When I first started writing, I had a plan. It wasn't a particularly detailed plan, but there was a focus to it. I decided, primarily, to write as much as I could, whilst learning about the process of writing at the same time. In the beginning, this was relatively straightforward. The first books about writing that I read were more about tackling your inner editor and giving yourself permission to write - badly, if need be. I read Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg, and Anne Lamott. And I got words down on the paper. Then I branched out with my reading and started reading books about different types and genres of writing, and about techniques. And I practiced. It was all very amateur, but it gave me a purpose while I was on maternity leave and my bigger career and life plans were on hold.
Then life got busy again, and I had to scale back on my writing and reading. This year, I've had a couple of knocks to my confidence, and recently I've felt myself turning away from my writing to focus on more everyday things. The main issue has been that I'm at a bit of a crossroads with my writing, and my life in general. If I'm honest with myself, I'd love to be writing all the time, and make it the focus of my career. But sadly, it's not an option for me. I need to train for a career that can help pay the bills, which is why I've chosen to go back to uni and do my psychology conversion course. Only now that it's looming nearer to the start date and I'm quickly running out of all that lovely spare time I had (3 days a week to myself), I'm panicking slightly. I need to make sure I've got my writing time and inspiration in the bag before I start.
So I need to make a new plan for my writing life.
I need to put my memoir on the back burner for a few months (bar the odd submission to agents, because you never know...) and work on a new project. I can do nothing more with it at the moment. So from now on, the only memoir pieces I shall focus on will be shorter pieces for competitions and any other calls for submission that sound interesting.
I need to get back to the comic novel I started (The Library Letters) and really myself a chance with it. I got up to around 17,000 words, but it's got so many plot gaps that I'm a bit stuck. I'm discovering that I'm not really as much of a pantser as I thought. I think I need to structure it more before starting writing again. So I'm going back to the books.
I'm going to start with a series by K. M. Weiland about outlining and structuring novels, and maybe even have a go at the workbooks. I will use this blog to chart about where I am with the project.
I also need to read more generally, which is another little project I am going to set for myself and I'm also going to use my blog to chart it. So, by the end of the year I will read 'Reading Like a Writer' by Francine Prose, and I will also try to finish two fairly easy classic novels that I started earlier in the year and didn't finish: Northanger Abbey and Oliver Twist.
And I hope to be writing again very soon.
(P.S. I must also learn more about blogging and figure out how to make this blog look more professional. I'm so hopelessly non-technically minded that I just keep putting it off. But I shall figure it out!)Read Full Post
I was going to make my next post about writers' block, but then I realised it was Anti-bullying Week, so I changed my mind and thought I'd write about bullying instead.
I don't talk about the fact I was a victim of bullying much in real life. Nobody does. It's one of those slightly shameful subjects that makes everyone uncomfortable and embarrassed. It shouldn't be like that, but it is, and we all ought to be better at dealing with it. Victims of bullying get used to keeping quiet, because it makes other people feel better, and often we have a tendency to be people pleasers.
Comments I've had whenever I've alluded to having been bullied over the years (none recently, thankfully) include:
Kids can be so cruel
I bet they don't even remember what they did
I bet they feel really guilty
I'm sure they've grown up to be a lovely person
Perhaps there was something odd about you
You turned out alright in the end, didn't you?
Forget about it, move on, what's the point in dwelling on it?
But you didn't tell anybody...
The sad thing is that I'm pretty certain that every single one of those comments was made in good faith, and none was intended to minimise or make me feel worse. However, comments like that are symptomatic of a culture that accepts bullying, a culture that makes it okay to scapegoat and difficult for victims to be open about their experiences or challenge the behaviour of others. Basically, comments like these are actually victim-blaming.
I'm fully aware that the people who bullied me at high school may not remember what they said or did, that they may have grown up into lovely people, who may even regret their actions. However, unless they've actually made an attempt to address their actions, what difference does it make to me? Should I just forgive them to make them feel better? And I'm aware there may have been something about me (or maybe even several things) that made me a target. Or maybe there was no reason at all other than the fact I was unlucky and in the wrong place at the wrong time? I have no idea. Even if there was something different about me, does that make it okay? Should I hold up my hands and say, "Fair dos, I did insist on wearing that wanky blazer all the time and my hair was a bit ridiculous, and of course there was the time I read the Radio Times in my lunch hour, so yes, it probably was my fault."
Yes, kids can be cruel; so what? No, I never told anybody. Does that mean it didn't happen, that I'm remembering it wrong, or that it can't have been that bad? What do you mean when you say I turned out okay? How do you know? The whole landscape of my future was altered because of high school bullying, and although there were some positives that came out of it, I'd still rather it had never happened in the first place.
So, I stay silent, because I don't want to have to justify somebody else's actions, and I'd rather nobody else did either. I stay silent, because I belong to a culture that requires us to have a stiff upper lip when it comes to suffering, a culture that tells me I ought to keep calm and carry on. I stay silent because if I talk about being bullied it might define me, and I don't want to be a victim, because I am so much more than that.
But, here's the thing: being a victim of bullying does define me, because it was the catalyst for so many other things that have happened to me. If I'd never been bullied, then I might not have had such low self-esteem as a teenager, I might have worked harder at school, I might never have self-harmed, I might never have began drinking (and had to quit at the age of twenty-four), I might have been able to be a better friend, I might not have quit my degree (and had to wait years before I could do it again).
Of course I cannot make a definitive link between my having been bullied and all those facts, but it does make me wonder all the same. On the flip side of the coin, there are many positive things that happened that may not have done had I not been bullied. Having to retake my A Levels meant that when I eventually did go to uni a year later, I made some excellent friends and had the best couple of years of my life before I quit (sadly I pissed it all away, but that's a different story). And if I hadn't quit my degree I'd probably never have gone to work in libraries, which I did for a number of years and absolutely loved. If I'd never gone back home and been single for a while, then perhaps I'd never have met my partner when I did. We certainly wouldn't have our beautiful boys, who are the best things ever to have happened to me. And if I'd never got sober, I'd never have had that opportunity to really examine myself and my life. I'd never have got into psychology, or counselling, and I probably would never have started writing either. Because obviously, as a memoir writer, the primary source of my writing is about all those things that have happened to me.
So, you see, although I rarely talk about what happened to me (not through choice, I hasten to add), it has shaped my life pretty comprehensively. And on the page, I can fight it. On the page, I can talk about it. On the page, I am free.
And just to counter-balance all of those negative comments that people have made to me about bullying, the best response I ever received (and the one that still makes me smile when I think of it) was simply: "Bastards."Read Full Post
Life is starting to look up again. Sometimes it takes a timely reminder of how awful certain periods of my life actually were to see how far I've come, and to help me focus on what's important in my present and future. I'm over my wobble from my last post, and also over the temptation to delete it. I've moved on. Sometimes you just need to get something out of your system. I'll trust that things will work out in the right way, and I can sleep soundly with the knowledge that I'm alright now, that I'm still alive and moving forward. I just need to remember The Desiderata by Max Ehrmann:
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
As far as my writing is concerned, I'll send off the story I was preparing for the Words and Women Prose competition 2017 and the slightly longer version of the same story for the Fish Publishing Short Memoir Competition 2017, and then I want to put the lid on that particular story for some time. If I can get one of them published somewhere, then I'll know I had my voice heard and I'll never need to face those demons again.
Lately I've been ignoring my full-length memoir, and I'm wondering whether I need to do something similar with that, i.e. enter shorter pieces into competitions. I know this isn't going to be as simple as just saying I'm going to do it, because there are many other very good writers who are much better and practiced at this sort of thing than I am. I also realise I may be slightly doing myself a disservice if I do this, because once pieces are published then it's tricky to do anything else with them (most competitions don't like extracts), but I know how hard it is to get memoirs published these days, and I'm at the point of feeling like I need to do something productive, whatever that may be. I'll keep subbing for now, but realistically I know I need to gain some more writing credentials before anybody is interested in my work. Sometimes I think I need to go back to the drawing board and think hard of a unique angle to focus on, but in the meantime I probably need to get back to the novel I've been working on, while the non-fiction goes on quietly in the background.
Here's where I am today: It's half-term, and I'm tired from going out last night for the first time in a long time. Today I want to focus on my family, and Christmas coming up, and doing some reading before my Masters starts. My 2 year old is teething and grumpy, and my 5 year old is playing with Lego. And I'm here, with a jug of coffee just trying to keep everything ticking along. And the writing will happen - it always does, but maybe it doesn't need to happen today. Today I am stepping back.Read Full Post
Confidence seems to be a recurring theme in my life lately. A couple of things happened this year that made me question what I'm doing and why. The events in themselves were both relatively minor, but somehow at the time seemed to speak volumes.
One of these was not getting long/shortlisted for the Fish Publishing Short Memoir Competition 2016. This might not seem like a bit deal in the grand scheme of things, but when you are a memoir writer, and competitions come around so scarcely (especially the ones with a decent word limit), then they take on a much bigger meaning than really they ought to, especially when you're so close to the stories you're writing (although I'm sure this is the case for writers of all genres).
I'd written and entered a story that meant a great deal to me. It was a story about a traumatic and scary encounter I had many years ago, a story that made me cross, disappointed and sad for the fact it happened in the first place. I hoped beyond hope I'd get placed in the competition, and I knew I'd be in a dilemma if it didn't. I'd put so much into the story, I really didn't feel I could edit it and improve it any further. It was a rare chance to have my voice heard and gain some recognition for my writing at the same time, and I was quietly, naïvely, hopeful.
The other important thing going on in my life was my application for a Diploma/MA in Person-Centred Counselling, and the interview was looming. Unfortunately, the results of the Fish Short Memoir Competition were announced and published online minutes before I had to leave for the hour-long interview - and I discovered my name wasn't on either the short or the long-list. So before I'd finished reeling from the crushing disappointment that my story hadn't made the grade, I had to get in the car to drive to an in-depth interview where I had to sell the very core of my being, and suddenly I'd lost all faith in who I was.
I knew I'd fluffed the interview as soon as I'd walked out of the building, although it's probably a good job I didn't know at the time that my getting on the Diploma course depended entirely on the answers I gave during the interview (which were graded), and not at all on my academic competence or my contributions in the classroom.
I carried on with life, telling myself that I'd surely be alright. I knew I ought to be in with a good chance of getting on the course. But then the interview dates were extended to give the external candidates a chance, and we discovered that there were so many candidates that they'd have to find a novel way of deciding between potential students. So the course we'd all begun believing it was a feeder course to the Diploma, if only we did the right things in the meantime, became a dead end for most of us. Then the rejection email came through, three days after we'd been promised an answer, and I discovered I'd been unsuccessful.
After that, I had to regroup, and I've spent the last few months figuring it out. I think I'm coming out the other side now. I've discovered that rejection doesn't mean the end of the road, and that it doesn't always mean anything personal.
I got a critique from Fish Publishing, which I was very happy with, and although they gave me a couple of pointers to think about changing (the second-person POV, and a suggestion to adjust the narrative arc slightly to focus more on the transformation aspect towards the end), the rest was all positive, and I feel more confident that I'm on the right path.
The critique renewed my faith in my writing, and I feel sure I can make the story a success. I'm editing it again now, as well as working on a couple of new stories, and hopefully one of them will find its way to publication.
And as far as my counselling career is concerned, I discovered that I was actually placed number five in my class of sixteen (only four were offered places initially), and I got a call when I was on holiday offering me a place on the Diploma course. However, by then, I'd had a rethink of my career/study options and had applied to do an MSc in Psychology instead.
I suppose the moral of the story is: don't read too much into life's disappointments. At the end of the day, nobody died and life carried on. All that happened was that my confidence got a little bit chipped. Then I found it again, and here I am, still smiling, still studying, still writing. Nothing's really changed at all, apart from maybe I'm a little tougher than I thought I was.Read Full Post
The Evils Of Single Gender Schools
As a child, I attended ‘boys only' schools and it screwed up my life. No prizes for deciding which side of this divisive, educational see-saw I'll be jumping on. However, since it is an aspect of life that will affect thousands of impressionable students, let us assume a more pragmatic overview of the situation.
The Present Dichotomy of Choice Within the Educational Hierarchy.
Obviously there is no correct or incorrect answer to this question as both school systems exist, content in the cosy belief that their system is the better one. They'll justify it by quoting the statistics and opinions of so-called experts with strings of qualifications to their names.
All administrative educationists will validate their own existence and beliefs. It is the nature of their profession and is, I suspect, due to their desire to control the educators who matter, the school teachers, masters and support staff.
In the past, learned people have believed in ‘self-evident facts' that we now realise were wrong but, at the time, the populace listened because the people claiming it were important. The Earth isn't flat nor the centre of the universe, the human body can travel faster than fifteen miles an hour and survive and, despite those who championed sexual discrimination as the ‘natural order of humanity', women are equal to men.
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Ten Tweets I Hate About You...
It galls me to admit it, but I absolutely love Twitter – I love the variety and randomness of it, the occasional surprises and the nice (or otherwise) responses I get when folks like what I’m putting out there.
However, there’s a ton of things I hate about Twitter too, or to be more specific, there’s a ton of things that annoy me about other Twiterrers (is that a word?)
Therefore, for no other reason than me needing to get it off my chest, here are the 10 things that irritate me about other users of the above-mentioned social media platform...
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Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self
I remembered earlier in the week when I was driving to university how a book helped to inspire me when I first started writing again. It was called 'Dear Me: A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self by Joseph Galliano.
I never did write that letter, though it spurred me on to get writing again, so I'm very grateful for its existence.
Anyway, I thought it would be fun to write a proper letter now, so here it is:
Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self
I wish I could tell you that you're going to have the future you always dreamed of, but the truth is that nothing in life is going to come easily to you. All I can do is warn you of the pitfalls that lie ahead, and tell you a few things about yourself and the situations you will find yourself in that nobody else is going to tell you.
Firstly, although life seems to be opening up for you right now, I want you to know that you'd have been okay if only you'd worked a bit harder at school instead of playing catch up. The trouble is you've got nobody championing your academic future, except yourself (and to an extent, your parents), but you really need to know that you're capable of so much more, and I wish that you could see that and focus on your schoolwork instead of trying to snog as many boys as possible and going out smoking and drinking. You will never get the kind of encouragement you need at school, and your parents, although on your side, will never push you in the way that you need right now.
Unfortunately, you won't find that self-belief, and the drive to satisfy your intellectual curiosity until you're in your thirties, but I want you to know that one day you will find it, and when you do, there will be no stopping you. I'm aware this is a long way off in your future, and is probably of no concern to you now, but I want you to know that you're not a lost cause.
I also want to reassure you about your social status. You should never have ended up at the bottom of the heap, and I'm sorry about the dreadful first year you had at high school. You never really managed to climb back up after that, and you never found a place you belonged either. That's not your fault. You were not to blame. I can promise you that you will never find yourself in such a peculiar social setting in your life, though your experiences at high school will always follow you wherever you go, and you will always doubt whether people actually like you or not (and for the record, they always do, but you probably don't believe me).
I'm sorry to say that you're not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot, and your last year at high school will be the worst of your life, even worse than the last year before you got sober (sorry to be the bearer of bad news). And I really, really wish I could stop you in your tracks right now, before you fall in love with somebody dangerous, a wolf in sheep's clothing, and find yourself in a very dark situation, but I don't think I'd be able to stop you.
I'm so sorry that nobody else saw what was happening, but that's the nature of growing up as a female in a patriarchal society. Classic rape culture at work, to put it bluntly. (God how I wish you could look into the future to see the feminist you've become!) I still can't believe that not one adult was able to read between the lines and see how you'd been scapegoated at school, and it's the one thing I wish I could have saved you from. As for him, he'll have to live with what he did every day of his life. Oh, and the 'other' rape? You were totally right about that too, and I wish you'd had the strength of your convictions to pursue it with the police, instead of reverting to your fallback position of standing aside and letting the adults ride roughshod over your life again.
But you will learn from this. The injustice that you will feel, and the anger (though you are only barely aware of it right now) will spur you on in later years. It will be why you choose to study psychology, and later on, it will be why you begin to write - not necessarily about that, but it's the reason you need to speak out, to be understood, to use your voice, to be the best person you can possibly be.
I also wish I could get you to slow down time when you eventually go away to university, that you could stop, and look around you, and see how your life is perfect in every way. Because you're going to screw it all up, I'm afraid.
You discovered friends who didn't know you from before, who accepted you regardless, and you started to find your way. I truly believe that you could have changed your future at this point, if only you'd valued yourself enough to begin with. If you'd just gone to more lectures, spent your money on clothes rather than booze, and tried to be a better friend, you would have had such a different life. Though, I suppose you also still had that deep hatred of yourself that meant you were always going to fuck it up.
If only you'd known - you weren't bad. You could have been great. But you went down the slippery slope of alcoholism, and ruined everything. The best friends you'd ever have, the bright future (not that you ever believed it possible), all went down the pan, because you had no idea how to succeed at everyday life, at taking care of yourself, or the impact your antics had on everybody else. But mostly you.
And your fashion choices? Perfect. If only you'd worn the clothes you liked with confidence, you'd have been fab (still could be - it's not too late to make that choice). You need to know that nobody else dictates your style. Nobody gets to say what you should be wearing. Why didn't you defy your dad when he told you to take your nose ring out? You were seventeen, old enough to stand up for yourself. It wasn't his decision; it was yours.
And when you bought that purple tie-died top and black tasseled skirt from 'Head in the Clouds', you looked great (not that you'd wear it today, aged forty, and you probably wouldn't want to). Why the hell did you listen to the lads from school who asked you what planet you were from when you wore the top to class that day? You should have told them where to go. Just because they were used to you being Dull Girl, it didn't mean you had to be her forever.
At least nobody ever called you that after the age of sixteen, you can take comfort from that. In fact, it's probably more of a consolation to you than my warning of some of the terrible names you'll be called in the coming years. (By the way, you were none of those things either. Except 'Pisshead' perhaps. We'll take that one on the chin.)
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I wish you'd had more faith in yourself, in your self-worth, your opinions, and in every little aspect of your personality.
So, to my sixteen-year-old-self: Nobody else is going to tell you this, but you're amazing.
Listen to your favourite bands, wear the clothes you love, and forget about trying to be a sex goddess - the right person will think you're one without you having to work at it. Oh, and nobody but you has the right to your body, and how dare anybody tell you otherwise.
Be kind, be funny, and be a good friend. If you have great friends, you'll never really be alone, and if you can find something to laugh about at the end of the day then you'll never lose. And for those times when you feel like you really are alone, have faith. This too shall pass. Nothing is ever the end.
Have faith in yourself and Just Be.Read Full Post
The best laid writing plans
My plan for July is simple: I aim to submit my memoir to three agents.
I started submitting for the first time last summer. I bought a copy of 'The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 2016', and went through all the literary agents in the UK, writing down the ones that dealt with memoirs, and then finding out the name of the right agent in each agency to contact. After that, I started fine-tuning my synopsis and covering letter.
I discovered that it's not as simple as sending out the same sample of work, the same synopsis, and the same covering letter as a job lot to a bunch of literary agents, because the agencies don't all work in the same way.
Mostly, my synopsis has stayed intact (although it's not unheard of for agents to want a synopsis of a different length to the one you've written). On the other hand, I've had to format three separate versions of my work to send, because although most agencies generally like you to email the first three chapters, Aitken Alexander only wanted the first two chapters, and The Blair Partnership only wanted one.
I sent off five submissions in the first batch. After I got rejections from four agents, I lost heart a bit. I kept telling myself I'd send another batch out, that I was just busy with other commitments, but the sad truth is that the whole process seemed fruitless.
I knew that rejection was to be expected in the literary world, and that it would happen more often than not. I also knew I'd get over it and eventually find the courage to try again, but there was always the worry that perhaps my work just wasn't up to scratch, that I was foolishly trying to enter a world that wasn't meant for me. So I kept putting off sending another batch of submissions out, while I worked on other things.
Technically, I was busy. I was in the middle of writing a couple of short stories (that ended up getting nowhere in the competitions I entered them into), and I'd started writing a comedy based in a library (which, come to think of it, I also need to look at again). Plus, I was busy with school runs, and looking after my toddler, and I also had the occasional essay to write for a postgraduate certificate in person-centred counselling that I'd been studying for.
So not much editing got done, and I kept putting off the submissions.
I've realised since then that it wasn't so much the fear of rejection that prevented me from moving on, it was the expectation of rejection, which is one step removed, and means that there is no hope - which may or may not be true, but it still brought me to a standstill.
I considered the realistic odds of publication for my memoir, and the future didn't look great. Realistically, I'm aware that I probably ought to be looking at smaller agencies, or pitching directly to publishers, but the dream of being published traditionally is not one I'm ready to give up on just yet.
I've always known that I faced an uphill struggle as far as being traditionally published was concerned. The market for 'triumph over adversity' memoirs peaked in the 1990s, when my own story was yet to finish, with titles such as 'Prozac Nation' and 'Girl, Interupted' capturing the hearts of many readers (myself included).
These days, with physical book sales in decline, and the fact that there is just so much more choice, means that the likelihood of writing a story that is so different from what's been said before is slim. Memoirs about addiction, especially, have had their day. In the current climate, unless the subject matter of a memoir is particularly unusual, it is harder to get a publishing deal. Otherwise, to be a success, a memoirist needs now to capture something phenomenally different about a relatable experience, and give it a poignant and unusual slant (Hence why I mentioned 'H is for Hawk' in my last post, because it's a story that has it all, and also has a distinguishable and extremely readable 'voice').
As far as my own memoir is concerned, I'm still searching for an unusual twist, which I may or may not ever find. In the meantime, all I can do is make sure my writing is as good as it can be, that my plot is as tight as possible, and that my characters are memorable.
I've got over my wobble now, and I'm ready to put myself out there again. So, I'm setting myself the minuscule task of submitting to three agents, and we'll see what happens. I don't hold out much hope, but I haven't given up yet. As far as I'm concerned, this is only the beginning.Read Full Post
It took me over a year to write the first draft of my memoir, It Never Rains in Wycombe. Perhaps I'd have completed it sooner if I'd had more time, but I believe the thinking time was a crucial aspect. I'm sure I wrote most of that first draft in my head, while falling asleep at night, or doing the washing up, and sometimes it spilled out onto my morning pages. Then I'd sit down and type - though not in a linear way.
My story formed haphazardly on the page, with odd scenes coming to life in no particular order. Apart from the first and last chapter, I had no plan as to how I was going to write the rest of the story. Sometimes I made lists of events, or vague suggestions for chapter titles, or if I was feeling particularly lazy, I'd jot down everything I could remember about a particular character or place I lived (I'd filter the details later). The main thing was that I needed to be in the right mood to tell certain parts of the story. When I sat down for my half-hour sessions during the day (my eldest son never napped for longer than half an hour until he was two), I'd see where the gaps were and make a snap decision as to where I would begin. The only rule was that I had to write non-stop for at least fifteen minutes.
I didn't write during every nap time either. Often, there were chores to be done - milks to be made, bottles to be sterilised, washing up, cooking, tidying, and the odd sit down with a cup of coffee. I also tried to read as many books on writing and editing as I could, though there's only so much you can do in a day, so I often saved the reading for bedtime, however tired I was after baby groups, weaning, nursery rhymes, board books, stacking cups and CBeebies. I always turned my bedside lamp off feeling like there was so much more I ought to have done, but I carried on regardless, making the most of those first months of motherhood, and discovering myself at the same time. Here are some of the highlights of my first year of writing:
Joining a writing group
I don't think I'd ever have got my first draft finished if I hadn't joined a writing group. I joined an online group called WriteWords, which was heaving with members when I first signed up. I couldn't attend a local writing club, because I was wiped out in the evenings, after our son had gone to bed, and I really needed to be in bed with a book before nine o'clock. I knew I needed support and advice though, and WriteWords was full of writers of all levels - from complete novices through to published, well-regarded authors (some of whom I'd even heard of). I joined several of the groups on the site, and I'm still a member today, even though the number of members has declined since I first joined in 2012. Even today, I meet so few fellow writers in my everyday life, that I really value the contact with the friends I've made online, and we all keep each other writing, however diverse our projects and goals are.
Giving myself permission to write badly
This is probably the best advice I could give to budding writers, especially if you're a perfectionist, like me. I always thought that when I came to write my story, I'd just write it in one sitting (!) and the words would all fall into place, as if by magic. However, if you try to let go of that desire to be instantly great, you might actually give yourself the chance to write something that's probably fairly decent. I cringed and used the delete key so much to start with, and I cringe even more if I ever read any of that first draft. It was very rough, had so many pace problems, and was far too heavy on telling-not-showing. I learned early on to gloss over quite a lot and be a bit kinder to myself - it's the only way.
End of maternity leave
This was the crunch time for my writing, sink or swim. I knew that if I let the muse go at that point, I'd let 'real' life get in the way and probably never write again. It was an emotional time in other ways too, as our little boy was going to be be starting nursery, and I worried my special time with him would end. I knew I was being silly in that respect, as I only worked part-time to start with, and I always appreciated how fortunate I was, but it was a leap into the unknown nonetheless, though thankfully in retrospect, not a leap I needed to fret about. As it happened, our son loved nursery, and I enjoyed being back at the library again. It also turned out that I cared enough about my writing project to keep plugging away at it. My schedule required a little tweaking, but the passion was still there, and I held on tight.
When is enough enough?
This question kept me procrastinating for at least three months until I actually decided I'd finished the first draft, and that I ought to start thinking about taking a break before starting the editing process. It was a similar feeling to the way that I'd started writing to start with - I expected I'd just know I was finished, that I couldn't possibly write another word. Obviously, 'the end' doesn't come come completely out of the blue, but I think I'd expected some kind of sixth sense to kick in, or a fanfare, or something more marked than the kind of uncertain, fearful, anticlimactic, will that do? kind of thoughts that were going through my mind. I spent weeks not doing very much writing at all, until I finally decided that the first draft was complete.
Apart from the mind-blowing knowledge that I'd written the first draft of a memoir, the reality of pressing the last full-stop key (for the time-being) was fairly disappointing. I rewarded myself with a break from writing for a few weeks whilst I thought about how to begin editing. I had many dilemmas, such as whether to keep the story written in present tense or switch to past tense (I chose past tense in the end), whether to fictionalise the book or not (I chose not to), whether I was allowed to keep the 90s song lyrics I'd put in (not without huge expense). I also had so many questions, like how would I know if I'd got too many characters? How could I stand back far enough from my story to know what to cut? How do know if I've got the pace right? Is my story marketable, different enough?
I struggled with the last question, because I suspected my memoir wasn't different enough, and I didn't know what I could do to fix it. My dad joked recently that I need to add a hawk, like Helen Macdonald, but ultimately it was a problem I had no solution to. All I could do was to write the best second draft I could, and hope that by the end of it, I'd have more of an idea where I was going with the book. (Disclaimer: Although I have more of an idea what I'm doing with the book now, four years on, I still wish I had a story like Helen Macdonald's.)
So, there I was with a first draft under my belt, some spare time on my hands and no idea how to begin editing. I worried that was the end of my writing career. Would I even have the courage to start writing again, after a break? It was an uncertain time, as my partner and I were talking about moving back to East Anglia again, and we were also thinking about having another baby. A move and another baby would put my postgraduate study plans back, too, although I'd always known a delay was on the cards. Again, thoughts of writing kept me going. I decided I'd learn everything I could about editing and apply it to my second draft. I was ready to start again.
Starting the second draft was almost as daunting as starting to write in the first place. But because I'd invested so much time, so much of myself into my writing life, there was no way I was ever going to stop.
I still feel the same way.Read Full Post
Memories of a past life: morning pages and motherhood
I admit, I haven't written morning pages for a long, long time.
But this blog is about my writing journey, and for a time when I was on maternity leave, and a short while afterwards, morning pages were my salvation.
I started writing them when I was reading The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. The Artist's Way is entirely responsible for me starting to write again in the first place, as Cameron's words, and the words of the other creatives she quotes in the pages allowed me to begin to get my story down, and to start finding my voice - the voice of a new mum who was still finding her feet, and the voice of the troubled teen and young adult who hadn't seen daylight for years.
I loved being a mum, but it was hard. We were living in a small village in North Yorkshire, far away from my family, far away from friends, and far away from the person I'd once been. My life consisted of our son's routine, which I stuck to rigidly, only venturing out to do things with him - NCT coffee mornings, Swimbabes, or the odd play date with other mums from my NCT group. But most of the time, I felt like I didn't exist.
Morning pages changed all that. The idea of them is that you write three sides of A4 first thing in the morning, without stopping to think about what you're writing - because if you can't censor your writing, then there's no room for your inner critic to interrupt and derail your train of thought. When you've finished your three pages, you stop and put the pages away.
I admit, I did cheat a little, as I'd often begin with an idea of what I wanted to try and write about. But I still wrote them, and the things they brought up became the lifeblood of the memoir I was writing about my drinking days.
In those pages, I wrote about anything and everything. I wrote about how tired I was, and how unsure I was of myself as a mum and a human being. I wrote about my future study plans and 'debated' whether or not to pursue a career in psychology or counselling. I rediscovered my cultural identity, and my identity as a woman. I wrote about the places I belonged, and didn't belong. I wrote character sketches for the people I'd write about in the memoir. I set myself targets for finishing the first draft, and for how many words I could write in a day, a week, or a month. I wrote lists of books to read - on creative writing and editing, and novels and other memoirs that looked interesting. I spoke directly to my inner critic, and discovered the reasons it had taken me so long to start writing.
Writing morning pages enabled me to get to know the person I'd become since I'd got sober at the age of twenty-four, and why I was the way I was.
In sobriety, I was a sensible person. I did everything I was supposed to do, never let my hair down, and quite frankly, was a little bit square. I knew my youth was behind me, and in some ways, that was just fine. I knew I'd never get drunk and snog strangers again, or fall down stairs in nightclubs, or wake up thirsty and tearful at four in the morning only to drink the last few dregs of whiskey or vodka in the bottle.
Morning pages helped me to remember those bad times. They also helped me mourn the better times, even though I knew deep down I didn't really want them back. But I needed to relive those memories, and preserve them so that I could remember that before I started hurtling towards my rock bottom, some of those drunken days were pretty fabulous and special.
I'd never never have silly drunken girly chats again... I'd never roll on the floor laughing drunk with friends about how we'd gatecrashed a band on stage the night before... I'd never walk down the street drunk in daylight with friends who knew me at my worst, with a feather duster in one hand and water pistol in the other, singing 'Wannabe' by The Spice Girls...
...I'd never sing, or dance again.
Suddenly, all I could see was my youth getting further and further away, and middle-aged, middle class mediocrity looming.
I had to find myself in the midst of that, find the old me - then I could march boldly into the future, knowing I wasn't lost.
Morning pages helped me find myself. They helped me come to terms with my past, and the struggles I'd endured that had led to me becoming a drunken mess in the first place. They helped me to carve out the story I wanted to tell, of a lost teenage girl, hopeless, misplaced, having no idea how to address the bullying I'd suffered in my early days at high school: the name-calling, the dinner money stealing, the chasing and stripping in the changing rooms, or the sexual assault I never spoke about that changed me forever the summer I was seventeen.
Morning pages helped me to remember the girl who survived, who found a way to belong. She wasn't very functional; she drank triple gin and tonics, smoked Marlborough Lights, and slept around. But she was fun, she was popular, and she was always the one at the centre of the joke.
She was also a bit of a flake, and even though she always said she'd have done anything for anybody, she wasn't a very good friend to others in the end.
Morning pages were also my way of remedying that. I would write that girl's story, and I'd do it as a testimony to those people I hurt, those friends I lost, and also as a way of telling those people who'd hurt me that they hadn't won, they hadn't broken me. It was time to speak my truth.
Obviously, I didn't write the whole of the first draft of my memoir in morning pages, but they gave my writing day structure. I wrote my three pages first thing in the morning, before my son got up (we were very lucky he was a great sleeper), then during his first nap of the day, I'd read my notes (I know you're not really supposed to), and during his second nap, I'd write. And as the months went by, the pages started filling up, and my story started to come alive.
I'm sorry to say that my morning pages went by the wayside a long time ago. Life took over. I went back to work after maternity leave and didn't have time to do them everyday. Then my son started cutting down his naps, and I stopped completely.
Sometimes I look back on those days, and I can't believe I dug my way out. But I did. I found a way to be a mum and myself at the same time. I thrived. My son thrived. Our family thrived.
Now, with two kids and studying part-time, morning pages are a distant memory. I couldn't tell you the last time I thought about writing them.
Until I started this blog post. And now I'm remembering how transformative and empowering they were, I'm wondering why I ever stopped. I think I need to find time amongst my busy life of school runs and essays and agent submissions to write them again. Who knows where they'll take me?Read Full Post
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