Sunday, 31 August 2008

An Angel at my Keyboard

How do you choose a book? Are you seduced by a gorgeous cover, do you clip out great reviews? Or is it word of mouth, or a random pick up in a book shop or library? Maybe you've heard of the fey idea of 'library angels' who help you find just the book you need. I can't remember whether in Wim Wender's original version 'Wings of Desire' the angels hung out in the library so much, but in the 'City of Angels' remake Nicolas Cage and his dark coated friends drifted among the stacks when they weren't at the beach. If I ever make it upstairs, I can't think of a better way to split the time.

Perhaps you go by the first, or last line in deciding whether a book is for you. Remember how in 'When Harry Met Sally' Billy Crystal always read the end of the book first so that in case he died, he'd know the ending? There's even a new book out called something like 'Page 63' (sorry it's Sunday - my brain is working slowly) - because if the author likes that certain page, he's bound to like the rest of the book. One book I've been meaning to read for ages is Janet Frame's 'An Angel at My Table'. We were in the library changing the children's books on Friday, when suddenly there was a copy on the sale shelf. My usual method is to flick randomly through the book and see if a phrase jumps out and hooks me in. Every page I stopped at had something fresh and dazzling. Personally I don't always want to agree with the author - I want to be provoked, inspired, to think 'I never noticed that' or 'I never thought of it like that, but of course ...'

A new reader of the blog, Susie, has asked if we can recommend any books about how to write. I haven't heard of Rob Parnell's work, but I agree there's certainly a bewildering array of advice out there. Maybe some of you have books you can recommend? When I started writing I read everything I could get my hands on - rather like when you are expecting your first child! I don't think I picked up a single book with number two. Of writing books, there are some in the Amazon sidebar on the blog that are very good. Stephen King's 'On Writing' is the single most readable book about the journey to becoming a professional writer. If you want something with writing prompts and suggestions 'Writing Down the Bones' is excellent. If you are tempted by the idea of writing a novel in a month NaNoWriMo is a long established month long writing scheme - they have a website. Maybe some of you have tried it? If any of you have any suggestions for Susie, do pass them along via the comments. (By the way sorry they are now being checked before posting - we seem to have attracted a few 'off topic' shall we say ...) The single best piece of advice I was ever given is just to write, every single day, and read as much as you can. Joining your local writer's group is also a great idea for moral support, but if you're at home with family just read, read, read! I read once 'if you are around talented people, you become talented.' The same applies to the osmosis that happens with great books I think.

TODAY'S PROMPT: What's the best first line you've ever come across? 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...' (Dickens) is one that's regularly trotted out. Why not have a search for the 'best first lines of novels' and see if something inspires you to read a classic you've been meaning to get around to. Or perhaps you can get creative with Photoshop or good old paper and glue, and mock up a cover for your novel. How would you love it to look? Can you picture it on the stacks in the library, the 3 for 2 table in Borders - or (more often than not now) at the end of the freezer aisle in the supermarket?

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Secrets from the inside

You may remember I mentioned how helpful Stewart Ferris' books have been (they lie well thumbed and within reach of the desk on the basement bookshelf). Stewart is both a successfully published writer and publisher, and I'm going to be meeting him in September to quiz him about the business of How to Write and How to Get Published. If any of you have questions you'd like to ask, or advice you would find helpful, let me know and I'll pass your queries on to Stewart. His website also has a lot of useful writing tools, so do take a look. I'll be posting his tips and insider knowledge in a couple of weeks.

Ravishing Calm

Road trips – don't you love them? Why do they always end up feeling like an outake from National Lampoon's European Vacation? Nine hours ... nine long hours in the car with the children yesterday visiting the pilot's parents up on the east coast. Bizarrely after the last post, dear old Jazz the cat disappeared the night before we arrived (he's sixteen and never misses a meal).

Stuck in M25 traffic near London, Plastic Bertrand came on the radio and cheered everyone up - small people pogo-ing up and down in their booster seats, bouncing the car like a lowrider. The song is about a cat who drinks whisky (maybe that's where Jazz is, propping up the bar in The Beagle). The six year old thought that was a brilliant name. 'Why couldn't you give me a proper name?' she sighed. Like Plastic Bertrand? 'No,' she tutted impatiently. 'Like my cousins.' She brandished one of the named water bottles that her grandmother had given her for the journey. 'I can never buy anything like this!' Which is a fair point for a six year old - I explained we chose her name because some of the best females artists, explorers and designers had the same name - and her godmother's namesake relation had a polo elephant, which I thought indicated a certain character to it. 'I don't want a polo elephant!' she cried. 'I want to buy stickers from Woolworths with my name on!!' She folded her arms. Cogs turned. 'Actually, can I have an elephant ..?'

Strange to think that the name you give your children will be with them for life, unless they change it. They will learn to write it, and read it thousands of time. Maybe you’re the same but I really love everything about writing (we’ve covered notebooks, stationery, but what about the letters themselves?) Does your handwriting feel like 'you'? What font do you type in? I know some manuscript submission sites advise Courier but I just don’t feel comfortable with it. Fonts, different types have personalities just like handwriting and people. Sometimes I like Century Gothic – more often than not it’s good old Times Roman.

Then there are the words themselves. I wondered what the most popular words in English are (and wonders of the internet) - here are a few to amuse you:

Top Ten Favorite Words (Not in the Merriam Webster Dictionary)

1. ginormous (adj): bigger than gigantic and bigger than enormous
2. confuzzled (adj): confused and puzzled at the same time
3. woot (interj): an exclamation of joy or excitement
4. chillax (v): chill out/relax, hang out with friends
5. cognitive displaysia (n): the feeling you have before you even leave the house that you are going to forget something and not remember it until you're on the highway
6. gription (n): the purchase gained by friction: "My car needs new tires because the old ones have lost their gription."
7. phonecrastinate (v): to put off answering the phone until caller ID displays the incoming name and number
8. slickery (adj): having a surface that is wet and icy
9. snirt (n): snow that is dirty, often seen by the side of roads and parking lots that have been plowed
10. lingweenie (n): a person incapable of producing neologisms

I just have to find a way to use woot and chillax ... The spellcheck has just gone crazy.

The 2004 survey listed these as the Top Ten Favorite Words:

• defenestration
• serendipity
• onomatopoeia
• discombobulate
• plethora
• juxtapose
• persnickety
• kerfuffle
• flibbertigibbet

I don't know about you - (we are writers after all), but when was the last time you used callipygian in everyday parlance? Interestingly the British Council quizzed non-native speakers of English and their favourites are more instantly appealing:

1. Mother
2. Passion
3. Smile
4. Love
5. Eternity
6. Fantastic
7. Destiny
8. Freedom
9. Liberty
10. Tranquility

TODAY'S PROMPT: Rather like Proust's questionnaire for an artist that we talked about before, your top ten favourites will probably change on a daily basis. Why not take a few minutes and see which grab you today. I just came up with:

1 love
2 home
3 loll
4 frolic
5 palimpsest
6 boondoggling
7 sublime
8 ravishing
9 calm
10 eternity

I did actually use palimpsest in a sentence in the first book, and my editor put a big fat line through the whole thing. Whiff of purple around it? Sure - but I've loved it ever since reading an article in something like the Burlington or Apollo: 'Rome as Palimpsest'. Had no idea what it meant, and have loved it ever since finding out. I'll get it in a book one day ... Why not take your top ten favourites today and see if you can use them, or work a piece of writing around them - look forward to your suggestions.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Four Legs Good

Just as the pilot was called out to rescue a stranded plane of passengers yesterday, the two year old decided to hide his keys. Times like this, it would be useful to have a proper dog - obedient, well trained, useful. The kind of dog where you could say 'Seek!' and they would help find missing keys or rescue small children from crevasses (or was that Lassie?) The decidedly unamused pilot left (minus house keys, security tag etc) and while we tore the house apart looking for the keys the hound slept peacefully on the sofa. (Finally found the keys, hidden in my box of paints in the basement. When I asked the two year old why he had hidden them he hugged me and whispered 'Dada no go 'way'. Can't really be cross with that can you?) This is why I'm up so early - let the pilot in a couple of hours ago and now can't sleep, although the dog is still snoring in her basket.

Colette said 'Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.' The hound is the latest in a long line of furry friends - I wondered are there any writers who don't adore pets? What is it we love about our animals so much - that we can just be, work, not talk? That they force us to lighten up? Like Johnson we have had several 'very fine' cats, the last of which (Jasper, renamed Jazz in his retirement on the east coast with the pilot's parents) is the feline embodiment of 'Six Dinner Sid' - a brilliant kids picture book about a cat who has several owners, all of which give him dinner. When we pulled out of our street in London for the last time, a couple we had never seen before ran after us yelling 'Where are you going with Albert?!' I knew he had several lives (no wonder he had always refused a collar) - catnip toys with the lesbian couple upstairs, a warm bed with the sarong wearing Ducatti riding coke dealer next door - but we had no idea someone else on the street actually thought they owned him. I once read that all animals have several names - official, pet and secret known only to the owner. Jasper has had more aliases than Jennifer Garner.

As a young teen I learnt pretty much everything about how to be a writer from films like 'Betty Blue'. Zorg spends hours sitting around staring thoughtfully into space (check), cooks lots of chilli (check), has his heart broken by a beautiful insane person (check), adopts cat (check). At the end of the movie he finally gets pen to paper and the cat asks him 'Are you writing?' Zorg smiles in an enigmatic Gallic way 'No, just thinking'. I even spent a summer whitewashing houses to earn the money to adopt the cat (this wasn't some tightfisted landlord paying me peanuts, it was my Dad - working on his construction sites each holiday gave me my protestant work ethic, thanks Dad).

In Spain we were adopted by a family of feral cats, and rescued a gorgeous Husky/Malamute from the local refuge. Faber (as in Max Frisch's 'Homo Faber' - the wandering man), was a perfect writer's dog. He used to keep my feet warm in the winter, and would drag me away from the book for walks in the orange groves. The hound may not be useful but she is beautiful - it is more like living with a mythological creature - all the grace and agility of a big cat in the body of a dog x griffon. She is big, but gentle and the children adore her. Like most families, we have loved and lost more small furry creatures and fish than I care to remember, but it is the dogs, cats (and planned horses and alpacas) that really touch your heart. My sister-in-law and I half joke about becoming Bardot like mad animal women. Then again as Edgar Allen Poe said: 'there is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere man.'

TODAY'S PROMPT: Who are your favourite animals in fiction? Cat in the Hat? Slinky Malinki? Milo and Otis? If you have a beloved family pet how about immortalising them in a short story or picture book for your children? Or perhaps there is a much missed four legged friend from your past you'd like to remember - animals key into our lives and emotions in a direct and uncomplicated way, and remembering them can help unlock the past.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

You lookin' at me?

A friend of mine has a theory that people have 'taxi' lights. These lights work something like a second sense - a radar. Happily hooked up? Out goes your light. You become almost invisible. Looking for action? On goes your light. I should add that she argues men's taxi lights never quite go out - that they always flicker hopefully. I've grown used to invisibility so having people stare (and not in a good way) has been an interesting experience. I keep telling myself - remember this, as a writer nothing is wasted. Younger men and women have looked universally sympathetic - more interesting has been the oddly aggressive, narrow eyed reaction of older men. A stonking black eye can in no way be compared to disfigurement, but I've had a glimpse of what it is like to be looked at with a mix of pity and revulsion. Yesterday we bumped into a friend at the playground - I took off my sunglasses to talk to her and she recoiled, wide eyed in horror. The check out girl in the supermarket gasped 'Omigoditshorrible!' An old lady cheerfully asked me if I'd been fighting.

There have been times I've longed for a mask to hide behind. I don't often covet material things but we had dinner with friends a few years ago - they had travelled a lot, and on the wall opposite the dining table there was a beautiful Noh mask from Japan. They are works of art - so simple, but the tiniest alteration to the face completely changes its effect. Noticing these minute differences is what will set your writing apart, being tuned in to what goes on around you will bring your work to life. Maybe you've come across John Berger's seminal book 'Ways of Seeing'? It was written in the 1970s and cut through complicated postmodern arguments about The Gaze to lucidly deconstruct the loaded way we look at things. I found a yellowed copy on the bookshelf of a house in France I was staying in the summer I was 17, and it turned me on to a completely new way of looking - it literally opened my eyes. Become like Baudelaire's wandering flaneur - be the detached observer who wastes nothing. Open your eyes.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Why not take a good look at something you take completely for granted? Maybe something you use or see everyday. Really look at it. Are trees brown? Are black eyes black? (Ans: no they are purple, yellow, red, green). Are shadows black - or are they blue? What colour is the door to your house that signifies 'home' to you at different times of the day? What does your handbag/workbag really look like, feel like, smell like - do you remember how the marks and wrinkles got there, what is hiding in the bottom corners?

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

In the still of the night

Colette said that insomnia in the early stages is like an oasis. I agree with her - it's certainly good thinking time when everyone else is asleep, but I hope this isn't going to become a habit. The pilot's flying nights so the daily tea/bath/book/bed wind-down routine for the children normally sets me up for a few hours writing and then sleep, but lately it just hasn't been working. This summer has been 'fat with time' as Laurie Lee put it - strangely shapeless, linked to the house and children's holiday routine with the pilot away so much. I think a lot of you in the US are back to school this week? Hope you all get off to a great start - we still have a couple of weeks to go before everything gets back to normal here, the daily two hour drive to and from school. I read once that Stephen Spielberg keeps a dictaphone in the car, and this is the only way I remember anything because you get a lot of ideas when you are on the road for two hours each day. I think this sleeplessness is just a symptom of an overactive mind - (or too much coffee) - can't wait to start writing the next book, can't wait to get moving with the first two ... I don't know about you but I like this time of the year - new pencil cases and a sense of the next chapter beginning.

Yesterday's post about love attracted some really interesting comments. Natasha mentioned Atonement - that was a great adaptation, and the film really conveyed the sense of thwarted love and loss. Translating much loved books into films can be tricky. I watched 'The Sheltering Sky' again last night - normally love John Malkovich, but the film just didn't match up to the beauty of the book for me. Bertolucci had Paul Bowles narrating his own story, and at the end there is a wonderful quote straight from the text: “... we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

This is what I was thinking about at four o'clock this morning - our responsibility in shaping our children's forever memories. I so want them to be good ones. The six year old has been asking some difficult questions lately - how do you explain certain choices made when you don't know the answers yourself? At the moment it feels like there is so much in the balance. There is a lot of 'when we get our own house, I shall paint murals on your walls, and we will build a treehouse.' 'When Mummy sells her book ...' (fill in the blank space with assorted answers to 'I want') I feel this huge responsibility for deciding to give writing a real shot - sometimes it feels like it would be a whole lot easier and more responsible to go back to the day job. Friends have stopped asking whether there is any news on the book. It's not just my future - it's ours. Which afternoons from their childhoods will the children look back on again and again? I just hope they're not the ones where there is a tired and cranky mother 'typing' in the corner of the room (ie, trying to snatch a few moments writing before the ideas fly away again). I hope their memories of this summer are the ones swimming in the stream with the hound, or running on the beach, or curled up with popcorn and a favourite film on a rainy afternoon.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Which afternoons do you hope your children will remember? What are the treasured memories from your own childhood? Why not take ten minutes and dust off your favourites: begin with 'I remember ...' and run with it. If you run out of steam, begin again and again 'I remember ...' If something fun pops up (knickerbocker glories, daisy chains, freewheeling ...) why not make it a new memory and share it with your own children.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Light my fire?

© The Estate of Bob Carlos Clarke

As Laura and Alec part on the train platform, the word 'Smoking' hovers between them, etched on the carriage door. Wasn't it just. I hadn't watched 'Brief Encounter' for ages but the hound and I were transfixed by this passionate story of love, honour and restraint last night - talk about sexual chemistry. (In case you think I'm exaggerating the dog actually does watch films - she is after all a sighthound!) From the first touch - the calm, intimate way the doctor takes charge of the situation and gets the grit out of her eye, the story is electrifying even after all these years. Noel Coward knew a few things about cups of tea and the dynamics of attraction - not to mention the importance of a brilliant score (the Rachmaninoff that swells and courses perfectly through the film was his choice).

There's been a lot in the papers recently about the return of the Retrosexual - real men like Doctor Alec as opposed to new age buffed and depilated Metrosexuals. Did real men ever go away? When Celia/Laura walks home to her marriage 'without wings' she leaves the love of her life on the train to Africa just as Bogey is left on the runway in Casablanca. Why is it many of the great stories aren't happily ever after? Why are so many of the Retrosexuals left alone? There's definitely been a resurgence in the popularity of the Alpha male - the marvellous photo by Bob Carlos Clarke above is of the Renaissance man Marco Pierre White. Clarke was a brilliant photographer who died tragically young - he was better known for his erotic work (even knives and spoons became sexy in front of his lens), but his photographs of White at work are legendary. Michelin starred chef, philosopher, family man, and hunter of furry creatures (if you haven't come across him in your part of the world this Youtube link 'Marco's Charisma' will give you some idea of his appeal to the female population in the UK), Mr White is having something of a moment in the press. The book after next I have planned is all about food and taste, so this is all very fascinating and has a strange synchronicity about it. Tough female journalists swoon talking of the palpable sense of testosterone around the man, and the way he feeds them tidbits by hand (quails eggs, warm oysters ...).

Mr White clearly cuts a dash in real life but what do we look for in our fictional heroes and heroines? We talked yesterday about developing three dimensional characters, but what do we want from the love stories that develop between them? I've read countless times that you have to be a little in love with your characters for the dynamics to work - do you think that's true? Personally I've always veered towards the Retro (before I met him the pilot variously modelled in Tokyo, taught scuba diving, worked for the FO in Russia and had just mapped uncharted rock formations in NZ). I prefer fun, romantic and challenging to clothes shopping together - and I think this translates into the male characters I write. Qualities that don't get talked about a lot any more - kindness, humour, honour, loyalty, selflessness, passion, skill, experience - these can be the most attractive of all. Maybe I'm getting old, but for me at least, I value men and women for what they are - 'vive la petite difference' as they say.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Who are your great heroes and heroines of romantic fiction? Which characters in book or film set your pulse racing? Is it a classic like Mr Darcy, or Heathcliff? What about the girls? Have our tastes really changed, or through our stories do we look for a more enduring ideal? Does your work reflect your real life passions? What magic recipe would conjure up your ideal - why not take ten minutes on a lazy bank holiday and make the ideal male/female character, plot out your own brief encounter?

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Getting to know you ...

Yesterday's prompt was an escapist exercise in empathising with a character as a person rather than a stereotype. I did try to think of a 'rock and roll' writer yesterday, someone so charismatic on stage that you could easily imagine stepping into their shoes. Who have we got? Salman Rushdie has just been voted Nobel writer of writers hasn't he? But whether you buy into notions of genius or not it is pretty difficult to come up with a writer as universally known and visually recognisable as Madonna. Are there any foxy writers? Why is it painting, music, acting - all these art forms attract hot artists. Why can't I reel off a list of authors with similar ease? Do we all have faces for radio as they say? We had Byron ... Joanna Trollope recently did a photoshoot in fishnets ... but I don't have a single writer pin-up, do you?

I sometimes think of fleshing out the people in my work as starting a conversation. I've mentioned previously that in the early stages of a book, you might find it interesting to cast the characters using recognisable movie stars or random models cut from magazines. At the moment as I'm cranking up my mind ready to start on the next book I have a pin board full of visual prompts (rather than pictures of hot writers sadly. Actually I tell a lie - I do have a postcard of Colette pinned up, but because I love her work and the quote not the photo: 'What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner.'). The characters grow and change from the original, take on their physical quirks, but I like having someone 'real' to work with. My new heroine has Angelina Jolie as her starting point (the character's a strong but beautiful, maternal woman raising a baby alone in a strange country after her husband leaves her for her best friend - and who doesn't love the photos with the new twins). You have the little dance with the character at the beginning - the 'could we be friends?', finding common ground, discovering the things that make them unique. Stewart Ferris, author of a couple of handy reference books I have on the shelves (How to be a Writer and How to get published), has an excellent character questionnaire you can download from his site. It's a useful way to start the character 'skeleton', the person you are going to hang the story on. As a writer you may already know some of the back story on them, but I love the alchemy that happens - the moment when the characters pick up the story and run. If you start explaining to non-writers the process where once a story gathers its own momentum and the characters begin to do things that surprise you, you get 'that' look. The 'ok, I knew there was something funny about you, but you're saying there are people in your head and they talk to you ...' There is no need to put all of this background information in - somehow it just makes a difference knowing it, and it gives your characters a real sense of depth. I think it was Hemingway who said it's as much about what you leave out as what you put in.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Creating believable characters involves letting go of yourself and stepping into their shoes. It involves empathy, sympathy, really connecting with them. You need to know them better than they know themselves. We've said before that a lot of writers are generalists - I think a fair number of us probably acted, or at least love film and stage productions. If you are stuck with a character's development, get out of your chair and act them out (it is ok you are an audience of one). Say the dialogue, prop a mirror up on your desk and glance up - what emotion is there on your face? Get out of your chair, and into their shoes - it may just give your work the kiss of life.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Mad About Madonna

After a great movie last night (Ang Lee's 'Wedding Banquet' - if you haven't seen it, it's wonderful, one of the few videos you return to again and again) - we were bedtime channel hopping and came across 50 best Madonna tracks on one of the music channels. How can Madonna be 50? I recently bit the bullet and sold my vinyl collection, and there were several early singles - Like a Virgin, Crazy for You, Like a Prayer. I dyed my hair dark aged 17 after the 'Like a Prayer' video - and for one summer only was a dusky Italian wannabe. I lost the plot around Erotica, but for every subsequent generation over the last twenty or so years there is probably a Madonna track to go with their significant memories, such is her longevity.

Every record in the boxes had a similar story - 80's new romantic, punk, indie, Floyd, Dylan, Velvet Underground, Prince and masses of rare jazz. The dealer could see I was sad to let the records go. 'Everyone's the same,' he said. 'CDs mean nothing, but I've had grown men in tears selling their vinyl.' I know what he meant - it was like saying goodbye to a piece of history - but we haven't had a turntable for years, and with a probable overseas move it was time to offload the boxes and let someone else enjoy the music.

Watching Madonna's transformations last night I wondered what keeps someone going for so long? Is this like seeing all the superpowers - ambition, talent, drive, a chameleon like sense of reinvention and adaption - coming together in one person? It is this talent for reinvention that really sets her apart I think - who else does or did that? Only Bowie springs to mind.

I bought our daughter the first of Madonna's children's books 'The English Roses', and it's often chosen as a bedtime story. There's a new book out too - an expose written by Madonna's brother, that seems to prove our continuing fascination with her. I can't even imagine what it's like to be that closely observed and picked apart even by your family. When I worked in Chelsea you'd occasionally see Madonna riding around on her bike in a flat cap, shades and tracksuit. Everyone ignored her - but that's London. There is a strange sense of disconnection when you glimpse someone whose music you have grown up with in the flesh. Just for a moment you think you've seen not a superstar but an old friend.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Whether you ever loved the music or not, Madonna is an icon for our generation - artist, performer, parent. Imagine a day in the life of a superstar - what would it take to be that person? What drives you, where do you find the discipline - the desire? Are you a pop star, rock star, torch singer? What are the conflicts you face? How do you switch between being a 'normal' spouse, parent, and the public superstar? Write a monologue if you feel like it, create a character - who is the person on the inside?

Friday, 22 August 2008

A perfect day

We've just driven back from a day at the coast - dog and children sleeping soundly. It's one of my earliest and happiest memories - being driven home at sunset from the beach in north Devon by my parents, curled up in a warm car with sunburnt skin and sand in my toes, a new copy of the next Malory Towers at page one. It was such a treat to be allowed to choose a yellowed, sunbleached paperback from the wire carousel outside the beach shop, the perfect end to a perfect day. I desperately wanted to go to boarding school, and lost myself in a world of midnight feasts, ponies, derring-do, high teas and lashings of ginger pop. Enid Blyton has just been voted the best-loved author in the UK. Finally! Admitting to enjoying Enid Blyton when you were younger has until now been the love that dare not speak its name.

I can see the same hunger for books I felt in our daughter. She's currently devouring every Roald Dahl she can lay her hands on, but hasn't yet discovered Malory Towers, or the Famous Five. She is very into Jaqueline Wilson - and we have had to have conversations about the difference between watching Tracy Beaker and emulating her cockiness (not particularly charming in a six year old). Wilson is pretty gritty stuff (and I've had to veto some of the books as she is just not ready to deal with the topics covered). Explaining divorce - that some Mummies and Daddies don't live together, and some of the reasons children end up in care homes were hard enough. Harry Potter is another matter entirely - and raised interesting conversations about the difference between fact and fiction. I hadn't fully appreciated that children just don't draw that distinction unless it is clearly pointed out that some stories are make believe (and films are acted by children who are actors, not young boy wizards).

For a while it was just not done to admit at school to reading Enid Blyton (what did they expect? Tolstoy?). I soon moved on - discovered P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, then went through a huge Agatha Christie phase. Driving back from the beach tonight it did make me wonder whether the gentler world of Blyton would appeal to our daughter - or whether it would all seem a little passe to one who has already discovered Wilson and Rowling. Perhaps it is time to revisit the first term at Malory Towers as we all start to think about going back to school.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Who were your favourite children's authors? Is there someone you haven't yet shared with your children? As a writer if you had to choose between being well loved or well regarded (ie, literary/critical acclaim) which would you choose?

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Fallow Fields

A perfect day yesterday, and thank you for all the good wishes - Cass sculpture park, purple rock star sunglasses (huge, think Bono) that actually manage to hide the black eye presented by the two year old, red Crocs that make me look like a lanky smurf from the six year old, and perfume from the pilot. Feel lucky and very lighthearted still. Amazingly just the resolution to lighten up seems to have made a huge difference.

For a few weeks I've been longing for retreat. It has something of a tradition in our family. My grandfather had a garden house that no one was allowed in (this was the boxer who my grandmother fell in love with at first sight when she saw him fishing in a stream near the family's mills in Wales because he looked like Errol Flynn). When I say no one, no grown up was allowed in there. As children he welcomed us - it was an exquisite retreat. He made beautiful dove tailed boxes for all his photographic equipment (it was his dark room too), and the walls were lined with books and Staffordshire pottery. The little clapperboard house was next door to the greenhouses so it always smelt of fresh tomatoes. My grandmother never went in there, not once until after he died.

I've been dreaming of Fra Angelico's monastery, retreating to Ojai or Sedona where I saw wonderful escapes and little hermitages in the mountains, or in this country the Arvon Foundation's writing courses in remote and beautiful places. There's no realistic chance of retreat of course. Life is too busy and pressing. Recently I read Daniel Day Lewis talking about the need for 'fallow fields' periods of reflection and rest. Maybe this longing is just a symptom of that - needing to gather strength before the next push forward. Walking through the woods at the Cass Foundation yesterday was wonderful - sculptures appear suddenly like fairytale visions. I loved 'Yo Reina' by David Worthington - the marble was luminous in the half light, the form egg like, full of wonderful possibilities. When I downloaded the photos at home it looked like it had just landed in the woods, emitting its own wonderful light.

It feels like the seasons are shifting already in England. There are copper leaves among the green. Several of the sculptures at the park are boxes and structures - an amazing confessional like something from an Angela Carter story, a tranquil hexagonal deer hut. It felt like a mini retreat, which is saying something with the children there. As we were leaving we browsed a sale of art books in the entrance, and I picked up a copy of the Royal Academy 'Africa' show from the late 90s. The gallery I worked for loaned several pieces, and the catalogue was shot by a photographer friend who took our wedding photos (see the blog of beauty). Strange coincidence. It feels like things are coming full circle. This feels like a new beginning.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Can you build a mini-retreat into your day? Is there a special place you haven't been for a while that brings you a sense of peace? Church, park, mountain, bath ... give yourself some time out today to be calm and reflect. Seek out your fallow fields and catch up with yourself.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

The Blog of Beauty

As I've promised to blog daily here's a post for the morning as we are off early to the sculpture park.

20th August 2008

Today’s my birthday, so as a gift I’ve taken Proust’s famous questionnaire for artists and mixed it up with Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book lists and one of my treasured second hand books the ‘Book of Beauty.’ Proust goes on a little (and as we writing parents know we are always pushed for time), so I’ve cut it down to a top ten. Sei Shonagon famously listed myriad things she loved (cherry blossom, the fold of a sleeve …) and the dog eared lovely old book I found is basically an uncomplicated appreciation of beautiful things printed in the 1950s – books, poems, photographs reproduced with the simple wish to please the reader. Imagine that. No postmodern deconstruction, arguments, no agenda, just 'here's a bunch of really beautiful stuff - enjoy'. As we talk a lot about books and family, there’s a decided bent towards favourite childhood things – and as Proust pointed out the answers could change from day to day. So with a shake of Julie Andrews – (these are a few of my favourite things) here we go ... If you like the idea, see today’s prompt.


The Little Prince – Antoine de St Exupery. A book from the heart – teaches children everything need to know about human frailty and the redemptive power of love.


i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it's you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

ee cummings



Yves Klein


Arthur Rubenstein’s recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes, esp No 2

Where it all began.

Holkham beach – where I'd love to end up


Orange trees – also covers several of favourite smells (neroli, woodsmoke, wild herbs)


Tampopo (also covers several of my favourite foods!)

"...All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well", Julian of Norwich.

TODAY’S PROMPT: What is your Blog of Beauty? Why not post your top ten out there and pass it on? Or just sit down for ten minutes and map it out for yourself, paste it up somewhere you can see it. Make everyday beautiful.

Lighten up

Reading is dangerous. Books should come with a health warning. All of you who've been good enough to drop by regularly will probably appreciate the irony of what happened. We were in the supermarket car park. The pilot was jetlagged (back to back Luxor), the six year old was tetchy - in the back of the car refusing to come out, reading a (heavy hardback) Harry Potter. The two year old reached out towards the car door - small fingers, heavy hinge ... I lunged after him just as the pilot grabbed the book in frustration and flung it full strength towards the hedge. Only it didn't make it to the hedge because my head was in the way. Yes - struggling novelist floored by a copy of probably the best selling book on earth. I am now sporting a fetching black eye that a prize fighter would be proud of, and the doc said I have concussion and should take it easy for a couple of weeks (did she not notice the two small children hanging off me during the consultation?) The birthday photos tomorrow should be (cue Max from Hart to Hart ...) 'Gorgeous'.

This proves what I have thought all along - someone up there has a sense of humour. I was watching the lovely Ewan McGregor biking round the world in 'The Long Way Round' last night. They were in East Russia, and he said this was the worst bit - which in retrospect will be the best. Isn't that the truth? Being nearly blinded by J K Rowling's finest has to be the low point (and yet I feel lucky - a fraction of a cm either way and it would have been an eye or a delicate temple ...) Funnily enough though being whacked round the head by a heavy book has woken me up. I had been mooching around, wondering what resolutions to make this year after last year's failures but now everything is suddenly clear. Book? House? Overseas move? Who knows. My resolution this year is simple: Lighten up.

I choose to be happy. I choose to take a new perspective. If I had been in the moment instead of thinking about 101 things as normal, maybe I would have seen the book coming. I've been reading a lot about Eudaimonia in the last week, and whichever stance you take (Artistotelian, hedonist or stoic), I think seeking happiness and success through doing the best with what you've got is it. I was reading an interview with Robert de Niro the other day and he said 'You can't take yourself too seriously, otherwise you'd go nuts.' Lighten up. We've got one life, and I'm going to raise my game and give it my best shot.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Think back over your life to one of the toughest times. Is it true that these are often the most memorable and valuable points in your life, the ones where you feel truly on your game and alive? Is this why people talk of the Blitz spirit? What lessons do you think this experience or challenge taught you? If tomorrow were a new year for you, what positive change would you take with you, and what would your resolutions be?

Monday, 18 August 2008

Angels and Demons

One of my favourite set of books is the 'Question of ...' series of board books by David and Amy Butler. Not only are they toddler proof (chunky, chewable, chuckable), they are beautifully illustrated and make an inspiring change from Barney. Amy Butler is obviously a talented lady - she has a great site here. Another example of what we have been talking about - a multi talented artist who uses her gifts in multiple ways. Last night I was reading A Question of Belief to the two year old at bedtime, and read:

'As ye think, so shall ye be' - Jesus Christ
'What we think we become' - Buddha
'Our life is what our thoughts make it' - Marcus Aurelius

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately. Do you know the Tom Waits song
'Please call me baby'? He talks about how:
'If I exorcise my devils
Well my angels may leave too
When they leave they're so hard to find'.
I first heard in on the soundtrack of an in-flight film as we were travelling round the world. I'd decided one of my missions during those months was to try and understand as much as I could about world religions. As we travelled, one of the things that struck me is the simple truths underlying disparate beliefs (see the quotes from the toddlers book above). I was also working through a lot of my beliefs and preconceptions about being an artist and writer, and something about the Tom Waits lyric bugged me. Do you think it is one of those stereotypes about artists that you have to in some way be difficult, tortured, not 'normal'? Do you think a writer's mind functions differently?

I guess what I'm asking is do you think it is possible to hang on to the angels while releasing your demons? Watching the Sylvia Plath movie the other night, she talked about how she believed she had conjured Ted Hughes' lover, how she had manifested her worst fears - rather like the quotes above - her thoughts had made her life.

I've always been optimistic, glass half full - I really do believe in the power of positive thinking, creative visualisation ('what we think we become'). Perhaps Sylvia's demons were just the flip side of this. In spite of my best efforts this year though, it has been an uphill struggle (just haven't accomplished any of my resolutions from last year). I have been thinking positive like crazy - maybe this is the trouble? Can you want something too much? Perhaps the things I have wanted (book contract, security, buy our home and settle down), have been too dependent on external factors (agents, crazy housing market, pilot's career). Think my resolutions this year are going to be a whole lot simpler, and focus on doing the best I can with the things I can control.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Lists play a big part in any working parent's life - shopping, to do pro/con etc - and they can be pretty prosaic. Why not take ten minutes or so and write an Angels and Demons list. What's good in your work and life, and what's bad - what situations or behaviours are limiting your growth and potential? How can you give more attention to what is good and start getting rid of what's bad?

Sunday, 17 August 2008

I need a hero ...

Having children is a blast in so many ways, not least because it gives you an excuse to revisit your own childhood passions (Dr Seuss, Madeline, horse riding, ballet ... the list goes on). We were browsing in a dressing up shop a couple of days ago, and the six year old pulled out a Superman costume 'Yes!' she said, 'I want to be Superman!' 'OK,' I shrugged (no gender stereotyping around here, no siree). 'But wouldn't it be more fun to be Wonder Woman?' I rifled around the costumes hopefully. 'Who?' she said. 'Who?' I was incredulous. 'Who is Wonder Woman??'

What happened to Wonder Woman? Lynda Carter pretty much defined my ideal of womanhood in the 70s. At my daughter's age I wanted to look like that, be able to do everything that Wonder Woman could. I had the Diana doll, the cuffs and band (though mercifully not the spandex pants as it is not such a good look on a bespectacled six year old with puppy fat). Cine film of the time (how old does that make me sound?) shows a lot of twirling going on.

Wonder woman – the beautiful, wise super hero I have just discovered was designed by the man who invented polygraphs to conquer with love not force. Amazonian, she was a propoganda figure for a new type of woman - ‘a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.’ As he put it. She used pure mental strength – she was a strategist, diplomat, linguist. She formed my idea of a real woman. If the idea was to encourage girls to embrace their strength and brains as well as their femininity it worked with me. Plus she had great boots. Where has she gone? Our girls need her. Now they have all these masculine super heros, kids like Ben 10 turning into aliens, but where has this goddess who used her brains, beauty and strength to help the world gone?

TODAY'S PROMPT: Who was your hero when you were a child - what lessons can you still learn from them? There is nothing more touching than when someone says 'My Dad/Mum is my hero.' What defines heroism to you? What positive gifts can we pass on to our children? We've already discussed the difficulty of being an artist and a parent (the need for self expression vs the sublimation of yourself essential to raise children, the putting someone else first). As a parent you become the frame not the picture. Is this heroic - is this what all the Supermen and Wonder Women out there are doing - the everyday heroes who use their gifts to help others? What gifts would you have as a writer superhero - the pen of steel? The folder of destiny? Have fun with it - dress up with your kids. Nothing like a cape to make you feel super on a Sunday.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Things I wish my mother had told me ...

I was sitting in the sunshine in the market square yesterday afternoon drinking a coffee as the two year old talked to a patient little dog, and a red Renault Five drove past. That was my first car - a red Renault, and I loved it with a passion. I remember driving it at breakneck speed down the coast road to see if the top speed really was a 100mph. It was a joint present - 17th and exam results and the way I drove it it's amazing I lived to see another birthday. I drove thousands of miles in that car, to beach parties in Cornwall, house parties in the South of France, runs to the cash and carry for the gang (I was never ID'd - always old for my age!). It was like a handbag on wheels bursting with perfume (Obsession, Opium - you could smell it coming for miles), half a wardrobe of clothes and shoes scattered on the backseat and always, always the pint sized love god Prince, Aerosmith or Ricky Lee Jones on the cassette player. (There are only two emotional speeds at teenage I think - high octane party mode or languid emotional wreck). My father always predicted I'd end up like the girl in the Golf adverts (ditching fiancee, diamonds and furs but hanging onto the keys of her car). However, I always preferred Nicole and Papa. As that little car pulled up outside the cafe yesterday, it looked a little faded since its late eighties heyday, a bit rusty round the edges (rather like me), but damn it looked a lot more fun than a big old estate full of empty juice boxes and dog hair.

It is exam result time in the UK, and the town was full of coltish gorgeous teenagers in their cute cut off denim skirts, ballet flats and grey sweatshirts that are oddly like the clothes we wore twenty years ago. What is it they say - if you can remember it from the first time round, don't go there? There was a buzz of excitement in the air - young guys carrying crates of beer off to celebratory parties, girls in the dress stores holding up cute cotton printed prom dresses. I was in France that summer - I remember staying up all night talking by the fire with a group of friends I thought would last a lifetime. I remember bumping along dusty tracks to restaurants in the middle of nowhere where we ate honey off the comb and drank eau de vie spiked with snake venom (with Mr Snake encased in the bottle for good measure). It all seems oddly quaint now - Kid Rock's take on Sweet Home Alabama that seems to be on the radio all the time this summer has made me feel pretty nostalgic these last few weeks. Remember a time when there was no internet? (We were a pretty romantic lot and actually wrote letters to one another when we weren't constantly on the phone). Remember when you could just sling any old thing on and look fabulous? When you could stay up partying all night (drugs weren't even really around then - it was pre-rave scene) and just bounce out of bed as fresh as a daisy? When you and your friends fell in and out of love on a weekly basis and the future stretched ahead of you? I realised yesterday that my little girl is closer to this magic summer of limitless possibilities than I am - but just for a moment as I watched that little red car pull away, I was there.

TODAY'S PROMPT: There is an excellent book by a British fashion journalist 'Things I wish my mother had told me ...' So, what do you wish your mother or father had told you at eighteen? What were your dreams, passions, hopes for the future? Perhaps imagine a conversation between two characters in your work - father to son or mother to daughter (or vice versa). Pulling off an authentic teenage voice in writing is really hard to do - we've all read passages that stink where the author has tried too hard to sound 'down with the kids'. Think back. Wear both hats - can you remember what it feels like to be a child/(wo)man and can you empathise as a parent? What would you want to tell your children? What has it taken you a lifetime to learn?

Friday, 15 August 2008

Bourgeois Bears and Blogs

Feeling this edgy and sleep deprived is a lot more fun if it involves jetlag and a beach somewhere. I like the Louise Bourgeois print above - it's pinned to my board. Days like today I need to be reminded of simple things like this. Be Calm. Breathe. We were up rather early today. One of those broken nights - dragged from deep, glorious sleep into the pitch dark, still hours of the morning by a plaintive wail. It's times like this I really miss the pilot - at least if you can say 'oh no, not again ...' to the other warm bod responsible for all this it makes the whole thing easier. The toddler had had a bad dream, and even after cuddles and stories didn't want to go to sleep. So we have been watching Bear in the Big Blue House since the early hours, and I've been flicking through the blogosphere (this is what passes for quality time at moments like this, at least we are in the same room). Sometimes I wish Bear would adopt me and tuck me up in a cosy bed alongside Ojo and Treelo in that lovely Blue House.

It still feels like I have belatedly discovered a whole new culture in blogging. Amazing to see that some of the big blogs have been around for four years or so, and curious to see how versatile a form it is - how many uses people put blogging to, including making a living through stealth (or not so stealthy) marketing. Perhaps I'm being rather green about all this? I stumbled into a feud on Blogher - wow, people take blogging very seriously don't they? One of the writing blogs flagged up as a goodie was Grumpy Old Bookman - Michael Allen very generously has a free PDF down load of his book The Truth About Writing, which makes sobering reading. Check out these axioms:

"The so-called advance is actually a retrospective.

Most publishers can recognise a bestseller, but only when it was published two years earlier and they have the sales figures in front of them.

Publishing depends, for its continuance, upon a ceaseless flow of mugs, suckers, and assorted halfwits who are prepared to work for a year or more without any serious prospect of remuneration"

Does that sound about right to you? A year or more? Mug, sucker, halfwit? Feels rather like it this morning - but then I've had only a couple of hours sleep as I wrote late last night, (the thought of escaping to a grown up 9 - 5 work land with that demob happy TFI Friday feeling and a real live regular paycheque is strangely alluring). Surely it depends what you want from your writing. The axioms are based on financial gain. My accountant would be delighted to see a 'retrospective' around about now, but money wasn't my driving force (if it was, I would have gone to work in the City like a lot of people I knew at school - who have now paid off their mortgages, drive Porsches, and are sipping rose by their pools in the Dordogne ... but let's not go there). That was one insight that took me years to figure out - academic success at school is no indicator of success in later life. The guys who flunk everything and yet are incredibly successful got there because they wanted success - pure and simple.

Writing wasn't a choice - the books were there, they had and have to be written. In my 'day jobs' I have always chosen work that stretched my mind and heart rather than inflated the bank balance, and crucially gave me time to read and write (volunteering, running arts festivals, working with underprivileged children, art consultancy). Perhaps you are the same? However, I didn't really know I was ambitious until I had children - all I've ever wanted was to write great books that people enjoy. Now, through doing that professionally I want to help build a secure and happy future for my family. Amazing how a sense of responsibility for small people suddenly makes pursuing art seem a luxury. Even Jane Austen said with her dying breaths on TV the other night (obviously not her personally, but an actress portraying how she felt she had let her family down by not being successful enough) 'Rich is just another word for safe'. Ouch. It may not be perfect, (let's face it - to have it all, something has got to give, there has to be compromise), but to work to the best of your abilities, bring home the bacon and be there for your (happy well adjusted) family - that's the dream isn't it, that's success? Eudaimonia. Or to have your cake and eat it. It's so close now. I can almost feel it. Maybe I am a mug or an idealist but it's not too much to ask for all this hard work is it? I mean, even Bear gets to drive home in a convertible. Cha cha cha.

TODAY'S PROMPT: What do you want from your writing? Why not have a think about your end goal? Is it fortune, is it fame, and a neon lighted name? Or would you take the fortune and retreat Salinger-like to the hills? Perhaps you are writing for you alone and not for publication or profit at all. We've established a lot of writers are generalists. Rowena raised an interesting question yesterday - is it even possible to be a mother and artist? Are we really mugs, suckers and halfwits, or are writers idealists as well as generalists? Does blogging help your career - or is it keeping you from your 'real' work?

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Let it Flow

Perhaps 'Sylvia' was a dubious choice for my 'hot date' last night. Writer on the edge alone with two small children in an isolated low beamed cottage ... Bit too close to home perhaps. But the pilot is in Mexico and he would rather watch paint dry than sit through that kind of movie so I have to take my chances while I can. I was talking to a friend the other day and she couldn't believe he hasn't read the book, (or blog) for that matter. Maybe once the novel is actually published curiosity will get the better of him. We just have completely different tastes (though crucially a very similar sense of humour), and what I write doesn't interest him. Often our choice of movies is completely different too - lots of compromises (trade offs between high voltage action movies and in-action subtitled art house where nothing appears to happen), but nearly 20 happy years in and it's still working. He has always been 100% supportive and held my hand riding the rollercoaster this year tolerating bleak moods and watching the kids while I have pounded the keyboard in the basement - he is (as my mother-in-law frequently points out), my rock. Which makes me someone in need of a strong anchor? Watching Sylvia/Gwynnie struggle with her work, family and Ted Hughes' infidelity wasn't quite the life affirming art conquers all tale I was hoping for. It left me wondering what happened to their children - how do you live with something like that, can there be a happily ever after? Maybe next time I'll find a sitter and go for Mamma Mia. Have you seen the viral with the dancing fingers on YouTube? Anyway it made me laugh. BTW if anyone knows how to embed video in blog posts I'd love to know.

From the film, at least, it seemed that while Sylvia struggled with her work - baking cakes instead of writing was the in your face symbol - for Ted Hughes the work flowed in a very physical natural way. Whatever you think the meaning of life is, one of the surest ways to tell you are doing what it is you were sent to earth for is when you experience flow. I think some of my earliest memories flag up a future as a writer: sitting in the wild flower meadow at home, aged about four, my back against the oak tree, reading a Ladybird book, wearing red Mary Janes and a yellow pinafore. Lying on my pink nylon bedspread in a very flowery 70's pink bedroom practising letters with my Mum. Climbing up to the top shelf of my wardrobe to sneak a look at the copy of 1001 Nights that had been put up there for safekeeping because it was too risque for a six year old. I was caught red-handed thoroughly absorbed in tales of dancing girls and exotic princes. Flow is like catching a perfect wave - when your work is going so well it is effortless, you are present but somewhere else entirely and can lose hours at a time given the chance. Flow is what we are aiming for, and it is what these memories are made of.

Sometimes you glimpse it in your children's faces - I wonder if they are more tuned in to the moment than we are? Perhaps as you mature and there are so many things running through your mind it becomes less easy to slow down and focus. The pilot says flying the big jets you experience flow ever day - it's why he loves it, born to fly. Athletes are the same I'm sure (though this is something I cannot speak of with authority. I once experienced a brief buzz after jogging round the block). These days the endorphins have to fight past the caffeine. However, I bet every single one of the boys and girls in Beijing with a gold medal round their neck were absolutely focussed and in a flow state when they won.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Can you think of times when you have experienced flow? What do you think that tells you about your work, the direction you are taking? There may not be a magic formula for creating a sense of flow, but perhaps there are things you can do to help yourself and increase the frequency - get enough rest, drink less coffee, cut back on the margaritas, get plenty of fresh air? Living in the Valencian orange groves with a small baby was fabulous for this - neroli induces Zen like Alpha brain wave patterns (add to this over two years of complete pure diet while growing/feeding the baby). No wonder so much work got done - it was detox heaven, like a really, really long rehab after years in London. (Though I was desperate to return to civilisation by the end of it). On a more practical level, if you are trying to work through a problem, walking the dog is one of the single best things I find to zone out and let your mind sort everything through - perhaps it is the rhythm. Find what works for you - and use it, go for gold.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Tell me about your childhood ...

One of the strangest situations I ever found myself in at work was when I was hired as a consultant by an art firm. Gradually one by one each of the Directors and the other consultants opened up to me - and I mean, really opened up. Way too much information. Divorces, sexual peccadilloes, depression, suicidal tendencies - the works. I was very British about it, calm, sympathetic. It finally clicked when one of them ended a half hour off-loading of their problems with 'Wow, that feels great. Guess you must get this all the time with your past work ..?' I looked quizzical. 'You know, with your psychology degree.' Everything fell into place. When they hired me, one of them must have misread my CV - my first degree was in Philosophy, not psychology.

It was a good lesson in not jumping to conclusions about people. The photo above is not some corner of a student's digs as you may think, but Sigmund Freud's consulting room. Writers are I think by nature curious about pretty much everything - including psychology, so perhaps I asked just enough of the right questions to fuel their illusion, and I'm certainly good at listening. I miss living in London for that - if you can blend into the background in a cafe or on the top deck of the bus it is amazing the things you hear. One of my favourite lines overheard waiting at a bus stop on the King's Road was: 'We buried Daddy under the Braeburn - the apples just went 'phhht' (the woman screwed her face up bitterly). 'Now Mummy, she's under the Coxes and they are so sweet' She thought for a moment. 'Rather as my parents were in life.' That little exchange made it into book two almost unchanged.

TODAY'S PROMPT: I'm listening ... as Frasier used to say. Keeping your eyes and ears open is one of the most valuable skills you can learn as an artist, writer or parent for that matter. We are surrounded by so much noise and distraction it is easy to miss what is important - when was the last time you experienced real silence, and listened to yourself? (I obviously spent too long standing next to speakers at concerts because these days even when it is perfectly silent there is white noise). Make a conscious effort to really see the people around you and listen to what they are saying. Take nothing for granted, don't be blinded by first impressions - and keep that notebook handy for when a great line drops into your lap.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Hot Dates and Chocolate

It's not so much Chick Lit around here as Choc Lit at the moment. This is possibly the two-year old's favourite word - he has learnt to push a chair over to the fridge, and clamber up hopefully murmuring 'choc-lit? choc-lit?' I have no idea where he gets this love of chocolate from ... no, really I don't. However we are using it to good effect with potty training - a friend said she managed to crack it in a matter of days by using Smarties as rewards instead of the usual star chart.

Feel like I deserve a couple of Smarties myself. After yesterday's post I dug out Elvis' Number 1s CD, and took my own advice about clearing out your writing space. The pilot took the children swimming so for the first time this summer I had four glorious hours to work without interruption. As I was clearing out a whole wheelie bin of papers for recycling, I came across a quote from Noel Coward: Fun is fun - but work is more fun. That man knew what he was talking about.

It's eight years ago this summer that I worked through Julia Cameron's 'Artist's Way', and flicking through my journal from those weeks made interesting reading yesterday. It was literally another lifetime - we had our own home in London that I loved, two good incomes, two cool cats. We spent our holiday that year in my friend's chateau in the south of France, strolling through Nice and dining at the Colombe d'Or. When the book sells, I want to take the children there and see them splashing around beneath the Calder in the beautiful pool. This year (if the pilot isn't called in to work), it's going to be a staycation. That summer I had no idea that by Christmas we would have sold up in London, and be travelling around the world. I had no idea that my City boy was going to become a pilot, that there would be seven moves in six years and two beautiful children coming along. All I knew was that I wanted to write - and yesterday I finally sorted eight years' worth of notebooks and scraps of paper into coherent shape ready to write the next book. It felt good - scary, but good. The boondoggling is almost over - just as soon as they are back to school, it will be time to write.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Everyone deserves a treat, a reward for the work you are putting in. Chocolate does it for the toddler, but the 'Artist's Way' uses weekly Artist Dates - these are times when you do something that will help your creative work, when you replenish yourself by doing something that you really want to do. Whenever I think 'What? Is this a hot date?' it reminds me of Billy Crystal in 'When Harry Met Sally.' Yes, this is a Hot Date with yourself - put it in the diary. Look ahead over the next week. Is there a couple of hours where someone can watch the children for you? Ideally you want to get out of the house to go have some fun, but if you are stuck at home, pick an evening where you can devote time to yourself once they are asleep. What do you really want to do? Is there a great exhibition in town that you've been dying to see, or a movie, or if you need to be at home, maybe a DVD? Or is it ages since you've been antiquing, or tried on outrageous shoes, or just sat peacefully with your notebook and a coffee watching the world go by? Don't waste the precious time squeezing in chores or grocery shopping ... make a date with something you used to love, or have always wanted to try, that you never get a chance to do with small people in tow.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Love You More than Rock & Roll

The fiftieth post has come round really quickly - thanks to all of you who are reading regularly. Can't believe this blog is being read in over thirty countries now. Daily posting each morning is a testament to strong black coffee and the diversionary powers of Sponge Bob Squarepants. There is a great UK pottery company called Bridgewater - I drink my morning coffee out of a mug that says 'I love you more than Rock & Roll'. I remember when they opened their store on the Fulham Road in London - Emma Bridgewater's designs were so fresh. It's no wonder her intelligent, humorous style has been imitated (well, copied - never did believe that rubbish about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery - being copied is boring, but I've always believed moving on and doing something even better is the best recourse). Her work is really original, and I admire that. My Bridgewater mugs are a simple pleasure every single day - the favourites are the ones the children made at their pottery cafe in Staffordshire - wonky painting but absolutely original. In the afternoon, (caffeine after lunch and I'm too buzzy to sleep, sad but true), I move on to peppermint tea or decaf Earl Grey from 'I love you more than Elvis', and keep my pens and pencils in Marlon Brando.

Elvis died when I was my little girl's age, and I loved him so much, with the intensity of a six year old that my parents couldn't bring themselves to tell me. I didn't know for years. In fact, as I found out when the pilot and I finally made it to Graceland a few years ago, it seems rather a lot of people haven't been told (there were birthday bouquets wishing the King many happy returns - Elvis Lives!). If you've been to Memphis, you can appreciate how surreal the whole experience was (we stayed in the motel opposite, where an Elvis impersonator lives permanently - I woke to see the King smoking on a lounger by the guitar shaped pool). The details were so curious - turquoise hilted guns, a copy of Khalil Gibran's 'Prophet', green shag pile carpet on the ceiling. But what struck me most was how modest Graceland was - the crockery in the small, cosy kitchen reminded me of my grandmother's house.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Like a lot of passions my love for Elvis fizzled out, but one of the unexpected joys of parenthood is introducing your kids to things you loved at their age. I bought my little girl an Elvis CD from Oxfam the other day, and watching her groove around with the toddler to 'Let me be your teddy bear ...' was fantastic. At her age, growing up in remote moorland Devon, American culture was dazzling to me - along with Elvis, DC comics gave tantalising glimpses of exotica like Tootsie rolls, X ray glasses and Sea Monkeys. I read every single Hardy Boys & Nancy Drew book I could lay my hands on, and loved the Three Investigators. Remember what you loved at six? What did you read, and listen to? Share this with your kids and have fun remembering. It's what it is all about - love, life and rock & roll.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

New Year's Resolutions

No, I haven't gone completely mad - I never make resolutions on January 1st because I don't know about you but my will power is at an all time low just after Christmas with the bleakest months still to come. (All you want to do is hunker down by the fire with a good book). I do however love this time of year - particularly living near the south coast (bleached blonde fields of corn, poppies, clear blue skies, sea and forest walks). It may be a little unusual but I have always made my resolutions on my birthday, and as there is only ten days to go (not that I'm counting, or hoping for lemon cake made by the six year old and helium balloons like last year or anything ...) - I thought I ought to have a look at 2007's and see how they have gone.

Well, they haven't. It has been a complete and utter wipeout - I have failed, miserably. Out of twelve I managed one - take a holiday. We drove up to the Hamptons out of season and it was glorious - there's a photo of Flying Point in the side bar. We had spent a lot of time in New York (the pilot's parents lived out there for a while), and had driven up to Maine, down to Cape May but this was our first time here. Have you seen 'Something's Gotta Give' with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton? Her fictional Hampton's home is on this beach, and sometimes I watch the film just to dream about a writer's retreat like that. Just thinking about it now (deserted white beaches, chill sea air, light and space) makes me feel calm and contented which is no mean feat at the moment.
Of the rest of the resolutions (buy a home, get back to my pre-baby weight, sell the book, get some help with the kids, spend time in Venice alone with the pilot etc etc ...) none of it happened. So what did happen? The last few days I've been wondering if I could have done more. The whole debacle with the first agent doing nothing with the book for a whole year knocked out several of the resolutions dependent on actually providing for the family, earning a serious living, but why am I not #11 'Be relaxed happy fun mother wife and friend ..?' (the pilot can confirm I am no closer to this particular resolution after I went ballistic when he showed me photos of tropical beaches, flamingos and bikini clad stewardesses when he returned from Costa Rica last night).

TODAY'S PROMPT: I'm trying to think of more achievable resolutions for next year (or should I just roll over the ones from last year?) Meanwhile, have some fun - have you ever tried listing out '100 wants before you die'? It can be anything - bestselling book, world peace, herb garden, pug dogs, lavender lined paths, or a painting in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition are just some of the ones I jotted down before I ran out of ideas at #47. If it has been a long time since you sat down and thought 'What do I want ..?' this should be fun for you. This is not a question busy parents/writers/workers often ask themselves so it can be liberating and illuminating. Most of my time is taken up with 'What do I have to do ... what do they want ...' I don't know about you. So get comfy with a glass of wine or a cup of cocoa in your recently jazzed up writing space and start at # one. 'I want ...' and see how far you get - let me know. For me at least, this is going to be the year of no regrets. Someone said beautiful young people are a freak of nature - beautiful old people are a work of art. Let's start setting our kids a good example of how to make every year count.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Fact or Fiction?

There was a charismatic one-eyed book dealer who used to hang around Chelsea. Once in a while if he had something he thought my American boss would be interested in, he'd call into the gallery for a coffee and a chat. Once he had an illuminated copy of the Song of Solomon - never have I wanted a book so much. I used a quote from it at the start of my book: 'Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love.' Reassuring to know people reached for a glass of wine and comfort food to mend a broken heart even in Biblical times.

Cy's stories were literally incredible. He talked about the jazz clubs of New York, hanging out at the Chelsea Hotel, selling the Herald Trib in Paris just as they were filming A Bout de Souffle (he claimed the famous t-shirt was his, borrowed on impulse by the gamine star. I love this movie, but prefer Breathless - the Richard Gere and Valerie Kaprisky 80's classic because it is one of 'our' movies. Jerry Lee Lewis, obsessive love, the Silver Surfer - what's not to like?

I don't know how many of Cy's tales were complete fabrications, but he was a great storyteller, and each one had a flavour of the truth. Where do you stand on this - do you write from what you know, or are your worlds completely imaginary? Science fiction, horror (hopefully) are genres that draw heavily on the imagination. Adaptations like Breathless take something like the French original and make something completely new. The same story told by two different people, interpreted by two casts of actors comes out differently. My writing area - which was described as 'middle of the road - in the nicest possible way' by agent one (ie, not chick lit and not literary but leaning towards the latter), creates worlds that could very possibly exist. I think writing fiction with a flavour of fact is a very compelling thing to aim for - who isn't drawn in by 'this is based on a true story ...'

TODAY'S PROMPT: I enjoyed 'A Bout de Souffle', but I adore 'Breathless' because it reminds me of being young, and free and crazily in love. Take a favourite book or film and think how you would adapt the storyline - what would you do differently to make it even better? Take ten minutes or so and draft out a summary of the plot - think where you would set the new version - if you're thinking of a film, who would you cast? Winkle out the things you love about the original - it's a good indicator of where you'd like your work to go. Have fun with it - there's no limit! If the story is archetypal (like a fairytale), you may just come up with a new idea for a short story or book. Take something you love and make it your own.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Crazy Love

Every time I think I just can't be bothered to tidy up the toys, sweep the floor, or sort out the recycling I think of the Dirty House. That is not its real name of course, it has just gone down in family lore as that. We have been searching for a home to buy for over two years now. The property market in the UK is that crazy, and now prices are falling I'm glad for once head ruled heart and we have held out. Over this time we have looked at scores of houses - we like a challenge (we gutted and renovated our first home), and I'm dying to knock down walls or build from scratch. One of the houses we were interested in sounded ideal - detached, enough land, character, close to town and school. That there were no internal photos on the estate agent's details was curious, but projects don't come up often so we went to take a look.

At this point, we still had a small baby in a pram. As the estate agent (literally) led us up the garden path, he said 'Um ... you may want to leave the pram out here.' I exchanged glances with the pilot as the agent unlocked the front door and called out. It wasn't the smell so much that hit me, as the fact he had to squeeze sideways through the partially opened door. We followed suit. The dimly lit hallway was piled with bags, boxes, all manner of things. Each tread of the staircase teetered precariously with piles of newspapers and magazines. Nobody said a thing. Nobody said 'What the ..?' We made polite noises about potential and original features, holding tightly to the children. 'Here we have the first reception ..' the agent indicated a door, but did not try to go in. I pushed open the (sticky to the touch) panelled door a fraction and craned my head around the corner. Above the five foot high stacks of books, papers, tea chests and detritus I could see beautiful original cornicing. It got worse. I won't tell you about the bathroom and kitchen (you may be eating). When we paused in one of the bedrooms and the then three year old reached out to touch the strangely well made bed (hospital corners on the white sheets), I cried out 'Don't touch!' The garden was glorious - well stocked with fruit bushes, apple trees, fig trees - overgrown, but easy to imagine restored to glory. The most bizarre part of the whole experience is we bumped into the occupiers on the way out - an immaculately dressed gay couple in their eighties trailing eau de cologne in their wake. As we parted, still the agent didn't say a thing. Is that just a very odd English sense of politeness? We drove away in stunned silence, until finally we both said simultaneously 'Oh my ...'

How does that happen to someone's life? Is it one undiscarded paper at a time? It was enough to beef up my housework, put it that way. At the end of the day I know just as soon as I've cleaned or tidied, someone will come straight along and trail mud or paint or spill coloured bricks but that is life - it's crazy, it's messy and I love it. Well - I do and I don't. Now they are sleeping like angels, I've caught up with work and the house is peaceful I can look back on the day and say I love it. Between two small children and a hound so hairy she is like the anti-swiffer, spreading chaos (plus mmmm decidedly un-foxy fox or badger poo from this afternoon's glorious walk with friends to the fruit farm), it is a full time job cleaning this place. It's no mistake the children's books by Frank Muir about a naughty Afghan were called 'What-a-mess.' As you know by now I'm not a full time cleaner - I'm a mother, writer, run a small business ... so I do my best and it isn't always good enough. But every single little white vest washed, folded and put away or dogeared board book returned to the shelf is a gesture of pure love. This has been - is - a tough summer. I'm feeling a little battle weary (rather Russell Crowe at the beginning of Gladiator, hoping my best scenes are yet to come). I sat in the rocking chair in my son's room last night watching him sleep, wondering what the weeks ahead hold. Perhaps the secret is simply to be here now, one day at a time, and to do the best you can. I like that quote from Volatire often quoted on the Happiness Project: 'Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.' You're always welcome for a coffee at our place - the cups will be clean but please ignore the happy chaos.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Why not give your home or your mind a spring clean and a breath of fresh air. What is it that you have been putting off? What nagging tasks keep popping into your mind taking up valuable writing space? For me, this week I tackled mail redirection. For two years we have been having our mail redirected from Cheshire to Hampshire. Finally admitting we are at this address - for now at least - in a low beamed noisy cottage where we daily bang our heads (the pilot's 6'3" and I'm tall too), rather than in our own place with room to unpack our boxes I think is why I haven't dealt with it. We were only meant to be here for six months. I was finally forced to face this - Royal Mail won't redirect mail for more than two years. So I spent days this week wading through three huge boxes of business and personal mail, calling, writing and emailing everyone. A horrible job, but you know what? It has cleared a big physical and mental space. I feel present, and ready to move on. So - what small steps can you take to clear your mind and your space?

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