Month: August 2011

#Fridayflash Three Objects

On every birthday she took out the box, high in the cupboard, behind her suitcase, behind the clothes of other season. In the box there was a photograph, the sliver of hair, the first suit that only fit him for a week. She took out the photograph and placed it face down on the bed. She took out the hair and felt the curl of it round her finger and saw the colour of it. It was nothing like her own. It was dark, a jet black oil smudge. She took out the suit and watched it retreating every year, it fit in her hand, she crushed it. She did not put it to her face. It no longer had the smell of him.

She placed the three objects side by side: The face down photograph, the lock of hair, back in it’s envelope, the baby suit, flattened out. She felt the place where she sat on the bed sink down and give way. She waited until her breath was steady, until the rhythm of heart repaired. Then she put the photograph back in the box, to the side the lock of hair in the envelope which made a faint sound as she laid it down, then on top the suit, fit into the box in the shape of a child. She patted the fabric down. Then she closed the lid of the box, reached up and put it back into the cupboard, behind the clothes from before, behind her suitcase and all it’s possibilities.

Writing and Guilt

These days we call upon ourselves to be everything in perfection. In the wider world success and fame are seen to be a criterion for happiness. In all aspects of our existence, health, parenting, relationships, careers we have been assaulted by a multitude of ‘shoulds’. These have been substituted for common sense and instinct. Even if we are self-assured and confident people we still find ourselves,  through out networks, in contact with, aware of, and affected by the social norms and influences that run through the networks.

The voice of commonsense, of our mother’s perhaps (who we don’t want to listen to always) would tell us that we can’t do it all. We can’t blog, write an enormous amount of words a day, build our platform, take part in online writing communities, do reviews, interviews, take proper care of our loved ones, our children, hold down, perhaps, another job, keep the house clean, get a publishing deal and appear beautifully pristine in the local paper on the day of our launch, keep our partner, happy, ‘satisfied’, keep in regular contact with all our friends, keep fit, slim and win a Booker.

I often, in the social media channels see people apologising for not getting back to others, not doing #followfriday (where you recommend, on Twitter, good people to follow), not having a #fridayflash. I myself apologise for not getting back to people quickly, not doing a review I promised to do. I spend quite a bit of time thinking where I think I should have got to by now and getting annoyed with myself that I haven’t yet done what I hoped to do.

All this guilt. Sapping the energy out of our lives and our projects. Never mindfully living, concentrating on the experience or enjoyment of what we are doing at a particular moment.

It’s almost September. For many of us with children, it has a New Year feel about it. We want to organise and orient ourselves. Our lives feel cluttered. We can become overwhelmed and half-hearted about our lives and our writing. We can feel that we are not giving enough to either, that we are letting ourselves down in both spheres.For me, I’m pretty sure that the niggling feelings of guilt lead to LESS productivity, MORE stress and LESS satisfaction with life and my interactions and relationships with others.

In terms of writing, feelings of guilt may come from others if they do not appreciate the time spent on a ‘hobby’. We might feel guilty about taking time to do the thing we love when there are so many other pulls. Guilt might become a vicious cycle. We might try to write but it may take longer than we are happy with because we are not able to concentrate properly, because all the shoulds about where we should be now with our novel, what sort of book we should be writing, what we should be doing instead of this etc etc etc sap our energy and distract us from pure imagination and the joy of creating.

These are the ways that I am trying to move away from guilt both in writing and in life.

Give myself credit: Document each day what tasks, writing and otherwise I have accomplished, reflect on the pleasant activities or interactions I have had with family and friends. For writing specifically, review a monthly list of everything I have achieved in that time.

Outline my intentions: In a previous post I mentioned intention journaling, a method used by StudioMothers.com founder Miranda Hershey. She writes down every morning what she would like to achieve for the day. Writing them down clears our heads of our to do lists and allows us to check against them at the end. If short of time we can just jot down a short list in a diary and come back to it at the end of the day.

Outline small achieveable specific goals and check progress against them: This may be a daily wordcount that is highly achieveable (we can extend it more at a later point if we want). Realising that we have written 500 words a day, every day for the last month will show us that we are progressing.

Take breaks: We all have our own rhythms and after 40 mins on a particular task we begin to flag. It’s okay to take a break or to write in short bursts and the goals help us to do this because then we can work towards the goal and not just spend hours gluing ourselves to our writing chair hardly producing anything and feeling that we have ‘writer’s block’. Cut out distractions and stick with it but if you are overtired and it’s not working, go do one of the other tasks in your life, like sock pairing. Surely it’s time you spend some time on that!

Keep an eye on balance: Think about what you want in your life as well as writing.Good relationships, social outings, days out with family rest. Keep an eye on physical factors which hugely affect mood and energy, rest, good food, exercise. If some areas are flagging then make just take time to text, email or phone friends, have a regular family day out, take a daily walk, buy some delicious fresh fruit or ingredients for a delicious, healthy meal.

Kill two birds with one stone

The delicious meal can be prepared with your children, as a fun activiity, or you could do a writing course or visit an interesting venue with a friend.  Use your writing twice, exercise & find writing ideas as you walk.

Turn it all off

Sometimes it’s time to rest, to have fun, to turn off the computer, to go out of the house, to pick fruit, to mess about with boats or in the garden. You should not be writing your novel, you should not be keeping up to date with the forums or researching publishers, you should be out in the world living, filling up your energy and happiness for all your future endeavours, enjoying yourself just for sake of it.

Are you making plans to take the guilt out of your life and to organise yourself. Are there any things that you want to share that have worked for you?

#Fridayflash Unidentifed Fishy Objects

#fridayflash is a great community of writers on Twitter who post stories of less than a thousand words each week,then read and review each others work. It has been a great source of inspiration and discipline in my writing development and I recommend it highly. For more check out the button on the sidebar. Fridayflash is also on Facebook and on fridayflash.org where I was delighted to discover that I’m among the authors nominated for the Best of Friday Flash Readers choice award!

This story is related to Close Encounters with Goldfish

‘The sky is actually black’ he said, although I didn’t want to know.

‘We only think it’s blue because the light bends in the atmosphere and blue has the shortest wavelength.’

‘Uhmh’ I said, with pins in my mouth. I was turning up the hem of our daughter’s dress, for Barry’s sister’s wedding, Astra was going to be the flower girl. Astra, I know. It was either that or Cassiope so I think we got off lightly. The nurse had come round with the registration forms and Barry had signed them while I was out of the ward having a shower.

‘The light we see from certain stars began travelling towards us in Roman times.’

I prayed that he wouldn’t mention aqueducts but that would have been more in his father’s line. He was a walking encyclopedia, except of course encyclopedias don’t really walk anymore. I mean you don’t see those door to door salespeople now do you, it’s all on line, you know, virtual learning. Roy’s father isn’t around anymore either. He finally came down from his attic, where he had all the trains and the Star Wars comics and God knows what else and died. Oh he was okay and he was kind to Astra. The way they chatted quietly in the corner, him in his easy chair and she perched on the edge of it, it looked like they understood each other. Sometimes I fear for Astra.

It was strange for Barry to be there. Usually he was out this time of night charting the UFOs. Once I asked his mother for advice, whether to crack down on that kind of thing, I mean he’s never said it out loud but in his sleep he’s been convinced that he’s been abducted by aliens. It’s not a nightmare, he says things like ‘is it okay if I pull this lever here?’ and ‘Yes, toenail clippings for analysis are quite acceptable’ and then he talks gobbledegook which seems to be their native language. His mother said her policy, if you wanted to stay married, was to turn a blind eye to everything unless it involved cutlery.

Barry’s got books like the Turing Option. It’s not about a badly spelled tour of a famous Italian town where they worked on authenticating that shroud thing, it’s about how to tell whether you are talking to a human being or a computer. Finally, I said to myself, a self-help book that was written for me.

Astra looked beautiful in white, shining really, like a……She’s the kind of girl who settles nowhere but is everyone’s friend, she kind of….collects strays. We spent Christmas last year with a woman in a wheelchair who ate nothing but cheese and a man who had to sit at the front window and count the cars as they went by. He also occasionally shouted ‘Yarr!

So, as I was saying, it was strange that Barry was around. He came home early for tea and I couldn’t give Astra fish fingers like I promised. Barry won’t have them in the house. It’s probably something to do with e-numbers and astrological charts. When we first dated he made sure that I knew where Pisces was in the sky and he said once that we were descended from fish. He also used to say things like ‘We are made of the stuff of stars’ which I thought was really poetic until he went on to explain about the Big Bang, carbon, nuclear star furnaces and intersteller dust particles. I think I fell asleep then but I married him anyway. I don’t know if I ever really woke up.

I ought not to really say this but you know how it gets with married couples after a few years, not to mention fifteen, the passion fades a little, but, how do I put this, the last time we, er, you know, there was a metallic taste when we kissed each other and when I pressed against him it felt as if there was something under the skin, cold, pressing back.

Then once I woke up with a bright light shining in my eyes and a strange blurry figure, that later turned out to be Roy, taking my pulse and, please don’t get me wrong here, I thought my toenails were longer. And there was a strange smell of mackerel or something.

Barry wanted to take Astra outside. He seemed agitated, in a hurry. I was about to protest, it was late and cold, so clear that you could see the full moon hovering, quite low, but I had pins in my mouth so they were out the door before I could say anything. He took her hand, his torch in the other. They hurried down to the end of the garden pointing.

I was just tidying up when I saw a bright flash of light outside.

I woke up in the easy chair. It was almost light, a suspicious kind of dawn creeping up, you know the way it does. My pins were all lined up at the edge of the chair and my fingers stung.

Then Astra and Barry both burst in the back door, breathless. Astra’s cheeks were flushed and she was different, not so serious. Oh I know what it is now, it’s both of them, they’re happy. I realise what’s been missing all these years and I start to cry. I was sobbing so hard that it was difficult to see but I noticed that Barry was carrying a fishing rod at the end of which was bait that….throbbed light….You know sometimes things are so…strange that I end up talking to myself like I’m doing now, but if anyone is out there….if there is anyone listening….I hope you believe me.

Astra, was glowing too, really, like that stuff under the water at nights. She hugged me. I felt her cheek against mine and a cool hard pressing from under the skin

Her beautiful dress smelled of mackerel. I had to get it dry cleaned.

Novel writing: Untangling a slinky

Slinkies, fun to play with but easily tangled

I’ve just spent a long time untangling my daughter’s slinky, which, as you’ll see from the picture is one of those springy coils that are really fun to play with. This slinky has been tangled up for a couple of weeks and all the members of the family have had a go trying to untangle it and until now, none of us could figure out how to sort it out.

At the moment I am in the middle of a novel (this is one of the reasons, along with school hols that I’ve been off the blog for a bit).  I wrote the first 50,000 words of the novel during last years #nanowrimo although a lot of it was not chronological but consisted of various scenes. I’m most a pantser writer, making it up as I go along with not too much of a structure. It’s here that people will wag their fingers and say, ‘well you only have yourself to blame’ when I say that much of my novel writing time lately has been concerned with untangling the mass of storylines in the book, and trying to discover the main thrust of the book and making everything fit in with that. I still haven’t got to the bottom of it, there’s a whole element that may or may not stay in at all. I don’t yet have the confidence or clarity of vision to see whether it can fit or not.

In our attempts to untangle the slinky we used (what we thought was) rational deduction. We first asked ourselves ‘how did we get here, what happened to tangle it up in the first place?’ We attempted all sorts of contortions, feeding whole chunks of the coil ‘back the other way’ which, in hindsight was actually making the problem worse. Like writing can be, working on the problem was compelling and my husband found it difficult to give up on the endeavour to go out to work. He was firmly convinced that it could not be done.

I am fully aware that I have much to learn as a novel writer. A lot of the flailing and uncertainty is because I have never solved the particular problems before or because I have walked myself into a novel with a plethora of ideas, when one would have done. At times it seems that I will not be able to figure out the way ahead or that I may have to give up altogether. But with the slinky and similarly with the novel, I knew that there must be a method that could be used, that, with a different mindset the problem could be solved.

There were two qualities that helped me unravel the mysteries of the slinky: instinct and determination. I didn’t give up on the problem and in the end the solution was to follow the coil along with my fingers and to keep ‘unspinning’ the thing (hundreds of times) until it found it’s proper trajectory. This was a more intuitive process that our earlier rough attempts. And now I have the solution to take forward with me, the next time that the children arrive to ask me to untangle the slinkies.

With my novel I have written mind maps and lists, I have physically printed it out and sellotaped it together again. All these were usefully done to acquaint myself with the problem but in my experience analysis rarely solves my writing problems (not to say that techniques can’t be taught – if someone knew how to untangle a slinky and told me, it would have saved hours of work. If someone knows how to tell if your novel has too many elements then please write in!).

Having done the rational analysis with my novel, I am now intuitively following the coil of it, giving it that quiet but open-minded attention, writing my way toward what feels right and noting what elements become less necessary. Will this work and will I be able to explain one day to others how to solve the tangled slinky of their novels, I’m not quite sure yet, but I hope so.

To come on the blog in September: Interviews and hopefully some readings from my short stories as well as some more #fridayflash. There are also some very interesting interviews lined up on my guest blog on writing.ie, so keep an eye out!