Keeping on Keeping On – Writing Through the Horror

This weekend, I took a draft of my next novel with me to some study days, and one of the facilitators read the first page. “Wow,” she said. “I already want to read on, and find out what happens.” I felt a flush of excitement. Then I felt guilt.

Why?

It’s been a terrible couple of weeks. Atrocities across the globe brought to the attention of the world, but only because one of the bastions of Western culture and civilisation was threatened. My heart goes out to all the people struggling with death and violence, especially those in Syria. As a writer, it is hard to keep going, to keep believing in what you do, when there is so much that suggests that you should be doing something different in the world.

The thing is, writing is a contribution to society. It is a means of sharing knowledge, understanding and compassion. It is a way of shining a light into the darkness of the unknown.  It is a way to entertain and give pleasure to every person who reads your work. It is a chance to stand up in the face of the bullies and say, no, I will carry on as normal. You will not change me. You will not frighten me.

Several years ago I made the decision to write a very challenging story, about a woman who converted to Islam and went to live in Saudi Arabia. Inshallah (published by http://www.honno.co.uk) was a very hard book to research, as I knew nothing about Islam or Arabic culture. It was also hard to write because it was about a woman experiencing domestic abuse. I was afraid, all the time, that I would get it wrong. That I would not be able to tell a story about a woman who found faith and a home. I was afraid that people would assume that the book painted a negative picture of Islam, when I was determined that it wouldn’t. Most of all, I was afraid that by making her husband abusive, people would think that I was misrepresenting men from that culture and faith.  I wanted to show how someone could come to understand difference and realise that it is people who are violent and abusive, not cultures and not religions.

People.

And just as people can make that decision, individually, to be violent, abusive, unspeakably destructive, so they can make the decision to enhance the world, to add to it in a positive way.

This is not a political blog post. It is a statement of intent. I am going to carry on writing. Today, as I finish working on my latest book, ready to send to my editor, I find myself reflecting on how important it is to keep writing. And how important it is, especially, for women to write, and to tell stories about women. Tell women’s stories. Women have been overlooked, made invisible, written out of history and ignored by the establishment. I have made it my life’s work to support and educate women.  I have wrestled with difficult issues, including seeing the disintegration of the society I have known my whole life, the destruction of the NHS in and for which I have worked most of my adult life, and the utter arrogance of our own political ‘leaders’. I disagree with almost every political decision our government make. I used my vote, but I have something else I can use.

I can use my voice. As a writer, as an author, as an academic, I can use my voice. I both hate and love the social media I use to share my thoughts and my writing, but at this moment I am glad of it because it means I have a voice in more than one space. I can use my voice to make a difference.

My next book is not about culture. It’s about people and pain and loss and living. It’s a mystery story, of sorts. It’s about life and birth and work and people. It’s even about midwives, a little. Whoever said writing was easy was lying. It’s hard, but it is so worth it.

This is how we resist. We keep on keeping on. In whatever way we can.

 

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How to be a Successful Writer/ Human Being

How to be a Successful Writer Human Being

I see memes and posts all the time, littered with adverts, on how to be a successful writer. I often read, them, as I am curious about these people who purport to have the secret to absolutely success and some kind of formula that will take you there. I don’t know of any such formula, because to me, it’s simply a combination of inspiration, hard work and self-belief. I say ‘simply’ but really it is perhaps the hardest thing of all to find the perfect balance of these three qualities in my life. If only, I think, looking at the complexities of a modern life and all its accoutrements, responsibilities and demands.

I recently sent a draft of my next novel to my editor. Full of trepidation and second-novel doubts (okay, they loved the first one but what if they hate this, what if I really can’t write after all . . .?) I chewed on my pen a lot and tried to just deal with the feelings, starting to focus on the beginnings of novel number three. Inspiration – I’ve got that in spades. I could write a novel a week if I had no need to work or do housework. Stories spill out of my mind daily; a sudden realisation can shift my awareness of a character or where to take a plot. Determination and hard work I can also manage. I have plenty of determination and can work very, very hard on projects. In fact, I do work very hard in my day job, and I am very productive. I have four chapters in academic books coming out over the next year. Or is it six? Yes, I think six. But I lose track. I run 3 times as many modules as my colleagues. I run a whole course. I have almost 50 personal students. I also have a part time job. I love working hard, I love being productive, I love my teaching and my students. But . . . . I also run a home, a teenager, and two cats. I set aside time to write and ensure I always have my notebooks, pens, work in progress etc with me to make the most of every spare moment, and of every time inspiration strikes.

I wasn’t always this sorted. This year has been my own personal annus horribilis. The spectacular breakdown of my marriage and resultant personal trauma threw me off track. I had to start again, at 44, having sold my home to live in someone else’s, sold most of my furniture, put a lot of things in storage. I had to somehow help my son deal with significant upheaval as he also sat his GCSEs. Luckily, loving friends and family kept me sane, and I came through the other side stronger than ever. But this current novel, number two, was written during that time, and I felt as if I had lost my mojo, as it were, lost my confidence in my abilities. Writing it had, at times, been like climbing a very steep mountain with a blindfold on. Not only was I unsure I would ever reach the top, I was totally oblivious to the landscape, and uncertain whether there was a top to be reached at all. My work suffered, and I was less than productive, less than my usual efficient self. Less than the perfection I demanded of myself.

During the darkest times, like many novelists, I was crippled with self-doubt. There was too much going on in ‘the real world’ for me to disappear into the world of my own creation, live days with the thoughts and feelings of my characters, create landscapes and metaphors and threads of story. I had lost the ease with which I had once woven multiple and many-coloured threads into the tapestry of the tale. Still, I struggled on. The story always wants to be told. This one had been on hold while I wrote Inshallah, and as soon as my debut novel was in its final phase before publication I had started on this crucial, necessary book. More than any other, I knew this one to be the book that took all of my parts and reconstituted them into creative balance.

I was still in that state of flux that comes after major life change, before the roots can settle into the new earth, the leaves unfurl, before the sunlight really touches the green, when I sent the draft to my editor. I felt as if I was signing the death warrant for my nascent writing career. I carried on with my slow reconstruction of self and life, one day and one act at a time. I could not see the whole pattern, but each day was a brick in something I was building, and I knew it was all part of the process. Eventually, the response came, and I felt like dancing. A promising start. It was enough.

I realised, as life built into day after day of new experiences,that I was waking up. That each morning I felt the story-voice calling, and that every aspect of my new life was enhancing that ability to see, feel and give shape to the people and events of my imagination. I had been in the Slough of Despond, or maybe, a wasteland of my own creation. Suddenly, I was free. And it was simple. I felt, and still feel, that my life needed to be less of a hamster wheel. I needed more time. Not necessarily just more time to write. More time to do the things that make writing possible. I needed to sleep properly, be able to appreciate life, spend time with friends and family, create a lovely living space that fully expressed the real me. I needed to work effectively, and have that satisfaction that comes with a job well done. And I needed to feel the energy and vitality that had eluded me for some time.

All I needed to do to improve my wellbeing and happiness 100% was to move to be near work. This simple change in my life (okay, it was traumatic and complicated too) has brought in a new phase in my life. Torn from one routine, from familiarity and a future I had wanted and believed in, I feared it would be my undoing, but it was instead my saving grace. I wake naturally and easily, and feel little stress in the morning, despite my workload being higher than ever and having greater responsibility. In fact, my overall stress levels are significantly reduced. Even in the face of stressful situations, I feel that I have the strength to rise to challenges. In the absence of that stress, into the void left behind rushes inspiration, understanding, clarity and the heightened perception that drives me to write, that makes every morning feel like the start of something brilliant.

I used to drag myself out of bed at 5.30 every day to shower, dress and drive to work early to secure a parking space and miss the horrible, stressful traffic. I’d spend an hour in the morning yawning and trying to wake up whilst driving. I’d leave the radio off because I was too tired not to be irritated by it. I would arrive at work having had a hundred and one amazing ideas along the way (sometimes with the continuation of a story I had conceived of the day before). Every single one of them would evaporate seconds after I had pulled into the carpark, regardless of what I did to hold onto them.

Now, I have a leisurely shower, catch up on housework, usually have a cup of tea, and greet my son each morning before he goes to college. Often I make him a cuppa too. This makes me feel good, being able to do something nice for him. I never saw him in the mornings before, as I was gone long before he went to school. Now we talk every morning, even if only briefly. I write my diary whilst drinking my tea, and my thoughts might be brief, but they flow. On fine days, I sit out in the garden (though now, in September, I am usually wrapped up warm to do so!). My mind floats along meandering and random passageways, and I let it. The things that I need to understand become clear if I don’t try too hard to pin them down. Sometimes this mind wandering, which I find a necessary precursor to effective writing, will continue through the walk to work.

I have a lovely walk to work, regardless of the weather, looking at the birds, the sky, the sea, the trees. I arrive at work feeling energised, alive, and having processed a lot of thoughts and feelings along the way. I am much more productive now in work, and have ten times more energy than before. My memory is improving, and feel no disjuncture between work and writing, because the writing mind, the story voice, is still awake, muttering away happily to itself in the background.

I used to feel drained and exhausted before I even started. Now I feel motivated and focused. I don’t feel rushed to finish up everything by 4pm so I can try to miss the worst of the traffic going home, and I don’t waste a second hour each day driving home, too tired to think, my creative energy dispelled by the day, the drive, the thoughts of all that needs doing when I get in. Instead, I finish my work for the day, and walk home in a good mood, sometimes stopping to pick things up at the shop. I arrive home feeling tired but positive, not drained and ‘flat’. I feel much more energised even after a full day, and this means it is not so hard to do housework, shopping, gardening. If the time is right, I start writing straight away, and fit an hour in before thinking about maybe doing a few chores or preparing some food. It doesn’t feel difficult. If I don’t feel like housework, I don’t do it. It’s easy to keep the place in a state of tidiness and general cleanliness anyway. Germaine Greer, I believe, once said that a woman should never do more than 1 hour of housework per day. I fully subscribe to this philosophy. For a writer, it’s very liberating. Interestingly, a colleague loaned me a book this week, Mrs Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light. I have only read a few pages in, but its brilliant. It was in response to my comment that I wished I had servants because it would free me up to write. This isn’t strictly true. I enjoy making order out of chaos, and the sense of belonging that comes from knowing that I made this comfortable home, I gave it shape, I brought all its disparate elements together and I maintain it, is akin to writing a novel. So each feeds into the other. But I still wish I had someone to do the necessary tasks from time to time so I could disappear into my writing.

I now have a better relationship with my son, despite him growing up more and becoming more independent, having his own life in college doing his A levels. This is liberating. I waste far less energy on worrying about him, trying to get him out of bed, and dealing with family conflict. Yes, he is still a teenager. But he’s also a lovely young man and we seem more able to talk about things. He is proud of me, I can tell, and sees my writing as a good thing. He respects my space, despite apparently losing the use of his hands each evening if I am around to cook for him.

I am writing more. It is glorious just to write. To not worry, not think, just write. To set aside time to write. To just drop everything in the face of idea, grab the pen or laptop, and write. To view Saturdays and Sundays as long stretches of possibility. To reward myself after a morning of errands and chores with an afternoon of writing licence. Glorious.

I spend more time talking to friends and to my wonderful sister. Sometimes I work in the evenings too, but this is okay, as I enjoy what I do and if I feel like working, I can work. It doesn’t stress me out. I no longer spend weekday evenings longing to just go to bed. My time is my own.

To be happy, I simply had to remove the worst stressors from my life. Yes, it was a painful process, but it was absolutely the right thing to do. For my health and wellbeing, for my happiness and peace, it was the right thing to do. I think moving here might have saved my life. It certainly saved my writing life, the part of me that has struggled for air and demanded attention since I was seven years old. I was seven when I made up my mind I wanted to be an author. Now, I am doing it.

So, according to the trends online, I am supposed to give the potted version. Here are my own five steps to becoming successful as a writer.

  1. You are a writer because you write. So write. In whatever way suits you, write. Write lists, write a diary, write silly jokes, write letters to friends and family (remember those things, you have to put a stamp on them?). Just write.
  1. Cut the dross from your life. If something is holding you back, deal with it. Cut it out. I don’t mean necessary responsibilities, I mean the things that aren’t necessary. If life throws stress at you, find out what is really stressing you out, and deal with it. Because then you suddenly find yourself with more energy for yourself. And that gives you the energy to write.
  1. Surround yourself with beauty, comfort and the people and things that make you feel happy and positive. I sound like a self help book, but objects have strong object identities, carrying emotional signatures that significantly affect the way the we feel and act. If you love books, and want to be surrounded with them, do so. If you have an old picture from your childhood that you wish you had put on the wall, do it. If your room is full of things you don’t like, change it. Take ownership of your life and surround yourself with the things that bring that positive flow. Spend time in nature, open the windows at every opportunity, open the doors. Let the wind and rain in. Let the sun in. Let the night speak to you and sit in the darkness, drowning in the mystery. Spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself.
  1. Don’t waste time and energy on people or things that don’t enhance your life. Even if you have to work in a job you don’t like in order to survive, find the smooth handle (for this reference, you must read What Katy Did). In particular, build barriers against people who bring only negativity and drama. You are in charge of your life, just as you are in charge of the lives of your characters. Take charge. Create the life you want to live. Often, it’s hard, painful and messy to begin with. You may have to break things down to rebuild. But just like good editing, it will leave you with something better.
  1. You’re a writer. Be thankful you have the time, resources and ability to do that. Be thankful for the people who enhance your life. Be grateful, every day. It sounds trite, clichéd, almost too easy, but every day is a gift. Walk in nature. Breathe in and out. Tell the people who matter that you love them. Tell them often. Smile more. It all helps. And it will change the way you write. Gratitude cancels out fear and self-doubt. Action eradicates fear.

You’re a writer.

So write.

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That Watershed Moment

That Watershed Moment

We all have them in our lives, the moment when something changes. The moment when the catalyst appears and is activated. The moment when everything shifts. Sometimes we are aware, at the time, that this is a moment on which life will pivot and twist and turn, but more often, we are not. More often, it would seem, we are unaware of the most powerful moments of change in our lives, precipitating a cascade of events which results in often radical re-visioning of self and life. This seems to be the key to a good story as well, the moment of change, but more often than not, the stories I write involve a ‘large’ change, something catastrophic or so significant that change is inevitable. But what about those subtle, quiet moments of change, not noticed at the time. We all know the device: “Little did she know . . .” but how often is that actually true, when, in the absence of the omniscient narrator, something happens which changes our life course forever without us knowing that it is one of those moments?

I can admit that I am somewhat preoccupied, even obsessed, with the concept of the Watershed moment. It seems to feature in all the stories I want to tell. It is that life event so significant that you cannot help but be change by it. All that matters then is how the characters in the story, the people whose lives are being changed, find themselves responding. This is the essence of good storytelling, is it not? The essence of plot?

Someone once told me that life is not a story, but I beg to differ. What else do we base our stories on but the real occurrences in life? Yes, we may shift the focus, emphasise some things more than other, to tell a good story, but essentially, we are only reframing what all people understand to be common experiences in life, expressed in fiction. How else would we find a connection with story, if it was too far removed from reality? Even in the most obscure fantasy, people retain certain connections with what we understand such as language, narrative shape, action, reaction, response, and personality.

And what else gives us the essence of story but the watershed moment? But how easily can we identify watershed moments? Are they always as distinctive and singular as we expect them to be?

Follow me, if you will, along this story path for a while . . .

A woman, let’s call her Jane, is married to John. Jane and John have a few issues, most of which is related to John’s behaviour in their marriage. He is possessive, jealous, and controlling. Jane hasn’t fully realised how controlling, but has become aware of her life shrinking, her friends drifting away, her activities diminishing until she is either at work or at home with John and has little life outside these two spheres. Her life has shrunk, but this is marriage, and as she moves more and more into the traditional role of wife, she tells herself that this is what she signed up for. She is a busy professional with a good job, but still she plays the role of wife at home.

Jane’s life revolves around John’s family and John’s friends, but she tells herself this is good, as she doesn’t have much family of her own, and few friends locally. Still, sometimes she feels lonely, or isolated, cut off from the people she used to spend time with. But John is the love of her life, and there is such a deep bond between them that she believes him when he says they should everything to each other.

Then she is asked to attend a work-based staff-development event on the other side of the country. It is a great honour to be asked to go to this event, and Jane is to be accompanied by her female boss for the trip which will last four days. She informs John, and John seems happy enough that she is going.

Jane attends the event, and is inspired, empowered and enriched by the experience, returning home full of energy and motivation. She is full of ideas for her job, new projects, and delighted by the experience. A few days later, she finds out her work at the weekend was nominated for an award within her company. So excited by this, she posts on her Twitter account that she has been nominated for an award. When she returns home that night, John accuses her of having an affair at the work event, because she didn’t tell him about the nomination before posting it online, which tells him that she no longer loves him enough. John becomes angry, withdrawn and distant, accusing Jane of betraying their marriage. Confused, Jane tries to cope with this false accusation and rejection, and is very unhappy, until one day, a friend reminds her that she has done nothing wrong. Seeing John’s behaviour starts the process of self-examination and self-awareness that results in Jane reclaiming her self-esteem. Eventually, that reclaiming leads to her standing up to John time and time again, and finally, after many, many months, brings about the end of their marriage. John is unhappy with a wife that won’t be bidden, Jane is unassailable in her self-belief. John rejects her, and tells her their marriage is over, and although she is heartbroken, Jane has spoken her truth throughout the experience, and although she loses everything (her home, his extended family, their shared friends) finds herself much happier alone.

And finally, after going to hell and back, content in herself and her new life, Jane finds out that she actually won that award. She is amazed, because she can see now the whole journey from the day of the nomination to the point of winning, and realises how much her life has changed. This is the full circle of the story arc, taking us to the point where we see Jane stepping off into a new future.

So what is the watershed moment in this story? Is it the work event that made Jane feel so good about herself? Is it John’s reaction to her? Or is it the moment that she forgets to put John first and foremost in her mind, and posts her good news online without fear? At what point does this character demonstrate the shift between one state and another? Is the change inherent in Jane from the moment she returns home from that work event? Is the nomination for an award the watershed moment? Is it the action of the friend, who takes on the role of the good fairy, and shows her that she has done nothing wrong? Or is it a combination of all of these factors? What is clear is that this event could have been any event, at any time, that triggered the particular set of responses in these particular characters.

I think this story speaks to the complexity, the messiness of human experiences which belies the simplicity with which we often frame narratives around singular, life-changing events. In essence, the story must be about more than simply the one event, because everything tied up in and around that event is also part of the watershed time. And it is about more than the actual event, it is about how the different people involved react to the event. This is the essence of a good story, I believe, the complexities of character in action and reaction. The narrative arc moves beyond simple cause and effect, but cause and consequence are present. It is not neat and tidy, yet it is satisfying, with a positive conclusion. And I also believe that as human beings, we frame real life events in a similar way, recognising the progress from watershed moment to some kind of satisfying conclusion, even if we only do this in retrospect. Our lives are our stories, we live them and we retell them. Perhaps it is the very nature of life to be full of watershed moments such as this, if only we have the wit to recognise them. Just like our characters, all that matters is how we respond.

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The Weaving – Creative Non Fiction

This is a brief creative non-fiction piece I have been working on as I make sense of some significant life events.

THE WEAVING

This is how it starts, the push and pull and the rise and fall. In the centre, in the place where all rivers meet, you will find me. Standing and swaying and weaving with the music of the spheres. Gathering the strands of my life, leading outwards in all directions, from the past, the present, and the potential future, and plaiting them into the strand which is sewn together into the fabric of the world that I create for myself. This is my world. Music and the power to shape things for myself. I have built myself anew, time and time again, reshaping my life one way or another, bending with the varying tides of living and being, of connection and dissection and divergence. In this state of flux, the weaver emerges, with the vision of how warp and weft are meant to come together, an instinctive patterning based on experience, feeling and inspiration.

A new life born from the void; what is this aeon that shifts and sighs and labours without pain, forming without the noise and sweat and mess of bodily existence? What is this new world, this new pattern? Blind movement along unfamiliar paths, treading tentatively, tiny step by tiny step, trusting in a future that remains unformed and unknowable. This is faith, deep and abiding, the only certainty. Faith and trust that there is a pattern, a wider scheme and that this path is one of the threads of the greater whole. The consciousness of life, the universe and everything, that which some call Goddess, surrounds the traveller, the weaver, the woman who gives herself these names and labels. Unfurling, I walk through the darkness, feeling the edges of space and of my own shape, arms unfolding, shoulders lowering and spreading, contours of physical and psychic melding with the shadows that coalesce around me. This is my forward momentum, a path without light and with no guide by my own instinct. This is the moment of flux and the journey through the primordial chaos.

They call it a crisis. Midlife. As if life has a beginning, middle and end, definable waypoints and a predictable endpoint. And what is a crisis? It is the convergence of old paths, a concatenation of happenings and incidents that brings about a shift in consciousness? Is it the confluence of multiple streams in this river of life? It is, in my mind, the point when the threads and plaits of the life that was become tangled, and knotted, until the weaver must halt, unable to continue with the pattern and, knowing that she cannot undo what has been done, must move on and start a new weaving, a new pattern, knit up the fabric of her life with different colours, both new and old. How much she takes forward from the previous weaving is determined by her new perception, her new understanding of what is necessary and what is not, perhaps, or what feeds her soul versus those threads which have tightened, snake like, and brought about the knotted clot she must now make part of the new pattern.

How do we learn? From our mistakes, which translate into experience. The painstaking creation of a life from one action after another, this is the weaving. Action, reaction, consequence. Only by recognising how we have affected ourselves and others, only then can we work with those outcomes and recreate the life we feel is necessary for us. Grief floods the field, like a stain; grief for the life not lived, the choices not made, the time that can never be returned to us, the ways in which we have hurt and been hurt. We see life in one way because for us there is only was, is and will be. But the pain is real, the pain for what we have done to ourselves, to others, the actions that can never be undone. Once a thread is woven into the pattern, it cannot be removed, however imperfect it might be. We cannot unravel, we can only renew, start again, over and over, with better intentions and with trust that the view we now have, looking back, will enable us to make a better tapestry of our future.

This is now. Reaching for the bright threads of life, the greens of nature and life, the earthy browns, the flooding bloody bright red of passion and desire, the warm pinks and bronzes of family and security, the bright silver and gold of inspiration and learning. Love is the rainbow thread, all colours, all colours that have ever been or ever will be possible. But I am the weaver. The pattern unfolds with each twist and turn of the threads, each passage of the shuttle. I have to trust that I will create something better, that there is a new picture that will emerge from the vibrant colours that now lie in my hands. Faith in the future is faith in myself, and my ability to create. This is the weaving.

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Packing Light – a Writer’s Travelogue Part One

Packing Light – a Writer’s Travelogue Part One

I know a lot of people make a living at travel writing, and I must confess the thought crossed my mind as I set off on a week-long, midwinter family break to Lanzarote. I have never visited the Canary Islands, and as my partner is a sun-worshipper, we thought that a brief week away in the sun would be good for all of us. Based on other holidays, and on other reports of the Island, I envisaged long days on the beach and lazy mornings. I anticipated the long wait in the airport and the long walk to the plane, the stress over luggage weight and even a few challenges with food, but the whole experience was more acute and more impactful than I anticipated.

What is it about travel? It always makes me want to write, to record my impressions, but the bitter irony of travel is that there are often fewer opportunities than usual to indulge. The anticipation of a week off with plenty of time to write first affected my packing. I packed my work-in-progress, with the notes from my first edit, and my notebook computer, thinking that I might work on it in the airport or during the slow mornings and hazy evening, perhaps sitting on the balcony of the apartment with a glass of wine, watching the evenings deepen. I packed my diary, a spare notebook, six pens, and plenty of books to read. Reading is my greatest pleasure when travelling. I brought four novels, a book on Jung for research for my next book, and my Kindle with several new books downloaded. I also packed my ipod and of course, the chargers for all the electronic equipment. As for clothes – I packed light – vest . Due to the exorbitant prices for hold baggage, we took only 1 case between the three of us, and otherwise had everything in the hand luggage. I checked and triple checked everything. My teenage son wanted to bring his skateboard, which went into the hold bag, as did a selection of dried food packets to suit my diet (we had planned self-catering so as not to be tied to any timetables).

We rose in the very early hours, shivering through the February night into our clothes, grabbing a quick hot cuppa before checking everything and piling into the car. I have a strange ambiguity about travelling. I hate to leave the cats at the mercy of a visiting cat-sitter, and regret leaving my hoe comforts, but I also long to travel and to explore. I hate the airport, and I hate flying on budget airlines with little space, crammed in with a bunch of strangers and their perfume and assorted noises. But I love to explore new places; it’s a kind of restless hunger for new experiences.

I suppose for the writer, every experience is an opportunity to capture a moment, a sensation, and turn it into fuel for their work. I reconcile the negatives of travel with this concept, which aids me in not only coping with the travel itself but allows me free rein of the imagination, when possible.

After a drive on eerily quiet roads, we arrived early, and waited for check-in. I am a real fan of printing your own boarding pass, but we still had a bag to check. I had tea while we waited, and tried to grab a moment to scribble, but my son was tired and demanding attention. Even at 16, it seems, they need their mothers to help them cope with the early start and the vagaries of airports.

Security feels like an exam, a life-test that everyone must pass; a hurried gauntlet of veiled threat. Having passed this particular test, we convened at some seats in Departures and took turns to go shopping: food for the teenager, drinks for my partner, and for me . . . you guessed it. Books. I glean a particular pleasure from perusing the bookshop at the airport. Titles are displayed differently, and hidden gems can be discovered rapidly. Buy one get one half price never fails to work its magic. In deference to our ‘packing light’ ethos for this holiday, I only bought two books, both novels, chosen rapidly yet surely. In the airport, somehow, my mind focuses in a uniquely peculiar manner, and I never fail to enjoy the rapid selections made at the outset of my journey. With my booty in hand, I settled down to continue reading the pulp sci-fi I had brought with me and started the evening before, ignoring the crowds and quelling the rising tension within me that comes from waiting to hear about the gate, boarding.

Although I could not write at that point – no table, too much stress – my writer’s mind was active, taking in and observing and cataloguing everything around me. The woman who watched me reading, as if fascinated by the way I hold a small paperback, or perhaps by the speed with which I was devouring the book. Yes, I read VERY quickly. I get accused of not reading properly, not absorbing the words. I take in everything about the book, but the better the book, the quicker I read. I’ve always had the capacity to process information rapidly. I wonder if this is perhaps a writerly skill, the ability to put things together with speed and ease.

The general noise of the airport, the horrid smells wafting from the perfume shops, the closeness of so many strangers, all make for an uncomfortable time. Yet I think about characters, about plot, about whether I should give my work-in-progress a predictable or unpredictable ending. I think about the ways in which people behave in public, and this filters through into questions about aspects of the dialogue in writing. During that time, I found myself considering the nature of dialogue in the novel. Do people recall whole conversations as accurately as books suggest? They do not. It is a novelistic falsehood, albeit permitted, to have people recall entire conversations in retrospect. At best we recall a portion of what was said, and how it was said. What we remember most is how we felt, I think, how we reacted to what was said. This makes me think about the ways in which I could represent conversation in my writing.

And so to the plane, to the long, agonising wait for boarding. I hate standing around doing nothing. Standing and reading my book is ok. I put my bags down eventually and sat down, as we were delayed somewhat, going nowhere. I hate that feeling of being stalled. I realised then, as I continued to consume the sci-fi novel (which was surprisingly good), that there were many aspects of travelling that I loathed with a vengeance. Was the end worth the means? Really?

I can view this as an analogy for writing. The initial planning, the excitement, is akin to the first germ of the idea blossoming into a story. The anticipation, the rush, that comes before the hard work. The endurance of the journey itself is like that of the writer, plugging on through difficult conditions, keeping up the energy to continue, somehow, by motivating oneself with the idea that regardless of the difficulties along the way, the end product will be worth it. I wonder if this is harder now, for writers struggling with an almost impossible publishing industry. I fully understand those who take a slightly easier way out by self-publishing. But there is no easy way out, not for anyone, regardless of the end point. There are still steps on the way to beginning the journey, tests to be endured, obstacles to be overcome. And periods of time when nothing happens, there is no forward progress. Yet this is still travelling, this is still writing.

As for packing light? I think I eschewed many of the comforts and luxuries I usually take on holiday, but did not skimp on the essentials. Another good analogy for writing. No luxuries, no indulgences, but don’t skimp on the essentials. Quality rather than quantity. And if that means packing two or three times, repacking, reconsidering, weighing up options, but keeping within the limits specified. I guess setting out on a journey is about discipline and endurance, planning, and having a clear direction and end point. Apply those parameters to writing, and you might just get where you want to go.

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My Funny Valentine

My funny Valentine

I wonder if it has always been the case that love is the focus of most fiction. Creative, twisting plots, thrillers, tragedies, romance . . . all seem to be focus on the concept of love. Getting it, keeping it, betraying it, falling in, falling out, falling for . . . love appears as this all-encompassing power that causes more human tragedy than any other force of nature. We puny humans have moved beyond our fear of the great darkness of nights, ceased to wonder at the magic of the wheeling heavens and starry constellations, even lost our fear of a wrathful, vengeful God. Now, it seems, our main concern has become love.

St Valentine was brutally tortured and murdered. I wonder how many people realise this as they buy roses and chocolates for the one they love, or the ones they love, depending on their inclinations and proclivities. I know women, particularly feminists, who eschew the idea and practice of the Valentine’s day ritual because it is both heteronormative and fundamentally flawed, sexist and based on false ideals of romantic love and ignoring the stark realities of relationships and life in the everyday world. We buy into the fantasy, and we authors perpetuate that fantasy by the very act of writing.

Think of any plot, in a film or book. Then find the love angle. Love is the key to tragedy, to change, it motivates us. In fact, it is the most commonly cited motive for murder. It is the writer’s bread and butter, but love is a fiction. To me, love is the story we have been told, the story that we tell ourselves to give us hope and purpose and meaning, in the absence of other, deeper reasons for being. So much of our time is taken up with love: dreaming about it, looking for it, mourning its loss, even perhaps defining it. But what the stories most often don’t tell us is the unfolding narrative of how love is kept alive by our continuing belief in it. Like any god or idol, love is what we choose it to be. It is he dream we call into being, the thought form created by the common focus of two or more minds. We are the engineers of our own desires, the programmers of our particular love-game, creating its landscape and its identity out of our own minds, which in turn are shaped by the world around us, by the hundreds of other love stories and ideas and the shape and nature of love as defined by the stories that we imbibe from everyone else.

As I writer, I have never set out to tell a love story, but love creeps in and is the essence of every story that seems to come into mind. But instead of romantic love, person-meets-person, falling in love type of love, my stories seem to abound with other, perhaps deeper and more real types of affection. The love of a mother for her children, that is the kind of love I can most easily explore, the inevitable love that seizes a woman, grips her, and challenges her for life. It is the inexplicable unconditional positive regard of the mother, the love that continues regardless of how the child behaves, of what they do to others. It is, in fact, the truest form of love. The love of a child for their parent, that is a similar, almost inevitable affection, particularly for the mothers who bear us, as if we absorb something of their essence in the womb, and are forever attached by that most intimate of relationships.

What most seems to excite the author, the reader, the television viewer, the cinema goer, it seems to me, is not love happening, or existing, but love turned upon itself, the darker side of love. We have created our own Gods, and alongside them it seems we are bound to create our own Demons. And what is a demon but a fallen angel, what is a plot but the moment when love twists and becomes something else? When we think of the cultural meta-narratives of our time – Star Wars, Twilight, Dr Who, Spartacus, Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice – or of the never-ending braided threads of the Soap Operas – love is the one abiding common feature of the human condition.

But what is the nature of the love that we find most stimulating and fascinating in our preferred narratives? Is it the pure love that we imagine for ourselves as our goal and ideal in life? Is it the unstained love that springs from innocence? Of course not, that kind of love is too easy, too sweet. It is not the love that makes headlines or sells newspapers, it doesn’t feed the hungry masses who sit in their simulacrum living rooms devouring a diet of pre-processed artificial fodder of every possible variety.

The love that sells, the love that fascinates, intrigues, the love that binds – it is the twisted, deformed love of the tragedy, the horror story, the moral dilemma, the personal challenge. It is the love of the ghost for the living, the soul ripped from life too soon to linger, seeking vengeance or relief, or release from earthly bonds through haunting. It is the love of the maiden for the vampyric attacker, the darkest subtext of violation as the alternate face of love. It is submission, resistance, perversion of the purity towards the unspeakable, the undesirable, the undead. Love gone wrong. Love and its absence. Loss and the bitter darkness that rushes in to fil the gap. Desire gone awry, passion run amok. This is what we know, this is what we crave, as much as the happy ending. It is the twist in the tale, the lovers’ meeting disrupted by the cataclysm, the madwoman in the attic who embodies the ultimate hump in the path towards true love. We frame love as something wonderful, something desirable, something which fuels life, without realising that love itself is the darkest power, and love gone wrong the most terrifying plot twist of all.

This is what I think of when I see the bunches of roses in the shops, the red hearts and the cards stamped with messages of love. I see the bleeding body of a mutilated saint, the rictus of pain and death on the face of a friend, the bitter weeping of a broken heart, acid hot tears bleeding from the source of all pain. Without love, without the failed promise of the love we have created and fictionalised, the love that never fails to disappoint, would the world be a better place? Without love, I fear, there would be far fewer stories, and the stories themselves would be almost unrecognisable, limiting us to a meagre pool of sanitised storylines. Do we want the real stories, the ones that happen after the happily ever after? Do we want to know what happens when Prince Charming has a beer gut, or how he leaves his toenail clippings on the side of the bath? Do we want to hear about the Princess’s frustration as, against her better judgment, feminist values and beliefs about love and relationships, she finds herself keeping house and realises she is the only person who even thinks about cleaning the fridge? Do we want to hear about the death of passion, desire and spontaneity in the face of daily intimacy, of sharing a bathroom, of morning breath and night time flatulence?

Of course we don’t. We want the fairytale, the romance, the promise, the dreams. We want the fantasy. And that is what we writers keep feeding our readers. Even writers like me. I set out in my first novel to give a stark, unequivocal insight into one woman’s mind, experiences and struggles. In my second book, my current work in progress, I am equally explicit. But even I find myself unable to avoid the desire for the happy ending. In my first book, I had a choice of two endings, one ‘happy’ and one tragic. In this work in progress, I have a choice of THREE endings, and I am still debating which way to go. I love a happy ending as much as the next reader, but I also love the idea of not following the herd and twisting my story out of the grasping, tenacious hands of the traditional story arc.

I’ll wait and see. And let the lingering cynicism and disillusionment of the warped commercialisation of Valentine’s day pass before I make a decision. This is the life of the writer, I guess, making huge decisions that no one else sees, struggling with dilemmas without recognition. I love it. This is love, the unconditional kind. There is never a moment I am not in love with writing, with being an author. Stick that in your box of chocolates, St Valentine!

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Taking it to the Next Level

Taking it to the Next Level

Well, this has been a roller-coaster of a week. It started off with a January low, the post-festive energy dipping and the darkness and cold shrinking my world to the daily necessities. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, it felt as if the tasks ahead – including working on the next novel, finishing and writing up research – seemed more like insurmountable mountain peaks than simple life tasks. Add to this the continuing shock of the daily early morning start, and you end up with one struggling author.

Then came the bright star in the dark night of winter. This week, my novel Inshallah was a Kindle daily deal. I was not allowed to advertise it beforehand, so rose early on the 15th to start sharing it on social media. At work, I engaged in some shameless self-marketing by sending an email to my colleagues informing them of the good news. This elicited a couple of comments from colleagues who had read, and enjoyed, the book. And that was when it began, the realisation that the book is really a book, not my book any more, but out there, on its own, grown up and living its own life in the wider world.

The next level came when another writer messaged me several times to give me tips on how to maximise my experience of being the daily deal, showing me how to keep track of the position of the book in the Kindle chart, and suggesting I keep screenshots of this information for my own records. I had had no idea that this would be such a significant experience. In between meetings, admin and teaching prep, I popped on to Amazon and watched my book climb and climb. By the time I got home in the evening, it was number 68, in the top 100 kindle books, a significant achievement by all accounts. I celebrated alone, but felt so enthused that I whizzed through some research work and then got stuck into some writing. When I went to bed, it was still number 68. Breaking with my usual habits, I took my notebook computer to bed and when I rose at 5.30 the next day, switched it on to find my novel was number 16! Number 16 in the Kindle chart, where it stayed for much of the morning.

Suddenly, I’m a bestselling author.

The first five months of being published have been wonderful. I have spoken at a literary festival, blogged, give talks at libraries and bookshops. But still, it has felt as if the book would stay in limited circles, the province of a small cadre of readers from Wales or within the sphere of literary fiction. Not that I’m complaining – far from it! I am delighted that anyone, anyone at all, is reading the book. The reviews have all been wonderful, people enjoying it and saying they can’t put it down. It’s a delight. The book works. The hard work I put into it seems to have paid off. The fact that people are moved and affected by the book matters to me.

The timing of the daily deal did disturb me somewhat – coming so close after the incidents in Paris, in the midst of a new tide of anti-Muslim sentiment. I have written a book which presents Islam as a faith, a positive, supportive, helpful influence in one woman’s life. I made a distinction between faith, and the Arabic culture that my character, like me, struggles to understand and come to terms with. I made no judgements in the book about this different culture, recognising my own status as outsider, as alien. But I do understand faith, and in a life dominated by women and women’s issues, I enjoyed the chance to explore one woman’s perspective on her life. In the face of the tragic happenings on the news, I sat in fear. As a writer, I feel a solidarity with the people at the magazine who died in the name of free speech. But as an individual, a person of faith, who respects those who are truly Muslim, I also felt terrible that their belief system was again being used as an excuse for extremist violence and terrorism. On the day my book was launched, at my first launch event, a Muslim woman accused me of being insensitive releasing a book with the title Inshallah during Ramadan (a coincidence). She had not read the book. She assumed that as a Western, non-Muslim writer I would not be presenting a positive view of Islam. This is understandable. I hope I reassured her with my responses to her questions. But at the same time, I realised then what has been forcefully reinforced now – that this book takes me into a critical, monstrous reality where none of us is safe.

It’s just a book, a novel about a woman and her struggle to survive.

But now . . . now it’s out there and hundreds of people across the country are reading it. I’ve let it go and it must make its own way now, without my input. And it feels good. It feels like I can concentrate now on the next book.

This is the next level, a writer grappling with the unwieldy mass of a first draft, with all its omissions (‘oh, I’ll put that bit in later when I can get my head around it’), flaws (‘I’m sure that character has a different name in the beginning’ and ‘that character/plot shift is too unexpected, I need to write them into the book earlier’), challenges (one-dimensional characters) and dilemmas (mainly the ending – at present, I have three options). There are brief moments of pleasure, such as finding a particularly well written segment and feeling that rare but familiar rush of feeling at a job well done. There are many, many moments of frustration at the sheer donkey-work that I must undertake to shift things around, fill in the gaps, build layer after layer, and wrangle unwieldy characters into place. And there is the constant, nagging and unnecessary fear and doubt, that maybe the first time was a fluke, and I’m not really a writer, and I won’t be able to do it again. This is my biggest fear, but it gets squashed and sat on, on a daily basis, as I hold true to the knowledge that I’ve made it to the end once, and created a book that works, so I can definitely do it again. I don’t think I can recreate the particular conditions that forged Inshallah over a seven year period – and I don’t think I want to. Life has moved on, and just as my first born is out in the world, so my writing has moved on to another level. I’m ready to attack this next manuscript with confidence, and with the hope that my readers will enjoy this new offering (if, by the grace of all the gods, the publishers like it too).

Now, just to get to grips with these three different endings . . . .

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