Saturday, 28 February 2009

The Genius of the Place

Who knew Einstein had a killer set of pins? Think of genius and he ticks all the boxes - brilliance, untameable genius hair, and an otherworldly childlike sense of fun. Which other great geniuses can you think of? Do you believe in the concept of 'genius' itself? I've talked several times about my belief in the humility of genius. The most talented creative people I've met were also delightful people to work with - they retained a sense that they were lucky to be doing what they love. Looking back at some of the posts on the subject, we've talked about Jane Austen's tiny, apologetic work table in the hall at Chawton, and Ella Fitzgerald's assertion that people loved her work because of the songs not the singer.

Not one, but two writer friends have sent me today's video clip of Elizabeth Gilbert's talk for TED. I'm always ready to eat my own hat - in spite of my reservations about 'Eat Pray Love', this lecture is fantastic, and I hope you enjoy it. Her new book is about the idea of being a genius vs having a genius - she's returning to the classical idea of genius as a helpful spirit that is external to the artist, a guide and helpmate for your creativity. She describes herself as a 'mule' trudging through her manuscript - that's her job. Her 'genius' works through her.

Genius - the notion of an innately brilliant creative person is something that's always interested me. By the time I got to university, as a concept, Postmodernism had blown it out of the water. I wrote two theses - one on Surrealist photography, the other on eighteenth century follies. Luckily researching ideas about the Picturesque and Georgian concepts of 'the genius loci' (the genius of the place) didn't require tangling myself up in fashionable ideas about deconstruction, and it was a refreshing break from modern/contemporary work - I loved the romance and eccentricity of follies, of the sense that places (gardens, buildings), have spirits that can be nurtured and encouraged.

One of the great perks of working as an art consultant was visiting artist's studios. From purpose built gems in Hampstead's Vale of Health to high rise towerblocks in Paris, I loved every single one - artists are past masters at the art of making something beautiful out of nothing. When several of you were kind enough to read and comment on 'All the Lovely Ruined Things' I was thrilled that so many people said 'I want that studio!' I gave Jerome/Maya my dream studio - an amalgam of the best bits of the places I had visited. I have no doubt about places having character just as people do. What do you think? The vogue for Feng Shui briefly swept the west, but in Asia it has been treated as a science for centuries. Every single one of the projects my brother-in-law works on with his interior design practice out there has a Feng Shui master at work on it. From East to West there's a great precedent for respecting the spirit of nature - and it's importance in creativity. So what do you think - is genius an attribute of a person, or a spirit that works through them? Enjoy the clip.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Two things that Gilbert talked about really struck me. Firstly the experience of creative work coming to you suddenly, fully formed, whether it's a fragment of a story, an image or a melody. Has this happened to you? It's magical when it does. The second thing she talked about was the sense of 'I'm going to lose this thing' - the fragility of a creative idea. While you can't control the first, I think you can do a lot about the second. As a writer/parent you learn to 'bombproof' your writing. This morning, I'm trying to write this with Mickey's Clubhouse in the background and a hamster crisis going on upstairs - it should be renamed Houdini the number of times it gets out of its cage. Meanwhile the three year old has just cracked open the 'paint your own tattoos set' his grandparents thoughtfully brought with them yesterday ... Today, why not have a think about what you can do to help your own 'genius' - what's been bugging you about the environment you work in? What can you do to help yourself? Buy a dictaphone, or always carry a pen and paper with you? Or just get a bunch of spring flowers for your desk. Ideas fly away unless you get them down - and as Gilbert said, this is our job (and it is a job just like any other), to catch and craft them into books, painting, music to share with others.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

I Need a Hero(ine)

Hurray - the backlash has started against 'the string of recent romantic comedies portraying woman as ditzy and needy'. Kira Cochrane's article in the Guardian at the weekend singled out 'Bride Wars', 'He's Just Not That Into You' and 'Confessions of a Shopaholic'. I met Sophie Kinsella at a reading last year. She's the top selling female UK writer in the genre in the US, and has achieved huge sales both sides of the Atlantic. When you meet her you can see why - she's smart, witty, charming, elegant - the pole opposite of her character Becky Bloomwood.

So why are tales like this so popular? In the article the film critic of Rolling Stone magazine Peter Travers described 'He's Just Not That Into You' as 'a women-bashing tract disguised as a chick flick.' Kevin Maher in the Times said 'the so-called chick flick has become home to the worst kind of regressive pre-feminist stereotype'. Cochrane took a group of teenage girls to the movies and showed them classics like 'His Girl Friday', 'The Philadelphia Story', 'Annie Hall' and Nora Ephron's 'When Harry Met Sally'. I don't know about you but these are the kind of heroines - and heroes - I love. Strong, accomplished, sexy - and importantly - equal. I love men (that came out wrong, but you know what I mean ...), and I hope that comes through in my male characters. Masculine/feminine - why isn't this balance being portrayed as equal and complimentary? I write with a poster of 'The Big Sleep' over my desk. Bogart and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracy - the energy of these partnerships is what I have in mind when I'm writing my lead characters. Do you want to watch/read about silly girls - or real men and women with sizzling chemistry and dialogue that sends sparks?

70% of women work - so why are career women portrayed so badly now? Is it that only 15% of the top film execs and writers are women? Is this why we're being fed these stereotypes? 'Mama Mia' with the incomparable Meryl Streep was warm, uplifting, non-judgemental - and the writer, producer and director were all women. Every woman, from teenagers to ninety year olds, that I've spoken to loved it - even my mother bought the DVD after going to the cinema. Interestingly, the teenage girls wrote off today's rom-coms as 'predictable, cliched and exaggerated' - they don't watch them, they prefer horror.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Where have all the real women and men gone? Which characters from recent books and films have you identified with? Are you concerned about the stereotypes being fed to our daughters (we're moving into Hannah Montana and High School Musical territory at 7, and I'm already missing 'Charlie and Lola' ...)? Whatever genre you are writing in, human relationships are at the heart - what kind of heroes and heroines do you enjoy reading and writing about?

Monday, 23 February 2009

Running With the Wolves

Georgia O'Keefe 'Pelvis'
Photographs of O'Keefe by John Loengard

So how was your weekend? We've just had half term here - aren't you glad to see sunshine, first flowers bursting through, and to be able to get outside with the kids? This has been a long, cold winter for everyone - but (maybe it's the first hint of Spring), I've written my first new work in a while (the synopsis for book four). I don't do well with being cooped up, and as we've said before there is nothing like getting out and just walking to free your mind and thoughts. This Loengard photograph of Georgia O'Keefe is an old favourite - that sense of space and tranquility, and the mountains remind me of Valencia. Writing book one, this was the kind of daily walk I took through the orange groves, running with my own 'wolf' (Faber, the husky x malamute).

As we were chatting over a bedtime book the other night, the six year old asked me 'What if this is all dreams?' She's becoming increasingly curious about the world and universe around her -maybe you remember growing aware of concepts like 'eternity' and 'infinity'. It's difficult to know what to answer isn't it, when huge questions you are still grappling with yourself are thrown at you? I freely admit to not knowing sometimes, and tell her I'm still learning too. I read the other day about a fantastic enterprise in London, the School of Life. Isn't the idea of a shop trading in ideas, concepts, wisdom, wonderful? As they say, 'too cool for school' - and there's an 'Idle Parenting Masterclass' on March 4th that sounds rather appealing. Now more than ever we need spaces like this to step back and assess where we are.

I've been re-reading Clarissa Pinkola Estes' groundbreaking 'Women Who Run With the Wolves' (she is a Jungian psychoanalyst, writer and poet, and it's the most thought provoking book on the female psyche out there). It's interesting coming back to it after a ten year hiatus - and it's one of those books that if it's read at night gives you the most extraordinary dreams. Something that stuck with me last night is the idea of a Life/Death/Life cycle. When you look at the world around you, a dying back is all part of growing stronger. Life's a perpetual cycle - perhaps as humans we expect too much, a permanent upward trajectory. In time maybe we'll all look back at these strange times as a 'correction' rather than the tragedy everyone is declaring it to be.

The idea of a Life/death/life cycle is equally applicable to your writing. The first draft of book three has been finished for a month or so, but it's resting before rewriting. You may work through periods of intense creative energy, but it is perfectly natural (and desirable), to step back for a while and get some perspective. Immediately after completing any creative work, you are too close to it to judge it and see its flaws. The one thing I'd suggest is don't lose the momentum of writing - keep turning up at your desk. Write something different - short stories, articles, blog posts, then return to it with fresh eyes. I read Philip Roth's 'Everyman' on a long journey to Suffolk over half term (courtesy of the Wiggles weaving their magic on the back seat passengers). At one point he said: 'amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.' Let your book rest, but keep going to work.

Estes talks a great deal about the wild woman collecting 'bones' - rebuilding and creating a strong, whole, creature from scattered fragments - you can take this in terms of a person's psyche, or in terms of a creative work. This has been a strange, tough year - the best description I heard recently for what I'm working through is seeing a crystal bowl shattered into a thousand pieces. You can rebuild the bowl, but it takes time. The important thing is to keep moving, one foot, one word, one piece at a time - that's the way to build or rebuild anything, whether it's a life or a book. What is a novel if not beautiful fragments of story and character brought together and made whole? As Natalie Goldberg's famous book declared, it begins by 'Writing Down the Bones'.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Estes once wrote: "Some people mistake being loving for being a sap. Quite the contrary, the most loving people are often the most fierce and the most acutely armed for battle... for they care about preserving and protecting poetry, symphonic song, ideas, the elements, creatures, inventions, hopes and dreams, dances and holiness". The best lives, and books, are a journey. Life as you know it - Death (crisis) - new (wiser) life. In the course of a lifetime we go through this cycle countless times, hopefully learning more each time and gaining a greater sense of our own strength. In the course of a story, your protagonist will probably only face one great crisis and its aftershocks before the end of the tale. Today, why not think about some of the crises you have survived and reflect on the lessons you learned, the strength you gained. It's easy to forget when we're mired down in the day to day challenges we are all facing how much strength we have within us, and our ability to survive. Why not think of how you can weave the lessons you have learned in the school of life into your work, and help your readers along their journey?

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Coming Out of the Closet

What secrets are hiding in the dark corners of your wardrobe? How many versions of you are folded carefully on the shelves or are lying screwed up and forgotten in the recesses? Perhaps there are keepsakes - old shoeboxes of photographs and letters? Wardrobes have a long literary tradition (think of Narnia) - they can be a gateway to another world, a crucible of secrets, or a simple dumping ground for old memories. If your wardrobe is anything like mine, it looks nothing like this: The only thing 'capsule' about mine is its size (one rail, one shelf). The idea of a capsule wardrobe is regularly trotted out by the fashion pages - but do you know anyone who lives like this? I don't. Talking to a friend recently, everyone is cutting back though. I complimented her on a lovely sweater she was wearing and asked if it was new. 'Oh no, I've stopped buying clothes. This was at the back of my wardrobe,' she said. Without coming over too Trinny & Susannah, clearing out your clothes at this time of the year is a fantastic way to spring clean your mind too - recycle some, give things that never suited you to charity, and discover some old long-forgotten favourites.

'The Clothes in the Wardrobe' is a brilliant book by one of the writers who made me want to write - Alice Thomas Ellis. Glorious Lili declares that 'clothes are the person'. I knew a Lili character once (a friend of my mothers who designed costumes for Fellini). She taught me a lot about clothes - and life. Working in the designer rooms at Harrods also taught me that money can buy quality but it can't buy you style. So what do your clothes say about you?

I read once that the 80/20 principle applies to your wardrobe - you wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time. Is this just a female thing? I've never met anyone less interested in clothes than the pilot - he spends half his life in uniform and would very happily never clothes shop again. I tend to wear the Mama Uniform - jeans, uggs, t-shirt day in day out, but if someone was going to torch my wardrobe the first thing I'd grab is the Petite Salope dress illustrating this post (no, sadly, that's not me modelling). I love their designs - they are like the 21st century version of a Fragonard painting. This beautifully made corset dress is possibly the least practical item for a mother of young children - but since when do you have to be practical all the time? In fact, all the materials I love - silk, suede, linen get a look in way less than 80% of the time. They will, eventually, once everything isn't covered with yoghurt handprints, mashed banana and mud. What are your favourite items of clothing? What could you never part with?

My wardrobe is full of different versions of me - maybe you're the same? Old business suits, my grandmother's beautiful couture dress coat, skinny teenage 501 jeans, (kept as heirloom for the six year old). The label sizes attest to the fluidity of the female form - everything from 'turn sideways and you disappear!' 8s (yes, someone once said this ... sighs nostalgically), to sentimental end of trimester with a 10.5lb baby maternity smocks/tents (turn sideways and you cause a solar eclipse). It's a million miles from capsule, but I love every item in there and the only way things leave is when they've been worn out completely.

TODAY'S PROMPT: It was either Pacino or De Niro who said in an interview once that they start with a character's shoes. How much thought do you give to what your characters wear? Working on the principle that 'clothes are the wo/man' when you are creating a character, why not have a think about what they wear everyday - and what they have lurking at the back of their wardrobes, or kept aside for 'best'. Every person alive is multi-dimensional. Clothes can subtly express a great deal about your characters without having to spell things out. I'll never forget Margaret Atwood's chilling description in 'The Handmaid's Tale' of the Commander's wife's stiff tailoring and the way she stubs out a cigarette with a single stab. It's the details that count. Contrast the cliched 'brilliant scientist' with a wardrobe full of identical starchy white shirts and black trousers, and Carol Shield's wonderful 'Larry's Party' where the protagonist's sports jacket is accidentally switched for an identical one. He hates it - it looks the same, but it isn't his much loved coat with the familiar hole in the pocket. What makes your character's clothes theirs and theirs alone? Are their clothes like a second skin, or do they look like they are wearing someone else's?

Thursday, 19 February 2009


About five years ago we were loading up with supplies at the local builder's merchants and suddenly realised the little one had disappeared, (sure we've all had those moments where your blood runs cold?). I raced along the warehouse aisles calling her name. Suddenly I spotted her. She had made herself at home in the bathroom area and was sitting, trousers round her ankles on a display loo. We cracked potty training eventually, and here she is now a few short years later asking for a SIM card for her birthday. Whereas my phone at her age looked like the one above, she has played with a cast-off mobile for years. It's incredible how instinctive children's use of technology is now - even the three year old (still in nappies), knows how to operate the computer and call up 'Little Einsteins' on demand TV. The latest craze - especially among kids who text more than talk, is Twitter.

Do you get Twitter? Out of all the networking sites it's the one that has me flummoxed. What's it for? Are you really interested in what someone had for dinner, or that they are going to bed now? Rather as blogging achieved the Times' seal of approval last weekend with Brian Appleyard's pick of the 100 best blogs, Twitter hit the mainstream headlines recently thanks to Stephen Fry's 144,000+ followers. Mr Fry's Tweets - as you would imagine - are witty, effortless and beautifully turned. However, most Tweets seem to be spam marketing from Mom-preneurs. What's your experience so far?

There must be ways to use it creatively, (haikus? bantus? short stories one line at a time?), but so far I can't see it. The other networking sites - Facebook, Bebo, Myspace etc - just have more flexibility. With several friends they've replaced email. But wittering on Twitter - if we met in person, I'm more of a listener than a witterer, so perhaps it's a question of disposition. Tweets just seem to be more about 'me, me, me ...' than ideas or communication. What do they call devotees of Twitter anyway - Twits?

Maybe it's just a question of getting used to a new way of communicating. It makes me think of a lovely litho of an old Heinz 57 mongrel I saw in a gallery once: 'Tricks? I don't do tricks'. I'm going to experiment with putting the daily writer's prompts up as Tweets - let me know if it's helpful?

TODAY'S PROMPT: A friend emailed me today's video clip, and it's the silliest, most life-enhancing thing I've seen all week. A grown man dancing his way around the globe roping in complete strangers neatly summarises everything that's good about the way we are able to communicate freely across the world thanks to the technology we all have at our fingertips. I've said to a lot of people that WKDN has become more like a global writer's group than a blog, (sadly without the tea/biscuits or post-group visit to the pub). In that spirit why don't you let me know what you'd like to see more of, or less of? What would you like to know? Would you like more 'nuts and bolts' type prompts about the basics of creative writing? Why not send me a comment - or a tweet?

Monday, 16 February 2009

Simple Pleasures

There's a terrific book by Richard Klein called 'Cigarettes are Sublime' - I lent it to a friend years ago and it was so good they never gave it back, (you can take a person's hospitality, money, friendship for granted but borrow a book and not return it? Phht - how to lose friends and irritate people). Amazon says: 'Klein's survey of the history of cigarettes and their gestalt of ritual, seduction, contemplation, and danger is fruitful and often surprising. For Native Americans, tobacco was a minor divinity, and smoke a prayer. For writers and artists, smoking has often been part of the creative process. The sharing of cigarettes has long been a gesture of courtship and sensuality, an expression of rebelliousness and bravado, and a balm for the terrors and tragedy of war and other intolerable circumstances.'

There's all sorts of tosh written about artists and writers - not all are 'mad, bad and dangerous to know ...' The majority of us hold down responsible jobs, run households (and several of us regularly write late into the night only to be woken up at 5am by bouncy toddlers). As Wendy Cope said, with poets there's rather more brown corduroy than Byronic passion - and very few of the successful writers I've met conform to the romantic ideal of half god/addict. I know that Hemingway used to leave his cat babysitting his infant son, but would you?

So where are you on the corduroy/Byron scale of writerly excess? Let's not talk about lapsed new year's resolutions - I even managed to ressurect an old bad habit ('intolerable circumstances'). I gave up smoking over ten years ago - but it's amazing how quickly it comes back to you. This time round it was only ever going to be a temporary fling, but I still love everything about smoking except the end result and how anti-social it has become. All the things Klein talks about - ritual, seduction, contemplation - the meditative solitude, the silver cigarette case and heavy old lighter, I love. Did you ever see the scene in Frasier where Bebe his agent performs a brilliant soliloquy on the pleasures of smoking? I remember sitting writing in a cafe about twenty years ago smoking Gauloises. A middle aged woman (hah - she was probably about my age now), came over and said 'Oh, Gauloises ... I thought I recognised the scent.' She smiled sadly as she told her story. Turned out she had once lived in Paris and the love of her life had smoked Gauloises.

Still, here we are minty fresh and bright eyed if not bushy tailed, giving up again. Have any of you stuck with your new year's resolutions? Periodically, it's good to embark on a self improvement jag - for me this normally involves a bulk order of MBS books from Amazon. Do you find it's a cyclical process with you - or are you more balanced? Yoga, pilates, tai chi, transcendental meditation - tried most things. What works for you? Over the years I've read a lot of MBS books - and cherrypicked a system that works for me - most of the time. Lately you'd have found me meditating with a Marlboro - but hey, we're all human. I may have the same psych profile as Gandhi/Oprah according to the former headhunter/pilot but I'm some way off their saintly status. Some MBS books are better than others (Deepak Chopra, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, John O'Donohue, 'Creative Visualisation' by Shakti Gawain, for example, good). Which are the best you've come across? There are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there, aren't there? Perhaps it's a Brit thing - I want mental/spiritual rigour and physical results not vague self indulgence.

I stuck with 'Eat, Pray, Love' (mainly because it felt like it was annoying me for a reason and the the quality of the writing outweighed the 'fling it across the room' reaction provoked by the self-indulgence). One of the better passages was this: 'In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellence is incorruptible. Pleasure cannot be bargained down. And sometimes the meal is the only currency that is real.' Certainly in Bali and India where the latter stages of the book are set, precious food is a real spiritual and scarce physical currency. Meanwhile in the west we've certainly got disorder, disaster and fraud all around us - where our work can come in is countering this with beauty, excellence, and simple pleasures.

TODAY'S PROMPT: 'The meal is the only currency that is real'. Writing about food in your work provides an immediate sensory, pleasurable link with your readers. Which books have made your mouth water? 'The Lives of Pippa Lee' by Rebecca Miller recently luxuriated over roast lamb and creme brulee. Or what about dear old Prufrock speculating whether he dared to eat a peach? Think about chopping vegetables for soup, or slicing a lemon. Why not try writing about it? Caring for a hungry, growing family on a budget you learn to be inventive with food, (101 things to do with a potato?) but what was the best meal you ever had? Who did you share it with? I remember shucking oysters in Paris ... eating fresh pizza on a snowy sidestreet in the shadows of Durham Cathedral ... boiled lobster on a beach in Cape Cod. Do you live to eat or eat to live? When was the last time you took a walk through your local market? Forget cellophaned supermarkets - take a wander through the luscious fruit stalls, check out the gleaming fish and pungent cheeses. Food is one of the simplest pleasures we can all share - beautiful, sensual, sociable. Enjoy - eat that peach, and let your readers share your pleasure.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Book Lover

Books are sexy. Books are cheap. Books are a love affair that lasts a lifetime. These are just some of the reasons while every other shop in town was empty today, the book store Waterstones was heaving. When you decide to go for it with your writing and take that financial hit, you're prepared to give up a lot (time, sleep, haircuts, holidays, clothes, eating out - all the normal things you take for granted when you have two responsible grown ups bringing home the bacon). If you're juggling family with earning a living and writing you have to give up other stuff (as Joanne Harris said you learn to live with dust). The people you love also give up a lot - perhaps as Isabel Allende wrote 'writers are hard to live with', (I officially 'owe' the pilot a lightweight Land Rover ...) But the one thing I haven't given up is buying books.

Every time I've wobbled over the last year and thought (especially with two small children depending on us), I should have stuck with a 'proper' career, taken that job in Dubai setting up the auction house, I remember careers day back at school. They were encouraging all the girls to become engineers - my eyes were glazing over rapidly - then Wendy Cope stepped onto the stage. It was an epiphany. She was vibrant, smart, funny - her poetry was accessible but moving and well observed. Unlike all the engineers they had rolled out to talk to us, she looked like she loved her work.

To write and be paid well for it is the Holy Grail. DJ Taylor is quoted in the 'Writer's Handbook': 'It tends to be forgotten ... that Johnson wrote Rasselas to defray the expenses of his mother's funeral or that Dumas's terse, interrogative dialogue was the result of being paid so many centimes a line. If there is a single factor linking Joyce, Woolf and Conrad it is that they all at one time or another in the literary career submitted work to Titbits'. Even Dostoyevsky finally started writing only once the baliffs were at the door. Everybody starts somewhere.

The summer before university, one of my temp contracts was working at a paper mill. I spent a week in payroll with a chain-smoking Harley riding Hells Angel (she kept her lunchtime cider under her desk), before being spirited upstairs to be PA to the MD for the rest of the contract. It was probably more entertaining in payroll, but at least I saw the paper being manufactured - it was like going through the round window in Playschool, huge rolls of virgin white paper whizzing round, machines the size of houses. As a leaving gift the MD gave me as much paper as I could carry, (even then I was scribbling during lunch breaks). The scribbles were mostly rubbish no doubt - but the first story I ever sold was typed on that paper.

Maybe you're like me - I not only love writing, but I love books, paper, pens, the swoosh of ink when the words are flowing well. If you see a blank sheet of paper (let alone vast whirling reams of the stuff), don't you just want to write on it? A love of books, of words, is a love that will last a lifetime. From all the comments yesterday, everyone is feeling a bit humbugish about Valentine's Day so today why don't we celebrate true love? Single, married, partnered up - every one of us can enjoy curling up tonight by the fire or in bed with something satisfying that makes us think, laugh, cry or escape ... a relationship with a book is one of life's simple pleasures. And hey, if it doesn't work out, there's always the next one on the stack waiting to be read.

TODAY'S PROMPT: I love books because ...

  • they are the great escape
  • they are always there when you need them
  • they last for days, weeks, and often when you get back together years later they're just as much fun as you remember
  • they go where you go - and take you places you've never (or always) dreamt of
  • they are a great date - better value than the cinema or eating out
  • they are the only thing you can consume in quantity and not feel guilty
  • ... (what else can you come up with?) x

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Love & Sex

When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
- Khalil Gibran

Valentine's Day - are you feeling the love yet? What's the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for you? I remember a time when the pilot drove from Suffolk to Devon (a six hour journey each way), just to bring me breakfast before work. Twenty years on, a cup of coffee and an extra hour in bed while he gives the kids breakfast is the height of romance. It's small, everyday gestures that keep love alive - but it doesn't hurt to celebrate together once a year. I mean, it's mid February - I'm sitting here writing in an overcoat, the wind whistling through the cottage - what else is there to celebrate? But you can't move on the high street in town this morning without romance coshing you round the head with a plush paw or helium balloon. Huge expensive bouquets, heart shaped chocolates and Hallmark cards? Is this the best we can do?

Come on boys and girls - we're writers, artists - what is the most romantic thing you can think of to do for your other half (or the person you would love to be with)? Girls, what would thrill you this weekend (give the guys some hints!), and what about you chaps? Do you really need another stuffed bear with 'I Wuv Oo' on it? I've been researching a magazine article on relationships and read the other day: 'He needs sex to feel close, she needs closeness to feel sexy' - is it the old Mars and Venus thing? There was a piece in the Times at the weekend about a couple who wanted to kick start their relationship post-baby. She suggested having sex every night for a year. He was terrified to start with - but it worked (and guess what, they had another baby ...) So what do men and women really want? Why not tell each other in the comments box?

Perhaps you write about love? Since Romeo found his Juliet, epic love and tragedy have been inextricably linked. As Gibran pointed out so many years ago, there's an inherent risk involved with love. You're laying yourself open (look at the innocent joy on Danes' and De Caprio's beautiful faces in today's clip - kills me every time). I'll hold my hand up - I'm a shameless romantic and will always pitch for a happy (or at least hope-filled), ending with my books. Yes, love is crazy, chemical, insane, madness - but I'd rather my characters take the chance to feel everything, the highs, the lows rather than drift along. Who wants to read about a couple who 'kind of ... like one another. But it's nothing, you know, serious.' I don't. I want passion, a quest, a challenge - love, and hope conquering all.

I've been listening a lot to Kings of Leon writing book three - it's a love story about three generations of women, set in Spain. It explores 'duende' (magic, passion), but it's very physical. Writing sex scenes well, as we've said before, is one of the hardest things to do when you're starting out. Writing within your comfort level is the best advice. I was flicking through 'Writing Down the Bones' last night and there's some excellent points in Goldberg's section about eroticism. She says you can write about your character simply chopping a melon, but if they - (and you) - are turned on in the scene, the reader will pick up on this sensuality without having to spell things out. You can be sensual without being sexual (think of Hardy's descriptions of Tess' lips).

It helps to be a little in love with your lead characters, but once in a while a writer comes along who seems to push the boundaries with sex - Houllebecq's 'Atomised' (final scenes not for the squeamish), and Erica Jong's 'Fear of Flying' spring to mind. The French have a grand tradition of eroto-lit (from Anais Nin to Catherine M). The latest book causing a hoo-ha over here is 'Wetlands' - anyone read it yet? It helps that the author looks like a cute, saucy librarian in all the publicity shots. Personally, just as valentine's day overwhelms you with schmalz, studiously 'sexy' books like this are anything but - by the end you feel like you are being relentlessly coshed around the head, but not with a stuffed bear this time. In books - as in life - it's a balance. Love, sex, tears and laughter - feeling is what it is all about. Happy Valentine's.

TODAY'S PROMPT: What are the great romantic books, films, scenes that have stayed with you? What would you love someone to do for you this Valentine's weekend? Do you remember the Kim cartoon strip 'Love Is ...'? Why not take a few minutes and brainstorm what love is to you? You could even show Hallmark a thing or two and make a card for the one you love with some real feeling. x

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Leap of Faith

Winged Victory of Samothrace

People often talk of how you reach a crossroads in your life - should you go this way or that? In my experience, it feels more like at certain points the road you are on comes to an end and as you stand peering over the edge it takes a leap of faith to reach the next part of your journey. Change is in the air for a lot of us - are you going to take the leap? Will you be left mid-air, feet racing like Wile E Coyote, or will you soar to great heights?

Eight years ago, we caught a matinee of Billy Elliot. The flat was empty, everything was in storage, we were leaving to travel round the world in a couple of days. It was a huge leap of faith to give up everything so that the pilot could follow his dream to fly. I remember thinking as we walked along the King's Rd to the cinema 'what if this is as good as it gets?' It's one thing following your own dreams but following someone else's ... Billy Elliot turned out to be a great film to watch at a time like that - proof that if you follow your heart, trust your gut instinct and work hard you can triumph against the odds. These are the stories we need now.

There's a column Oprah writes each month 'What do you know for sure?' It's a good question - what do you know for sure? Do you ever feel the more you learn, the more you realise how little you know? I said this once to a tutor - the professor wasn't impressed. He huffed something along the lines of 'don't talk nonsense'. I felt like a prize idiot. Looking back, perhaps to him knowledge is something tangible, factual, real - like bricks and mortar to build theses, exhibitions, books from. To me it's always seemed more organic and mutable. You learn something - it goes into deep storage, you forget you know it. Then months, years later it appears in your work just when you need it. Perhaps knowledge is cyclical - you come around to the same themes again and again, learning more each time? If your mind is curious, it shoots off at tangents - 'I know this ... but wow, now I see how this connects here, I want to learn about that.' So what do you know - and what would you like to know?

TODAY'S PROMPT: Steve Winwood and James Taylor were talking the other night - Taylor said 'I'm a musician - I don't know what else I'd do'. Alan Bennett is celebrating a £1m box office success - he said recently 'I just turn up at my desk and write'. Do you have that sense - do you know for sure you are a writer? Are you waiting in the wings, adrenalin pumping, ready to make that first leap like today's video clip? I made that leap a few years ago, and now as the book is being read for the first time by publishers I'm mid-air, hoping it will turn out more Billy than Wile E. Today, why not take a leaf out of Oprah's journal and ask yourself 'what do you know for sure?'

Monday, 9 February 2009

The Next Big Thing

So we've had Chick Lit, Lad Lit, Pop Lit, Sun Lit, Aga Sagas, and Bucolic Frolics. Can you think of any other recent tags? What's the next big thing? How often have you heard someone is the 'new' ... (fill in the blank). Madeline Peyroux (featured in the last post) was billed as the 'new' Billie Holliday. I guess it's convenient in marketing terms - 'you like this? You'll love this!'

Occasionally you get an original artist, breaking new ground. On film, there was no Bardot before Bardot. Which new writers have affected you? I watched 'Juno' on a flight recently, and Diablo Cody's voice was so fresh and raw it blew me away. What about books? For me, it tends to be specific books (rather than writers), that affect me. I would love one day to be a good enough writer to produce something as lean and beautiful as 'On Chesil Beach', or something that catches the zeitgeist like 'Bonjour Tristesse'. In music - Norah Jones leapt onto the scene in 2002. Her first album never left the CD player in my office that whole long hot year in Spain, writing with a sleeping newborn baby in a Moses basket at my side. In today's clip she's playing with another favourite - John Mayer scooped a well-deserved Grammy last night.

James Taylor was also nominated for his album 'Covers'. The idea of 'covering' and interpreting another artist's work is commonplace in music. Sometimes it transforms the work, sometimes it kills it dead (do I need to say the words 'Madonna' and 'American Pie'?). When you get two artists like Dolly and Whitney taking on a classic ballad like 'I Will Always Love You' it's hard to say who interprets the material better. If you're ever stuck for a story idea, why not try your own cover version? Try looking back through ancient myths and fairytales, and rework the tales in a contemporary setting? I went through a huge Angela Carter phase a few years back and devoured everything she had written - if you like darkly beautiful fairytales, her work is incredible. Maybe you've read the original Grimm versions and been surprised how bleak the original stories were before Walt & Co reworked them? Carter takes them to a whole new level.

Even in fine art, if you have a classical training, part of it is to copy the masters. I remember watching students in the Prado, their easels set up before the El Grecos and Goyas, painting perfect copies of the masterpieces on the gallery walls. It's an interesting exercise if you've never tried it with writing - choose a favourite author whose 'voice' appeals to you, someone you know well. Take ten minutes and write something in their style. What you'll get is not a copy, but an interpretation - something new and your own.

TODAY'S PROMPT: If you were billed as 'the new ...' which writer would you hope to be compared to? Who is in your pantheon of greats? If there really is nothing new in the universe on a molecular level, do you think it follows that every creative act is in some way reworking the past too? Remoulding it, making something new, but recycling that artist's experience and influences? Polti said there are a finite number of dramatic themes - so we are all working with the same material. The difference is that no one sees the world the way you do, no one expresses their experience like you. When you are starting out, there is nothing better than following in the footsteps of the masters, learning your apprenticeship. Once you learn how they handle the basic structure, the nuts and bolts of writing, your own work will have the strongest foundations to build on.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

The Art of Living Well

Years ago, I remember a news report about a hundred year old woman who lived a few villages away from us. The reporter eulogised about her energy, childlike joy, her unlined face and asked her how she had reached such a great age in terrific shape. She put it down to honey, cider vinegar and the odd glass of Guinness. It may have had more to do with the fact that she still lived in the house she was born in, had travelled only as far as the nearest market town and had never married. She had experienced none of the great joys, responsibilities and challenges the rest of us go through, the extremes of pleasure and pain that burn lines in our palms and put grey hairs on our head.

Maybe you've known people like that? I'm always curious about characters who are happy with their lot, uninterested in exploring the world and stay put in the place they were born in. Probably because it's so opposite to my experience, it seems strangely exotic. Where are you - still close to home or have you forged a new path? John's challenge yesterday to find the flip side to the often quoted top ten stressful events in life has been interesting (see what happens if you type 'sources, comfort, pleasure, satisfaction' into Google. Exactly). The closest I came up with was this kind of thing:

Perhaps the big difference is that the stressful events are the things that blindside you on a Tuesday afternoon - as we discussed recently. Many of them happen to you and are unavoidable. The pursuit of happiness, the art of living well is an attitude, a way of looking at the world that can be learnt. Several friends have recommended 'Eat Pray Love' - one woman's search for everything, 2 million copies sold etc. Have you read it? I'm struggling with the book - swanning round Rome's single scene eating gelato is not where I'm at right now. And to be honest, I've always struggled with the idea that happiness begins and ends with the individual. Isn't there a wonderful quote about it being like a butterfly - if you pursue it, happiness flies away - if you turn your mind to other things (ie, stop navel gazing) it comes and sits quietly on your shoulder. Then there's the famous Tolstoy quote from Anna Karenina: “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What's your experience?

TODAY'S PROMPT: If happiness, contentment, pleasure, satisfaction are all things that can be cultivated rather than just states we're entitled to naturally, maybe there are universal sources. The old definition is: someone to love, something to do, something to look forward to. Positive Psychology is a growth area but as I can't find a positive version of the top life events, why don't we try and write a manifesto of happiness, define the situations and events we need to cultivate to live well. I'll start it off:


1) Love - your relationships with partner, children, family, friends, animals

2) Security - a sense of satisfaction - enough money, a sense of being in control of your life and competent and valued at work

3) Connection - with the world around you, (whether through work, neighbours, hobbies, charity/volunteering)

4) Health - healthy foods, exercise you enjoy, laughing often

5) Time - space with yourself, doing things you love, developing the individual skills you have

6) Learning - never stop educating yourself, learn new things, subjects, skills, languages - whatever grabs your attention and fires your enthusiasm

7) Balance - a sense that you are living and working hard towards something meaningful but with passion, energy, fun

8) Self awareness - a clear sense of your beliefs (spiritual, moral, political), boundaries and values

9) Gratitude - for life, everything you've been given, everything that's done for you

10) Hope ...

What else can you think of? What are the happiest events or moments of your life?

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Put 'em Up

Have you heard the story about the famous author whose son was asked at school: 'What does your mummy do?' He thought for a moment, then said: 'She's a typist'. What does your family make of your writing? Are they supportive, or do they find it strange? On a long car journey recently, the six year old asked us why her grandmothers don't work. We explained that back in 'the olden days' as she calls it, women often gave up work when they married. She thought for a moment, then said 'Ah, but Katharine Brown famous author did not give up work. She carried on writing ...' Yesterday she solemnly presented me with a scroll of A4 paper - it's pinned up in front of me. She had written inside: 'Certifacate (sp): Kate Lord Brown You Have Won this Certifacate for the Best Selling Book Ever. Well Done. Love Your Daughter'. Bless her - that faith 'famous', 'best seller' - moments like that make you feel there's no damn way you're going to let them down.

So we're all up against it - what's your reaction? I'm glad to have a PM and a bare knuckle boxer on the family tree - right now I need the genetic gifts of both to survive. Are you fighting back, changing the way you work, questioning what's essential? I was thinking last night about the advice of my old Tai Chi teacher - he said you need to develop the strength of the reed, the ability to bend under pressure and then spring back. It's like the old 'fall down seven times, stand up eight' mantra. What's your favourite quote or passage about surviving the things life throws at you?

There have been a couple of interesting books recently about the shaky foundations we have built our modern culture on. Alain de Boton's 'Status Anxiety' and Oliver James' 'Affluenza'. Both give plenty of food for thought. James' argument is that we've confused the things that make us genuinely happy (security, connectedness, authenticity, feeling competent), with an addiction to consumerism, celebrity, fame, keeping up with the neighbours. These are the top ten causes of stress in society:

Death of spouse
Marital separation
Jail term or death of close family member
Personal injury or illness
Loss of job due to termination
Marital reconciliation or retirement
Change in financial state

Recognise any of them? I checked four last year - which probably explains a lot. These are of course the great themes of fiction too, and that's what I'm hoping to do, channel all of it into creating better work. Even as I'm working on the draft of book three, the characters of book four are taking shape, I'm getting snatches of dialogue, glimpses of scenes. There's so many books waiting to be written. So what are we all going to do ... stand up for the eighth time, and make it happen. As Zola said: 'I am here to live my life outloud'.

TODAY'S PROMPT: Why not take one of the top ten life events and develop a storyline around it? These are all things your readers will have gone through, or seen people they love going through. They are great dramatic hooks and will bring empathy, sympathy, catharsis to your work. What common character traits do your hero/ines have? I was looking for something linking my lead characters and had an 'aha' moment yesterday - they are all survivors. Writing them, I had women like Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn in mind - smart, feminine, sexy survivors - the kind of women you want with you on a riverboat in Africa, or covering your back in an LA shootout. It's what 'All the Lovely Ruined Things' is about - times are tough, things are 'ruined' for a lot of people right now ... but we can hope, and change, and adapt, refocus on the things that make us genuinely happy. Why not have a brainstorm about James' suggestions and focus on strengthening the parts of your life and work that will bring you security, connectedness, authenticity and a feeling of competence.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Shaggy Dog Stories

People often talk of the 'privilege' of sharing your life with an Afghan hound. Even the breed standard talks about how they look 'at one and through one'. These euphemisms for the diva-like behaviour of my constant companion are laughable (it doesn't seem like such a privilege when you are chasing her round a dark snowy garden at 6am because she has stolen the three year old's socks again). As a puppy she was more like a mythological creature - tiger striped, curly tailed, face of a baby griffon. Now, when she walks on her hind legs she is taller than me, she has the grace and agility of a big cat, and the speed to outrun deer and leopards (the breed's original purpose, hunting in the mountains of Afghanistan). Animals have been the silent partners of writers and artists since time immemorial. When I was studying art history, the moment I saw the photo of Picasso and Kabul at the head of this post, I wanted a hound. It had nothing to do with Picasso's mighty whities - honestly.

Here's Kabul again, at the heart of a gathering of writers including Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. (Typical hound - centre stage, best seat in the house). What other great artist/animal pairings can you think of?

Elizabeth Frink shared her life with beautiful Hungarian Vislas, while David Hockney is always associated with his lovely Dachsunds:

Or maybe you've come across the work of Georges Rodrigue, who has built an entire career around his melancholy, haunting 'Blue Dog' - based on the terrier cross that lives with him.

Then there are the great literary cats - think of Johnson's 'very fine cat'. What are your favourite animal characters - Orlando? Black Beauty? The Cat in the Hat? Do you tend to write animals into your stories? Who shares your writing life with you? I grew up with beautifully behaved gundogs, so my own dog's disregard for recall is somewhat amusing to my father. In fact, as a child the only time I saw him cry was the day he shot his first and much loved gundog Zondar (the dog was 13, had terminal cancer and hated, hated vets). How on earth Dad had the courage to do it and spare the dog's distress I don't know. As far as Zondar knew, he was just off on another shoot ... Then again this is the man who sewed his own arm up when he slashed it open surfing. Makes Hemingway look like a pussy doesn't it?

The hound's current life is rather less majestic than chasing wild beasts in Afghanistan. I was squelching through the watermeadows with her a couple of days ago in the rain, both drenched to the skin, hair hanging wet, panda-eyed from mascara running down my cheeks. Just as we reached the waterfall, I did a Laurel and Hardy - stepped in a mudpool so deep I lost a welly. A man with a hideously well trained labrador passed by and looked from me to the hound as she raced past, leaving me floundering in the mud. 'Ha!' he laughed. 'Same hair!' What, streaked with grey and straggly? That's it then, it's happened. I look like the dog.

TODAY'S PROMPT: What are the great shaggy dog stories you can think of? Who are the brilliant storytellers you've met? Alan Bennett perceptively mentioned how important specifics are. Not 'I'm broke', but 'I had to choose between buying a loaf of bread or going one more stop on the bus with the baby'. One of the funniest nights of my life was spent with a writer in a pub near Greystones in Ireland. He had tale after tale that kept us all captivated - living in a castle with Poppy Barclay in the sixties with a tame pig was one of my favourites. Shaggy dog stories are often rambling jokes (think of the infamous Aristocrats), fabrications, pun-laden urban myths. Getting the balance between too many details (indicator of lying), and juicy specifics is key. What's your story?

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