The Night Rainbow

31 Days Guest Post Claire King: How do you keep the joy in writing?

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

How do you keep the joy in writing? How do you put it back in when you’ve lost it, particularly if you are working on a longer project? These are questions I often struggle with in my own work, even if the project is one that I’m generally happy with and committed to. I asked novelist Claire King whose debut novel The Night Rainbow has been published by Bloomsbury if she could share her thoughts with us. Claire combines work, writing and family life (originally from Yorkshire, she lives in southern France with her husband and two young girls) and is now revising a second novel. I’ve found her thoughts inspirational and hope you do too.

How do I keep the joy in writing? Claire King

You asked how I keep the joy in my writing, or put the joy back in when I’m struggling with it. I feel as though I could come up with a short list of tips like going for a walk, using writing prompts to kick off a piece of flash fiction or reading something inspirational. But in the end that would sound glib, because lacking joy is more fundamental than just being a bit uninspired or bogged down and needing to take a break.

I would define Joy as a sense of well-being, happiness, exhilaration even, and one of my favourite quotes on life in general is from Richard Wagner:

“Joy is not in things; it is in us.”

I think this is important on many levels, not least in raising the question: where does the joy come from in us? My view is that it’s to do with how we define ourselves, what we believe makes us happy and our lives meaningful. Writing is certainly one of element of how I define myself, so if I lose the joy in writing then I am losing joy in myself. Perhaps that sounds terribly over-dramatic, but isn’t it true that however you define yourself in life, the joy waxes and wanes? We may not always admit it to others, but there are times when we can lose the joy in learning, in parenthood, in being a spouse, in food, in sport, in our bodies, in our environment. Somehow all the colour goes out of it and we wonder if we will find that again.

One of the nice things about getting older is the accumulated experience of life’s ups and downs. So when you hit one of these patches you know that you’ve come through it before, that it’s cyclical, and that if you press on you will come through.

Yes, there are some days when I find writing frustrating and energy sapping, days I just can’t find the right words no matter how hard I try. There are some days I can’t even discipline myself to try properly at all, and then I feel bad about myself, and call myself names. But then there are the days when it just all comes together, when I lose effortless hours advancing the story and pushing the right pieces into place. When characters bloom and take on a life of their own. When perfect expressions seem to fall from the sky. And those times are rewarding, exciting and joyful. I have to remind myself of that.

Still, there’s no use just waiting for the joy to come back. I think we have to hunt it down again and that means figuring out the underlying reasons for why it was lost in the first place. Perhaps we are tired, discouraged, pre-occupied, or overwhelmed…If we can put a name to it, we can start to find ways out.

I’ve found, personally, that I have a sort of mental ‘bank account’ that fills up with triumphs and successes in the things that matter most to me, and depletes with failures and admissions of defeat. If writing is going badly it’s a drain on the reserves. A slow trickling debit. But it can be offset by little credits in other areas. One of the reasons I walk/run regularly is because it’s physically demanding. Once I’ve pushed myself up the mountain and galloped back down again I feel better about myself and what I can achieve. I think it’s important to have something like that, that gives you small victories in your life’s pursuits.

When I started writing The Night Rainbow I was pretty much constantly exhausted from having two very young children and juggling all sorts of work and personal matters. It seems like a crazy time to start a novel. But I realised that my entire time was devoted to the care of others and earning money to live, and in some ways I felt as though I was losing myself. I needed to do something to redress that.

Don’t get me wrong, raising my children was very rewarding and I was so inspired at that time by the joy I saw in my children. They found joy in the smallest things – a caterpillar, an iced-lolly, a drinking straw. I felt positively jaded in comparison to them, and I wanted to explore that in my writing.

In that novel I wrote a mother character, Maman, who is clearly depressed and not functioning at pretty much any level, spending most of her time in bed. Maman isn’t me, of course, but I think I was overwhelmed by how much my daughters needed me, and I was worried that this inability to cope was inside me somewhere. It was cathartic creating her, and it’s really interesting reading the early reviews coming in and seeing how they respond to that character. I’m so pleased that readers can empathise with her plight.

One important element of Maman and her depression is that she is lonely and alone, which serves to deepen her troubles. She has no-one to talk to. I think we should always bear in mind that losing our joy on whatever level is not unusual and that we’re not obliged to tackle it alone. Other people can help remind us why we are doing this, remind us of the bigger picture, and what’s important. They can also help on practical levels, take responsibilities off our shoulders, give us encouragement or rest or whatever we need to find ourselves again.

At the moment I’m living a peculiar juxtaposition. On the one hand there’s the utter brilliance of being a couple of weeks from the launch date I’ve waited so long for, seeing wonderful reviews already coming in and being able to hand over a signed copy of my novel to my mum. Joyous. On the other hand I’m editing my second novel and it is such hard going. I haven’t showed it to anyone yet, because I’m not proud of it. The voice isn’t perfect, the character arcs stutter a little. I often wonder if I set myself too ambitious a task with this one. It’s like being on a roller-coaster all day.

But I know that if I change one word at a time, eventually it will take shape. I know this because it’s not my first novel, and I’ve felt like this before. I have to ignore that joyless inner voice who tells me to have a cup of tea and turn on the TV instead. I just have to put one foot in front of the other until I get there. The joy in these words will be around the next corner, I’m sure.

Thanks so much to Claire. If you want to discover more about the world of and characters in her novel, here is the wonderful book trailer to The Night Rainbow and you can read about it here.

Mother Writer Interviews: Claire King

Claire King’s first novel The Night Rainbow will be published by Bloomsbury in Spring 2013. She lives in France where she also works and runs a gîte. She has two daughters Amélie, 5 and Beatrix, 3. She is currently Fiction Editor for The View From Here literary magazine.

When did you start writing? Had you established a writing rhythm or career before or did it happen alongside the kids?

I’ve been writing for a long time, but really, the successful rhythm and the serious approach to writing only came alongside my children. When my youngest was two, that’s when I really got on a roll.

What impact has having children had on your writing career?

I went through a long hiatus when my first child was born. Having a baby, far from the support of our parents, took every last drop of time and then some. Of course writing had to go, goodness some days we barely managed to wash and eat. But in the long term, as a result of having the girls, my time management and the way I set priorities definitely improved. And eventually I was managing to fit more quality writing into my days than I had before.

I recently took up the role of Fiction Editor for The View From Here literary magazine. It seems crazy on top of the load I already have, but I see it as an investment in the future. The work that I do currently is interesting, challenging and has allowed me to live where I do, but it does take me away from my family. I would like to be here for my family more often and so am nudging my career in the direction of more literary pursuits!

How do you organise your writing time and space, do you have a routine or is it more ad hoc?

I have no routine. I work away from home on average one week per month and there is no pattern to the timing of this. I also run our two gîtes, including everything from the marketing and website to ironing the bed linen. This is heavily seasonal, but also happens on an ad hoc basis through the year. After family, the writing fits in with all this and the last thing on the pile is housework. The children always have clean clothes but they are often un-ironed and the cobwebs often mount up.

What is important to me is my writing space, or garret. When I sit down to write I physically move myself and my computer from the place I answer emails, do the tax returns and so on. I have a small square table by our roof terrace windows. I sit there, put on my headphones, shut out the world and write.

Is it possible to maintain a balance on a daily basis or do you find yourself readjusting focus from work to family over a longer time-span depending on your projects?

I find it easiest to keep to a kind of rhythm, setting daily goals and setting time aside to achieve them. Breaks to that momentum are pretty disruptive and it can be hard to get going again, but I have to accept that they happen. If I have a sick child then it’s time to be Mummy and too bad for the writing. I don’t ever want my children to remember a time when I was too busy to cuddle them when they were feeling poorly.

How do the children react to your writing or the time you spend on it?

My children seldom see the time I spend writing, they are usually asleep, or, now that they’re both old enough, at kindergarten. Also I write on the train when I’m going away to work. When my children and I are at home together I don’t try and write. It’s no good for my concentration and no good for them needing my attention and being constantly turned away. The only exceptions are when I have a deadline (real or self imposed) and my husband is able to take care of them. Then I’ll shut myself away and explain why it’s important.

I do talk to them about my writing, of course. My children understand why I need to write. They understand that it is one of the ways I work (there are many!) and they understand that they books we all love to read are created by people who sat down to write the stories so we could enjoy them.

What do you find most challenging in juggling your role as a mother, your writing and other work?

For me the hardest thing is creating my own space and time. When I’m writing I absolutely must shut myself off. I can’t have conversations or interruptions. I need a clear hour at least, without interruptions. I’ve found ways to communicate that and insist upon it. And I’ve found ways to not feel guilty about putting fish fingers on the dinner table occasionally because I’ve written in the time I could have been making a lasagne.

You’ve made breakthroughs, most particularly finding your agent and your novel The Night Rainbow being taken on by Bloomsbury, at what stage of family life did they occur, why do you think they occurred when they did?

2010 was an amazing year for me, when I made breakthroughs with both my short fiction and my novel. I was a runner up in the Bristol Short Story Prize 2010, and shortlisted in both the Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition and the New Scientist flash fiction competition. I also won first prize in one of the monthly Writers’ Forum magazine competitions. The most amazing breakthrough came towards the end of the year though, when I had finished and submitted my novel and quickly found literary agent representation in the wonderful Annette Green. Annette worked fast, and by the end of the year I had met Bloomsbury and knew an offer was forthcoming. It all happened so fast in the end that sometimes I have to pinch myself to check that this is really happening. All this coincided with my youngest daughter starting kindergarten, which now frees up more time for me to get cracking on that next novel. I think the discipline that I learned during the years I had the children at home as well as writing and working is hugely beneficial to me now. I don’t waste my time, it’s far too precious, and these days I don’t have to write so late into the night, which I think my husband appreciates…

Do you think women face particular challenges in career/family life balance or is it something that both men and women face in equal measure?

I think women are often more reticent to set time aside, more often putting themselves last. Since writing cannot often be justified as a means of making money (certainly initially) or of pleasing the family, then it can easily drop off the list. I think men in general find it easier to prioritise time for themselves, whether it’s reading a book, playing a computer game, having a drink with a friend, going to play squash, whatever. Women need to get smarter at doing that too – it’s good for us and ultimately good for our families when we create space and time for things that are important to us personally.

What suggestions do you have for mothers or indeed parents who want to write or further a writing career.

1) Be crystal clear on your priorities. Know what you need to make it work – how much time you need for family, friends, work etc and give yourself realistic achievable writing goals.

2) Have a plan for how you’re going to achieve your writing goals but be flexible and pragmatic when your plans get disruptive.

3) Tell your family and friends that you are writing and that it is important to you and not just a ‘hobby’. You need their support and to be taken seriously.

4) Get yourself some cheerleaders – network on twitter or on writing websites with people like yourself.

5) Don’t ever give up.

Thanks so much for sharing your amazing writing journey with us Claire and we really look forward to seeing The Night Rainbow coming out. Congratulations on your wonderful news!

If you want to read about Claire and browse her excellent writing articles and links to her short fiction you can find more at http://www.claire-king.com/

For more in the mother writer series see here.