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Tip of the Week: Reading Notebook


I have a lousy memory. It is partly because of my ME/CFS, which affects my cognitive functions, but mostly, I reckon its just that I have a lousy memory. This is not necessarily manifested in forgetting to put the rubbish out on the appointed day when the bin men visit, missing someone’s birthday, or forgetting to buy bay leaves or toothpaste while at the supermarket, that being the main thing I went out for. Everybody does that.

No, I forget whole ideas.

Once upon a time, I knew what Hermeneutics meant. Actually, I knew quite a lot about it. Husband frequently re-explains it to me (he’s an academic, so he uses words like that all the time!). It doesn’t stick.

I’ve read dozens of books on Tudor history and the Bloomsbury Group and the Anthropology of Religion, and the theory behind abstract art.

And I’m buggered if I can remember any of it now!

The trouble is that I forget anything I haven’t written down.

But then I read Hermione Lee’s masterly biography of Virginia Woolf, and there discovered the answer:

The Reading Notebook.

Woolf was a self-educated woman who earnt a great deal of her literary reputation in the early years of her career by reviewing other people’s books. She read widely and voraciously. In order to organise her thoughts on what she read, she kept a reading notebook.

A notebook, with a margin ruled on one side, in which she inserted the date and the page of whatever book she was reading, the title of which of course was also included. And then beside the page number, she might include a quote or a reflection of her own. This allowed her to keep a record of her own thoughts and how what she was reading linked with what she already knew, or her own opinions. When the time came to write a review, she would look back over her notes and use them to craft a response to the book in question in her own elegant style.

This is such a simple solution. It not only allows you to write down what is essentially an aide memoir on the subject of any book, but also means you can track your own ideas and responses to what you read. You can literally see how your own opinions develop.

I have begun to adopt this habit, and I have to tell you that it really, really helps.

I can remember what I have read, because I have made notes on it.

I am able to reflect on what I am reading, and think about my own response, rather than just letting the text flow through me, unapprehended.

I suppose this is a little like the practise of Lectio Divina, a form of mindful, contemplative reading of scriptures and religious texts which has been practised by Benedictine monks, and others, for centuries.

Yes, it can be a bit time-consuming, but I think that if you are reading something really important to you, it is worth the effort, because it helps the brain to incorporate the new information into already existing neuropathways. And fitting new information into the networks of what you already know is a method proven by psychologists to be effective for learning.

Pages from my reading notebook.

Pages from my reading notebook.

The only way to know, of course, is to try it out. Start with a cheap little notebook. An ordinary exercise book is good. I like the A5 kind because it fits in my handbag. Get out your ruler and put margins on the first few pages, if your notebook doesn’t already have them. Make sure you write down the details of which book you are writing about – title, author, edition etc. I also like to include the library reference and which library I got the book from, if appropriate.

You don’t have to write something after reading every paragraph. Just make a note when something jumps out at you. Scribble in your thoughts. Don’t be precious about how it looks. It’s a workbench for your own use, remember.

I have to say that I am getting great results with this method. I really like scribbling down thoughts as I go along in a book, especially when it is non-fiction, which I tend to read a lot of. Yes, it takes a little extra time, but I find its worth it.

Take a leaf out of Virginia Woolf’s book and try it out for yourself.

Happy creating,



Oh dear, stuck again! (The Painting Problem)

Some of the many lovely books about making art that I have bought instead of making art myself!

Some of the many lovely books about making art that I have bought instead of making art myself!

I want to paint.

A friend asked me the other day how I envisaged my old age, and I laughed that I always imagined myself retreating to a little villa on a beach on a Greek island, and painting enormous, sploshy, abstract paintings.

But I don’t paint.  So how can that happen?

An excerpt from my journal entry today says it all:

“I want to make art but I keep telling myself its too difficult, that I’m too tired, and that painting upstairs [in my study] is a pain because I have to keep going up and down for water and cleaning brushes etc.  I want to make big, sploshy paintings, but I keep telling myself there’s nowhere I can get painty and messy, and anyway, it wouldn’t come out the way I wanted it to. 

“Its all excuses.  Its as if the idea of painting, the idea of wanting to paint, is more seductive than actually doing it. 

“Because in my imagination, I am a great painter, whereas when I do it, I am rubbish because I never practise, or I haven’t learnt the theory properly.  Its so easy to say “they never taught me anything useful at school” or that Bob Taylor [my graphics teacher] was right that I didn’t have enough originality to go to art school. 

“The fact is that I don’t paint.  What I do is make excuses as to why I don’t paint, which is actually so much easier and emotionally less complicated.  And I know if I did, I would paint something and be so depressed that it didn’t come out looking like it did in my head, and then I’d be stuck all over again.  And anyway, I SHOULD be concentrating on writing. [Note the  Bingo! word there.]  But I know today is a day when the frustration is building up, when I am stopping myself doing something creative because I SHOULD [Bingo!] be resting, when in fact I’d feel better if I actually did something instead of stopping myself, and I’d certainly be less grumpy.”

So today, instead of raiding the bookshelves for all the lovely art books I have bought instead of painting, (another displacement activity, see above, see also books about writing), I am going to make some art.  If only for the sake of Husband, so he doesn’t have to come home to a bad-tempered, creatively frustrated, vicious wife who wants to take it out on him!

I’ll let you know how I get on.


Friday QuickFic: Having Left Undone That Which Ought To Have Been Done

john and sherlock          ”  He shrugged. ‘Had it further occurred to you that, rather than wishing to make you jealous, I was actually trying to capture what had made you yourself so happy?’

            ‘But… but-‘ John flapped in shock. ‘You’re married to your work! You’re a sociopath! You don’t do relationships! You don’t even like people! Why would you want a relationship?’

            ‘Is it so hard to imagine that I might be lonely?’”

To Read the rest, go here to AO3, or here to

Hope you have a creative weekend,


Take a Break

It probably sounds like a ridiculous thing to say on a blog about writing and creativity. You probably came here wanting to read about how to kick-start your novel or fanfic, not to be told to


Sometimes, though, it is just what you need.

Let me be clear here. I am not talking about those Creative Seasons we all have, ‘a time to write and a time not to write’, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes. I am talking about when you are in the midst of a huge creative streak, you are going at it hammer-and-tongs, lost in your story world, your painting series, or the new symphony you are composing.

These are dangerous times. These are the times when it is very easy to burn out.

Sometimes it is healthy for your Muse and you to have a break from one another. Just twenty-four hours or so. Nothing big. We aren’t talking rupture here. Just time to stand back. Take Stock. Take a breath.

Because we all need to take a breath.

(And if you have ever realised that you are so absorbed in a painting or a story that you have been holding your breath, you’ll know what I mean.)

The risk of burning out is a good reason for doing this. You might call it a ‘creativity detox fast’ or something like that. A short spell of time when you can recharge your batteries and see your work from a different perspective. Take a rest. Make sure you look after yourself. Breath. Eat. Move. See your friends. Remember you have a life.

Yes, you have a life outside your creative endeavour. You remember that?   The place where the emails have to be written, the laundry done, the cooking, the dusting, mowing the lawn. Remember that place? The one where you have to wash and brush your teeth, and sleep?

It is easy to forget real life when you are caught up in your creative surges. There lies the path to madness. Or at the very least, gingivitis.

This happened to me on Sunday (not gingivitis, I hasten to add!).

I had been writing pretty much non-stop for over a week. I had thought of nothing else. And then on Sunday morning, I woke up sick of myself. Sick of my own thoughts. Sick of the pile of dirty clothes I had to step over to get to my laptop. Sick of existing on gluten free fish fingers from the freezer (Tesco do reasonably good ones, if you are interested…)

There comes a time in every writer’s life when she has to tear herself away from her Word document and do the necessary.

I did the washing and the ironing, and went to the supermarket for fresh veggies. I did all those horrid, niggly jobs that had been floating about in the back of my skull all week, the things I had been putting off because I didn’t want to do them, and this time I had an excellent excuse (I was writing!!!!). I didn’t power up my laptop till late in the day, and even then, I kept my activity very limited. I didn’t think about my story world, forced myself to not think about it, policed not thinking about it very sternly. (Of course, the fact that I was sick of thinking about it helped.) I watched the film version of Oscar Wilde’s ‘An Ideal Husband’, which was delicious, and read a lovely book.

And for the first time in days, I felt relaxed.

Today, I have resumed writing again, relieved by the knowledge that the bailiffs won’t turn up at the door, as I have now put the cheque for the heating oil in the post. And I feel so refreshed. My writing is better for it too, I think.

Riding your wild donkey to finish your novel is all very well and good, but not if it comes at the expense of your health or your comfort. So be mindful when you are on a creative binge. Yes, ride the wave and enjoy it, but be aware that sometimes you can ride it even longer if you just stop to enjoy the scenery along the way, and do a little housekeeping while you are at it.

Happy Creating,



Oxford Interlude

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Lincoln College Library, and the beautiful tree in front of it, which is as lovely in winter as in summer.

WARNING: lots of photos in this post!

We spent the last weekend in Oxford, nursing Husband’s frail elderly parents.  Caring for those who are physically disabled and/or suffering from dementia is very, very hard work, intense and full-on from early in the morning until well into the night.  Added into this were unexpected hospital visits and emergency tests.  It was hard graft.  Not that either of us begrudge the effort.

It is doubly hard for someone like me, to whom many of the basic nursing tasks such as dressing, washing, toileting and feeding, fall.  The effort leaves my energy levels severely compromised for some time after our regular visits.  So at the moment, I am worn out, simply resting in the mist of exhaustion and accepting of it.  There is little else I can do.

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St Mary’s Church steeple, in Radcliffe Square, lit up by the evening sun.

Luckily there was one point in the weekend, Sunday evening, when Husband and I, having settled the wrinklies in front of the telly with tea and biscuits, managed to escape and make the most of the beautiful weather for an hour.  We drove into the city centre and took a gentle walk around Radcliffe Square.  The sun was sinking after a glorious, golden Spring day, and the streets were full of tourists and students making the most of the balmy weather.  The angle of the sunlight was catching details on many of the Dreaming Spires.  It was lovely.

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The carvings around the eaves of the Radcliffe Camera, the reading room for the Bodlean Library. I’d never seen them looking so beautiful

The sun was falling directly down the length of Brasenose Street, creating a beam of light that fell on a magnolia tree against the wall of Hertford College and All Souls.  The tree was just coming into bloom and a crowd of tourists had gathered around it to take photos of its beauty, lit in a pool of gold against the warm stone of the elegant buildings.  (Magnolias are a special feature of Oxford colleges at this time of year, and we have often gathered as a family to tour the quads at Easter, enjoying their glory.)

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The magnolia tree blooming against the wall of All Souls College.

We ended our walk by ducking into The White Horse Inn in Broad Street, which is an old-fashined tavern that makes you feel like you are travelling back to the sixteenth century when you step over the threshold.  It is all oak beams and panels.  If you have ever watched the TV series of ‘Inspector Morse’ or ‘Inspector Lewis’, you will no doubt have seen its interior, as it is a regular watering hole of the fictional detectives.  There are signed photos of the stars on the walls, and I was tempted to get my photo taken with them, but it seemed too touristy a thing to do, so we just sat and had a quiet drink and took plenty of deep breaths.  And then we returned to the fray.  But it was a truly golden Interlude, and its why I love Oxford, and why even when our dear ones are gone, we will come back.

Exeter bell tower

The bell tower of Exeter College, glimpsed through the branches overhanging Turl Street. I took this photo because the sun highlighted its marvellous gargoyles!

Exeter gargoyle

A close-up of the best gargoyles in town!

I promise to be back soon, when my brain isn’t on strike, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this photographic interlude as much as we did.

Happy Creating,


Merry Christmas

Dear All,

Its that time of year when it falls to each of us to receive with grace, and give with love.

I want to say a particularly heartfelt thank you to each and every one of you for reading and following this blog. 

Its been a work of my deepest soul to create this corner of the web for you.  I am still finding my way, working out what I want and need to say to you, and what you want and need to hear.  I began writing in a spirit of great trepidation, not sure if anyone out there would want to listen, afraid to show my face, like the ugly duckling.  Now here I am, months later, fulfilling my dream.

And its all because of you.

Thank you for listening – or rather, reading.  Thank you for being here.  Thank you for replying, commenting, participating.  Thank you for reading and reviewing my fanfictions.  I’m hoping to be putting out more original fiction soon, but the fanfiction journey will continue.

Over Christmas and the New Year, my posts will likely be erratic.  I’m dealing with a family emergency and I don’t know how it will turn out.  At the moment, all is uncertain, except that profound change is coming.  That said, the thought of my writing and this blog is part of my creativity inention for 2014 in a BIG way.  I’m looking forward to DARE-ing with you.

In the meantime, I wish you a peaceful, creative and love-filled Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year.

May all your dreams come true,

With love and grateful thanks to you all,

Evenlode’s Friend

Owning It

Have you been there too?  That cringe-making moment at a social event when you meet someone new and they ask you what you do.

For me it is a doubly difficult dilemma.

Do I give them one version of the truth:  I haven’t been able to do paid work since 2001 because of chronic health difficulties.  Which either makes me look like I am scrounging off the State, or like a whinging hypochondriac.  Either one pretty much means the end of the conversation.

Or do I say, Oh, I’m a writer and artist.  To which I get the next question:  where can I get your books?  So thats a whole ‘nother minefield.  Yes, I have written seven novels.  No, you cannot buy them in the shops. I publish on the internet.

(Oh, well you aren’t a proper writer, then, are you?  You’re just one of those middle class kept wives who plays at being a creative but is actually too mediocre at it to cut it in the real world.)

Admittedly, this last is probably supplied by Nigel, who is only too happy to make me feel like a loser and a waste of space, so that I will never take any risks or put my work out there.

These days, its even worse if I mention that I write fanfiction, because people have finally heard of it, and they always, always want to talk about 50 Shades of Grey.  Don’t mention that book in front of me.  Please.  (You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.)

The other day I was at a social event and met someone new.  She was a fascinating person, and great fun.  I liked her a lot.  She asked me what I did.  I said, ‘I’m a writer and artist.’  Cue discussion about novels not yet published, how I am trying to make a go of this website, and why I am interested in creativity, which happened to be her field of research.

All fine.

I came home and felt like a total fraud.

Why is it so difficult to own our creativity?

I may not have had a novel published in conventional form, but then I’ve never really submitted one to a publisher.  I’ve written and published 42 works of fanfiction on the internet, some of which have novel-sized wordcounts.  I get around 100 readers per day of my fictions, and regularly get daily reader numbers over 500, figures that most conventionally published writers would give their eye-teeth for.  This website has over 300 followers.  What is it about these statistics that makes me not a writer?

What really makes me a writer is that I write.  Every day.  Being published does not make me a writer.  Public recognition does not make me a writer.  Having books on the shelves does not make me a writer, if I am not writing.

Being a writer is not something that other people tell you that you are.

Being a writer is what you do.  Day in. Day out.    I write because I need to write, not for the end result.  I write because it comes to me as naturally, and as necessarily, as breathing.

So why can I not own it?  Why do I not feel entitled to it?  Why am I embarassed to say it in front of someone new because Society says I do not tick the boxes required (ie publications, awards etc etc)?  Will I have to wait until I am as old and lauded as the late Nobel Prize laureate Doris Lessing before I can finally say I am a writer, and feel entitled to it?  (I really hope not.)  Do any writers ever feel entitled to the label?

Do you feel entitled to your creativity?  Do you make excuses that you are only a hobbyist painter or dancer, whether to yourself or others?  Do you feel you must keep your creative projects secret for fear that they will not be understood?  And is it really necessary to have public recognition for our art?

I’m not saying there are anwsers, or even right answers.  I think the answer is different for every one of us.  It is a complex tangle.  I simply think we have to address it in some way as artists in whatever medium, if only to find out what stifles or liberates our own voices.

And maybe this time next year, when I meet someone new at a party, I will feel entitled to say: ‘I am a writer’, and own it.

Happy Creating,


Journal Friday: Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks

jarman diariesIt’s been a very busy week, and I’ve been diving into all kinds of exciting new and inspirational activities, including the UEA Literary Festival.  I’ve also been submerged in the magical world of Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks, edited by Stephen Farthing and Ed Webb-Ingall, and I want to share the inspiration I’ve found in them with you.

derek_jarmanIn case you have never heard of Derek Jarman, he was a fabulously talented artist, film-maker, designer, writer, gardener and Gay Rights activist whose career was tragically cut short by AIDS in 1994, aged 52.  He directed music videos for the Pet Shop Boys and designed the sets for Ken Russell’s landmark 1971 film, ‘The Devils’.  At his home in Dungeness, he created one of the most haunting modern gardens in Britain, one that I am deeply in love with.

I first became aware of Jarman when I saw his film, Caravaggio (1986), starring Nigel Terry, Sean Bean, and Tilda Swinton in her first film role.  Later, in 1991, I wept my way through his heart-breaking ‘Edward II’, an adaptation of Marlowe’s play that spoke of Jarman’s outrage at homophobia in Thatcherite Britain.  These are not easy and accessible films.  They are, however, fabulous to look at, and very moving.

When I came across this edition of the sketchbooks in the library the other day, quite by chance, I had no idea that Jarman was a committed visual diarist.  The sketchbooks themselves are large – family photo album sized – and each cover is decorated in black and gold, making a slightly varied but pleasing continuity.  Inside them, Jarman uses ephemera, calligraphy, drawing and painting, poetry, pages of film scripts, actors’ head shots from casting sessions, clippings from newspapers, reviews, photographs of friends and colleagues, bits of feathers and pressed flowers to document his life and each of his projects.  The sketchbooks contain his thoughts on everything from his garden (there is a carefully drawn planting plan), to his illness, to sex, history and death.

Jarman made a series of paintings, the ‘GBH’ series, of black on gold abstracts, inspired by Goya’s Black paintings, and a film called ‘Imagining October’, which arose from finding Sergei Eisenstein’s own copy of ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, the famous book on the Russian Revolition, and on which Eisenstein had based his ground-breaking film, ‘Battleship Potemkin’.  Jarman had been shocked to discover how much of the book had been redacted with blacked-out text by the Communist authorities.  Both of these concepts are reflected in the sketchbooks, where you can see Jarman working on the idea of black bars with gold writing, seen on the cover of the volume.  Jarman’s anger at the political situation for Gays in the UK shines through these blackened pages.

One of the things that particularly strikes me is the simplicity of the layouts he uses.  Even when he is writing pages of text, making notes or journalling, there is a sense of space.  Nothing is cramped.  He spreads out, not denying himself room to work, enjoying the clarity of white space around his words and images.  This is something I will definitely take away. My diaries always feel cramped.  I always feel that every inch of space must be used, because materials are scarce.  This denial of room to grow is cramping my creativity, something I need to break out of.

I want to draw inspiration from the sheer range of activities Jarman undertook, too.  For him, there is no line in his sketchbooks between diary, writer’s notebook, sketchbook, planner or scrapbook, anymore than there were boundaries between the creative areas he worked in.  Although he was primarily a film-maker, he was so many other things as well.  Jarman teaches me that I don’t just have to stick to writing.  I can follow where ever my Muse leads me.

There are no limits to what we can create, only the ones we impose on ourselves.

Things to try:

  • See if you can get hold of a copy of Jarman’s sketchbooks.  It isn’t cheap – £28 – so maybe you can order it from your library.  You may not like his style of modernist art, but you can appreciate how he puts every aspect of his life into these visual journals to make a record of his thinking.
  • Use your own sketchbook or diary as a kind of studio to record everything you do and think about a particular project.
  • Collect clips, postcards, photos, anything relevant to stick in – Jarman even stuck a ten pound note into his!
  • Luxuriate in space.  Allow each of your drawings, paragraphs, or collaged pieces to bask in a frame of white space, so that they can shine out, and be seen for what they are.  Don’t fall into my scarcity trap – there will always be more paper.
  • Decorate the covers of your sketchbooks or journals in a similar way, as Jarman did, each one slightly different, but using the same colours or materials.  Maybe you could do ‘series’ of notebooks, with matching covers, for different projects.  Don’t be precious about them, however.  Jarman once stuck a heavy bronze seal on the front of one of his books, but it was too heavy to carry and got in the way, so he ended up prizing it off.  The scarred gold cover is even more interesting as a result.

Happy journalling,


Gratuitous Birthday Post

Hi! Its my birthday today, and I promised myself I wouldn’t do any work.  Of course, I meant to prepare a lovely, informative and entertaining post that I could just upload in a trice, but it didn’t happen.  I am really struggling with the concept of preparing posts ahead of time.  It just doesn’t seem to work with my spontaneous side.  But never mind.  For today, I am not going to worry about it.  I’m just going to show you a little glimpse of my present haul – I’m a VERY lucky girl!

birthday prss 1Can you spot the theme?  I think you’d probably have to be a serious fangrrl like me to get the hedgehog socks connection!  (Oh, and the Benedict Cumberbatch card made by a friend says ‘Happy Birthday, Gorgeous Lady!’  in case you can’t see it in the photo.)

benny card

Anyway, I the spirit of celebrating what I have achieved in the last year, which is a lot, believe me, here is a link to my fanfiction.  If you haven’t read it before, happy reading.

Love, EF

Embodied Creativity

In my last post, I talked a little about telling details, those tiny things that communicate so much.  Noticing them requires opening the mind.  But there is another rung on the ladder with this:  Opening to the body.

I call this embodied writing.  By this I mean the kind of writing that includes the visceral details of what it is like to inhabit a physical body.  Physical sensation, not just ideas and emotions.

Our bodies are not just the ‘transport’ we inhabit, as dear Sherlock likes to put it.  They interact with the environment in order to gain information about it for survival purposes.  They do this through the medium of the Senses.

  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Hearing

Our eyes, noses, ears, tongues and skins gather data and feed it back to the brain, which sifts it and uses it to build up a picture of the outside world.  This means that our experience of life is formed as much by our body’s external contact as it is by our thoughts and ideas.  As writers particularly, we spend so much time locked inside our heads, submerged in ideas for stories, that we forget we have bodies.  Our bodies get neglected, or worse – sometimes writers abuse their bodies because they actually get in the way of the work by demanding annoying things like food and sleep.  We forget that our bodies are the foundation of our art.

By using the sensations they give us, we can enrich our work exponentially, making it more immediate, tapping into common experience and tissue memory.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to talk about ‘Writing with the Senses’ in an effort to get you and me out of our heads and into our bodies with our writing.  We will be working our way through each of the senses, being mindful of the feedback they give us, using them to ground us in our corporeal selves, and bringing the gorgeous experiences they give us into our creative lives.  I’m doing this myself, because I really need to be present inside my body right now, instead of having my brain flying about sixteen feet from it, attached only by the barest thread of consciousness.  And I thought you might be interested in joining me!

So, in the meantime, do this:

Take a few minutes today, tomorrow, daily if you can.  Just stop.  Take a deep breath and let it out.  Bring your mind inside your body.  What sensations can you feel?  Do you have a pain in your toe, or an itchy insect bite?  Did you eat spinach for tea that left that annoying coating on your teeth?  Is your belt too tight?  There doesn’t have to be any great revelation.  Just notice.

Taking a moment at regular times during the day in order to be present inside your body is an invaluable exercise in grounding yourself and being mindful.  And it is a great prelude to thinking about the Senses.

Happy Creating,