Friday, 27 September 2013

Wee, Teeny Bravery

My current soon-to-be-turfed work has multiple perspectives, so it’s no surprise I’ve been thinking a lot about the writer’s voice. 

One of my characters is Irish.  Predictably, I’ve given him my husband’s speech pattern.  It’s like putting on the Butler’s still warm jacket.  More than that, it’s practicing a skill I don’t do naturally (speak Hiberno-English), a wonderfully engrossing challenge. 

Another character is American, from a region near my own.  I sit back in his verbal rocking chair and become Uncle Remus.  Here is where, in the guise of a gay male military surgeon, I speak openly about dark things.  I am a brave sheep in wolf’s clothing.  My bravery comes from no one knowing what is true and what is not. 

This isn’t real bravery, no powerful earth woman standing with her arm raised, calling down the power of the Furies.  It’s wee, teeny bravery.  But, the only reason this wee teeny bravery exists is because someone asked me to write about myself.  And I did.  And I got a surprise.  The surprise was that I wasn’t brave at all, so wee, teeny bravery is a step forward.

About this character actor I admire.  (Come, come.  The Appalachian mind must travel in curves, never straight lines.)  There’s a British actor who transforms himself so completely for his roles – voice, appearance, walk – part of my enjoyment is to see if he’s in there under the wigs and makeup.  However, when I’ve seen him as a narrator in documentaries, he comes across as uncomfortable in his own skin, as if he doesn’t know who he is without a role.  It’s amazing (and painful) to watch. 

He’s a good actor, you say?  He is.  Then what’s the problem?

For the incurably introverted (myself, perhaps?), the role or the character’s voice protects the interior world, the place where creativity comes from.  Why mess with that?  No great moral reason, I can see.  I just like a challenge, because by stretching my skill past what comes naturally to me, I improve that skill.  Except the times when I fail hilariously, of course.

In this first wee, teeny bravery, I’ve learned something.  First, I’ve learned to honour my own experiences.  I am the only person who’s had them.  We all share certain experiences, this is true, but I had those experiences in my body with my emotions reacting to and my thoughts being shaped by them.  Therefore, my experience is unique.

The next thing I’ve learned is that there’s liberation to this bravery.  It’s like being forced to use your right hand when you’re a natural southpaw, then picking up the pen in your left hand.  That’s more than being a better writer; for me, when I’m writing as the gay male military surgeon, I feel like I’ve moved close to my reader and quietly shared a very good secret.  I feel closer to you.

And so far when I spread my unique experience on the table, the people who see my wares go, wow . . .  I mean honestly, when I see your wares, I go, wow . . . what made me think you wouldn’t do the same?  That wow moment is a gift.  My experiences are a gift to you.  If someone doesn’t graciously accept them – and that’s bound to happen – that doesn’t have to be about either of us.  It just is.

The biggest thing I’ve taken from this is that the act of being asked to speak is THE most important thing that can happen to a writer.  We pitch and we submit and we work in our closets in the hope that someone will notice our incurably introverted selves.  It all changes when someone says to me, will you write . . .

It’s one thing we have no control over.  I would love to say, Will you write, and validate your wares, but me asking you to write is one step away from Granny doing it. 

Qaisra Shahraz (The Holy Woman, Revolt, Typhoon) recently suggested that writers participate in virtual writing communities, not just through RTs and shares, but with our comments.  Give our voices to other writers to let them know their work is being read.    

It’s great advice and I pass it on to you.  Will you write, will you comment, will you speak to other writers?  I request 140 characters of your wares.  Will you write . . .

Friday, 20 September 2013

Mad Farmers & Chocolate Pudding

Big Nose starts his walk.
So let me tell you about the Mad Farmer. Yesterday, when walking the Big Nose, we took the same path as always, but on the way up the slope in the second meadow, Big Nose got all excited. A long white leg had come through the hedge to touch him.  This long white leg was attached to a beautiful Brittany spaniel who was attached to a shouty man on a quad bike.  Mad Farmer.

Apparently Big Nose and I were on the wrong side of the field.  Rather than do a circumference of the field, we should have walked to the stile, turned and walked back.  The path isn’t marked in that way and to be honest, I didn’t consult any maps, just village advice when I started taking this walk.  In general, I’m quite open to correcting my mistakes if you’re respectful of my ignorance.

Mad Farmer began our relationship by screaming at me, soon followed by his female companion screaming also.  Someone who goes from zero to sixty in a fraction of a second, well he’s already made his mind up that I’m no good.  Worse, I couldn't see either of them through the bushes.  So I ignored them, walked up the wrong side of the field, quad bike and shouty couple on the other side of the hedge until I crossed the stile and went home.  I felt bad about their treatment of me for the rest of the day.

Big nose off the path.
I took that bad-feeling energy and wrote Mad Farmer into a scene in a humourous way, a little joke about what’s really a nasty piece of work.  That didn’t make the bad feeling go away, but it did do something productive with it.  And this morning, Mad Farmer & Co are another funny story.

Coincidentally, I’m at that point when a long term piece is being turfed out into the world.  There’s a whole lot of feelings balled up in that, but the icky one is, what happens if this doesn’t go anywhere?  What do I do next?  Is it time to give this all up?

The Butler said the most amazing thing to me.  You keep writing.  Isn’t he the perfect writer’s spouse?  Truly.  But his advice is perhaps the hardest in the world to follow.  Being a writer sometimes feels like swimming through chocolate pudding.  It’s a really big sacrifice to swim and not eat the pudding, cuz I love my chocolate.  By this I mean, the time I spend writing is time away from all the other wonders in life, with perhaps not all the gratification a lot of other jobs provide. 

I get discouraged, even with a Butler.  That discouragement more than anything else – poverty, colicky babies, a deluge of rejections coming through the mail slot – that will kill your writing.

The view
Earlier this week, I met a villager whom I’d only spoken to at a New Year’s Eve party.  She’s dog sitting and wanted to compare notes.  She knew I worked from home because I’m rather visible in my Writing Closet, but she didn’t know what I did.  I said, I’m a writer.  I saw it in her brain, the churning Do I Know You question.  That usually doesn’t turn out well.  So then I said, Not a very successful one.  I do it because it’s what I want to do.

Part of me said, what are you apologising for?  I don’t apologise for my gardening efforts or my knitting efforts or the fact my outfits never match.  But, I’m glad I said it because a really neat thing happened next.  All the muscles in the woman’s face opened up and she smiled.  She made some comment which said, that’s really wonderful that you’re doing what you want to do with your life.

It’s really wonderful and brave that you’re writing.  If this is the only sentence of this blog you remember, then keep it close.  Just that sentence.  Because it’s true. 

Long distance swimmers have people in boats to protect them from drowning, people shouting from the shore that yes indeed they will make it.  And if they get attacked by jellyfish, they get medical care.  Writers, some days all we have are Mad Farmers on the other side of the hedgerow screaming abuse.  The people on the shore tell us to get a real job.  The ones in the boats laugh at us.  When we get stung by rejections, no first aid.  Just those looks which say, you should’ve stayed out of the water.

The goal.
Think of the hardest thing you’ve ever done or had to endure.  Not something small.  The BIG one.  Think of that right now.  Think of the strength it took you to get through that.  You’re pretty remarkable, aren’t you?  You are.  That quality alone is something you should share.  And you do that most effectively through your writing.

Don’t let them stop you from writing, those Mad Farmers of the world.  Write.  Write.  Write.  And keep writing.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The Run-Away Writer

I’ve been running away from home to write for a long time.  In the beginning, I organised group weekends.  Other people on retreat make it hard to retreat into writing.  I also see ads for professionally run escapes to striking locations with workshops and gourmet food.  These sound like holidays for people who dabble or want to meet published writers.  They’re probably fun, but not my cigar.

Inside my retreat
This week, I’m AWOL, and have decided to give my best tips on taking a final draft retreat.  A bit practical from me, but it’s Friday the 13th so the unexpected is expected.  Just a note that research or creative retreats differ enough in environmental needs that today, it’s all about what works for the final blowout get-every-word-in-place draft.

I write from home, have cleaners come in, don’t do the cooking.  Why would I have to leave home to write?  To pare down distractions and focus my efforts.  The dryer beeps, the glads need cut, Big Nose wants petted, the post’s been delivered.  All those little daily events take my attention.  Once a week I go to the Lit & Phil, a private library in Newcastle, to escape those things.  A final draft takes days of straight concentration, and that happens best outside my daily life. 

I’ve had some fine people let me house sit, the perfect arrangement, especially if you can’t afford to rent.  This depends on friends with a congenial space that are buggering off when you need to retreat.  My experiences with house sitting have been positive, so the only caveat I can offer is pets.  I leave home to get away from the enticements of the Big Nose Dog and his feline cohorts; I wouldn’t want to pet sit as well.  People who come to my house to write often say the animals are part of the plus.  That, and the Butler’s cooking.

So house sitting, unless that’s your job, not so easy to get.  Mostly, I do self catering.  Do you choose some place inspirational, with an exciting night life?  For the final draft, I give that a big NO!  You need your butt on your chair.  If outside is too interesting, you won’t be inside.  Pretty outsides are for when you’re creating and researching, not when you polish.

Know your creature comfort needs.  You may think a yurt in some forest would be great.  For my final draft retreat, I prefer a double bed, climate control, a table where I can work, wi-fi, a cooking area.  I love a nice, deep bath, or at the very least, a power shower.  Shere Garcia-Rangel (Alliterati) says every writer needs a window.  You’ll need electric lights to extend your working day.  To avoid screen glare, I find lamps are best, preferably ones that are adjustable.

Most places won’t have an office set up.  Think about what you need to sit in a kitchen chair all day.  A stool for your feet or cushions for your rump.  DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK and do it in advance.  In all my years doing this, I’ve only had one crap host.  The rest wanted me to enjoy my stay.

My current rental is close to home, so almost no travel time and outdoor temptations can be delayed until the Butler picks me up.  More often, I choose a place I’ve always meant to visit but haven’t, interesting but not irresistibly interesting.  An exception to the dull factor is if it’s the place you’re writing about.  Then it’s like a reference book, being able to walk out the door to check details. 

Leave them at home.
Writers differ in what they need.  As my hands age, I’m more dependent on the keyboard, but I still do edits on the hard copy.  I take my laptop and printer, external backup, a few reams of paper, pens of various colours, highlighters, reference books, a camera, and my phone.  Don’t forget things like wrist supports, eye glasses and typing stands (to hold the pages you’re typing from). 

I also bring something to read at night and never read it.  It acts as a writer’s teddy bear, I suppose.

You don’t need many clothes.  You’ll be indoors, butt on chair, remember?  My usual method of culling is, what fits in the suitcase?  When I'm running away by train, I use a large suitcase for the printer and paper, plus a backpack for the laptop.  All clothing, books and toiletries have to fit around those essentials.  Socks, underwear, sweaters, are the first things to pack; I wear my heaviest jumper or shirt on the trip.  Ask if there’s laundry facilities.

If you’re not driving, pre-order groceries.  Remember, what’s left, you have to cart home or toss, so this is not the time to try new recipes or stock up.  Bring your normal three meals/day plus snacks.  You’re not as active – your butt is . . . where? – you probably won’t eat as much as you do at home.  Ask your host what things are provided – tea, milk, sugar, salt, etc. – to save bringing them.

BRING TREATS.  You deserve them.

Since I don’t cook, I bring pre-prepared meals, but to be honest, the Butler’s too good a cook for me to enjoy ready-made.  Next time, he's catering.  If you’re driving or have an insulated bag, make extra servings during the weeks before you go, freeze them to take with you.  A lot healthier and tastier than Tesco’s finest.

ALWAYS HAVE EXTRA TOILET ROLL.  Some places will start you on one roll and then you’re on your own.  The week that I go through only one roll, I’ll sign up for dialysis.  Don’t get caught out.

Lastly, don’t forget your food weirdity.  I’m an American living in the UK.  I’ve only had one rental (really lovely in Berwick-upon-Tweed) that had an acceptable coffee maker and coffee.  My current rental has tiny sachets of Nescafe which to any civilised person are an affront to God.  Because it’s so close to home, the Butler brought my coffee maker over on Day One.  Check it out before you come.  You want to reduce discomfort, so your focus can be on writing.

Retreat writing station
This may surprise you, but I let my body determine my schedule.  I get up when I get up.  I write and eat and exercise according to my body’s signals.  I go to bed when my brain gets tired. 

Saying that, on a typical run-away week, I do two rewrites on a novel length manuscript.  I don’t have fixed daily quotas, but I know how much work and time I have left.  My creative flow seems to have an internal way of handling that.  You may have to be more structured.

Writing isn’t a healthy activity.  If you’re young, you’ve probably not noticed that yet, but it really isn’t.  This is why having pillows and stools is important.  Make sure you pack all the medications you need to cope, in addition to any you normally take, including supplements.  Most rentals have a first aid kit.

Be aware of your natural rhythms.  Have strategies for times when you slump.  When I’m at home, I quit writing at 5:00pm unless I have a deadline, then I quit at 9:00pm in order to remind my family I’m still alive.  Because my writing brain is used to that regular cease fire at home, I have a glass of wine in the evening when I’m away, to keep up my sugar levels and keep me writing.  (This may have the opposite effect on you.)

I also have a lull mid-afternoon, so usually go for a walk.  My first day here, I met a woman with several bearded collies on my walk, learned their canine family tree, lamented the one who just died, got advice for buying a puppy.  I next met a man who gave me the history of his house, then took me to see the goats.  After that, I met a woman spinning wool in her front garden who’s offered to check out a fleece I have at home.  I enjoyed all those encounters - it's what writers do, isn't it? - but I’m on retreat and that was my first day; I’ve not gone on any walks since.  The weather has been obligingly helpful about that.

To walk or not to walk . . .
However, movement is essential on a marathon writing week (fortnight, month).  I’ve done Tai Chi every day instead of walking.  I use a DVD, so I don’t cheat and skip forms.  (Know your weaknesses.)  Exercise is an antidote to most slumps, so find what works for you.

DON’T FORGET TO EAT.  One of the problems with letting my body set the schedule, is I skip meals.  HYPOGLYCEMIA IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.  Bring healthy snacks and keep a bowl on your table.

DON’T FORGET YOU’VE PUT SOMETHING IN THE OVEN.  Having the fire department called is embarrassing and puts a dent your writing time.

We love them, especially new people.  NEW PEOPLE ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS, if you’re in the final drafts.  Creating?  Researching?  Great.  Wordsmithing?  They’re time thieves. 

The people who have self catering rentals usually have great interpersonal skills.  Hospitality is their livelihood.  A lot of them will be generous with their time, offer to take you around, fix meals for you, buy you a drink at the pub. 

Be judicious.  Ten minutes talking about their garden or a trip to the grocery store won’t break your writing regime, and may establish a base for continued retreats.  Drinks or dinner say you’re on holiday, not there to write.  If they know in advance I’m here to work, most people respect it. 

Phone home.
The Butler and I usually talk on the phone every night, but here, there’s no service, so we’ve relied on social media.  This is inefficient for him, because I keep the social media turned off while I write, and tempting for me, because I’ve checked it more often than usual this week.  SOCIAL MEDIA IS ALSO NOT YOUR FRIEND although it’s delightful in so many ways, I do have to admit . . .

You will be lonely, if you spend your retreat the way I’ve outlined.  Be realistic with yourself.  This isn’t boot camp.  Get a people fix if you need it.  Go for a walk if cabin fever sets in.  Spend time on Twitter to connect with semi-reality.  You have to be in an okay space emotionally, to do the work. Just don't let any of these things become your primary occupation.  Butt on chair.

DON’T FORGET TO BATHE.  At least before you go home.  Your family will thank you.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Love With A Hook

Thirty years ago today, I became a first time mother.  If I had a different type of child, I’d write about how easy he is to love, brag about his wonderful talents, his remarkable bravery, toss a few of his quirks into the salad to make it real, end on a soppy note.  The thing is, today is his day; a blog like that would make him squirm with embarrassment.  My blog about his graduation DID make him squirm.  Instead, we’re going to a sushi bar with friends and hopefully laugh ourselves silly.  We may even get a puppy if we’re lucky.  (Seriously!)

Red letter days remind me about good and bad aspects of family, which I suppose is true for anyone who didn’t grow up on Little House on the Prairie.  My work in trauma has tested and, in some ways, broken the illusions our culture puts forward as absolute truth about family.  Sometimes, this causes me to make decisions about people in my private life. 

My son says I’m judgemental.  I say I’m experienced.  It’s difficult to know in advance which is correct, because while I am more experienced than my son, that experience is skewed.  I’ve lifted too many rocks and seen what lived underneath.  That’s made me a big believer in the power of memories.  We create a memory, it stays.  If it’s a bad memory, it harms.  So I think we need to be somewhat selective, not give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

In real life, that’s a wonderfully fine tight rope that needs assessed all the time.  These are real lives I interact with, reject or accept, so there are real life consequences for my choices, to both myself and other people.  In writing, however, I worked under the misconception that no holds were barred. 

Years ago, I wrote a fictional story about a woman who suffered domestic abuse.  An editor rejected it with the note that they only published stories about strong women.  I wondered if by ‘strong’ she meant not-real.  In my world, any woman in a relationship, gay or straight, could be a victim of domestic abuse, not just the ‘weak’ ones.

In my current manuscript, a father’s children collude with his narcissist ex-wife to cause him social and fiscal harm.  His children do what is called, ‘identifying with the aggressor’ (the mother).  In kidnap and POW situations, we know it as Stockholm Syndrome.  My character feels forced to cut off contact with his children or go down in flames.  A male reader told me that a parental relationship isn’t equal, and a father should always be there for his children.  He said the father’s decision made him unlikeable and as a reader, he couldn’t invest in the man’s story. 

These are the myths about families that keep intra-familial harm in business. 

A long time ago, a counselling supervisor referred to a client’s parenting style as ‘love with a hook in it’.  Think about that.  Not false love.  Not abuse.  Love with a hook in it.  The child is loved but with a painful consequence.  Not every dysfunctional family lives in the Bates motel. 

In one of Neil Gaiman’s talks at the Edinburgh Book Festival, someone asked him if Ocean at the End of the Lane were for adults or children.  Gaiman said children can deal with violence and other scary things.  They live in the same world we do and see a lot more than we think they do.  But what he didn’t think children should have to handle is Ocean’s conclusion that some evil things are too big to conquer without a price, and as such, classified the book as fiction for adults.

We need more fiction for adults.  Go write it.

Happy Birthday, El Punko!  Thanks for coming to live me all those long years ago!  You rock.