A solitary student finds her tribe

The word ‘homework’ does not summon up joy in everyone’s heart. But for me, it does. At school I loved homework, which made me a bit of an annoying swot, maybe. I loved learning, and I loved doing the necessary work to learn as much as possible. I also loved getting A’s (maybe another annoying character trait). But we are who we are.

I was recently sent a joke about the fact that being a writer means you always have homework. It was funny, but as I am so nerdy, I thought: that’s great! Just what I want.

Writing gives my life purpose and the fact that I am now aspiring to get my work out there has also provided a huge amount of meaning. Writing is not the only thing that gives my life purpose, of course. My beloved friends and family score higher, but I am speaking vocationally. With writing I can make connections with people through creativity, I can have goals, I can add a new facet to my identity and I can express myself to others in a positive way.

One of my key new links is with my writing buddy, the author of Three Women (available from 31 Oct 2018), Lucy Tertia George (https://www.facebook.com/lucytertiageorge/). We are often bouncing ideas off each other and I appreciate her necessary feedback so much. Without writing in my life, I would never have discovered this enriching connection.

Yesterday I submitted my first short story to a competition. I spent most of the day in my studio editing it. I have been working on it since early June. Lucy provided two rounds of feedback, and I got input from some other friends as well.

So writing is like homework. And I am always a student wanting to learn. However, there is a crucial difference between most of my solitary homework in the past and what’s happening now. I really think collaboration, getting feedback, talking and getting the work out there are fundamental. Surely, it takes a village and once you get your tribe right, the writing should definitely improve.

 

Back to the novel

blur book stack books bookshelves

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

Today I am reexamining my novel. My last edits were in the Spring. It feels like a bit of a drag to work on it, but I heard Kate Tempest say on the radio today that a writer should write especially when it’s hard or they think they can’t face it.

There are some things that I am very proud of in the novel so I hope it does see the light of day at some point. The daunting prospect at the moment is that I have to change the career path of one of the main characters. As this is a main focus of much of the story, it’s going to be a lot of work. Also, I need to create a bit more conflict. At the moment there is not a lot driving the plot.

But sometimes I just feel like shouting in my head, ‘I’m sick of this character!’ I think this is probably a normal part of the process. And maybe as the rewriting happens she will reemerge as a new entity that I am not sick of.

I am facing inertia and frustration with the novel, but I will press on.  It’s a Sunday afternoon at home. I need to be writing. Words of encouragement welcome!

Fear and writing in North London

I often feel like I am just beginning this writing journey. That is a complete fallacy, however, and it comes from a lack of courage. I have always been writing; not always stories, but prose (and some poetry) nonetheless.

When I was at uni, I remember trying to pinpoint the moments in my life when I felt most happy. In super nerd fashion, my happiest moments were the final stages of essay writing. I would be making certain the argument flowed, editing and ensuring I had the perfect words in place.

These days I feel like I have imposter syndrome (but I know we all feel this way at times). When I first went to a writing group in 2016, I was so non-committal: ‘Don’t have a genre, not sure what I want to write about, not trying seriously to get published…just dabbling.’

It’s fear, ultimately. I really want to write, I really want it to be read, but I’m scared of that happening. Still, the situation is improving.

I have taken a lot of steps in the plan over the last few years: very happily finding an inspirational writing buddy, writing groups, speaking with an agent, getting to know a publisher, joining a writers’ network online, sending my novel to agents and getting lots of rejections, and, of course: tons of writing.

There is a literary novel, half a dystopian novel, book reviews, two short stories, more poems than I can count, and then all the random scribblings in notebooks and other false starts on my netbook. I also have a job in publishing.

What I have to do is keep going. Just keep moving forward with the words.

The development is in the details

I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook, a birthday gift from a good friend. The details are impeccable. As a writer, I’ve become obsessed with trying to remember details of the day, snapshot vignettes of moments and encounters.

Last year, I remember vividly sitting down at a bus stop and seeing a neat pile of empty cassette cases underneath the bench. How could this have possibly come to be? Someone collecting cassettes like it’s 1989, going through a recent stash at the bus stop and deciding they didn’t want the cases, there and then; they just had to shed the excessive plastic immediately because they had precious little room in their bag and the tapes themselves were all that mattered?

I noted that the cases were from blank tapes. I longed to know more of this story. How six empty blank cassette cases came to find themselves sitting under a bus bench outside HMP Pentonville on Caledonian Road in North London in early June of 2017? Nothing but questions.  I should have taken a photo.

Another fascinating scene: one of the many winding, secretive passageways in the City. Such portals are brimming with ghost stories from hundreds of years of human activity (too sterile a description, really). Hundreds of years of tears, fears, cheers, beers and careers, to add some rhyming.

This particular encounter on this particular day really brought me to a pause. On the ground there were about 20 cigarette butts. On the wall there was a notice telling people that they were on camera and to stub out their cigarettes in the allocated receptacle or else (a fine, I believe).

This isn’t a comment on smoking or littering; it was just something about the warning, the total disregard for the warning, and the resulting detritus on the ground. I can’t think of a wry Didion-esque summary to encapsulate this scenario, but it is somewhere in my brain. People will find a way, I guess. Like the smoking Tyrannosaurus Rexes that we all are.

So writing is in the details. I’m going to practice writing details now to describe my recycling items that I’ve been collecting to walk down the road to the recycling bins. If it is of any quality it will be my next blog post. Watch this space diligently.

The power of handwriting.

The discipline of writing

Like any craft, writing takes discipline. The discipline can be a joy and meaningful, even when it is hard work.

About a month ago I was lucky enough to visit a Dylan Thomas exhibition in Swansea. I was fascinated to see the notes detailing his writing process.

I was also interested in the word lists and general scribbling.

I see my free time these days as opportunities to practice writing. Actually, it is not free time at all because I am trying to align a mentality in which my content design and editing work and creative writing outside of that work coalesce into a general experience of word vocation.

In the studio where I live I have 23 notebooks. Some are diaries completely full. Some are poetry books completely full. Some are agendas and lists completely full. Each notebook serves a specific purpose. One or two are still empty, awaiting scribal action.

Happily, a few years ago, I realized my loved ones were buying me notebooks as presents. So 11 of the 23 notebooks were actually gifted to me. This means I must have been talking enough about writing to establish it as something I love doing.

Last night I was working on a hard poem. I can see the sections that are good in it and the sections that are cliche and corny. A lot of the good parts seem to be related to rhythm and diction. Sometimes that comes very easily. Like a rap. But the difficulty is letting go of the desire to conclude, to sum up. The academic background creeps in again.

There is a lot of work to do and this blog is part of it. Documentation of the process encourages me to do the process.

Today I am back to editing my short story in preparation to enter it into a competition. On the poetry front I am currently working on a poem that I might one day soon get up enough courage to read aloud at a poetry night.

Make the plot difficult for your characters

In 2006 I took a creative writing course in Los Angeles, where I was living at the time. The main lesson I remember is that the author’s job is to make things as difficult as possible for the characters in the story. In my novel I struggled with this because of its diary-like, autobiographical nature. I didn’t want to make things hard for anyone! Hence the lack of conflict.

I am now learning that creative writing is not about solving lots of problems. I haven’t really worked out what it is about entirely. For me, so far, it is an artistic endeavour of personal expression that will hopefully resonate with the reader. In my PhD I asked the question: “why did people read?”. There were multitudinous answers that you can find in my thesis if you feel so compelled.

The reading lives of English men and women, 1695-1830 

I have received feedback on my short story now and it is so helpful. I am going to a writing group tomorrow to work on applying changes that will definitely improve the piece. I need to make things more difficult for the main character. This will make the story more universal.

While the process of writing is useful for me, ultimately the work needs to get out there. As a content designer I am constantly thinking about the user/reader. While it is not creative writing at my job, similar principles apply. Writing (and art) involves creator/expression and reader/reception. And that reception is not passive. Ultimately, the readers have licence to interpret as they will. Therefore, writing and art are acts of bravery and vulnerability.

The more challenging the plot line, the more rewarding the progression in the characters. The more rewarding the progression in the characters, the more human the story.

 

Rough draft stage

This evening I have finished the first draft of my short story and sent it to a good friend who is one of my readers. I’m feeling nervous as I always do when sharing my work, but I know feedback is essential. I have joined a few different writing groups over the last several years and they have all been useful in this respect. I’ve enjoyed the community feel and mutual support.

An interesting dilemma I’ve had while writing the short story is, “what am I trying to say?” When I was writing for my history degrees, I was supposed to convey an argument based on evidence. That seems very rational and easy (relatively) compared to creative writing.

The lack of parameters in story writing brings with it freedom, but also fears of emotional exposure. Even though to study history, one must study the historians (it is famously said), reading about the factual past leaves less room to consider the historian than I’ve found with creative writing. Then again, all reading involves an awareness of the author. A book is not composed by a no one in the aether and we know this. So perhaps the historian and the novelist are not so different after all.

It’s a question for postmodernism, I think. In the meantime, the rough draft of the short story is finished.