Thursday, 8 February 2018

Solitude and writing in Paris

I've just spent a week in Paris, alone, writing and not-writing, and it was difficult and wonderful in equal measure.

I normally write pretty much anywhere I happen to be: I write in my office and in my kitchen, on trains and planes, in libraries and cafés. I'm not bothered by noise much, and I've written stuff I'm proud of while sat alongside my family watching television. So I don't need silence or solitude to write.

But Paris gave me a whole week alone, and I'd been longing for it. It felt wantonly extravagant, and essential.

It was harder than I remembered to be so alone. I spoke to almost no one except to buy coffee and food and one day I didn't speak at all. For a week I had no meaningful conversations: there was no emotional weight to anything that I said or that was said to me.

I missed my family and friends. It was strange and discombobulating to be in a city full of people, not one of whom knew or cared about me.

It might be easy to wonder if you exist if you have to live in such solitude for long.

I can see how appalling loneliness must be.

But for me, this was a brief interlude. And while no one in Paris cared about me, I equally didn't care about them, except in a general kind of way. And it was a huge relief, once I settled into my solitude, to have no responsibility except to myself. How often can any of us say that?

It was a luxury, and I took it seriously. I read, walked, looked at people and buildings and art. I walked more. It felt vital to be out, letting whatever I came across come in.

The very difficulty of being alone seemed to strip the wires of my mind of their usual insulation. I was alert and vulnerable. And being exposed emotionally made me open to the hidden currents of the story I was writing.

I'd been worrying at the story for ages. I knew something was missing, and I even knew what but I didn't know how I was going to write it. On the fourth morning in Paris I woke at five o'clock knowing exactly what to do - an idea came into my mind out of nowhere that transforms and completes the story in just the way I'd been looking for.

I'm sure that extended time alone allows me to find things I don't know are there.

There are small pleasures too that I only see when alone: the rhythms of a café as day turns to night, wisps of song coming down the stairwell as the snow falls in the dark outside, the golden sandals my neighbour left outside his front door.

When I was young, I dreamed of being a poet living in a Parisian garret. I'd have friends, of course, and we'd sit in cafés and laugh and argue about life and poems and friendship, but mostly I'd stare moodily out of my tiny window and write.

This last week, I lived a little of that dream. I didn't look moodily out of the window, because I was enjoying writing so much: that's what I didn't know when I was young. I enjoy writing, as well as finding it terrifying and hard work.

And that's the thing. Last week I felt disconnected from the people around me and alone. It wasn't easy. But I'm glad I didn't spend it in a cosy writer's retreat where I could chat to other writers in the evening - though I've been on retreats like these, and I love them, and would gladly go again. But writing, for me, is also about fear, and risk, and exploration so sometimes I have to get a bit uncomfortable and look at things that aren't beautiful, and to feel a little fear.

As a coda, I found this poem, 'Bryant Park at Dusk', by Geoffrey Brock, which  catches the pleasure of solitude perfectly in his description of a lone woman reading in the park as night falls:  

And what I loved was this:
The way, when dusk had darkened her pages,
              As if expecting a kiss,
She closed her eyes and threw her head back,
              Book open on her lap.
Perhaps she was thinking about her story,

              Or the fall air, or a nap.

The whole poem's up on the Poetry Foundation website.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Why we talk about the weather

This morning I awoke to mist. A pale sun shone from behind the swirling grey so I set off straight after breakfast, before the gloom could lift and spoil the effect.

As I set off across the fields I met other walkers, all wrapped up like me in boots and coats and hats, and all but one entirely cheerful.

I knew none of them, but we greeted each other with enthusiasm. 'I think it's going to lift!' 'I saw the sun an hour ago.' 'It's good to be out in it. I'm gardening later so I hope the sun comes out.' Only one said as we slipped towards each other in ankle-deep mud, 'It's disgusting, isn't it?'

I think she was referring to the mud, but if she was, she was bending the English rule: when you meet a stranger, talk about the weather. You don't even need to say you're talking about the weather. 'Gorgeous, isn't it?' can only mean the weather to an English person, no matter how stunning the view.

I've been reading social anthropologist Kate Fox's 'Watching the English': there's a whole chapter on weather talk, and it's revelatory. We talk about the weather because we're so awkward about greetings. We comment to a passer-by on the fog, or the ice, or the sun not because these weather features are fascinating, but because it's a safe way to say, 'I'm friendly, I'm happy to chat a little bit if you are.'

We don't want to chat long - that would be weird. It's fine to exchange just one sentence each and then pass on. But don't we feel better for that short exchange?

I walk most days and pretty much everyone I pass will either comment on the weather, or say 'Morning.' You don't often say 'Hello,' unless you know someone. If you don't want to talk at all (maybe you're deep in thought, or something awful's just happened) it's ok to walk past in silence - but only if you look down and don't meet the other person's eye. And it's not really ok even then.

The weirdest and most unsettling behaviour is when someone walks past you, looks at you, and says nothing. That makes me feel genuinely uncomfortable because that person either doesn't know the rules, or does know them and is consciously breaking them - and in either case, their behaviour is odd, unpredictable and unfriendly.

That's the thing (and you people from towns who laugh at us country people greeting strangers in the middle of nowhere, just listen). Greeting someone means you're letting them know you don't mean them harm. Whether you're a woman walking alone or a group of burly blokes, when you meet on a path in the woods, commenting on the fog helps everyone relax.

An interval between the acts

There's been an interval. I hope you've all been enjoying your favourite refreshment (mine's usually a tiny pot of strawberry ice-cream) and scanning your programme (did  you work out who on earth that woman with the glasses is?). I hope you've enjoyed the play enough to return for the next act.

While I'm not foolish or vain enough to think that anyone has noticed, the length of the interval between my last post and this has bothered me. With every week that's passed I've felt this post needed to be ever more splendid, to justify my absence.

But the thing about intervals is that no one in the audience knows what's going on behind the closed curtains. On the stage the actors and crew may be running about madly shifting sets, changing costumes, mopping the floor of the broken glass from the last scene - but we all understand that it's out of sight, essential for the next act, but our job as the audience is to look away.

And so all I'm going to say is that for the last six months I've been recovering, working a little, writing a little. I've done a lot of thinking. I did a whole load of boring stuff too.

The next act is about to begin, and I don't know what's going to happen any more than you do.

Curtain's up!

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Time out: the difficult but essential art of doing nothing

My doctor has told me I need a break. Doesn't that sound luxurious? I pictured lying on a sofa all day, looking out of a window at a blue sea. Perhaps people would bring me cups of tea and cake?

And for a week or so I did lie on the sofa because ironically I was exhausted from working flat out to clear my desk in order to have a rest. No one brought me tea, because no one's here during the day. I cooked dinner because I like cooking, even though I swayed as I chopped and stirred. I did a little light invoicing, sorted out my aunt's accounts, answered a few emails. Nothing demanding, but it didn't feel like I was resting.

I googled 'medical definition of rest'. The long and the short of it is that there isn't a definition of rest. It could mean complete inactivity, but rarely does. It could even mean going for a run each day.

The challenge is what to do if you're meant to be resting.

If I were well and needed a rest, I'd probably head up a mountain, or get on my bike and cycle all day. I might catch a train and wander round galleries and see new plays. I'd probably get in the car and visit far off friends. (I definitely wouldn't be here at my desk.) But I can't do any of these things because doing any of them would exhaust me: working flat out for months with a gastric infection and then Reactive Arthritis has drained me physically and mentally.

I can't even rewrite my novel (it's been sitting in first draft on my desk for months) because I don't have the energy. I have to tell myself this is ok: how come I can't do like a proper ailing artist and create great work from my sick bed? Well, maybe because I'm not a proper ailing artist: I intend to get well, to regain my energy, and then I'll write. (And did Proust and Keats run a household or earn their share of the bills? Did they have families demanding their attention? I think not. I shan't research this further because quite simply I don't want to know about someone who did all of this while really ill - it's not helpful.)

So this is what my life looks like at the moment, and I'm not complaining: I read in my hammock, watch the bees on the lavender, let the clouds scud past. I listen to podcasts. Friends come and we talk over coffee. Each day I walk a mile, extremely slowly. I have learned to identify some butterflies: the gatekeeper, the meadow brown, the ringlet and the black admiral. I have belatedly planted out my beans, sweet corn and courgettes, so late that they probably won't fruit, but each day I check them. I maintain the tomato plants in the greenhouse. I don't do my accounts, answer work emails, worry if various members of my family are ok. I am learning not to respond whenever someone asks me to do something. That's really hard but I can feel that it's the right thing to do.

Best of all, I've begun to think about my novel and how I'm going to rewrite it. I'm happy thinking about it, planning, writing notes. In the meantime I'm writing tiny things every day: a fragment overheard, the bones of a poem, the opening of a story. It feels so good, I think I'm beginning to recover. Maybe what I needed all along was to allow myself time and space to think and write? Maybe resting is essential to creativity? And both are essential to my health?

I think I've found the answer. The art of resting is to give yourself permission to rest. It's that simple.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

On being an inexperienced tourist in Costa Rica

Last month I left my favourite earrings on a bedside table in Costa Rica.

Get you, I hear you say. Fancy writer type, always gadding about in exotic places.

Except I'm really not fancy - this was my first ever trip to the Tropics - and I'm not sure Costa Rica is exotic. I'm not sure what exotic is any more.

Don't get me wrong: every single day we were there, we stopped and thought how amazing it was to be there. But while it felt wonderful to sit beneath a palm tree with monkeys leaping above our heads and Caribbean waves crashing at our feet, it didn't feel odd or out of this world - we were very much in it.

I'd expected to feel discombobulated by being so far away from home - and I wasn't. I think I expected it to be more strange, more uncomfortable and harder to understand.

It was outrageously hot, so hot that the second you stepped out of a cold shower you were drenched in perspiration again. But that was ok: more than ok, it made us sit, be still, take time to watch, to listen, to read, to do nothing.

Oh, the sheer, glorious luxury of doing nothing in a beautiful place.

La Leona Eco-lodge, Corcovado, on the Pacific

And there were bananas growing everywhere, and street stalls sold coconuts instead of chestnuts. And the sea was warm. And there were hummingbirds - which have to be the most beautiful creatures I've ever seen.

And scarlet macaws are ridiculous, like pantomime birds painted by three-year-olds.

And it was hot. Did I mention that?

And there were spider monkeys in the trees just below our tent in the Corcovado. And tapirs, and anteaters and toucans and tarantulas and fer de lance vipers, and a puma that kept out of sight but was thrillingly there, somewhere, in the deep rainforest right behind us.

Obviously, at home, we don't have these things. But we have trees, and flowers and birds and furry animals, and sea all round us. So I'm familiar with the concept of wildlife even if not with the tropical specifics. And people really do seem much the same everywhere - mostly friendly, with the odd grumpy sod.

Some things took a bit of getting used to. The addresses, or lack of them for one thing. This is the envelope that brought my earrings back to me from the Mar Inn. Just look at their address - 100 metres north of the ICE power company. That's it. Useful if you know where the ICE is, but otherwise rubbish, and definitely no good at all on a sat nav.

So, you drive to a town and ask. And that's ok because 99 per cent of the people you meet are utterly delightful and very happy to help, even if they have no idea where the place you're looking for is either.

You meet a lot of helpful people this way, and that's always good, and reassuring.

And maybe that's the thing. Costa Ricans speak Spanish so I could get by without a phrasebook. Is my failure to be disorientated just down to sharing a familiar language?

The Caribbean at Tortuguero
Or is it because Costa Ricans speak Spanish because for a long time the country was a Spanish colony, and maybe they're culturally quite close to Europeans? I've no idea if they really are - I wouldn't presume to comment on Tico culture after three weeks - but I never felt out of joint with the people round me, or puzzled by their behaviour, or their clothes, or the images on TV. The comedy bullfight in La Fortuna was odd, but not that odd. You don't see many men cycling in 35 degree heat in wellies and wielding a machete in Sussex, but it made sense - lycra's rubbish in the heat and a micro bike pump is no good at all in a snake-infested verge.

The thing is, I lived in Spain for three months in my 20s, and it really was disorientating. It was my first time living abroad (I was studying at university) and living there, rather than travelling around or lazing on a beach, showed me just how un-Spanish I was. For example, back then, most women students at the university in Granada lived at home, and were often chaperoned by male family members when they went out - but you wouldn't know that if you just visited for a few days to wander round the Albaicín or eat churros on the plazas.

You also wouldn't know that the Guardia Civil were terrifying back then and when they marched in the Easter parade, people stepped back and looked at the ground to avoid their eyes. It was only a few years since Franco died, and they were his men still. But if you'd driven into Granada to admire the Alhambra, you wouldn't know that.

I lived in France after that, and found hidden differences there too: they loved Benny Hill, for example. Saw it as a statement of French-ness to drive through red lights because the law must always be challenged. Except that everything was centralised and republican France has a class system just as powerful as Britain's, only it's a secret.

So I know when I visit a place as a tourist that I really have no idea what's going on in front of me. I'll interpret it on my terms, see what I expect to see: in Spain I expected women my age to be independent like me, so I wouldn't have noticed that almost none lived away from home. I knew other people's police weren't as jolly as the British police - and I didn't have many illusions about our police, this being the early 80s, the time of the miners' strikes - but it wouldn't occur to me that they might have taken your brother and tortured him because he said something negative about the government.

It's easy to glide through a strange country and not to notice just how strange it is.

And I suspect that's what I did in Costa Rica. Could I have seen more, understood more? Probably, though it takes time: I'm not the kind of person who just demands of someone that they tell me what life is really like for them. The woman serving me breakfast in her hotel, or the farm worker sitting down the counter from me in the soda don't owe me that truth and I have no right to ask it unless we build some kind of relationship, however fleeting.

I talked to people, of course. The woman in the hotel and I laughed about how our children wanted us to learn new things and how we resisted them. The man in the soda was on his break, reading the paper, so I didn't interrupt him. Our guide in the lodge in the Corcovado told us all about his ultra-marathons, and how much he loved his job even though his mum wanted him to go back and study more and live near home again. The duty manager and I agreed that even if you have problems in your own life, you don't bring them to work: your clients don't want to know about them. She didn't tell me more, because I was her client.

I began to see glimpses of some people's lives in Costa Rica. That to get on, you went to San José to the university, away from home. Everyone we met who worked in tourism had a degree, was fluent in English, and took their work completely seriously: selling holidays to foreigners seems to be the future. I never heard anyone complain. But I saw that even with a post-graduate degree in Biology you might have to work mornings taking tourists on rainforest tours and the afternoon labouring on a neighbour's building site, because work is hard to come by and never well paid, and everyone round you is competing for that same sweaty tourist dollar. But despite that, you really do say 'Pura vida!' and mean it - life is cool, let's be glad. That families work together: so many places we stayed in were run by brothers, sisters, parents, spouses all living and working together and pooling their skills. I can't imagine that.

I can't imagine either living in a country where the land is fundamentally not friendly.

The snakes definitely aren't. In Costa Rica I discovered why snakes are symbols of fear and deviousness. They are many and they are everywhere, and there's one called the fer de lance that's both aggressive and super-venomous. It's skinny and brown and hides in the leaves by the side of a track, senses you with heat-seeking pits by its eyes, and strikes just because it can. And then you die (unless you're lucky and near a hospital, which we mostly weren't). And don't think you'll spot it before it spots you, because you won't - a fer der lance is perfectly camouflaged. We never saw one, though we knew they were there, and that was frightening.

I'm not used to being frightened by the natural world. At home there's no wild creature that's out to get me. None that can harm me even by mistake, really, though I hear a pike bite can be painful.

In Costa Rica, you can't just sit on the grass for a rest, or walk over to that interesting tree to look at its massive roots, or take a stroll after sunset to see what's over the hill. Even the guides are cautious about leaving the track.

Turrialba volcano at dawn
And of course the earth might quake, or a volcano blow its top.

Costa Rica isn't cuddly.

Its danger is packaged up for our easy consumption though: the snakes and spiders and pumas aren't the only reason you don't just head on up a hill to see what's on the other side. That hill is probably in a reserve, a national park, or on private land, and you can't explore it without a ticket. Entry to a national park costs $15 (£12), a tour with a guide double that - plus your entry ticket. The guides are brilliant, and we would never have spotted half the animals without them, but if you're used to having the right to walk on any open land, it feels odd to pay for every step you take off the road.

Gold-digger's grave in Corcovado - settlement closed when National Park created in 1970s
Of course, this does mean that Costa Rica's wonderful and precious environment is well protected, and it earns the country vital currency. But it's odd to know so clearly, almost every minute, that your role in Costa Rica is to spend money.

I think maybe the key to being a good holidaymaker is to suspend your disbelief? Perhaps being a good tourist is a bit like going to the theatre: you know there's manic activity in the wings but it's your job to ignore it and believe what you see.

I was almost successful, and I do believe that Costa Rica is outrageously beautiful, and the people wonderfully friendly. But I kept seeing glints of even more interesting things in the wings, and never quite worked out what they were.

Monday, 28 November 2016

How I finished the first draft of my novel

Yup, I finally finished the first draft. Here it is, emerging from the printer yesterday.

Note that you can't actually see the pages, and that's no accident - they're not ready for anyone to read yet. Not even me: I'm finding it hard to resist, but I've sworn to myself to put the script aside until after Christmas. By January I hope I'll come to it with less love and understanding, and can be as brutal as I need to be for the second draft.

It feels like I started this book a long, long time ago - possibly because I started thinking about it years before I wrote a word.

Then, over a year or two, I wrote a whole load of words that I deleted straight away. I couldn't work out where my story was going or who would tell it.

So in September 2015, I booted myself into action on the 12-week online course at the Unthank School. This was intense - especially as I was working pretty flat out at the time - but I committed to writing something every day for those twelve weeks, and I did. Sometimes I only managed 20 minutes while the potatoes boiled for dinner, but I always wrote. I mapped out my plot, got to know my main characters, wrote 5,000 words, rewrote them completely, in a new voice and from a new point of view, and by the end of December I had over 15,000 words.

Maybe I'm a wimp, but after Christmas, I collapsed a little bit. I confess I didn't have the steam to keep on writing every day.

And I was beginning to find it hard to dive into the novel and clamber straight out again before my hair was even wet. (I promise I use better metaphors than that in the novel.)

But I did keep on writing in the nooks and crannies of my life and by the early summer I had almost 55,000 words. The end was in sight, but I really, really wanted to write the rest in one go, not in little bits and pieces.

I booked August off (I'm self-employed so that meant telling precious clients I wouldn't be around, and earning nothing for four weeks - no small deal). But I spent most of it sorting out care for a beloved aunt. To make myself feel a tiny bit better I skidaddled off to Hastings on my own for four days of nothing but writing, and was briefly very happy. Then I returned to my desk and wrote almost nothing of the novel for a couple of months.

I was deeply frustrated, and felt that my novel and I were in danger of falling out of love. I knew I had to immerse myself in it, but daily life (mine at least) just doesn't allow for immersion.

So I booked myself onto a writers' retreat - ten days in Spain, at Casa Ana - and told myself that I'd write and write while I was there, and that if it was humanly possible, I'd finish before I came home.

And I did. Casa Ana turned out to be perfect for me: high in the mountains of the Alpujarra, remote, silent, almost empty. My fellow writers were warm and generous, we were mollycoddled from dawn till dusk, and everyone was there to work: it was easy to write all day, from before breakfast till dinner in the evening. (And the food was wonderful!)

I'd been afraid I wouldn't be able to write for more than a couple of hours a day, because at home that's all I seem to have the stamina for. But Casa Ana proved that if I have no responsibility other than to writing, I can focus completely on it without feeling the need to run away. I didn't stick to my desk all that time - I walked every day, and I lay on my bed and thought about my characters and what was happening to them. But I didn't think about anything else. It was heaven. And I finished the first draft at five o'clock on my last day. The ending's a bit shonky but that's ok, it's a first draft and I know I can make it better.

So I'm happy. But I'm also feeling a bit flat - I'm missing being inside my story, and I'm sort of hesitating about celebrating because I know I haven't finished really. But I'll be back with the novel soon enough, and I'm pretty sure I've done the hard part. (Could be beginner's naivety, but I'm feeling positive so don't pop my balloon, please.)

And in the meantime, I'm celebrating a little bit. Here's the piece of jewellery by Kara that I bought this time last year. I promised myself I'd only wear it when I'd completed the first draft. It's heavy on my arm, and I love it. Now it's reminding me of the work I still have to do, and I can't wait.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

I win a weighty prize!

Yesterday I had coffee (and a rather nice cookie) with Elise Valmorbida and we talked translation, writing in another language and the joys of taking yourself away to write. And that was good enough for me, but the reason why we met yesterday was even more wonderful:

I won a prize!

The trophy is an amazing object in itself - the real piece of letterpress from which my certificate was printed. It weighs a ton, and I can't quite move my fingers yet from carrying it home yesterday. It's sitting on my desk right now, making my day feel extremely splendid.

Winning this award was pretty much a complete surprise. Over a year ago I wrote a poem about the matron's mallet at the Foundling Museum. (I blogged about it here.) I read my poem there last autumn, and it was a pleasure.

I didn't really think about the poem again until a couple of weeks ago when an email pinged into my inbox telling me I'd been shortlisted by 26 for their award for the best piece of writing on a 26 project. Could I come to the annual 26 shindig, Wordstock, in case I won?

Sadly I couldn't as I already had plans. A few days later, sworn to secrecy, another email arrived. Could I possibly make a short acceptance video?

Good lord - I'd won!

Now winning an award is wonderful - even if you've read your work aloud to a polite audience and your mum says it's jolly good, it's hard to believe it really is worth anything (or at least I found it hard to believe it) until a team of judges picks it out and says, yes, we really like this!

So thank you, 26, I'm thrilled.

And thank you Elise, for that other huge positive of winning an award - getting to meet a wonderful writer and spend a seriously civilised morning together over coffee.