together, lose ourselves amongst the shelving and pop back to each other to swap recommendations.

Does your family read fiction? What books have you read that might appeal to men who aren’t regular readers?

Sunshine Award

sunshine-awardI won my first ever blogging award, the Sunshine Award :-). It’s given to bloggers who ‘positively and creatively inspire others in the blogosphere.’

Did I just hear you say ‘speech!’? Well, ok then. Thanks first to @West1Jess for nominating and inspiring me.  Thanks also to my husband, my mum, my wonderfully efficient and strokeable Mac….kidding!

To accept the award, I’ve been asked to list ten things about myself and then nominate ten other bloggers for the award. Here goes!

Ten things about me

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  • When we were children, my brother used to wait until my parents were out of sight and do Bret Hitman Hart’s sharp shooter move on me. It hurt like hell.
  • My dad has an awesome moustache. It’s pretty big as ‘taches go. I’ve never seen him without one.
  • My favourite thing in the world is hearing people laugh. I love watching laughter too: the crinkling around the eyes, the freedom of it. One of my favourite laughs is my nani’s. She is in her 70s and sounds like a giggling school girl.  Then there’s my friend Sal, who has an infectious, dirty laugh. It’s wonderful.
  • If there is no other chocolate in the house I fetch the Nutella jar and a spoon. There is never any guilt. A woman and chocolate belong together.
  • Tracks certain to get me out of my armchair are Placebo’s The Bitter End and Muse’s Starlight.  If I’m really down and need a quick turn around, my go to album is Madonna’s Immaculate. Yes, I am that old. And I can be that cheesy.
  • I like the freedom that comes with forgetting my phone at home but if I’m without my laptop for more than a day, my fingers start to twitch.
  • I have become an expert frog catcher as a by-product of our cats’ crazy hunting abilities.  Frog in the kitchen. Frog in the living room. Frog under the sofa. If it happens to you, you know who to call. Any other ‘gifts’ and that’ll be me cowering in the bedroom.
  • Good writing days effect my body language: I stand taller. I also smile more.
  • My idea of heaven is taking a long candlelit bubble bath when it’s dark outside and reading a good book while I soak. That is until my fingers get wrinkly. Then I freak out.
  • Joining Twitter has boosted my writing productivity. I feel inspired and supported by my fellow nominees and the bloggers I am nominating for the award.

Ten nominees

Huma Munshi

Reh of Light

An Ark Hive

B.G. Bowers

The Crayon Parlour

Changing Skin and Other Stories

Dazzling & Evil Me

Magic and Marvels

Rubber Ducky Copywriter

The Write Shadow

Memory and Chickens

Memory is, by its very nature, flawed. We filter our past through the prism of our own feelings and experiences, making our memories unreliable. For years I thought that my memory was more unreliable than other people’s. As a creative type, I’m more prone to reimaginings than the average person, but I’ve realised there is something else. I don’t always remember the same details as other people. I am more likely to recall a feeling or a colour than specifics. I see a picture in my head and remember a feeling, and then more often than not build a story around that picture.

For all these reasons, I am not sure whether the story I am about to tell you is real, imagined or somewhere in between. You remember last week I promised you chickens. As mentioned, I am following one of Jessica Schmeidler’s prompts, part of her October blog challenge on The Write Shadow.

I must have been about eleven years old when we went on holiday to Tanzania. My dad is born there and was excited to show off its delights to us. I remember flashes of that trip. First, the preparations that included getting jabs in our bottoms. My brother and I shrieked with laughter when we learned that mum and dad were to be humiliated in the same fashion we were. We travelled with another family. My mum has an uncle has children of a similar age, and so the eight of us spent part of this holiday together. We played barefoot in the sand, had roof-top barbecues and rode in open-backed trucks while drinking coconut juice straight from the shell. It was wonderful.

ChickenMy aunt’s sister lived in Dar es Salaam and we spent a lot of time in and around her house. She had a live-in cook and a cleaner, who were patient and kind despite having four children underfoot. We felt free. We played on the street and in the yard, and the adults didn’t seem to pay much attention to what we were up to. We made friends with the chickens. They weren’t penned up and at first I was fearful of being pecked. I squealed if they got too close but after a few days it seemed normal to sit in the dust with the chickens passing close by. Each of us had a favourite one. The years have passed and I am no longer sure why I picked mine. Maybe she had intelligent eyes or was more beautiful than the others. Or maybe she seemed to like me more than the other children.

I’m not going to paint this picture too clearly for you. I am sure that by now you know what happened. There are not many reasons why people keep chickens. Later that week, we sat to eat a delicious meal together. The cook had made curry with fresh rotis. There must have been a dozen of us around the table. I can see a colourful table-cloth and at the head of the table the corpulent body of the lady of the house. She is throwing back her head and laughing. I am tired after a day in the sun and so are the other children. We take our leave quickly to go to bed, and I am already looking forward to seeing the chickens the next day.

It didn’t happen of course. In the morning I was sad that my favourite chicken wasn’t there. My aunt laughed as she explained we had eaten it the night before.  That day some of my childhood innocence was washed away.  My trust was broken. I’ve toyed with being a vegetarian on and off ever since. Logically, I know that the integrity of our food choices is tied to knowing where the food on our plate comes from. Still, even today I have an emotional connection to food, and I shut off certain parts of my brain when eating certain things.

As for the family we holidayed with, it was the beginning of a downward spiral.  In the years that followed, time and again I have been reminded of the dark and macabre in my interactions with them. One day maybe I’ll work those thoughts and experiences into a novel, and you’ll know that that novel was essentially borne of chickens.

Definitely time for me to end this post now, my husband is starting to make jokes about horses and lasagne…

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

For My Daughter

Tonight Hana, I am lying here in bed at a childishly early hour writing directly to you because I can find no other way to process what happened.  Soothing words are little comfort, television is hollow and sleep is not possible, although I have tried.  As ever, the solution is to write, to pour all these feelings down onto the page in the hope that it will help.

We were having an idyllic afternoon out in London after a rushed start to the day.  The rain had held off and there was a glimmer of sunshine.  Daddy stayed at home with the baby so I could concentrate on you.  I didn’t have a nappy bag with me for the first time in months.  You had your scooter and were carefree and giggling as you rode along, your little legs working hard as they pushed off the earth, the wind blowing your hair in your face.  You loved the train ride into the city.  You were excited to see a road and some cars out of the window.  I smiled wryly at your sense of wonderment at something so common.

We were meeting family and decided to have lunch in the cafe at the Southbank Centre.  You proudly picked what you wanted to eat yourself, delighted by the child-sized cheese sandwich, grapes and sugar-packed drink you found.  We sat to eat, the five of us.  You insisted on sitting on a brightly coloured chair, not a boring natural wood one.  I turned to look at a picture on my cousin’s phone and suddenly became aware of your hands flapping.  Delicately.  Like a butterfly.  I looked up to your face and realised you were choking, and that your colour had changed slightly.  You, always a careful, dainty eater – you never needed bibs as a baby whereas your brother often needs a bath after meals – had this time, for an unfathomable reason, decided not to chew this grape, which turned out to be the perfect shape and size to become lodged in your windpipe.

I, we – this is where my recall is blurry – tipped you forward and began striking your back, hard.  The seconds slowed as we continued pounding and still you were struggling for breath.  One of our party was a doctor but she too was unsuccessful at helping you clear your airway.  We were all standing by now and I was calling out, repeatedly, ‘someone, help me please!’ and ‘can anyone do the Heimlich?’ So many people all around, and yet in that moment, I felt alone.  As if it were you and me, and I was failing you.  There were calls from my cousins of ‘someone call an ambulance’ and it seemed all were looking, but everyone was helpless.  An older woman approached, a Spanish nurse I later found out, and she pressed your stomach.  You vomited and I watched, my face crumpled, to see if you were ok, but still that ordinary green grape stuck fast.  We continued with the futile back slapping and I thought I had lost you. I saw myself walking home without you, broken, destined to always be broken because of the loss of you.  And then, miraculously, it worked.  The grape made its way up again into the world and you were no longer in danger.  You were safe.  And I was a wreak.

Let me tell you why.  I love you more than myself.  I would give up anything so that you could be safe and well and happy. You have been in our lives for four short years and you have made your mark so deeply on me that I will never be the same again.  You fill my life with bright colours, mischief and sweetness and in those few minutes that I thought you might not live, my heart filled with unbearable pain.  I will always feel like this about you, however old you are or however cross you make me, because I am your mum and my love for you is all-consuming and unconditional.

I will say my prayers more religiously now, in the hope that they can form a shield around you to protect you from wilful harm and accidents alike. And I will try not to let this episode colour my behaviour towards you. I will try to purge it from my mind and to curb my desire to keep you closer than ever and to be over-protective.  But one day, when you are older, perhaps you will read this and understand why my heart broke when you were four years old and we were standing outside London Wonderground and you said to me, ‘you thought I was going to go away forever, didn’t you?  But I didn’t.’

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

Should Writers Ever Self-Censor?

Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses

In 1989 my seven year old ears pricked up at the repeated mention of a name in our house.  My extended family are big film and music lovers and it would have been more in keeping for them to be discussing Bollywood star Salman Khan.  But it was Salman Rushdie who was the talking point.

“How dare he talk about the Prophet and his wives that way!”

“Why did he do it?  What is wrong with him?”

“He should have known better.”

Not one person in our immediate circle had actually picked up a copy of The Satanic Verses, yet there was an immediate ferocity of emotion against the author.  My family is Muslim and faith plays an important role for us.  Our particular strand of Islam has a modernist approach, which sometimes does not sit well with the rest of the Ummah.  Yet in that moment the entire Muslim world, the majority of whom did not support the Fatwa, still turned against Rushdie and said: you were wrong to choose that subject matter – some things are sacred.

It was years before I began to actually understand the huge attack on freedom the reaction to The Satanic Verses entailed.  It gained notoriety amongst non-readers in Muslim circles with breathtaking speed.  That book.  That blasphemer.  Fiction had intruded on reality and challenged the status quo, and there was no going back.

WomanWhy do writers self-censor?

I am no Salman Rushdie, but as I mine the caverns of my knowledge and experience for my writing life, I have begun to wonder whether some topics are off-limits.  What possible reasons might a writer have to self-censor?  History is littered with examples of artists being persecuted or punished by the state for their work in the interests of ‘security and castration’ (Jonathan Green, Encyclopaedia of Censorship).  The state has the power to contribute to the upward trajectory of artists, such as the patronage of Michelangelo or the support for Leni Riefenstahl in Nazi Germany.  But it can also seek to silence artistic voices.  Take Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, for example, whose writing, considered subversive by the Chinese Communist Party, is banned.  In England, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were both subject to obscenity trials.  Fear at such treatment might be one reason why writers curtail their creative vision.

Then there is not wishing to offend family and friends.  As a writer, you borrow, steal and explore the experiences of those around you.  Or you fear your loved ones will see connections to your own life or theirs where there is none.  How many of you have censored your language or the darker side of your imagination for fear of the reception a free artistic reign might receive amongst your loved ones?  Did Patrick Süskind think twice before writing Das Parfum or did Nabokov’s courage fail him as the publication date for Lolita grew closer?  With social media closing the distance between authors and their readers, do writers need to develop an even thicker skin to criticism?  Today, with the need for writers to engage directly with their readership, they leave themselves open to fans as well as trolls, and fear of criticism could well bring about a less brave editorial decision. As Salman Rushdie says, if a writer ‘is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear’(On Censorship).

Self-censorship as self-protection

I also ask myself whether the exploration of certain thoughts is dangerous.  Have you ever stood at the edge of a cliff or a train platform and wondered for a fleeting moment what it would be like to jump?  Or stayed under the bath water for a few seconds too long, thinking what would it feel like to let the water obliterate you, wash it all away?  You then get up and carry on happily with your life, forgetting that you were momentarily drawn to the abyss. But art demands that you stay in dark moments, explore them, rinse them of their possibilities.  You cut yourself until you bleed onto the page.  You exploit the painful experiences you have long since buried for the sake of your writing.  Is that the sacrifice we must make to make lasting and memorable art? What if that isn’t good for you?  What if that turns you into a version of yourself that isn’t healthy?  Take Heath Ledger in Batman, Daniel Day-Lewis in The Gangs of New York, or Anthony Burgess’ and Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, for example. Does imagining the lives of psychopaths and the most heinous criminals make artists vulnerable, leaving an inescapable impact on their psyche?  

Are artists also partially responsible for vile acts committed by audience members who emulate the depraved scenes we imagine, like the killers of Jamie Bulger, who are said to have been imitating scenes from Child’s Play?  Many films, including Scream and even Robocop 2 have been blamed for inspiring murder.  Excessive violence or sexual content in films can have varying impact on audiences – including desensitisation and imitation – or no influence at all. To blame the writer or encourage him to self-censor for the greater good seems to me to be a step too far when there are so many contributory factors, which determine how people act.  It’s questionable that any one creative work is a significant influencer of how people behave.

Should writers ever self-censor?

In his brilliant essay A Severity of Conscience: Writers and Self-Censorship, Thomas Larson talks about how ‘government and other self-selecting demi-gods […] dictate what is consumable in hopes of ethically uplifting or expunging our thoughts.’   In a free society, if content is deemed to be undesirable, however graphic or offensive it is, then its impact should be negated through informed discussion about the work in question, rather than blanket bans or the persecution of its creator.  In specific circumstances, there may be exceptions to the rule, and as Larson discusses in his essay, the poet Nissim Ezekiel came out in favour of India’s ban on The Satanic Verses, stating that its publication ‘was an incendiary act in the Indian context, for it could lead to rioting and murder, and no book was worth that’ (A Severity of Conscience: Writers and Self-Censorship).

Art is freedom, and so it follows that censorship of any kind is anathema to it.  To my mind enlightenment comes from exploration, discussion and looking at different versions of the truth.  The more we censor ourselves as writers, the less our readers can relate to us, the more our voice falls silent to those who need it.  There are consequences to telling the truth, just as there are consequences to covering it up.  Every writer must decide for herself what she wishes to commit to the page.  The decisions she makes come down to her courage, environment and the risks she wishes to take.  Over time, the markers about what is acceptable change.  The lifetime of art exceeds that of its makers and ultimately, now and in the future, we don’t have any control over how readers interpret our work.  Just as it is the writer’s prerogative to create fiction without his vision being suppressed, it is for readers to decide what they wish to read.  As Salman Rushdie says, ‘original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge’ (On Censorship).  He should know.

Arrogance: the Making and Breaking of Writers

The importance of being modest

If you’ve ever seen an old-school Bollywood movie, you’ll know that the heroine often hides behind her sari when faced with her true love.  In India, as in many other cultures, brash and brazen behaviour, is viewed as unseemly; modesty is celebrated, especially in women.  My family is originally from India.  My maternal grandfather came to the UK with nothing and worked hard to reestablish himself.  The achievement was staggering given his starting point.  When Nana died a few years ago, he left behind my gran, six children and nine grandchildren, all of whom share one characteristic: humility.  That, more than anything else for me, is my grandfather’s legacy.  He believed that regardless of success or good fortune, it is important to be humble.

The flipside of humility

This week, I’ve been thinking about the flip side of humility, that is, arrogance.  According to the Oxford Dictionary, arrogance is defined as ‘having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities.’  But it seems to me that arrogance isn’t always a bad thing.  It can have a marked impact on success.  For example, research indicates that when looking for a new job, women generally put themselves forward if they meet a high percentage of the required criteria.  Men, on the other hand, are more likely to go for the job even if they fall short of the person specification, contributing to gender inequality at the highest levels.  So in this way, their exaggerated sense of their own worth contributes to their success.

PeacockArrogance vs confidence 

Of course, there is a difference between arrogance and confidence.  A confident person is aware of their value but articulates her achievements only if the situation requires it.  In a job interview, say, or in the dating game.  Or as a daily mantra – whatever.  The fact is that she isn’t as ostentatious and unpleasant as Mr Arrogant; Ms Confident knows when to broadcast her abilities, and when just to get on with her life.  Still, the differences between arrogance and confidence can be so subtle that they are sometimes confused with each other.  A pinch of too much confidence and the scales are tipped into arrogance.

A tool for success

But if your aim is not to be nice but to be more successful, is arrogance preferable to modesty?  If you are blind to your talents and do not celebrate them, why should anyone else?  In all walks of life, self-doubt is a game killer.  To give of ourselves, maybe we need to have a little self-love first, to be aware of our strengths and to acknowledge that we have unique talents that make us special.  Now, I can hear what you are thinking right now.  What is wrong with just being confident of my abilities?  Why do I need to be arrogant?

Arrogance – the making and breaking of writers

This is just for my writer friends, especially the ones who are just starting out and are still finding their voice.  As a new writer, there is an innate arrogance in assuming not only that you have something worthwhile to say but that you can express it in a way that readers will appreciate.  Writing can be lonely.  It involves long stretches of time without feedback and the road to finding readers can be a long one.  Without a touch of arrogance (new writers are unproven after all, how can you be so sure of your worth?), you may find that the path of the writer is too strewn with difficulties for you to persevere.  It is your self-belief, your arrogance, that propels you forward, that drives you to your computer, keeping your writing dreams afloat.  So, you see, arrogance is the making of emerging writers, but it can also be the breaking of you.  If your arrogance blinds you to the fact that all first drafts need editing, you will find yourself on the pulp pile.  Even geniuses need a helping hand.

Strange bedfellows: arrogance and courage

I’ll let you in on a secret.  I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child, but I’ve always been afraid to give voice to my dream or call myself a writer.  Even now, when writing fiction has long become part of my daily practice, I still struggle with sharing that part of myself with those close to me.  Writers for me have so much power, they are god-like. It seemed arrogant to align myself with them.  But I grew tired of hiding.  I began to speak more of writing to those I trust and to make it a larger part of my life.  Strange things have happened since taking ownership of my writing ambitions.  I have been getting more words down on paper.  I feel more free to explore my creativity.  I am happier.  And if a little bit of arrogance is what has made this happen, sorry Nana, then it’s here to stay.

‘I’m an ambitious person. I never consider myself in competition with anyone, and I’m not saying that from an arrogant standpoint, it’s just that my journey started so, so long ago, and I’m still on it and I won’t stand still.’ Idris Elba 

‘The French have the reputation of being arrogant. I don’t think it’s arrogance but a certain authenticity.’ Simon Baker 

 

Introducing My Superheroes. Who are Yours?

Taking on a challenge

A few weeks ago I went on a course called ‘We All Need Words’ at The School of Life in London.  It was my first day away from the kids since our son was born and I was both excited and anxious.  It was great to have the chance to do something purely for me, but after months of the baby being an extension of myself, I wasn’t sure how I would cope without him.  I needn’t have worried.

The course took place in a basement in Camden, which was kitted out with ornate wallpaper, velvety carpet and über-cool furniture.  We spent the day discussing how to write more effectively, trying our hand at mostly short pieces including dating adverts and dictionary entries, and sharing our work.  It was fun, surreal and out of my comfort zone.  I’d highly recommend it.  [http://www.weallneedwords.com]

Embracing writing exercises

One of my favourite exercises was crafting superhero stanzas.  Our course instructors, the brilliant, down-to-earth word-smiths Molly and Rob, invited us to write a few sentences about someone we know, give them a superhero name and zoom in on one of their strengths or weaknesses.  These may not be the typical qualities you would associate with a superhero – we’re not talking about flying, invisibility or weather-control here – but that is what makes this exercise so interesting; there is something unique and powerful to be uncovered in everyone you meet.

silhouetteMy superheroes

Inspired by Molly and Rob, I have decided to introduce you to some of the key people in my life, by way of a superhero stanza each.  For each one, I’ve isolated a trait I admire, but have also hinted at their vulnerabilities.  Do you recognise any of these characters in your own life?

 

  • Mistress Grafter – She works from dawn to dusk in the service of others, her loved ones barely registering her efforts while strangers are touched beyond belief.  Her body ages but her soul sings.  And the phone keeps ringing.
  • Calm Waters – He is a towering example of moral courage yet he has no religion.  He thinks clearly about his desired goal and moves towards it silently, with infinite patience.  Victory is almost certain, yet he keeps his emotions in check, restraint crackling in his fingertips. His strength, shimmering just beneath the surface, is not obvious and they do not see him coming.  Until it’s too late.
  • Mister Magnanimous – He is gives of himself gladly.  His affection knows no bounds and he is the first to reach into his pocket in times of need.  They flock to him, drawn by his charisma and warmth, circling him so he is in the very centre of it all, where he likes to be.  But his expectations of himself are equal to his expectations of others, and his disappointments weigh heavily, threatening to destroy it all.
  • Sweet Candy She fills the world with her light and they drink it from her greedily, with grasping hands that leave marks upon her soft skin.  One touch from her and sadness is banished.  Desperate for her gifts, they trample over each other to reach her, but the light remains hers, and hers alone.  Only the glimpse of a pink tutu in the corner of your eye suggests she was ever there.
  • The Protector – He guides her with gentleness, tending to her needs with a love that is selfless and pure.   You can almost touch the bond between them with your fingertips.  It fizzes and crackles and will last beyond their physical lives.  Father extraordinaire, who has taught his daughter to reach for her dreams and built a safety net under her with his own body.  And yet, the wounds left by his own father are still there, stinging, raw, on the underside of his skin, hidden from view.
  • Mistress Inkwell – She sends her missives into the world, hundreds at a time, hand-written in square print in a language all of her own.  She sweats over these patchworks of text, bleeds over them, squeezing out her joy onto the page until there is nothing left in her.  The brightly coloured envelopes arrive at their destination where they languish on the doormat, waiting, forever waiting for their readers.
  • Spaceman – He puts himself first, his self-respect propelling him through the gates of opportunity.  He has arrived at his destination already and has set his sights on the moon.  He will reach it quickly, without a spaceship, armed with stellar determination and textbook intelligence, his wings powered by the prayers of others.

So, those are some of my superheroes.  Who are yours?

‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald 

‘Though nature be ever so generous, yet can she not make a hero alone. Fortune must contribute her part too.’  Francois de La Rochefoucauld