Category Archives: Choosing a project

Pivot Points

Let me tell you about the Marie Antoinette watch.

Its said to be the greatest watch ever made.

One day in 1783, an admirer of the French queen arrived at the workshop of Adam-Louis Breguet, the greatest watchmaker in Paris.  He wanted the perfect watch for the perfect woman.  His commission was to be without bounds.  Breguet was to pour everything he knew into making the most complex, and most beautiful timepiece possible.  Money was no object.

The watch became Breguet’s obsession.  Even after the French monarchy fell, Marie Antoinette was executed, and the lucrative business he had built from the commissions of the aristrocracy was in ruins, Breguet continued to craft his masterpiece.  Ultimately, it took forty years to complete, and had to be finished by Breguet’s son, four years after the master himself died.

Known officially as the Breguet No. 160 Grand Complication, the watch contained every function known at that time – Breguet even invented a few new ones.  It was crafted in precious metals and gems.  Breguet used sapphire for all the mechanical pivot points in the clockwork, in order reduce friction.

And its these sapphire pivot points that fascinate me.

Because I’m at a pivot point right now.

You will have noticed in recent months that this blog has become fairly, if not completely, dormant.  Life has, as it were, taken over.  There was no space to write.  No space in my life.  No space in my head.

Then, in September, on my birthday ironically, my mother-in-law died.  Her dementia had been filling up all the space in my brain and in my life.  Since she has been gone, I’ve begun to recollect not only who I am, but also all the activities that had been shelved and forgotten in order to look after her.  So many things I wanted in my life had fallen away, out of necessity.  And so many things now seemed irrelevant.

In the last few months, I know that I have changed not only profoundly but also irrevocably.  So much more has been happening than simply looking after my ailing elderly relative – things which are someone else’s story to tell.  And yet they, too, have had a hand in my transformation.  My life has been like a pack of cards, being shuffled by the Hand of (insert your favourite deity/scientific motivator here).

The day my mother-in-law died was a beautiful day.  The sun shone.  The sky was a perfect sapphire blue.  I stood outside the hospital foyer with a soft, warm wind on my face, and knew that I had reached one of Breguet’s pivots.  Wasn’t the sky exactly the right blue, after all?  And does not sapphire reduce friction?

The friction of life with Alzheimers is gone.  The cards that were thrown up into the air have fallen back down in a new order.  The things that seemed important then are irrelevant now, and vice versa.

Now the funeral is over, now the first shock of grief has passed, I find all I want to do is write.  I want to write something profound.  I want to write because I have changed.  I want to write something real.  Something hard.  Something pivotal.  My own sapphire pivot point.  So I am writing.  By hand in my journal.  In notebooks, longhand.  Using Natalie Goldberg’s wisdom as my map, I am steadily shuffling my way towards the light.

I hope I am making my own ‘Grand Complication’, out of the precious metals and gems of my own life.  I hope you will join me on my journey.  And I hope it won’t take me the forty years it took Breguet!

Happy Creating,

EF

The Muse with the Limp

Walking with my Muse

Walking with my Muse

My Muse is limping.

I’ve only just noticed. I think she has probably been hobbled her whole life. Or at least since my teens. Perhaps even since my childhood.

Since the moment when what other people thought became more important than what I thought.

I didn’t know until I looked at her. I didn’t know until I began to think seriously about her, about where we are going together, about what we want. I think most of all she wants to be set free of expectations.

Other people’s expectations.

Or rather, the way I constrain her by caring what other people think.

All the ‘how tos’ and ‘SHOULDs’ and ‘OUGHTs’. All the maxims and formulas. The schemata and diagrams and plot arcs and exhortations about what ‘The Market’ is looking for next.

Most of all, the Rules. You know the ones. About what is valuable. What is Serious. What is High Art. What is Literary.

I’m ashamed of the art I make. I’m ashamed of the fact that I write fanfiction. I’m ashamed that I write about sex. And about romance. Because romance is tacky and pink and very definitely NOT Literature.

(Never mind ‘Pride and Prejudice’ being a romance. Never mind ‘Jane Eyre’ being a romance. Never mind pretty much every great novel there has ever been having a love story at the centre of it, because this is what we do as human beings – we fall in love. Barbara Cartland made it cheap. Barbara Cartland has a lot to answer for. Or perhaps it wasn’t her fault. Just the fault of the patriarchal publishing industry which packages ‘women’s fiction in pink, tacky covers and gives it all the seriousness of maribou feathers, in order to keep us girls in our place. But I digress….)

One day I was walking along, enjoying the chilly afternoon sun, head in the clouds, and a revolutionary thought came to me:

I can do what I want.

I don’t have to listen to anybody else.

I don’t have to care what anybody else thinks.

I can do what I want.

I cannot tell you how extraordinary that thought was, coming to me not long after I had offered a story to a friend for feedback, only to have it be ripped apart (in a loving way, of course) and then to be told how to rewrite it – as she would have done. I should have known better, of course. The story wasn’t cooked yet. It was still in that wobbly, puddingy state when it hasn’t yet set. Not ready to be seen by anyone else, in other words.   And because I respect her opinion, because she is a SERIOUS writer, a Literary writer, I listened.

And my Muse has needed a wheelchair ever since.

(I note the use of the word SHOULD in that sentence earlier by the way. You see, I’m getting quite good at spotting them these days!)

But what would happen if I decided to disregard what THEY think. All those people out there whose opinion I value above my own?

What if I listened to my gut?

Medical scientists have discovered recently that there are more neurons, using more serotonin, in the human gut, than in the brain. That’s where the majority of your serotonin goes, in fact. That’s why we have what we call ‘gut feelings’.

Maybe I should listen to my gut. And give my poor, battered Muse a bit of physiotherapy. Perhaps I can set her free from all the OUGHTS and find out what she wants to do. Maybe we could have a bit of fun together, the first unrestrained fun we’ve had since I was writing Blakes 7 fanfics when I was about 8!

I’m not expecting to write the Great Novel that way. But perhaps I could just write MY novel.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to throw out all of my ‘How to Write’ books, so I can discover how I write.

Happy creating,

EF

Alice and the Nature of Fear

Jonothan Miller's BBC Alice in Wonderland, who looks decidedly vampirish!

Jonothan Miller’s BBC Alice in Wonderland, who looks decidedly vampirish!

At our Writers group last night, my friend, the poet Heidi Williamson, read a poem she has written, inspired by the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ books by Lewis Carroll. (It’s a great poem, but then you would expect nothing less from Heidi!) We had been discussing the books themselves, and our various responses to them were fascinating to me.

My mother wouldn’t let the Alice books into the house. She had been terrified by them as a child, when her mother had attempted to read them to her, much as I had been when my sister tried to read me ‘Great Expectations’ when I was small – the phantom of Magwich in the marshes put me off Dickens for more than twenty years!

As a result, I came to Alice relatively late, in my early teens. I ploughed through a copy from the school library that combined both ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’. It was a rather large tome, a bit like one of those novels adults read, so I was quite proud of having finished it. But to be frank, I didn’t really get it. It seemed horribly dated to a child who had grown up on the fantasies of Roald Dahl and the Goons. Mainly, it just didn’t make much sense to me.

Interestingly, each of the members of our group shared our memories of reading Alice as a child. One was not much bothered. One, an older lady, had loved it so much that her face lit up with the joy of childhood more than 60 years after she had first read it. It was still a delight to her to remember the feeling of identifying with Alice herself.

From Tumblr. A note written in blood?

From Tumblr. A note written in blood?

And one, like my mother, had been terrified. (Although, in truth, it was probably because the version she had contained the most sinister illustrations in a book intended for children that I have seen since my husband showed me his Victorian copy of ‘Struwwelpeter’!)

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear recently, in connection with my writing. I’m working on ideas for a new novel, trying to decide whether what I have is a ghost story, a horror story, or a work of supernatural romance – or something of each.

Our talk last night got me to thinking about the things that scare me. I have this theory that we all have one story in our childhood that scares us out of our wits, even into adulthood. For my mother and friend, it’s Alice. Even now, in her 80s, my mother shudders at the mention of it.

For me it was ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ which I saw as a TV cartoon in the early 1970s. The terror of the Headless Horseman has stayed with me ever since. Like every child I was scared of Dr Who, and I had nightmares about Dracula and Frankenstein (thankfully seeing Mel Brooks’ ‘Young Frankenstein’ sorted that out!), but it was Ichabod Crane’s encounter with darkness that filled me with wordless dread.

I had to read Washington Irving for my degree, and I made myself read the original text of ‘Sleepy Hollow’. I was scared. I could only read it in daylight. But I finished it, and that helped.

Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman in 'Sleepy Hollow' (Burton, 1999).

Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman in ‘Sleepy Hollow’ (Burton, 1999).

Years later, and certainly years after it was released in cinemas, I finally watched ‘Sleepy Hollow’, Tim Burton’s version. It was the exposition in that film that healed. The atmosphere Burton so superbly conjured up added to my terror, but in the end, finding out the ‘why’ of the Horseman’s predicament somehow took the sting out of the tale.

Because it is the not knowing that creates the fear.

When Lockwood hears the tapping of ghostly fingers on his window pane in the opening scenes of ‘Wuthering Heights’, it is not knowing what is making the noise, or who the ghost is, and why she is knocking, that is terrifying.

In the film, ‘The Haunting’ (the old version of course), it is the evil we can’t see, the unseen entity that makes the booming noises, that holds a girl’s hand in the darkness, that is so terrifying.

And the Master of them all, M.R. James, knew that what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do. His greatest ghosts and demons are faceless entities, the shifting surface of a bedsheet, the shadow on the staircase.

We fear the myriad possibilities of our imaginations. There is nothing in the real world, even created by Hollywood, which can match up to the nameless dread of our own minds’ creativity, of Not Knowing which monstrous solution is behind the curtain.

Looking back, I can see that my fear of the Headless Horseman was about Not Knowing. As was my conviction that Dracula might emerge from behind the cupboard door of my bedroom. It was that place of unknown dark potential that scared me. And in the end all good ghost stories and horror stories are actually detective stories, in which the hero or heroine sets out to discover what is behind the supernatural phenomenon he or she encounters – ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’  by Hammer anybody? (Now that one really scared me!)

So my challenge with my new work is to explore that potential of the Unknown – and perhaps the Unknowable, and see where it will take me. I need to get inside my hero’s mind, and look at all the potential horrors he can create in his head, and see which would terrify him the most. It’s a tall order, but I reckon I can probably refer back to the shudders induced by Alice and Ichabod to guide me.

After all, what’s the worst that can happen…

Happy Creating,

EF

Deep Breath

The view from my bedroom window.

The view from my bedroom window.

Samhain is past, and we are well into the Mourning Moon, a time of releasing the old, and accepting our own power. Here in rural South Norfolk, we’ve had soggy and unseasonably mild weather, which has lately meant long days of grey skies and continual downpours. The last of the trees to shed their leaves, the oaks, have begun their brown weeping. The landscape is smudged khaki and brown and yellow, the edges blurred by autumn mists.
A fortnight has passed since my last post, a space during which I have been trying to recover a little of my strength, and some of my thinking capacity. The first week was one of complete surrender. After it, I felt more rested than I had in a whole year, I think.
The second was more tense, punctuated by a day-long dash to Oxford and back, to take the elders to the doctors for important assessment and treatment. Seven hours in a car, split in half by four hours of pushing a wheelchair and repeating myself every ten minutes, was enough to exhaust almost all the good will my body and I had built up between us. Since then I have been lost in a hormonal, anxiety-ridden mist, feeling OUGHTS and SHOULDS mounting up like an impending avalanche over my head. Add to that the impending doom of the Christmas season, and life-changing news from several friends, and I’m not sure I’ve come out of this much recharged.
Let’s just say, this has been a time of reassessment and reflection.
While I have come a long way in my year of ‘DARE’, I’m not sure that I can face another action word year. After ‘REVOLUTIONARY’ (2013) and ‘DARE’ (2014), I’ve attracted way too much change into my life for comfort, and I think I need a rest, thank you, Mrs Universe. I’ve decided that next year, I need a gentler world to ease my way. ‘BALANCE’ or ‘NURTURE’, perhaps. Or even just ‘EASE’. A reminder to be kinder with myself, something that, like most women, I find difficult to allow myself to do.
Tectonic shifts are happening in my creative life too. The relief I felt at giving myself a rest from blogging caused a delicious upsurge in other creative outlets. I immediately went off and made the back door curtain I’d been meaning to sew for the last six years. I’ve been hand-quilting a Christmas stocking for my guide-daughter too, which is enormously satisfying. I hope I manage to get it finished in time. Being able to sew again feels fantastic, although I had a few scary moments trying to remember how to thread my sewing machine!
I’ve decided I need to be using my journaling practise in a much more systematic way, too. I want to try a lot more guided journaling, by which I mean journaling from prompts rather than the simple stream-of-consciousness method I have always used. I’m feeling the need for more deep self-exploration, and I want to use my creativity as an integral part of the work I do with my Gestalt counsellor on a weekly basis to effect this.
I haven’t stopped writing, in the meantime, even though I haven’t been blogging. I’ve got two big fanfics on the go at the moment, great sprawling things that seem to be growing every time I look at them. My head is full of scenes stored up to be written out. That’s not a brilliant way of writing, especially when my head is so blurry. The other day, I sat down to write a scene, only to realise that of the two emotional points I wanted the characters to thrash out, I could only remember one.
A bit not good.
The result was some serious re-evaluation of my notebooking habits, which I still haven’t resolved, but hope to share with you soon.
As well as putting some conscious intention into my reading habits, I’ve been contemplating a new original writing project too. In the wake of the In/Famous Engagement, and the storm that followed it, I came to the conclusion that I needed to get away from fanfiction. And yes, I know I’ve been saying this for ages, but sometimes it takes a big event to push us to make real changes. So much is shifting in my life right now, and I want to move on to something fresh. I don’t think I’m going to be able to give up writing fanfics, nor do I honestly want to, but there is an idea knocking at my door, scratching at the wood like the ghost of Cathy in ‘Wuthering Heights’, and it won’t go away. As I used to say to my school friends:

‘I think I’ve got a story coming on’.

And finally, I’ve got some ideas for non-fiction that I want to have a go at. I think the phrase is ‘watch this space’.
Thank you, dear readers, for sticking with me through this break, and throughout this bumpy year. While I know it is only going to get bumpier for a while, I’m grateful that you are with me, listening to my ramblings. It is good to know I’m not shouting into the unresponsive darkness.
Happy creating,
EF

Choosing the Next Thing

go away bagI came back from Scotland with a marked desire to embark on a big project.  I suppose this isn’t something new, but is a desire I have been nurturing for a while.  It represents the need to get away from writing what are essentially someone else’s characters, and write my own.

I need something to get my teeth into, a full length novel to help me get my confidence in my ability to actually write something BIG back.  Its been a long time since I finished anything substantial in terms of original work, and I need this.

I was reading this article by justine Musk, in which she talks about some writing advice she was given by a teacher:

“Will writing this book change your life?” the teacher asked me. “If the answer is no, then that’s not your real baby.”

If we write our own psychodramas, if we write our way to self=knowledge, then I need something that reflects the place where I am in my life at the moment.  A novel that parallels my own journey.

I sat down with my notebook and wrote about the four projects I could choose from:  two Victorian novels, one Evenlode book, and one fantasy story.  Then I picked one of the Victorian novels and tried to write a little bit in the voice of the protagonist, mainly because I am struggling with making her a three-dimensional character, which is what has stymied progress so far.  And suddenly, everything made sense.

This novel is about being who you truly, authentically are.

And that is exactly where I am in life.  I am trying to own and be who I really am.

So in order to make the protagonist realistic, all I have to do is write her as me.  My voice, my problem, my reactions and interests.  Its not the way you are supposed to write a character, but it is a way into creating her in a believable way.  This way I can explore her voice and see the story from her point of view.  This pretty much buggers up everything I’ve previously written for this project, because its all third person, and varies the voices through each of the three main characters.  But that approach didn’t gel, which is why it didn’t get any further.  Now maybe I can find a way in.

And then all I have to do is to stick with it until its done.

I have no idea whether this will work.  Maybe this time next year I will have completed another Evenlode novel instead.  You never know.  What I don’t want is to still have four unfinished works in the pipeline by then.  I need to finish something.  So I’m going to ride this wild donkey side saddle, and see where it takes me.

Wish me luck,

Happy Creating,

EF.

 

 

Inspiration Monday: In Utero

(And just in case you are wondering, I am not pregnant.)

“I’ve got a story coming on.”

This is what I generally say when Husband asks me why I’m being so grumpy and uncommunicative.  Its the time when I am lost in ideas, fermenting, cogitating, incubating.

This is sometimes not an easy time for the person or people who share your life.  They may feel like you are being deliberately distant.  Its always worth explaining that you still love them and want to be with them.  If you have to go away inside your head, it is because your Muse is kidnapping your brain.  Reassure those you love that you will be back with them soon, and its nothing personal.

This is also a time to be compassionate towards yourself.  If you are absorbed in your new project, you may have new ideas flooding your skull every which way.  It can be exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting.  Remember to take a breather if you can.  It will help the details to accumulate in your head in the meantime.

If you are suffering from the ideas overload that sometimes comes with a new project, when you are overwhelmed with all the brilliant concepts for other things you could be doing as well, write them down.  Write everything down.  You can always come back to them, but at least you will have a record of them when the deluge ends and the drought sets in.

You might be so excited by your new idea that you want to get started right away, like, yesterday.  Well, maybe.  But don’t jump the gun.  Give yourself some time to think things through.  Make lots of notes – this is what your writing notebook (or journal or sketchbook) is for.

Be thorough.  Take notes verbatim from  your Muse.  Don’t rest on your laurels at 3am and convince yourself that you are going to remember that brilliant flash of inspiration, because chances are, come breakfast time, the little sucker will have sneaked off into infinity, and you will spend the next week banging your head against the wall, trying to remember exactly what it was that was so bloody good that you thought you’d undoubtedly remember it.  (This is especially important as you get older, believe me, so its a good habit to start NOW.)

It can be worth exploring around your idea too, digging around in the associated issues, examining messages linked to what your story or painting will say.  But don’t get side-tracked by research at this stage.  This is a pit with spikes at the bottom, and I for one always seem to end up falling into it.  The problem with the pit of spikes (research) is that:

a) You can lose touch with the original idea and its uniqueness to you.  I was once on a writing course with a man who was fascinated by the concept of how ‘shell shock’ was dealt with in the First World War.  He had done so much research into it that there wasn’t a thing he didn’t know.  The trouble was that all the research had led him to the conclusion that the novel he had to write was pretty much a re-run of Pat Barker’s peerless ‘Restoration’, and why rewrite a novel that has already been written far better than you ever could?

b) You can get side-tracked BIG TIME.  I got so lost in researching my first novel, which was set in the Iron Age, that it took me seven years to write the first draft.  By the end, I was so exhausted, I couldn’t face editing it, so I gave up, and it now sits in a folder on the shelf, seven years of work gathering dust.

Allow your idea to emerge without influence, or at least without any influence that isn’t already within you.

One final tip I would add is: don’t share yet.  Not even with your Significant Other.  Give yourself time to polish the corners off and get things into some semblance of order.  Honour yourself and your project with private time, in utero, so to speak.  No one else can share the link between a mother and her baby while it is in the womb, no matter how much tummy rubbing and singing to the bump takes place.  You are feeding your project baby through an umbilical cord that runs solely between you and it.  Take as much time as you need to nourish and birth it.   You will know when is the right time to bring your baby out into the light.

Happy Creating,

EF

Clear the Decks

If you listen to the elderly, you always find wisdom.  One of the things I learnt this weekend was from my husband’s aunt, who was in her day a deeply respected midwife.  (She delivered Roald Dahl’s children, as well as tennis player Tim Henman.)  She is a very tidy person, and when I asked her about this, she told me that part of her nursing training emphasised the importance of starting with a clear surface at all times, whatever you were doing.  So she tidies up after herself obsessively, even now, when she is so disabled that she can barely move.

I took this idea away with me.  It occurred to me that one of the things I love most about going on a writers’ retreat is arriving in a room with an empty desk, uncluttered, a space to work.  It inspires me hugely.  Obviously, Auntie’s edict on clearing the decks is an excellent one.  It’s not rocket science, either, to make space for your creativity.

But.

And this is a big but.

I went into my study this morning and this is what I saw.

The shelves as you come into the room.  Total dump.

The shelves as you come into the room. Total dump.

My study is the only place we can dry laundry in the winter months.

My study is the only place we can dry laundry in the winter months.

The current state of my desk, complete with pile of unopened post.

The current state of my desk, complete with pile of unopened post.

A bit not good, as Sherlock and John would say.

What does this space say about how I prioritise myself and my creativity?  I think it shows how little I value myself and what I do.  How can I do my best work in this mess?

I long for a clear space in which to work, but this is what I’ve got.  No one but me is responsible for this chaos.  Okay, yes, Husband tends to keep his study clear by dumping stuff in mine, but I let him do that.  I allow these heaps of junk to build up, blocking the energy, my energy.  And after all, who would want to work in this mess?

So I think it is time for another push on making my study work.  I’ve done this before, as you know.  But really, how much have I invested in that process?  I always find an excuse.  I’m always too tired to make it a priority, or too busy.  I can always work downstairs on the sofa, and I usually do.  But then I have to go running up and down to get what I need.  Meanwhile, Husband has a lovely study that is a dedicated space for his business, which is tidy and organised, and which he loves.

If he can have it, so can I.

Its time to clear the decks.

Happy Creating,

EF