Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Me Myself & I

How unusual is it to read only good about someone? The eulogies and obituaries for Paul Newman have been uniformly glowing – brilliant Method actor, faithful husband (‘why go out for hamburger when you have steak at home?’ he quipped. Apparently his wife hated that line), father of five, charitable businessman … the guy was a saint. Kevin Spacey suggested his ego had been surgically removed. Everyone said he was the least starry superstar. He said repeatedly he didn’t think he was doing anything special – and yet he was magic. ‘It’s been a privilege to be here’ he told one of his kids just before he died. If this isn’t a shining example of the humility of genius (my favourite topic at the moment), I don’t know what is. Add this to Jane Austen’s tiny writing table in the hall, and Ella Fitzgerald’s conviction that people loved her work because of the songs, not her voice.

You get so used to the ‘build them up and knock them down’ attitude of the tabloids over here. There was apparently nothing to knock Newman for. I’m trying to think of a single star who measures up to this today – can you think of anyone? I was interested when Scarlet-blue posted about Kate Moss’ blood and lipstick scrawl given to Pete Doherty (the anti-Newman?) which sold for £33k. The vanity and excess of these kind of modern day ‘heroes’ looks pretty shabby in comparison. I watched ‘Bedazzled’ recently with the glorious Peter Cook and his sidekick Dudley Moore. Pete played Lucifer as lugubrious club owner George Spiggot (‘The garden of Eden was a boggy swamp just south of Croydon. You can see it over there.’ ‘There was a time when I used to get lots of ideas... I thought up the Seven Deadly Sins in one afternoon. The only thing I've come up with recently is advertising’) Vanity was portrayed having a huge mirror physically attached to him, blocking his view of what’s ahead. Pride before a fall – the inability to see anything except yourself.

Maybe that’s the difference with a real Star like Newman – it was more about the work, family and charity than him? Even when you think back to the hellraisers of his generation – O’Toole, Burton, Reed – they were great actors with genuine talent. When you see talentless wannabe WAGs and X-factor hopefuls it all seems to be about ‘me me me’ and not about what they can give back. Football is another case in point - I know nothing about the game but the players are lauded like rock stars, money and women are thrown at them - the whole industry is like a morality play. It wasn't always like this - sport used to be just that, a game, low-key, for the masses. Same goes with the movie industry - when it started out the stars were stars, but they didn't have the crazy salaries and lifestyles of today. Rampant selfishness seems to be a modern disease. The implications of what is going on with the world banks and markets are hard to fathom but you sense that the pride, vanity and self interest of the few people who have grown immensely wealthy at the top of the tree are going to have a massive effect on us. When did everything get so complicated?

Do you think pride, vanity, ego is a natural state that we have to overcome? Children are naturally very self-focused and learning to put others first, to share, that they are not the centre of the universe takes time. I’m really glad the book wasn’t published ten years ago – the humility gained through tough times travelling, and the fight to be able to write will hopefully stand me in good stead. Success – if it comes – won’t be accompanied by hissy fits and an inflated ego. This is the best job in the world, and if I make it I’ll be so thankful. Like Newman said, if The Book makes it onto the shelves, it will just feel like an enormous privilege.

TODAY’S PROMPT: What does pride mean to you? Is any pride good? Surely taking pride in your work is a good thing? ‘The proud mother’ who dotes over her children – is that wrong? Why not take your notebook and brainstorm your feelings about pride – can you think of any people you have met who could form the basis for a prideful, vain character (at this moment I am remembering a boyfriend who would always sit opposite mirrors and watch himself as he talked to you, and the man who used to wear a black and white spandex suit to Body Pump – it was not unlike Borat’s thong, and as I was always running late from work unfortunately I would get the last available spot. Strangely the space behind him was always empty … lot of bending in Body Pump). Two deserving cases – maybe you can think of more?

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Where We Are Now

Driving through the valley this afternoon: ‘Who made God?’ the six year old asks. ‘Well, no one darling. God just is.’ ‘Is what? Do you really believe all these Jesus stories?’ Theology for beginners ensues. Walking through the village to the watermeadows with the kids and the hound this glorious sunfilled autumn afternoon, you really can believe that He or She or the Universe is in everything, depending on your faith. This is the walk:

Mellow mists this morning have given way to the most beautiful day – the long grass on our walk has been baled in shiny PVC cylindrical bales. Things change – I remember when they used to harvest the orchard grass growing up, Dad would build us a house of straw bales each year (I’ll huff and I’ll puff …). I dream now of having an orchard like that – space for horses, chickens and the children to feel like they are running wild. I miss having a garden I love (our temporary home is full of trampoline, swings, a series 3 Land Rover by the shed, and the unlovely flowerbeds are empty). The only survivor of all the plants I have lost in the moves (jasmine, honeysuckle, frangipani, bougainvillea, acers, old scented roses and herbs – all gone), is my little olive tree. It has tenaciously endured the move from Spain, frozen northern winters, and being kept in a terracotta pot. I take it as a good sign. It’s my little piece of the future (doves, Noah, rainbows). When our little ‘ark’ comes to rest I’ll plant it, and maybe one day when it is liberated, tall and strong, I’ll be eating olives from it on a golden evening like this.

So that's where we are now, but a lot of the day I've been thinking about being here:

You're walking through Hampshire, but you're thinking about Santa Monica - when you were there ten years ago, and when Chet Baker was there in the 1960s. So where are you really - where you are physically or where you are mentally? I’ve had his CDs on repeat the last few days. ‘He was bad, he was trouble, he was beautiful’, said one of the many women whose hearts he broke. His fallen angel voice is perfect for these wistful early autumn days, and informed the rhythm of the first book, along with Miles Davis (it's amazing the CDs haven't burnt out). ‘Let’s Get Lost’ was filmed partly at the Shangri La in Santa Monica. It was one of the best places I’ve ever stayed – the room was on the ground floor, looking out to the ocean. It’s Art Deco beauty had faded – shabby pastel suite, threadbare carpets, but you could easily imagine a wanabee starlet staying there in the 1950s, hoping for bright lights and fortune. From the film, it had changed little by the time we stayed there. Now it’s had millions of dollars thrown at it and the rooms look just like any other chichi hotel.

Perception intrigues me – I love the idea that my memory of the Shangri La and that of someone staying in the next door room at the same time differ. I love the idea of being once place physically and another mentally - (is that time travel?). I love that the people and places in the books I conceived are not what the reader will imagine – ‘tall dark and handsome’ mean different things to different people. Have you heard of Barthes’ ideas about the ‘Death of the Author’? In the 60s he argued that that author and the text have no relation – you can’t come to a book with a bunch of preconceptions based on the biography and experience of the author. Each text stands alone. Your experience, tastes, particular view of the world colour your reading of any fiction (which is why there is such a sense of disconnection when a favourite book is made into a film. An image is so definite – it is one person’s view of the text, when there were thousands of different ways of seeing it). I find that idea intriguing – that the books stand alone. I can’t wait to set them loose, and move on. It is the great seduction with writing: creating something, a whole new world, letting it go and seeing where it travels.

The 100th blog entry has come around really quickly – thousands of hits and 45 countries later I can’t express my thanks to all of you who have hung around and contributed your wonderful, insightful comments. After over a year of waiting for the manuscript to be sent out, the immediacy of blog publishing has been a revelation - that some of you have been kind enough to read and comment has been amazing. The 100,000 odd words written since the summer could have been a novel – proof that turning up at the page each day adds up. It feels rather like we’ve harvested something – random thoughts about writing have been gathered up and formed the basis of something for the future. I’ve been having so much fun with this, I’ve decided to limit myself to two or three posts a week from now on – there’s the pressing business of the next book to get down to now the nights are drawing in and Chet's on the stereo. Tuesdays and Thursdays there will be new posts – and hopefully a weekend drop in, but I’ll be checking in daily and reading your blogs – thank you all for sharing your work and thoughts. I don’t know about you, but I kind of like where we are now.

TODAY’S PROMPT: Harvesting fruit, hay, ideas, images – why not get out in the world today and see what you can gather up with your kids. Why not make a beautiful nature/writers table or collage with them – golden leaves, painted twigs, postcards, photos, fragments of poems, paintings. See what you have to hand that can make you feel bountiful, gather it in, feel grounded.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Eat Me

Do you buy into divination, fortune telling, horoscopes, superstition? Dangerous? Amusing? Or do you consult your cards before getting out of bed in the morning? My writing technique (I’d still balk at calling it a ‘process’), at the moment owes a lot to the ancient Oracles of Greece. The staircase to the basement is an open drop into the darkness from the kitchen. During the day, I scribble fragments on the backs of envelopes, shopping lists, or transcribe shorthand scrawled on the back of parking tickets with eyeliner at the red light while driving. When we crash through the kitchen during the usual chaos of homecoming (hungry children, leaping hound, messages on the answering machine …) my pockets and bags are emptied and the slips of paper are tossed downstairs. It’s like surrendering to the great unknown, waiting for an answer. (Maybe like the Elves and the Shoemaker I am hoping to stroll downstairs, flick on the light and find a beautifully bound bestseller). After tea/bath/bed when the house is quiet and I have whizzed through tidying up, if the pilot is away, I practically run downstairs with the hound and flick the lights on – the floor is often a carpet of mysterious scrawls. Then comes the process of deciphering meaning, form, signs and the direction the next book is taking. Supper is often on the hoof - less exciting than Alice's 'Eat Me, Drink Me' experiences but once down there, the hours fly away with me – it is like going through the looking glass to another world. (The image is by a fantastic artist Su Blackwell who sculpts books). Perhaps one day when I have help with the house and children, it will be easier – right now this is the only way anything gets written,.

Someone asked me over dinner the other night whether anyone I know has actually read the book. Who reads your work – do you share it with people close to you or not? The pilot tried a couple of chapters, some trusted friends have seen fragments, but beyond our best man (who also writes), who waded through the huge first draft bless him, no one I know intimately has read the book. It’s been professionally edited, agents and their readers have read and commented (once, memorably, leaving their readers’ comment sheet accidentally among the pages – *ouch* Wayne loved it, Hannah not so much, if you were curious). I’m still getting used to the idea of the work being out there – the blog is an interesting rite of passage as several people I know in real life are kind enough to drop by or have subscribed. One Mum, who’s reading it and also writes (very well I’d imagine) has been working on a children’s book and said ‘But I don’t have to ‘breathe’ writing like you ..’ It feels like coming out of the closet – I bridled a bit, but then thought this is just the beginning – if you stick your head over the parapet, this is what happens, people read your work and react. To be honest, isn’t it easier to think of perfect strangers reading your work rather than your nearest and dearest? It took me ages to get over the idea of my grandmother reading steamy love scenes and just write without censorship.

One thing I have found is that great writers are uniformly generous to newbies – they have been there. Like life, it’s people still scraping their way up who can be tricky. When I helped run an arts festival it was never the headline acts who kicked up a stink about dressing rooms and jelly beans, but the third viola player in some medieval string ensemble who clearly thought he should be playing better gigs. People get to the top for a variety of reasons but humility and professionalism certainly help. Over the years I’ve contacted many people I admire to ask advice. Recently Joanne Harris who wrote ‘Chocolat’ gave me her tips for balancing work and family. She concluded: ‘make sure all the balls you are juggling are balls you really, truly want to keep in the air. There's no shame in pruning the non-essential aspects of your life to make room for the essential ones...’ Good advice, maybe you agree?

TODAY'S PROMPT: Assuming you really want to write – are there any non-essentials that can be pruned? Can you shape your life to make room for your work? Generosity of spirit will take you further as a writer than anything else – this I believe. Being pleasant to everyone from the guys on the shopfloor who stack your books to the man or woman who commissions your magnum opus will stand you in good stead. How do you feel about people reading your work – do you want to be ‘out there’ or are you happy writing for yourself and a small number of readers? Which writers do you admire greatly? What would you ask them if you had the chance, or would you just want to thank them for their work? If they are alive, why not google their sites – write a quick contact message. If they are dead, why not jot down in your notebook the elements of their stories you love - it can be a useful way to identify the direction you'd like your own work to take.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Baby, You're the Cats Pyjamas

The eleventh commandment would be: 'Thou shalt not embarrass the children'. We're already at the stage where the six year old shrugs off a maternal hug at school. I've just read a book where the teenage girl laments of her mother 'Why can't she just be cool?' Part of me thinks teenagers are so easily embarrassed nothing I'll do will be good enough. The other part really wants to be the cool Mum - not the weird 'best friend' Mum, but just a mother you're not embarrassed to be seen chatting over lunch with, or browsing through the clothes at Miss Selfridge or Top Shop. 'Dream on,' the pilot laughed when I told him about this. 'You'll be parked round the corner like all the other mothers.'

Maybe you remember a cool Mum - rarely are they your own, they normally belong to a close friend. My icon of motherhood was a stunning 6ft Australian who made juggling four children, a business, her art and three homes seem effortless. She took cool black and white photos of the children, and her kitchen was stocked with (then) exotica like Tahini and rice cakes rather than Mr Kipling and gravy browning. I'm sure to her own kids she was just their Mum, but to me she was a benchmark - something to aim for.

There are lots of us juggling like that now at school - Mums with careers indefinitely on hold, working flexibly or balancing their own businesses, creative work and home. The Mum who runs Snuglo - the baby company who designed the favourite ever top given to my son, juggles a company that is decidedly cool with home, children and dog. Their work is locally made, and is going to be in an upcoming V&A show on children's fashion. As the two year old clambers around the keyboard and scribbles over my notebook, (and you thought I wrote in an ivory tower ...) I'm looking at a photo of him a couple of months old, when smiling and dimples were still new, caught pointing at 'Uber Cool' on his tummy.

I found the little t-shirt at the weekend, when I was going through the very last box in the basement. It was labelled VIP linen - among the wedding, graduation and christening gowns, the bridal tiara from Angels & Bermans, the blanket knitted by my grandmother and the beanies the hospitals placed on tender new born heads, I glimpsed the words 'Uber Cool' and everything flooded back. Precious clothes are a link to our past - Justine Picardie recently wrote a beautiful book about her mother's wedding dress. Are you really good about clearing things out, or do you have a stash of things you'll never wear again, but just can't bear to throw out?

If you are old enough to remember this Robert Palmer video clip, you're of an era to remember how we all worked black lycra minidresses then. Every corridor was a catwalk. Hair was big, eyeliner was heavy - and that was just the boys. As well as winning 'college couple' in the end of year polls, my finest moment was coming runner up in the votes for the 'Mincing Queen' category after the only confirmed gay guy in the college. Now that my daily uniform is skinny jeans, uggs and forgiving washable smocks, I was amused to find in the linen box a dress that might just pass as a top these days. The models in the Addicted to Love video are responsible for a thousand, humourless, pouting teenage photographs. This dress was the closest a 17 year old in north Devon could get to Alaia - I dreamt of being as confident as Cindy, Linda and the girls. It's actually my second version of that dress - the first and best was 'borrowed' by a friend at university and never returned.

Seeing photos of this era for the first time in ages, I made an interesting discovery. I would not want to be that person again. Although the size 10 bod would be welcome now, the face in the photo is unformed, uncertain - unhappy even (see earlier posts about broken hearts ...). When was the last time you looked at photos of your teenage self - you might be surprised? I have a feeling our time is just beginning - we have been through young adulthood, and the testing early years with our children. We've survived - beyond the day to day stress, I feel ... cool. Though I am far from the 'cool Mum' of my dreams (in fact, I am rather the fractious, inadequate Mum easily pushed beyond her limits who would like to go and lie down in a dark room until The Book is in print ...) - though I have a long way to go, life goes by too fast to take yourself too seriously. I'm aiming if not for steely perfection, to be something better than that - content, imperfect, having fun - the cat's pyjamas.

TODAY'S PROMPT: The last time I remember wearing the dress was at a crab shack outside Ocean City, which we had belatedly discovered was dry. We picked up a couple of beers from the Circle K liquor store and ate rock lobster as old guys in stetsons waltzed their ladies round the dancefloor to 'just a gigolo', before driving down to the coast and walking barefoot on the boardwalk. Today, why not dig out something from your linen press - baby clothes, blankets, t-shirts worn to death but saved all the same. Write the story of your past - see where something once worn like a second skin takes you.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

The Horror, the Horror ...

What is your 'heart of darkness'? The secret places of our mind, our fears and obsessions can be useful depths to plumb in your writing. People like Stephen King, James Herbert and Dean Koontz have spun lucrative, long-lasting careers from tapping into these. Even if horror isn't your thing (it's not mine), considering the darker side of everyone's mind brings depth and contrast to your work. What scares you most - gory or psychological/spiritual horror? I can't watch or read the latter - overactive imagination possibly.

Children are naturally curious about ghosts and ghouls - when I was little I far preferred 'Misty' magazine to any other. It taught you useful life lessons - never mock a monkey for example. Growing up in Devon, stories of ghosts, disembodied hairy hands grabbing steering wheels on the moors and mischievous pixies were part of everyday life. Halloween is now as big over here as in the US - when I was little it was impossible to get pumpkins. Look at the popularity of Harry Potter - my mother was aghast that we let the six year old watch the first film (the vicar had told the congregation Harry was taking a generation to the dark side). There are any number of 'occult' children's characters - Casper, Meg and Mog, Winnie the Witch. How do you feel about them - is it exposing children to danger, or is it part of life? I've always felt Harry (at least before the book/black eye incident), was harmless entertainment teaching children about how important it is for good to battle evil.

Friends loaned us King's '1408' the other night - how good is John Cusack? To carry a film where your co-star is an evil hotel room ... the man is very, very watchable. I am hopeless with horror films and spent most of the time hiding behind the cushions. Whereas the pilot and our 92 year old grandmother can watch anything (she told me her secret years ago - if she gets scared, she just tells herself there are cameras in the room filming the scene). How do you feel about sci-fi, the fear of the unknown? Stories like Alien combine both this and gore, whereas in gentler tales like Cocoon, ET, the fear transforms into communication and joy. People's curiosity about unexplained phenomena - UFO sightings (also something we saw a lot of in Devon), crop circles, the 'orbs' appearing regularly in digital photographs - all are compelling sources for your work if you enjoy sci-fi and horror. Who can resist the tag-line 'based on a true story'?

My own nightmares are closer to home - more architectural (stone spiral staircases, aquaducts - Piranesi's prisons and Escher's stairs have a lot to answer for). My grandmother still lives in her isolated nunnery but I couldn't do it. It is stuffed to the ramparts with curious things - ivory samurai swords, groaning shelves of Staffordshire dogs staring at you balefully, family portraits where the eyes follow you as you walk along the corridors ... The cellars must be one of the oldest parts of the house and I've always hated them - the narrow stone spiral stairs, the low beams with hooks and the shelves disappearing into the darkness piled with dusty jars of pickles and preserves dating back decades. In winter they flood, and you wade knee deep through dark water to fetch anything. When we started looking for a house in France last year, we saw a beautiful house near Cognac - the deal breaker for me was the spiral staircase in the medieval tower, and the resistance tunnels hidden beneath a trap door in the living room. Some people would love it - to me the atmosphere was full of fear.

However you feel about the darker side of fiction, triggering people's imagination, natural fear or curiosity brings an adrenalin rush to your reader's experience, draws them in and helps those pages to turn. Maybe a slightly sadistic sense of schadenfreude is a huge element of people who enjoy horror - a sense of 'thank heaven it's not happening to me ...'. Or perhaps some people just like being scared - maybe it's that simple, what do you think?

TODAY'S PROMPT: If you are more inclined towards 'sun lit' as I am, it's useful to counterbalance the light with the dark. Even if you have no interest in horror or sci-fi, writing about everyday fears brings depth to your characters, and can be a great catharsis for you and your readers. Today, why not take your notebook and write a 'Love' 'Hate' list. For example, if I wanted to think about contrasting scenes I might focus on the physical senses: Love: wood floors, silk, log fires, beeswax candlelight. Hate: carpet showrooms, nylon, air freshener, fluorescent strip light. You can apply this to anything - personality traits, food, location. Instantly, you have the bones of two scenes which will balance and enhance one another and provoke in your readers feelings of love/hate, relaxation/tension.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Under the Sun

'I'm booooorrrreeeeeddd' is one of those 'death by whining' laments that every parent dreads. When was the last time you were bored? Boredom is a luxury, not something that busy working parents who would rather be writing often indulge in. A little boredom as a kid is no bad thing - it makes you inventive and self reliant. (I always stick with 'there's no such thing as being bored, only boring people' which makes me sound like Forrest Gump, but normally stops the six-year old's complaint and she soon finds something interesting to do).

How do you feel about the books you see on the bestseller lists - all the ghost written biographies, weird voyeuristic stories of child abuse and the same stellar author names again and again? Are you bored? We've had chick lit, matron lit, dick lit, lad lit, hip lit, and pop lit (any more you can think of?). Everyone wants a unique, smart hook for a new writer. What's next? What's the big new trend in publishing? Trend forecasting always makes me curious - how can you predict the future when patterns only become apparent in retrospect and the avant garde becomes mainstream and what was cool becomes hot? We're all writers and artists - I bet a fair few of you are innovators. How have you felt in the past when people copied you? Is imitation really flattery or does it just annoy you? Peter Cook called a colleague 'the bubonic plagiarist' - I get the feeling being copied irritated him too.

It's the one thing that riles me - I find it boring and unimaginative. At our last school there was a kid who started copying my little girl's clothes. I later heard the mother passing a story off as her own that one of the other Mum's had told me - clearly she had insecurities and maybe adopting the image and stories of the people around her like a chameleon gave her confidence. Growing up, there was a friend who copied relentlessly - she had money but no originality. You bought one antique postcard - she bought albums. You wore a yellow polo-neck, she dressed identically the next time you saw her (it was a bit like the 70's playground version of Single White Female). Boring. Herman Melville said 'It is better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation.' Don't know about you, but I've had plenty of failures (fashion and otherwise), but at least they were my own.

Copying, replicating is all around us - the net allows something to spread like wildfire. Memes, virals, chain letters, spam and phish emails imitating genuine messages, the offers of fake watches, phony million dollar lottery wins, (thank goodness! My worries are over - Mrs Nkebekeme of the Nigerian State Lottery mailed this morning to say she will transfer my prize if I would just be kind enough to send her my name, address, and bank details). It's always struck me that sometimes the innovators - the true originals - don't find the fame and fortune. It's the smart guy just behind who has a sharp eye for something new, and the business skills to pull it off. So do you innovate and push the boundaries or do you take a tried and tested writing formula and try to do it better? The publisher I interviewed a couple of weeks ago said even if you mercilessly copy the style of a classic writer the voice that will emerge is your own. Duffy, the singer in the clip at the head of this post, is doing really well - I loved her music since seeing her on Jools Holland's show. Her references and songs are old, but her voice is her own. The same goes for a lot of the 'new' music I've bought recently - Madeleine Peyroux was marketed as sounding a bit like Billie Holliday, and the Ting Tings remind me of Debbie Harry's delivery and 80's electro pop. Creative work always references the past I think - but it's new and of its age nonetheless.

Particularly when you are pushed for time, it's tempting to stick with what you know - the same routine. Old favourites are fine, (whether that's music, film, food, clothes, writing habits), but when was the last time you tried something new? Keeping fresh eyes and an openness to what's around you is the key to keeping you and your work interesting and alive. There's a great video clip of the singer Sarah Bareilles and her band hearing their song for the first time on the radio - maybe it's staged, but their enthusiasm is catching. Children are a masterclass in how amazing the world is - everything is new to them, and through their enthusiasm you get to experience the world again. I used to love the character on the Fast Show who thought everything was 'Brilliant!' In your work, just because an idea is old hat to you doesn't mean it isn't brilliant to someone coming to it for the first time.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Why not try something new today? Ever tried figs spliced open, drizzled with honey and slow baked - if you haven't I'd recommend it as they are gorgeous at the moment. If you write in the morning, try the evening. When was the last time you listened to a new band? Have a flick around one of the download sites and try some samples out. How about a new writer, a first time novelist? I just tried Rebecca Miller's new book and loved it. Why not start a new page in your notebook and make a list of new places and things you want to try - if ever you're feeling bored you'll have a readymade inspiring list to kick start your enthusiasm. Brilliant.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

Monty Python got me through my finals, clowns gave me the creeps even before seeing Stephen King's 'It', and I have no memory whatsoever for jokes (well there's one, it's about a mild green hairy lipped squid and the punchline is a play on washing up with 'mild green Fairy liquid ... it's not that good). It's always interested me how widely humour varies. After growing up with shelves of Private Eye in the loos at home and Viz through college, I have a pretty robust sense of humour (is Viz is international? - Sid the Sexist, Fat Slags, Finbaar Saunders and his Double Entendres, Modern Parents - not to everyone's taste or politically correct but very funny). Maybe you've heard of 'The Aristocrats'? It is the fabled rudest joke on earth - comedians compete to come up with the most disgusting version. They made a film of it a few years ago - in isolation you could see how funny the gag was but it went on so long, and was so relentless I couldn't finish it. Timing is everything with humour - like music, it can't continue endlessly at a high pitch, it needs rhythm and pacing.

What makes you laugh? Do you use humour in your work or blog? For those of us who have been having something of a tense few months, laughter really is the best medicine (but let's ignore Robin William's 'Patch Adams' ...). When do we stop laughing so much? Children apparently laugh over 300 times a day, whereas adults manage a measly 15. I suspect parents must laugh more than that simply being around kids all day.

In film, there are great humorists like Woody Allen, and the visual humour someone like Steve Martin excels at comes to the fore, ('doing a Ruprecht' has gone down in family vocab as a polite euphemism for the baby needing a nappy change soon - that glazed, ecstatic expression). Writing fiction relies solely on wit and intelligence - your readers have to imagine the scene and physical comedy. What are the funniest passages you can think of in fiction? Sharpe? Wilde? Amis? Stand up comedy is a great way to study lean, humorous writing - over here I love Jack Dee's deadpan delivery, Eddie Izzard's surreal stream of consciousness and Billy Connolly always leaves you gasping for breath. The man I would have loved to have dinner with is Peter Cook - his wit and intelligence were elegant, graceful, whip sharp (if you were to draw wit, I think it would look like the Georgia O'Keefe sketch at the start of the post). Cook's verbal dexterity was dazzling - he didn't tell jokes in the most literal sense, but had a unique view of life. Terry Jones relates how he first saw Pete and Dud bouncing around on trampolines dressed as nuns - he said it was the most elegantly funny thing he had ever seen. 'What is the speed of darkness?' is one of my favourite Cook lines. Who wouldn't enjoy an evening with a man who thought like that?

TODAY'S PROMPT: It struck me reading around everyone's blogs last night that we are all having a bit of a tough ride at the moment - maybe it's the change of seasons, or we should all stop reading the doom'n'gloom news. Times like these, making a good stew, cracking open a bottle of wine and settling down in front of the fire with a comedy is one of the best things you can do. Maybe it's just me but there's something about chopping seasonal vegetables always makes the world seem better (perhaps this ties in with Rowena's excellent insights about feeling 'grounded' - taking care of your home and self). Why not share your favourite line or situation from a comedy, and give us all a laugh. Or perhaps think about how you can inject humour into your work if appropriate - making your reader laugh is I think like taking your date on a rollercoaster (apparently the best way to make a hit - if you're scared or laughing barriers just fall away). Great comedy takes you on a ride, makes you laugh, leaves you breathless - let's lighten up and have a good night.

Monday, 22 September 2008


Ah, Monday morning and aren’t you glad the earth is still turning? The Hadron Collider thingumyjig has not caused the end of the world. Yet. Witness this fragment from the UK Telegraph:

Last week the Welshman in charge of the collider, Dr Lyn "the Atom" Evans, told the Telegraph that he expected to collide the first particles next week, much earlier than thought. But the breakdown, at 11am UK time on Friday morning, led to the release of a ton of helium used to cool the magnets that guide subatomic particles around the machines’s circuit. Engineers had to wait for oxygen levels to return to normal before they were able to weigh up the damage.

Stop for a moment. Two things: 1) ‘the Welshman in charge’. Yes, I have Eisteddfod Druids in the family but everyone knows this is the comedy moment, the Telegraph’s nudge in the ribs. There was a Welshman in charge. It was bound to go wrong. Fnaa, fnaa. Isn’t there also a pop star Professor in there somewhere too? Thank goodness that something which has (apparently) the potential to trigger the end of the world is in good hands then. 2) Consider the enormity of scale: what does the facility to store a ton of helium look like? Talk about caverns measureless to man.

Still, what do I know – this feels just like the credit crunch and banks toppling, things that potentially have a massive impact on our daily lives but are beyond our control. Say helium to me these days and it is less periodic tables than foil balloons and silly voices. ‘Rapture’ makes me think of Debbie Harry, not the end of life as we know it. But somewhere in the back of my mind I have been thinking – surely everyone fretting about the moment they turned this thing on was not the point? Surely the danger point is when the protons were due to collide 15 days later? I know several of you guys and gals reading regularly are engineers and scientists so I’d love to know your informed opinion.

A perceptive friend said during a playdate this afternoon that blogging must be a brilliant way to spring clean your mind. I had to agree with her, with things like this milling around the old grey matter it’s good not to stew – what do you think? In fact, I’d watched a video online a couple of days ago where ‘super bloggers’ were interviewed and one said it was better than therapy. All I know is it’s great fun, and I’ve met a wonderful international group of writers as a result. If these guys who have made a lucrative career of it also get free therapy – good luck to them. I still can’t work out how people get paid to do this, and haven’t ever gone the therapy route (as mentioned in earlier posts, to paraphrase Tom W if you get rid of your demons then your angels may go too). It just isn’t that common in the UK still – the most recent article I read said that people are now beginning to think rehashing and replaying trauma is not a good thing – that time heals and keeping a stiff upper lip is preferable. Perhaps that’s playing to typical British reserve, but I have to say my gut instinct is that the only person who can heal you is yourself.

In fact, the closest I have come to therapy was working with a ‘life coach’ – please no laughter at the back. Business Link (a UK government funded organisation), were giving away a few £000s to every woman starting a new business in Cambridge to work with one, so out of curiosity I thought ‘why not?’ Mine was in the Paul McKenna (celeb hypnotist), mode, very dapper and bright, into cognitive behavioural therapy etc. One of the first things he said to me was ‘You’re not broken’. It was fun working with him, and a good weekly kick up the backside while I was setting the business up, but I mistrusted him at some level from that point, because that was exactly how I felt at the time after putting everything we had into training the pilot, seeing the airlines crash, living with my sainted in-laws for months, my father diagnosed with cancer, unable to finish the beloved Book, and working full time in a poisonous atmosphere with my baby in nursery just to get by until the hysteria stopped and someone, somewhere wanted to hire pilots again. (Pause to catch breath). It was one of those times. Broken pretty much summed it up five years ago. But you keep going. As several of you poignantly commented the other day, the resilience of the human heart is an incredible thing. Every person who has been kind enough to read to the end of this post will, I bet, have had their heart broken at some point in their life and wondered what you did to deserve this and how on earth you are supposed to go on. So, how did you? What gave you the strength, or what gives you the strength to keep going? I’ve always loved the quote from Macbeth ‘Come fate into the list and champion me to th’utterance.’ It is the ultimate two fingered (or single fingered, depending on which country you are reading this in), salute to destiny. Less defiant but equally as helpful, Marcus Aurelius said: ‘Put from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged’ and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.’ I’m feeling if not exactly broken at the moment, rather bloodied by the whole year long agent number one debacle. The frustration of being two books in, with a book a year lined up and waiting to be written has been something of a killer. But it's not the end of the world - I’m working on letting this go. When you hit a brick wall what do you do? Lie down and give up, or knock through it brick by brick?

TODAY’S PROMPT: Winston Churchill said ‘Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm’. Lyn ‘The Atom’ is apparently dying to get going again. The ability to move on and let go of past failures, injustices and slights is a valuable lesson to learn. With writing you are setting yourself up for rejection after rejection. As previously mentioned I used mine for kindling (you may prefer to knit with yours, use them for origami or compost – but I do encourage you to do something useful with them). These days with so many knee-jerk rejections for articles coming by email I wouldn’t bother printing them out only to burn (not very eco-friendly), but warming your toes in a cold Spanish winter thanks to the pat words of rejection from some magazine in London had a certain ‘salute to destiny’ feel about it. If you are feeling broken now, you can mend – it’s about the only thing I can say with certainty. Licking your wounds may be necessary for a time, but to succeed we have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and start over. (I could do with taking notes myself – not been a good week). ‘To become a champion, fight one more round.’ (James Corbett). It’s a fresh week. Why not take some time today with your notebook and reflect on anything that is holding you back. Then with a brave heart bid it farewell, and turn to a brand new page.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Skin Deep?

A friend related to me recently how her daughter had earnestly held her face in her hands and said ‘Mummy … why are there cracks in your face?’ Children are an amazing wake up call – how many times have you spent the day looking at their peachy skin and plump, lithe little bodies to catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror for the first time that day and suddenly see a tired old crone looking back? However accomplished you are at overlooking the imperfections age brings, your kids notice everything. The flipside to this was a lovely: ‘I do like hugging you Mummy … you are squishy.’

I’ve always admired people who have survived the everything that life throws at you with panache – I love people who age with spirit and interest still burning in them. As a teenager, my pin-ups were less boy-bands and more Lucien Freud photographed by Beaton, or Chet Baker. When you look at the images at the start of the post maybe you can see why - brilliance and beauty are a pretty devastating combination. I’ve always loved artists like Beatrice Wood, Georgia O’Keefe, Eve Arnold, Elsa Peretti – brilliant, iconoclastic, challenging. It seems ludicrous to me that in the west at least, we focus on a brief, fleeting youth as the ideal of beauty to be chased when there are so many interesting changes and stages in a human life - each with its own particular beauty. Freud is well known for challenging our notions of what is beautiful - his models are often large, flawed, human - his paintings are unflinching but beautiful nonetheless.

When you look at the wisdom and confidence of the faces below, you wonder why on earth people succumb to extreme plastic surgery. People say you earn your face - why give it up? I’ve always felt the one thing you cannot eradicate is the age of the gaze – you have this old soul staring out of a taut face that does not look thirty, but just looks beyond age – bizarre and with the warmth and character of a mannequin. Challenging fate, making something ageless – perhaps the best way to do this is through our work? When you see the older faces of Freud, Wood, and O’Keefe, can you imagine yourself there? All the defiance of 'Only the good die young!' seems foolish. 'Better to burn out than to fade away' ... is it really? Le Carre has just published his latest at 77 - we are lucky in our career that we have no sell by date. I hope we will all be writing into our dotage. When you reach the glorious ages of these artists (Beato was 102 when she died I think and looking pretty incredible still), what would you like to see when you look back over your life?

TODAY’S PROMPT: Where does your identity lie – in how you look or how you think? What is in a name or face? Have you chosen to be yourself blogging or have you appropriated a famous face, cartoon, animal, name or pseudonym – what lies behind your choice? When you define yourself in your profile and you list the books and films you love, are they ones you loved once, love now, or think say something about you? Imagine yourself at 80, 90, 100 years old looking back at yourself now – what advice would you give yourself? Why not take a few minutes with your notebook to write a letter from your future – let your aged self give you some good advice. Or why not dust off that favourite book or movie and take some quality time with yourself this Sunday and enjoy something you really love for a change.

Saturday, 20 September 2008


I was really pleased to hear from D’Arcy that children still learn poetry off by heart in class. It’s a fantastic skill – like mental gymnastics, and gives you a great appreciation of grammar, structure and rhythm. One of my favourites was ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree …’ I loved it – sacred rivers, caverns measureless to man. We found my old poetry book from school the other day, and each night at bath time we are trying out a couple of different ones – Blake’s ‘Tyger Tyger’ went down well tonight.

Not forgetting Olivia Newton John’s pop contribution, Xanadu was also the name of Citizen Kane’s estate I think? I was thinking about Rosebud the other day – if you’ve watched this seminal film, you’ll know the last word he uttered was ‘Rosebud’, the name of his childhood sled, symbol of when he had nothing but had everything, the last link with an innocence lost when his mother sent him away.

Do you have a Rosebud? Is there some potent totem of your childhood? What was your favourite toy? I (predictably for a Brit perhaps), have a Brideshead Revisited style bear. He came from Hamleys and was a first birthday present from my uncle, the architect who lived in a Bacofoiled apartment in homage to the Factory. Big Ted (as he is called), has stuffing coming out of his stomach, has lost his growl but makes up for this with a jaunty scarf (don’t we all).

I’ve always subscribed to the ‘if it’s not beautiful or useful bin it’ school of thinking, but this is less easy with the tidal wave of plastic that arrives with children. I don’t know about you but I spend my whole time picking stuff up – perhaps it would have been more efficient in evolutionary terms if child carers still walked on all fours (would save a lot of backache). There’s a TV ad where the toyboy who has acquired two kids along with his girlfriend momentarily dreams of hiring a skip and clearing the whole house of clutter. Sometimes I know where he’s coming from. Maybe if I went out to work everyday it would be easier to ignore the chores – perhaps this is why a lot of established writers have an office a couple of streets away from home, or retire to sheds at the end of the garden? One day my home will be as restful as this:

One recent purchase, which if push came to shove, would be the last thing I’d sell is my Mora clock. The picture above (for all we SGTG fans), is Diane Keaton’s living room in the film. The clock is about as close as I'm going to get to this dream beach house at the moment. I hadn't realised this house appealed to so many people until I looked it up (maybe Flying Point is the writer's equivalent of the Happy Hunting Ground where we'll end up if we've all been good girls and boys ..?) Nor had I noticed until a couple of days ago that they had a Mora clock on set – hers is painted, and presumably ticking. Mine I found after searching for years for an affordable original – and my beloved pilot drove half way across England to collect it for Mother's Day. The wooden case dated 1849 is scuffed and chipped, the mechanism has seized up, and it was bell-less until I tracked two down from a Swedish dealer in Brighton. It’s my project. One day this lovely old clock will tick at the heart of our home, and chime off the hours. The Swedish farmers made these in their village communities during a time when farming was at an all time low. Each member of the community would use their particular skill – metal work, carpentry, painting, and between them they made these rough but beautiful long case clocks. Maybe there’s a lesson there for our credit crunch times? My Mora stands silently by the desk where I work. One day it will be gently ticking the hours away. It’s my middle age Rosebud. What’s yours?

TODAY’S PROMPT: What are the touchstones in your home? Have you ever told your children about your favourite toy as a child - why not make up a story for them? Even if (as with most writers) you’re not particularly materialistic, are there particular objects that mean a great deal to you? Which of your children’s toys could you not bear to part with, even once they are outgrown? Do any of us quite recover from the first time you return home to discover ‘your’ bedroom has been turned into a guest or hobby room – or is that just me? (Only in films I think does the hero/ine come home to a room held in aspic with football pennants and posters still in place). Why not take your notebook today and tell the story behind something you live with everyday and love?

Friday, 19 September 2008

Dancing Lessons

I was watching the girls in their ballet class a few nights ago, and joking with a good friend that wouldn't it be fun for the Mums to do a class. Wouldn't it just - even though it may be more baggy t-shirts and legwarmers than tights and leotards these days. When my credit card was cloned recently, I think I wouldn't have minded so much if they had used it for interesting things like tap classes (as happened to Monica in Friends), rather than electrical goods. Dancing is one of those things I love - and apart from hoofing it round the kitchen with the children just don't do anymore. Ironically the six year old is taking some persuading to do the class - but learning the grace, agility and core strength that only ballet can give you is really important for someone who will probably be nearly 6ft tall, as I was before shrinking a few inches carrying the children.

It is amazing how quickly the children learn - you see them soaking up information. Having said that there are some things only learnt by repetition. Between the children and the wilful hound I seem to spend too much of my time repeating the same mantra: 'no ... say please ... say thank you ... please don't shout ... please don't chew the furniture/tip out the bin (hound) ...' Sometimes it feels like groundhog day in a school of etiquette around here.

Everything takes longer as you get older. A common complaint about initiatives like The Happiness Project is that it is rehashing old advice. Well, I think sometimes it takes hearing good advice several times before it 'clicks' and you are ready for it. Someone somewhere will always be reading it for the first time, and someone else will have heard it twenty times but only just be in the right place to take it on board. Just think of the promises emblazoned across the glossy women's magazines each month: 'Lose 7lbs in week!' (surprise! - restrict calories, avoid certain food groups and salt, move your backside). As for the perennial search for happiness and meaning in life, that's something only the individual can learn, and it has a lot more to do with giving back, and doing good for others with a conscious decision to see the good around you than any magical combination of material factors coming into alignment. I was thrilled to read the other day that schools in the south of England are starting to teach positive psychology to children - a glass half full outlook will bring greater success and happiness to an individual than any number of lessons about quadratic equations.

It's not easy - happiness is elusive, creeps up on you when you are least expecting it. It's not always found where you think it will be (I wonder sometimes when I finally see The Book on the shelves of Borders will I be dancing inside or have found something new to focus on - position, sales, the book next door having a more beautiful cover ...) This is why I'm aiming for contentment these days. My birthday resolution to lighten up has good days and bad days. Today was not going so well until I found this Fellini clip in my Favorites menu, and I felt like dancing again.

I grew up next door to one of Fellini's costume designers - she was a hard smoking, drinking vision of a woman with great style and beauty, and provided the inspiration for the mother in The Book. She taught a gauche teenager a great deal about life. When I studied Arts Management after uni, they made a great deal about finding a 'mentor'. At the time I volunteered for an arts festival, ferrying celebs and performers around the wilds of Norfolk. My 'mentor' though he would have shuddered elegantly at the tag, taught me more about the business of art than I learnt on the entire course (and he once tangoed with Hockney in a tutu so what can I say?) One of the greatest mentors I had was a woman who revolutionised the art market, bringing contemporary Arab art to the west before anyone else had thought of it - she did this with great spirit, and gave a lot back, enriching the lives of countless people. All these 'mentors' - and the many other amazing indiviuals I have been lucky to meet shaped me, my work, and taught me how to dance.

TODAY'S PROMPT: I was listening to the radio while unpacking the books in the basement, and they were interviewing a guy who had had an out of body experience when he died briefly. He said he was asked 'what have you learned?' and the moment he realised he still had a lot to figure out, he came back to his body. So - what have you learned? Who are the great mentors in your life? Is there a way you can give back some of the lessons you have learned? Are there things you still want to find out about? Personally, I'm going to start by looking into those dancing lessons ...

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Let there be love ...

When we first moved in together, the pilot once sat through an entire screening of Lampedusa's 'The Leopard' without complaining that he couldn't read the subtitles from the back row of the Riverside Studios. He hadn't wanted to spoil the movie for me - to sit through nearly three hours of an Italian movie he wasn't interested in seeing - well, that's love. Maybe you can think of occasions like this? It's not always heart shaped boxes of chocolates and single red roses. Love, and romance, come in more original forms. Nat King Cole had it right when he sang 'Let there be love ...' - it's not just the champagne, it's the everyday bowls of chilli someone makes when you're cold and hungry.

Who can forget the divine John Cusak declaring his love through Peter Gabriel's 'In Your Eyes'? I recently came across this movie of a saxophonist playing one of my favourite songs in what appears to be the laundry room - it's dedicated to his wife. Who wouldn't love that? The latest theory is that (apparently), love is a drug - some people are addicted to romantic love. You can understand people being hooked on the first flush of being in love - the crazy, breathless time when you neither want to eat or sleep, but in writing I'm equally as interested in what happens 'happily ever after'. There's a reason the marriage vows say 'for better and for worse ...' - what is the love that endures? I watched the SATC movie the other night (pilot is in Cuba so I'm catching up on some 'girl' movies). It was interesting how much of the time was spent on Carrie's unhappiness - that's where the dynamic lay: will she/won't she finally get together with Big? (Are you a Big or an Aidan fan? It's that whole retro/metro debate again). We already have friends whose marriages and long-term relationships haven't gone the distance. One of the most heartbreaking things I ever read was a woman writing about her divorce - she said that what no one tells you is that you never stop loving the other person. In spite of the break-up, the arguments, the anger, there was still the love that brought them together in the first place - they just couldn't live together. Love/hate - always was and always will be a thin line.

It struck me last night that building a career writing is a lot like working at a good marriage. There has to be love, passion, compromise, dedication, humour - the promise never to take each other for granted and always cherish this unique thing you have. The publisher I met the other day once compared writing a book to making a baby (lots of calls, dates, and wine in the lead up to the big event ...). I'm at that stage where you're passionately in love (with the book, the whole dream of writing full time) - and you're willing the phone to ring. You don't want to be a pain in the backside and call them ... you just wait, and wait ... Maybe the three Ps are the key to this: Passion, professionalism and patience.

I've come to realise there is writer time and there is book industry time. Your book is your baby. They may also love your book, but they have lots of other relationships. It took you months, years perhaps to write the thing. You may hear nothing from them for weeks, months even. You have one manuscript - I did some background research on the agency I've just joined - they get 3000 unsolicited manuscripts a year hitting the slush pile, and each agent may get another 1000 individually. Of this perhaps they take on five new writers each. Even if you make it through, when the book is finally published, someone may read it in a few days or hours. All that effort, patience, frustration, passion, determination is distilled down into a little book that may make the bestseller list or may end up in the bargain bin. Maybe we are all mad - what do you think? I think the only sane reason to write is because you love it. Good stories win out. Passion pays off. Love conquers all.

TODAY'S PROMPT: While waiting for 'the call' in the old days, I had the time to do fun things - movies, drinks with the girls, dancing all night, exhibitions. Now the hours are filled with more prosaic things - juggling home and work. One of the exercises from the Artist's Way was to write down twenty things you love to do. Then by the side of each of them, write down when you last did them. Not only did I run out of steam by number ten, I was really surprised how long it is since I did the things I love and once took for granted. Why not have a go - grab your notebook, make that list, then take just one of the things you love, and do it - today.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Peacocks for Breakfast

At the local playbarn, there is a white peacock. I love this thing - it seems miraculous everytime you see it, serenely gazing over the grounds at all the kids running round the place bouncing on trampolines and pelting each other with playballs. When I was growing up, a friend whose mother was a cigar smoking calliper wearing genius of a GP had peacocks. They used to feed them on the windowsill at breakfast, and I've wanted some ever since. How could you not be aware of how miraculous life is every single day sharing your breakfast with peacocks? Now I've met this extraordinary white bird, I've set my heart on one day having white peacocks. One day.

Continuing the 80s theme from yesterday (this is less skeletons in the closet more casettes in the basement/MTV's Vault), I was surprised how much Higher Love reminded me of a gospel hymn. It was/is one of my favourite all time songs - and I had no idea the bodacious Chaka Khan was in the mix with Steven Winwood until checking the video on Youtube last night. Rather like seeing the white peacock, hearing this song just makes me smile - it's inspired and inspiring, a celebration of the miracle of love and life. Wherever you stand on faith or religion, I think most writers would say there is something miraculous about art, music and writing - when you are in the Zone, or experiencing flow, it does feel like you are experiencing a sense of higher love, (call it God, call it connection with a universal power as suits your beliefs). From talking to friends who compose music, I think this feeling crosses all art forms (in fact perhaps all thought processes and acts of creation?). Personally, I know my best lines appeared fully formed as if they had always existed and I was just the medium or channel - I know this happens with melodies and lyrics too. I think a lot of us feel disconnected at some level most of the time - when your work is going well, or when you are laughing with your children, when a conversation with a friend is buzzing or you are close with someone you love, it's like you are plugged into some national grid, a higher consciousness. It feels good, a natural high.

Perhaps everyone feels a sense of this disconnection, this longing to feel the buzz and turned on - I don't know? Maybe this is the hole we try and fill with drugs (I'm including anything upwards of coffee here - at school they lectured us about the perilous path that starts with a double espresso and leads to crack. We laughed then - now having seen friends get lost it seems possible). I've said before I don't buy into the whole myth of artists and writers needing drugs/alcohol to create. Someone very close lost their way - it started very nobly with Carlos Castaneda, and ended up limiting rather than expanding their consciousness. I do agree within limits it can loosen you up - after a couple of glasses of wine I regularly feel I could write a Nobel prize winner. Great fun, but come the morning those bedtime 'notes' to remind me of the dazzling insights are normally pretty lacklustre, unoriginal and hard to decipher. Artists, writers, have always wanted to push the limits - going back as far as shamans, they were literally on the edge of villages - feared but necessary. Maybe you need that space (physical or mental?) in order to create? With writing I always feel a conflict - I need the stimulation of culture, people, life but the solitude and peace to work. (The dream would be a studio in the city and a ramshackle family home on the coast ...) Was it Annie Dillard who described herself as a gregarious recluse?

Maybe you've found your home? Your safe place where you have a balance of both? I'm still looking. I don't know about you, but I've always had a strong gut reaction to places as much as people. In the eighteenth century, they spoke of the 'Genius' of a place - the spirit of it, and appreciated the sublime (something beautiful but awe-inspiring or fearful). I grew up in a very remote and beautiful place (6ft snow drifts in the winter, arcing cornfields in summer - when we moved in the little girl on the school run informed me 'You know you have bears in your woods?'). Add to this a High Church school and it probably explains a lot. Spain was similar - very remote and beautiful landscape dotted with incense filled churches guarding miraculous relics and Virgins. Wild, sublime, spirit filled. I think this sense of spirit spilled over into how I feel about the material - landscape, architecture, great design. There's an inherent 'rightness' to certain things and forms - like a Lucie Rie bowl, a Shaker chair, or pretty much anything from Japan.
I love the oriental concepts of wabi sabi (finding beauty in the imperfect and impermanent), and mono-no-aware (the pathos of things, the awareness of transience). My own taste seems to be in tune with a more eastern ideal - I love simple, natural elegance, the beauty and serenity that comes to something with age. One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen was an ancient Buddah in a moss garden behind the golden pavillion in Kyoto - the weather had worn its features smooth, and the coins that had been scattered at its feet in offering had been there so long they too had worn down to perfectly smooth pewter coloured disks. The garden was shrouded in mist, and a gentle sheltering rain was falling. It was ravishing - the perfect embodiment of wabi sabi. I can't remember for the life of me who wrote 'accept loss, all can be treasured', but this sentiment chimes well with me at the moment - nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect. It's what makes life so precious, and so wonderful.

TODAY'S PROMPT: What are the landscapes and beliefs that shaped you? What combination of the spiritual and physical made you the unique person you are? Did you rebel against this? Do you find you are 'coming home' with age? Part of 'wabi sabi' is a sense of bittersweet nostalgia. Virgil spoke of 'tears for things' - a sense of the fragility and impermanence of our lives. Are certain authors and books speaking to you at the moment? Why not take some time to just look, and listen to yourself today - see what this triggers, enjoy the everyday miracles, treasure the day.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The Heart of the Matter

The inability to sing seems to be a small obstacle for performers now with all the studio techniques available. Back in 'the olden days' as the six year old put it, when I was young and would have loved to be able to sing, a great and original voice was something of a prerequisite for a singer, and if you could write your own material so much the better. I can still read music, played piano, guitar, and love everything from jazz to classical to 80s power rock, 70s prog, 60s pop ... but I just can't sing to save my life, and really admire anyone who can. Think Cameron Diaz doing karaoke in 'My Best Friend's Wedding'. It's bad - so bad, I won't even sing in the shower. Driving solo in the car is about the only place safe to let rip, and I found a bunch of old cassette tapes in the cellar this weekend - Don Henley amongst them. I played that tape so much the summer I was seventeen, it's almost worn out, but today on the drive home from school I had something of an eighties moment.

As Don put it, 'Heart of the Matter' took '42 years to write, and four minutes to sing.' This distillation of emotion and experience is what will give your work real strength and feeling. We've talked before about how valuable the senses can be to throw you back into the past and allow you to tap into an emotion for your work. The moment this song started, I was there - brokenhearted, away from home for the first time, surviving on thin air and crackers. 'I'm learning to live without you now/but I miss you sometimes ...', 'The more I know, the less I understand/All the things I thought I knew, I'm learning again ...' It was the summer I learnt for the first time that life sometimes throws you a curved ball - I started to grow up, and this song keyed into that confusion and loss perfectly. Maybe that's what being a teenager is about - it struck me the other day looking at a young friend's profile on Bebo and MySpace how obsessively teenagers photograph themselves and one another - maybe it's that search for yourself and what other people see in you. A group of us were really into photography - this weekend I found boxes of grainy old pictures we had taken of one another (shot with a 35mm and hand developed, badly ...) - looking at photos from that summer now I just look so heartbroken, and unlike myself. The six year old asked me the other day 'Can people die from a broken heart? Does it really break?' What do you think?

Even if you are now coming from a place of relative calm, being able to mentally place yourself in the emotions you are writing is key to getting authenticity in your work. As book three opens, my main character is just that - away from home, broken hearted, starting over again (though in her case it is her husband who has gone), and I had been having trouble getting the pitch right - getting her to speak from the heart. Remembering how I felt when the boy I was in love with left suddenly has given me the key. Like the situation my character finds herself in, the relationship didn't end - it wasn't that we fell out of love with one another, he had to leave. The last time I saw him, he flew over from Holland unexpectedly for my 18th ball, and we said goodbye, but it took a long time to get over him. He had a breakdown - was found driving the wrong way down a motorway somewhere in Europe. He stopped answering letters, cut off from all of us. Years later he rang out of the blue - he'd got my number in London from Mum. It was like hearing a ghost from the past. 'If I'm not careful you're going to marry this guy ..' was one of the last things he said. The pilot and I married a couple of weeks afterwards. I never heard from him again. Twenty years on, as a happily married old girl with two kids and a menagerie, as the song says - it's all about forgiveness, and that's something you only learn with time. The ability to turn the key and unlock your past heartbreaks from the safe distance of age and experience will bring a weight and depth to your work that will reach out and touch your reader's hearts. Take Mr Henley's advice: all the things you thought you knew, try learning them again.

TODAY'S PROMPT: If you are stuck with a piece you are working on - try putting yourself in your character's shoes. What emotion are they experiencing? Love? Hate? Forgiveness? Think back over your life - when have you felt that? What were the sensory details - what did you listen to then? what perfume did you wear? what season was it? Try provoking your imagination by stirring your senses - put on a piece of music you haven't listened to for years, dig out some old photos, feel what your character feels, and get it all down.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Butterfly Mind

Jim Whitty - Cadogan Contemporary London

This weekend I finally started unpacking the last of the boxes. We should only have been here six months, so I think not completely unpacking (for the seventh move in six years) was a rebellious stand on my part. I wasn't going to settle in only to move again, I was going to hold out until we had our own home again. However, we've been in the cottage two years now - and I've missed my touchstones. It's been like seeing old friends, unearthing books, photographs, paintings I haven't seen for years.

One I was particularly pleased to find again was 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly'. It was published in France in the mid 90s by Jean Dominique Bauby - he had been editor of French Elle, a textbook Gallic intellectual and charming playboy surrounded by beautiful women. In his early 40s he suffered a stroke, and awoke from a coma to 'locked in syndrome'. He was mentally perfectly lucid, but trapped in a paralysed body. Through a system of blinking as his nurses recited the letters of the alphabet, he dictated the book. It's an incredible read - uplifting, life affirming. Bauby reflects on the small pleasures - a great meal, the company of friends, playing with his children. It's almost as if being released from material pleasure and wealth allowed him to appreciate the richness of his inner life - his butterfly mind allowed him to escape the 'diving bell' of his body. Bauby died ten days after the book was published. I read it while recovering after the birth of our first child - and it echoed my own thoughts about how grateful I was simply to be alive. Again, it is meant to be one of those books they could never make into a film, but I watched Julian Schnabel's adaptation this summer and it was brilliantly done.

I've always felt a 'butterfly mind' to be a great advantage for a writer. I have tried meditation, yoga, with limited success - I don't know about you but I quite enjoy having a restless inquiring mind that flies off at tangents, and I don't want it to go. Somehow 'butterfly mind' appeals more than 'monkey mind' (are they the same - I don't know? Perhaps some of you have had more success than me with meditation?) Butterflies seem to be everywhere this weekend - the gorgeous painting illustrating the post came in a catalogue for the new Jim Whitty show at Cadogan in London. It reminded me of a walk through the woods in Devon twenty years ago when I saw a cloud of butterflies rising from the forest floor in a shaft of sunlight. Until I saw the painting, I had forgotten how beautiful this was.
The other butterflies in the news are of course Damien Hirst's 'straight to auction' collection going under the hammer at Sotheby's in London. However you feel about his work and showmanship, it will be interesting to see how the sale goes - it has the potential to turn the art market upside down, cutting out the dealerships. The sale seems like a 'Greatest Hits' collection - all the old favourites (spots, spin, formaldehyde ...) without the shock and impact of the new. At college every year, they would hang a collection of contemporary work in the east wing of Somerset House - I remember tutorials sitting beneath one of his early 'Spot' paintings. Then they seemed fresh - for Hirst to still be producing versions of the same surely has more to do with commerce than artistic expression (or should I say to employ several studios full of people still producing the work)? Maybe I'm just being naive. Isn't he the wealthiest contemporary artist in the world?

TODAY'S PROMPT: Do you have a butterfly mind or are you better at focusing and staying still? If you were reflecting on your life as Bauby did, what would you remember? What precious moments have brought inner wealth to you? Why not take some time out from daily life today with your notebook and see what moments of beauty and joy you have forgotten.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Method in our Madness

Years ago at a party in Brighton, it turned out the guy I was talking to was a Booker nominated writer. He was generous enough to ask 'So what's your method?' Method? Writers have a method? I didn't know what to say - 'well, I balance my keyboard on my boyfriend's sock drawer and write like a woman possessed at every given opportunity ..?' didn't seem like much of an answer. He had studied under Malcolm Bradbury at UEA, and was modest and brilliant. Because of him, I wanted to study there - he described the course as simply giving him the tools to do his job - writing.

You hear all the time about Method Acting - Stanislavski's system for seeking theatrical truth, the replication of real life emotion rather than imitation (think Day-Lewis, De Niro, Pacino). When Dustin Hoffman famously didn't bathe for days to get into a character, Olivier asked 'why can't you just act?' Method involves deep analysis of the emotional motivation of character, and the recollection of your own experiences to bring psychological realism and emotional authenticity to a role. It struck me the other day, why do you never hear of Method Writers - isn't this what we do all the time?

The painting above is by Gerhard Richter of his daughter Betty. I love discovering new work, and saw an illustration of it a couple of days ago. I don't know about you, but not only is it extremely beautiful, it draws you in - who is she? what is she thinking? what is she looking at? I want to get inside her mind, there's an element of mystery. One of the Method techniques is analysing 'tasks, wants, needs'. It's a good starting point for writers too - what does a character do, want, need? I've mentioned before Dorothea Brand's suggestion that writer's need to allow themselves to fall into an 'artistic coma' - a kind of glorified daydream or reverie. This really is not too difficult for sleep deprived exhausted working parents. We have no need for the drink or drugs so often associated with writers and artists seeking this inner release and inspiration. It's Sunday, why not kick back with your notebook and if anybody asks why you're staring into space, tell them you're in an artistic coma - it's your Method.

TODAY'S PROMPT: If you are stuck with a particular character in your work, try drawing on your own emotional experience. Allow yourself to inhabit their world - walk through a day in their shoes. What do their shoes, clothes feel like? How do they brush their teeth? What do they have for breakfast? What do they notice on the way to work? Sense what they sense, draw on your own memories and let them mesh with theirs, replicate real emotion and your work will have an authenticity, a rawness that goes beyond mere imitation.
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