Thursday, 31 July 2008

Poetry in Motion


I'm always in awe of poets - their ability to pare the words down, choose only the perfect ones. I haven't tried writing any poetry since school (less said the better I think about those Hendrix inspired ramblings ...) I don't know if they still get children to learn poems off by heart (we're not at that stage yet), but it's a great exercise - stretches your mind in so many ways. Learning poetry at school really switched my imagination on - reading Blake, learning about Ozymandias and Kubla Khan, meeting Wendy Cope.

TODAY'S PROMPT: This is one of my favourite exercises from 'Bones'. Grab a line from a poem you love. Take it as the first line of your piece of prose. 'When I am old and grey and full of sleep ...' from Yeats could lead on to someone looking back at their life. 'A woman is dragging her shadow in a circle ...' from Plath could take you anywhere.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

The Modesty of Genius


Is it just me, or are you curious about how other writers write? There's a great series in the UK Guardian called Writer's Rooms. Recently they photographed the table Jane Austen wrote 'Pride and Prejudice' on - the picture is above. My first reaction was 'how'? How can you produce a manuscript on something so small? As they so rightly pointed out doesn't this image say it all about the modesty of true genius? She stole a corner of the hallway, and in that tiny space wrote books that people have loved for decades. I drive past her house quite often - beautiful warm red brick Georgian 'cottage' - actually quite a substantial village house. I'm dying to visit but haven't had a childfree day to do this - and just looking at that delicately balanced glass inkwell makes me glad I haven't tried visiting with the two year old ...

A new reader from Norway was kind enough to ask how the book is going. Well, it's with a great new agent - turns out things were not going well with the old one. Live and learn. A whole year of 'we love it, it's being submitted' turned into nothing. For various reasons it isn't going to be submitted until the autumn now, but I'll keep you posted. Being a real life published writer with a book people can pick up in the bookstore, Amazon or library would be a dream come true - up there with being a rock star or astronaut. It is, finally, tantalisingly close.

The book is about love and loss (this was the title for a long time). It's the story of a famous American war photographer's family. When Maya returns home to paint her estranged mother's portrait she discovers they are being blackmailed about her father's past, and family secrets unfold. The book is mainly set in the wild and beautiful Devon countryside where I grew up, (there's an earlier post about finding your bone), but ranges from New York to the South of France.

I started writing it ten years ago, longhand, on the kitchen table, so these characters feel like family. The first draft was huge - over 200,000 words when I transcribed it onto computer (with the keyboard balanced on my then boyfriend's sock drawer in the corridor of our first tiny flat in London). The manuscript slept for a while and travelled with us. When we settled in the orange groves of Valencia in Spain, I really started to learn how to write (let's face it, I hope we never stop learning - right?). We had no phone, no English TV, no internet connection, no mail. With the pilot away learning to fly it was me and a husky in the mountains - so I wrote. Everyday, I sent off submission after submission to magazines in England and America - and received rejection after rejection in our PO Box in the nearest village. I mean heaps of rejections. Hundreds. Which I used as kindling each night as I lit the logburning stove. (Never give up - never give in, it's the only way to learn). Finally, articles started being accepted. Short stories got published. Then I went back to the book, and I rewrote it as I waited for our first baby to be born.

There was another break of a few years when I had to work full time with one, then two children - writing was a dream, something I longed for. Finally, when we arrived in Hampshire two years ago I thought 'If I don't do it now ...' Which is when the first agent I wrote to picked up the manuscript. I worked with an editor they recommended and in August 2007 sent them the book. Then ... nothing. Perhaps only other writers can figure what the last year has been like. However, it is time to move on (perhaps you read the quote about brick walls in a recent post?) I love the new agent, and I think we can work together really well - certainly going to give it my best shot.

Now, I write in the basement on what was our kitchen table. It is nowhere near as small as Jane's and has a jumble of talismans scattered among the pages of the new book (Venetian mirrors, pebbles from Flying Point beach, icons from Spain, skeletons from Mexico). It's cramped, and I would love a view of the sky but it's where I work for now. So that's my story - and thank you for asking. I'd love to hear about how all of you work - and what are you working on?

TODAY'S PROMPT: Give yourself the gift of space. There is a beautiful photograph on Son of Incogneato's blog which to me defines this. Who wouldn't love to think and write there? You don't need wood panelled studies or vast desks. Jane Austen wrote at a tiny table. Stephen King recommended a small desk in the corner of the room. Find yourself a corner. Make it your own. If you have a writing space already but haven't sat down there for a while (like me ..) do something good for yourself - find a fresh picture for your board, give the table top a polish, or put a fresh bunch of flowers in a jam jar. Make it your own, enjoy it, use it.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Big Time Sensuality

Has it happened to you yet? You return to a book or film you've loved for years only to find yourself siding with the grown ups rather than the young protagonist? I'm at a crossover stage (part of me hopes that yes, at a push I could still carry the watermelon). Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan was one of the books that turned me on to writing. Written at the age of eighteen, its pages were dazzling to a pre-teen in Devon - full of sensuality, freedom and sophistication. I wanted to be Cecile - lounging around a villa in the south of France or meeting a golden boy for trysts on sail boats and in scented pine forests. I've read it many times over the years - I love Sagan. A funny thing happened the last time - I started siding with Anne, the older woman.

Youthful passion is a great source for your writing. Did anyone take yesterday's prompt and find themselves a notebook? Perhaps by now you are considering your subject - what you would like to write about. Today, why not have a think about how you would like to write - will you fictionalise your subject into a short story or novel? Or are you writing a factual book or article, or an auto/biography? Even if at the moment it just feels like you are noodling - don't worry. Soon all the observations, notes and overheard sentences start to coalesce into something. In England the poster boys of British Journalism A A Gill and Jeremy Clarkson were recently discussing plundering life for work - JC said nothing is wasted.


At Cecile's age I was dating a boy primarily because he bore a striking resemblence to Rupert Everett in 'Another Country'. Needless to say the relationship didn't last, but the still divine Rupert was on TV last night treading in the steps of Sir Richard Burton in India. Burton translated 'The Kama Sutra' and 'The Perfumed Garden' - he pretty much set the benchmark for sensuality, and last night's programme was fascinating - full of gorgeous colour and architecture. Engage the senses in your work and it comes alive.

TODAY'S PROMPT: If your children are old enough to run around a playground, offer to time them doing an obstacle course of swing, slide, climbing frame. I discovered years ago that they love this - will happily run round and round again trying to beat their best time. Notebook in hand this buys you up to a minute of writing time each go round. As you walk to the playground, or the back garden, think about what and how you want to write. Start to think about who is narrating your story - is it you, or a character? Think about where you are in the story. Think about the senses - what can you/they see, hear, smell, touch, taste. Engage your reader - seduce them through their senses. Even if you are still noodling around your story, as your children have a good run around note down what you can see, hear, smell, feel, taste. At the very least it is a great way to ground you in the moment and really make you appreciate it, and who knows when those notes may come in handy later.

Monday, 28 July 2008

So Long Cyril


Adieu Pram, Hello Future. So incensed by another blogger's suggestion (see comments below Boondoggling and Sunday Morning) that 'Pram in the Hall' was nicked as a title that I have taken it down. Never felt it necessary to copy anyone in my life and I'm not about to start now. Any seasoned bloggers reading this I would love to know the etiquette - though frankly I wouldn't use that title if you paid me now. Suggestions for a new title most welcome - the Cranky Old Bag Blog sprang to mind with the mood I'm in, but I was always fond of Susan Coolidge and Katy so let's give that a whirl. Blog titles are easy to change - subject matter of babes and books less so. But then there's rather a community of us writing about those. Good luck to the other Pram, and there is a link to it in the sidebar for anyone interested.

On a personal level blogging is meant to be a daily good deed between novels - half keeping the writing rhythm going like morning pages, half communicating with other writers balancing (dry laugh) trying to balance work and family. It is meant to be a way of staying sane during a time of ridiculous tension (changing agents, delayed publication, potential overseas move, pilot constantly away, father's death and miraculous resurrection - he made it through surgery today by the way). Come to think of it maybe the new title works better as we have just Freecycled the last of the pushchairs and a new freedom beckons. Katy had big dreams too, and didn't let a little fall get in her way. I read a great quote today from Prof Randy Pausch's Lecture of a Lifetime (he died last week age 48): "Brick walls are there for a reason. They let us prove how badly we want things." Time to focus on what really matters, move on - and blogging is meant to be fun. Sleep tight, and so long Cyril - the Pram is on the road.

Boondoggling


Is it just me or has your spam disappeared too? Where has it all gone? If I didn't manage to log on until evening there would always be at least 150 - 200 spam. As the filter regularly sorts work emails into the bin they needed checking. It's time consuming senseless things like this I want to get rid of, though some were even unintentionally funny - pun laden and quite 'Carry On'. Others were more offensive 'Mummy ...' 'Yes sweetheart?' 'Why is there a willy on your computer?' Whoever is responsible for the mass mailing of photoshopped penises should have their modem confiscated. No I do not want herbal supplements so I can please my lady. So where has it all gone? Have all the computer geeks broken up for the summer?

The clearout is going well. I've managed to throw out and give away so much there is an extra foot of work space down in the basement. Getting rid of Spam has been a bonus - a clearing of mental space. Talking of which, I've decided how to make The Pram in the Hall useful. At the end of every post there will be a daily writer's prompt - either a quick exercise or parenting tip that actually helps. After a whole month of blogging (almost typed boondoggling - there's a Freudian slip!) this seems like the most useful way to do this - none of us have time to sit down and write for hours, but we can each steal five, ten minutes a day and my migrating spam has just given me that back.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Find a small notebook - does not have to be fancy (in fact I've found that smart is bad, tends to make you think everything you write in there has to matter and be good). Find something that feels comfortable or makes you feel good. No one is going to look at it, or read it - this is your private space. Carry this and a pen with you at all times. You are a writer - this is your writing book. It is not for shopping lists or to do lists. This is yours. (Of course this means it will be like catnip to your children - my old books are full of stickmen and sketches of Barney or Dorothy the Dinosaur). However just knowing you have this with you makes all the difference. Today's task is simple - ask yourself what it is you've been wanting to write about. If the answer isn't obvious, at some point today while you are walking the dog, folding the laundry or brushing your teeth it will come to you. Write it down. Spend five minutes just loosening up and breaking in your new notebook and pen. Catch that idea on paper - they have an uncanny way of flying off again if you don't. Make a start.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Peach Sunday


One of the amazing things about the internet is the way in which you see your own random thoughts take solid shape. As I watched the children playing on the beach with the hound I was thinking 'This - this is what it is all about. This is happiness.' As I said I've been trying hard to 'stay in the moment' lately - at times like that you start to feel like you might be getting somewhere. The two year old's first proper sentence is 'Blue Sky!', and he was laughing, dancing round in circles pointing upwards 'Blue Sky! Blue Sky!' When does life get complicated? Perhaps if we all just lightened up, laughed more, took simple pleasures in things like the sky being blue we would be happier far more often. I began thinking about all the routes, faiths, and thought systems people follow to get here. Hey presto - browsing around Blogher, I came across The Happiness Project. What a fantastic idea - and thank you Gretchen for the resolution charts. One of my first is to think of ways to make The Pram in the Hall a really useful writing site for all of us juggling like crazy.

So, it's Sunday, it's summertime - think of dear old Prufrock and get out there: life's short, be happy, eat that peach.

'Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.'

‘The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock’ – 1917 T S Eliot
And for anyone questioning whether love and happiness have limitations take a look at this story from today's Times. Enjoy. (Wipes away a joyful tear). I'm off to hug the hound.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

It's not how good you are ...

I am a slummy mummy - at least it feels like that sometimes. We were sitting in the coffee shop yesterday celebrating the fact we don't have to move house again - at least not yet. Next to us a determinedly Alpha Mummy settled in. She began entertaining her troupe of immaculate children with a finger puppet show while they waited for their toasted panini. Her hair was glossy, brushed even. Her jeans had a perfect crease ironed down the front (mine had the two-year old's yoghurt - at least I hope it was yoghurt). My little guys watched on with longing. When the show finished, the six year old turned to me and started to say something, but then didn't (I think she inherited her diplomatic skills from her grandfather). The look of disappointment in her eyes said it all.

I don't know about you, but I just have the feeling if I was being graded there wouldn't be a lot of gold stars being flung around the place at the moment. The pilot is away again, the house is chaotic, the dog is covered in red paint after yesterday afternoon's ill-advised finger painting session, and while I steal ten minutes to blog the children are fighting over the television (will the Wiggles or Ben 10 win?) 'Could do better ...' perhaps, or if I was lucky 'Good effort.' I have decided I can't do it all (deep breath). Now it is a question of do I continue to do it all badly or try to figure out what matters? There is a great book called 'It's not how good you are, it's how good you want to be' by Paul Arden. It's short, but inspiring - aimed at the creative industries but just as relevant I think to living your life creatively.

Does it come down to what you want to do well? It's not that I can't do the whole sticky backed plastic thing or puppet shows in Cafe Nero, it's just there is so much else to think of now (and life's too short?). Maybe it is rather like not minding doing the washing up in a friend's house - I always used to love to play but now I am at home I keep thinking of that show we used to watch in the 70's ('Why don't you ..?' go off and entertain yourselves for once so mummy can sit down with a coffee). We have already had that dreaded summertime lament 'I'm booooorrrrreeeed ...' - have you? When I was at college I volunteered for a children's charity in Westminster. We ran after school clubs and holiday clubs, and I now understand why there were queues around the block on the first day. How are working parents who don't have hot and cold running help supposed to cope otherwise? I wish I had that energy still - at nineteen I took gangs of children off across London to parks and museums. A lot of them were from pretty damaged backgrounds, (though this is not always a measure of bad parenting - one hooker mother who always turned up flustered and late at home time armed with a packet of Smash had beautiful, bright kids). It was tough work - early start, full day with over a hundred children, then clean up (including mopping out pretty disgusting loos, often kicked out cisterns and dirty protests.) It was like a bootcamp for parenthood, and great fun a lot of the time.

Back in the cafe as Alpha Mummy built up to her finale, I looked around at the other parents, (lone bewildered Dad trying to read the sports pages while the new baby slept, the coven of glossy cocaine mummys in their normal corner sniggering at the show - not a child in sight, and a similarly harassed looking woman in the corner with three kids who looked at the show, then back to me her eyes widenend in an 'ohmigawd ...' look of horror/failure). Every single one of us is facing these daily challenges. There is no rule book. For me, at least, I'm winging it on a daily basis. Today the sun is out, and I think a run on the beach for us all takes priority over the kitchen floor and laundry. Slummy or yummy - which one are you?

Friday, 25 July 2008

The Light of Stars


Several years BC (before children), when we travelled round the world with hand luggage, one of our last stops was Portland, Maine. The thought of travelling anywhere without half the stock of Mothercare seems incredible these days. I remember swirling snow storms as we ran to the farmer's market, succulent lobster, log fires and steamed apple cider. The Danforth was everything you could want in a last stop before real life begins again - more like someone's home than a hotel. Hot chocolate and warm brownies appeared as if by magic at teatime, and a welcoming tray of brandy and glasses stood by the billiards table. Like all good homes, there were plenty of books to flick through around the place. As the sky darkened and snow cloaked the world outside, I settled by the fire and picked up the nearest book. It was old, cloth bound, well loved. The title was something like 'Memoirs of a Gadabout,' and the opening line was along the lines of: 'A life that swings between the extremes of poverty and affluence will never be dull ...' There's a heartening thought for all of us caught up in the present credit crunch - everything passes and it certainly makes you appreciate the good times.

How much do we really need? I'm in the middle of a big clearout - I think perhaps it's a necessary catharsis, a reaction to being stuck waiting for news on the book, news on where we are off to next. There have been trips to the tip, baby stuff given away on Freecycle and bags dropped off at Oxfam. I don't know about you but sometimes I just feel bogged down by 'stuff' - it's a constant battle to stem the chaos. How can two small people make so much mess? When you see how little many people in the world have, travelling humbles you I think. It makes you realise just how small and insignificant you are, and how little you need. I love travelling light, like Lisa St Aubin de Teran love the open road and journeying. Frustratingly, the airline have moved the goal posts - new bases weren't posted yesterday. Instead, anyone on the move will be getting a letter today or tomorrow. All change on the book front too. Having hoped for publication this year it looks like I'm going to be waiting until the Autumn for any news. Sometimes perhaps it's just best to assume everything is unfolding as it should and just roll with it. Lawrence said once if you travel long enough everywhere feels like home. We'll get there. Just got to keep strong and be patient. In the Danforth there was a lovely engraving of Longfellow (I think he was from Portland). I was thinking of the 'Light of Stars' the other day:

And thou, too, whosoe'er thou art,
That readest this brief psalm,
As one by one thy hopes depart,
Be resolute and calm.

O fear not in a world like this,
And thou shalt know erelong,
Know how sublime a thing it is
To suffer and be strong.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Roots and Wings


Today is a big day. The base bids for the year are out so we will find out whether another move is on the cards. Will the pilot still fly from Gatwick, or will it be new house, new school, new friends? That is assuming he stays with this airline - if not it could be Abu Dhabi or Hong Kong.

I'm used to it now, we have moved so much. I am used to hitting the ground running armed with an A-Z and locating schools, doctors, dentists, supermarkets - all the things that map out the family's everyday existence. Life goes on wherever you are - for anyone who hasn't seen The Mom Song on YouTube, do take a look. Sound familiar?
We met the people who have moved into the cottage next door last night - interesting tales of working with Marco Pierre White over champagne and armagnac made a lovely change from the usual tea/bath/bed routine. Charming and childless, they looked on with mild horror as the two-year old ran laps around their garden singing 'Bum bum! Bum bum!' with the relish of Emily Lloyd in 'Wish You Were Here'. They both were born and have grown up in this and the neighbouring village. The furthest move it seems was Winchester briefly before returning to the Meon valley. This always blows my mind, meeting people who have stayed so close to home. The husband told amazing tales of being sent off into the fields with his brothers and a packed lunch and being told not to come home til six. That sounds like my kind of summer holiday. Now there is so much traffic in the village I wouldn't let mine cross the road.

Yet this is how my parents met - they grew up in the same village, where the Scottish and Welsh sides of the family came together during the war (a lot of Celtic seething goes on), and met playing tennis. Several aunts and uncles and my ninety-two year old grandmother still live there. When I hug her now, she barely comes up to my waist (I am freakishly tall for our family of petite dark women). She lives in an old castleated nunnery and sleeps with my late grandfather's shotgun under the bed, refusing all mention of bungalows and sheltered housing. She first saw him fly fishing in a stream near her family's woollen mills - it was love at first sight because he looked like Errol Flynn.

Perhaps it is because so many of us now meet through university or work instead of family that we are all so far apart. Our families now stretch from the west to east coast and there is no one close by to drop the children with for a few hours. We are a generation of nomads - were it not for email and Facebook I would have lost track of so many friends now in America, India, HK, Singapore. I think it makes life interesting, keeps it challenging and fresh. I long for somewhere to unpack the boxes, somewhere that is home but that could be anywhere. I think the children will need a sense of place and roots. For now at least it feels like change is in the air. Everyone we know seems to be travelling apart from me, not least the pilot (Mexico, Aruba, Liberia in the next couple of weeks alone). My mother-in-law gave me a card once - it said something like 'There are two things you must give your children - one is roots the other wings'. I think that is something good to aim for - roots and wings, as much for us as for them.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Everyday Miracles


When my father died on the floor of the doctor's surgery last week, he said there was nothing. No tunnel of light, rainbow bridge, or flashback through the highpoints of his life. He does not believe in god and heaven, so perhaps he feels this has proven him right - I must ask him. For me (I did and do believe), I have been wondering uneasily 'is this it?' I've been debating whether to write about Dad's death, but it has, understandably, been preoccupying so much of my thoughts not much of the blog makes sense without talking about it. Yesterday's post for example was cathartic but not typical - normally the small stuff washes over me. At the moment my tolerance levels are low, and I have a sense that I am wasting time. I am tired of waiting. There is a sense it could happen to any of us - just like that. Apparently Dad could have dropped dead at any point - miraculously his heart chose to give out while he was at the surgery. The last few years have been a long battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma for him - not once has he given in, and even now having died he is sitting in hospital in Exeter waiting for another round of surgery working on house plans (he designs and builds) late into the night. He has bounced back from CPR, is cranky, bored, and wants to get out. In the second book there is a passage where Mike, the world weary surfer, gashes open his arm on rocks. It would take too long to get to hospital, so he sews it up himself. That was not some macho piece of fiction - that was my Dad, and one of my earliest memories.


When I was thinking of calling this blog The Pram in the Hall, I did some googling. In other blogs there were all the usual winsome references to Woolf, and rooms of your own, and how each child costs you a book (apparently). Then I came across J G Ballard - he writes from a "warm domestic nest", in Shepperton, calls the three children he raised single-handed after the early death of his wife, "miracles of life". He believes the stability of domestic confinement let his imagination run wild: "My greatest ally was the pram in the hall." I agree with him. I imagine he had some help when the children were younger, at least with the house, because for this alone there are physically not enough hours in the day I have realised. I think I get my protestant work ethic from Dad - after he sold the construction company and timber mills he always worked from home, sitting at the drawing board late into the night. However, Dad always had Mum, a full time homemaker, keeping the fires burning (and then there were housekeepers and gardeners).


I think as I alluded to a few posts ago, times like this call you up short. There is a sense it is time to cut away deadwood and make things count. Days like these make you question everything and be thankful for everyday miracles like the man who saved my father's life. JG Ballard said "Deep assignments run through all our lives; there are no coincidences." He saw the best and worst of human life early on, (see Empire of the Sun), and has always had a strong sense of the surreal (another preoccupation of mine). It feels like there is so much to do and so little time. I've narrowed it down. If this is it, I want it to count. A couple of years ago, when the pilot was still a City headhunter, he got me to try out a personality test they were using on their clients. Turns out I have the same personality profile as Gandhi and Oprah Winfrey - go figure (when, I wondered, did they get Ghandi to take the test?). Maybe I am idealistic, maybe I do want something to believe in and give something back. I want to be here for my family and friends, raise two decent human beings with love and laughter and publish best selling books that engage and entertain people, give them an escape for a few hours. Everything else is window dressing. If this is it - what do you want your legacy to be?

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Roll up, roll up

If you dropped by for a coffee, you would find this picture on the board in our kitchen. A lovely friend in Dublin sent this to me ages ago, and it reassures me that someone else has also had this thought. Don't know about you, but I did not know I could shout until I became a mother. I am at heart a calm, patient person, don't thrive on conflict, but it is the lack of space I think that gets to me at times (like this morning - dog stole special blanky, breakfast hysteria). Not quite a gin on the cornflakes moment, but getting close on the stress-o-meter. It is the sheer physical exhaustion, the stuff everywhere, the push and pull, the scrapping and shouting and the relentless knife edge anxiety isn't it - (how many times can you tell someone not to slam doors near small fingers, run towards traffic, climb teetering furniture)? Is it the same for you? Sometimes when I look at my children (often when they are asleep - isn't that funny?), my heart overflows with love for them. Other times as the day swings between mind numbing repetition and peaks of high emotion, I can empathise with Sylvia Plath. Every day has the same shape, the same relentless challenges - 'say please and thank you,' 'please don't put the phone down the loo again,' 'please don't lick the plates in the dishwasher' (the last one was for the hound). With the pilot away so much these days and no help it feels sometimes like I am attempting and failing to control a three ring circus with the daredevil toddler, six year old and hound as the main attractions while I am juggling house, family, work, writing frantically on the sidelines (in a clown suit?). Sometimes don't you just wish you could drop all the balls and say 'Sorry, Mummy is off to Mexico ...'

Beyond all this are the books waiting to be written ... Stayed up late last night plotting and moulding and shaping - amazing how the time flows when you are working (and so it felt like the middle of the night when the toddler bounced into bed at 6.30am 'Euuugh! Big!' trans: Good Morning Mama, please change my nappy'). I love the next book, am so excited by the idea of it - it is going to be big, more like the length of the first book than the second: three love stories, three generations of women stretching from the Spanish Civil War to the present day. Articles are one thing - these I can pull off around the children and the day job, but for this novel I need space, and calm and the ability to think in a straight line. I need a parallel life in other words. I need to earn this - the first book has to buy me this privilege, the chance to write another one ... Catch 22.

There are tricks I have learned though, to keep you fresh and tuned into your work when everything else is whirling around you. One of the best quick fixes if you are feeling stuck and unable to get back into the rhythm of your work is to try Bantus. They are fast two line free-form exchanges - the results can be extraordinary. The link is to a Writer's Digest article that explains the principle better than I could as my brain is not in gear this morning. I've been using bantus for years and they have helped more than I can say. Why not give it a try today - take your notebook to the playground, look around you and see what responses your observations spark off. It is a glorious day here - we are off out to the forest for a picnic to let off some steam and remind ourselves we can have fun together. May just take my own advice and bring a notebook.

So - have a good writing day, and thanks for dropping by. Amazing to see we have been joined by new readers in Australia, Iraq, Czech Republic, Sweden, Holland and that the blog is being read in so many languages. I really appreciate how many of you are becoming regulars - thank you. May we all have a relaxing, productive day (takes deep breath). With so much up in the air at the moment I am trying very, very hard with this whole meditation and Deepak Chopra thing ... it used to work. But then, that was another lifetime - I could go off to yoga and pilates, choose to get up early and write before heading into the gallery (where every day was not the same and you got to talk to grown ups about fascinating things). I just made the mistake of flicking through the diary and seeing exactly how long the summer holiday is. How will we all get through? Answers on a postcard or in the comment box please.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

I am What I am


Sunday night, children and hound finally asleep, pilot is away in sunny Greece. I was just trying to work (not dancing to Gloria Gaynor in case you were wondering from the post title, or writing sadly - but necessary, pay the bills and keep the bank manager happy work - wouldn't it be wonderful for writing to do that), when Rose Tremain came on the Roberts advertising Orange mobile phones. 'I am what I am' - pilfered from Gloria or was it Walt Whitman (see above)? Her entire works are on my 'to read' list, and her latest 'The Road Home' (the Orange winner) is on my wish list for the title alone. I think there is a difference - my 'to read' list is vast and worthy (Proust ... have tried so hard. Made it through the first few volumes and yet my life and mind are too busy and Monkeyish for madeleines at this time ...). The 'to reads' are a lifetime's work set out ahead. I added all of Tremain's work when I spent an afternoon with Mick Jackson some years ago in Brighton. He had recently been nominated for the Booker for The Underground Man, and recommended her work as they had both done the Creative Writing MA at UEA. This was the course that was meant to be my trade off to the pilot training, my reward for giving up everything. Hasn't quite worked out like that, but I hope over the years I have caught up what I would have learned in Norwich with Bradbury or Motion.

I know I would enjoy Tremain's work, so why have I not got around to it? As with the entire works of various others (Ellis, Lively, Oates, Trapido), I have only dipped in to their books. What is not to be fascinated by about someone who has photos framed for love and lovelessness - see the link above. What started me on all this (I should after all be doing tax returns, not having fun with you), was that Rose Tremain defined herself by 'white boots' worn in the 70's and an English teacher who wore a 'ragged fur coat'. It was a 'me too!' moment. Mine were not white (black suede thigh high, those were the days), but perhaps you too owe a huge debt of gratitude to your eccentric English teachers?

We have been so lucky with our daughter's Year One teacher this year - I would quite happily put all plans for living overseas on hold to allow our little man to benefit from her magic too. Our daughter's imagination has leapt and grown, she is practically inhaling any book she can lay her hands on and is writing her own books including pithy back cover 'blurbs'. Her teacher is truly one of those vocational angels that changes children's lives. Not so much a case of 'those who can do, those who can't teach' as those who could do everything, could move mountains or make black white in fact choose to help children to become the best people they can possibly be. In fact you sense you would rather benefit even now from being taught by her yourself.

Who were your special teachers? I have two that leap to mind - and they are both English teachers. The first (at girls' school, Exeter), was Mrs Gillespie - she was pretty formidable but I loved her to bits, she encouraged me, did not mind me writing on multicoloured paper and there was a rumour she also wrote bestsellers for Mills & Boon on the side. The second was Mr Swarbrick - he was my English teacher and moral tutor for sixth form, nicknamed me Claude (which stuck from day one, along with Twiggy and Miss Vogue - oh god how that makes me smile wistfully now). Mr Swarbrick was everything you could want in a teacher - wore his gown constantly, had a rakish grin like Alfred E Neumann, made us read around the syllabus and take brisk walks around the quad between lessons to refresh our minds. He was the first adult who made me realise that youthful brilliance and energy is something to be cherished and nurtured - (every time I hear Baz Luhrmann's 'Sunscreen' I think of him - 'enjoy the power and beauty of your youth'.) He told us he looked back on his Oxbridge dissertations and wondered how he was capable of that. Until that point I had not realised that intellectual strength could atrophy just like muscles if it was not stretched and used.

A couple of years before, when my headmistress called me into her office to warn me that if I took up my art scholarship to (shock horror), a boys' public school for sixth form I would never be Head Girl or get to Cambridge, it turns out she was absolutely right. I enjoyed it far too much, made friends I thought would last a lifetime, fell in and out of love, had my heart broken and learnt about life. May not have got the straight As, but enough to get to Durham, Philosophy and the pilot. Everything happens for a reason. When I recently sold my entire much loved collection of vinyl records, the only one I kept was an original recording of Edith Piaf's 'No Regrets', with the intention to frame it. I think it was Katherine Mansfield who wrote that regret is a useless emotion for a writer.

The boy's school I went to was endowed with a fantastic theatre by Christopher Ondaatje while I was there. One of our final acts was to sit as a group and place our predictions for ourselves and our friends into sealed envelopes in that theatre - who knows whether the school still has these - they have not sent them on to the OBs though that would be interesting. That he was the brother of Michael Ondaatje (English Patient etc), had according to school legend been expelled (as so many of the best are), and still had the magnanimity to come back and bestow this gift on the old school made me smile in recognition even then. There are many routes to education, enlightenment and knowledge - and the best teachers make you realise that you must never, never stop learning. However, school days really are the most vivid if not the best of your life. The new headmaster of my old school is now advertising in increasingly glossy brochures with the tag line: 'Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, And say my glory was I had such friends. WB Yeats'. Summers are long, everything is new, there are no tax returns to think about. I can honestly say I faced the worst and best at school, and it set me up for life. Amazing to think all this lies ahead for the little ones. All the plaudits and recommendations in the world have put a fabulous writer on my 'to read list', and a pair of white boots and a ragged fur coat have sent me back to school and moved her to the longed for 'wish list'. What's on yours?

Saturday, 19 July 2008

The Keys to the Kingdom

Whichever city we have ended up in around the world, we have inevitably headed straight for the nearest bookstore. In Moscow, we bought wonderful Japanese block prints in Dom Knigi, and treading the creaking boards of the upstairs room beyond the door in San Francisco's City Lights felt like walking in the steps of Dylan, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. Kinokuniya in Singapore had the most amazing stationery section with gold flecked writing paper and glass pens, while in London I invariably found my feet beating a path to the teetering stacks of John Sandoe's on the way home from work.

I had better come clean - I am a bookaholic. It's rare to return home without some new trophy stashed among the groceries and nappies, and my pile of books to read almost outweighs those on the shelves. And those are just the ones acquired since moving to Hampshire. The 'real books', (the room full of unopened Pickfords boxes in the basement where I write), are stacked from floor to ceiling. I won't feel settled until the last one is unpacked, and as we have moved have found myself with multiple copies of favourite volumes because when I have needed some book have been unable to lay my hands on it. Somewhere out there, I just know there is an empty library waiting for me and my numerous copies of Madame Bovary and Bonjour Tristesse. Who knows if it will be here now - the pilot has started talking about Sumatra, Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong.

The greatest pleasure of the writer's group in London was that we met in the Nomad bookstore on Fulham Road after hours - it was like getting the keys to the kingdom. One of the first things that drew us to Petersfield where we are based (for now ...) was the number of bookstores. Firstly, there is the labyrinthine second hand and rare book dealers Petersfield Book Shop, run by Pompeii's impressively tattooed number one fan and family. The open-all-hours courtyard where you can pick up three books for a £1 and put the money in an honesty box reminded me immediately of the open air bookstore in Ojai - Petersfield suddenly felt like home.

Round the corner is the wonderful One Tree Books - everything you could possibly want from an independent dealer, including thoughtful recommendations and now a lovely coffee shop where the little ones can happily sit at their own table colouring while you grab a moment's peace. Elsewhere in the town there is Waterstones, and the second hand sections in Oxfam and Sue Ryder are unsurpassed - beautifully arranged and it's rare to leave empty-handed. (Frankly with a habit like mine, if you bought everything at main dealers or Amazon you would be bankrupt). We are pretty spoiled living here with so many great book stores within toddling distance.

Petersfield library is also great - and it is amazing how much the little ones enjoy choosing new books every few weeks in spite of groaning shelves in their bedrooms. The library also runs excellent drop-in sessions for children, so it is well worth checking out your nearest one to see what is on offer. Last year I saw the lovely Sophie Kinsella of Shopaholic fame talk - given the chance to attend a reading, do go - it's always good to meet a Real Live Best-selling Author to reassure you that they are as human as you and me. As I used to work around the corner from Chelsea Library, I'd often stroll through the confetti on the steps of the registry office to find refuge there. You would often see Laurie Lee, Anita Brookner or some other local author wandering among the stacks. The secretary at our gallery had a phobia about communicable diseases and she couldn't understand why anyone would want to read a book someone else had handled - she avoided the library like the plague. I have always liked living dangerously - always been rather fond of second hand books, love the book plates, dedications and margin notes. Well loved books are like old friends, and they will always find a welcome here. As a hand written sign in City Lights declared: 'Buying more books than you can read is just the soul reaching for eternity.'

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Young men and chocolate cake


This is a photo of Beatrice Wood, the Mama of Dada. Artist, muse, writer, lover of Duchamp, the inspiration for Jules et Jim, she lived to an incredible 105 largely she thought thanks to young men and chocolate cake. She once said: "There are three things important in life: honesty, which means living free of the cunning mind; compassion, because if we have no concern for others, we are monsters; and curiosity, for if the mind is not searching, it is dull and unresponsive."

Her life is a great inspiration just to lighten up and focus on what is important - I don't think you get to be 105 by stressing about the small stuff. Read a great article in the Writer's Digest newsletter this morning - how not to be an HMA (High Maintenance Author). Really recommend subscribing to their free email as there is always something interesting. The article made me smile. Most people have a sense of why they want to write - if it is simply for your own private self expression then you won't be working with editors, publishers and agents. However, I think the majority of people who write want to be published at some level. As the article points out, patience is a virtue. It has taken me a long time to get used to just how long everything takes - the shifting deadlines, the articles submitted in January still being considered by summer. The ideas that take months or years of hard work then disappear off the radar when submitted.

I was lucky to work with a really great editor last summer. Her suggestions were spot on and by the time I made the changes she suggested the manuscript felt lean and exciting again. However, as this was my first experience of being edited, it took a leap of faith - cutting roughly 25,000 words from the manuscript including the entire 'they all lived happily ever after' wedding and the final chapter wasn't easy. I've worked with plenty of magazine editors and I'm used to seeing my articles chopped around but I've never cared about any piece of work as much as this book. This is my first time, and I figured as she had years of experience editing writers far more successful and established then I should listen to her.

I agree with Beato - honesty, compassion and curiosity are vital for a good life. To this for writers I'd add patience, humility and a sense of humour. This is not after all brain surgery - though it may feel like it at times, nobody's life depends on your book being published. It's nearly a year since I finished editing the manuscript, and while I trusted it was being submitted, I woke up every single day hoping for good news. You know that as a new writer you are not going to be top of the 'To Do' list, you don't want to be a pain in the backside HMA, but as the months drag on ... put it this way, its been a long year. The scary woman on 'Ten Years Younger' would have her work cut out. Still, I've recently met a really great new agent - fingers crossed we'll be working together soon and the first book will at last be submitted and published. This is the best job in the world, and if I get to give up the day job and do this full time I will be over the moon. May just make it to 105 - with or without the chocolate cake.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

You know how to whistle Steve ...

Firstly thank you - just had a look at the stats and it is amazing to see The Pram in the Hall is now being read by more and more people every day from Hollywood to Dubai, Lisbon to Santa Fe and Singapore to London. I really appreciate your support and great feedback.

So how is your summer holiday so far? Is it really only the second day? The two year old is missing his father and sister, (she's staying on the Suffolk coast with her cousins), so we spent the morning at the purgatory that is the playbarn. 40 or more screaming sugared-up toddlers whirling like dervishes through a multicoloured padded climbing frame. By lunchtime it was me who needed the padded room ... Ironically I chose last night to re-read 'The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.' Deepak Chopra's Law number One: spend thirty minutes in silence at the beginning of each day. Clear your mind. Just be. If only! I think perhaps that is the one thing I find hardest about balancing work and family - the inability to think in a straight line during the day. The toddler has an unerring sense for when I am thinking about work - 'Meee!' 'Moooore!' and 'Mumeeee!' are repeated in succession and at increasing volume until I pay attention or am hit over the head with an Action Man. We did better with one of Deepak's later instructions, communing with nature by yomping through mud and puddles along the water meadows this evening while the hound happily pronked through the waist deep grass up ahead. Both dog and young master are temporarily exhausted, so there's time for a quick post.

Optimistically I took along pen and papers to the playbarn this morning, hoping to flesh out the love interest for the third book. Nothing like daydreaming about heroic, brooding Spaniards to switch off from the chaos around you. Visions of Javier Bardem danced in my head ... Have I mentioned that in addition to scoring the books with music, I tend to 'cast' them in the early stages to get the ball rolling with the characters? As the books progress the characters tend to change, take on their individual look and quirks, but I find it really helps early on to have a physical picture of the 'type' of person you are writing about. The lead characters are shaping up nicely - this morning I kept thinking of the chemistry between Bogey and Bacall in 'The Big Sleep'. I happily spent the morning scribbling out a mind map of the new synopsis - I'm trying to make sure they stay at sizzling distance til the very end of the book.

What do you write with and in? I'm always curious about other writers' methods - it's really a lifelong quest for the holy grail of notebooks isn't it? For me beautiful bound notebooks are no good - I even tried Moleskines for a while (the choice of Chatwin, Hemingway), but I have loopy handwriting, think at tangents and tend to doodle so they were hopeless. The frontispiece of Suite Francaise reprints a couple of pages of Irene Nemirovsky's notebooks and her fastidious handwriting shames me. Paper was so precious to her during wartime, and I burn through the stuff. At the moment I have two filofax type notebooks bought in Japan - one small battered suede number that goes everywhere and a larger desk one. It suits me to be able to tear out pages and rearrange them or transplant ideas and fragments to the main manuscript (yellow legal pad for longhand, white A4 for drafts and editing). I have been known to scribble down an idea in eyeliner if it's the only thing I can find while driving, regularly steal my children's crayons, but if I am sitting down To Write always use a Montblanc - the single most romantic gift the pilot has ever given me, far more precious than diamonds could ever be. I had a lovely email from Joanna Trollope today and she also writes longhand it turns out. If you normally write straight onto computer, give longhand a whirl - it's amazing how it slows you down and taps into something. There is just something really sexy about the slide of nib and ink on paper ... I'm sure 'The Big Sleep' wasn't written in pencil.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Mr Motivator


A friend gave me a jaunty box set as a gift: 'No Plot No Problem!' - how to write a novel in thirty days. Perhaps it was a hint? There's a book, stickers ('Ask me about my novel!' - maybe you are supposed to plaster it across your forehead?), even a reward chart that looked rather like the ones we used during potty training (ooh, good girl! 2000 words!). If the idea appeals to you, check out the 'letters and light' at: Nanowrimo.

Motivation is a funny thing. What works for you? Stickers just don't cut it with me I'm afraid (though Green & Blacks, Sancerre or Jude's Ginger Spice ice cream from the village Post Office have been known to push me towards a deadline). The pilot is in Mexico so I've been going to bed early with Richard E Grant. Have decided the only way to survive these exotic long haul separations and keep my sense of humour is to do stuff I wouldn't do when he is here (pesto, entire series of Sex & the City, weepy French subtitled movies, going to bed at the same time as the children with a good book). 'With Nails' is wonderful - has had me alternately weeping in recognition and snorting with laughter into my tea. There are so many parallels between the worlds of acting and writing, though one's essentially a public and the other a solitary way to work - the section about his feelings of vulnerability during the emotional rollercoaster of moving between agents really struck a chord ... Last night REG was on more bullish form, having dinner with a famous director. They were comparing notes about what motivates their work, what drives their ambition. For both of them it came down to revenge, pure and simple. They wanted to prove every person who told them they weren't good enough wrong.

Seems something of a bitter victory - though there was that tutor at Cambridge whose interview technique consisted of taunting a green 16 year old instead of say, I don't know, talking about books for example? I was thinking of this watershed point in my life the other night while I was merrily watching 'Class of 2008' - Daisy Lowe and pals. I had one of those wake-up moments when I suddenly realised these kids were literally half my age. Where has the time gone? My nieces and nephews are now facing university interviews. I am officially old. Flashback to a lamp lit fuggy study, 1988 ... I'd been prepped at school to think this was going to be an interesting chat about literature. He made mincemeat of me, then with a leer tossed a copy of Yeats' 'Leda and the Swan' over. Incredible to think now, but up to that point my life had been so sheltered that no one in a position of authority had ever been deliberately unpleasant. It threw me completely and I flunked the interview. Whoever he was, he ensured I never studied English as planned - if Cambridge didn't want me, I wasn't going to study it anywhere else ... (I know - drama queen, nose - face etc ... I've mellowed since then).

Twenty years on, I have heard so many tales from wet behind the ears Oxbridge rejects I feel I'm not alone. The one, for example, where the boy walked into the study and the jaded don didn't even bother looking up from his paper. 'Surprise me ...' he sighed. The boy set fire to his paper). I don't feel I lost out on literature. It is still fresh, still a passion - studying art academically with all the Post-Mod deconstruction and theorising killed my simple joy in it. I can no more walk into a gallery and just relax than the pilot can be a good passenger (driving back from a friend's party the other night, he started giving me instructions 'You do know there's a sixth gear?' mercifully falling asleep before a full blown domestic kicked off). I still love books as much as when I discovered Francoise Sagan and Colette the year I flunked Cambridge. That's when I decided I wanted to write - not literature perhaps, but stories people will enjoy and want to read.

One of the exercises in the 'Novel in a month' book is to note down all the elements you love in novels - it's a good test of what you will enjoy writing about. My list scribbled in the margin reads: escapism, beauty, landscape, houses, travel, global nomads, bobos, love, passion, family, glamorous eccentrics, redemption (I still believe in happy endings). Give it a whirl ... day one of the school holidays and just thinking about writing about that lot makes me smile and the Wiggles fade into the background for a moment. Someone said 'Write your joy and good things will follow.' I like that - so thank you to the anonymous tutor at Sydney Sussex who unintentionally ensured the joy I find in writing and books stayed fresh. Revenge? Too cold. Stay warm - rise above it, keep the joy alive.

Friday, 11 July 2008

KISS


End of term today - returned home with armfuls of washing, paintings and the much anticipated report. Couldn't control a delighted smile as I read the little one enjoys writing and illustrating books in class. There are loads of things they don't tell you about motherhood. For example:

1) for the forseeable future you will rarely shower in peace or visit the bathroom alone

2) you will never finish drinking a cup of coffee or tea

3) you will become that harassed looking woman with the rolling eyes in the supermarket pretending that the toddler lying on the floor kicking his legs is not yours .... and

4) you will learn just as much from your children as they will from you.


Children are natural polymaths - it blows me away seeing the breadth of subjects she has covered this year. Add to this the hobbies - clarinet, riding, ballet, tennis, and my life looks rather limited in comparison. I love the sense of limitless potential that lies ahead for her. When I think back to everything I loved at that age - books, music, horses, art, I remember loving them with such fresh passion. Take a leaf out of your childrens' books and rediscover that. Let yourself go. The picture is of an art consultancy commission I did for the Allied Irish Bank last year - a fantastic Irish sculptor called Catherine Greene. After we'd installed her angel, we had to leave it taped up for the night while it settled on its marble plinth. It was a great commission - everyone was thrilled, and I loved the idea of someone at the bank the next morning slowly unwinding the angel's ties and letting her go ...


Trying to limit that sense of freedom backfired for me at least. For years wanting to write books for a living seemed like a dream. Grown ups encourage you to Do Something Sensible. The first thing I settled on was a vet - not just any vet, a zoo vet. I wanted to work with big cats - lions and tigers, or failing that horses. Somewhere mid O-levels, I decided I really wanted to be an architect. I was thinking Richard Rogers, Norman Foster ... two weeks' work experience in Wales being driven round measuring up damp barns by a chain-smoking hippy with BO called Barry in a Reliant Robin (you couldn't make it up, could you?) was enough to put me off. I ended up as a fine art consultant working in palaces and embassies across Europe and the Middle East - more fat cats than big cats.


I don't regret those early passions - I still love animals, nature, the countryside, and ended up qualifying as an interior designer so we could convert our first home, but the only thing I didn't grow out of was writing. It grew with me. I still love everything about it - books, libraries, the aesthetic quality of text and fonts. I read somewhere a while ago that writers write. Sounds obvious doesn't it? There are loads of people who say 'I want to be a writer,' but how many people really do 'have a book in them?'


We're in the midst of one of those family crises that suddenly brings everything into sharp perspective. Life suddenly seems very precious, and my determination to see this first book published soon, and then produce a book a year after that is stronger than ever. Life's short. Do what you love. Let me pass on the single best piece of advice I was ever given - write something every single day, whatever you can manage. A best-selling writer I know is currently aiming for 6000 words a day. The best day I ever had was 5000. But then I'm a newbie and the sky is the limit ... Whether it is six or six thousand words, they add up. Ask a child what a writer does and they will say 'Writers write.' Simple, really.


Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Word Clouds


All work and no play ... If you love words, you'll love Wordle http://wordle.net/. Beautiful word pictures generated from your own texts. How much fun is that? There's a link to the Pram in the Hall wordle on the side. It's so miserable tonight - dark, rainy and the pilot called in on what should be a day off to rescue a 767 from Dublin. I took the photo above this time last year on the Ile de Re (sighs longingly). Golden sunlight, walking by the sea, warm breeze? Yes please. We have had a month's rainfall in one day today. Give me word clouds over rain clouds anyday. Have fun!

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Challenge ...


There was an episode of the fantastic Cosby Show where Bill Cosby did a challenge dance off. It has become a bit of a running joke in our household - 'Shaaaloooonge' he drawled as Bill did his inimitable soft shoe shuffle. We don't do dance offs in the kitchen (he is a pilot and does not dance at all), but if a challenge arises it is faced with not so much a stiff upper lip as a wry grin - 'Shaaalooonge'.

Life as a writer/parent is a constant challenge, a constant dance and response to what life throws at you. I don't know if you've noticed how people respond when you say you're a writer? 'Really?' (eyes fill with dollar signs), 'So are you going to be the next J K Rowling??' Trans: 'Challenge!' I've also had 'Really? How ... bohemian ...' (eyes look alarmed). Trans: 'Challenge!' Well here's today's challenge - I know someone out there is reading this (have checked the stats!) - and thank you. This is not about my pram in the hall, this is about everyone's pram in the hall. I am (probably like most writers) far more at ease listening than rabbiting on about myself. I'd love to hear what challenges you've overcome. Let's make this a dialogue. If you read this - click on the tag below and post a comment! It would be great for this blog to become a place for every single person trying to be a great parent and a great artist. Challenge!

Saturday, 5 July 2008

The Real Thing


Sanding down the kitchen table this afternoon where the hound had taken a chunk of the edge, it struck me that I actually don't mind the newly shabby chic look of the oak. Just as well as she has done the same with the spindles on several of the reclaimed oak church chairs I lovingly sourced to go with it. I like imperfection - it makes life interesting, people and things unique. I would far rather sit down with friends and family in a warm home full of chaos and fun than in a sterile show home where you take your shoes off at the door and the cellophane on the furniture squeaks as you sit down, but maybe that's just me.

Authenticity, the real thing speaks to you - you can feel it in your bones. That's what we are all aiming for - an authentic, clear voice in our work that is uniquely our own. When I started writing I was like a sponge - after a spell reading the entire works of Isabel Allende I was merrily producing mannered magic realism stories. Before moving to Spain I read every Hemingway I could lay my hands on and my texts briefly grew more macho by the day. Somewhere along the way though you feel your work falling into its own stride. Listen to your words, read the texts over to yourself, let them run through your mind as you walk and soon you will find your own unique rhythm. Soon you will notice what jars - which paragraphs and sentences and words even do not sound true to you. No one else on earth thinks exactly the same as you, talks the same, notices things in the way that you do. You have your own unique voice - let's hear it.

Friday, 4 July 2008

First find your bone


At university, the guy in the study next door was a scientist and amateur poet. He was dating a boy who wore eyeliner and plus fours, and many was the night he spent on the dorm landing sobbing tearfully as he beseeched his lover through the keyhole to let him in. One night we came home to find one of his poems tacked to his door. I've never forgotten the first line: 'Voices. I hear voices ...' You'll be reassured to know he's now working for NASA on the space programme.

Let's be honest - writing is not a normal job. (One of my favourite comments from my lovely mother-in-law is that 'Neither of my children married normal people' - meant in the nicest possible way). A writer friend said over lunch a couple of days ago that if she doesn't work, she gets crazy. Certainly I'm certainly never happier or more conscious of experiencing 'flow' than when writing. At the moment I have the next three books in mind, and I'm really looking forward to having the time and space to get the words physically down. It's feeling a little crowded in there. Whether you hear voices, or daydream whole other worlds and places writers certainly have a rich interior life. Put it this way - it's never lonely.

If you haven't read 'Writing Down the Bones', I really recommend it. A lot of the book covers finding your 'bone' the thing that you return to again and again, the thing that bugs you, and fills your thoughts. Personally I don't so much have 'voices' thank goodness as snatched images. It's a bit like seeing a film before it is made, an amalgam of the real and imaginary. The 'bone' that started the first book was an image of a young woman sitting on a battered old trunk in an empty studio. Instantly I wanted to know who she was - was she arriving or leaving? Where had she been, where was she going ..?

The characters I'm drawn to tend to be people like this - restless, nomadic, creative. I've been lucky to meet some extraordinary people over the years, people who have led fascinating lives, and they have often provided the spark for my fictional characters: the Charlton Heston-like war photographer who took surprisingly delicate photos of Iraqi shepherd-boys, the retired costume designer who worked with Fellini, the college friend who dated a pop star and starred with Gerard Depardieu ... these are just three real people who caught my imagination and started me writing the first book. The house pictured above is one of my 'bones' - I grew up in an isolated village that is the highest point between Dartmoor and Exmoor. It was wild, remote and beautiful. The house had been built as a gift for a woman who took one look at it and said she could never live there. This house is as much a character in the first book as the people. It was a magical place to grow up - of course once I hit teenagehood I couldn't wait to get away. I wanted to live in every capital city in the world, starting with London. No doubt most of my work is an attempt to get home again. Keep your eyes, ears and mind open - there is inspiration all around you.
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