Category Archives: Notebook

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 Clunky Stage

writing notebookThe clunky stage.

If you write, you’ll know what I mean.

If you write on a daily basis, its those first ten minutes during which your brain feels like no one has oiled the cogs for ten years, and your pen feels like the nib is dragging through molasses.

If you haven’t written for a while, it feels like performing an appendectomy on yourself.

Hemingway was not kidding when he said:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Yesterday I sat down to write a new story.

I haven’t written in a while.  I don’t really get on with doing writing exercises much, although I know I SHOULD.  And at the moment I am experimenting with a new journalling practice called Deep Soul Writing, (of which more later) which is proving to be an interesting, but demanding, experience.  So my creative writing has been rather rare.

Nevertheless, I still have stories rattling around in my brain.  I always do.  So last night I thought I would start writing one down.  Free up some brain space.  Like you do.

Cue: wading through concrete.

How did this get so hard?

I’ve written seven novels, and dozens of fanfics.  How did I get this rusty this quick?

Nothing brings home the importance of daily practice, whether you are a pianist doing your scales, an artist doing your warm up sketches, or a writer doing – dare I say it – writing exercises, like coming back to your artform after a break and finding:

OH MY GODS THIS IS SO HARD!!!

My husband complains of feeling stiff and awkward if he misses even one of his twice-weekly body pump gym classes.  And now I know how he feels, because man! am I stiff!

But, as the old adage says, the only way out is through.

So I will suspend judgement on what I am scrawling because I know that while it may be as fluid as a fence post, at least I am on my way.  Sooner or later, things will loosen up, get more limber.  The adjectives will start replacing the cliches.  The dialogue will start to sound like it is coming out of real people’s mouths instead of cardboard cut-outs.  The metaphors will start to gang up on me.  The language will take on the richness of one of Queen Elizabeth I’s gowns.

Then, and only then, will I really get down to business.

But I have to write my way through the shit first.

So, like every marathon runner, I will set out in hope.  I will do my stretches, and thud through the first few miles until the muscles have warmed up and the movement starts to flow again.

Because even when its like bleeding into the keyboard, my soul is dancing, and I know, really know, that this is what I was meant for.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Tale of the Soapy Otters

The view from my pillow

The view from my pillow. Sorry its a bit blurry, but that’s how I feel right now.

This is my life right now.

Lying in bed, sleeping, reading, writing, staring out of the window, watching the clouds, listening to the wind.

I’ve had a real health crash.  I’m back to the ‘having to sit down to brush my teeth and wash my face’ stage.  The ‘having to go back to bed after my shower because thats all the energy gone for the day’ stage.  The ‘oh, shit, how the hell did I get this bad again?’ stage.

Today, I’m regarding myself as lucky.  My brain has picked up again, so I am able to read once more, but to start with it was impossible to take anything much in.  There was that horrible feeling of staring at the page and knowing that the letters and words so familiar to me were completely unintelligible, that even if I could understand them, they wouldn’t stay in my mind long enough for me to make sense of the author’s ideas.  Words become like soapy otters on days like this.  You’ve no hope of catching them.

That’s the hardest thing for me to handle about this illness, I think.  The soapy otters. 

Because I am a reading addict.  I was the kid that read the back of the cornflake packet at breakfast every day (even the list of vitamins) three or four times, just to keep myself entertained.  As an adult, I need to have something to read continually with me, or I get twitchy.

And if I am not reading, I am writing.

Being deprived of this capacity on however temporary basis is agony.  I feel lucky that it doesn’t happen too often anymore, because when I was first ill, some 17 years ago (Gods!  Is it that long?) it was pretty consistent for months. I couldn’t even listen to the radio because the sound hurt my ears, and I couldn’t understand what was being said anyway.

I’m grateful to be better, believe me.

Not least because the soapy otters are harbingers of major changes.

They herald a time when I am forced to lie down and face my thoughts.  They offer me a time to rest and recuperate, but also to realign.  My body may be rusting like that of the Tin Man, but my soul is in hyper space.  Things are shifting.

Soul shifts seem to come in spurts for me.  Nothing for a long time, and then everything all at once.  Maybe that’s why I am so exhausted.

My diary has taken a hammering since I’ve been able to write again.  Pages and pages.  So has my writing notebook.  And that big notebook you can see in the picture?  That’s my wellbeing workbook.  That is where I write down what my body needs, what my heart and soul need too.  My diary is for my thoughts and feelings.  My workbook is for my vision and planning.  For working things out.  It is my wellbeing memory.  And yes, I like to use brightly coloured pens in that one, not just to draw attention to certain paragraphs and concepts, but because I like them.  They make me happy.  Yay for Papermate Flair pens, I say!

You’ll notice there is another notebook in the picture, too, a black one.  That’s my current writing notebook.  And yesterday, I actually was able to write something in it.  A scene from a story.  I felt so proud of myself.

And when I have exhausted my Bloglovin’ feed, I’ve got books, though they are a bit more resistant to my brain at the moment.  I don’t know why I find the written page harder to understand at times like this.  The electronic one is definitely less ottery.

At the moment I am rejoicing in Danielle LaPorte’s wonderful ‘The Desire Map: a guide to creating goals with soul’, a title which is a bit of a misnomer because actually its about core desired feelings which really hits the spot.  I’m a person who finds it hard to connect with feelings, so using them as a life compass is a huge and thrilling idea to me.

The other book is  Tami Lynn Kent’s ‘Wild Feminine:  Finding Power, Spirit and Joy in the Female Body’, which is feeling more like hard work, but I think that may because I am so resistant to the material.  One of my intentions this year is to connect more to my womanness, and thats why I am reading this one.  I think its going to cause a revolution.  I’ll let you know how I get on with it.

And now, after writing all that, I’m exhausted again.  Sorry, I had better wrap up.  I just wanted to share with you where I am, the good and the bad.  And on the whole, while it is an uncomfortable and frustrating place to be, I find that actually I am deeply grateful for it.

But before I go I want to leave you with an unbearably cute photo of an otter sleeping:

Sea Otters can sleep on their backs in the water.

Sea Otters can sleep on their backs in the water.

Yes, I know he’s not soapy, but I couldn’t find one that was.  Which is probably for the best, don’t you think?

Happy Creating,

EF

Digging Up Jewels

diamondIts all a bit pre-Christmas mental here, and its possible you are feeling the same way, so lets share a little time avoiding writing those cards, shall we?

Lately I’ve been collecting words.

I came across this word in a novel I was reading, and fell in love:

craquelure

Isn’t that just a marvellous way to describe an old man’s face?

Then I started noticing other words when they popped up:

nurture

topaz

Words I hadn’t really thought about in years, though I knew the meanings.

plangent

planish

Words that are nice to roll around on your tongue.  Words that pop like red roses in your paragraphs.

scrum

rhomboid

As you voyage through the festive season, why not make a list of the interesting words you come across.  Its not a hard or time-consuming thing to do – I scribble mine on the scrappy little pad of paper I keep by my bed for the purposes of writing to do lists and things I have to remember in the morning.

maroon

fecund

Then I transfer them to the back page of my writing notebook when I have a moment to spare.  Easily done.

flaunt

flaxen

I’ve got a bit of a passion for F words at the moment, as you can see!

They don’t have to be on a theme or for a reason.  I collect them only because they appeal to me.  They sing out from the page.

Now I’ve got a growing resource for making my writing interesting and alluring – I’ve written a little about this before, and I’m coming back to it.  I’m thinking about creating a kind of utilitarian type prose, a la Hemingway, but studded with jewels of unusual and seductive words.

So, why not see what little jewels you can dig up?

Happy Creating,

EF

Journal Friday: Returning to the Journal

VW desktop

This time of year (autumn) is always a time of new starts for me. Husband is a University lecturer, which establishes a certain kind of seasonality in our house – we live according to the academic year, just as we have since we were kids. And on top of the usual stationery-buying frenzy I get at this time of year, I find myself stopping to reassess where I am too.

In truth, its always good to stop off on the seasonal journey to think about where you are in your life, and where you want to go. Life coaches encourage us to do this on a quarterly basis, and to be quite frank, I think it’s a good wheeze. It is hard enough to find time in a busy life to stop and think, but like the prayer bell in the monastery that reminds the inmates to focus on God at regular intervals, the seasons are an automatic prompt to stop and take stock.

This year has been a time of huge shifts for me, changes in my role as wife, care-taker, aunt, friend and woman. I have felt new currents in my creative life starting up, the drive to take my photography more seriously, the sense of a new mission, a new message in my work. It is a time of change, of departures.

Pagan theology tells us that autumn is the time to reap the harvest of what we have sown during the productive seasons of the year – not only of Spring and Summer, the active months, but also of the deep, dark percolation of the Winter that preceded them, before we go down into the dark once more, into that time of thinking, rest and meditation. We need to think about what we have achieved, assess the fruits of our labours, celebrate them, and prepare to settle into a time of productive hibernation during which we can incubate our hopes and dreams for the future.

Well, hooray for the journal, then!

I have been taking time to settle back into my journal-keeping, and to use it in a more constructed way. I have never really used the technique of guided journaling before, by which I mean writing from prompts designed to explore the psyche.   I’ve always been more of a ‘stream of consciousness problem solver’ kind of diarist. In the midst of upheaval, especially during the summer months, I find it hard, therefore, to keep up such a regular journal commitment, because it often takes time to write and write until you’ve found the answer.

Recently, though, I have decided to be more conscious about what I am doing with my diary. I have set out to explore myself and different aspects of my life in a structured way, in the hope that it will guide me to new paths, and help anchor me through the current storms. I’m using visual means too. Nothing fancy. (I’m still pretty blocked about my drawing.) I’ve been collaging instead. Gala Darling’s ‘Radical Self-Love Bible’ Programme has been invaluable with this, a plethora of prompts and eye-candy to help you explore yourself on paper, through collage and writing. I’m not much good at discipline, of course, and though I am half way through the programme now, my ‘bible’ is pretty lightweight. I tend to fall back on my familiar old notebook on a day to day basis, but Gala’s approach is challenging me just enough to make me think about where I am going with my diary, and that’s enough right now.

Journal Exercise:

This weekend, I am planning to retreat to my journaling practise and do some conscious assessment. I’m going to take time to recognise the enormous changes I have gone through, and the achievements I have made so far this year. I am going to consider my intentions for the coming dark months, and work on an emotional strategy for handling Christmas, which is always a difficult time for me. I mean to use my journal to ground myself in who I am, and who I want to be. And to think about where I am going.

If it proves a productive, positive exercise, I ‘m going to repeat it on a seasonal basis.

Would you like to join me?

Why not take this weekend, or some time during it, to sit down in a quiet place with your journal, and think about where you are in your life, and where you want to go.

  • What have you achieved in the last nine months?
  • What ‘babies’ have you birthed, literal, creative, emotional or otherwise?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • How are you feeling right now, physically and emotionally?
  • How would you like to feel?
  • What small, achievable steps can you take to move towards these intentions?
  • What flashpoints can you identify in the coming three or four months? Can you explore why they affect you? What could you do to ease your path through them?
  • How can you celebrate yourself at this point in your life?
  • What creative voices are calling you right now?

If you find the idea of a more conscious journaling practise interesting, you might like to explore Tristine Rainer’s seminal book, The New Diary.

If you want more guidance about deciding where you want to go in life, take a look at Danielle LaPorte’s The Firestarter Sessions, and The Desire Map.

Kate Courageous’s wonderful website is full of rich wisdom and worth exploring.

Happy Journaling,

EF

 

Losing myself amongst the ‘Woolves’

Virginia Woolf as a young woman.  I keep a copy of this portrait on my desk.

Virginia Woolf as a young woman. I keep a copy of this portrait on my desk.

So I spent Monday in London, escorted by my wonderful fangrrrl niece Amelia, at the ‘Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  And it was wonderful.

We saw innumerable portraits and photographs, but I think the personal papers were the most moving.  There were pages from her diary describing the bombing of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Tavistock Square home in October 1940, the original manuscript of ‘A Room of One’s Own’, love letters from Leonard written before their marriage,  and most moving of all, the little note she left for him when she set out to drown herself in the River Ouse in 1941.

One of the things that particularly struck me was that Woolf bound all her own notebooks and manuscripts, having taken bookbinding lessons in her teenage years as some kind of therapy for her mental illness.  The result was that she could make the perfect notebook for her own needs – which is, for a stationery addict like me, absolute nirvana.  Her books are big, too, slightly larger than A4, leaving plenty of space for her to explore her ideas.

Another interesting detail for me was that the page from her diary about the bombing had no crossings out on it at all.  My diary is a veritable Somme of scribblings-out, but she wrote a stream of consciousness with a self-assurance that seems absolute.  She had no doubts about what she was trying to convey.

The original copies of her books, published by the Hogarth Press, which she ran with her husband, still with their book jackets designed by her sister Vanessa Bell, look crisp and radical even now.  Amelia (a bookseller) and I both commented on the fact that the many editions of the novels for sale in the gallery shop had an assortment of different covers, none of which were so attractive, expressive, and frankly Modern-looking, as the originals.

Woolf is my writing hero for so many reasons.  She battled mental and physical illness, misogyny, and childhood sexual abuse to become one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, reinventing the novel form in a way that would be emulated and built upon in succeeding decades.  She was self-educated, too, and could read Greek and Latin, despite the fact that her parents refused to send her to school as they did her brothers, a fact she railed against.

She is often criticised for being classist and racist, but I would argue that she was a product of her time, and it is to her credit that she did so much to counteract the snobbery and distrust of the working classes, which she inherited from her social millieu, through her political work.

Virginia Woolf was a great writer and feminist, a patron of the visual and applied arts, and a creative giant,  as well as a truly great human being who overcame enormous adversity to achieve what she did.  If you cannot get on with her novels, I wouldn’t judge you, but I urge you to dip into her enlightening and often witty diaries for inspiration on how to live a creative life despite so many difficulties.

Happy Creating,

EF

Inspiration: Sucking up History

20140927_135032As a special treat last weekend, Husband took me to visit a local National Trust property, Oxburgh Hall.

Built about 1482, Oxburgh was the home of a well-connected family who hung onto their Catholic faith throughout a period in English history when it was dangerous to dissent from the religious line the Crown laid down.  Oxburgh’s inhabitants  suffered as a result, passed over for lucrative posts at Court, closely watched for sedition and treason, and restricted from certain occupations as well as from celebrating their religion openly.

The result of this (relative) penury is that the building escaped the zealous passion for updating property that characterised the aristocracy, and many of its original features remain intact, including the King’s Room and the Queen’s Room, authentic Tudor bedchambers in the tower house that spent many years used only as storage spaces!

Oxburgh Hall:  The Moat

Oxburgh Hall: The Moat

Oxburgh appears to float on its moat, which cannot be drained as the 500-year-old elm wood posts which support the foundations would crumble were they to dry out.  It still has the barleysugar chimneys and characteristic towered gatehouse that recalls the Wars of the Roses.  Inside the sombre portraits of nuns, the needlework sewn by Mary, Queen of Scots in her years of captivity, and the Priest Hole, where illegal Catholic priests had to hide from government troops, speak of a dark history of dissent and risk, of members of the family living in fear for their lives, simply because of their religious beliefs.  Oxburgh was a particular target during both the Reformation and the Civil War.  And yet, despite this, the little rowing boat that floats beside the steps on the moat is  named ‘Le Boat sur le Moat’, so the family still kept their sense of humour!

I started wondering what it would be like to live through that?  Never to be able to trust your neighbours, your servants, even your family?  To live constantly in the shadow of the block?  To live in fear of the next knock on the door?  To question your beliefs every day because they challenge your personal safety and that of those you love?  To always be regarded as ‘Other’?

Oxburgh Hall

Oxburgh Hall

The history around us gives us an opportunity to look at our own lives through a different lens.  What happened in England in the 15- and 1600s is not really much different to what is happening in parts of the world now.  Being inside a building where these things happened, seeing and touching the belongings of people who lives through such terrifying times, brings the realities home in a much more deeply felt way.  If we do not live under such stresses ourselves, we can never truly understand what they mean, but we can imagine.

I live in a house that was built in the 1880s.  Its just a little country cottage, the middle one of a row, the kind that are common in the UK.  It was originally built as two houses, one up-one down dwellings with an outside wash house, coal hole and privy each.  The men who lived here worked for the local Lord as farm workers or gamekeepers, and got the house as part of the deal.  Their women kept the house, cooked the meals, raised the children, and spread their washing out on the pasture behind the houses to dry on wash day every week.  The children would have walked across the fields to school each weekday, and worked alongside their parents when they got home.  They would have worshipped at the medieval parish church whose tower can be seen from our livingroom.  How different the lives of those souls would have been from mine.

Inspiration:

Think about historic buildings and places near where you live.  try to visit one or two if you can.  They don’t have to be as old as Oxburgh to count.  What about a coffee shop built in the 1930s, during the Depression, or a 1950s diner?

Take some time to soak up the place.  Think about the people who have lived and worked there.  How would the community have reacted or been affected when the building was put up?  They might have had to sacrifice their own land or homes, for instance, or they might have objected on moral or economic grounds.  How would it have felt to visit this place in those days?  What kind of day to day issues would have been on the minds of those who lived here?  What stories are concealed in their lives?

Take some time to write a few pages, answering these questions.  It doesn’t have to be historically accurate, but it helps.  Use the building or place as an entrance into someone else’s life and see where it takes you.

Happy Creating,

EF