I don’t know why, but of recent months I’ve struggled with getting any writing done. Yes, I can argue time constraints, and work pressures, and of course the recent festive season – but really they are just excuses. It’s certainly true that I feel uninspired by any of the copious ideas I write down and the attempts I make to turn them into something readable, but ask me why this should be and I’m without answer.
It’s been going on for quite long enough and I’m fed up of being so useless. I travel to work by train, and my usual pattern is to read for half the commute and listen to music for the other half. I’m not sacrificing beloved reading time, but that ‘other half’ will now be used to write. I know I’m not suddenly going to start producing amazing short stories with half an hour’s train-induced scribbling, but a start is a start.
For the next couple of weeks (or however long it takes) I’ve set myself the task that every morning I have to write down a memory. It can be from my childhood, or as recent as last year. The point is that as I’m writing about me and something I’ve either done or experienced, I don’t have to worry about plot and can instead concentrate on getting the words down in some sort of decent form. What I produce by doing this is unlikely ever to be published, but it will get me back into a writing routine, and I will – finally – be producing words again.
What’s more, in sifting through my past to find vaguely interesting memories to write about, I’ve already sparked off an idea for a piece (a flash, probably) that I want to write. Tomorrow morning I’ll cover that one off in the memory files and see where it gets me.
It’s baby steps, really. I’ve let my writing lapse and I shouldn’t have. I’ve even questioned whether I want to write at all, given my rubbish output recently (I answered, too: I do). Now I have a plan, I feel like I’m starting all over again and embarking on a new journey. Perhaps a new approach was all I needed all along. It certainly feels that way at the moment.
As I power through the Hampshire countryside tomorrow, who knows what riches will tumble from my pen? Before long I’ll probably be writing on the way home as well. My only hope is that I’ll be able to read it – those trains do pitch and roll, somewhat. Heartbreaking to think I’ll have done all that writing, only to find it completely illegible when I turn back to it later on!
How have other writers overcome periods of inertia? Do share your experiences.
I went to a funeral a few days ago. I’ve been fortunate in how few deaths have happened around me (so far), but nonetheless I’ve been to a few in the past.
While I’ve always managed to find something slightly amiss with previous funerals (that is, aside from someone I cared about having died), I’ll be surprised if I ever attend another as well-planned and appropriate as this one. It was a touching and charming service, reflecting the personality of the deceased: cheery (relatively), uncomplicated, warm and gentle. She had specified no party, flowers or cars, so there was little in the way of ceremony, just genuine remembrance.
This is a personal thing, but I have a strong dislike of “funeral poetry.” It always strikes me as overstated and designed to generate tears. It’s one step up from the flowery verse you find written in the majority of sympathy cards. Buying one last week, I spent a lot of time rejecting all but the one which simply said, “Thinking of you,” which was all I wanted it to say. I’m aware that some take comfort in flowing poetry on such an occasion, but I think there's room for getting the message across just as sincerely without going overboard with fancy phrases.
So I was relieved when the poems read on Wednesday were less sentimental and more reflective. Words from the deceased’s relatives were touching and honest, and the deceased’s choices were to the point without being overwhelmingly emotional. There were still tears in the chapel, but for the right reasons.
All told, it was a dignified and fitting goodbye, in which sparing use of words made a greater impact than any expansive poetry or prose could have done. It’s the only funeral I’ve been to that I’ve really appreciated, probably because I could relate the words to the person I knew. Afterwards, I learned that others felt the same.
Some won’t go to funerals because they want to remember the deceased as they were in life. I certainly have some sympathy with this stance, but last Wednesday reinforced my memories rather than eroding them - and there you have the power of some well-chosen words.
This one’s for Sue. RIP.
A few weeks ago I spent an evening doing battle with the Russian language, trying to establish names of characters and a village for a new story. By no means do I speak Russian: I can say hello and goodbye, please and thank you, and have about five words of random vocabulary which wouldn’t get me very far. A conversation with me in Russian would be dull, but mercifully short.
Way back when I was in college, I opted to learn Russian. It was fascinating, but in a moment of late teenage madness I gave it up and thought nothing more of it. Until, that is, in recent years I developed a love of all things Eastern Europe, especially Russian literature.
It’s the same with music. As a child I was apparently “promising” in this sphere. I learned two instruments, thrashed my way through a few grades, and then – in a fit of early teenage madness – chucked the whole lot in. I was discovering pop music and I wanted a social life: staying indoors practicing scales and various classical pieces was no longer interesting.
As an adult, I discovered jazz. And the “if only” moments that have followed! I’m partial to a lot of classical music as well. What if I’d not given up, I ask myself: could I have picked up a clarinet and joined in?
I generally look upon regret as a pretty useless thing. You can’t change anything from your past, so its only good use is to make sure that whatever happened doesn’t happen again. Look forward, not back, and don’t dwell on what was.
Now I find myself looking at two major influences for my writing and wondering, what if?
So let’s take stock. Russian won’t get my anywhere really, other than in Russia (although being able to read the Cyrillic alphabet has been useful over the years). In Eastern Europe you’re much better off knowing a bit of German, which I have covered. And music? Well, to be honest I’m always going to be a much better listener than participant. I’d sooner be able to sit back and concentrate on the nuances than to worry about playing them correctly.
So all told, nothing much lost – but what I gave up would have been nice additions to my adult life. I’m sure my stroppy teenage self would have paid no attention had she been able to see what the future held. But I do wonder what we wouldn’t give up if we could see twenty years ahead. What have you given up that you’ve regretted?
Last night, I made the following observation on Twitter:
Summer evenings: defined by the sound of small insects hitting one’s keyboard.
This perhaps didn’t convey quite the annoyance I was feeling when I wrote it. So just in case anyone missed the frustration behind the words, here it is laid out bare.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been writing at the kitchen table. I do this because it is larger than my desk, the house is empty so I can, and because there are two nice, large windows I can open, a godsend with the recent higher temperatures.
Unfortunately, kitchen light + open windows = insect invasion.
And in support of this equation, there follows an account of my typical evening:
I’m reviewing something I’ve written.
I look down and see a tiny, shelled fly struggling near the N-key. If I’m feeling charitable I might get a piece of card and help it on its way. If I’m not, well, it’ll meet its maker somewhere between B and M. Throughout the rest of the evening, whether I’m chewing over my own work or reading something online, I hear tick – tick – tick as its friends and relatives come looking for it.
While I’m fighting the nano-beetles, a moth flies in. Soon the tick-ing is drowned out by the repeated ching of the moth smacking itself against the kitchen light. This in turn is followed by a pathetic scream when it decides to dive-bomb me. Concentrating, I’ve shut out the ching-ing, and have probably forgotten all about the moth – hence the cry when it reminds me it’s there.
In the meantime, something green with wings is crawling up my screen. “Be gone,” I mutter, or something akin to that, as I shove it away. Yes, this usually kills it, which is not necessarily my intention. Soon afterwards, like the little shelled things, another green thing will appear. And they keep coming.
Another moth. A crane fly. Tick. Ching. It will carry on until I shut down the computer and go to bed, having first wiped all carcasses from keyboard and screen.
Why do these creatures only ever fall on my keyboard when I’m not typing? Why do they always choose the same few keys? Why can the green things not learn from the moths and climb all over the kitchen light instead?
Yes, I could close the windows, or sit in a darkened room. But despite my frustration, I fight a continuing battle with the six-legged visitors and their sound effects, so at least I’ll get some writing done while neither overheating nor going blind.
Whoever first came out with the idea of birdsong and “leather hitting willow” being the archetypal sounds of summer clearly didn’t sit at a laptop in the later hours. Round here it’s tick, ching and the occasional whump of a newspaper being wielded aggressively which are the hallmark of the season. These are the joys of being an evening writer.
In the interests of balance, and to show that I have no universal hatred of insects, here's a picture of a nice one:
Bee. Essex, UK, 2008.
Many years ago, I said to the boyfriend, “Why on earth would anyone need a camera on a mobile phone?” I carried on scorning the idea, and wilfully ignored the camera on my next phone – until, one day, I was out and about and saw something he would appreciate, so took a picture and sent it to him. And so began my gradual adoption of the camera phone.
I mention this because I was thinking earlier how I once took a similar stance on Facebook and Twitter: what’s the point, utter waste of time, etc etc. Now I use both regularly: Facebook has allowed me to regain contact with old friends after many years, while through Twitter I’ve ‘met’ some lovely and supportive people.
So I thought I’d catalogue some of the other things I’ve been wrong about – things I’ve written off as horrible/useless/pointless, only to perform a U-turn some years later.
Prime examples are:
- Classical music
- Electronic toothbrushes
- Jazz music
- Harry Potter
- Pink Floyd
A good few of these changes of heart have been brought about by people: my flatmate is responsible for the olives, for example, my mother for gardening and the boyfriend for travel. Perhaps I’m easily influenced, but I prefer to think these show the benefits of keeping an open mind and listening to those you trust.
Going back to the camera phone, I’m glad I (eventually) embraced the technology: having a camera immediately to hand allows me to snap anything I see that I might use later in my writing. Likewise, discovering travel and new music has also influenced the work I produce.
Being wrong, therefore, is good – when you have the opportunity to realise, admit and change it. There are many other horrible/useless/pointless things in my mental cupboard; it can only be a matter of time before someone breaks these down too. But for now, I have quite enough humble pie to keep me going. And surprisingly, it tastes pretty good.
This week I am sorting my life out, in a physical sense, prior to moving home in a couple of months. There will be nobody in the house, which means I can make as much mess and noise as I need to. I have endless supplies of tea and coffee; all I need is to wake up motivated and all will be well.
I’m not looking forward to it: eight years of what can only be called “stuff” to sort through, and most of it in the one room (I’m not in prison, by the way: I share a flat). Aside from the logistical considerations, it’ll be a lot of hard work. What bothers me most though, is the, “Keep/throw/charity shop” decisions that must be made. I’m no hoarder, and much of the odd paperwork and other debris lying around will probably be thrown without much consideration. The problem is that I’ll find it hard to bid farewell to the majority of what I have to sort.
I don’t know how many books I own, but the number has grown undeniably, perhaps even unreasonably, since I moved into my room eight years ago. Then, I parked some in the loft and put the rest on shelves. A few years later, the space under the bed became a library, too. Now it’s the bedroom floor: piles of books threatening what would otherwise be a quite accessible path across the room.
So, I know I will have to get rid of some. Obviously those in contention will go straight into the Charity Shop pile (I could never throw away a book), but it’ll be a tough few days deciding what can go.
The few things I know already that will go directly to Keep:
- All reference books.
- My favourite authors.
- Those nice second-hand books that I bought because I liked them.
- Most non-fiction.
- The alarming number that I’ve not yet read.
I’m sure I’ll feel guilty every time another book hits the Charity Shop pile – but we’ve all had to deal with worse, and I shall bear this in mind every time the topmost book stares balefully at me, bidding me to reconsider.
The picture above shows just a small selection of the books which, this week, will have their fate decided. I’m already looking at it and thinking, “Keep! Keep! Keep!”
It’s going to be a long week…
When I logged into Facebook
this evening, I was presented with a link to a review of Twenties London
, by Mike Hutton.
I’ve not read the book, but the review (on the fascinating Jazz Age Club
website) tells me it is, “well written and readable … a highly entertaining collection of facts, anecdotes, gossip and stories covering a vast array of subjects that include dancing, drugs, cocktails, hotels, department stores, horse racing, night-clubs, boxing, jazz, tennis, fashion, film, stage, books, magazines, suburbia and scandal and murder.”
It is, in short, the book that I wanted to write.
So was Bright Young People
, by D J Taylor. When that was published, back in 2007, there was much snarling and gnashing of teeth chez
Smith, as I kicked myself for missing the boat. I mention in my Why I Love Vile Bodies
post that I read a lot about this subject for my degree dissertation; it was always my intention to revisit that work and make it something more substantial, taking on board the feedback I received about it. Hours of studying newspapers and other paraphernalia promised new riches. I didn’t see how I could ever bore of the subject.
I’m still intrigued by it. The biggest joy of reading other books about one’s favourite subject is the bibliographies provided: I’ve found some gems in these over the years, and have scouted second-hand book outlets to get hold of them. There’s always something new to learn.
My reaction to this book being published got me thinking. I’m sure I’ve read fiction and thought afterwards, “I wish I’d written that,” yet nothing springs immediately to mind. But other people, especially writers, must feel this on a regular basis – or at least, like me, see a new book published that they were half planning themselves.
So what book do you wish you’d written? Who beat you to your intended publication?
Let’s keep it friendly, with no sour grapes (I know I’m rueful, but at the end of the day there’s another 1920s book out there for me to read, so how bad can it be?). I’d be interested to know if others have found themselves in the same situation.
My flatmate’s mother is in respite care at the moment, and not having a very good time of it. Tonight I’ve written a card for her, which I’ll post tomorrow. In it, I’ve put printouts of a few of my stories – not, for once, as self-publicity, but because my stories are short and thus perfect for her current attention span.
My flatmate was delighted when I suggested doing this, but my mind went racing off one better: why not write something especially for her mum, so she knows it’s just for her? I’ve known both of them for the same amount of time, and I consider her mum as much of a friend as my flatmate. Writing a personalised piece felt like just the thing.
A limerick, I thought: just something short, but individual and about her. I’m no poet, and a limerick is about all I can manage, plus its form is instantly recognisable. It might bring a smile to her face, too. Except she has an unusual name with which, I’ve concluded this evening, absolutely nothing rhymes. Yes, there are ways around this, but they might have to wait until next week’s card to reach fruition.
No problem, I thought, I’ll run off a quick flash instead. How difficult can it be to write something for someone you know? It doesn’t have to be about them, or their life. It just has to press all the correct buttons: evoke a nice feeling, involve something they like, an interest they have, a place they love… Easy. Right?
Er, no. If anything I think it’s harder to write for someone you know than for publication or for a competition. In the latter cases, of course you want to give the editor/judge no reason to reject the piece. But once you add an emotional connection, perfection becomes all-important: what if the recipient doesn’t like it? What if they miss the personal touch and think it’s just another story? What if, inadvertently, you offend them? Pitch it at the wrong level? Bore them?
On the rare occasions when I discover I’ve sent work off with a typo, I’m mortified. But the thought of doing this with a piece for someone specific fills me with terror: it would look offensively slapdash when you’re actually trying to say to someone, “Hey, you’re so special to me, I wrote this for you.” The logical ending to that statement is, “But I couldn’t be bothered to proof read it. See, I really did dash it off quickly…” Not quite the desired message.
I will write something for my flatmate’s mum, but in the interests of sending her card, I’ll not be doing it tonight: all those questions and the phantom typos have got the better of me. I’ll work on it over this next week, and if I send her a personalised piece it will be as near perfect as I can get it. Thing is, I know she’d appreciate a card, with or without the writing enclosed. It’s my writerly perfectionism that’s the problem here, not her perception of whatever I send.
They say it’s the thought that counts. But what defines too much thought?