Writing is from the Soul

 

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The novelist, PD James

‘Part of our duty as writers is to do the work of honestly determining what matters to us and to try and write about that.’

Julia Cameron, ‘The Right to Write’.

I’ve always thought that writing comes from a place deep within, but this last few weeks has confirmed that view in a very deep way.  I’ve been working with my writing coach, Heidi Williamson, as I sort through ideas for my new fiction project.  I’m still not sure if it’s a novel or quite what it is.  I have characters and a setting, but I don’t really know what it is about.

And I’ve been going through something of a soul upheaval at the same time.

Like a huge game of Tetris, bits of me are moving about, realigning, making new connections.  I am understanding myself in a new way.  I am beginning to accept parts of myself I could never even acknowledge I had, so shameful to me they seemed.

All this is coming out onto the page.

Let me tell you a story:

Years ago, I went with my mother-in-law to an event held at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.  Surrounded by trays of dead beetles, dinosaur bones and stuffed animals with scary glass eyes, we sat in an audience and listened to PD James and Colin Dexter talk about writing.  I think it may have been one of the most important experiences of my writing life.

Now, let me set this in context.  I had fallen in love with Oxford primarily because I had discovered Inspector Morse.  (Actually, I had fallen in love with John Thaw, but that’s another story!)  The romance of the city and its surrounding countryside connected with something inside me.  It sang to my soul.  I’d read all the Morse books published up until that point, some of them several times.

In contrast, I hadn’t read PD James at all.

And then the strangest thing happened.

I listened to Baroness James, this tiny little Marple of a woman, sit there and talk about her passion for stories, about how everyone has a story and how she loved listening to them, from her hairdresser to the train guard on the tube.  When she talked about writing, she blossomed, expanded.  A light shone from inside her, a light to which we were all drawn.

Then I listened to Colin Dexter talk about how he wrote the first Morse novel, ‘The Dead or Jericho’ as something of an intellectual exercise.  After all, he said, a detective novel is very much like a crossword, and I designed crosswords, so I wondered if I could do the same with a detective novel.

The contrasting lack of passion was chilling.

And I knew which kind of writer I wanted to be.

I shall always remember Dexter’s cold, dead, fish-eyes as he talked about plotting fiction in the same way as any problem must be solved.  I confess I conceived an intense dislike of the man at that moment.  It seemed to me he was subverting an art form, reducing it to something cold and empty and mundane.  Of course, there must have been more to him than that, because I’d read the novels, and I had seen the skill he had in painting character, but to me there seemed something lacking, a vacancy in his art, not least because he clearly didn’t regard it as art.

And beside him, PD James prickled quietly.  She was a woman with a passion, with a deep soul, a woman who wanted to explore the darkest depths of the psyche, a woman with a profound love for her fellow human beings.  It was obvious to me from her body language that she didn’t like Dexter’s clinical approach, that it irritated her.  I don’t blame her.  It irritated me too!

I have always written whatever my soul directed me to, taken the stories that popped into my head and followed them, followed my passions.  My themes have been the themes I have been struggling with in my own life.   I just never bothered to name them, to deliberately set out to find or understand them before.  Lately I have been doing just that.

I’m not the clinical type.  I need to write what I need to read.  I need to explore my own psychodrama on the page, use it as fuel for my work.  At this stage in my life, I need to know myself deeply, to uncover my own hidden depths, and to write about them.  To write them out of my body and mind, and away.

That is why this new work is taking so long to form.  And why I am deliberately allowing it time to form.

Usually, I start with the idea of a plot and gallop along, with characters being tugged behind.  If they get developed, so much the better, but often they end up at the denouement as thin as paper.

This time I am starting with the characters, with their souls, with their issues, their worries, their suffering, their joys.  I trust that they will tell me what their story will be.

This is not a crossword.  Neither is it a hundred metre dash.  It is a slow, steady, indefatigable hack through dense jungle.

Sometimes, you have to take it one day at a time.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Friday Review No 7: I’m running away

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Mouldings on the roof of the Radcliffe Camera reading rooms, Oxford.

In the last week, my husband and I have both been pining for Scotland.  Usually at this time of year we are making preparations for a holiday to the Western Isles (if we can afford it).  We happily run away to the Islay Whisky Festival, and it’s wonderful.  We were there at the end of May last year, and it was one of the best holidays of my life.

And I haven’t had a proper break since.

No Christmas, no Easter, no weekends off.  I’ve been away repeatedly, yes, but to my late mother-in-law’s house in Oxford, or to my mother’s in Hampshire.  Not for holidays, but for Doing.  In the past, my mother’s home would have been a haven to holiday, but now she has dementia, and so it has become a place of caring and problem-solving.  Not restful.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a bit of a meltdown.  I’d had enough.  No breaks, and all the emotional wreckage of the last six months had taken its toll.  My husband had just come home from his annual walking holiday in France with his pals, but I don’t have the money to do that kind of thing, nor the energy, of course.  (In fairness to him, he feels bad that he’s had a break and I haven’t.  And I certainly didn’t resent him for a much-needed and healing respite.)

Anyway, I decided enough was definitely enough.

So I’m running away.

I don’t have money to pay for a hotel or self-catering bolt-hole, so I’m going for second-best. I’m going back to Oxford for a week on my own.  My mother-in-law’s house is waiting to go on the market, so I can settle in without cost.  I shall pay for my keep by juggling estate agents and various visiting tradesmen – it is amazing the little jobs that have to be done, and someone has to be there to let people in to do them.

I intend to rest.  And read.  And journal.  And write.  And perhaps even draw.  I shall laze in the lovely secluded garden – I’m hoping for good weather.  And then there is the City to revisit.  I spent a great deal of time there in my younger days, not simply when my husband and I were first dating, but long before then, when it became a sanctuary from the emotional upheavals of my life.  I want to reclaim the city I knew then, reclaim it from the sad memories of recent years, when it was tainted by the demands of elder care, dementia and death.  I want to walk the streets and soak up the golden light reflected off the Cotswold stone.  I want to look up and see the curlicues of the college windows, the gargoyles and Classical statues, the wisteria and the laburnum.  I want to walk in Christchurch Fields, rummage in the Covered Market, and eat lunch at the Nosebag café.  I want to walk up the Cowley Road and feel the vibrancy of the various ethnic communities that have settled there.  I want to glide through the Ashmolean Museum, letting the beauty of the ages sink into my very pores.

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Andrew Gormley sculpture on top of Blackwells Art shop in Broad Street, Oxford.

I want to please myself.

I want a week-long artist date.

I want to find myself again.

I want to eat salted caramel brownies at the Barefoot Café.  (Which pretty much amounts to the same thing!)

It will be a celebration of no wireless connections, with only my minimal phone data tariff to support me.  I hope I shall have enough on my slate to be able to document a few of my adventures on Instagram.  Rest assured I shall be taking lots of pictures.  But it will be something of a relief to be somewhat incommunicado for a while.

I have a journal project that I intend to undertake.  I have been planning it meticulously for a while.  I don’t know whether I shall be able to pull it off, but I promise to report at length when I get back.  And share my strategy so that you can have a go too, if you like.  But I’ve got to test it out, first.

I have a mountain of books to take with me too.  Research for my current writing project, though I might give myself a week off that.  A couple of novels.  Books about creativity and writing.  And no doubt, being Oxford, with Blackwells, and the Oxfam bookshop, I shan’t escape the week without buying a few mores.

And a pile of notebooks are going with me too. With lots of different pens, and a glue stick for ephemera. I plan to soak up the LOT!

It’s going to be quite an adventure.  Wish me luck!

Happy Creating,

EF

The Friday Review No. 6: Listen. Wait. Have faith.

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“… just as a pregnancy must not be over-stressed and artificially hurried for fear of damaging or aborting the child, so, too, a piece of work asks that we not try to force it into unnatural directions.”

Julia Cameron, The Right to Write p164

 

I’ve been running around being Busy.  Hence the lack of Friday reviews lately.  And you know what happens when someone with ME/CFS gets a dose of the Busies.  Eventually, there is a price to pay.  So today I am lying on my bed, nursing a nasty bout of IBS, with every major muscle in my body in a state of semi-collapse.

However.

And yes, there is good news:  Despite the Busies, progress has been made.

Yesterday, I wrote 1058 words I wasn’t planning to write, and as a result, finished a Lewis story that I’ve been working on, off and on, since last July.  Which felt like a double result.

I’ve migrated my Sherlock story, ‘Under The Downs’ onto AO3, with positive results.  Now I’ve got to do the same with its sequel, ‘The Bee House’, but I haven’t quite got there yet.

I’ve had my monthly coaching session with my writing coach, Heidi Williamson, and it was, as usual, hugely stimulating and supportive.

I’ve been reading and writing every day.  Morning pages and journaling.  Writing practice.  Jotting down notes and research questions.  Recording those funny moments, observations of life that provide the richness to a piece of writing.

Asking myself questions:

What do I want to say?

What Truth do I need to speak?

What interests me?

What don’t I like to read?

Who am I?

What makes a character?  What is the difference between character and identity?

And so on.

And I’ve been listening.

This major work that is coming, that I am birthing.  I know a little bit about it, but I don’t want to push its birth.  I don’t want to warp it by forcing it to come too fast.  So I just put my pen onto the paper and listen to it.  Allow it to tell me where it wants to go.  It takes time.  But I’m lucky that I am one of those writers who loves the process of writing, not just having written, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker.

Sitting at my desk makes me happy.  I am surrounded by my books, with my vision board for the novel in front of me.  It is my safe place.  My sacred place.  This is where my idea will blossom and grow into something more extraordinary than I have ever achieved before.

I have faith.  Faith enough to wait.

Happy Creating,

EF

Old Fiction: Under The Downs

A friend wanted to read one of my works.

She lives in Sussex, so I recommended ‘Under The Downs’, a Sherlock fanfic set in and around Arundel, which I wrote partly as a result of many happy trips to see her.

But it is published on fanfiction.net, which means the interface is crap, and for reasons to do with her eyesight and peculiarly stubborn nature, she wanted to print it out.  And I just couldn’t help her there.

So I decided to migrate ‘Under the Downs’ to AO3, where it now resides,  and where you can enjoy it in thankfully legible format, and with a user interface that is not the bastard love child of the devil copulating with Unix.

I offer it to you now with renewed joy.  Especially The Otter Part.  Here’s a little taster:

“I paddle towards him with all the elegance of a hedgehog on a cork.  My teeth are chattering, so I clench them.  Just to make matters worse, he frolics about me, sleek and easy, undulating through the water like an otter.  His body is a blade, perfectly shaped for ease of movement.  He ducks and dives, twisting corkscrews around me in circles while I frantically struggle to stay afloat.

            Suddenly he bobs up right in front of me, his belly brushing against mine, his cheeks beaded, his eyelashes spiked.  Water streams from his pointed chin.

            ‘Why didn’t you just tell me you can’t swim?’

            ‘Of course I can bloody swim,’ I snap at him.  ‘What does it bloody look like I’m doing, carpentry?’”

Click here for ‘Under the Downs’ at AO3.

Happy reading,

EF

 

Gimme Dat Ole Circadian Rhythm…

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Sunset over Cambridge

Mornings.

I’m not a Morning Person.

Trust me, me and Mornings put together are BAD news.  A Bit Not Good, as they say in the Sherlock fandom.  This seems to be an ineradicable facet of my character.  I’ve tried, Gods know, I’ve tried.  But the other day, something I read got me thinking about this ‘trying’ to get up business a little more critically:

Terry Pratchett, in his essay on his friend, Neil Gaiman, in ‘A Slip of the Keyboard‘, states:

“He takes the view that mornings happen to other people.  I think I once saw him at breakfast, though possibly it was just someone who looked a bit like him who was lying with their head in a plate of baked beans.”

You see, Society has this idea about ‘larks’ and ‘owls’.  A dichotomy, if you like.  You know, like ‘black/white’ and ‘male/female’ and ‘good/bad’.  (Spoiler:  Its usually pretty safe to assume there’ll be trouble when there are only two alternatives.)

There is this idea what there are people who can get up in the morning, who are at their best in the morning, who get their best work done while the rest of the world is still in bed.  They make the most of the day, packing more into every hour than most other human beings.  They are virtuous people, the kind of people who set their alarms for 4am so they can get an hour of meditation in on top of their hour at the gym.  These are successful people.  Healthy, industrious, productive, wholesome, and probably outdoorsy people.  They hike at weekends, and get up to enjoy the sunrise.  They are the kind of people who have time planners on their smart phones.  And use them.

I have a friend who shouts ‘Good Afternoon!’ at me when I come down to breakfast at 10am.  This person is very proud of the fact that he is a Morning Person, and thinks that he is wonderful because of it, and it is the only way to be.  You know.  Self righteous.

Morning People are ‘good’ people.

Then there are the ‘owls’, the Night People.

Night People are at best pale, unhealthy, and very probably lazy because they won’t get out of bed at a respectable hour.  They wear black, which is always a sign of being a bad lot, and suggestive of not being, well, quite clean, if you know what I mean.  They are un-productive good-for-nothings who waste the best of the day, the kind of people who leech off others more productive than themselves.  They are more likely to fall into drink and drugs, or even prostitution, because lets face it, those are the kinds of things that go on in the dark, aren’t they.  They are likely to be unreliable, promiscuous, even downright criminal.

(Can you hear the Calvinist shouting in the cultural background to this post?)

By now you will have realised what fascist, socially-controlling bollocks this all is. Neil Gaiman, for instance, is clearly not a Morning Person, yet has produced a vast body of work, including journalism, award-winning novels, screenplays and childrens books.  He has single-handedly revolutionised the comic/graphic novel artform with his Sandman books.

And he wrote ‘Good Omens‘ with Pratchett, which for my money is one of the best works of literature the human race has ever produced.  And I’m not kidding.  If you haven’t read it, do. Otherwise we can never be friends.

What he is not is a lazy, good-for-nothing parasite in a black leather jacket because he doesn’t get up before lunch.

I don’t do mornings either.  But I’ve written 7 novels and 107 published short stories and novellas.  And I don’t wear much black.

Almost every book about writing that I’ve ever read says you have to get up in the morning and write before you do anything else.  This is supposedly because you can access your immediately post-dream consciousness, which is where your imagination supposedly lives.  Supposedly.

I think its just because the Puritans said you had to get up early and work hard so you could go to Heaven when you die.

As I said, I can’t do Mornings, though I admit this is partly to do with my ME/CFS symptoms which are at their worst first thing.  It takes a couple of hours for the pain to wear out so I can crawl out of bed and get washed and dressed for the day.  It certainly is not the time when I am most connected to my imagination.

Since I was a kid, I’ve lain in bed at night, in the dark, and told myself stories.  To begin with it was about fear of the dark.  And I had nightmares, which didn’t help.  My mother got me a radio to play softly by my bed at night.  My stories acquired a soundtrack based on BBC Radio Two’s evening schedule: country music, folk, big band and musicals. By the age of five I had quite an education in jazz.  I also had the capacity to lie in the dark and tell myself ornate bedtime stories.

This is where the heart of my writing now lives.

I lie in the dark and listen to my husband fall asleep beside me.  And then I begin.  Great landscapes unroll before me.  Lewis is seduced by Hathaway.  Sherlock and John fight and make up.  Vikings battle for control of freezing fjords.  Medieval kings entice foreign princesses into loveless marriages made for political ends.  A policeman encounters a vampire on his nightly beat.  An angel pursues a demon in a car chase.  A woman stands on a cliff, looking out to sea, watching a flight of Wellington bombers fly overhead, on their way to bomb the Nazis into submission.

If I hit a good scene, I tell it to myself over and over again, sometimes night after night, until I am word perfect.  And then I write it down.

And that is where my ideas come from.  This is my writing rhythm. And I can’t deny it any longer.  I don’t fit into the cultural dichotomy of owls/larks.  For a long time I have fought to be something other than I am.  What I thought I SHOULD be.

These days I don’t care what Stephen King says about writing in the mornings.  It obviously works for him.  It just makes me ill.

Our creative life is embedded in our physical wellbeing.  Find out how your body works best, and go with that.  Slide writing into place within that routine.  And yes, if getting up at 6am to write before the kids wake, as Toni Morrison had to in order to write ‘Beloved’, works for you, then fine.  If you are a Morning Person, then fine.  Go with that.  Rejoice in it.  Write your fifteen chapters per day to the sound of the morning chorus.

Meanwhile, there are those of us whose Muse comes out to play at twilight.  Whose imagination only really kicks in when the darkness veils reality and allows us to overlay it with a new tapestry of being. Whose creativity slides into dreams, not out of them.  And thats okay.

I am proud to be one such.  Finally.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

The Friday Review No. 5: Practicing My Writing Practice

I’m writing this week’s review a day early, as we are about to take off on the annual canter around the country to visit relatives, which we seem to do every Easter and Christmas.  I’m usually feeling like screaming ‘Stop the world!  I want to get off!’ at this point, but perhaps I’ve finally accepted that RESISTANCE IS FUTILE, and its got to be done.

In response to the impending rupture in proceedings, I decided I was going to make the most of my last remaining free days for a while to get a bit more out of my writing practice.  I agreed with my writing coach, Heidi, that I would do it twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, because they were the days that I had most time and energy – because of my ME/CFS, I have to plan my activities to preserve my energy, and energy intensive activities like going to weekly health appointments have to take precedence over everything.  So I’ve been doing, or trying to do, two a week.

The thing is that when I do it, I find it so productive and enjoyable.  So I thought, why not take it seriously?  Why not try and do it every day?  Or rather, why not have yet more fun? (It’s a no-brainer when you put it like that, isn’t it?)

I’ve managed four consecutive days so far.  This is, I think, because I’m not putting pressure on myself.  I’m doing it to see what comes out.  And I’m discovering a lot.  For instance, the vicar in my novel has a sentimental attachment to a mangy old stuffed parrot which is kept on the table by the door in the Rectory.  The vicar’s wife, who I thought would be adversarial at most, and certainly peripheral, has turned into my heroine’s useful ally, and definitely cherishes a grief of her own.  And I’ve realised that I am deliberately avoiding getting into the mind of the heroine’s employer…. Now why would that be?

It’s all an intriguing puzzle, and I want to know more.  Like reading a detective story, and wanting to know the ending, I feel like this novel is hidden under my skin, entire, and all I have to do is uncover it.  And then the exciting denouement will be clear.

In another effort to entice my Muse out to play, I dragged out the writing notebook I’d started months ago.  It’s a nice notebook, lovely paper, but the cover is boring as hell, so it doesn’t seduce me into using it.  So I recovered it with some wrapping paper I had.  I think the transformation works quite well, don’t you?

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Before…

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…and after

So now I’m heading off into the wilds of No-easily-available-wifi-land, with my trusty notebook in hand, and a few half hours sketched into my schedule to do a bit of writing practice. Knowing Oxford, where I’m going, I shall snap a few pictures of sublime architecture and blossom-heavy trees along the way, so check out my Instagram account if such things amuse you.

Enjoy your Easter weekend, dear Reader, and may all your creating be fun,

EF

The Friday Review No. 4: Remembering Stillness and Forgetting Perfectionism

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Painting by Martin Battye FRSA, and my own inept reflection!

This week has been about catching my tail.

You know those moments where you come out of a period of frantic activity and realise that the house is a tip, and so is your head?  Suddenly you find yourself coming in to land in what you think is home, but which turns out to feel like a strangely alien place.

So I’ve been sitting still.  Listening to the birds outside the window.  Doing self-care things, like going to therapy appointments, meditating, remembering how to do the down dog asana (though in my, case, very badly), journaling, and indulging my muse.

I took myself off on an artist date.  Not to a gallery or the movies.  I went for an hour-long wallow at the library.  I love our library.  Its huge.  I always feel like I’m in a sweetie shop with an unlimited budget.  Sometimes I go in there, and I can’t see anything I want to bring home.  Other times, such as this one, there are so many books I want to take home and cuddle that I just can’t decide.  Well, you can only read so many words in the three week loan period, and I figure the ones I like will pop up again soon enough.  I came home with six, including two art books which I hope will help me to get drawing again.

The choice of art books was partly prompted by a dear friend, Martin Battye, painter and raconteur, Fellow of the Royal Academy and my husband’s cricket club.  He lent me a few of his old sketch books a while ago, as I wanted to write a blog post about his creative process, thinking his images might inspire you, dear reader, as much as they do me.  Then Life happened, and the sketchbooks stayed patiently waiting on my desk in a plastic carrier bag for the time when Life would get out of the way, and I would remember I had a blog!  This week, Martin needed his sketch books back, and I felt awful, of course, for neglecting my promise to him, and his kindness in lending me his treasure trove.  I looked through the pages and was once more dazzled by the obvious fact his work illustrates:

It’s a sketch book.  That means it is a work place.  A place to try things out.  You don’t have to get it perfect every time.  Or, as artist and illustrator Cliff Wright puts it so brilliantly:

‘Drawing is a great medium for experimentation because nothing is set in stone – you can always do another drawing if you don’t like the first one.’

Cliff Wright, The Magic of Drawing: Bring your Vision to Life on the Page, David & Charles Ltd 2008

This has been a revelation to me, a victim of perfectionism all my life.  Even as a kid, I struggled with the idea that I could make a mess and get it wrong and practice till I was happy with the end result.  Somewhere along the line, the idea of playing, and of practicing something to get the hang of it, got lost.  It had to be perfect first time.  Which is, I suppose, why I eventually stopped making art altogether.

Martin’s sketchbooks, the sketchbooks of a man I think of as a ‘proper’ artist, show that making rough sketches, making a mess, scrabbling about to find the right line, are what sketchbooks are all about.  Which makes it alright for me to do the same, somehow.

I’m grateful to Martin for his support and generosity in sharing his work with me, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of the precious images from his sketchbooks with you soon.  In the meantime I’m taking this crucial revelation about perfectionism into the coming days, hoping it will sink in permanently this time, and allow me to try stuff out, experiment, get it wrong.  Because that is how you learn.

Happy Creating,

EF