Elementary Physics

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I have been stalked by the thought of writing for a long time. Yet, hardly any words made it onto the page last month. Same old story.

I can’t remember if it was Elizabeth Gilbert in ‘Big Magic’ or Betsy Lerner in ‘The Forest For The Trees’ (or neither of them) who said, ‘Some people like to have written.’ The outcome, not the process. It rings true: when I write, I do get lost in ‘the flow’, but the most satisfactory bit is having created a Universe that, two hours before, was not there. It’s like colouring-in a part of a treasure map, while the rest of it remains sketched in graphite.

I think about writing every single day. Yet, I don’t feel compelled to go, sit at my desk and get writing. So, is it just the idea of it that I like? The pipe-dream of being a sophisticated, ‘interestingly eccentric’ writer who stares out of a window into distance as she sips her coffee and ponders the destiny of her heroine, loveable, naive and kookie.

Years ago I was taught to play the violin and the piano. I enjoyed both, especially once my violin play no longer resembled  hysterical pleas of a cat being strangled. When I was in my mid-twenties, I asked for a violin as a birthday present. I played it, may be ten times, freaked out my own cats and put the instrument on top of a wardrobe where it has since remained. Shortly after turning thirty I bought a digital piano – the sound of it took my breath away at the store. In over a year I played it a handful of times. And just like with writing, every time I do it, I get an elated, almost physical sensation of enjoyment. But it can take weeks, months even, between sittings.

I have a friend, who owns a flute and a digital piano, just like mine. She plays them both regularly (not at the same time, I believe) and doesn’t shout about it. She just does it. So, what have we here? A genuine love of something versus admiring the mere idea of doing it? Authenticity versus vanity?

I am sad to realise that I may never become one of the people whom I have admired since childhood, purely because I have forgotten in the years since leaving University, how to make an effort. A failed ‘wannabe’ writer reminds me of any person who goes on a diet every other month and finishes day two with a bottle of white and a takeaway pizza.

How can you love doing something if it’s hard? How can you doubt that you love doing something if your shelves are full of books on the subject, you get an endorphin rush every time you come across a uniquely crafted story in a book, and you have made multiple (poor) attempts at it over the years?

If writing is ‘square one’ that you always go back to, what does it mean? Christ, I feel like good old Jean Valjean, singing to himself, ‘Who am I? Who am I?’ *Shakes head in silent mortification and leaves the stage.*

The Flip Side

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It has been ages and ages since my last post. Hell, last time I had a nine-pound watermelon growing in my belly; now I have a gurgly, seven-month-old chubster. Anyway…

The other day (week?!) I was in a swimming pool, doing lengths, as you do, plotting. Feeling refreshed, and somewhat rested, I drove home, all fired up to type up a new attempt for an article. Check my facts, ‘write what I know’ – do it ‘properly’.

As soon as I came through the door, my heart stopped: our little one had taken a tumble. Bar a Harry-Potter-esque red mark on his forehead, he was, luckily, unharmed. Not so for his dad and I, who’d gone through seventeen shades of parental guilt. Once we’d both come round, I couldn’t pick up the pen or turn on my laptop. The life in my head, of writing eloquent paragraphs full of meaning, seemed unreal, a laughable fantasy.

‘Escapism,’ professed the Wise One, when I voiced my thoughts. The same, spaced-out feeling you get when you walk out into the fresh evening after having seen a great film. Disorientated, emotional, unable to comprehend how, what you’ve just witnessed, only recently did not exist on film, paper – anywhere.

Yet, when it comes to creating things myself, the fact they are not real, somehow makes me stop, laugh at myself and put the pen down. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, here is your life, not THIS.’ Go figure.

Rights & Re-writes

A slow month – not a word written, but a whole heap of other activities performed – a classic case of procrastination.

I contemplated some more the feedback I’d received on one of my stories. I amended what I’d agreed with, and found evidence of a grammatical suggestion being wrong. Then I was left with a curt line of ‘The story has potential but needs to be re-worked’ staring at me. At this point I realised two things: I hate amending anything, and it’s even harder to do with fiction.

When you have just started filling a blank piece of paper, the story reveals itself to you word by word. It’s not solid, more like an invisible suspension bridge that appears in front of you one brick with each step. Once you’ve put the last dot to your creation though, all of a sudden, it’s a full story that takes itself off the page and now exists in the world – beginning, middle and end – that has meaning and its own universe. It’s almost like a living and breathing creature, and to alter it, let alone, change completely, feels like an act of physical cruelty, like pulling legs off an unsuspecting spider.

Too bad, apparently, re-writes are a key component of a ‘proper’ writer’s practice. The trouble is trying to decide what’s not working: every editor’s opinion is, naturally, subjective, and I can’t see straight either as I’m trying to analyse my own work. It’s like trying to gauge whether your own child is spoilt or overweight.

So, now I know what they (Quiller-Couch, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Nabokov and Kind – take a pick) referred to when they said, ‘Murder your darlings’. It blimming hurts to lift the knife and as you are doing it, what’s worse, is you are not at all sure you are actually operating on the right bit.

A Crop Duster That’s Afraid of Heights

The other day I succumbed to my son’s pleas to watch Disney’s ‘Planes’ for the umpteenth time. I never pay close attention when watching animated films, constantly flitting between checking Facebook news, cooking dinner, working on my laptop or reading. This means, that every time I do concentrate on the plot properly, I always come across a new bit, of which I have been previously unaware. So it was this time.

Dusty Crophopper, a tiny wannabe-racer airplane, is flying higher and higher, then begins free-falling and mortified, confesses to Skip that he is afraid of heights. In a perfectly egocentric way, like a toddler whose entire existence revolves around the famous concept of ‘me, myself and I’, I project Dusty’s storyline onto my own life and realise that I too still live with a basic fear when it comes to writing. As English is not my native language, I always worry that my writing will never compare in quality or fluency to that of people who uttered their first words in English and who didn’t have to read Shakespeare in translation.

Despite the fact that, after twenty-five years of practice, my use of articles stubbornly retains its ad hoc, ‘eeny-miny-mo’ nature, this fear does not seem to have materialised. Sure enough, I have on occasion been told by editors of my work, ‘You wouldn’t say it like that in English.’ However, not one piece of feedback has ever said, ‘Written in shockingly bad English.’ True, I’ll never take part in ‘Countdown’ on a par with Stephen Fry. But let’s face it, nor will Sophie Kinsella or J. K. Rowling, who are both well-established, world-famous authors and are British through-and-through.

I figure, my stupid perfectionism is, once again, getting in the way of progress. So I decide to practise my newly developed muscle of bullshit-ignorance and finish a short story. I submit it for a comp and pay an extra fiver for professional (or not?) critique. A few days later it arrives.

The title of my piece is wrong, there’s too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’. The overall verdict is it needs a re-write but has potential. I breathe out: there’s no reference to clumsy grammar or incorrect usage of words. All I have to do is write it all over again… I cheer up considerably – I can live with that!

A Creature of (Bad) Habits

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The other day I had a conversation with my significant other about drug addicts. Cheerful, I know. It occurred to me that often we (the non-drug-addicts) fail to comprehend how a person, knowing full-well that the outcome may be fatal, still goes back to doing the same thing over and over again. We marvel at them with incredulous faces, pretending we could never have anything in common. Wrong. I realised that we are as guilty of doing exactly that on a daily basis.

One might crave a feeling of holding a cigarette between their fingers. They ignore the fact their grandfather died from lung cancer following his twenty-a-day habit. They think he was unlucky.

Another chooses a diet of processed food, sugar and beer, ignoring the family history of diabetes.

Then there are those who prefer to wake up hungover every Sunday morning. A pounding head, sickness and a sallow complexion are all disregarded in favour of feeling proud their liver once again withstood cirrhosis after fifteen pints and re-living tales of the ‘fun’ nights with their friends years later. They call non-drinkers ‘uptight’.

Have you spotted the pattern yet? It’s the stories we tell ourselves about how we won’t get affected and it will be different for us because we are stronger, more resilient, intelligent, good-looking etc. than others. It’s also about choosing to ignore the boring axiom of grown-up life that every action has consequences.

On a small scale, there is often an illusion that there is no cause and effect. What’s one cigarette, one burger, one pint, one missed night of exercising or writing? It’s negligible. Then, seemingly, out of nowhere, you find yourself out of breath walking up some stairs, grow a ‘tyre’ around your midriff overnight, develop what they call a ‘drinker’s face’ or realise you have yet to make a start on a novel you’ve been talking about for the last fifteen years.

Drug-addicts or not, all humans seem to be destructive in their nature (I think I might have heard this mentioned in ‘Transformers’). It feels easier to live every day moderately dissatisfied with one’s life (addicted to whining about it as a side effect), than accept responsibility for one’s actions (or lack thereof). It is hard; but if it were easy, where from would the sense of accomplishment come?

We all know Einstein’s all-time famous definition of insanity: to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. I suggest we try to defy the idea we are all mad.

My call for you today is to do something, no matter how small, that will genuinely make you feel good and make you feel proud of yourself. Eat one less biscuit, run an extra ten steps, write one line of your poem or a hundred words of your novel, test a new recipe. Anything that reminds you that you have a will and that you can exercise it, rather than play Russian roulette with consequences and blame everyone else for how your life has turned out. It’s truth or dare.

Luckily, the law of ‘negligibility’ works both ways: small, ‘feel-good’ acts do amount to a more significant feeling of happiness over time.

Patience

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I have now had two consecutive months of writing success; success on a very small scale – I have managed to write a little on thirteen days in each, March and April. The output, perhaps, would not be the same in terms of quality or quantity compared to, say, Stephen King, who, apparently, puts down 2000 words a day and can finish a hundred-thousand-word manuscript in three months. However, it is my personal best at trying to create a daily writing habit.

A strange consequence of this is the more I do it, the more I want to go back to my pen and paper and carry on telling my story. It’s like my brain has finally realised that writing makes me feel good. All of a sudden, I find myself missing the feeling of holding a pen between my fingers, just like you would miss  the buzz of your feet hitting the ground when you haven’t run for ages, or the cool of water on your skin when you haven’t swum for a while.

It’s still hard to get started, but now it doesn’t seem impossible, pointless or scary. It’s starting to feel like an ordinary act, something I can do every day, rather than a fancy dream. But here comes another problem: in my eagerness to get to the end I have started to skim over the detail and scenes that, perhaps, deserve more depth and description. It’s very similar to speed-reading through the last ten pages of a pacy detective, trying to find out who the killer is. This brings with it the classic mistake of ‘telling, not showing’.

Sometimes, it’s the hardest thing of all, to go slow and wait for things to develop. Very much like having finished ‘nesting’ while heavily pregnant, and being left with nothing else to do but wait for the due date. With writing, I keep telling myself, ‘Patience. Don’t bugger it up right before the finish line.’ So it goes: think, breathe in, write down, breathe out. Repeat. Who knows, it may just help…

A Comfort Blanket

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I was getting ready to go out for a couple of hours – shopping, lunch – that kinda thing. Threw this and that in my bag. By the time I picked it up I realised I wouldn’t walk very far with that weight on my shoulder!

I unpacked it and stared at the culprits of the ‘overweight ‘ issue. There was my tablet with the lovely Hanx Writer on it. The most recent issue of ‘Writer’s Forum’ for some writerly wisdom. A notebook and a pencil case, in case I decided to write longhand. A copy of Matt Haig’s ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ if I fancied reading something that was not related to writing. My mobile, in case the Wi-Fi on my tablet doesn’t work… That’s right, I was only going out for two hours!

With a laugh, I remembered all those time I cursed while packing my child’s changing bag and thinking, for a small baby, he really needed a lot of stuff to stay fed, watered, clean, happy and entertained.

The issue with my reading and writing props is the same if I ever go on holiday. It’s like I fear I might get caught with no reading material or no paper, should inspiration to write strike. All this weight is my version of a ‘noonoo’ – a security blanket.

The truth is, I never write when I am that well prepared. Nor do I end up reading a bestseller, a magazine, a Kindle and any blogs I’m interested in, in the space of two hours.

Is it my subconscious sucking up to my ego, saying, ‘So long as you are surrounded by books and stationery, you can call yourself a writer’? All you ever really need is a pen, isn’t it? You could jot stuff down on a serviette if need be.

Turns out, old habits do indeed die hard. Despite the actual, physical inconvenience of having to carry all that weight around, it is difficult to just ‘let go’ and pack light. After all, there is every chance I may get abducted by the aliens and dropped in the middle of s desert island with absolutely nothing to do. One must always be prepared…