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.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

I need more time, or is that an excuse?

Last month I wrote about taking August off to write. It didn't go quite according to plan and I'm wondering if that's because I'm not dedicated enough to my writing. Maybe I'm not really a writer, deep inside? Do I need to be more single-minded, more disciplined? More obsessed?

A writer I respect once told me that writing must come first, always. It took me years to get over her dictum because I knew that a sad child or an ill partner would always come first for me, so I believed I couldn't be a proper writer.

The thing is, that life has a tendency of happening at you even if your main character is teetering on the brink and desperately needs you to write the next scene.

Real though my characters are to me, they don't die if I ignore them for a few weeks. They just get a bit pale and I get frustrated.

So here's what happened with my glorious month off. I spent the first two weeks of it sorting out family stuff that popped up the moment I cleared my desk. Very neat timing, very frustrating, but needs must.

Or must they? I'm willing to bet that Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and all those people I think of as serious writers didn't abandon their manuscripts for weeks while they drove around the country sorting out care packages, or interrogating GPs, or comforting someone whose life's about to change completely.  Or, come to that, buying the weekly shop and cooking the evening meals.

The thing is, these things I do are part of me, so they're also part of me as a writer. I don't write domestic dramas, but I do write stories with people in them and everything I do feeds my writing.

The problem is finding time and space to think about my story and put the resulting words on the page.

Not writing for those first two weeks of August was awful. I got angry. I felt bad about being angry but I'm just not going to write a novel when someone I love is struggling. In the third week of August though, things calmed down and I wrote and wrote.

Then I had one week left. Just one week - I'd hoped to finish my first draft over the summer and there was no way, absolutely no way I could do that. What's more my house would be full of people, and I'd never be able to concentrate - I wanted to be able to wander around talking to myself, lie on the floor to think, write at midnight or ten in the morning, whatever it took. So I took a deep breath, rented a flat in Hastings for four days, and caught the train with a bag holding my laptop and a swimming costume, and told my family that I was running away.

I think they understood. My family is a lovely family.

Hastings was heaven. I wrote, I thought, I wrote and I thought. I swam and walked up the cliffs. I slept after breakfast and dreamed of my characters and no one interrupted them. I talked to no one except some old friends with whom I had supper one night, and Deborah behind the bar of the Crown pub opposite, who made me excellent coffee each morning. That's all the human contact I needed.

I'm back now, and working again. But a month away from my desk - even if half of it wasn't spent writing - has given me a fresh determination to finish my novel. I took a couple of hours off yesterday to write and I'll do the same today.

That's a piece of chocolate and Guinness cake, by the way, and some of the best coffee Tunbridge Wells can provide. Thank you Black Dog café, top writing spot of yesterday.

The thing is, I suspect that writing slow suits me. I've only just understood my second main character's motivation. I began to see it last week while watching a bunch of people at a neighbouring breakfast table in a conference centre play power over their muesli. I spent the next few days driving up and down the country listening to old, old music, with that scene simmering in my mind. It's on the page now, transplanted and transformed and I know what's happening in my story far better. Sometimes a good story just takes time, and I'm ok with that.

Friday, 29 July 2016

How much space does a writer need?

I've been even quieter than usual here on the blog. Life's been busy, too busy for blogging, too busy for writing more than notes and fragments.

I tried writing in twenty minute bursts and it's taken me maybe half way through the first draft of my novel. But it wasn't enough in the end - I felt I was dipping in and out, never immersing myself in the cold water of the story long enough to let it warm my skin, to take a deep breath and make those long strokes that pull you deep beneath the surface.

So I'm doing something radical. I'm taking the whole of August off. I'm going to write.

I've never given myself this much time before. I may be a workaholic. I'm certainly afraid.

I believe it's normal to confess at this point, so here goes. Here's the story of a woman who almost forgot how to stop working.

After O levels I delivered newspapers so I could buy a new bike and some riding lessons. The dew and the dawns were lovely, and the secrecy of walking through gates and up paths while people slept above was magical. The bike was even better - it carried me round Ireland on my honeymoon many years later.

I worked Saturdays in a butcher's and then in a bookshop until my A levels, and then I worked on an archeological dig till I went to university.

There was no work in Leeds so I came home every summer and worked at my local sports centre, failing to save lives, selling tickets and scrubbing floors and urinals.

I graduated. I didn't want to teach so I became a trainee for a global paper manufacturer, moved into publishing, went freelance, had babies and kept on working all the way through. I took two weeks off when I had my first child because I hadn't dared tell a single client that I was pregnant. So I stood at my desk till the stitches fell out, and wrote letters to my authors apologising for not replying to their letters sooner. I'd been busy on another project, I said.

I slacked off when I had my second child three years later, and took three months away from the deadlines of publishing to drag myself from feed to nappy to feed. I had begun writing before her birth, but this was the beginning of a long, slow-lifting sea fog of exhaustion and I wrote nothing more for many years. It took a long time to learn that I wasn't just tired, but had ME. It took even longer to find out how to recover from it.

I emerged eventually and began to write again. But bills must be paid and I worked more than I wrote, and when I look at the stories I've written, the few words seem far too slim for so many years.

So this year, the babies now being taller than I am, and students themselves, I began a novel. And then life happened at me again and I gave the time I had to my work.

But I'm not going to let that happen again. So in fifteen minutes I'm going to set my autoresponder.

'Thank you for getting in touch,' it's going to say, 'I'm away from my desk this August. I'll be in touch as soon as I return at the start of September.'

It's scary, and exciting.

I'm going to find out what happens when there's space in my head.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Terry Pratchett and Marcel Proust - almost neighbours

This morning I emptied the bookshelves because we're redecorating. Here they are, stacked on my office floor like towers in a strange city, dark alleys weaving between them.

Moving books is a task I do alone because no one else in my family understands my absolute need for my books to be in strict alphabetical order.

You'll either understand this, or you won't.

If you don't, bear with me.

It means I can always find a book in minutes. It leads to happy and strange combinations of writers and titles side by side. And it represents my refusal to categorise my books beyond the fact that everything in the living room is prose fiction or drama - so I make happy discoveries every time I run my finger along the spines.

So Virginia Woolf and PG Wodehouse are chortling together on the bottom shelf.

Jane Austen is urging Paul Auster to lighten up a bit.

Leo Tolstoy's Anna and Colm Toibin's Eilis are having coffee, having met by accident on a street corner and recognised some glint of misery in each other's eyes.

Are you persuaded?

I don't care. I'm off to read a book off the floor.