Sunday, 29 June 2008

Sunday morning


Lazy weekends used to mean just one thing: lie ins. Black coffee in bed, the papers, leisurely breakfasts at Picasso, a gallery, a stroll along the river ... These days Sunday mornings are rather different. After a few days of sole childcare, (pilot is flying overnight from Mexico), today saw everyone up by six, usual breakfast brouhaha, walk the dog, do the chores, squeeze in some work emails, and a quick glance at the headlines if you are lucky.

Flicking through last week's unread Style section as I tossed it into the recycling bin last night along with the rest of the unread Sunday paper, there was an interesting article in which a single career woman in her late thirties swapped places with a mother of four for a couple of days. The results were interesting - the career girl took to family life like a duck to water, loving everything except the thankless groundhog day drudgery. She loved the intimacy, the company, the laughter. By the end of the experiment, city lights palled for the mother of four, and she couldn't wait to get back home. I think that's the secret, the love that until recently dare not speak its name - at least for me there is nothing like family life, nothing like the love you feel for your children, nothing like the deep calm after the hurlyburly. What about you? Answers on a postcard, or post a comment - if there is anyone out there reading this!

For me, at least the sacrifices are more than worth it, and a pram in the hall has never stopped me doing the work I love. Last year I was headhunted by one of the auction houses to set up their operation in the Middle East - there are still times when I think wistfully of the intellectual challenge, the six figure salary, the hot and cold running domestic help, and the chance to wear something that has to be drycleaned for a change but I don't regret turning the job down. I wanted to write, and I wanted to be there for my family. I couldn't reconcile that with the devotion needed to start up a new business operation. Every old lady who pats your baby on its head and says to make the most of them has it right - children grow up so fast. This will not last forever. I do not want to look back and regret missing a single moment. You can still have coffee in bed on a Sunday morning, only these days there are likely to be three or more of you, and one of you may need your nappy changing.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Savage beasts


Writers seem to fall into two camps - some can't work without music, others can't work with. I've always fallen into the former category - there are certain passages of music (Kind of Blue, Chopin Nocturnes), that I've listened to so much while working they have a Pavlovian effect now. Personally I don't do well with white sound.

It's good to experiment, find out what works for you. Some writer friends find anything with lyrics problematic and invasive, while they are fine with classical, jazz or dance. Learning to type was one of the best things I've ever done - and the fearsome Mrs Leach who taught us at Clifton secretarial college,(and passed round the nail scissors on the first morning to cut our nails to the quick), made us hammer away on the old manual type writers to a succession of classical LPs, to get a good rhythm going. She typed John Le Carre's manuscripts using this method and claimed to have whizzed them off without a single typo at fearsome speed.

Music is something of a necessity at the moment - my writing space in the corner of the basement is open to the noise of the kitchen above. So when I was editing the first book last summer it was tricky - three kids, dog, oak floor, you get the picture. I downloaded a soundtrack for the book and loaded up my MP3 player. It worked brilliantly, and if you like to write to music I really recommend it. As I listened to Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Philip Glass and others, the kinks in the text seemed to smooth out. Score your manuscript - get cinematic, visualise and hear your scenes. If what was 'Love & Loss' (and now has a new title), makes it to the silver screen there is a ready made soundtrack. Dream on!

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Who do you think you are ..?


It's a fantastic moment when your characters take on a life of their own. Someone once said that the writer's original perception of a character may be as erroneous as the reader's. It is like some kind of alchemy or magic seeing the characters evolve and change as the story takes on a momentum of its own.

In life, we are all the heroes of our own story. A friend asked me the other day whether my characters are based on real people. Well ... yes and no. Real people provided the spark for each of them, the magic lightbulb moment - as did real places and real events. I do admit I often give characters names I had pencilled in for my children (the ones the pilot vetoed like Gabriel, or ones we loved that didn't seem quite right once we saw the faces of our own babies - Isabella and Benedict for example). There is no richer seam for you to tap into than your own experience, your loves, and indeed your own family. On our Welsh side we have boxers, Druids (as in the Welsh Eistedfod poets not the Stonehenge variety), wool mill owners, Ministers and a Prime Minister (Lloyd George). On the Scottish Ormerod Lord side there are boxers (again interestingly), publicans, and Resistance fighters. Add to this the pilot's side - fighter pilots, boxers (a theme appearing here), diplomats and a Romany prince who taught King George to shoot, and it is an interesting gene pool that the kids are inheriting (wouldn't pick a fight with them in the playground)! Get nostalgic, tap into the unique story of your family and see where it leads you ... you are the hero/ine of your own story.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Blue Sky Thinking


We live in one of the loveliest parts of the country (having lived at one time or another in every region, and with Scottish and Welsh family it's fair to say I can say this with confidence!) When you cross the border into Hampshire, you are welcomed to 'Jane Austen Country'. She lived at Chawton, just up the valley from us in (yes) a perfect Georgian box of a house. Dickens also lived around here, it's the birthplace of cricket thanks to my namesake Thomas Lord, and the countryside is breathtaking. From the cathedral cities of Winchester and Chichester to the glorious open skies and sands of West Wittering, I love it here.

If you are feeling jaded, and perhaps the muse is on holiday there is nothing better for your work than to get out of the house and just walk. There is nothing like refuelling your creativity by simply looking around you with fresh eyes, or refreshing your brain by relaxing and enjoying another art form. In the old days Julia Cameron style 'Artist Dates' involved exciting things like visits to the Tate, mooching round antiques markets, theatre trips, nights at the opera. These days it is more likely to be wading through the water meadows with children, trailing fishing nets and a wet hound. For me, at least, there is nothing like fresh air and glorious views to refresh body and mind - when was the last time you walked on cool grass with bare feet, or pressed flowers, or collected leaves, or really looked at the amazing beauty and structure of a shell? These are all things your children will love to do with you - they are all free, and there for the taking. If you're in the city, why not head to the park (everything looks better hanging upside down on a swing). Get a new perspective. Lighten up. Your work will flow.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

The Great Escape


Where do you write? We're lucky in our work that really all you need is a pad and pen, or a laptop to work. When I painted, it wasn't so easy. Large canvases destined for vast white corporate walls take up an uncomfortable amount of space if your studio is at home - it was around the time I managed to paint half the cat ultramarine, gild her paws and deliver a canvas with an interesting 'textural' finish (aka cat hair) that I decided enough was enough with that career.

A Room of One's Own ... that's the dream. A writer friend's husband has just designed a library for her next to his studio - isn't that the most romantic thing you've ever heard? With British houses often pushed for space, and the need to be out of yelling distance to work in peace ('Muuuummmmyyyy ..!'), a lot of people are turning to the garden. Personally, I have started drooling over Amdega catalogues the way I used to over Vogue. Sheds are no longer the preserve of men - though there is a long literary tradition: Roald Dahl, Hemingway to name just two. One mother after my own heart has taken a sudden interest in the potting shed - there she keeps notebook, Roberts radio, and a bottle of wine. Whether it is a romantic library, a shed, or a corner of the basement or bedroom - stake out your territory and declare your purpose. Stephen King said in 'On Writing' that you 'write a novel ... catching it word by word.' You need somewhere safe to keep them while you are busy with the rest of your life. You need somewhere that is your own.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Never give up, never give in ...


So, the world's disheartening meeting with one of the best agents in London. It is, according to her, the worst time in ten years to try and get a book published. The hope of writing full time drifts further away again. But, slap me sideways and call me Pollyanna I just can't believe this book won't make it to the shelves.

Rejection is part of the course for writers. Took me ages to get used to it, but as the director Vadim Jean once said, if you're going to write you had better zip up your rhino suit. If you want to see your work in print, whether your write articles, short stories or novels, determination is everything.

If you get tired waiting for your work to be picked up by an agent or publisher, why not market it yourself? Sites like Xlibris and Lulu.com have given writers the freedom to take their books straight to market. You can sell online through Amazon, or print on demand. For inspiration from an agent with a more positive spin on the current market, take a look at Nathan Bransford's blog - loads of fantastic, constructive posts about pitching your work. Whichever road you take, keep at it - at the end of the day, success I think often as much to do with perseverance as talent.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Heroes



Who are your heroes? This is the picture I have over my desk - a litho of Picasso's portrait of Francoise. She was famously the only woman ever to leave Picasso - stifled by his ego, genius and infidelity. Francoise is one of mine - for her strength, brilliance and creativity. She's also the mother of the beautiful and talented designer Paloma Picasso. I saw the drawing in New York years ago and loved it. The lives and work of other women artists can be a great inspiration - when I discovered Elsa Peretti, Lee Miller, Beatrice Wood, Colette, Francoise Sagan, Georgia O'Keefe and others in my teens, they gave me a sense that anything was possible. I mentioned Julia Cameron yesterday - she's a terrific debunker of the myths about artists (that they are male, mad, drunk). Reading her work I realised that artists and writers can be balanced and creative. Look around you at women who are artists and parents - there are success stories everywhere.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Time


Would you really be any more productive without children around? Yes, writing time is necessarily stolen time, but it was when I worked full time as well. The first draft of the first book was written piecemeal - I used to get up an hour earlier in the morning and write with my keyboard balanced on a chest of drawers, steal lunch hours in Chelsea library or St Luke's garden, and scribble my way home down the King's Road on the top deck of the number 22. I remember working on the manuscript in a high rise looking over Kuwait, and in a hotel near the auction house Drouot in Paris when I travelled on business. It was finished off in a whitewashed villa in the orange groves of Valencia. 'Love & Loss' has literally travelled the world with me.

Its latest travels have been less exciting - to the coffee shop while my son is at nursery (should have shares in Cafe Nero), and between bed and basement as it has been edited and rewritten. BC (before children), I would write first thing and many people find this the best time, when you are rested but deliciously still half asleep. If you are just starting out, do try Julia Cameron's method of writing free-form morning pages ('The Artist's Way' and 'The Vein of Gold' can't be recommended enough).

Now I work late into the night while they sleep through necessity, as most mornings we are up before 6am with the children - earlier if the pilot has to be at the airport. Sleep has become a luxury, something I long for. In 'Becoming a Writer', the excellent Dorothea Brande advocated the usefulness of writing while in an artistic coma. She wrote this book about the writer's magic in 1934, but it is honestly one of the best - (who else would bluntly tell you to give up on writing if you can't do the exercises because you would be better off doing something else?) It may feel like everything else is a juggling act - like you could do better at being a good wife/mother/daughter/friend/housekeeper/writer, but with small children, sleep deprivation and a book waiting to be written, working in the grip of an artistic coma is something that comes effortlessly.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Memories


The beautiful quote from Rilke that opens 'Love & Loss' translates 'nostalgia' as 'longing':

Oh longing for places that were not
Cherished enough in that fleeting hour,
How I long to make good from afar
The forgotten gesture, the additional act!

I wonder if it isn't more complicated than simple longing? Nostalgia is bittersweet. When writers raid their memories of places and people, it's not always the happy ones that produce the best work. Time has a way of smoothing out the wrinkles of reality - perhaps it's a survival mechanism, to remember only the best, or the most vivid of our experiences. In uncertain times, it is reassuring to look back. We are surrounded by comforting echoes of the past - look at the current popularity of Cath Kidston, and DAB radios housed in old Roberts' casings.

As I drove through the valley this morning, I passed a glorious cornfield full of vivid red poppies. It reminded me of visiting Arnhem on my fifteenth birthday and seeing heartbreaking fields of white crosses, dotted with red poppy wreaths; it also reminded me of pressing poppies between blotting paper as a child, the dried petals like fine silk. Rilke famously adored roses. This morning a poppy triggered some interesting notes, and a new story line for the next book. What makes you feel nostalgic?

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Write, Mama, Write ...


You may have heard the story about the famous author, whose child was asked 'What does your Mummmy do?' 'Well,' he said, 'she's a typist.'

I was thinking this morning how lucky we are in our choice of art form. There are exceptions - tales of Barbara Hepworth sculpting with children at her feet spring to mind, but the other arts are harder to practice with small peope in tow. Even the dazzling Lee Miller abandoned photography, turning to cookery instead. I have been to board meetings with a weeks old baby in a sling, and worked into the night with them asleep in a Moses basket at my side. Most people are pretty forgiving as long as you give them the results they want, but it's not easy. With writing, there is no excuse - all you need is a scrap of paper and a pencil. Articles, stories and novels can be built one word at a time.

Women of my generation grew up believing we could do anything - I remember career events where women in dungarees handed out badges with a militant fist attached to the female gender sign, and we were encouraged to sign up on engineering courses. At one of these, Wendy Cope recited work from her fabulous 'Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis.' Now that, I thought, is a job. It's good to get out and go to as many readings as you can. I saw the lovely, bestselling Sophie Kinsella at a library event recently, and it is reassuring to see that successful writers are real people, just like you. Writers groups are also a fantastic chance to experiment and get feedback. I used to belong to 'Women's Ink' in London, that met in the Nomad bookstore on the Fulham Road after hours. (A writer's group in Valencia was less successful - lots of would-be Hemingways and not much space for the girls).

It can feel like you are writing/typing alone. Support is out there - check out the excellent 'WOW - Women on Writing' (see the links on the right), or Mslexia. Both are full of inspiring stories, writing competitions, and links to work. WOW also sell t-shirts with 'Not Now, I'm Writing!' - something I have often wished was tatooed across my forehead. Then again as Stephen King wrote in his excellent 'On Writing' - put your desk in the corner: 'Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around.' Happy typing.


Friday, 13 June 2008

Devotion


Great Aunt Rose hid her husband in a secret room under the stairs during the War. She outwitted the Nazis with the Dutch Resistance, lost many friends, but saved her husband's life. After liberation, he repaid this devotion by having an affair with her best friend Mimi while Rose was in England recovering from the car crash that crippled her. He had been driving the sports car. Divorced, childless, but young and still beautiful she came home. Studio photos of her at the time show a handspan waist, elegant Dior dresses and a luminous blonde beauty as lovely as any black and white movie star. Her open house was always full of friends, warmth and laughter. Rose was not only beautiful, but the kindest person I have ever met. She was the first person to ring and congratulate me when I had my first stories published. I remember sitting on the kitchen doorstep on a sunny London evening listening as she told me the story of Jack and Mimi, and how Rose had always wanted to write, but hadn't. It was thanks to an inheritance from her that I had help with the children last summer, (the nanny who painted the kids and dog blue). Thanks to her, 'Love & Loss' was written.

Does everyone really have a novel in them? Rose's life story is as moving as any wartime blockbuster, but I've often wondered why she didn't write it down. What makes a writer write? It is after all a solitary business. For me, at least, writing is something as natural as breathing - I am the bespectacled kid who wrote plays for her dolls, love letters for friends to send their boyfriends, and volumes of diaries (burnt in a spur of the moment romantic gesture the night before I got married. May regret that one when I reach the purple kaftan stage). I adore books ... as we have travelled I have willingly offloaded clothes, furniture, all possessions, but the books have come with us. I love everything about the physical process of writing - paper, pens, can spend hours in stationery stores. I have to write - it's that simple. Call it love, obsession, call it devotion.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Reasons to be cheerful part 3 - 1, 2, 3




Thursday is a precious writing day. Everyone happy at school and nursery, my mind already turning to book 3, Valencia, orange groves, passion ... Until. The dreaded call from the saintlike Year 1 Teacher midway through my morning writing session and a skinny Frappe Latte (well you've got to try haven't you? The gym is a distant memory and half the gorgeous mothers at school have personal trainers). As we were traversing Hampshire - first Petersfield hospital, then Portsmouth A&E, listening to the soothing tones of the man who was Jesus Christ (Superstar or the grittier version?) reciting The Little Prince - anything to soothe frazzled nerves and the sobbing from the backseat, I suddenly thought of the dear departed Ian Dury: Reasons to be cheerful - 1, 2, 3. I have tried this, I am very much a glass half full person, but I get bored easily with daily lists about why you should be thankful. Many, many people with more experience and better qualifications than myself recommend that before you go to bed listing three things to be grateful for that day will make you infinitely happier in the long run, so why don't you give it a try?

I may have lost my writing time (again) but let's give it a whirl: 1) I spent quality time eating soup with my little girl today (because we had to go home to let the dog out before racing back to the hospital, and she had knocked her front teeth out) 2) Friends - the calls I had from school (the lovely, lovely mothers are the saving grace of this latest move), and when we came back home the flowers and champagne on the doorstep - which takes us to 3) Family. Today is our wedding anniversary. The pilot is in Colombo. His morning text did not congratulate me on 11 years of happy marriage and nigh on 20 of happy shacked-up-togetherness. I hope he hasn't forgotten ... but his mother, his sister, his grandmother, my mother have not and they are all of the same mind as me. Sunflowers, lilies, and champagne ordered from Singapore - all from the girls. Life is Sweet.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Sombre enemy?


The title of this blog of course comes from Cyril Connolly's assertion that "There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall." (This was the man, incidentally, immortalised in my favourite Monty Python song "Eric the Half-a-Bee", as a mishearing of the words "semi-carnally"). Did he even have children? Frankly there are all manner of excuses not to write. (Earning a living, avoiding the housework, general boondoggling). My children aren't one of them. In fact, having children makes you see the world with fresh eyes. Yes, your time is no longer your own; yes, you are exhausted by the groundhog day like chores ... and yet, how much do you come to value your writing time? My 'day job' is running a house, family, and small business, but I know down in the basement lies the seed of my third book.

Last summer I was lucky enough to have help with the kids a couple of mornings a week. Just knowing I had those precious hours of writing time got me through the summer holidays. I was obscenely grateful to our wonderful sitter. Even the morning I emerged, blinking from the basement to find she had managed to paint the children, hound, and half the garden blue didn't phase me. It was a glorious summer, and I finished editing the book.

These days if I can't actually get down to the desk until everyone is bathed and in bed, I send notes and fragments scrawled on the back of shopping lists and envelopes sailing down the stairs into the darkness like I am waiting for an answer from some oracle. I think it was the great Annie Dillard who wrote on how quickly a manuscript turns feral if you don't write something, anything every day. Scribble those thoughts down, use a dictaphone - it's amazing how many times I have had an epiphany brushing my teeth or doing the school run, only to have lost that perfect sentence or plot twist if I have waited to get to my desk. Maybe some day soon the dream will come true and I'll be able to write full time, and have help with the daily 'stuff' of life. For now my work keeps me sane in a world shared with singing purple dinosaurs, and the pram in the hall gives me something to lean on while catching ideas on scraps of paper as I walk.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Patience


Motherhood can certainly teach you a lot of useful lessons. As I waited for my two year old's tantrum to pass today, (he had sat down on the forest path half way through our morning dog walk refusing to go any further), it struck me that a few years ago I would have lacked the patience to deal with this. Dad once gave me a bookmark with 'Don't forget to smell the flowers,' printed on it and would send me off to the school bus most mornings with that advice ringing in my ears. Patience ... it doesn't come naturally to me, but do you ever need that with writing, not only for the hours stacked one on top of another writing a book, but for the weeks and months agents and publishers can take to read your work once it is written. So, what do you do if it feels like your life/work is going round and round, one tantrum/rejection following another? I've finally learnt that stepping back is a great help - take a fresh look at the situation and do something useful while you are waiting. Tantrums always pass, perhaps the next agent/publisher will love the book. While you're waiting, take a few deep breaths - smell the flowers.



Monday, 9 June 2008

Contentment

Life has a way of moving the goal posts. Since leaving London eight years ago, we have travelled round the world, and moved seven times (to homes in Spain, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, now Hampshire) thanks to my husband's career change as a pilot. Along the way we've gathered two children, two dogs, lost innumerable hamsters and goldfish. I did think of calling this blog 'Wife in the South,' in honour of the glorious Wife in the North, but the rate at which we move I would have to rename it every few months. The last move south, I was still surrounded by Pickfords boxes on the second night in the cottage we are renting when my husband arrived home to tell me they had closed the airport base. I thought it was his notoriously dry sense of humour. But no, either he had to change jobs, or we had to move again. This time he changed jobs, but now he is away a great deal in exotic locations while we are here. And yes, I have read Air Babylon.

In London, as a newlywed lying on the grass in St Luke's garden with the sound of the lunchtime traffic on the King's Rd in the distance, I used to imagine escaping the 9 - 5 for a golden future filled with a troop of kids, a Georgian box, perhaps a lovely ramshackle place in France, and me with a study full of published novels. We're not there quite yet. As I packed up our comfortable life in Fulham and we set off for an uncertain future, my other half assured me the aviation industry was crying out for pilots. No one could have predicted 9/11 happening just as he graduated, and right now with ex-council houses near us fetching over a quarter of a million pounds, and the sale of a kidney required every time you fill up the car I find myself thinking that a small cowshed of our own somewhere that is not on the main drag for Sunday bikers down the Meon Valley and the chance to write full time would be bliss. I've carried the manuscript of my first book with me through all the moves and finally there's the first glimmer of hope of seeing it published. Perfection can wait. It's our wedding anniversary tomorrow, other half is in the Maldives, and a few years ago I would have been miserable. These days I am aiming for contented.

Somewhere at Rioanji there is a carving that translates loosely as 'I learn only to be contented.' I've used the quote at the beginning of my first novel 'Love & Loss', and thought often of this over the years since visiting the temple. At the time I felt anything but Zen-like contentment. We were in Japan in winter, I was freezing cold and every step felt like I was walking on glass. Travelling round the world with hand luggage I had naively imagined I could pick up some winter boots in Tokyo. When I was directed to the huge-big-footed-westerner boot department of Isetan, all they had were high-heeled numbers. I picked out a beautiful pair of killer heels in supple tan leather. My husband narrowed his eyes, mentally warming up for that 'I-told-you-so' moment. So it was I tottered my way around Kyoto and Osaka - even the Geisha looked distinctly more comfortable in their wooden geta sandals. Naturally I didn't let on to my husband that I was in agony. I remember almost weeping, my face frozen in a rictus smile as I had to hand back the rubber sandals they make you wear at the Rioanji temple and put the accursed boots back on. It was only afterwards, nursing my blisters in a hot bath that I read about the carving. The sentiment, and the beauty of the temple have stayed with me - like a dogeared postcard of a painting at a museum, sometimes the things you take home have more meaning at a distance than the moment, in spite of what Walter Benjamin said about reproduction killing the magic of art. Contentment - to be done with wanting ... something to aim for.








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