Clambering back on the zebra

My summer has been pretty great so far on every front except writing & reading. We’ve just returned to American shores after a month-long trip to the Motherland soaking up family time. It was full of many, many firsts for my little one (‘big girl’ bed, beach/ocean play, steam train rides, adventure playgrounds) and it was full of lots of down time for me (& even a full night get-away for me and the hubby). But what it wasn’t full of was writing, or even reading for that matter. For the first week I felt guilty about this and pushed myself to read – plowing through half a book on my sister’s Kindle – but then what is the point of traveling 3500 miles to see family to be sat with my nose in a ‘book’ all the time. Not a lot really.

When you have destinations as beautiful as Traquair House its hard to sit home and read. http://www.traquair.co.uk

When you have destinations as beautiful as Traquair House it’s hard to sit home and read. http://www.traquair.co.uk

And so I embraced my break. From time-to-time I entertained some thoughts about blog posts and novel scenes in my head and I picked at a few more pages of the aforementioned book but beyond that I did nothing, zilch, nada, other than enjoy seeing my toddler with the family that she gets to see way too infrequently. But now we are home and back to ‘normality’ – although little of that will be seen until the jet lag wears off and the smallest member of the household starts sleeping past 5.30am again. We also have a soggy basement to content with and a garden that has turned into a jungle in our absence – but after all that is dealt with it is back to normal. Except I want to find a slightly altered version of ‘normal’.

One piece of advise I hear over and over again from established authors is if you want to be the best writer you can be, then you have to make writing part of your daily routine. I’ve always thought that was a worthy desire but not one that I could realistically fit into my life at the moment. But why isn’t it? Am I just too bloody lazy to make it happen? In truth I don’t have a busy life. I have a great, relaxed life. I’m at home with my little one and we don’t have a demanding schedule. We get up in the morning and see what we feel like doing that day – it might involve spending all day playing in our pjs, or hanging out with many of our wonderful friends in the neighbourhood, or a trip to the zoo or art museum – but there are very few days we have to be anywhere at a specific time. So, why can’t I find time to be a Mum, do householdy-stuff, take classes and write at least once a day? Others manage to juggle far more grueling schedules and still come up with the goods so the very least I can do is try!

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The 10K of creative writing?

I have an admission – deep down at my core I am a lazy cow. No really. I know it might not seem it looking at my CV but honestly if I have a choice between lounging on the sofa and watching something totally inane on TV versus doing almost anything else I will lean towards the sofa every single time. And the crazy thing is that I actually enjoy doing the ‘almost anything else’ a lot more than the channel-hoping once I get going, it’s the ‘get going’ that is my big problem. It works with everything in my life from things I hate (washing dishes!) to things I tolerate/somewhat-enjoy doing (exercise!) to things I love (writing/reading!). But on the other side of the coin I love a deadline – especially high pressure short term deadlines – you know the if-you-don’t-get-this-essay-in-on-friday-you-will-fail-your-degree sort of deadlines. I am my most productive and motivated when a deadline is staring me in the face – especially one where if I fail at meeting said deadline I’m going to be horribly embarrassed. I had hoped as I progressed further into adulthood I would have outgrown this immature need for a do-or-die deadline  – that the simple pleasure of achievement would take over, that being ‘house proud’ would mean I had a sparklingly clean kitchen at all times, that being a responsible mother would mean I would time manage my life the way we are ‘suppose’ to. But sadly, given that I am 40 in the not too distant future, I think it is safe to say my need for the deadline is firmly rooted in my personality.

When ever I’ve needed to lose weight I’ve gone to my trusty computer and signed on for a local 5K/10K run or some endurance biking event a good number of months away. It works a treat. The shear fear of being utterly embarrassed at not finishing the event, or worse being last, spurs me into an exercise routine that shifts the weight and gets me to race day ready to attack  the course. But don’t be mistaken, I am far, far from an athlete. My 10K personal best is right around one hour and I’m pretty sure I was very close to the back of the pack on my first mountain bike marathon (but that was totally the fault of all the trees that kept getting in my way!) But I always have fun doing the event and I succeed in my goal of overcoming the ‘get going’ hump.

And so now that semester is over and I no longer have class imposed deadlines I need to find ways to generate (and enforce) deadlines for my writing so it doesn’t ground to a halt over the summer. I need to find the ’10K fun run’ of fiction writing! The obvious answer to my deadline needs is submission to literary journals. However, to me, getting a piece ready to submit to any publishing forum is more equated to training to do a seriously good time at a race rather than a lets-just-finish-and-if-we-need-to-stop-and-walk-a-bit-that-is-ok sort of training. Not only does the piece need to be written it needs reviewing and editing and polishing and picking at each word choice rather like you pick at a scab on your knee before it is worthy of sending out to be considered for publication. And although, of course, that is the ultimate goal of any writer it isn’t what I’m looking to push my self to do this summer. I haven’t completely figured out what my ‘fun run’ is going to be yet – I’m keeping my eyes peeled for opportunities that push me forward but completely gel with my day job of full time mama – have any suggestions for me? Stick ‘um in the comments below.

Impostor syndrome

Impostor syndrome … as described by the fount of all knowledge that is wikipedia … is

the psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

and it is extremely prevalent in the professional sciences. I rapidly run out of fingers when I try to count the number of friends and ex-colleagues from the astronomy world that have impostor syndrome to some degree. I, of course, never suffered from impostor syndrome when I was active in that world – I knew that I didn’t deserve to be awarded my PhD and I knew that I lucked out when I got my postdoctoral position and I knew that I had somehow fooled my bosses when they offered me a permeant job! I was a total impostor. The number of scientists that go through their careers believing they are undeserving and that they will be ‘found out’ as a fraud is startling. A few days ago I started to wonder if the phenomenon is as prolific in the artistic fields as it is in the scientific ones.

One of the many unexpected gems of living in Toledo is the ‘Authors! Authors!’ series run by the localauthors-authors-2015 public library and sponsored by a local newspaper. The quality of the writers that they attract is remarkable – in the last couple of years they have hosted (among others) Elizabeth Gilbert, Zadie Smith, Henry Winkler, Marjane Satrapi (who was phenomenal), and just last week, Sandra Cisneros. Furthermore, the tickets are only $10! Since Munchkin’s grandparents were in town for a visit I got the pleasure of dragging the hubby as my date to listen to Sandra Cisneros speak. Since I didn’t grow up in the US I wasn’t exposed to Cisneros in high school where her novel The House On Mango Street is often taught over here. In fact, I only read Mango Street last year and have yet to explore the rest of her catalogue but after finishing the treasure that is Mango Street I knew that I would enjoy seeing her speak. But I didn’t know just how much I would enjoy hearing her speak.

Copyright: Toledo-Lucas County Public Library

Copyright: Toledo-Lucas County Public Library

She read from her ‘picture book for grown ups’ Have You Seen Marie and she completely embodied the characters bringing a colour and vitality to the words that made them come alive. Indeed, during the Q&A section one audience member commented on her skill and she admitted to loving reading out loud and that she had recorded all the audio versions of her books. However, while hearing her speak about her deep connection to her work, and her spirituality, and the artistry that she brings to said work, it brought back a familiar feeling of ‘being a fraud’.

Since starting out on this adventure of becoming a writer I have questioned more than once whether I have the ‘artistry’ in me to be considered worthy. I am very much not religious, nor would I call myself spiritual. I am an atheist. I am often scathing and judgmental. I am methodical and logical often to a fault. I am a scientist, and even though I no longer work in that field – it is part of who I am. I don’t meditate. I don’t believe in a higher being. I don’t believe in soulmates. I see humans for the complex, evil, wonderful, only-around-for-a-single-lifetime collection of molecules that (I believe) we are. Does that mean I can’t be an artist? Do I want to be an artist?

I haven’t travelled far enough down this road to know what I want to be yet, nor do I know enough writers to know whether the insecurities I assume they experience are the same as the impostor syndrome that is rife in other fields. I suspect frustrations and doubts originate from rejection in the writing world more than achieving things you don’t feel you deserve. What I do know is that I love words, I love language, I love books, I love stories and I love creating stories. I do know that I am receiving local recognition within my university for my writing and I know I want to see if I can gain recognition on a bigger scale. I am in the incredibly lucky position to be able to explore this new path without the pressures of having to make an income (thanks hubby!) and I look forward to discovering if there is a real place for my cynical-old-self in this new world.

Dramatic Escape

Thanks to the last of the air-miles earned during my previous life as a jet-setting astronomer I was recently able to take a wee hiatus from mummy-duty and head solo to NYC for two days. The main DSC_0420motivator for the trip was to see the off-off-Broadway premier of Ed Falco’s play Possum Dreams (which I wrote about here) but I also got to hang with friends that I get to see way too infrequently these days. After a few travel hijinks I arrived in the city mid-morning on the Saturday and headed straight for the main library. Although I am super lucky in how frequently I get to visit NYC I’m not often in mid-town so I wanted to take the opportunity, while untethered by a two-year-old, to play tourist. It is such a beautiful building but it was slightly disappointing that the Rose Reading Room was shut to visitors that morning otherwise I would have loitered quite a bit longer. DSC_0418

My friend’s apartment, and my home for the night, is in the Upper West Side so I strolled from the library through the mayhem of Times Square. It has been years since I set foot in Times Square and I swear there were far more life sized (and frankly disturbing) cartoon characters this time around! But it was nice to get into the theatre-mood for the upcoming evening’s entertainment. The rest of the day was filled with a trip to the MET and great food before we found our way to the twelfth floor of a building on West 54th and a teeny-tiny blackbox theatre for Possum Dreams. The three friends who came with me had no exposure to the play prior to the show so I was really interested to see how their experience would differ to mine.

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Leighann Niles DeLorenzo and Andrew Narten star in Ed Falco’s ‘Possum Dreams.’ Photo credit: None Too Fragile Theater

If you are interested in a professional’s review of the play you can read a, deservedly, glowing one here but let me start with – I enjoyed it immensely. The actors, to my mind, did the text proud and indeed Leighann Niles DeLorenzo brought a version of ‘Jan’ to life that was completely different (and far superior) to the one I saw in my head when I studied the play. The stage area was compact to say the least but they made effective use of the space and the actors navigated it well. They only aspected of the play that felt constricted by the stage area was the physicality and the destruction of the living-room set that the play calls for – I would love to see what these actors could do if they had the space to really throw the dinning chairs around! The ninety minutes of the play flew by and the actors held my attention throughout –  even though I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the possum (you’ll have to go see the play to find out what I mean)! As a newbie playwright what mostly stuck with me was the success of the ‘reactions’ that the actors brought to the play – by that I mean the reaction of the person who wasn’t speaking to what is being said. When you are studying, or indeed writing, a play you are intently focusing on the dialogue but when the play is translated into the visual medium up on a stage there is so much subtext and ‘story’ being told by the actor who isn’t speaking. I assume as a playwright you just have to cross your fingers and toes and hope that if you are lucky enough for a play to make it to production the actors are good enough to bring that level of performance to the piece.

I’m now gladly back to mummy-duty, spring weather, the last few weeks of semester and my playwriting class. For the end-of-class portfolio I have a one-act play (around 30 mins in length) to complete and I’m slowly, though frustratingly, forcing my concepts and ideas into something resembling a play – with the help and patience of the hubby, my professor and kick-ass classmates! I did have some very pleasing news this week though. A 10-minute play I wrote at the beginning of the semester has just won top prize in the prose category in the Shapiro Writing Contest – an annual competition run by the University of Toledo. Does this mean I can now claim to be an award winning playwright?! Nah – but it is very nice to know that I don’t completely stink at this writing malarky! If you want to take a gander at the play you can read it here: Thwarted.

Exploring my bookshelves

This morning I read a fun little exercise from a newly discovered blog Addlepates and Book Nerds  via another excellent blog The Novel Orange and I thought why not join in! As explained by Maggie at ‘the novel orange’ the premise is straight forward …

Exploring My Bookshelves is a relatively new bookish meme hosted by Victoria at Addlepates and Book Nerds.  Every week Victoria will post a new prompt, each regarding something different about your personal library.  The idea is to post a picture related to the prompt for the week. Victoria also brilliantly came up with the idea of bloggers posting photos of their personal bookshelves for the world to see!

IMG_3515I may not take part every week but as I dug around my bookshelves this morning out of curiosity to learn what is the longest novel on them (this weeks prompt is ‘book with the most pages’) I was tickled to see it is a Barnes & Noble Classics Edition of The Arabian Nights – clocking in at 680 pages of the tiniest of text. Those of you who know me will not be shocked to learn that this book (plus many, many others on my shelves) has not been read yet. As I’ve touch on before I’m a book gatherer rather than an avid reader – though I am actively trying to make steps towards reading more of the books I have stockpiled! However, what tickles me about Arabian Nights being the winner is that it was another version of the book that started my love for Folio books. I talked about Folio books and my (minor?) obsession withDSC_0251 them in the post “Accumulator of books” so I won’t talk of it further other than to say one day I hope to have bookshelves full of Folio books! 

Although this edition doesn’t hold the ‘magic’ of a Folio book, I really love the cover – it reminds me of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain and the wonderful December day a decade ago that my sister and I spent pottering around the castle and grounds. The second part of the exercise from ‘Addlepates and Book Nerds’ is to post a photograph of your bookshelves … and I certainly don’t need to be asked twice to show off my shelves! I love my shelves almost, but not quite, as much as I love the books they house. When the hubby and I left the Southwest and moved to Ohio we bought our first ever home (neither of had been house owners before – thanks to being perpetually moving academics!) and to celebrate we each got to treat ourselves to something in the house. My choice, of course, was custom made bookshelves. And so we had a local carpenter make solid maple shelves that fit perfectly onto two walls of our living room. But I’m a smart cookie. I had him make them completely freestanding and screwed together (rather than nailed) so if we ever move I can totally break them down and take them with me! Whoop!DSC_0397

When the book spoils the movie.

Warning: if you intend to read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or indeed watch the movie adaptation then back away from this blog post now – do not pass Go, do not collect $200 – cause there are gonna be spoilers ahead!

When you are the owner of a toddler getting out to the cinema to watch a movie is a rare thing. In fact I have not crossed the threshold of a movie theatre since my daughter was born two years ago! Partly the reason it is so hard for us is that we live 700 miles from our nearest family members and MV5BMTk0MDQ3MzAzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzU1NzE3MjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_so to arrange an adult-only night out really is a special occasion – more special than most movies. And, partly I’ve been so shattered over the last two years that staying awake for two-plus-hours in a dark, cosy cinema was just not a realistic expectation! However, late last year I saw the trailer for Gone Girl and for the first time in a long while I wanted to go to the cinema. The trailer promised a bunch of goodies that made me intrigued: good actors (Ben Affleck, yum!), mystery, director I like, cool looking cinematography, dark story line. And so we made a plan to go catch the movie not long after it was released – we even got as far as setting a date and drafting in a friend to baby sit. But it fell through at the last gasp.

But I consoled myself with the idea that I could now read the book before I saw the movie – something I think about doing a lot but rarely achieve. I had been wary about reading the book due to its overwhelming popularity but I got a deal on the Kindle edition and went for it. I finished reading it last month and was loathed to give it even a one-star review on Goodreads! It was a terrible, terrible book. I am baffled by its popularity. I liked the premise (wife disappears in suspicious circumstances and her husband is left to prove his innocence but surprise, it’s all a big scam by the wife to get revenge on her cheating husband) and I’m ok with the seriously unlikable characters (I mean, seriously unlikeable characters – wifey is a crazy with a capital C and hubby is just kinda pathetic) but I’m not ok with the shockingly bad writing. I plodded though the first half of the book muttering under my breath about the clunky first person narrative and the over-used gimmick of alternating chapters from his & her’s perspective. And then I hit half way and the big reveal happened – dum dum dum – she ain’t dead and she is a horrible person who has completely lied to the reader through a fabricated diary about the behaviour of her beloved.

But from there the book got more and more annoying. Honestly, I think if this story were in the hands of a better author it would have been great. Some aspects of what she weaved into the story were great (the I’m-pretending-I-love-you-but-I’m-really-just-framing-you treasure hunt, for example). The lengths which the wife went to orchestrate her return to her husband but still be ‘loved’ by the populace was scary but her believing that her husband honestly wanted her back rather than him just trying to prove his innocence did not ring true for me. It could be that I’m missing some nuances though – perhaps Flynn wanted to paint the husband as being utterly addicted to his psychopathic wife and his wife knew this even when it wasn’t clear to the reader. And this rational would actually help me buy the ending. But the writing was so poor … yada, yada, you get my gist!

After finishing the book I was disinclined to watch the movie which annoyed me cause, well hello, did I mention Ben Affleck! But both the hubby and I needed a break from our daily sludge this weekend so we snuggled up in bed on Saturday night and rented it on our laptop. My honest opinion of the movie? Man, I wish I hadn’t read the book first!! It had all the elements that I would have enjoyed in a thriller if only I didn’t know everything single thing that was going to transpire before it did – it really kills the mystery! The whole movie just felt pedestrian as it slugged its way through the story. Rosamund Pike was excellent as the craaazzy wife and Ben (yes, as in Affleck) was reasonable although his version of the husband felt too ordinary of a man to want to stay married to a psychopath. The supporting roles were all really good except, in my humble opinion, Neil Patrick Harris who played the lamb-to-the-slaughter old friend of the wife. To me this character read so much more creepy and weird on the page than Harris played him and although the character is fundamental in the story he didn’t get enough screen time for me to care about him. My hubby hadn’t read the book before seeing the movie and it was cool to see his reactions to all the twists and turns but it just rubbed it in how much the film watching experience was spoiled by reading the book – grrrrr.

So, what is my take away? I guess three things: only read a book before seeing the movie if it isn’t a thriller that relies on surprise twists; or only read the book first if you know it is going to be a phenomenal book and you aren’t that fussed about seeing the movie; and listen to your gut that says for, whatever reason, don’t read a book – it’s going to suck no matter how popular it appears to be!

Writing while parenting.

About a year ago I attended a Q&A session with the author Zadie Smith and an audience member posed her the question: “what is your writing process?” Her answer intrigued me. Like me she was mother to a, at the time, one year old and she basically said (and I’m totally paraphrasing here, cause it was a year ago) that she didn’t hold any stock in The Writing Process – her basic premise for writing was to take any given day and if she had child care organized she would write. Simple. Right? Actually, it is pretty profound. And one that is the same sentiment of what made me start this blog and what I am trying to put into practice more and more on a daily basis – just write, dag-nam-it!

A spot of light reading.

A spot of light reading.

However, since I’m at home full time with my, now, two year old my opportunity to write is based more on if-she-naps and if-she-has-slept-well-the-night-before-so-I-don’t-need-to-nap and if-the-house-isn’t-a-complete-disaster and if-I-have-enough-brain-power-to-not-want-to-just-sit-and-watch-rubbish-tv then just write, dag-nam-it! But, I have discovered some unexpected pluses to being a parent that helps my writing. The biggest roadblock to my writing is that I am extremely easily distracted – especially by this wonderful thing called the internet. I can be deep into writing a paragraph for a new story and one of my characters is hungry for cake – which means I’m hungry for cake which means I have to start trolling the internet for new baking recipes which leads to me looking up a source to buy a new fun cake stand which leads to me thinking about completely remodeling my kitchen which leads me to spending hours on Houzz looking at inspirational photographs of kitchens I could never afford. Which ultimately leads to me wasting all of the time that my little one is napping doing anything but writing. So, I need to get away from the internet and that is where being a parent to a toddler has actually helped.

There are two times during which I am forced to be disconnected from the internet and at the same time not be required to eat play food that has been ‘cooked’ for me on her kitchen. The first is when we are out for a walk – I’m lucky enough that we live in a neighbourhood that has pavements (sidewalks) everywhere and that she hasn’t yet claimed that she is too big to go in the buggy (stroller) so I get anywhere between fifteen minutes to an hour of time to daydream while I push her around and she waves ‘hello’ to all the neighbourhood dogs. But there is a catch – I do own a smartphone and I am very adapt at pushing a buggy one-handidly while catching up on celebrity gossip on some rubbishy website, so when I’m not actively chewing on a scene in my head it is all too easy to no fully unplug myself and waste my strolling time.

f854c0087006cb1feb6a251606858455One place I can not take my phone, or laptop, or kindle, or book, or iPad is when I’m rocking my toddler to sleep – yes, yes I still rock my two year old to sleep – to discuss how this makes me a “failure” of a parent is a whole other blog! But rather than it being incredibly annoying to be sitting in the pitch black rocking back & forth with no sounds other than that of the white-noise machine, the same CD of lullabies that we have been listening to every single day for two years, and the snuffles of my take-forever-to-fall-asleep toddler I’ve found it is the time that my mind does some of its best writing. It has been in her rocking chair that I’ve un-snagged a plot line that was so entangled that it was incomprehensible, where a character has spoken a critical line of dialogue, where blog posts start to find form, and where new stories have materialized. And once I finally have my toddler sleep in the cot (crib) I often have to make a beeline for my laptop to note down whatever thought has been bouncing around my head in the dark before it seeps out of my far-too-holey-memory. So, if in a few years I admit to you that I am still rocking my six year old to sleep you will fully understand that it is a sacrifice that I undertake purely for the advancement of my writing career … honest!