Monday 30 July 2012

Procrastination Part 2 (aka How to Start, and Keep, Writing your Novel)

In recent years, I have been lucky enough to spend much of my day writing. Of course, most of this time is spent trying to get started, trying to avoid getting started, or trying to convince myself that I didn't really want to write in the first place. 

But gradually, I have  hazarded upon a handful of strategies that seem to make the whole process a little less painful. I hope they work for you too. (And please share any of your own tips).

1) Create your writing space

Whether it's a whole room, a desk, or a corner of the kitchen table where you always work, invest a little time in creating a formal space for your writing: it lends an authority to your goal, reduces the risk of squandering time on locating the right tools and place; and, most importantly for me, it helps to make the whole process fun. And, if you're lucky enough to have a large enough space, indulge in a little inspirational decoration: when writing Waving Bella, I littered my desk with shells and driftwood from the beach, and kept a postcard of Marc Chagall's Promenade beside my laptop.


2) Make writing dates

Whether you write every day, or can only manage an hour or so a week, make it a date. Treat it like a job, and help your family and/or friends view it the same way too. Then make sure you have a really good excuse if you don't turn up.

3) Walk

When I'm really stuck, I find the best thing I can do is to go for a walk. Preferably on a wild, deserted beach. Failing that, I do some pressing but mindless chore. Whether I consciously focus on what I'm trying to write, or simply let my mind wander, I usually end up with a new perspective. Or at the very least, a  new place to start and a very clean toilet.

4) Read

It's a cliche, but writers really do need to read. It doesn't have to be the same genre as your own work but, take it from a Speech and Language Therapist, words feed words. Even if it feels like time away from your writing, make sure you read a little every day: the benefits will more than compensate. And remember, it doesn't have to be Dickens: these days I mostly read Dr Seuss (but seriously, have you checked out his rhythm and flow, and the sheer creativity of his language?).

5) Just start

I know, I know: how can something so simple be so hard?  But I have a little trick that helps: be it a letter, an essay, or your latest chapter, begin with the phrase the sort of thing I want to say is...and then keep on writing. Sometimes, you'll find your stride; sometimes, you won't. But you'll have made a lot of useful notes in the process.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Immortality and Mapateewa

Dear Dad,

I've thought a lot about immortality recently. First, Jem discovered superheroes (what does unmortal mean, mummy?). Then Mum phoned to tell me you were sick.
I know that, in time, images from the past ten days will fade, leaving happier memories in their place. For a small, often silent man, you filled a lot of space.
Thanks to you, my childhood plays to a soundtrack of John Arlott and Maria Callas (though you said you preferred Tebaldi), windows wide open on sunny weekends as Madame Butterfly took flight along our street. Thanks to you, there was gardening, and London Zoo, and shrimps in the shallows as we squelched through London Blue. There was A.A. Milne, and Amahl, and A Christmas Carol (always begun on December 1st). There was Dr. Who, and druids, and Heinz meatballs for tea while Mum took Emma to Guides. And of course, there was the endless array of pub gardens, our cokes growing warm in the bottle as we stole sips of Bitter from your glass.

In later years, I came to share your love of roses and opera and words-the more esoteric the better (Paul calls his sons chap, as you called him, you named yourself Bumpy, instead of grandpa, and we all call mashed potato mapatweewa). And I find curious comfort in Test Match scores, weather forecasts, and the back page of the Times, neatly folded to frame the Crossword.

I know you weren't always an easy man, but you never raised your voice (or hand) in anger, and I never once heard you swear. You were proud and off-beat and stubborn beyond words, and gentle and funny and kind. And in your last days, when you finally consented to leave the sanctuary of home, you were dignified and graceful and brave. The nurses loved you. And we admired once again the man you were meant to be.

So Dad, this isn't goodbye. Though I don't believe in an afterlife, I know you haven't just stopped. Like the moon and the tide and compost, you'll circle back through the years: more than DNA, more than memories, more than your garden melting back beneath the grass.

One day, Jem too might plant roses, listen to Callas, and make his own children mapateewa for tea.

And I will always love you.

Thursday 19 July 2012

The Little Train

Bare legs and wellington boots, Marram grass slicing my calves. Dark sand, rippling back with the tide. Shells, like tiny toe-nails, patterning the shore. And my grandmother, headscarf pinning flaxen perm in place, holding my hand as the Little Train whistles in the wind, smoke and coal and oil seeping through the salt.

This is my childhood: two weeks from every summer, a desolate beach, and a narrow-track railway, fueling my dreams with steam.

This post was inspired by Tara's Gallery theme Planes, Trains and Automobiles. To enter or to read more posts, please click here.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

When Food was a Dirty Word...

Like so many women I know, my relationship with food is skewed. And like most of the women I know, this fact is supposed to be a secret. 

There was a time, not so long ago, sitting in a cafe while I write, with a latte and a couple of cookies, would have filled me with anxiety and self-loathing. Food was a four-letter a word.

But could I admit it? Of course not: for nearly thirty years, I hid my ugly secret (along with my ugly body and the horrible, dangerous, delicious food I didn't want people to know I was or wasn't eating).

For me, it started with ballet. Ever since my parents took me to see the Nutcracker at the age of four, I'd wanted to dance. My dreams pirouetted with point shoes, tutus and sugar plums. I longed for the Royal Ballet school. But, when I was ten, I overheard my teacher complimenting a friend on her "perfect" dancers' body. My gaze shifted from her slender limbs and neat chest to my own short, stumpy frame. And, for the first time in my life, I felt inadequate.

But I refused to give up on my dream and set about changing myself. 

At eleven, I knew the calorie content of every food I was likely to encounter. By twelve, I could lose 2lbs a day by not eating. By fifteen, I'd learned how to vomit. And along the way, anorexia, bulimia and exercise-addiction ate up ballet's place in my life. 

But I always remembered to keep my dirty secret secret.

Now, unlike so many women, I have found a happy ending. Ten years ago (in between counting calories, burning calories and hiding myself away to avoid other people offering me calories, or noticing that I was regurgitating them), I  managed to meet the most wonderful man in the world. Someone who actually saw the real me, lurking behind the eating disorder; someone I trusted enough to let myself be seen. 

We married a year later and not long after, as my biological clock began to wind down, we decided to start a family. Two years of trying, and one miscarriage later, I realized that to conceive and carry a baby I once again needed to change: to let my body get on and do the job that it was designed to do. So, I ate healthily, exercised gently and, horror of horrors, put on weight (fearfully, regretfully but, for the first time in my life, intentionally). And nothing bad happened. 

I repeat, nothing bad happened. In fact, within a year, Jem was born.

Now, I know I'm lucky. My pregnancy weight melted away, my metabolism shifted up a gear or so, and motherhood filled the hole that my eating disorder had struggled to hide (from myself, as much as anyone). 

I know I'm lucky that, these days, I (mostly) accept my body for what it is. 

I know I'm lucky that (curiously) I find the aging process a comfort: my body may be wrong by some people's standards (aka mine) and increasingly saggy, wrinkled and stiff, but it's my body and it actually comes in rather handy. 

Sometimes, it even gives me pleasure (if I let it).

This post was inspired by Tara's Gallery (to enter or read more posts, please click here). But it's dedicated to the all the women and girls who have ever felt rejected, inadequate or empty. Please may you too find a way to fill yourselves up with love (and food). And a way to stop hiding.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

The Everyday

Over the years, whenever I've felt sad, confused, or out of control, I've focused on everyday pleasures. It's my secret happiness recipe.


Recently, clearing through my diaries and notebooks, I found endless, repetitive lists:


- good coffee

- good books

- fresh flowers

- candles

- bubble baths


Nothing miraculous but it always seems to work. Slowing me down, grounding me, reminding me what matters.


Of course nowadays, there barely seems time to scribble a shopping list, let alone read a book. There are wildflowers (weeds) in the garden but they rarely get picked. And there aren't many candles either (unless you count the ones on my birthday cake).


But I do make time for one really good cup of coffee every day (preferably espresso, thick and black and frothy, brewed in a Bodum and sipped from my Starbucks submarine mug).


And Jem gets an awful lot of bubble baths :-)



Today's post was inspired by Tara's Gallery. If you'd like to join in, or view the other entries, you can find out all you need over at her wonderful blog, Sticky Fingers.