30 Days of Nano: Day Fourteen

The one in which I (accidentally) wake an hour early and decide to start writing immediately (by which I mean, after checking Facebook and twitter), amassing 2378 words before breakfast and earning my virtual badge for passing 25,000 words.

It’s been a long week.

On Wednesday I wrote nothing.

On Thursday I wrote garbage.

Discarding paper rubbish

The fruits of Thursday’s labour.

Today I caught up with the story again and, although, yes, I wrote garbage, it was useful garbage.

I had a little epiphany in the shower (which isn’t a euphemism): I think I can actually finish this book. Which isn’t the sort of epiphany you perhaps ought to be having after TWO YEARS of work on a project, but finally it feels concrete and real: an achievable journey – like driving to Sainsbury’s, for instance, as opposed to hang-gliding over the Atlantic ocean.

For so long, a sizeable chunk of this book has been nothing but air. I’ve got lots of beginnings (I really mean lots) and a couple of bits that belong near the end, but the rest was a grey area, filled with Things That Happen and Bits I Haven’t Worked Out Yet and Bridges To Be Crossed When I Come To Them.

Q: Why did the writer cross the bridge (after watching the bridge through binoculars for four months, making copious notes on the bridge’s design and structure)?

A: To get to the other side.

It happens to us all in the end. (Even those of us who could procrastinate for England.) The longing to get to The Other Side becomes so intense that you can’t put off crossing the bridge any longer, no matter how wobbly it looks or how fiercely the wind might be blowing. No matter how many trolls there are underneath it.

Baaaaaaaaaa.

Baaaaaaaaaa.

Image source

Goats have to be brave sometimes, and so do writers. Doing anything that matters to you – really matters – is going to be scary. So long as you’re only thinking about it, and not really doing it (or doing it half-heartedly), the Thing That Matters remains on its perfect pedestal in your mind: unsullied, unspoilt, a work worthy of Shakespeare, and if by any chance it doesn’t quite meet Shakespearean standards, well that doesn’t matter either. You’ve only put half your heart into it: if you really, really, honestly, properly, truly tried it would certainly be a work of brilliance.

And then, eek, you do really try. You honestly, properly, truly try to write this book you’ve been sort-of-writing for so long. And you’re on stage naked and everyone’s pointing and laughing. And what if they’re right to laugh? And what if you’re not very good at the Thing That Matters, the thing you’ve been dreaming of your whole life?

Oh dear.

That’s scary, isn’t it?

Last year I was picked by the Writers’ Centre Norwich as one of their ten ‘Escalator Literature’ writers.

escalator tweet

 

I won’t go on about that, because I’ve already gone on about that probably more times than the average human can bear, but as I wrote in that guest blog for Writers’ Centre Norwich (follow the link if you’d like to know more) our year of professional development had downs as well as ups. Thank the Lord we were never actually naked on stage, but my innermost soul was exposed on a couple of sorry occasions. ‘You want an extract from my novel? For your website? You mean the novel that doesn’t exist yet…?’

‘You want me to give a reading? In front of a bunch of agents? And this would be a reading from…? Oh, right. That novel that doesn’t exist yet…’

If I actually finish this book, then I’ll have to be naked on stage all over again when I send it to agents. And that’s a bit daunting. Am I all mouth and no trousers? Am I scared to put my money where my mouth is? Will I need mouth-to-mouth when the first rejections arrive?

The answer to all three is: maybe. But if three little goats have got the balls to cross that bridge, than so have I.

Although, PS, I don’t actually have balls. I am considering a larger penis though.

 

 

30 Days of Nano: Day Thirteen

Happy thirteenth day of NaNo! It’s the day your novel gets its tongue pierced and tells you to go feck yourself.

'Thirteen' good film, but seriously bloody scary for anyone who has a teenaged daughter...

‘Thirteen’: a good film, but seriously bloody scary for anyone who has a teenaged daughter…

At least it’s not a Friday, right?

Is your nano-novel having a teenaged tantrum? I left mine alone yesterday, entirely without supervision. Heading back there now to check it hasn’t trashed the house in my absence…

5 minutes later

Fixtures and fittings still in place. An empty bottle of vodka inside the toilet cistern and some fag butts under the bathroom window, but otherwise all seems much as I left it.

An hour later

Hmm. Well, this is a bit annoying. Until today, I had all of my nano words in a single Scrivener file (easier to tot up the word-count that way, as I reasoned) but every five thousand words or so there were strange blank spaces appearing (as if the words had been struck-through, but the strike-through itself was invisible, if that’s not too horribly complicated an image to fathom). Hence, a decision was made! Create a new project, solely for nano, split everything in that way too long document into separate scenes, give the scenes little titles, and see where we are. (It turns out it’s the work of, oh, about six seconds, to click: Project; Statistics and tot up the total.)

Where we are, people, is 410 words down on what I thought my word-count was. I’ve heard mutterings, on the internet, about Scrivener word counts not being entirely reliable, and I’m as confident as a jelly-head like me can be that I haven’t accidentally deleted something. So I’ll have to push on, writing 410 extra words on top of the double quota I already had to do today, anyway, because yesterday didn’t happen, blah blah, world’s smallest violin, etc. 410 words is a small price, though, because two important things have happened:

  • I’ve been reminded of things I’d forgotten I’d written (continuity errors ahoy!)
  • I’ve gained a bird’s eye view of proceedings (insert proverb here about ‘wood’ and ‘trees’ and not being able to see one for the other).

I heart Scrivener.

I heart Scrivener.

I know I’ve gone on about Scrivener before (here), but I really, honestly, do recommend it for those of you writing novels. If you do what I’ve done, and name every scene, you’ll be able to look at the spine of your story, so far, while you’re writing, in that left-hand column there (see above). I much prefer finding the spine in a book that has flesh on already, instead of the more traditional way: spine first, flesh later. Which isn’t to say I’m a ‘pantser’ (a person for whom plotting is anathema). It’s just that plotting ‘cold’ doesn’t work for me: I need to plan a bit, write a bit, plan a bit, write a bit. Realise my original plan was bullshit and start all over again. It takes longer that way (unsurprisingly). But, for me, it’s more truthful. I can’t get on board with a scene – no matter how ‘vital’ to my plot – if that scene doesn’t yank my chain somehow. And there’s simply no way to know what will yank your chain, when you actually sit down to write it, and what will leave you colder than David Cameron in his underpants than to… well, to actually sit down and write it. 

I don’t think I’m that great at the nuts and bolts of plot, but I do know when it isn’t working (I’m in good company, here: Stanley Kubrick – one of my top five directors – often knew what he didn’t want, more than what he did want). I make up for it, I hope, by being pretty good on theme and unity. I try to convince myself, quite often, that what I’ve got is okay, serviceable, perfectly good – but there’ll always be a niggle, until I’ve condensed all the disparate elements down to their absolute minimum. As I wrote about here, you don’t want any extra baggage.

Trust your instincts. If something feels wrong, it probably is.

30 Days of Nano: Day Twelve

Yes, it's day 12. Here's a film poster with the word twelve in the title. Just me, or does this sound vaguely homoerotic?

Yes, it’s day 12. Here’s a film poster with the word twelve in the title. Just me, or does the tagline sound vaguely homoerotic? Is there an extraneous L in the title…?

Last night, at the eleventh hour on day eleven of my NaNo experience, I’d tucked myself up in bed with a cat lightly nestling against one of my legs in a don’t-you-dare-get-up-to-use-the-toilet kind of a way, when I realised that (in spite of being, at 20,000 words, a little ahead of the word-count game) my daily word-count was thirty words below the magic 1667 required to make the daily word-count bar turn green on the NaNoWriMo site. As I’ve already told you here, the girly swot inside me loves the back-pat of the bar turning green. Hence, with a bit of a huff and a puff, I decided I’d dash off thirty words and make my target like the good girl I am.

First, and most obviously, before any actual words could be written it seemed imperative to tweet about the terrible quandary I’d found myself in: https://twitter.com/LynseyAnneWhite/status/532311154539102209

A couple of handy suggestions arrived from other wrimos (including perhaps a little too much about snot).

nanonanotweets

There was also a top tip from @Eamonngriffin to splurge the 30 words on note-taking for the following day. However, as I work in Scrivener I have a virtual yellow notebook in which to store my notes, and if this was my Nano 2012 (as I blogged about here) I’d have been carefully totting-up every one of those notes and adding them to the word-count. But this is Nano 2014, and I am deadly (deadly) serious about finishing this fecking draft by the middle of December (because, as I blogged about here, NaNoWriMo should really be called National Two-Thirds of a Novel Month. Except it’s not so catchy). So I am not minded to cheat in any way whatsoever. I’d only be cheating myself.

So, back to the drawing board. Thirty words. Should have been easy, right? After all, I’ve expended about 300 of the buggers just describing The Quandary of the Missing 30 Words (one of the great, lesser-known Nancy Drew stories) in this post that you’re reading now. (Possibly skimming…) Here’s a picture to draw your attention again in case you are skimming:

shocked_face

Image source

But the thing was… the place where I’d left the story (I’m always leaving things in inappropriate places: keys, purse, brain…) was midway through a sentence. And not just any sentence, but one that had no clear ending in mind. You hop in the car to go collect your daughter, thinking the sentence will finish itself while you’re driving, but then you start singing along to an Elliott Smith CD (as you do) and shouting at people who aren’t driving their cars as you firmly believe they should be driven (i.e. at a speed greater than that best described as ‘pootling along’ when the bloody light’s about to go red, you Olympic Slow-Driving dope), and you get home from your journey with the sentence still unfinished.

More crucially, when I read it again, it turned out that the start of the sentence was taking things in the wrong direction. And, also, more woefully, the two previous sentences weren’t right either. Faster than you could say ‘never delete anything from your nano word-count (just grey it out instead)’ I’d done the unthinkable – and ended up with an extra 89 words to write. In the spirit of NaNo, this was a giant bah humbug of a thing to do. But I’m not really arsed (if I’m going to be completely honest) about ‘winning’ NaNo. I like the companionship of it all, and the gold stars of the bars going green (if you’ve clicked on some of the previous links this will make more sense to you), but I ‘won’ NaNo in 2012 with a pile of directionless drivel. And it wasn’t actually (sshh, don’t tell anyone) that great a feeling. Gah, I’m sorry. I don’t want to rain on the nano parade, but the process of accumulating words is a poor relation to writing an actual story. In novel-writing, as with sex, it’s a lot more enjoyable for everyone involved if you’re at least working towards a climax.

So whereas, in NaNo 2012, I had over 1000 words (a mere tenth of my final day splurge) about two girls peeling potatoes, I decided to spend my 89 words on an unexpected turn in the dialogue: to build myself a through-road, instead of a cul-de-sac. A thousand words spent backing your story into a corner are probably, in all honesty, a thousand words wasted (although nothing is ever wasted in creative endeavour, blah blah blah). As you travel the road to nano word-count victory, whether you’re Lewis Hamilton or Mr Olympic Slow-Driver, don’t forget you are meant to be nudging the story along, occasionally…

30 Days of Nano: Day Eleven

Weird how you can talk things up sometimes. After yesterday’s post about sickeningly enormous nano word counts I went to my local wrimo write-in and found myself next to a couple of (very non-sickening) young women with (extremely sickening) word counts of 37,000 and… 49,500. The latter actually won nano whilst sitting beside me.

It is day eleven. What the fricking frick is going on? Now I’m a fast typist (used to be 150 wpm in my Glory Days, which weren’t that glorious at all actually, as a London secretary) and ask me how quickly the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog and the answer is: pretty damn quickly. But, still. I mean, that’s insane, right? (Please tell me I’m right.)

What does a dog have to do to get some sleep around here?

What does a dog have to do to get some sleep around here?

             Image source

And I can vouch for the fact that Miss 49-thousand-er* was neither lying, nor writing Shining style (as I suggested yesterday) because I had the tiniest of tiny crafty glances at her screen and they were proper sentences n all that. And she wasn’t wielding a pick-axe, nor bouncing a ball against the ballroom walls, nor developing strangely peaked eyebrows.

But she was writing with an almost inhuman speed. Like a nano-bot, you might say. No pauses. I had a little burst like this, myself, last week, but I can’t sustain it long term. I need to pause, look up, look out, reflect, make tea, unravel my legs occasionally. Another gunfire burst as the words spurt out, then head up again – above the parapet – and kettle back on.

What was even stranger, last night, was the way they launched straight in without stopping to think: whenever I come ‘cold’ to my laptop, I need to be wound up first with my little invisible key (oh, all right, if you want to be all factual about it, I need to read back over what was last written; or, sometimes, read another writer’s work) before the music box begins to crank out its tune and, as for that plastic ballerina on her springy leg… you wait all day for a pirouette, and then three come along at once.

Writing, eh.

* Through the magic of twitter, I’m reliably informed that Nanobot Maximus of the 49000+ words, is in fact a local nano legend with the twitter handle @RiaJay21, and well worth a follow.)

30 Days of Nano: Day Ten

How to be a Week-Two NaNoWriMo Writer (with thanks, and copious apologies, to Lorrie Moore, whose rather wonderful story How to Become a Writer can be read in full here.)

Unknown

Yeah, yeah, 47000 words, yeah *sure*…

Congratulate yourself. You are here, in the wasteland of week two, when so many others have fallen. You’ve watched the NaNo hashtag sliding up and down the trending ranks on twitter, like a lift between floors. You’ve clicked on the hashtag, smug with your word count; discovered that everyone in the universe has actually written more than you; written 900 words in a Chardonnay-infused haze to catch up (although secretly thinking they’ve all gone Jack Nicholson in The Shining: All work and no play, etc, or else are lying).

Click onto your Scrivener file; read the 900 booze-infused words; have a cry. Or some tea. Or some wine. Or some heroin.

Compose lighthearted tweets about willies.

Send inspirational tweets to other writers (who need cooling down after writing a saucy scene):

Replenish your wine glass. Watch the last Doctor Who on catch-up. Wonder if you’re alone in sort of, a little bit, fancying Peter Capaldi. Converse with a writer on twitter, committing yourself in a public arena to writing another 1500 words by the end of the day.

Feel a little bit ‘meh’ about starting this scene (which is hard, as scenes go: strong emotions, etc)… but, joints nicely oiled by el vino, you find it much easier than you thought it would be. In fact (let’s not mince words) you’re writing like a fiend, or a demon, or Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and even if Jack Nicholson came raging towards you –Here’s Joohhnnnyyy! – with a pick-axe in his hand you would probably not even notice. That’s how in The Zone you are.

Nothing can hurt you when you're in The Zone.

Nothing can get you when you’re in The Zone. Not even a pick-axe.

Decide not to actually read what you’ve written (whilst feeling The Flow, In the Zone).

You know. Just in case.

Post your own word count to twitter, thus causing a never-ending ripple through the food-chain of writers: those who have written less than you will now (a) feel insecure (b) chug wine (c) write furiously to catch up (d) post their own word counts to twitter, etc, etc, ad infinitum, because everyone knows The Writer is a curious beast who feeds mainly on jealousy and the failure of others.

Realise you’re still in your PJs. Realise you smell. Stagger into the shower and ruminate on the brain’s need for a SAVE button, as every plot point, weak character, crappy sentence you’ve ever concocted instantly resolves itself the second you step away from your laptop and have no real way of recording anything (unless you have bath crayons).

Kid yourself you’ll write a little more before you fall asleep.

Instead, play Candy Crush.

Dream well. Dream big. Dream something you can use in your novel. Dream that your novel is wielding a pick-axe.

Realise you’re meant to be leaving for work in a minute, not blogging about NaNo. Mutter expletives. Rack brain for a cunning way to end your blog –

Fail miserably.

30 Days of Nano: Day Nine

Yesterday I was good. I was very, very good. I had coffee planned with some friends, so I wrote all my NaNo words (and posted my blog) before 11 a.m.

We weren't naked, I hasten to add. (This is 'Three Women' by Ferdinand Léger, 1921)

We weren’t naked, I hasten to add. (This is ‘Three Women’ by Ferdinand Léger, 1921)

Today, though, I have a class to plan on POV. And parents to visit. And shopping to buy. And period pains. So I thought I’d jump start myself with a ‘quick’ 900 words in bed last night, having glugged a pair of wines.

The words are not good.

They’re not jump-out-the-window dreadful, but as a general rule I believe I write better without the fortification of a half-bottle of New Zealand chardonnay.

I’ve been having strange dreams lately. I’ve sort of outed myself before as a tingle-head (if you were paying attention) but I’ll out myself fully now, and admit that I fall asleep listening to a camp young man stroking a chair, or a bubbly young woman frying up bacon for breakfast, or a voluptuous blonde Russian encased in a crinkly shirt. I won’t name-check the friend who alerted me to this sub-culture on youtube (in case she’d rather not be outed herself) but I am eternally grateful. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been lulled to a rather lovely, tingly trance state by the sound of certain people’s voices, particularly if those people are also gesturing, carefully, with their hands or scratching a pen across paper, or tapping their fingernails… Ah, I’m swooning just thinking about it. Throughout my life it’s made first days at work rather difficult, if the person who’s showing me round has a soft sort of voice: they’re pointing out the toilets and fire exits and demonstrating the way the computer works and I’m quietly floating away to a higher sphere and not remotely paying attention to what they’re actually saying. If you wanna get blunt, you could call it a brain-gasm. It’s very nice, anyways. And if you’ve ever tingled, you might want to google ASMR and have yourself a veritable whale of a time (once you get over the sorta creepiness of it. Try listening without watching, while you ease yourself in…)

So, what was I saying? Ah yes. Strange dreams. Two nights ago I shot and killed Alan Sugar (sorry, Lord Sugar; I’ll be shot myself by the Aristocracy Police if I don’t sufficiently doff my cap) and got quickly embroiled in a (piss poor) cover-up plot orchestrated by my Adult Ed department. Last night I was finally watching The 39 Steps (which I never have watched, incidentally, in real life) and, in fact, it wasn’t at all the film I had imagined: a poor tenant discovered a perilous series of missing steps in the staircase of his landlady’s home, and narrowly missed what-seemed-like Certain Death whilst leaping, briefcase in hand, across the gaping chasm. It was rip-roaring viewing.

In the sub-plot of this dream, my daughter cracked the car windscreen and two of the side windows by firing rubber darts at them. I’ll definitely be having a word with her about that when she (finally) wakes up. (She is fifteen. ‘Nuff said, I think.)

So why am I rambling about dreams? Honest answer: because I want to! Answer-I-wasn’t-conciously-aware-of-but-have-just-been-pointed-to-by-my-subconscious: this is the ninth day of NaNo, and there is a (very good) book, by David Mitchell, called Number 9 Dream… But look, there is a link to my NaNo project in all this and it’s coming RN (as they say on twitter): right now (for you fuddy-duddies who don’t know what it means; I came across this abbreviation a whole TWO DAYS ago, hence I am superior on the cool scale and not a fuddy-duddy at all). Here are some things about dreams to be borne in mind whilst writing your nano-or-non-nano-novel (or, indeed, short story):

  • You may not resolve the entire plot by revealing (a la Bobby Ewing in the shower in Dallas) that IT WAS ALL A DREAM. If you do this, you will be ejected from The Writers’ Club (which does not exist, but this matters not) with immediate effect and never, never re-admitted.

    'Man, that was a long shower, Bobby! What were you doing in there?'  'You don't need to know, Pam.'

    ‘Man, that was a long shower, Bobby! What were you doing in there?’
    ‘You don’t need to know, Pam.’

  • And, while we’re on the subject, you probably shouldn’t start your book with a dream either. (Unless you are the genius called Daphne du Maurier and it was a dream about going to Manderley. Again. That single word seals the deal and makes the dream acceptable: ‘aha! This is not pretentious pontificating; there is a story here…’)
  • Any dreams you recount in the course of your novel should somehow relate to the plot/emotion/theme of your novel. People’s dreams (as you probably thought whilst reading an earlier part of this blog) are not, in general, very interesting. By which I mean: they’re not interesting at all. Proceed with caution.
  • A dream sequence does not require the presence of a dwarf. See Living in Oblivion if you don’t believe me.

    A dream sequence needn't contain a dwarf. Although a top-hatted Peter Dinklage could be a good addition to your novel...

    A dream sequence needn’t contain a dwarf. Although a top-hatted Peter Dinklage could be a good addition to your novel…

  • And, while we’re on that subject, try not to think in terms of a dream ‘sequence’: the word ‘sequence’ somehow suggests to me that the recounting of this dream will be lengthy, by which I mean TEDIOUS, and the one thing you don’t want to happen whilst recounting a character’s dream is for the reader to fall asleep.
  • If your plot is about living the dream, or the man of your dreams or following your dream, then you have come to the wrong blog and I have no advice for you.

Anyway, I’m 900 (shoddy) words down, 767 (maths on a Sunday morning, ouch; in fact, I just asked Uncle Google to check my sums) still to go. To paraphrase Shakin’ Stevens… nah, kidding, of course: to paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘To write, perchance to write about dreams…) I’m tempted to bung the whole 767 words on a dream sequence. Or a naked man showering.*

One of the two.

* Though I really must stop writing about willies.

Pocketwatch tweet

30 Days of Nano: Day Eight

I like the number eight. There are eighty-eight rooms in my imaginary house called Madder Hall. There are eighty-eight keys on most pianos. I was eight when I first learnt the piano. I like how the number eight looks. It’s so curvy and perfect. I like that it stands infinity on its head. (Or perhaps on its bum.)

The Apollo 11 spaceflight in 1969 lasted eight days in total (and three hours, 18 minutes, and 25 seconds if you wanna be a pedant about it). For as long as it took them to fly to the moon and back, we’ve been writing our novels. That’s something to think about. One small step, and all that.

Cue the pep talk about small steps leading to giant leaps leading to completed novels? Nah. This being me, I’m going to talk about the moon instead.

A book about men on the moon, not early pregnancy. (Although the rocket does look a little startled.)

A book about men on the moon, not early pregnancy. (Although the rocket does look a little startled.)

As it happens, I’ve always been happy to look up and see that it’s there, without taking the trouble of hurtling through space in a rocket for one small step (or one giant leap for that matter) on its famously-cratered surface. (And maybe you’re one of those theorists who don’t believe Apollo 11 went either, that film director Stanley Kubrick faked the whole thing with smoke and mirrors.) Whatever your thoughts on the matter, you might like to click on this link while you carry on reading, and listen in to my favourite track from Brian Eno’s 1983 Apollo album, composed for a documentary about the moon landings.

But what has the moon got to do with writing? Lots, of course! It’s one of my favourite props, for a start, (other favourites are clocks and wallpaper, although sideboards appear to be moving up the Madder Hall charts).

A waning gibbous moon, such as we'll see in the sky tonight.

A waning gibbous moon, such as we’ll see in the sky tonight.

A good long lean on your windowsill, late at night (moon-spotting tends to less successful in the daylight hours…) and you’ll find yourself pulled from the grotty interiority of your head and reminded that, hey fella, you’re only a pin-prick in the Grand Old Scheme of Things; but you’re not less of a person for that – you’re more. You are made out of stars (so the science folk tell me), and here you are, living on earth, breathing air, being human, all sharing this moon. If you let your mind stretch up to space for a bit (on its tiptoes) and feel the vastness of the universe, you’re less likely (I reckon) to find yourself writing this sort of thing (from the very wondrous Wondermark by David Malki: much amusement to be had if you click that link):

More wondrousness can be found at http://wondermark.com

More wondrousness can be found at http://wondermark.com

I have one more reminder for you, in the shape of Graham Greene’s short story, The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen (full text here), that a good novelist always looks outward as well as inward. Your first job is to notice. Go out in the world and just, you know, notice shit. If you don’t take the trouble to look, you won’t see it.

And, talking of looking: well, looky-here. How many (invisible) Japanese gentlemen are there in Greene’s story?

Eight, of course.

I love it when a plan comes together.

(Oh, and PS: 13,369 words and counting on the NaNometer. Kinda wishing there were 8,888 instead. But, also, kinda not wishing that.)

30 Days of Nano: Day Seven.

lucky-7On the seventh day of Na-No… I have no swans-a-swimming (or French hens, turtle doves, or gold rings for that matter), but I do have 12,659 words. And, better still, I have fallen through the hole in the paper, as once described by Stephen King. There’s a feeling, a rather nice feeling, that the story is happening all by itself and I’m just an observer. images-1

I know better, though, than to trust this feeling. Your relationship with your work is like any other relationship: it changes from day to day. If you never get too cocky, and never get too despondent, it all evens out in the end.

When I first did NaNo, two years ago, it was like throwing paint at a canvas to see what would stick. Not a lot, as it turned out. In lieu of a story, I wrote random scenes – in no particular order, as Dermot says, tediously, every week on the X-Factor – interspersed with quotes: ‘Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea’ – Iris Murdoch, and comments on my progress, e.g. ‘Utter shit I’m writing! I have no idea where to begin.’ (I did, of course, include these asides in my final word count.) If you’d asked me five minutes ago, I’d have said that I’d jettisoned everything in that 2012 NaNo, that all of it turned out to be useless (although not a waste of time: I’m a great believer that nothing you write is ever really wasted). But, as if to prove doubly my point about waste, I’ve just come across this in the 2012 file:

What had become of their caps, she wondered? She thought of their hundreds and hundreds of caps,

And their aprons, their dresses, all starched, and smart. Their shoes. She could picture them. She could smell the starch of their dresses. The [what did they use to clean with?] She could hear a broom sweeping.

Partly gibberish, of course, but not a million miles, I’ll sure you’ll agree, from this passage in the latest draft:

In the old days, she thought, it would have been different: a snowstorm of white caps and aprons, an army of boots on the backstairs, the slashing of starched black skirts. She imagined them lugging tin buckets to fill bathtubs, red-faced and steamy, their hands squelching wet. All the linen would have to be lathered by hand, or by mangle – whatever that was; she had seen the word once in a history book – and there weren’t such things as telephones back then: when they wanted to summon you, there were old-fashioned bells with brass tongues; the same bells she’d seen in the passage downstairs that were turning to rust.housemaids_001

You’d never put on a play without rehearsals; our first drafts (and second, and third, and so on) give us writers an opportunity to rehearse. Whereas NaNo 2012 (for me) was pure improvisation, this year’s NaNo (so far) feels more scripted. The sets have been built, the lights rigged up. There were lots of extraneous people just hanging around: they’ve gone home now (‘home’ to the Character Graveyard in the sky). In 2012 I felt a bit like an actor playing a novelist. I don’t quite feel like a novelist yet (because that would be cocky, and cocky is wrong), but I think, this time round, the giant blob of words in my nano file is beginning to resemble an actual novel…

30 Days of Nano: Day Six

imagesHave you found your seed word yet? I’ve been reading the very good Scarlett Thomas book, Monkeys with Typewriters: How to write fiction and unlock the secret power of stories (phew, that’s a gob-ful), in which she suggests you need three things before you embark on your novel: (1) a (main) narrative question; (2) a thematic question; (3) a seed word.

Narrative question

Monkeyswithtypewriters

Thematic Question

Monkeys2

(from ‘Monkeys with Typewriters’, by Scarlett Thomas)

So what, then, is a seed word and why do you need one? The seed word, as Thomas describes it, should contain ‘the main essence of your thematic concern’, whilst simultaneously, somehow, containing ‘everything in the novel’. She suggests you make a list: a list of all the separate things your novel seems to be “about”‘ and, ideally using a dictionary or thesaurus, you try to find a single word that links them (most likely an abstract noun). Words have lots of meanings, Thomas says, that you may not – consciously – be aware of. The odds are remote that Jane Austen sat down, consciously, to concoct a seed word, but Thomas suggests (very plausibly, I think) that you might say the seed word of her novel Emma is ‘respectability’, containing, as it does, ‘both the idea that someone is […] worthy of respect […] and the idea of respectability as being inherently to do with a polite society.’

She makes a promise, too: ‘when you find the correct seed word for your project it will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. While constructing a thematic question gives you focus and purpose, finding the correct seed word is quite magical.’

Well, the hairs on my neck must be lazy, I’m afraid, because did they stand up? No, they didn’t. But, still, I have found my seed word (somewhat late in the writing process… better late than never, eh?), and that word is ‘autonomy’. And in spite of the bone-idle hairs on my neck it was – and is – an exciting thing, because seeing how clearly and cleanly this single words fits all the disparate strands of the book, like a stick of seaside rock with the word autonomy right through the middle, I feel I must be doing something right (at last): in my humble experience, when the pieces all lock into place, with no wiggling or fiddling, it’s usually (fingers crossed…) because what you’ve concocted has some sort of truth in it.

In the midst of NaNo (especially for all you pantsers out there) finding your seed word might well seem a waste of precious writing time. But the brain has a strange way of solving creative tasks when you’re least expecting it: don’t exchange precious writing time for the pondering of your seed word, but do let your mind have peace and quiet, occasionally (put down your phone, switch the radio off); take a walk, or a bath, do the hoovering, pick up your knitting… You never know when your seed word will come visiting.

30 Days of Nano: Day Five.

FuenfteDeckblatt It’s fair to say that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a lot more successful than my fifth day of NaNo has been. Then again, Beethoven’s Fifth is a lot more successful than 99.7% of human artistic endeavour, so I’m not feeling too disheartened about it. I’ve only done 962 words, but I also wrote some cheesy limericks for an evening class on prose rhythm:

There was once a balloon that deflated
On its owner’s poor ear drums it grated.
It went round and around
With a terrible sound
As if someone was being castrated.
 

I’ve been reading a lot about metre today. As I said in a previous post all my writing is done to a rhythm. I can’t seem to stop it. I free write sometimes purely for the sound of words, because trying to balance meaning and sound gets too damn frustrating now and again. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve known what anapaests and amphibrachs and dactyls are, though I’ve always (it seems like) known instinctively that I need a TUM-ti-ti rather than a ti-ti-TUM to make a sentence ‘scan’. I could write till the cows came home about sausages burning in cauldrons and yellow-tipped whiskery ladies and bombs dipped in sugar for no other reason than this: that I worship the sound of the words (and I even chose that pretentious word, ‘worship’, because love didn’t fit with the rhythm). I learned today that Jean Cocteau knew Shakespeare was a great writer, because – without speaking a word of English – he could ‘hear’ his greatness. Some words just sound nice together. (Although let’s also quote Auden here, in an essay on poets in translation: ‘A poet like Campion […] whose principal concern is with the sound of words and their metrical and rhythmical relations, cannot be translated at all. Take away the English language in which his songs were written, and all that remains are a few banal sentiments.’ Quick confession: I don’t know who Campion is.)

I’ve just been a-googling and, hey nonny nonny, he’s referring (I assume) to Thomas Campion, a 16th century musician and poet. Don’t laugh at me if I’ve got the wrong Campion.

It’s not to be forgotten, though, that the simplest and plainest of sentences – ‘It felt nice’ are the final three words of one of my stories – can offer an impact, in context, that can’t be achieved by sound alone. When I read young people’s writing, now, I can hear the same cockiness I recall from my own early pieces: rejoicing in words for the pure sake of words, and the cleverness of it all. When you don’t know a lot about life you’ve got nothing but words. This is not to say someone who’s young has no hardship to write about – that would be stupid – but only that those of us not in the first flush of youth have had longer to process those hardships, and being a little bit closer to death you do tend to assess your life differently. I am wiser, now, and a better writer, than I was at twenty-one, or thirty-one. I no longer hear rounds of applause in my head when I find a new simile (I can still recall typing the toothpaste tips of the waves on the crappy old plasticky typewriter I took to university and thinking I was nothing short of a genius). I like writing dialogue now – whereas I used to hate it: I couldn’t be quite so pretentious when writing dialogue. It felt like a waste.

If there’s one thing a word-freak like me can be thankful to NaNoWriMo for, it’s the useful reminder that novels are stories, and stories are all about people, and words are the medium through which we elucidate character – not the other way round. There’s no time, writing close to two thousand words a day, to get precious or picky: you have to do what the novelist Julie Myerson once advised, on the subject of ‘getting stuck’: lower your standards, and move on.

Let’s finish with a picture of the band Five to ensure we cover the whole musical spectrum.

On second thoughts, let’s not.

30 Days of Nano: Day Four.

Old biddies like me will probably get this immediately, but those of you young enough not to relate to my favourite Doug Stanhope joke (‘You ever look in the mirror in the morning and think: that can’t be accurate?’) may not immediately recognise this ident (from 1982. Long sigh. Such an innocent time…) (For me, anyway. I was 9.)

'Can you tell what it is yet?' she says, before realising she doesn't particularly want to reference Rolf Harris.

‘Can you tell what it is yet?’ she says, before realising she doesn’t particularly want to reference Rolf Harris.

Here’s what it turns into eventually…

images-5

The very delightful Channel 4 logo.

Yes, people, it’s Day Four of NaNoWriMo, and doing these daily counts makes me feel just a little as if I’m in The Ringcounting down to Death by Sadako on day seven. Or one of the murderous school kids in Battle Royale, with three days to kill or be killed. Luckily the real-life stakes are somewhat lower: I’ll finish my novel; or I won’t. The world is unlikely to end, either way. The world’s most likely response, I’d suggest, is: meh.

What I love about NaNo, though, is the stats page on the website. My bars, as you’ll see, are cross and blue: it’s lunchtime as I write this, and the big fat ZERO on ‘words written today’ is letting me down somewhat. If you scroll down you’ll see I’m predicted to finish 9 days late if I carry on being such a flipping slowcoach.

NanoscreenshotAs soon as I’ve churned out my words for the day, the blue bar will turn green. It’s like getting a gold star on your homework, or 10/10 on a test. ‘Good girl,’ says NaNoWriMo, and the ass-kissing, brown-nosed child inside of me goes all smug and falsely-suprised like the week’s Star Baker on GBBO. (As screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan said, ‘Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.’)

So, yes, I get a kick from achieving my targets (at sticky moments I’ll update my word count after every sentence). I get such a kick from achieving my targets that Ass-kissing Brown-Noser overrides Lazy-Assed Procrastinator, and actually gets some fricking work done around here – no matter how late it is, or what’s on’t telly, or whether a glass or two of wine has been drunk – because the fact is that, left to my own devices, I’m one of those hamster-wheel writers, endlessly treading the same few pages and waking from a twelve-month reverie to find 29 versions of chapters 1 to 4 on my laptop and precious all else.

And then, too, if I’m honest, I’m disturbingly skilled at allowing the livelong day to drift by without really achieving anything. I’m a woman constantly on the verge of beginning the day’s writing. Even now, for instance, although on one simple level I’m writing a blog post what I’m actually doing is putting off my ‘writing’ writing.

If you, like me, wish there was some kind of AA for procrastinators, stop reading this now and head AT ONCE to this amazing post about procrastination on Wait But Why. And, in exchange, I’ll stop blogging, aka procrastinating, and start sucking up to NaNo again.

Epilogue: after hours in the Dark Playground (read the link above!) I’ve finished with a rather gratifying 2563 words for the day.

30 Days of Nano: Day Three.

Three is a magic number. Everyone agrees. De La Soul, and Schoolhouse Rock, and especially the magnificent Jeff Buckley. Unknown-9There were three little pigs, and three stooges, and in Creative Writing there’s something called The Rule of Threes: by some strange (possibly Satanic) magic, ‘three of something’ is always better, funnier, smarter, more convincing than two or four of something. (An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman, for instance…  or some other trio of lazily-concoted cultural stereotypes). There’s even a Latin phrase singing its praises: ‘omne trium perfectum’ (everything that comes in threes is perfect: whoever coined that phase clearly never got to watch The Three Amigos. Or the third Matrix film). If you wanna go all religious about it, there is of course the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Or if, like me, you like your trinities a little less holy: Father Bear, Mother Bear, Baby Bear and their beds, chairs, and porridges of differing softness, solidity, and temperature. If there’d only been Mother and Baby Bear, and there’d only been two kinds of choices it wouldn’t – it just wouldn’t – have had the same gravitas, somehow. (NB. No comment intended on single parents. Because single parents rock.) And four choices? Well, that would be ALL KINDS OF WRONG.

chinese_new_year_origami_3d_by_shinyoyushiro-d38n7ck

Good things come in threes.

Why am I running on at such no doubt delightful length about things that come in threes? Well, this is, of course, Day Three of the 2014 NaNoWriMo challenge, in which I am participating. So that’s one good reason.

The other is the structure of The Book I’m writing. I’ve gone for a trilogy, after many long, tedious months spent arsing around: in the process of arsing, I’ve learnt all the multitudinous ways I can’t write and won’t write (i.e. in a ‘simple’ three or five act structure… although there ain’t nothing simple about writing a novel. This I have also learned.) What suits me best is something with a little quirk, I think. A book with its fancy pants on – date pants, you might say – with hand stitched lace and one of the tiny twee ribbons the lingerie industry just loves to stick on women’s knick-knacks. So what I have now – in place of a more conventional narrative arc – is a trilogy of linked stories, each one set twenty years before the last. And perhaps there are comfier, better pants in the world, but those pants don’t suit me. (Metaphorically, speaking. The real me: comfy pants all the way.) I can’t be normal, or conventional, or something I’m not. So I’ve given in to the oddity of the structure, and two fingers (yes, two, not three) to my inner editor who’s doubting I can really bring it off.

But my inner editor needs to get with the programme.  Omne trium perfectum, right? Everything that comes in threes is perfect. I can’t go wrong.

Today’s word count: 1731. (1042 of those words written in a 20 minute word sprint at our local NaNo write-in.) The plot thickens… 

30 Days of Nano: Day Two

Family emergencies: ONE – NaNoWriMo: NIL 86809283 It’s quarter to five in the evening (or is quarter to five still afternoon? I’m never quite sure). The sky is a moody blue (Mike Pinder, say) and the moon looks hazily through my bedroom window: ‘Ahem, you there. Yes, you, with your laptop open to BBC iPlayer. I’ve travelled 54,000 miles in the last 24 hours. What have you done?’

Hmm. Well, we did have a family emergency (literally just as I’d opened my document to start working…) The moon is a little blasé when it comes to emergencies. The moon has a serious work ethic.

*

It’s quarter past five now. The streetlights are on. What was green just an hour ago has become only vague silhouettes. Nightfall has swallowed the rooftops and chimneys. The moon has moved on, to a new piece of sky, a new window, another work-shy writer.

I’ll just boil the kettle and then I absolutely will get on with my novel…

*

The sky is black now. Light shines on the rooftops of cars. People walking appear for a little while as they pass by a streetlamp, then vanish again. There are fairy lights in my neighbour’s tree. They’re like stars. I can see my own face in the window in front of me.

Night falls faster than you think it will. Time flies.

I think I’m panicky enough now to actually start writing.

(P.S. Final word count for the day: 1829. V. good.)

30 Days of Nano: Day One.

images-5Words written: 1676 (good). 1½ glasses of wine (also good). 1 chocolate cupcake, 3 rows of Galaxy Honeycomb chocolate, 2 bags marmite crisps (perhaps not so good).

Began the day wondering where to begin.

Posted ‘humorous’ tweets:

Nanotweet1

Nanotweet2

Wrote a couple of paragraphs. Tweeted about it.

Nanotweet3

Tried and failed to update my word count on the NaNo site. Tweeted about it.

Nanotweet4

Watched ‘Sideways’ with my daughter. Quaffed a little wine. Caught the last five unfathomable minutes of Doctor Who. Watched the X Factor (or, at least, was present in the room whilst said programme was on screen). Quaffed more wine.

Climbed into bed with 1026 words written. Appreciated the Beauty of Nano: having set myself this fecking challenge (no, auto correct, I don’t mean decking) instead of resuming my reading of Sarah Waters’ rather marvellous The Paying Guests I’ve been forced to produce another (hmm, sums… oh dear) 641 words (thanks, google). None of which have been good words. But I did, as you’ll see in my word count above, exceed my daily target by six whole words. Yes, that’s right. I went the extra mile. (Oh, all right, the extra millimetre.) ‘What were the six words?’ I (don’t) hear you ask? They were: ‘trapping Iolanthe inside for the night’. Almost Shakespearean in its genius, I expect you’ll agree.

Probably all the good stuff will happen tomorrow.

The Yes-Yes Board: adventures in ouija world.

‘Twas a dark and stormy night in the year of our Lord 1989, a time before such fripperies as the internet, the mobile telephone, and the ironic hashtag; a time when the only inspirational memes were on fridge magnets, and nobody – but nobody – photographed their dinner. ‘Twas an age without youtube and iPhones, when teenagers had to make their own entertainment. And, for some peculiar reason, the entertainment we chose – in my neck of the woods – in the autumn of 1989 was… the ouija board.

Step AWAY from the ouija board, children.

Step AWAY from the ouija board, children.

You can’t grow up in the Mormon church (as I did) without generous helpings of fear-mongering on a regular basis: while lots of this mongering (is that a word?) had to do with the perils of burning in hell for the rest of eternity for so much as a cheeky fondle, a lot of it also had to do with ouija boards. If the Mormon church were in charge, every Scrabble set would have come with its own hazard warning: Not to be used for Satanic purposes. There were tales about babies upstairs in their cribs being smothered by curtains – while downstairs their decadent Scrabble-abusing parents were drunkenly communing with Lucifer – and tales about devils appearing in mirrors, and demons seen perching on ouija-loving people’s shoulders, etc etc etc.

One day, religion will cotton on to the fact that warning sixteen year olds not to do something is one of the surest ways to make them do it.

So do it, I did.

To this day, I’ll never be sure if one of us was pushing. We sat down, the three of us, in the lounge of my friend Kim’s big old barn conversion (by which I mean her parents’, of course) out in the poorly-lit sticks, with a circle of Scrabble tiles laid out in front of us and a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ in the middle on two scraps of paper. We upended a wine glass. Her parents were out for the evening, her little sister asleep in bed. When the glass started moving we laughed. It seemed funny, this clumsy old thing that was shunting its way from one tile to the other. It liked to make jokes. It called one of my former boyfriends Mr Long (a not wholly appropriate nickname, it has to be said) and when asked: ‘Where are you?’ responded: ‘behind…’ (comedic pause, in which we all hunched a little further forwards) followed by ‘[name of absent friend: by which I mean ‘friend who had opted to stay at home that evening’ rather than ‘dead’]’. Cue telephone call (landline, naturally) to said friend, to make sure she stayed well away from the curtains.

It stated correctly the date on which I’d lost my virginity, a fact unknown to everyone present but me, and insisted that Toby read the poem he had in his back pocket (a poem declaring his love for Kim), which, thinking about it, Toby may, of course, have engineered (although the pure fear on his face when he had to walk to the bus stop later, alone, in the rural darkness, suggested otherwise). Kim’s little sister woke up and came down: ‘Little one, go back to bed’ the board insisted. By this time the clumsy old glass had gone all Formula One on us. We’d stopped laughing by then. ‘It’ was claiming itself as the ghost of a boy in our school who’d committed suicide, which was far from amusing. When, later, we asked for its name, it began to spell: L-U-C-I- Shit, we all thought. Kim ran upstairs for a cross and a Bible. We read a few verses aloud. Several hours had passed by this time, and we made some kind of bargain (I can’t quite remember) to get ‘it’ to leave: doing ouija boards is weirdly addictive. We could have gone on all night, I think, if we hadn’t got so scared.

Keep away from the curtains.

Keep away from the curtains.

Weeks later, we tried the same experiment with a sceptical German exchange student whose German, non-believey energy must have killed the vibe because, damn it, no matter how much we wished it to, the glass wouldn’t move. (It occurs to me now that Toby wasn’t there then. Hmm.)

A couple of years later, bored one night at uni, a few friends and I (once again, no Toby) decided – as you do – to set up a ouija board on the kitchen table. This time the ghost was a six year old girl. She complained that she couldn’t move properly on the sticky top of the table (this was a student hall, remember), so one of us laid out record sleeves to smooth her way (that’s something you can’t do with an iPod, kids…). ‘Where are you?’ we asked. ‘In heaven,’ she said.

‘Who’s there?’

‘Only children,’ she said. ‘And animals.’

‘Is there a god?’

She said, ‘yes’.

‘How did you die?’

‘I drowned.’

And then, people, she went on to tell us the borough of London in which her death was recorded. She told us her full name. Her full name. And now, of course, in the age of the internet, in a matter of seconds I could google those details and know whether our little girl ghost really did die of drowning, aged six, or was only ever a figment of our teenaged imaginations. There’s a reason, of course, that I’m not telling you that name or the borough of London, the same way I won’t tell the friends who keep pestering me for the information. It’s a long, long time since I believed in ghosts (a long time, too, since I believed in God), but there’ll always be a niggle, I think. I am happier not knowing. When things go bump in the night I’ll continue to know that it’s only the furniture creaking and settling.

Or is it…?

Mwa ha ha! Happy Hallowe’en.

How to be interesting.

Today on ye olde twitter I’ve been a-tweeting some quotes about writing a novel from the artist formerly known as the Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes. tweetTedHughes1 TweetTedHughes12 As you see, I’ve been hashtagging the quotes #NaNoPrep (and thinking, as I write this, how kinda ugly hashtags are – sorry if that’s hashtag-ist – and recalling the chill in my heart, many moons ago, as I watched a web address appear at the foot of the screen on a BBC – yes, BBC – telly programme without a capital letter as if the whole world had gone e.e. cummings crazy: ‘ugh,’ thought I, ‘well that‘ll never catch on.’ I thought the same thing about the Spice Girls, incidentally. I have my fingers in many proverbial pies, but never, as I learnt long ago, on the pulse of the nation.)

Where was I? Ah yes, #NaNoPrep. If you read my last post you’ll know that by NaNoPrep I’m referring to preparation for ‘NaNoWriMo’ (National Novel Writing Month), and if that means about as much to you as Fermat’s Last Theorem, or an episode of Golden Balls, or some other unfathomable thing, you’d be best off (a) reading that last post instead, or (b) switching off the internet and doing something less boring (one for the 70s kids). There’s a reason these quotes are especially apt if you’re planning your November novel; and here’s one that is far too long for twitter, but is probably most useful of all:

‘Now when you are writing a novel […] you are constantly thinking of what is coming up next, and there occasionally arrives a time when it seems to you that nothing comes next – you dry up, you run out of ideas. This is the commonest difficulty among writers who write long stories. Even if they are the sort that plan out every incident ahead, they are sometimes brought to a stop, and their next incident somehow will not go, it will not come to life, it no longer seems the right thing, and they are stuck. This is a sign that the story has led them outside their genuine interests, it has lured them over the boundary into country that they have no real feeling for. It is as if their brains said: “We have nothing to say about this, we don’t know anything about it and we don’t feel anything about it and it bores us.”‘ (Italics mine. This is from Poetry in the Making: A Handbook for Writing and Teaching, which I heartily recommend to all writers.)

In spite of being on Team Sylvia, I've always been slightly in love with Ted Hughes.

In spite of being on Team Sylvia, I’ve always been slightly in love with Ted Hughes.

I have spent about two years so far on my novel and during those two eventful years I have stubbed my poor toes on the wooden furniture of a bad idea more times than I care to remember. And what I can say, hand on heart, is that Ted Hughes is right. There are days, or at least the beginnings of days, when your sentences ramble for England (I’m picturing un-herded sheep as I write this); you can’t find your rhythm; you fill your basket from the adverb aisle of the word market. None of those things, however, is fatal, so long as you’re writing about something that interests you. It might all be tangled and muddled and, damn it, the thing in your head is too complex and too beautiful to ever be pinned down in words, at least by a dufus like you, but hurray-with-bells-on if that’s the case: because, if it’s beautiful in your head, then you’ve been there, and done it, and seen it, and felt it, and even perhaps smelt it, and all that’s left now is to find the appropriate words to describe it (and if you don’t really enjoy finding words to describe things, then might I humbly suggest that ‘writer’ is possibly not your calling in life?). I don’t mean to be glib about this: it is incredibly bloody frustrating to argue all day with yourself about whether a non-existent object is ‘ointment pink’ or ‘sulphur yellow’, with all the particular repercussions and connotations each entails, but it’s sort of fun too, right?

Pesky sentences being all untidy. Image at https://www.travelblog.org/Photos/2350258

Pesky sentences being all untidy. Image at https://www.travelblog.org/Photos/2350258

Sometimes, though, no matter how lovingly we nurse it, our scene, or our chapter, or perhaps our entire novel, is on life support, being fed through a tube. In their white coats the doctors are circling, avoiding our eye, mumbling something in sombre tones about making decisions, and brain death, and needing the bed for new patients. As you try to ignore them your prose gets a straw-clutching case of the ‘Suddenly She‘s, (I do love the word ‘suddenly’, sparingly used, but as a substitute for genuine surprise and/or tension it’s a giant no-no); you wonder if somehow your head has a leak in the back, where the hair is, and all of the words you once knew – the good words – have seeped out… And the ones you still know (like suddenly, and realised, and almost, and sort of) lie flat on the page, like words, and refuse to transform into images, sounds, and textures… in that case it’s time to stop blaming the sentences. It isn’t your sentences that have rambled too far (we’re back to the sheep again now): it’s you. Without knowing it, you’ve crossed the border into country you ‘have no real feeling for’.

It is a dark place. It is forlorn and empty, peopled with mutes made of cardboard, and ‘shutter stock’ images straight from a film you once saw, and dialogue made entirely from cheese. Cue Harrison Ford to writer-director George Lucas (on the set of Star Wars): ‘You can type this shit, but you can’t say it’. And, likewise, you can type as much shit as you want (far more than the 1667 words a day that will claim you NaNoWriMo victory), but if it’s all written in ‘don’t-care country’ then what, pray tell, is the point? Let’s forget about sheep for a moment and turn to horses: more specifically, the flogging of dead ones. (Not to mention the leading to water of horses who’ve already had quite enough to drink, thank you very much.) Writing ‘interestingly about something that interests you’ is an ongoing concern from the very first ‘ch’ of chapter one to the ‘d’ of the End, and you have to refresh that interest again, and again, and again. Back to Ted:

‘The difference between a fairly interesting writer and a fascinating writer is that the fascinating writer has a better nose for what genuinely excites him, he is hotter on the trail, he has a better instinct for what is truly alive in him. The worse writer may seem to be more sensible in many ways, but he is less sensible in this vital matter: he cannot quite distinguish what is full of life from what is only half-full or empty of it.’

If you’ve signed up for NaNo this year, or you’re thinking about it, I hope you won’t only be thinking of scene arcs, and plot twists, and points of no return, and inciting incidents – as much as those things are important, yes – or ‘thinking it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic’ (Ted again). I hope you’ll be seeing and smelling and touching the scenes you are writing about. And I hope you’ll be noticing what is alive in your writing – what makes it yours, just yours, and nobody else’s – and, most of all, watch where you’re walking. It’s scarily easily to spend the whole month of November in ‘don’t-care country’ and end up with something that’s fit for the bin.

In other words: ‘Don’t think, feel,’ as a wise man once said. ‘It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you’ll miss all that heavenly glory.’ Full marks if you get the reference before watching this clip!

How to be interesting? The answer is: be interested. Remember that, fellow WriMos. And the very best of luck.

A Novel isn’t just for November.

Remember, people: a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. And although (I sincerely hope) it won’t take the whole of your life to write a novel, it will certainly take you a wee bit longer than 30 days. (Dear Calendar Gods: if NaNo gets much bigger, you might consider bumping November up to 31?) images-4

For the uninitiated, I’m talking about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, as it’s known by the initiated, or just plain ‘NaNo’ if you’re really well acquainted). It’s been running for 15 years (as I learnt last night at my local chapter’s inaugural meeting: more about NaNo’s history here if you’re interested), in which time it’s snowballed from local and folksy to a global phenomenon with more than 300,000 participants. Those participants sign up to write ‘a novel’ – or at least 50,000 words of one – in the month of November: that’s 1667 words a day: Twitter users who find the #amwriting hashtag slightly sick-making may find they have steam coming out of their ears by 1st December as word counts, and coffee consumption, and sample sentences are relentlessly tweeted. We all have a novel inside us, as the old adage would have it. And November is the month you get to regurgitate it into the cold, cruel world.

As tweeted by Scott Dykes (@Scott_Writing)

As tweeted by Scott Dykes (@Scott_Writing)

First off, some facts from that cold, cruel world: most novels are around 80,000 words, so ‘National Two-Thirds-of-a-Novel Writing Month’ would perhaps be more honest. Any novel genuinely written in a month is unlikely to be one I’d care to read (with the exception of those by my ex, who could churn out an entire series of YA novels while I sat deliberating over the placement of a comma in my opening sentence. Bastard!) As I said in a previous post, there are no short-cuts to writing a novel, although some people seem to make lighter work of it than others (I am of course among ‘The Others’). It isn’t difficult at all to write 50,000 words in 30 days: what’s trickier is writing good ones. Ideally, in the run-up to ‘NaNo’ you will have done 1 to 2 years of #NaNoPrep (as twitter has it). You might think I’m joking, but no. ‘Fraid not. The majority of novels take 3 or 4 years on average from initial concept to completion. I first started ‘composting’ mine (you might prefer brewing, or fermenting) about 2 and a half years ago, when a yellow-haired girl appeared in one of my notebooks, pushing a bicycle. I ‘did’ NaNo in 2012 in an effort to sketch out the world of my book (as I blogged about here), before finding myself on the Arts Council’s Escalator programme in 2013 and receiving a grant for the writing of said novel, now called Madder Hall. In its many, many, many incarnations, the book has had characters called Morag, Arthur, Hestia, Dickon, and even Mr Horn (fnar fnar): all of which are now resting in peace in the graveyard of my imagination. I’ve slashed and burned the majority of my cast. I’ve turned the structure upside down and inside out. I’ve gone backwards in time (from 1989 to 1979), and forwards in time (1910 to 1939). I had lots of dead 12 year old girls: I have none now. The book as it was in 2012 bears so little resemblance to what I have now that I’ve thought about calling it (sorry, poor joke; can’t resist) Renee Zellweger.

By now you may be wondering, in the style of Edwin Starr: ‘NaNo… HUH… yeah… what is it good for?’ The answer is not, I’m happy to say, ‘absolutely nothing’. (But, NB, war is still useless; no change there). NaNo is good (in my humble opinion) for the following things:

Solidarity: It’s a lonely business, writing. And although NaNo can’t, and won’t, detract from the I’m-so-ronery  aloneness of it all (only click that link if you’re A-Ok with the F word, by the way) it does provide you with a virtual world full of shoulders to cry on (outside of the month of November you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who gives two shits). There’s a Blitz-like ‘all in it together’ sort of spirit. No, we’re not being bombed – but we might be bombing, quite hard. And a kind word from a fellow bomber can lift you from the doldrums long enough to get you writing again.

Permission to write badly: ‘The first draft of anything is shit,’ as Hemingway said. Nonetheless, there’s a common tendency for one’s inner editor to step in from the very get-go. You type your first sentence and out of the ether (with snakes in her hair) she emerges: ‘You think you can write? I’ve seen two year olds with a crayon in each fist compose sentences with more verve’, etc, etc, etc. The great Christopher Isherwood (creator of the Sally Bowles stories that became Cabaret, and writer of one of my favourite autobiographies: Christopher and his Kind) excreted first drafts of such abysmal awfulness (allegedly) that he’d never show them to a living soul.

How DARE you use an adverb in my presence?

How DARE you use an adverb in my presence?

When you’ve got to write 1667 words a day, no matter what (and, let’s be honest, some days you’ll be writing 3334 because yesterday, meh, not entirely sure what happened to yesterday) your snake-haired inner editor is required to piss off, please and thank you, and let you get on with the sketching of your novel. Because that’s what it is. An outline. Don’t whatever you do waste perfect prose on your very first draft, because changes will need to be made, and sentences perfect as neatly-crossed pairs of kittens’ paws are so much harder to brutally murder than passages with the prose-style panache of a bag of spanners. Trust me on this.

I said CROSSED paws, god-dammit!

I said CROSSED paws, god-dammit!

Permission to write at all: This, folks, is probably the single, most valid reason for NaNo’s existence. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that anyone writing a novel, unless paid to do so, is (a) sadly deluded in the manner of 97% of X-factor contestants, (b) a decadent, work shy lay about, (c) not really serious, surely, and (d) ought to bloody well get off that computer now and feed the kids/take the bins out/mow the lawn (delete as appropriate).

In order to write you need time. And in order to carve out that time you will need at least 97% of your nearest and dearest to give you permission to tappity-tap at your keyboard, no matter how futile it seems from their perspective – and probably, often, from yours too. (Underestimate at your peril the power of raised eyebrows to make the amateur writer die a tiny death inside.) I think NaNo is good, huh, yeah, for precisely this reason: the artificially-imposed deadline (common to so many TV shows) that allows you to say ‘I’ve got to write, sorry, so please go away’. Permission to write? Permission to come aboard the Good Ship Writer, and sail far away from the land of raised eyebrows. At least, until December.

The Moving Image.

Hemingway wrote naked (allegedly); Agatha Christie wrote anywhere – even in the bath. Kerouac lit a candle before he began (and blew it out again once finished). Simone de Beauvoir drank tea first, writing from ten until one. Murakami (Haruki this is – not sure what Ryu gets up to) puts her laziness to shame: he gets up at 4 a.m. to start writing (and spends his afternoons running). So too does Barbara Kingsolver (wake up at 4, that is). Kurt Vonnegut interspersed words with push-ups. Truman Capote wrote lying down. Stephen King even writes on his birthday. James Joyce was fond of blue pencil. Finnegan’s Wake was written with crayons on cardboard…

And so it goes on. How do you write? Naked, with crayons, immersed in water? Perhaps you have to be facing east, or wearing your favourite knickers? Perhaps, like Agatha, you can write anywhere (washing dishes, she said, was a great time to think about plot). What inspires you? What gets you started? When I teach beginners’ classes, I always give prompts for my students to write from, and I make those prompts as concrete as possible: the smell of wet washing; the itch of head lice; the tap of a footstep. The thing is, no matter how ‘pro’ you are, as a writer, you’re always responding to prompts, though it might be that you don’t even notice the prompt anymore, that you don’t even realise you heard it, or saw it: with practice, it gets to be natural. Writers go out in the world, like Frances in Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, and recharge themselves ‘like a battery’.

A couple of weeks ago I gave a reading at the Sound and Vision festival. If you’re going to read Gothic fiction, it might as well be in a candlelit mediaeval church (named for a saint who was roasted alive on a gridiron, no less) and it might as well be followed by a showing of Nosferatu (you can watch it here), a masterpiece of German expressionist cinema from 1922 (and memorably remade by Werner Herzog 57 years later), with a live, original soundtrack courtesy of Minima (a taster of that available here.)

They don't make 'em like this anymore.

They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

For me, the first ten minutes didn’t work. The music jarred, the story was duller than I’d remembered it, the church was very cold, my wine was almost finished. And then, just as suddenly as my brain had begun to complain it was bored, I was sucked in – hook, line, and sinker – by both film, and music. A searing cello solo worked like a charm. The sepia faces were beautiful. There were shots unafraid to be long, to be lingering – unashamedly arty (if the concept of unashamed artiness in cinema existed then; I’m not sure) – and, above all, too, we were watching a film that is 92 years old as I write (although maths has never been my strong point; do correct me if I’m wrong). We were watching a 92 year old sunset, captured forever (thank god for the last surviving print) on celluloid. We were watching young children, and adults, and animals. We were watching the dead.

Greta Schroder in Nosferatu.

Greta Schroder in Nosferatu.

I’d been vaguely unsatisfied with the reading I’d given (I’m getting to realise that ‘vaguely unsatisfied’ is a common complaint among writers), and thoughts of the ‘shall I give up?’ variety had been crossing my mind… and then this. This extraordinary film. This extraordinary testament to the point of continuing to make art. And it wasn’t a flawless film, of course: but, fleetingly, it was brilliant. It reached in and spoke to my soul. (And I say this as an atheist.) On this occasion, the moving image was truly moving. It said things to me about the human condition – and that, ultimately, is what I’m always looking for. It is very strange indeed to be alive. It is stranger than strange. And, of course, I like blockbuster rubbish that makes me forget that I’m going to die, one day, but I also like art that reminds me. Nosferatu recharged my artistic batteries, as if Murnau had risen, somehow, from the grave to say: ‘Lynsey, don’t give up. What you’ve written today may be Scheisse, but what you may write tomorrow – well, that might be wonderful.’

As I write, I have owls on my desk: not real owls, naturally (although that would be great), but one made of stone, and one made of clay. And those owls (barring accidents) will outlast me. (Their eyes have an especially penetrating quality as I contemplate this.) Being mortal – bio-degradable, you might say, like an eco-friendly shopping bag – every particle of myself will be gone from this earth at some point in the future. I’ll see my last sunset, I’ll write my last sentence, I’ll watch my last film. It would be nice, I think, to leave something behind, like those flickering, yellow-tinged images that we watched, sipping wine, through the candlelight. The literary equivalent of a 92 year-old-sunset. Or, at the very least, a stone owl.

Necessary Rudeness: the trouble with sex scenes.

Those of you who’ve met me in the flesh, so to speak, will be unsurprised by the following fact: I’ve never had a sports related injury.

I’ve had ‘pianist’s wrist’ (for which I blame Beethoven) and ‘trolley back’ (for which I blame Tesco) and lately, since switching from desktop computer to laptop, I’ve noticed a new affliction: ‘laptop leg’. To the joy of osteopaths across Norfolk, my primary writing pose is the Sofa Slump. And it doesn’t half make your legs ache after a while. Not to mention the molten heat emanating from Gwendolyn’s vents (yes, I have named my laptop) when I’m not so much writing as ‘writing’, i.e: when poor Gwendolyn has more open windows than a tower block in a heat wave, and the ratio of words written to candy crushed and cats cooed at and Buzzfeed quizzes completed shrinks ever lower.

A couple of days ago, in an effort to fight the twin demons of Laptop Leg and distraction, I joined my friend Mary in the local library for a writing session entirely free of cats being jerks or candy crushing. (Luckily, courtesy of another friend, Jon, this candy moratorium didn’t extend to amazing homemade cookies with fruit pastilles in them – yes, fruit pastilles. I know, right?). And we actually wrote. We wrote words and sentences (unless Mary was typing sjdkfjdnsbdnfbdafmsndfbxzpqeuwqoweiquasfofsuafsd to fool me), and two of the paragraphs I wrote were, well, you know, not good exactly, but they didn’t make me want to immediately claw out my eyes for having the audacity to call myself a writer. Just once, for ten seconds, I sneakily logged on to the library wi-fi (for the minor humiliation of having no notifications on Facebook, nor none on twitter neither) and somewhat to my surprise I found that my website (this very site that you’re reading right now) had been blocked by the library wifi for ‘pornographic content’. (Goodbye, at this point, to those of you who’ve immediately gone in search of said content.)

Well, this was news to me. I’ve occasionally had someone land on my home page by means of a weird phrase or two (‘tight-lacing governess stories’ is my favourite so far) but, hand on heart, there is nowt here whatsoever of a titillating nature.

Yet. 

It so happens I’m giving a reading next month for the Norwich Sound and Vision festival. And said reading so happens to be in a chilly and candlelit mediaeval church. (There’s a link to the event here if you’re ‘local people’. There are four fantastic readers – plus me – and as well as a Q&A session, in which I get to display my shining ignorance on the theme of gothic fiction, there is – more importantly – a showing of silent classic Nosferatu – remastered and with a live score, to boot.) imagesI am hemming and hawing because the piece (in its current, unfinished format) that I’m planning to read contains the words knickers, bra, and (best – worst? – of all) willies. I once drove some unsuspecting writing students from a residential weekend in a convent by reading my short story, Amore (if Amore was a cocktail, it’d be Sex on the Beach), and although willies and knickers are (in my opinion) at the very tamest end of the sexual spectrum, the fact that I’m going to be standing in a pulpit proclaiming this stuff has given me pause for thought. It’s not so much God striking me down with a lightning bolt (which, come to think of it, would give my reading a bit of pizazz), I just hate making people uncomfortable. At least, when those people are sitting directly in front of me. Staring. Or possibly glaring.

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Eric Rohmer’s 1969 masterpiece, ‘Ma Nuit chez Maud’.

As a teacher, I’m often asked how to deal with that thorny old chestnut of how to write something your mum/dad/brother/wife/churchgoing friend is going to read. First off, and most importantly, write the damn thing before you allow yourself the luxury of panicking that your neighbours will cross the street when they see you coming. (Let’s face it, the odds of publication are always against you.) Second of all, if you’re bashful enough to be asking that question, then maybe you ought to hold onto that bashfulness – as a quality, not a weakness – because, after all, there’s no need for a (sorry) blow by blow account, unless you’re intending to crack the erotic market (in which case, one word for ya: pseudonym): you can summarise all manner of sizzling action, or simply allude to it (‘When she fell into bed the following night, she could still smell James on her sheets’, for instance, or perhaps, ‘Susan was walking like John Wayne for the rest of the week’…). A scene can be sexy without any sex, if there’s plenty of tension (see Eric Rohmer’s Ma Nuit chez Maud for a cinematic example, in which Jean-Louis Trintignant and Françoise Fabian bring more electricity to a thwarted snog than a hundred knicker-less leg-crossing scenes in Hollywood movies).

On the other hand… the short, sharp, shock of a single anatomical detail can make a big impact in an otherwise sex-free zone, as it does in Rose Tremain’s The Road Home, where she renders a young woman’s, um, lady garden, in the starkest possible terms through the eyes of her male protagonist. And it’s a fantastic scene. And if writing means capturing the stoniness of a stone (as the Russian formalist Viktor Shlovsky asserted: ‘art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony‘) then Tremain takes that stone and she makes it as stony as hell. And it wouldn’t be stony as hell if she’d used the word ‘lady garden’, or one of the million other euphemisms we’re all familiar with. As a writer you choose the appropriate word at all times – even if, in polite company, that word would be wholly inappropriate. We call a spade a spade. As a writer of fiction you’re only ever the conduit for your characters. Don’t put words in their mouths for the sake of shock value, but equally never deny them their god-given pricks and tits, above all in first person (but also in free indirect), where ‘I gave her a right good knobbing’ might be more honest and truthful than penetrating her lady garden.

Some questions to ask: do you want to arouse or repulse? Does the scene move the story along, reveal character? Have you resorted to cliché? (If anything’s heaving or throbbing, the answer is probably yes.) Have you got too engrossed with the oily mechanics of sex and forgotten that, ultimately, what’s most interesting is how it transforms the relationship between two characters (or three, or four… and a donkey…)? We’ve all got the internet if we just want the old ‘in-out’, so be certain there’s always a literary purpose in mind (and, a word to the wise: if you happen to be in a writing group, think carefully before sharing. You’re going to be up close and personal with these people, discussing your work. Do not underestimate the shrivelling effect of an elderly lady’s face when perusing the fruits of your diseased mind).

I’m the first to admit I’ve gone way overboard in the past, in my efforts to make a stone stony. But here, from my aforementioned story Amore, I offer my own example of what I’ll call NR: Necessary Rudeness. My unnamed narrator, a sixteen year old virgin, has gone on holiday – not by mistake, as Withnail would have it, but hoping to lose her virginity. As she lies on the beach, she indulges herself in a fantasy of how sex will be:

In his apartment the blinds will be down, and the rooms will be stripy with sunshine. They’ll sit on his single bed and they’ll suck at the cold tops of their beer bottles. What will he taste of? Hops. When he takes off his trunks, he will smell of the sea, and the tan lines framing his crotch will look like underpants and will seem to preserve his dignity. His thing will be smooth as an actual sausage; white, and shy-looking. Like a magic trick it will vanish inside her. What then? Bliss, and the seed coming out of him: like wee, she supposes.

And here, rather sadly, is the rude awakening of reality:

He tugs at the waist of his trunks and the purple stump that comes bounding out of them must be his penis, she thinks, because that’s where men keep them. A purple stump of veins and hair with a swollen wet end like an arrowhead.

I hope you’ll agree I couldn’t have made my point without reaching for a little Necessary Rudeness.

And you know what I’ve just realised? All these years later and I’m still bloody writing about willies.

What it feels like.

People are strange, as Jim Morrison sang. He was right; we’re all strange (some more enjoyably so than others). But who are the strangest people of all? The ones who don’t write, that’s who.

They may well have a rich, active life filled with working and socialising (by comparison with which I’m a friendless cave-dwelling hermit), but something still puzzles me: ‘When do they do their writing?’ 

I’m lucky enough to live near a river (a thing that I’ve never appreciated fully till now), and as part of my ongoing programme of self-help (here and here for the lowdown on what I’m recovering from), I’ve committed to daily – rain permitting – bike rides on the river path, where the clouds of black flies, as you push further into the forest, and splodges of irresponsible owners’ dog-shit are leavened by birdsong, and squirrels attractively leaping on branches, and tethered horses contemplatively munching. There’s something, I’ve found, about pedalling that helps with the composition of sentences. As soon as I’ve stowed the bike back in the shed, and hydrated myself with a gallon of water, the first thing I do is reach for my diary. And even the warm wafts of dog shit that drifted towards me are happy, somehow, when I’ve written them down, because ‘warm wafts’ encapsulates just what it felt like, to me, in that moment – and just what it felt like is always the thing that I’m longing to catch.

So what do you do with all this – all this life, all this shit – if you don’t write it down? More importantly, how do you turn stinking shit into warm, sweet wafts (well, perhaps not sweet…) if you don’t churn it up, spit it out (now I’m speaking metaphorically hereand unless you’re of the canine persuasion I’m guessing, assuming, you won’t take this literally)… if you don’t rebuild your life in words? Rose Tremain knew she wanted to write at the age of eleven: ‘I remember standing in the middle of a very beautiful hayfield with the sun going down and thinking that I didn’t want just to describe how beautiful I thought that place was but I wanted to write down all my feelings about it, and then try to make some equation between that place and what I felt about it and what hopes I had for my own life. I can remember the intensity of it . . . and it seemed to me then that my life would be a life in which this process of describing and identifying feelings would play a part.’

It’s key that she talks about feelings. It isn’t an intellectual art, this fiction thing – no matter what some of the Big Boys of Literature might make you believe. In fact, one of the world’s greatest short story writers – Flannery O’Connor – had this to say on the matter: ‘There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world.’

You have to immerse yourself in a thing to make sense of your feelings about it. And how do you capture those feelings? Through using your senses. Of which you have five (well, duh, but you might be surprised by how often we writers rely on the visual). Don’t forget sounds, or the hot pong of dog shit – but touch is their oft-neglected sibling, and one we forget at our peril. We’re not making films; we are writers. We have to plunge in past the surface to really bring feelings alive. There’s a thing called haecceity – loosely translated as ‘this-ness’ – and whether I’m right or wrong in this theory I’ve taken haecceity to mean: just what it felt like. Feeling, of course, has a dual meaning in English. Right now, as I’m writing this blog, I can feel the limp slope of my decade-old sofa, a breeze from the open window, an itch on the tip of my finger. I quite need a wee.

In short, I’m a body. I’m always a body. Your character, too, is a body. We’re often reminded that scenes must be visualised before we can write them (all true, of course), but they have to be bodily lived through as well if you’re aiming for ‘this-ness’. Helen Dunmore, I’ve found, is great at this. So is Julie Myerson. On the other hand, having read (and enjoyed) Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha I’m still none the wiser on how it would actually feel to wear a kimono, to walk in geta, to kneel at the feet of businessmen. It’s a good story, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t quite immerse myself, and immersion is what I most long for as a reader.

Immersion is what I long for as a writer, too. I’m sheltering from life, again, in the flimsy construct of my novel, but honestly I’m not sure what I’d do if I didn’t have these characters to give my feelings to. So I’ll say it again: all people are strange, but the people who don’t write are strangest of all. I suppose there are those who use music, or dance, or paint, but there seems to be something uniquely therapeutic about writing. In my quest to recover I’ve wandered about on the world wide web, far and wide, and one thing that I lighted upon this morning adds fuel to the fire of this ‘writing as therapy’ proposition. You might like to watch Shawn Achor’s TED talk yourself (recommended especially if you’re depressed – it’s just over ten minutes long, and well worth it), but three of the five small steps that he outlines for building your positivity involve… yes, you guessed it: writing. One is to note down three new things every day that you’re grateful for. Two is to ‘journal’ for two minutes a day on a positive experience. And three is to send a kind email to someone you know. (Four and five are meditation – for two minutes a day – and 15 minutes of cardiac exercise, if you’re curious.)

In that spirit of gratitude, then, here’s my list for the day:

1. I’m grateful for being able to feel the wind on my face whenever I want to.

2. I’m grateful for having loved, and been loved.

3. I’m grateful for this insatiable need to turn things into words, which – as one of my friends wrote yesterday, in quite possibly the nicest email I’ve ever received – is what ultimately gives life its meaning.

All that, and Nadal’s on the telly. Nice.

Major Disorder and Annie Donia.

‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can.’ So said Jane Austen.

Lately I’ve felt the need to apologise for being depressed. We’re weird, that way, human beings. Our brains are – inarguably – the most complex thing in our bodies and yet for some reason I’ve never quite fathomed we’re deeply ashamed when they start to malfunction. This week’s Shared Experience on Radio 4 dealt nicely with the stigma of mental breakdown (and if you’re reading this in 2014 you can catch it here – the programme that is, not mental breakdown; that’s not catching, okay?). Depressed people are tedious, yes. I freely admit that. You look at their world objectively and perhaps, from the outside, it seems like a whole lot of bellyaching about precisely nothing. Other people have coped with worse, so why can’t you? Stop being so negative. Stop whining. Get out, take a walk, watch a film, see friends.

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Not especially related to the subject at hand, but a picture of Annie Hall smiling to cheer us all up.

The problem is something called anhedonia (the working title for Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, as film buffs will probably know), which is broadly defined as the inability to experience pleasure. If you’re mildly depressed (as I’d been for the last year or three before things became suddenly worse) you don’t tend to experience this: hence a small case of ‘down in the dumps’ can be cured, or improved, by engaging in normal activities. When mildly depressed, I could still find my usual joy in writing, films, music, a walk on the beach, an open fire, putting my feet up on my boyfriend. I’m not materialistic or greedy or grabbing at all: ordinarily I’m made happy by the most microscopic of things. I’ve never been someone who lusts after handbags or shoes, and I’ve never especially longed for exotic holidays either: I like grass and trees (you can find those anywhere), rain on windows, a really full moon, throwing chips to the seagulls off Cromer pier. (In a sense that’s a problem of mine: I’m too easily happy with easily-haveable things, if you see what I mean. I lack drive. If the world had been left up to me, there’d be no cars or bridges or rocket ships – we wouldn’t even have the wheel, if I’m really honest. We’d all be in caves in our animal skins telling stories. Not a bad life, really…)

But I digress.

When Major Depressive Disorder comes to town (as I write this I’m imagining a moustachioed man in army uniform lightly cuffing my face with his braided sleeve whenever I try to smile) the activity in your brain’s reward centres (the amydgala, etc) flickers and dies (and, yes, Doubting Thomases, this has been shown on MRI scans) – and once Major Disorder has set up his camp it’s a devil of a job to evict him. Your life from now on will be viewed through shit-tinted lenses, and no amount of smelling the flowers or counting your blessings will make any difference: in fact you retreat from your usual triggers (music, books, others’ company) for the sole fact of how upsetting it is that the things you once loved have no power, anymore, to move you. It’s scary, in fact. How do you cheer yourself up when there’s literally nothing on earth you want to experience?

I’m asking, not answering, I’m afraid. There are people who tell you to smile, and that smiling itself will elevate your mood – not entirely untrue – but imagine your life (your whole life) spent like this: Unknowngrinning rictus-style with a sentiment you don’t feel, and what are you? You’re Gordon Brown at the last gasp of the Labour administration – and again I’m aware that people all over the planet lead horrible lives, truly horrible, but losing the chance to feel pleasure is also a horrible thing. Not worse than what other people go through, not at all, and perhaps it is a disease of spoilt Westerners, but still, you know, not very nice and all that.

So I’m going to call a spade a spade, and be open that I’ve had a breakdown. Am having a breakdown. I thought it was going to take a few weeks to resolve. But it isn’t. I’ve learnt not to think in terms of ‘happy’, but ‘temporarily less sad’. In the grand tradition of others before me, I’ve started to write whilst on drugs – I get twenty delightful minutes of peace in the aftermath of my sleeping pill, so I write like the clappers (and edit for England the following day). I find watching ballet strangely tranquil (men in tights don’t go amiss either), and Parks and Recreation makes me laugh. I composed a nice sentence while cycling the other day. I like the scent of my vanilla candle. It’s lovely that my teenage daughter still cuddles me lots. My pets do funny things sometimes. I’m enjoying Bill Bryson’s Short History of Private Life. But, through it all, I’m on auto pilot. I could quite honestly win the lottery – the Booker Prize; hell, even the Nobel – and still have a face like Dot Cotton licking piss off a nettle (to quote the incomparable Malcolm Tucker).

I’ll try in the future to keep this writing blog more closely related to writing-type things. But I wanted to set out my stall on this issue, for once and for all: I won’t be ashamed, and I won’t apologise. This is something that’s happened to me, and not something I’ve chosen. The nicest part of my brain has gone on holiday without me, and it hasn’t even sent a postcard. Wish I was there.

Appreciating small: drawing character from the inside out.

What would you say if I asked what makes you happy? Love, money, holidays, sunshine, alcohol, dancing, sex?

The following is one of my favourite writing exercises (from Anne Bernays’ and Pamela Painter’s What If?) that I’ve done with numerous classes over the years. I think it’s called ‘Mining Memory’ (although, contrarily, I can’t remember). The concept is strikingly simple: the writer keeps a diary over the course of a week, taking note of ten things that make her happy, and ten that make her cross. 220px-Diary_of_a_Nobody_first

The results might surprise you. Amongst the usual sunsets and beach trips and laughter, some odd things emerge: one student, I recall, found happiness in a pair of perfectly white plimsolls. Some struggle to write down anything at all that makes them cross (and, NB, these students are often the ones who have trouble accepting that story means conflict), while some can’t finish either list (and are probably – sorry to say – not cut out at all for writing). A writer must notice things. And the more you notice, the more you appreciate how unique we all are. On a moment by moment basis it isn’t the lure of a lottery win or a week in Barbados that keeps us going – through good times and bad – but a pair of white plimsolls, for instance, a cup of sweet tea when you didn’t expect it, the tail of a curious ginger cat as it chooses which garden to enter, the smell of a book you last read as a child, finding something you thought was lost forever.

The lesson for writers – and why this is such a useful exercise – is this: we, ourselves, are our own best source for our characters. We are each of us strangely specific, unique, and peculiar in our likes and dislikes – and so, too, should our characters be. An antagonist who’s driven by fame and money will always fall flat next to one who yearns for something more specific (a new heart for a dying sister; recognition from a distant parent; the utter humiliation of a woman who spurned him). Once you’ve listed your own twenty things, you can try making lists for your characters (if you like), but be warned they’ll be useless unless they come naturally, from the subconscious. You can’t force these things. It’s much better to blurt for a while, and see where the blurting leads you.

When you’re battling depression, it’s hard to see happiness anywhere. I’ve been training myself, the last few days, to ‘appreciate small; dream big’. I decided to leave my ‘cross list’ for a time when I’m feeling more generally cheerful, but here are the ten things recently that haven’t exactly made me happy (a bit too much to ask at the mo) but have dragged me momentarily from the depths.

1. Green and Black’s dark chocolate with lemon oil.

2. Ted Hughes’ voice.

3. My two cats materialising from thin air at the first whiff of cat nip.

4. Clean hair after five days of wearing it dirty.

5. Composing an opening sentence I liked.

6. Remembering an unwatched episode of Parks and Recreation on my V+ box.

7. The smell of a vest that got caught in the rain.

8. Branka Parlic’s oh-so-slow performance of Satie’s Gnossienne no. 5. 

9. Finally painting my daughter’s bedroom after two years of putting it off.

10. Rewatching The Breakfast Club with said daughter.

So that was my week. How was yours?

The wooden teacup: crimes against ‘show, don’t tell’.

When my daughter was little I had an idea for a picture book called ‘Where there’s fun, there’s mess’, the idea being – ostensibly – to have parents relax about chocolatey fingers on pearly white sofa cushions and mud in the hallway and landslides of toys on bedroom carpets (but, probably, honestly, more about making my own slutty housekeeping feel like a virtue).

I never wrote that book, but luckily the author Anne Lamott wrote Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Lifewhich was called to my attention by the lovely writer Mary Nathan last night. In Bird by Bird, Lamott likens real-world mess to writing mess, and reminds us how vital the latter is to that all important ‘shitty first draft’ (which calls Hemingway’s dictum to mind: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’). Lamott rails against perfectionism (the desire ‘not to leave so much mess to clean up’) and its deathly end result, that horrible writerly trait of ‘tidiness’, which ‘makes me think of held breath’, as she says, ‘of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move’.

As the title says, this is a book about writing and life, and some of her larger statements gave me an ‘ouch’ moment or two of recognition regarding my life, as opposed to my writing (I’ve made no bones about my recent depression, as interested parties can read about here and here and here…). But at least, when it comes to writing, it’s never too late. Perfectionism – and, worse still, its twisted sister, avoidance – have wreaked their havoc in my Real Life (here’s Lamott on the subject: ‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life’ – too true), but the good news is that I’ve slowly entangled myself from the tyranny of writerly tidiness over the last twelve months (partly by ‘blurting’, as Ray Bradbury called it, about which you can read more here, and partly by hearing my mentor on the Escalator Literature Scheme describe a large chunk of my book as ‘boring’).

We all have default settings as writers, and this is mine: a belief that by piling on nice-sounding words that sit nicely together, like some kind of OCD-inflicted bricklayer, I’m taking a shortcut away from the messy necessity of that shitty first draft – when, in fact, what I’m doing is SUCKING THE SOUL from my story. First drafts oughtn’t to look like this…

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… but this:

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Which brings me to my personal nemesis: the wooden teacup.

We coined this phrase, Mary and I, last night. It so happens we’re both writing books set largely in houses – in elegant houses where people drink tea, sit on chairs, flutter eyelashes, notice the wallpaper, listen to footsteps approaching, remark on the weather – and while such detail doesn’t have to lead to smallness (by which I mean heartlessness, emptiness, woodenness) the sad truth is that laying the nice, neat bricks of your scene in the sort of careful prose that rightly belongs in the editing phase means you’re likely avoiding the fun of the story as well as the mess. If you’re too keen to keep it all tidy – the literary equivalent of ‘picking up after yourself’ as you go along – you’ll find yourself with ‘wooden teacup’ writing: fussy and finicky, lacking a heart (thanks to Mary again for identifying ‘heart’ as a necessary factor of any decent scene – not, of course, in the sense of Hollywood schmaltz, but instead as the single thing that keeps it all beating).

In her excellent blog, the novelist Emma Darwin identifies a culprit for what she calls this ‘blow by blow’ writing: a misinterpretation of that hoary CW chestnut, ‘show, don’t tell’. Now many of you doubtless don’t need reminding of this, but I do: unlike playwrights, for us novelists ‘there’s no necessity to write the whole of a scene in real time’, as Darwin says. This shouldn’t have been a revelation to me in the last twelve months (since I’ve pretty much spent my life writing) but the humbling fact is I used to know this perfectly well, when I wrote less self-consciously (i.e. before I was published), but somewhere along my word-blocked journey to Madder Hall I taught myself to show, show, show, no matter how painful the showing, and gave up on the humble art of ‘telling’ as somehow too easy. A lot of the trouble comes from writing in close third person (not a can of worms I want to open here, but watch this space…) without that sense of an author to step in with his or her observations, but what I’ve effectively done is crippled myself – ‘cramped’ myself, in Lamott’s word – by failing to ‘use the infinite contractibility and expandibility of time in a narrative’ (and now I’m back to Darwin – who goes on to hold up her own dirty hands and admit that she, too, succumbs to the wooden teacup once in a while, when ‘tired or stressed or not very well’, ‘pulling the action blow by blow out of [herself] and sticking it on the page’). I urge you to read her post (when you’ve finished reading this one…) and read it right through to the end – where she has some vital observations on the writer as not just a camera (perhaps thank Christopher Isherwood for that), but editor, voice-over and cinematographer too…  

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn't yawn... Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

In an ideal world, your reader shouldn’t yawn… Image from http://www.myhouserabbit.com/photos42.php

So the revelation is this: YOU CAN SKIP THE BORING BITS. And if you don’t know what to skip to, then here’s revelation number 2: YOU HAVE NO HEART. (Not you personally, natch – your scene.) All that clinking of teacups and scraping of chairs and offering of matches (the other thing my characters do with mind-numbing regularity is light cigarettes – the book’s set mostly in the 1970s, which is my excuse and I’m sticking to it)… well, zzzzzzz. It’s all so polite and so dainty and sometimes the prose, as it lands on the page, has a cool sort of flow of its own – but what’s prose without story? (A poem, I suppose…) What I aim for now in my first drafts is something as rough as a fishwife’s cackle, that somehow, in spite of the flailing proseholds the interest. Has heart. I want clutter, not teacups, because ‘clutter is wonderfully fertile ground’ (says Lamott), and amongst it are treasures. She quotes Kurt Vonnegut: ‘When I write I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth’. The point is, the world (of your book) is your oyster. In real life you might spend a disproportionate amount of time drinking tea (she types, whilst slurping) but characters in novels really shouldn’t (unless of course you have some juicy subtext in which case the drinking of tea is a prop, as it should be, and not the scene’s purpose). Take stabs at the page with that crayon and see what comes out. Write in longhand on paper. Switch person from first to third, or vice versa. Switch tense, back and forth if you like. Let the thoughts tumble out, let the thoughts become words – don’t be crippled, or cramped, by the need to ‘keep tidy’, to let words dictate thoughts. Read Ted Hughes’s Poetry in the Making  and remind yourself that writing (whatever form it takes) starts with finding out what you want to say before caring how you say it. Avoid the blow by blow, unless each of those blows really matters. Remember who’s telling the story – that’s you – and as novelists (unlike pesky humans) time is our toy, our plaything.

And, lastly, I want to quote a nice, fat chunk from John Gardner in his book On Becoming a Novelist which, for me, covers pretty damn neatly the question of ‘show, don’t tell’ and warns all aspiring novelists against wandering into wooden teacup territory:

‘The writer with a truly accurate eye (and ear, nose, sense of touch, etc.) has an advantage over the writer who does not in that, among other things, he can tell his story in concrete terms, not just in feeble abstractions. Instead of writing, “She felt terrible,” he can show – by the precise gesture or look or by capturing the character’s exact turn of phrase – subtle nuances of the character’s feeling. The more abstract a piece of writing is, the less vivid the dream it sets off in the reader’s mind. One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways: the abstract adjective says almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what is meant when writing teachers say that one should “show,” not “tell”. And this, it should be added, is all that the writing teacher means. Good writers may “tell” about almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings. One may tell the reader that the character went to a private school (one need not show a scene at the private school if the scene has no importance for the rest of the narrative), or one may tell the reader that the character hates spaghetti; but with rare exceptions the characters’ feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events – action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting.’

We could, but won’t (because this post is far too long already), take a detour here into T.S. Eliot’s thoughts on the objective correlativebut frankly if you think ‘spaghetti: tell’, ‘despair: show’, that’s pretty much all you need to know. Let us see the story unfold in concrete terms (as opposed to abstract), but dunk too many pointless biscuits in too many pointless cups of tea and you may just find you have something wooden where your story’s heart should be.

 

Heart-shaped darts and poison pens.

In my last post I touched on the issue of grinding real-life axes via the handy medium of fiction, and after less than four hours’ sleep – as someone who’s currently very much in the market for the brain-arranging services of Dr Mierzwiak in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – I find myself drawn to the topic again. ‘If you want to get things off your chest,’ said one of my non-writing friends, ‘then why don’t you just write a story about it? You don’t have to print it.’

That’s never really been my thing, though. (Faces on dartboards, that’s my thing. By which I mean photographs of faces. Obviously.) 4278_84276857207_3158053_nI don’t like to muddy my fiction too much with people I’m trying to forget the existence of. And then, too, as a writing teacher I’ve seen a few thinly-veiled axe-grinding efforts over the years that have made me tread carefully here myself. (What follows, I hasten to add, has been liberally reinvented):

‘It was one thing being dumped, thought Sue, but to find yourself dumped for a girl your daughter’s age was another thing entirely. It wasn’t as if she wanted Chris back – with his nose picking, shoulder hair, and halitosis – but knowing he’d chosen a slut like that! (She was pretty enough, Sue supposed, but in ten years her looks would have faded and Chris would be left with a hatchet-faced bitch who could barely string two words together, and then who’d be laughing? Sue, that’s who.)’

‘John was twenty eight, if Jane recalled correctly, but thanks to his jowls and bald head he might have been easily forty under the restaurant’s strip-lights as he checked his phone for the hundredth time. Whoever she was, Jane thought with a grin, she wasn’t coming. Perhaps she’d got word of John’s “shortcomings”, as you might say, in the trouser department.’

All very cathartic, no doubt, but this sort of sniping brings a word to mind and that word is petty. 

Plenty of published authors, though, have mined their own turmoil for fiction. Hanif Kureishi, for instance, who once commented that authors should be ‘terrorists, not masseurs’, has never shied away from autobiographical territory. His 1998 novel Intimacy documents a father’s decision to leave his partner and their two young children for another woman – something Kureishi himself had just done. This Telegraph interview with the man himself quotes one of the novel’s particular gems: ‘There are some f***s for which a person would have their partner and children drown in a freezing sea.’

Well, ouch.

As for Norman Mailer, not content with the real-life stabbing of his second wife, Adele Morales, he went on to murder his third wife in print (An American Dream) – and just for good measure he sodomised their German maid as well.

But it’s not just the men. When the seventeen-month marriage of newspaper columnist Kathryn Flett ended nastily in divorce she churned out the abysmally-named The Heart-Shaped Bullet, described by the Independent as ‘a sort of Bridget Jones meets The Bell Jar in the Conran shop’. Among the indignities doled out to pseudonymous ‘Eric’ were tales of his toilet habits, his impotence, and his love for a fluffy toy called Bunny. I’m sure ‘Eric’ had no trouble at all with impotence after that came out. 

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But my feelings are mixed. In one sense this is sort of a writer’s consolation, the silver lining to all our misery: ‘Maybe there’s material here…’ And I’d hate to deny any writer (least of all myself) that silver lining, if only because I’ve found such solace in other people’s accounts of problematic lives. But revenge? I’m not sure. By airing someone else’s dirty smalls in print, you air your own as well. We none of us act our best when we’re hurt: is The Heart-shaped Bullet a book that Flett’s still proud of, I wonder? Speaking personally I’d hate my own wounds to be bound and printed and selling for £6.99 at WHSmith.

And, besides, that’s what your diary’s for.

On tap-dancing kittens, and why fiction is like an over-thick milkshake.

Since grandly announcing ‘I’m free to write shit‘ I have written precisely nothing. Bupkis. Opened notebook and pen

My thinking, I suppose, is that by blogging more often I’ll gently encourage the flow of words – like an over-thick milkshake through one of those straws with more loops than intestines – and gradually something resembling fiction will find itself slurped from the base of the cup and…

I think may have gone too far now with the bendy straw thing.

But, in my defence: (a) I am wooly of mind this morning, having taken an extra sleeping pill to counteract my daughter’s Tangfastics that I misguidedly ate to stay awake during Eurovision last night (in some bizarre twist on the old woman who ate the spider to catch the fly, etc – and ended up eating a horse and dying – and, no disrespect Haribo, but eating horses is probably far less conducive to nighttime palpitations than sour jellies doused in sugar). And (b) writing good fiction is a bit like sucking a drink through an obstacle course of a straw. Why, Lynsey? 563

Because it’s really hard work.

This has been my annus horribilis so far, to quote dear Queenie, and every time I switch my brain to ‘fiction mode’ there’s a loop or a bend or a blockage beyond which my battle-worn thoughts are just too gloopy to go any further. I don’t want to be one of those writers who grinds real-life axes through fiction (although inevitably, I suppose, things creep in). But, naturally, a writer is present in her or his own work – and, in fact, should be, as I blogged about here – so what do you do if you’re just, well, just not that keen on yourself or your own bloody company at the present moment? I read to escape myself (just finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the fourth time – please do read it if you haven’t already), but, as Flannery O’Connor once said, writing is no kind of escape at all: if you’re doing it right it’s the deepest kind of self-penetration (don’t think I’ll be tagging this blog with that line…), which sounds vaguely painful – and quite often is.

I do wish I could write about happier things, but I can’t (so it seems). I could plan for a heartwarming tale about tap-dancing kittens, but somewhere – I guarantee you – somewhere amongst all that tapping and dancing the spectres of sex and death would rear their ugly heads and the whole thing would have to end stickily for those showbiz kittens. As Andre Gide said: ‘What would there be in a story of happiness? Only what prepares it, only what destroys it can be told.’ Although in my own case I’ve gone one further: I can’t seem to prepare for it, only destroy it.

Okay so they're not tap shoes. And they're not dancing. But still, they are cute. Image at http://www.freeoboi.ru/eng/wallpaper/8989.html

Okay so they’re not tap shoes. And they’re not dancing. But still, they are cute. Image at http://www.freeoboi.ru/eng/wallpaper/8989.html

As Madder Hall has gone from thought to pen to sprawling metropolis of Scrivener documents, things have got darker. The story has moved in a different direction and, hence, I’ve started to encroach on territory that’s difficult for me. I suppose we’re all drawn to particular things (I think it was Philip Larkin who once remarked that authors oughtn’t to be blamed for what they wrote, because they had no choice in the matter) but as I blogged about here it may be that those things we’re drawn to are leading us down unhealthily introspective paths. Who knows? I don’t pretend to have the answers. When all’s said and done, I suppose I’m a tiny bit scared of my book. Is that silly? Like being scared of your shadow. Your darker half. If stories are milkshakes, then mine are invariably liquorice coloured (ew) and perhaps the loops and bends and twists and blocks are my brain’s way of cowering, just at the moment, from tackling that liquoricey mess.

Bike rides and bunting (and not sweating the small stuff).

Bikes rides. Bunting. Cuddles. Tea. Cocoa. Knitting. Sue Miller. Elliott Smith. Nick Drake. Carol Shields. Alison Lurie. Wallander (in Swedish, naturally). The League of Gentlemen. The Secret Life of Us. The Office. Modern Family. Hilary Mantel. My Mother’s Day card. Secrets and Lattes (on radio 4). Brass Eye… Just some of the things that have kept me going over the last three months.

Aforementioned bunting.

Aforementioned bunting.

And then yesterday… I did a little writing.

Pointless, awful writing. But, still. New writing. New writing that didn’t exist the day before yesterday.

Where’s it all going, nobody knows. I’ve confronted the cobwebby drafts in my notebooks and found lots of nonsense – with one or two pearl-like lines among swine – and (with tea cup in hand) I cracked open the Scrivener file on my laptop where Madder Hall lives and (sharp intake of breath)… of the sections I read, it is mostly dreadful. 

Hardly surprising. They usually are dreadful, first drafts. If I wasn’t already despairing of everything else in my life, I’d despair of the novel. But misery, so it turns out, has its positive side: it does give you a fresh perspective on writerly belly-aching. It makes you not care about agents or book deals. It makes you immune from the sting of those twinges when somebody writes something better than you. So my book’s mostly crap. I don’t care! It’s a shame, yes, that Scissors – a chapter I liked when I wrote it – is wooden and lumpen and filled with the sort of dialogue that can only be written, not spoken. But never mind, eh. Push on, push on. I’m so low in myself that any words committed to paper are worthy of celebration. It’s liberating. (Sort of.) I’m free to write shit, and be proud of myself just for writing at all.

So, to sum up… I’m still in the gutter. But gradually, painfully, starting to look at the stars again.

Me time (85% cocoa).

I ought to have been in an orchestra, really. I ought to have played a more sociable instrument (i.e. not the piano, the sulky loner of the music world) and gone to rehearsals with seventy other musicians and hung out together (I see us all wonderfully stylish in polo neck jumpers) and made sweet music en masse. There’s a lovely sense of solidarity in that.

Instead, I chose writing. And writing, as everyone knows, is the sulky loner of the art world. I’m a sulky loner myself, so it’s no surprise, really, that we found each other. And yet there are times – this is one – when I question the wisdom of two sulky loners conspiring like this. Isn’t writing a thing best done by those with more resilience? Is it good for us loners to really embrace our aloneness? The danger is one that’s befallen me recently: life on your own becomes so flipping normal – status quo – that the world recedes, with the flesh and blood people who live there, till what you’ve got left is a notebook, a Scrivener file, and long stretches of silence. It’s frighteningly easy to get yourself so swept away in a book that the whole of your life becomes ‘me time’. The question I’m asking, then, is this: Is so much ‘me time’ good for the soul? And would miserable writers be miserable whether they wrote or not? Would Virginia Woolf have drowned herself if she’d played second bassoon in the London Symphony Orchestra? Would Hemingway have been happier tooting a horn than exposing the innermost core of his soul? And dear old, mad old Sylvia Plath – perhaps self-examination on a daily basis wasn’t the healthiest way to proceed. Might her tale have ended differently if she’d spent that February night with a gaggle of polo-necked viola players instead of surrounded by rancour-filled manuscripts and an empty flat?

Well, sigh. You’d be right if you thought I was bitter. If blog posts were chocolate bars, this one – I have to admit – would be 85 % cocoa. I’m currently stuck on that hamster wheel of The Road Not Taken, and anyone (musicians, actors, dancers) who gets their arty kicks in a gang of likeminded folks – and not staring, alone, at the screen of a laptop – is garnering my envy at this present moment. God, but it must be so nice – so bloody, bloody nice – to have someone else physically, actually, there when you’re knee deep in doing your thing – and I don’t mean disturbing you (breaking the train of your thoughts with the offer of tea when you’ve just bloody sewn up that sentence at last but you haven’t quite managed to scribble it down); I mean, doing it with you. Collaborating. You actors, musicians, and dancers – how lucky you are.

Footnote

To be fair I should probably mention the fact that I did once play in an orchestra, long, long ago. I was ten at the time. I wanted to play the cello. There weren’t any cellos at school; there was only an oboe.

My playing was so bloody awful I ended up having to mime in school concerts. The whole thing was torture from start to finish. Perhaps I do prefer writing, after all.

Philosophical wool: how to knit your own life.

‘Philosophical wool’, as a lovely friend told me last night, was a rather wonderful alchemical term, many moons ago, for zinc oxide (which forms into woolish white clumps when burnt… or something like that). And, as I was knitting (a sort of a scarf) when she told me, I might have been slightly over-inclined to believe in the power of the poppy-red wool slowly growing itself on my needles as a metaphor for life, the universe, and everything – but, then again, anyone who knows me (or this blog) will know already how over-inclined I am to see metaphor in everything.

I’m a terrible knitter. If knitting were writing, my work would be riddled with grocer’s apostrophes, comma splices, adverbs, linking verbs, and two of my least favourite words: ‘replied’ and ‘realised’. I have an idea of a scarf in my mind (anything non-scarf-like is so far from my reach I’d need NASA to get there). The scarf in my mind’s eye is fragile and wispy, with sequins and maybe a tassel or ten, and the person who’s wearing it (me) is a Photoshopped version (a Facebook profile, say, as opposed to a picture I’m tagged in). Reality, though, shows me something quite different: a long, wonky oblong in cheap greasy wool with missed stitches and holes in. No Photoshop in the kitchen mirror either, where light pours particularly harshly at certain cruel times of the day. But to vaguely (by which I mean incorrectly) quote Hilary Mantel in Giving up the Ghost (courtesy of another lovely friend): you’ve only got one body. You have to live in it. 

You’ve only got one ‘scarf’ as well (by which – well, of course – I mean life): it’s the one you’ve been knitting, without even knowing you were, for as long as you’ve been on this earth, and it may be that yours is the wispy perfection I see in my own mind’s eye when I dream, but the life that I’ve got on my own clunky needles is closer by far to the long, wonky oblong that’s currently curled in my knitting basket, and sadly that’s where the analogy ends because lives, unlike scarves, can’t ever be unpicked. If the rows that you’ve knitted so far have got holes in, those holes will remain, and the best you can hope for, I think, is to knit better rows in the future. And as for my novel? You might well ask. There’s been nary a word for six weeks. But my scarf isn’t done yet. There’s oodles of wool in my basket still waiting for knitting, and maybe those future rows will have words in.

Not writing but drowning.

It’s been suggested, by a lovely friend of mine, that writing another blog post might be therapeutic at what’s proving to be the hardest time of my life. But there’s one teensy problem: this blog is a blog about writing. And writing is something I simply don’t do at the moment.

It’s been roughly a month since the worst depression struck, but a month – or a week, or an hour, or a minute – can be an eternity when your mood’s at its lowest. And, therefore, it’s been an eternity since I’ve written. I’m not even sure I can write anymore: I’m aware that I’m doing it now – putting one sentence after another – but whether it’s making sense, or expressing the things I intend to express, is another matter entirely.

Just reading is trouble enough for my poor befogged brain at the moment (it hovers away from the page halfway through for a bout of prolonged rumination on pesky ‘real life’ till I’ve read the same sentence 192 times). I read boarding school stories, and books about ghosts, and the final few chapters of gloomy biographies about people (Sylvia Plath, Nick Drake, Assia Wevill) who met sticky ends of one kind or another. I find there’s a kind of solace in itMisery loves company, right? And you’ll read that word, misery, and – unless you’re depressed yourself, right now, at this moment – you’ll have a vague sense of the mix of emotions that three little syllables can contain… but to borrow from Keats (in his love letters to Fanny Brawne: ‘I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair’) I want a more miserable word than misery. There’ll be those of you thinking: ‘Stop carping, for god’s sake! Pull yourself together, woman. Think of those less fortunate, etc, than your fed and warm and sheltered self…’ and of course it’s a luxury, in a sense, to be allowed to fall apart, but – borrowing here, not from Keats but Alistair Campbell in an article well worth reading  – replace the word ‘depression’ with the name of a physical illness and you’ll quickly see the error in your thinking: ‘You would never say: “What does he have to be cancerous about, diabetic about, asthmatic about?”’ Depression simply is. When fog descends, the fog exists – and wishing it didn’t does nothing to change it. Occasional pinholes appear and you glimpse your old life, a way through, a way out. But the nature of fog is to shift and to spread, and as soon as a pinhole appears it’s eclipsed again. Gone.

And the thing about writing, you see, is for ages and ages I’d used it to shelter in. A long time ago, when the trouble was telegraphing – from some distant hill – to warn me it was coming, I walled myself up, like an anchoress, in the cell of my novel and stiffened my lip and refused to admit it. And meanwhile, in ‘real life’, events were afoot. I was dicking around in the world in my head while the real one, the one that I actually, physically live in, was slowly collapsing. And so, when I try to set foot in that red-brick country house in the 1970s where most of my 2013 was spent, the front door has been set fast and bolted against me. I don’t even go up the path anymore, to be honest. It seems faux and phoney. There’s nothing inside there to nourish my soul. As I write I’m surrounded by shelf upon shelf of the books other people have written, and adding my own humble tome to those volumes seems only of dwindling importance when ‘real life’ has tragically nosedived.

And what I said earlier – about not understanding depression unless you are living it now, at this second – is true, I think. If you’ve suffered before then you think you remember (I thought I remembered), but, no, it’s not true: you will find that your brain won’t allow you to fully remember. You’d never go on if you could (with the knowledge it might come and claim you again). And that’s why it seems glamorous, in a way, from a distance: the suffering artist, the poor tortured soul. ‘All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,’ in the words of Ernest Hemingway (who shot himself aged 61). There’s a sense that it ought to be difficult, right? You should suffer. Like thousands of troubled teens before me, I burned the (metaphorical) midnight oil over Ariel, written by Sylvia Plath in the last tortured months before she placed her head in an oven, the gaps in the doorframe stoppered up to keep the gas from escaping into her children’s bedroom. I read Edge, widely thought to be her final poem, and marvelled at the startling marriage of life and art:

Edge

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

It was all (to my fifteen year old self) so exciting. I wallowed inside it. Already I’d known the first twinges of what would afflict me for most of my life, one way or another, and less than a year after first reading Ariel (while waiting for a job interview at my local library) there’d be more than a few niggling twinges to cope with – but that’s another story. The fact is that most of my life I’ve been trying (and failing, and trying again) to outrun this. Whenever it catches me, I cannot write at all. And I think that is true for most writers, Plath included. The cusp of an outbreak can often be wonderfully fruitful (as mine was), but once it’s commenced… Kindly conjure the sound of a bank vault slamming shut. What joy can be found in the world of your head when that head is convinced of a ‘futureless future’ (in the words of Stephen Fry)?

So I’ve written this post for two reasons: firstly, to simply engage with the business of words (to be busy with something that isn’t Escape to the Country, or endless regret, or the click-clack of my woefully inept knitting needles) and, secondly, in the spirit of offering solace to others who might be alone in their own unique ditch at the moment, too low to see over the top, and to know there are others, in ditches, all over the place – and much closer, probably, than they realise.

For all us ditch-dwellers, here’s Dorothy Parker to round things off on a more light-hearted note.

Resumé 

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

A slight left at the Doldrums and welcome to Writer’s Block.

This is one of those hideous times when I daren’t put pen to paper for fear of what will emerge. The inside of my head is a large gaping wound, and no matter how often I numb it with red wine and sedatives, long bracing walks in the wind in my Wellies, and hour upon hour of piano playing (N.B. Philip Glass particularly good for the numbing of mind-wounds) there is no coming out of this foxhole, it seems, in the foreseeable future.

So what do I do? I have work to hand in to my mentor next month, and the dwindling remains of an Arts Council grant in my bank account urging me forwards. My deadline for draft number one of the novel is 22nd April. But more, much more than this, as Sinatra once sang, I’m not sure who I am anymore. I don’t wake in the mornings bursting to write. I don’t fizz with ideas. I’ve grown cobwebs. My soul is as full of stones as the pockets of Woolf’s overcoat when she walked to the River Ouse and drowned. All these hours when I ought to be writing, but can’t. I’ve no spark anymore. I’ve no sparkle.

Here’s something that’s not often said about depression: amongst all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth it’s just really bloody DULL. It’s like visiting – year after year – the same caravan park (and you didn’t much like it the first time) with pubes on the soap bar, and mould in the shower, and stains that you don’t even want to think about on the mattress. A radio endlessly tuned to your least favourite station and somebody’s bloody dog barking all night.

You had tickets for Greece this year, you were sure of it. Greece, or Barbados, or New York, or Rome. But apparently not. Here you are, once again, in your strangely-moist bed in the caravan, watching the shadows as other unfortunate occupants lurch past your window, alone. When you wake in the morning and peer out your door there’s a sign been erected above it: NIL BY PEN. And the name of the caravan park?

Why, Writer’s Block, of course.