Category Archives: fiction

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. 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 Things They Hoarded

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One of my late mother-in-law’s favourite possessions!

Going through my late mother-in-law’s closets in recent days gave me much pause for thought about how well I knew her.  Tim O’Brien’s book, ‘The Things They Carried’ famously uses the idea that we carry with us objects that reflect our characters, our history, our hopes and dreams.  How, I wondered, could this be translated into the mountains of old clothes and shoes, the drawers full of old greetings cards and unopened, unused presents, that we were now faced with?

The hoarding behaviour caused by dementia somewhat warps this connection, although I suppose you could say that their choice of hoarded objects still shows the intrinsic nature of the person’s character, as well as the level of their decline:

I shall never forget pulling back the bedclothes one night to find that my mother-in-law had secreted no less than 17 copies of the Oxford Mail under my duvet, reflective not only of her passionate connection with her home town, but also her paranoid and fierce determination to defy her elder sister, with whom she lived, and who insisted she throw the papers away!

Three things in particular made me wonder about who this woman was, and showed me the complexity of her personality:

The Climbers

This first item stopped even her children in their tracks!  It was a shard of stone, slate perhaps, about two feet tall, and welded to an iron base.  Onto it were stuck three little figures.  They had once been those plastic WW2 toy soldiers, the kind that we played with as kids in the 70s.  These were the crawling sniper kind, posed to lie on their bellies, arms above their heads told hold their rifles, one knee crooked to steady the body.  With the gun trimmed away, and their clothing and faces painted brightly, even down to the helmets daubed with bright orange, they had been stuck to the side of the stone at different stages up the rock.  Sewing thread delicately strung between the figures stood in for climbing rope.  It was a DIY representation of men climbing a Welsh cliff face, and I know it was Welsh because the base wore a sticker from a rural art gallery in Mid Wales.

Now, I should point out that neither my mother-in-law, nor her sister, nor anyone else in the family that I know of, ever went on a climbing expedition, nor had any interest in doing so.  I’m not even sure that my mother-in-law ever visited Wales.  I cannot for the life of me work out why she would have owned such a thing, or how she could have acquired it.  Or what she planned to do with it, having done so.  It is clearly old, probably some thirty years or so, so significantly predates the Alzheimers.  Quite apart from the fact that it is truly hideous, despite the ingenuity of its maker, why would you want such a thing?  And what would you do with it?

Billy Bass

If you lived in the UK in the mid 1990s, you will remember Billy Bass because every gift shop sold them.  He consists of a ‘wooden’ plaque, on which is mounted a plastic fish.  When you press the button on the bottom, and if you’ve put the batteries in the right way around, the fish will flap its head and tail, open its mouth, and sing a crackly tune.  Don’t ask me what the song is, I can’t remember – clearly, my mind has blocked it out!  But my mother-in-law loved it.  She would carry it around the house with her, playing it, coming up behind your back and setting it off suddenly to make you jump, bringing it out at every social occasion.  It was the epitome of her completely silly sense of humour, an object that perfectly described her character, and finding it brought back so many memories of happier times.

The Christening Gowns

Buried deep amongst worn out sweaters and cardigans at the bottom of a drawer, my sister-in-law and I came across something deeply poignant, something we never thought we’d find.  A handmade Edwardian christening gown, beautifully decorated with drawn-threadwork and bobbin lace.  With it was a matching undergarment, sleeveless, with the same long, lace-edged skirts.  The gown itself had long bell sleeves edged with the most delicate lace.  Both were made in the finest cotton lawn, carefully washed and pressed.  And with them, a cream silk christening coat (for want of a better word – I have to confess I’ve never seen a garment like it), with a ruffled collar and yoke, frills on the little cuffs, and a deep frill around the bottom hem.  The silk is so soft, and of such a high quality, that it slithers through your fingers like water.

We can only assume that the cotton garments were the ones in which my husband and his brother were christened.  Family heirlooms no doubt.  They certainly look very similar to the one christening photo we’ve managed to find.  But not the silk one.  We don’t know where that comes from.

My mother-in-law never had grandchildren.  I was too ill, and my sister-in-law was the successful headteacher of a string of large secondary schools in London, and had enough kids at work to satisfy any mothering instinct she might have harboured.

Which begs the question…

Were these items bought or kept from the long held and never fulfilled desire for grandchildren?  If she harboured such feelings, my mother-in-law never spoke of them.  She never pressured us.  But I found it deeply sad to find these little whispers of ‘what might have been’ treasured amongst her belongings.

Character

These three items – the one that described her perfectly, the one that showed a deeply buried longing, and the one that seems so disconnected from who she was – say something significant about who my mother-in-law was.  Something the mound of nearly 400 garments we went through could not.  Each demonstrates an aspect of the life she lived and loved, where she lived that life, and the family and friends amongst whom she dwelt.

This seems a significant lesson for a writer, especially for me, as a writer working at the moment on improving depth in my characters. So here is a little exercise for you to have fun with, inspired by my dear mother-in-law:

Writing Exercise:

Choose a character.

Then choose three items they own.

One should be something that perfectly describes an aspect of their personality, an object that perfectly expresses who they are. (Billy Bass)

One should be something which they might hide away, which represents for them a secretly cherished longing. (The christening gowns.)  What is their dream?  Why must they hide it?

And one should be the complete antithesis of everything you know about them.  (The Climbers.)  Why do they own it?  How did it come into their possession?  What did they do with it?

Write about your character through each of these three objects.

Happy Creating,

EF

Reading Reboot Part 2: The ‘How To’ Bit

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Some books here are waiting to be read.

In my last post about reading, I left you at the point of the story where I had resolved to start reading fiction again, but was at something of a loss as to how to re-establish the habit.

This is the good part.  The bit where I tell you what I did, so that you can do it too:

Choose a regular time of day

One of the tips I came across in starting my reading reboot was the idea that in establishing any habit, it helps to have a trigger, a specific time of day, perhaps, which you come to associate with that particular activity. I thought about my mother, who always sat down at 10.30am for a cup of coffee and the Telegraph crossword, and after her lunch at 12noon, she always had half an hour or so special ‘me time’ for reading.  It’s a routine she didn’t deviate from for more than 40 years, and in that time she must have read hundreds of books.

Most people read at night.  I find that helpful as, like many ME patients, I have a tendency to insomnia, so reading at bedtime helps me to wind down.  (NEVER read on your phone, tablet or laptop, however, since the LED display has been proven disrupt the melatonin levels in your brain, making you more awake, rather than less.

You can find the scientific proof, if you are sceptical, here.

Choose a time of day that you can set aside 15-30 minutes of pure reading time, in your lunch hour, on the bus, whenever that most suits your lifestyle, and do it every day.

Block out a chunk of time

I find I really enjoy getting totally immersed in a book, and often, if its one I’m completely absorbed in, I like a big chunk of time to really get to grips.  Sunday afternoons are great for this, but I don’t have kids, so this may not work for you.  Evenings are great, especially when your partner goes for a night out with their mates.  I make an occasion of it, indulgently laying in good chocolate, lighting candles, and maybe even playing soft music in the background.

Grab a moment

I always carry a book with me.  I hate to be bored, and any time of the day when I am on my own, perhaps waiting in a queue, on public transport, or grabbing lunch at a coffee shop, is perfect for packing in the next chapter.

Make a list

When I was at college, and, we were given reading lists.  A series of texts to wade through.  Doing my diploma, I wrote my reading list on a slip of card which I used as a book mark.  I drew a line through every book I finished on the list, and went on to the next one.  Every time I opened my book, I was presented with tangible evidence of what I had achieved, which spurred me on to read more.

This time around I generated my own list.  I happened to have a shelf full of books that I had bought but that remained unread.  You know, the ones you get when there is a ‘buy one- get one free’ on summer holiday books in Waterstones, and you read one when you are away, and the rest get forgotten.  I made a list of all the unread books I had lying around, and started on them.

Another way you could do it is to visit a bookshop with a notebook and wander round, noting down the books you fancy reading, the ones that attract and intrigue you.

Perhaps you’d like to read on a theme.  There are books which will help you with this, like ‘The Novel Cure’.

Many books on writing contain lists of recommended novels that you could work your way through – there is a fantastic one in Francine Prose’s wonderful ‘Reading Like a Writer’. (This is a book you really need to read, by the way.)

Or you could just wander around your local library, pick out a few novels from their displays, or ask a librarian or bookseller for their recommendations.  And charity shops are great for plucking out a few juicy reads at affordable prices to add to your stash.

Once you have your list, don’t forget to tick off each book as you finish it.  I like to score a line right through each title.  It gives me huge satisfaction, and gets me revved up for more.

Stay Faithful – Read to the end

I’m such a butterfly.  I have a very short attention span and I’m well-known for getting bored with a book a couple of chapters in, putting it down ‘for the moment’ and never finishing it.  I’ll end up with about 17 books on the go, and often have to restart books because I’ve forgotten the story so far.

I have found recently that I do have to resist this temptation.  If another title attracts me when I’m half way through my current novel, I now make myself plough on, with the reward of the new one in my sights.  My intention is to use my voracious butterfly instinct to flit onwards as a means to spur me on to completion.  I won’t let myself open the next title until I’ve finished the first.  Sometimes I hate it, but it always feels so great when I get to the end of a book that I don’t care.

Don’t be afraid to dump it

On the other hand … yes, I am about to contradict myself.  Sometimes there is a book that you start, and no matter how much you try, you just can’t get on with it.  Something, or everything, about it grates.

For years, people had been telling me to read ‘The Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen.  It has been sitting on my shelf, staring at me balefully in reproach.  I’ve tried.  God knows, I’ve tried.  So many times.  But I just can’t like this book, and I just can’t read it.  So I have given myself permission to let it go.  I’m never going to finish it, so what is the point in keeping it.  It made its path to the charity shop, along with Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’, another book that made me want to spit bullets, and that I have tried to read half a dozen times without success.

Sometimes, it is best to know when you are beaten, and retreat gracefully.  Life is too short to waste precious reading time on books you downright hate.

Give up the Telly (At least some of the time)

Where am I going to get all this time, you may be asking?  I discovered, when I began to really get back into reading, that I had been watching a whole lot of television.  Reruns of old detective shows, documentaries I had seen before, pap that was not feeding my soul or my Muse.  It was just filling my time.  I discovered it was far more fun to switch off the gogglebox and dive into a book.  The pictures were better in my imagination, for starters!

Yes, I know it sounds impossible, but think about it.  How long do you spend staring at the TV or getting lost on the internet, looking that things that really are not exciting or entertaining you, but just occupying your eyeballs.  Just think how much more fun a good book could be.

Commitment not Discipline

Your reading list is NOT another stick to beat yourself with, another SHOULD to add to your already bulging list.  If you don’t get chance to read today, don’t tell yourself you lack discipline.  Frankly I think discipline is an evil word, used to oppress, manipulate and shame people everywhere.  Its not down to having enough discipline.  Its actually down to whether you want to do something enough or not.  And if you really want to do it, you will. So what if you didn’t have chance to read today because the baby was running a temperature, or the boiler broke down?  Commit to reading tomorrow.  Reading is for your pleasure, after all.

Congratulate Yourself

I have a list of ‘Books Read in 2017’ in my bullet journal.  When I finish a book, I write it down on my list there, as well as scoring it out on my bookmark.  It is a way of congratulating myself.  When I get to the end of the year, and look back at my list, I know I will be so proud of how much I’ve achieved, because I’ll have a concrete record of it.

There’s another thing I do.  Maybe its not so sensible, but when I finish a book, I like to treat myself.  I’ll take myself to the local café for a nice cake.  Buy myself a new lipstick or nail varnish.  A new notebook or a nice pen.  Nothing too big.  Just a little treat to say ‘well done.’  Because, let’s face it, you put a lot of hours and concentration into finishing a 300-page novel.  You deserve a pat on the back!

 

Of course, volume is not everything.  At the moment I am re-establishing the habit of reading, and the issue of what I read, and how it impacts on my writing is something for the future.  I may go back to keeping a reading notebook, as I have in previous years.  No doubt there will be future posts on the subject.  But in the meantime, I hope that something here will help you to get back into the habit of reading, if you have dropped out of it, and if not, that you can discover something new to enhance your enjoyment.

Happy Reading – and Creating,

Love EF

Reading Reboot Part 1

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Shelfie!

As part of my creative recovery journey, I’ve been trying to get back into reading.  Stephen King says firmly that:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

(Stephen King, On Writing)

What the Great Man says has to be right, yeah?  So, if I want to write again, I need to resume reading.

I have to confess that in recent years, while I’ve been in dementia-survival mode, I’ve been reading for the purposes of distraction or survival.  Which means I’ve either been reading comforting, funny novels, most of which I’ve read before i.e. Terry Pratchett, or self-help. Or an awful lot (and I mean an awful lot) of fanfiction!  Now, as I emerge from the dark shadow, I need to remember what the hell a novel actually looks and feels like.

In working this out, I thought it might be useful to consider my history as a reader.  I have to admit that since I learnt to read as a child, I have been a complete addict.  I was the kid that had read the back of the cornflakes packet so often, I knew it by heart.  I devoured books.  I spent so much time lying on my bed reading that the neighbours believed my mother locked me in my room rather than allowed me out to play!  But I didn’t want to go out to play. I wanted to read Monica Dickens, and Enid Blyton’s ‘Mallory Towers’ and ‘St Clares’ books. I adored Tove Jansson.

My parents encouraged me.  My mother was a voracious reader who introduced me to Jane Austen and the Brontes.  My father read to me most nights when he got home from work, and if he was travelling for his job, which he did often, he recorded episodes on an old cassette tape player for me to listen to every night – oh, how I wish I still had those episodes of him reading ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and doing all the voices!

So it was not surprising that I wanted to do an English degree for the sheer pleasure of spending three years reading.  There I discovered Virginia Woolf and Hemingway.

In my twenties, as I recovered from the rigours of academic analysis of texts, I was introduced to Terry Pratchett, whose common sense wisdom and humour left me in a kind of ecstatic daze.  I read Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel, Garrison Keillor and Laurence Durrell.  And then I discovered Alice Hoffman’s early works, and was dazzled.  This was what writing should be, I thought.

In my thirties, powered by the reading list I received as part of my Diploma in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, I ventured into new territories.  Margaret Atwood, Helen Dunmore, Pat Barker, Iain Banks, Tracy Chevalier, and Michael Cunningham all delighted me.

But eventually, my illness caught up with me.  ME/CFS has created neurological symptoms for me that have caused me trouble with my language skills.  For a long time, I struggled to read at all.  Words jumped all over the pages.  I couldn’t remember what the start of a sentence was when I got to the end of it.  I would stare at the words for hours, recognising the shapes, knowing I ought to know what they meant, but unable to grope for the meanings.  The occupation that had once been a joy to me became misery.  No longer able to concentrate, my fiction reading fell away.  I fought on, but tended to concentrate on history, and more self-help books, because I could read them in short bursts.  Later, I began a slow recovery, and I read fanfiction because it was easy.

Clearing my late mother-in-law’s home since her death in September has reminded me of how much joy we shared in our reading.  She too was fascinated by books, and we often swapped volumes.  I remember going with her to see P.D. James, Colin Dexter and Alan Bennett speak.  Alzheimers sadly robbed her of the ability to read early on, but she was still passionate about buying books right up until her death, even though she didn’t know what to do with them anymore.  In sorting through her belongings, we have been faced with a gargantuan mountain of much loved volumes she treasured, a monument to a life spent reading for the sheer joy of it.

It was one of her final gifts to me that boxes of dusty Agatha Christie, Ngiao Marsh and Margery Allingham volumes reminded me that reading was something I also loved.  I will forever be grateful that she has given me back the delight in novels that I had forgotten.  I plucked a couple of C.J Sansom books out of her stash and waded in.

And it was wonderful.

So I set the intention to resume reading fiction.

Voraciously.

Does any of this feel familiar to you?  Could you tell your own story of a reading life somewhat derailed by life?  Do you remember a time when you consumed books like other people get through teabags, when nothing made you happier than to get to the end of a doorstop-sized novel, having lived it every step of the way?  Are those days long gone for you now?

In the next post, I will tell you how I managed to reinstate good reading habits, so that you can do it too if, like me.

Happy Creating – and Reading!

Love EF