Lost and Found Girl

Photo by Stephanie Y.

Photo by Stephanie Y.

Darkness came
to take the lost girl
Those who were left
mourned and beat their breasts
They knew not
her unease had fled

No longer imprisoned
by her broken body
her sleep was peaceful
for the first time
since childhood
Night blurred into day

When she woke
an old lady was waiting,
blue dots trailing
across her skin
just as she had
worn them in life

At the woman’s side
stood her son, strong and tall,
a cigarette between his fingers
He smiled a greeting
for the new soul
and held out his arms

Made of neither flesh nor mists,
they were as real to her
as the sun or the moon
and the stars, or her mother
who knelt at the grave
with flowers and incense

The lost and found girl
had not been ready
to untie herself
from their bonds
She fought fiercely
to keep the circle whole

But Death still came.

The realisation struck
in that moment
of parting
that he was neither
angel nor monster
but complexity itself

He had compassionate
globes for eyes,
hands that warmed her
though she was cold
He spun stories of
gold through the dark

So she went with him,
but first she sought
to tell the weary ones
that her days were
a mere drop
in the ocean of time

The old and infirm
would die
and wombs filled
with new children
so the cycle went
fruitful and fruitless
in equal measure

Though she could hear
their beloved voices
at her ear, speech fled
She could bring them
neither comfort
nor acceptance

Their love became
a stone, pressing down
with a jagged edge
It left a deep cut
they wore with pride
in honour of her

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Making Home

IMG_20150125_190714We went back
to bright city lights and siren calls
bleak rain over stacked chimney pots
where the big clock stands
proudly amidst carved buildings
of yellowed stone
sticky pubs and well-trodden streets,
in which street lamps
cast familiar shadows

We travelled back
to the rhythms of my childhood
of parental love
and my grandmother’s food
the constant beep and boom
of the television and telephone,
sprawling networks of goodwill
chiselling away
pieces of our time

Easy to slip into
the patterns of youth
when self-determination seems
an unachievable fantasy
to be buffeted instead
by the storms of others
and forget to thrust our spear
into the ground
on which we wish to stand

I mourned the distance
before we left,
love scarcely tangible
with an ocean between us
Cables and distorted pixels
a poor comparison to touch
What I would give to always
sit at my grandmother’s feet
and welcome back
the ghosts of the past

Still that home is not mine
My home is the one
we created together
brick by brick
kiss by kiss
the circle of your arms
the meat of your feet on mine
underneath the cotton covers
when we sleep

I dream of the third child
we may have,
if the stars align
I think of the home that will be ours
when we move again
And my heart is sore
for the places we have known
I miss the blood and sweat of the city
the clean mountain air and snowy peaks
though we are still here

That little Vietnamese place
with the benches where we used to eat
and our friend sweated out the spice
Our favourite park with its hills,
small like a jewel,
where we walked with him,
the one we loved
and saw the city skyline
if we squinted

The bridge in Eastern Europe
where we picked up the watercolours
and I kicked off my shoes to walk the cobbles
Or our first home together,
above my father’s workshop,
where we’d hear the call of the men
toiling below and my culture
made me feel a hussy
between the sheets without a ring
though we were bonded by love

I think how funny we are
with our need for a place of our own,
a door to close and lock,
when some have only a cardboard box
in a shanty town and a future
that dissolves through their fingers
And it’s not important, place,
or having four walls
to call ours away from the storm

Except it is.

Until our health goes
or our heart.

Fiction Writer’s Guide: How much Research is too much?

Photo by Brenda Clarke

Photo by Brenda Clarke

I’ve been working recently on a novel that has grown from a short story I wrote last year. It’s a literary romance based in Mumbai about a drifter called Akash. He continued to fill my head after I wrote the last line of the short story and I realised his story was unfinished. It has become a novel about second chances that unravels amongst the dust and grime of the Mumbai’s streets and behind the gates of opulent houses.

Not for the first time during this novel, I have found it easy to be swallowed up in research. Although my heritage is Indian, I was born in the UK. I have visited India twice, once as a child and once in my early twenties. My recollections are broad brush strokes: the smell of street food, the sticky heat, the palaces in Jaipur, the imploring faces of child beggars pressed against cool taxi windows.

For the details for my novel, I turned to travel guides and photo books. Cousins of mine, who live in Mumbai have provided eye witness accounts. I’ve been watching Bollywood movies to get in the mood. The internet has saved me lots of time researching, or so I first thought, compared to the hours spent in dark libraries by previous generations. This, of course, it rubbish. Instead, it opens up as if it is a wormhole, an unfiltered surplus of information, causing hours to disappear with the click of my trackpad.

Photo by Daniel Lobo

Photo by Daniel Lobo

How easy it is to get sidetracked. Yesterday, I needed to know the dates Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, and within moments I was drawn into the tragic glamour of the Gandhi family, history I once knew, but which had all but escaped through the sieve of my memory: Indira’s rise to power, the loss of her politically-minded younger son in a plane crash, convincing her elder son to run for parliament and setting him on the path to his assassination ten years later, her own murder, and how the wives of her dead sons are on opposing sides of the political spectrum in today’s India.

Later, I checked the meaning of a main character’s name: Soraya, taken from the Persian to mean ‘princess’. I found myself reading about Soraya, the Colombian-American singer songwriter, who died in 2006 at 37 years old from breast cancer. And Soraya, Princess of Iran, who married the King, the last Shah of Iran, at eighteen years old, and found she could not conceive. She refused to share her husband with another woman (the King could have had two wives), and they parted after seven years of marriage, both unwillingly, because he needed an heir. The King went on to remarry and have children. Princess Soraya moved to France after their parting and briefly became an actress. She met a new partner but succumbed to depression after he died. She was found dead in her Paris apartment in 2001 at the age of sixty-nine. Her younger brother commented at the time “after her, I don’t have anyone to talk to.” He died a week later.

Photo by Joel Bedford

Photo by Joel Bedford

Princess Soraya’s story reminded me that there are stories all around us, but she is not the Soraya of my novel, and I began thinking about how best to conduct research for fiction without getting distracted or doing too much. With so many avenues at our disposal to gather what we need to write credible stories – books, letters, internet, in person interviews, phone calls, movies, documentaries, museums, online forums, YouTube – how much research is the right amount?

Here are my tips:

Choose projects wisely. While you don’t always need to write what you know, if you are starting from scratch researching an intricate issue, know you’re on the back foot. Readers, agents, publishers are waiting for your next book. Don’t let a world’s worth of research be the reason you are keeping them waiting or your pockets empty

▪ Carry out background research to get you in the frame of mind for your characters, themes and settings is a good idea. Start with a small set of essential questions to keep you focused

Make a note of finer details to weave into your writing. Peppering your fiction with the odd detail will give your writing authenticity

Avoid hoovering up research and dumping it onto the page at all costs. You are writing fiction, not a history textbook

Don’t get sucked into the wormhole. If your words are flowing, mark missing information with an X and return to it later

Search for beta-readers within your subject realm to pick up on inconsistencies and breaks with reality

▪ Save in person jaunts to research your novel for times when your creative juices are running low. A timely visit to a museum or setting can get you out of a rut

▪ Sound the alarm bells when you notice you’re overindulging in research as an excuse to procrastinate

Employ the Iceberg Theory à la Ernest Hemingway, also known as the theory of omission. In other words, do your research, but prune your story so that you tell only what is essential. Trust the reader to understand what is implicit in your story

Develop a BS detector. This advice also comes from Hemingway, so it must be good. Get a feel for your topic, your characters, and assess your words for their measure of truth. Trust your gut

▪ Learning is admirable but there comes a time when you just need to sit your delicious bottom down and write

▪ You’re a fiction writer. Don’t forget it is your magic power to fake what you don’t know

How do you approach researching your fiction? Do you immerse yourself in the background to your story, or are you a fly by the pants type? Let me know in the comments. I love hearing from you. Happy writing, folks.

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 Being Freshly Pressed and Why We Write

This is my first post since being Freshly Pressed and I’m still feeling giddy at all the attention. When I initially received an email from Cheri at WordPress, I had to Google what the term ‘Freshly Pressed’ means. For those of you unfamiliar with it, WordPress essentially picks a handful of posts each day to feature on their website. It’s a great way to reach new audiences. As there are only a few editors tasked with picking posts to be Freshly Pressed, and millions of blogs, it in no way shows your work is superior to anyone else’s but it is a fun ride. Now I’m on the other side of it, I have what can only be described as stage fright. Can this post measure up to my last one? What if my new readers followed me by accident? What if they don’t stick around to read the end of this sentence? I’ve now sat on those little demons of doubt so I can get on with telling you about the experience.

In terms of the number of readers it reached, my post on The Joys of Longhand Writing has been my most successful piece of writing yet. I’m very lucky that WordPress Editor and Story Wrangler Cheri (awesome job title, and almost as brilliant as a friend’s who is a forensic scientist specialising in explosives…imagine that on your business card) discovered it. It helped that she is currently using handwriting to help get unblocked. The writing we are drawn to often reflects our own thoughts and that helped me to be found.

The most exciting part has been the interactions in the comments on the article. It’s been a thrill talking to new readers. I loved reading the descriptions of how people feel when they are writing longhand. It seems many more people miss handwriting than I’d previously thought. I was also very excited to be placed next to my friend @akmakansi on the Freshly Pressed page. What are the chances of that?

There has also been a remarkable, likely short term, effect on my website stats. I’ve been blogging nearly a year. In that time, my average daily views have been about 25 (with the exception of a guest post which generated about 100 views) and my posts have been getting a maximum of a dozen likes and a few comments. I had 149 followers. In the two days since being Freshly Pressed I’ve had an additional 1700 views, nearly 400 likes on that particular post and about 150 comments. Notifications are still coming in. My follower numbers have more than doubled to 421. That is huge for me, so thank you. There are lots of words in the world, so thank you for sticking around to read mine.

The experience has in many ways made me think about social media etiquette. Is it polite to follow back those who follow you? Auto follow back probably makes good business and marketing sense, but I’m not sure that’s what I want. I’d rather rummage through other blogs slowly, taking in the new ideas and quirks of expression at my leisure. That way, reading each other is a joy and not a chore. Forgive me if it takes me a while to stop by your online homes, or if I don’t at all. I don’t want you to be another item on my to do list, governed by the rule of reciprocity. Let our relationship be free of pressure. That way, next time we meet and have a virtual cup of tea together and discuss books, ideas or our thoughts, we’ll know that each of us is exactly where we want to be.

I’ve also been thinking more widely about why we write. Perhaps it is just the stage I am at personally with regard to my writing ambitions and the increased opportunities that come with self-publishing and the reach of social media, but I think recently I have lost track of why I write. I mentioned in a past post that without readers, words aren’t alive. That is both true and besides the point in some ways. It is wonderful to have readers. We want to feel valued. But we write, because we have to. Even in a void, on a desert island, on a distant planet without the slightest chance of being read, we would write.

I write because I feel rushed when I speak, a pressure to get to the end of the sentence and let someone else have a turn. Writing allows me to explore my ideas in my own time, to pick precisely the right word to express my innermost thoughts. It gives me balance. I am sure I would be a frustrated wreck without it. So write, write for the joy of it, for the clarity it brings you, for that sense of immersion and wonder, even if there is noone around to read it.

The Forgotten Joys of Longhand Writing

The Penman's Blood by arnoKath

The Penman’s Blood by arnoKath

I have a confession to make. The content of my email inbox, with the exception of pictures of my nephews and the blogs I subscribe to, is uninspiring. My virtual letterbox tends to be filled with bills, receipts and reminders. Emails save time and money, yet still I long for days past. I’d like to cut down on the amount of missives I receive, and replace them with more satisfying ones. I’d choose fewer but longer emails over the perfunctory electronic communication of today in a heartbeat. What a joy it is to pour over rare long emails, the ones filled with delicious titbits of news and sensual descriptions of new experiences, reminiscent of the letters of old. Snail mail is even better. How wonderful to sink into a sofa, tuck your legs up under you and tear open a letter from afar, to see the ink smudges and individual characteristics of the lettering and for time to stop as you ingest the words on the page. I save handwritten letters. To me, they show love and thoughtfulness. Emails, in contrast, are a nuisance, another item on the to do list, an emblem of our throw away society. My finger is already hovering above the delete button before I’ve even finished reading them.

Up until the end of my degree writing longhand came naturally. Yet ten years on my handwriting is an eyesore. When writing greeting cards I have to take great care to ensure my scrawl is legible to others. I seldom sign my own name anymore, and when I do, lack of practice means my signatures bear only a passing resemblance to each other. My fingers have become lazy, as if they have lost the fine motor skills needed to write neatly. Despite the regression in my handwriting, my stationery collection grows by the day. My writing space is filled with beautiful notebooks and pens. A calligraphy set and wax seal kit adorn my desk. I have begun to wonder whether the growing mountain of stationery reveals a subconscious desire to return to old school drafting.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not a technophobe. I spend most of my day a finger’s breadth away from either a laptop or phablet. I wonder though whether it is wise to carelessly toss handwriting skills onto the rubbish pile. With the introduction of tablets into some schools, I don’t want handwriting to be treated like Latin is sometimes (I enjoyed Latin at school and find the grammar of other languages relatively easy because of my basis in it): a relic from the past. Will there ever come a day when it is an advantage on CVs not to boast of typing prowess but to proclaim the beauty of our handwriting? In generations to come will lovers send each other captioned selfies rather than handwritten love letters? Will there come a time when our great-grandchildren will be compelled to resurrect an ancient skill because in a world of power shortages it is no longer viable to have so many gadgets?

We don’t have to propel ourselves into the future to uncover reasons for us to maintain longhand writing skills. Scientists have long since made the link between writing by hand and faster absorption of information. Studies have shown it to combat age-related mental decline. But what are the advantages of longhand for writers? Research has shown that writing by hand taps into the right side of the brain, linked to intuition and creativity. Scribbling on post-it notes, a sketch pad or in a notebook is not linear writing and may be a better fit for the way we think. Craft books often extol the virtues of undertaking monotonous activity such as walking, driving and gardening to aid creativity. When writing Haruki Murakami runs and/or swims each day. It seems that when we are carrying out an activity that does not need much mental thought, ideas can come to us unbidden. Perhaps writing by hand has the same effect.

It’s all trial and error of course. One writer’s process is not going to be your magic formula. Your choice of writing instruments may change dependent on your mood and location, and the needs of your particular project. Writing by hand, even if only for a few hours (oh the ache after exams at school and university), takes its toll. I’ve never minded transcribing handwritten short stories but with writing time at a premium, typing a longer work seems like an unnecessary extra step, although I would imagine that dictation software might help and in any case it would be like taking a leap in the editing process.

It’s folly to assume, as I have done in the past, that writing on a computer is the most efficient way. Take my love of Scrivener, for example. It’s a fantastic organisational tool and satisfies my need for a clean work space. I prefer to start work in a tidy environment: our house, my desk, my laptop have to be well-ordered. Once I’m in the flow of writing, my neuroses about my work environment disappear and I am a happy mess of reference books, tea mugs and notebooks. But I have begun to wonder whether the very advantages of typing a first draft are in fact disadvantages for me. I tend to edit as I write, which means that my first draft is often quite close to my final draft. This means that story progress is slow, which in turn feeds my doubt. Often, my most productive days have been on holiday, when the glare of the sun on my laptop screen make it impossible to write and I am forced to turn to pen and paper.

Then there’s the pursuit of clarity of thought and precision of expression. Writing by hand forces us to slow down and consider our words carefully. We come to the point more quickly. For a wordy writer, this can only be a good thing. My ego sometimes swells as my fingers fly across the keyboard, only for me to realise moments later why the delete button is my friend. When we write by hand, we make an investment, we cut back on elaboration for its own sake. And there’s nothing like sitting on a park bench in your lunch break with a notebook on your lap, as you let the world fade into the background and disappear into your story world. With computers, even in distraction free mode, there are days when the insistent blink of the cursor, the buzz of electronics, the knowledge of the messages waiting in my inbox and the churn of social media are difficult to ignore. It’s on those days that it might be an idea to just pick up a sheaf of paper and a pencil. Writing is a solitary activity, and walking away from the computer is to abandon the notion we are constantly available to everyone.

Finally, selfishly, as a reader and someone who is honing her craft, I would love for authors to continue working partly by hand, and for those materials to be available in centuries to come, like J.K. Rowling’s plotting spreadsheet for Harry Potter and the manuscripts for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. How charming and inspiring it is to see the scribbled notes and revisions of authors. Those notes are neither like a sanitised computer manuscript nor the printed texts. They are proof that writing is, first and foremost, a labour of love.

What I Wish I’d Known at the Start of my Writing Journey

I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember. As a child, I used to sneak away from family gatherings to devour another few chapters of a novel. I hid stories and a pen torch underneath my bedcovers for use after lights out. As an adult, I sometimes take my book with me to the toilets at work for just a few more minutes in my imaginary world.

Writing was a different matter. How old were you when you first started to put ink on paper? Have you always been compelled to write or is it a talent that has to compete for attention? I have dozens of half-written stories strewn across my hard drive, but it took having children to crystalise my dream: I wanted to write fiction professionally. According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours of practice at any given discipline to be successful at it. How I thank my lucky stars that it wasn’t my dream to be a professional footballer, or a ballet dancer. It’s never too late to start writing. There is no reason why you can’t write until you run out of stories.

Writing is time intensive. There are no short-cuts to learning the craft, but there are false starts. I decided to put a list together of tips I would share with writers at the start of their journey. Here they are:

Commitment is everything

Take yourself seriously as a writer. Establish a writing routine, commit to an idea and live your characters. Make sure you finish your stories, even if they don’t turn out the way you expected. Find someone to beta-read your work and polish it as much as you can. Don’t bury your stories in a drawer. Hand them to a reader and let them live. You want to be a writer? Act like one.

Find a support network

If it’s hard to share your dream with those close to you, find another support network. Join a local writers’ group, sign-up for National Novel Writing Month or find like-minded people on Twitter. I’m still shy about my writing dream but once I got the hang of Twitter there was no going back. I have learnt so much and received so much support from my Twitter family. There are voices there that I miss if I don’t hear them for a day or two, but I never feel the pressure to engage if I don’t want to. Surrounding myself with writers inspires me and motivates me to retain focus on my own writing. If you haven’t already checked out the writing communities around @FridayPhrases, @MondayBlogs and @FlashFridayFic, you’re missing out.

Literature and Latte’s Scrivener 

Scrivener is a revelation for long-form writing. At just under £30 at the time of writing this piece, it represents fantastic value for money for the job that it does and the amount of use I get out of it. It allows you to have one tidy document for each project. For me, tidy is really important. I need my head, my desk and my computer to be clear if I’m going to work well. Scrivener takes away the temptation to format your document as you go along. It allows you to create and manipulate text within one document. You can drag and drop files and urls into the research folder. It provides you with templates for different types of documents including character crib sheets and has a no fuss composition mode. You can mark up the document, create synopses on index cards and use split views to compare different versions of your text. There’s a tool for following  individual plot strands and to view project statistics. On completion you can create various versions of the document including text files, eBooks and webpages. Scrivener also automatically saves your work and has its own trash can, so it’s pretty much impossible for you to lose your work unless you are trying to. You can trial it for free for 30 days here.

Don’t fret if the words don’t flow

If the words aren’t flowing, shake up your routine. Don’t think too hard about the plot problem you are trying to unfurl or the phrasing you just can’t get right. Change your scenery by going for a walk. Make a playlist of songs to match the mood of your scene. Do something monotonous or repetitive like washing the dishes or doing the gardening. If the glowing screen in front of you is taunting you with your lack of productivity, grab a notebook and scrawl away in illegible writing, desecrate a pristine A3 pad with rubbish drawings. Give your story the room to come alive however it wants to.

What would you tell a writer at the start of their journey?

Lessons of a Newbie Blogger and Twitter User

cloud-71366_640This Christmas was unexpected. For me, the perfect Christmas is sitting in front of a roaring fire with mulled wine, tea and chocolate oranges, the turkey cooking slowly and a notebook next to me for those moments of inspiration. We decorated the house with fairy lights and candles in preparation for my in laws coming to stay. I was secretly hoping for writing-related presents – book vouchers and beautiful stationery – and some kids-free time to get stuck into my novel. Unfortunately, our plans were hijacked by storms which left us with power outages for four days. Cue extended trips to my parents’ with my in laws, adventures by torch-light, a hastily cobbled together Christmas dinner and bonding with the neighbours in the same situation. Thankfully we’re now back on the grid – hooray! – and I’m ready to reclaim the lost relaxation and writing time.

For my last blog post for this year I wanted to share a few thoughts on Twitter and blogging.

Twitter

When I initially started using Twitter in 2010 I didn’t hang around for long. I just didn’t get it.

My first tweet was: Gardening.

My second tweet was: Turns out might take a while to get used to Twitter. Wanted to search for something, and ended up posting it. Thankfully it wasn’t porn.

Twitter seemed to me to be merely a way to stalk celebrities or to duplicate the function of facebook but without the space to write what you really want to. I was listening but not interacting.

It was in 2013 after I started blogging when I posted an article that @raishimi commented on and retweeted that I really started to understand the beauty of Twitter. It has allowed me to discover so many voices that would have previously remained silent to me. Some of these voices have become so special to me that I miss them if I or they tune out for a couple of days. I am always thrilled to download books to my Kindle that have been written by people who I admire or have piqued my curiosity on Twitter. It amazes me how generous fellow writers on Twitter are with their support and encouragement and I am grateful for it.

Then there’s the flip side. There are only so many hours in the day and while I try to interact with interesting new voices and read their works, there are only a certain amount of relationships that can be sustained at a meaningful level. That’s a shame for the connections you miss out on deepening. If I’m honest, while Twitter is by its very nature egalitarian, it still sometimes feels like we’re in a school playground, picking people to play on our teams. Once you have more than a few hundred followers, #FollowFriday and #WriterWednesday feel like favouritism, which is one of the reasons I like #FridayPhrases so much.

@drewchial and @szwrites have both blogged about the industry wisdom that champions the need to market ourselves as writers ideally before our first books even hit the shelves. Social media can be a black hole, sucking away time from our real passion – crafting stories. Yes, I enjoy social media but it has become too easy for me to substitute interacting on Twitter, writing a blog post or piece of flash fiction with working on my novel. For me, 2014 is the year of the novel and everything else comes second.

Blogging

I’ve missed blogging during this lull over the past few weeks. It helps me collect my thoughts. Isaac Asimov once said, ‘writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.’ I used to spill everything onto scraps of paper or journals. If I am worried about something now or confused, my default has become blogging. I blogged when my daughter choked earlier this year. I blogged when I felt family and friends were intruding on my space. I blogged to tell my husband publicly that his belief in me is the difference sometimes between me picking up a pen and hiding in a corner.

One of the reasons I decided to start blogging was to become more accustomed to sharing my work. Over this past year, I have grown more comfortable with the sharing. The question for 2014 is whether I can share more fiction with you, if I can share my writing with friends as well as strangers, and if I can be as comfortable with criticism.

When I initially started to blog I discovered that bloggers are advised to write short pieces which include lists and photos, essentially ensuring that posts are easily scannable and can be consumed in a few minutes.  But it seems to me that we are making assumptions about readers here, or worse still, influencing reader tastes in a negative way, feeding them a poor diet and creating generations of superficial readers and headline grabbers. Difference in voices, differences in form are what makes writing – and reading – so special, and I’d like to think that even on blogs readers want to go to the effort to really dive into our fictional and non-fictional worlds because it is in that space, when you are fully, not superficially in someone’s head, that you really get to experience the fullness of someone else’s life.

Wishing you a wonderful end to the year. See you in 2014.

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.

NaNoWriMo Update and some Dark and not so Dark #FridayPhrases

November is NaNoWriMo, when hundreds of thousands of writers across the world try to pen 50,000 words in a month. Crazy, much? This is my third time doing NaNo and while I’ve never quite made the 50k, I have loved taking part each time. In fact, I love all things NaNo: the forums; the extra motivation that comes with having a deadline; the pep talks that land in your inbox from NaNo friends; gorgeous NaNo prints; even the word count tracker which generates a little graph of your daily progress.

NaNo mind-mapping

NaNo mind-mapping

It’s the end of week one and it has been an intense ride so far. I planned my NaNo novel this year, hoping it would give me an extra push to get to 50k.  I have filled half a dozen A3 sheets with mind maps. This year I’m writing a dystopian science fiction story based 300 years from now in an over-populated world torn apart by scarce resources. My protagonist is 15 year old Londoner Suki (always helps to know your setting inside out for NaNo). In her world, the Thames splits London in two. North of the river is solely for rich Londoners, who can afford to pay for what they need to survive in this wreaked world. South of the river is where Suki lives with her mum, but she misses her dad, who for some reason has crossed to the other side of the river. Suki intends to find out why.

At 7k so far, I’m already behind target, but not too far behind to catch up. Twitter games such as #NaNoWordSprints have been brilliant at making me feel less alone when I’m writing until the early hours. Even so, it’s hard to keep motivated day in day out, especially after work or if the kids are around. I won’t give up though. And there’s always time for #FridayPhrases.

Most of you Twitter fiends will have clocked #FP already, which  @amicgood initiated. Here is a link to her proposal. In a nutshell, the idea is to tweet a story or poem in 140 characters. Use the hashtag #FP to read and retweet other people’s work.  You’ll find some of my most recent #FPs below, some of which were written for Halloween. Others are less dark.

25.10.13

Monsters live in the toilet bowl. He knew it. Toilet training as a baby took forever. Not flushing cost him his wife. But the monsters never got him #FP

‘Punpkins make great weapons,’ she said. He was tied to a beam in the barn, orange goo everywhere. A cut-out smile was the last thing he saw #FP

Playtime at vampire school. Speed demons in darkened hall. Hopscotch bloodied slabs. Humans pinned to the vaulted ceiling. Snacktime soon #FP

1.11.13

I feared the day I would love you. The solution was simple. You lie perfectly in a glass case. Now you will always be mine #FP

I long to swim in the sea again. I relive those days in my dreams. Sweet relief to forget the thrashing gilled monsters there now #FP

8.11.13

1st time he saw an escalator he was scared. Then he took off his sandals & watched them travel up the stairs. His name was Taufiq Two Brains #FP

Forty minuted of queuing. The stench of fried onions hung in the air. She snapped, swinging her handbag in circles. She needed that burger #FP

Bubbles and foam everywhere. She took off her clothes and slipped into the bath, smelling notes of lavender and bergamot. Alone at last #FP

Good luck to all you Wrimos out there. I’ll look out for your #FPs too.

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

How Writing Challenges can Help you Make the Most of your Writing Time

This week I’ve been thinking about how the year has passed so quickly.  Do you remember that feeling when you were at school and the weeks seemed to drag? Or how it seemed that you were fifteen forever?  Every birthday took an age to come round and you really, really, wanted to be older, worldly, making your own decisions. How does the way we experience time change so fast?  As I sit here in bed with my husband snoring gently beside me underneath our still summer duvet, listening to the wind rattling the ageing windows of our Edwardian semi and picturing the autumn leaves turning red and gold, I know that another year is nearing its end.  And what a year it has been.  I have spent it mostly with our son, accompanying him on his journey from red, squealing newborn to the determined, toothy, almost-walking man-child he is now.

Fleeting time and conflicting priorities

Does time run away with you too?  For me, my dream of sitting by the sea, with the wind blowing in my hair and a notebook on my lap as the world melts away, just isn’t feasible right now.  My family needs me (thankfully not all the time!) and as I’ve said in my post on Parenthood, Creativity and Time, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Many of you have family commitments, day jobs, friendships and more, which dwindle your writing time.  If you’re anything like me, however happy you are doing things other than writing, there is always a part of you that is longing to get back to the page, impatiently waiting it out before you can close the door and get back to your train of thought, immerse yourself in the world you have created. The older I get, the more conscious I am of the finite amount of time available to us.  So how do we as writers maximise the time we spend on our craft when time is at a premium? From my experience, and as friends such as @West1Jess have found (find her excellent blog here), writing challenges are one way to crank up that word count.

What’s in a challenge? 

ChallengeWriters procrastinate.  Sometimes procrastination feeds our craft, allowing ideas to gain traction, to cross-fertilise each other and ripen until they spill onto the page.  At other times procrastination leads to uselessly whiling away hour upon hour, when your fingers could have been flying across your keyboard.  Hats off to the writers who have mastered the art of having their morning coffee and making it to their work station without going via facebook, the remote control, the fridge, Ikea, the fridge again (you get the gist). The thing is, I’m not one of them.  Not always.  Sometimes, when I am tired or my head is full of my real life, I need little tricks to get me in the right mindset to write.  And that’s when a writing challenge is just the ticket into my fictional world.

What are the benefits of taking part in writing challenges?

  • Honing your skills in unusual, unexpected ways
  • Increased self-confidence at trying new things
  • Taking part in the writing communities that often build around these challenges
  • Just like agents, editors, writing circles and competitions, writing challenges can help to keep you and your writing goals on track.  Not everyone has the self-discipline to write regularly without the input (or arse-whipping) of their peers and colleagues.
  • Do you remember doing dares as a child? Or that *uck it moment just before you step off the precipice and do something out of your comfort zone?  Some of the best challenges are just like that.  Act fast enough and your fears and doubts won’t have time to keep up.

My top 5 writing challenges 

  • Flash! Friday hosted by @postupak – there’s nothing quite like flash fiction to get your creative juices flowing when time is short.  This challenge consists of a weekly prompt, after which you have a day to submit your entry.  There are generous rewards for winners including an ebutton for your blog or facebook page, your own winner’s page at Flash! Friday and a feature article on you.
  • National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) takes place every November.  Whether you’re a pantser or a planner, the idea is to write a novel from start to finish of at least 50,000 words or more. The team behind Nanowrimo provide fun pep talks and there is a handy stats section so you can track your progress.  No Nanowrimo month is complete without hanging out in the online support forums, checking out the online shop (I have some gorgeous Nano prints adorning my walls) and going to a write-in where you can write your novel in the company of fellow Wrimos. 
  • David Morley’s Writing Challenges – Morley heads up the Warwick University Writing Programme.  I’m a little biased here as I went to Warwick for my BA (in English and German Literature) but seriously, these podcasts are a special find.  Morley has a voice which works well in this format, and he fills the podcasts with writing tips, challenges and food for thought.
  • #ThursThreads hosted by @SiobhanMuir – this is another flash fiction challenge.  The prompt is a line from the previous week’s winning tale.  Entries should be between 100 and 250 words long and there is a twelve hour submission window.  Winners receive a bright shiny badge for their websites.

This is by no means an all-encompassing list.  If there are writing challenges that you are aware of and have enjoyed, please let me know about them in the comments section.  As for my next challenge, I’ve decided to take part in Nanowrimo again this year.  I’ve not reached the 50,000 word mark required to ‘win’ in previous years, but upping my word count by 20,000 fairly decent words in four weeks both times was a huge confidence booster and I’m looking forward to burning the midnight oil again this year.  Will any of you be joining me?

‘Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.’ Christopher Parker 

‘The greatest danger for most is not that aim is too high and we miss it, but rather our aim is too low and we reach it.’  Michaelangelo

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 

The Ability to be Alone

daisyThis week, I got the chance to be in a quiet room by myself to focus on my writing.  Our son is eight months old, and the urge to write has been getting stronger now that he is sleeping better and I have more energy.  Some friends and I decided that each week two mums will look after three babies, giving the third mum the chance to have some time to herself. The thought of a few hours protected writing time is blissful but it turns out that making the most of it is harder than I thought.

The hamster wheel of everyday life

There I was with a few hours of writing time in front of me for the first time in months and I was unable to de-clutter my mind.  If you are anything like me, the moments of quiet in your life are few and far between.  The waking hours at our house are filled with playdates, chatter, song, giggles and whining.  If the kids are asleep, I am tempted to nap too or I switch on the radio and use the time to catch up on chores, touch base with friends or family or slump on the sofa with a book or my laptop.  I feel the constant pull of twitter, facebook and online news.  Do you, like me, reach for your mobile phone as soon as you wake and throughout the day to check messages?  Even my parents, who until a few years ago owned old Nokias, are now hooked on their smartphones and ipads.  It’s an addiction.  Life today is a whirr of constant interaction; it has become all-consuming.

Finding ways to centre yourself

Okay, this sounds a bit new age but I think we are losing the ability to clear the decks of everyday concerns and just be.  We fill every waking moment with gadgets and noise and somewhere in the midst of all the chaos we have begun to lose ourselves.  Or at least, I have.  Spending time with family and friends is one way of regaining our equilibrium.  Writing and listening to music centre me.  But it is equally important to spend some of our waking time tuning into our thoughts without any distractions.   The problem with sharing yourself with the world the whole time is that we are always in a state of giving or receiving.  We risk losing ourselves somewhere along the way.

The confidence to be happy in solitude

It takes courage to say no to family and friends.  It takes strength to resist the pull of media.  I have even begun to feel anxious when I am out of the loop.  Is this mode of always being busy – of which we are often so proud – fool’s gold?  Too much interaction is as much of a chain as too little.  Maybe we subject our minds to constant chatter because we are afraid of what thoughts will form when we are alone.  Are those who are able to sit in quiet repose the ones who really own their true selves?

Stilling your mind

You might say that you have no time to practice stillness.  I’m going to take it step by step.  Next time I shower, I’m not going to plan out what I have to do next.  Instead, I’m going to take five minutes to clear my head of everything that is going on around me.  Next time I go for a walk, I am going to leave my phone at home.  I’m not sure how successful I’ll be but every now and then, I might even try and get through my daily commute without a book or my ipod.

Wherever we are, time alone has the power to restore us.  I wonder how much stronger I would feel if I could do this regularly.  I wonder how much more clarity of thought I would have as a writer if I was more adept at clearing my mind of the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  If you had more time for yourself, would you have a keener sense of who you are, what makes you happy and how you need to get there?

Finding the balance

There is no doubt, my family and friends bring me joy and ground me; books, radio, television, smart phones and the internet enrich my life.  The sense of belonging that goes with being part of a community is an empowering feeling.  We feel loved and protected; it is good for both the ego and our sense of security; we grow.  But the truth and self-contemplation that emerge from periods of being completely alone are equally important.  Finding the balance that works for you between these two states is important for us all.

For writers in particular, to create something relevant and original, we need to be a part of the world but also be able to retreat to the periphery.  I will be practising the art of sitting in a room and being comfortable by myself there.  Will you?

‘We need society, and we need solitude also, as we need summer and winter, day and night, exercise and rest.’ Philip Gilbert Hamerton 

‘Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your won presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.’ Alice Koller 

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