Tag Archives: writing

The fear of the personal

When one first ventures into creative writing there is often a piece of advice that gets thrown in your direction: write what you know. I used to understand this as being: only write about things in your fictional world that you have experienced in your non-fictional world. And if one takes it that way, one would run out of things to write about pretty darn fast; unless you have lived a truly remarkable life filled with an unfathomable number of adventures. The more I write fiction, the more I believe what this advice actually means is: write what you can embody and write what you can do so ‘believably.’ If I take it this way I can certainly get onboard, and understand it to be very valuable advice rather than stifling anti-advice.

As I continue to write and create fictional characters, then attempt to tell their stories, I feel more confident in allowing their realities to differ from what I’ve lived, but are still ones that I believe I can do justice to. There are still many, many characters or experiences I believe I will never been able to write authentically – but perhaps in time that will change too. This all being said, events, conversations, people, and experiences from my ‘real’ world certainly leak into my stories. Fragments of conversations with my husband have made it into a play, a tragic even from my childhood was used in a short story, and my characters are often composites of people I ‘really’ know. This is entirely to be expected of any fictional writing, assuming it has been written by a human that hasn’t lived out their entire lives in solitary confinement.

IMG_5973But what of writing non-fiction. I don’t mean a carefully researched article on a historical event, or a commentary on a topic of social importance but rather the ‘personal essay’. Non-fiction that is suppose to be a (re)telling of an event that truly happen in your non-fictional world – one that you, you know, actually lived through. In the last few months I have ventured into the world of the personal essay and it is, frankly, terrifying. Not because I’m worried about laying bare my ‘soul’ for critique by persons both known and unknown to me (you have to overcome that hurdle when you first do any form of creative writing), but, because, well, why would anyone want to read an essay about my life?
At the start of his chapter entitled “Modesty and Assertion” in his book, To Show and To Tell, Philip Lopate says if better than I ever could.

The most difficult hurdle confronting the would-be essayist or memoirist is the fear that one’s own life story, one’s own experiences, ideas, and impressions are of too little importance to pass on. “Why should I talk about my happy or unhappy childhood? Or my appreciation of nature? Why burden other people with the unsettled debris of my mind?” thinks the student.

This! Exactly this!

But then if I take a step back and breathe for a second rather than letting the panic set in I realize there was a similar emotion when I first started writing fiction: why would anyone read what I write? That fear has been dissolved (somewhat) by positive feedback – by letting people read my work and getting affirmation that it is worthy of reading, and that they found it “good” or “enjoyable.” Like anything in life, if we are told “you are worthy” we find the motivation to move forward and to grow in our chosen endeavor.

And so to the personal essay. I expect to learn a lot over the next couple of months as I study, and write, this format but I think I’ve already learned something that has allowed me displace the dread enough to put pen to paper. Firstly, people will read things that are well written – if you as the author put your efforts in writing well rather than stressing about whether or not your essay is ‘entertaining’ or ‘informative’ or ‘insightful’ you will end up with an essay that will be read. It is then in the hands of your reader to find their own connection to the story – and each reader will identify with your work in wildly different ways. The unknown-to-you reader might find something that resonates with their own experiences or an insight that they never considered before. The known-to-you reader may find themselves (literally) on the page and revel in the shared memory, or be aghast at your interpretation of the event that you’ve chosen to regale. But ultimately, it is not for you, the author, to worry about those things – just write!

 

Writing not blogging

Excuse me a moment while I whip out my broom and dust off the behemoth spider web that has appeared in the corner of the blog. Though, I’m pleased as punch that the lack of blogging hasn’t been due to laziness or inertia but because I’ve been a busy bee writing a new story – yay me!

One of the bigger struggles I have with my writing is accountability – setting goals that I stick too. Taking class is wonderful for me because I have hard deadlines that have real consequences if I miss them or don’t put in as much effort as I know I should. I know how it feels to not get the grades you want due to lack of effort (hello, BSc Astrophysics 2:2) and it ain’t a nice feeling! But since I am attempting to actually gain my BA not all my classes can be creative writing ones, which often means months go by without me writing anything new. So for this reason I was rather gleeful when I tripped over a novel (as in innovative not book!) on-line writing contest at the beginning of August.

The Write Practice is a blog/website I’ve been following for a little while but I didn’t appreciate it is also an online community for budding writers from all over the world. One day an advert for their new writing contest popped up in my reader feed and it pricked my interest. For a small fee (most submission opportunities come with fees) you got six weeks access to their writers forum in which the goal was to post a brand new, 1500 word short story and have it ‘workshopped’ by the other participants before submitting your best effort to the actual contest. I think what captured most writers interest though was this contest is offering to publish all short stories submitted even if they don’t win one of the three top prizes – very unusual.

Writing stories is not an endeavor one typically takes on to keep one’s end product secret. Most people who write creatively are doing so for a number of reasons but one of those reasons is to be read by others – to have an ‘audience’, and to gain validation & appreciation from said audience. When I started this website I was driven by two reasons: to make writing more present in my daily

life, and to have a conduit through which to share my work with family and friends. But really I wasn’t very honest with myself. I wanted an audience and I wanted that audience to grow. And you know what, that is ok. That is part and parcel of being a writer. A desire to have your words ‘seen’ – to have your hours of (solitary) toil acknowledged and (perhaps) be told that you have something resembling talent.

So in all honesty, it was the fact that my work will be published online regardless of how I do in the contest that drew me to this particular opportunity. However, I got so much more out of the experience than I expected – especially from the online community. Although most of the people on the forum have writing experience similar to myself (that is; just starting out) many of them had great insights to my story and helped me mould it into something better through the feedback they offered. In this digital age I think newbie writers such as myself can gain so many benefits from what can be found on the internet from information to support to publishing opportunities – but as with anything ‘online’ a grain of caution has to be used.

Next up for me is a creative (personal) non-fiction assignment for class – another little shove on the boundary of my comfort zone but I’m up for the challenge!

I am an ostrich

I am an ostrich. If I encounter a problem academically that I can’t solve fairly quickly, rather than hunkering down and bashing the living daylights out of the problem until I get the answer, I stick my head in the proverbial sand and hope the answer jumps into my head all by itself. I’ve always done this – which may be a bit of a surprise considering I’ve gained the highest academic degree possible in a physics based subject – but trust me none of my degrees in astrophysics came easily nor was I at the top of any of my classes (firmly rooted in the bottom quarter more like it!). I am insanely jealous of my husband’s academic tenacity. When he encounters something he doesn’t understand he will surround himself with text books and resources and people ‘smarter’ than him and whack his head off the problem until he thoroughly understands it and can explain it to anyone. It is a big reason he is the quality of scientist that he is and it is certainly why he is developing into a much loved and respected professor. It is also a quality I truly hope our daughter has inherited from him – rather than my ‘meh, I’ll look at it again tomorrow’ stance.

Fortunately (or is it unfortunately) I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older that this trait comes from a place of insecurity rather than just being ‘dumb’. I get scared that I can’t ‘be’ what it is that I really want to be so rather than truly trying and failing I give myself the get out of clause of “well, I didn’t get an A cause I didn’t study enough.” I’ve done it in my personal life too – “well, that relationship didn’t work cause I didn’t throw myself into it.” From when I was eight I wanted to be an astronomer. Did I truly know what that meant? Nope – but it is what I wanted. I was good at maths and physics throughout high school and achieved the grades I needed to attend the University of St Andrews. It was here at the start of my (many, many) years of university study that I took on the persona of an ostrich as it is after high school that shit gets real when you are studying science. It is hard. Like, hard hard. And although throughout undergraduate studies there are still ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers in science those answers aren’t as simple as 4 anymore.

The MMTO where I worked for five years. source: mmto.org

The MMTO where I worked for five years. source: mmto.org

But I did persevere in my own way and though I never attained the highest quality of degrees (2:2 undergraduate for me!) I did complete and was awarded BSc, MPhil and PhD degrees. I went on to find my niche in the professional astronomy world and was offered a permanent position after my first post-doc. However, I never lost my insecurities nor my ‘fingers-in-ears-shouting-la-la-la’ method to deal with them and I know it held me back. Now that I have decided I want to ‘be’ an author those insecurities are rearing their ugly heads once again. And I have started to sidle into my comfortable sand pit in the corner in which I’m using my daughter’s bright-orange plastic shovel to dig the hole for my head (thankfully she is in there with me making the hole digging a lot more fun!)

The biggest insecurity I have when it comes to creative writing is: do I have enough stories to tell? It isn’t that I can’t put words into pretty/informative/invoking sentences by rather do I have enough characters and situations in me to create engaging stories that will build me an audience and keep them! I have only written two new pieces this year – both plays and both for class. They were sizable pieces of work that took all semester to craft but it was only two stories. I haven’t written any new fiction in over a year. That is bad. That is not how I make myself an author. That is how I fully morph into an ostrich, again, and hold myself back. But I am older now and I am certainly more self-aware (and less distracted by beer) and so fingers crossed I can ward off any unsightly transmutations by making myself do the hard things. So I’m off to try and tease out some more words on a new short story under the theme of ‘first meetings’ … wish me luck!

Inspired by …

Last year I happened upon a small book sitting on the shelves of my local bookstore whose cover drew3619573 me in (yes, yes I know you aren’t suppose to ‘judge a book by its cover’ but hands up if actually don’t pick up books because you like their covers – anyone? anyone?) Flipping to the back cover to read the blurb I was sucked in even more and I duly headed to the checkout with book in hand. The book is The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway and it was the image painted by the first sentence of the blurb that convinced me to spend my pennies. The sentence is this:

In a city ravage by war, a defiant young musician decides to play his cello at the site of a mortar attack for twenty-two days, in memory of his fallen friends and neighbors.

What an image. What a story. I don’t recall at what point, before or after I started reading the book, that I learnt that this scene (and the catalyst for the novel) was inspired by the real musician Vedran Smailovic. Smailovic became renowned for playing his cello in ruined buildings during the siege of Sarajevo – many times playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. Never heard the adagio? Go look it up – it is a hauntingly beautiful piece. Smailovic’s actions have inspired many artistic tributes including; a piece entitled The Cellist of Sarajevo composed by David Wilde and recorded by Yo Yo Ma, Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 by Savage and a folk song by John McCutcheon called In the Streets of Sarajevo. As far as I can gather all of these endeavors have been embraced by Smailovic himself.

Clearly, it was also an act/image that affected Galloway sufficiently to become the hinge of his book in which he considers a fictionalised version of the siege of Sarajevo which took place from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 during the Bosnian War. Indeed, Galloway talks here about how it was a photograph of Smailovic printed by the New York Times that sat with him for a decade until after the 9/11 attacks that gave him an avenue into writing about what war does to people who are ‘not in the business of war’. In addition to the unnamed ‘cellist’, the novel looks at the siege through three fictional characters. It is not a sensationalist book, indeed it is surprisingly ‘internal’. It is also not dialogue heavy and although there are moments of violent action much of the book focuses on the thoughts of his three main characters. I don’t typically read books about war – indeed if a book is too ‘military-y’ I will stay clear of it – but I loved this book. I could ‘see’ this book playing out as a piece of theatre in my head as I read it (what a way to start a play … a solitary cellist playing the adagio surrounded by ruined buildings … my spine tingles just imagining it).

After finishing the book I started poking around the internet to learn more about Galloway and to discover if he has published other novels but what I found surprised me. It is very well documented, in many forums, that Smailovic despises Galloway and hates the success this book has brought the author. Huh. Why? A quote from a 2008 Times article in which Smailovic explains: “It was like the explosion of an atomic bomb, emotions of anger and pain. How is this possible? They steal my name and identity. Nobody can take the rights to that from me. It’s quite clear that it is me in the book.” Apparently Galloway contact the Times in response and he is quoted as saying: “I’m not sure entirely about in what way he feels that what I’ve done with his identity is different from the other works of art which have been inspired by him. I don’t use his name, I call my character the Cellist and he’s really only a character in the first five pages. It’s not really about him, it’s about the other characters and their reactions to what he does. … The problem is that Mr Smailovic took a cello on to a street in a war and that’s an extremely public act.”

I’m not intending this post to be a full (or accurate) account of the people’s feelings involved in this specific case – if you are interested a quick google search offers up lots of details – but it got me thinking, more that I ever have before, about if and/or what we owe real people for the inspiration they give us for creative/fictional writing. I’m sure there have been many people before me that have thought long and hard about this and as I go further into my writing career I’ll have to learn about the legalities but this is the first time I’ve sat down and thought about this. I could anticipate that if I used a copyrighted piece of art that there is a very clear path for financial compensation. But what if I’m inspired by a famous photograph that is in the public domain? Or a news article such as the story which hit today about the American dentist who killed a much-loved lion in Zimbabwe? What if I change the occupation of the American and tell the story from the point-of-view of a local child who never interacts with the hunter? Would I owe ‘something’ to the parties that originally inspired me?

What about family members? Obviously any writer’s life inspires what they write about and one day, when I am a good enough writer to be able to do them justice, I want to write about my Aunt and Uncle who both died a couple of years ago. If I were lucky enough to secure a publishing deal for a novel with characters that are inspired by them would I owe financial compensation to their estate – namely my cousins? It is a little daunting to consider these things – not just from a financial aspect but from a ‘pissing people off’ aspect. I suspect there are a lot of stories that writers don’t tell until their real life inspirations are long dead just for this very reason. I guess at the moment I have the ‘luxury’ of this being an academic thought exercise since I am a long way from making any sort of money from my writing but it is one I will carry closer to me having read about the contention surrounding Galloway’s novel.

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!

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.

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!