Monday, 10 November 2008

On Reading

Now that things have settled down again, and we are safely ensconced in our new home, I find myself coming back to my natural habitat, which is books. I am never happier than when I am in a library. I feel safe amongst all those jostling spines. Sometimes I get a little frightened, though. There is so much to read, and I shall never have time to get through it all in one lifetime, especially since I am such a slow reader. My husband can plough through a novel in a day, especially when he is on holiday, and has nothing else to do. Whereas I never take less than a week, and always get a feeling of elation at the achievement of finishing when I close the back cover, along with the sense of disappointment that it is all over.

As a writer, though, reading is part of my profession. It has to be. A painter cannot paint without being aware of other painters’ work. Stephen King recommends spending your mornings writing and your afternoons reading, as a way of feeding your muse. I don’t know that I am fit to write in the mornings, but afternoons are certainly my reading slot.

Today I have begun to ‘return to work’ as they say, and spent the afternoon rolling in the unaccustomed luxury of working out what I need to read next, of making a list, and considering my plan of attack for my current projects. I have made a list of the next four novels I am going to read on a scrap of cardboard which I am going to use as a bookmark. It is a hangover from my school days, when the same thing was done. The books in the blue, green, red, or whatever, level readers you were on, were recorded on your bookmark, and then crossed out in turn. It is delicious to score out a title and know that you are one step closer to achieving your goal, which then was to move up to the next level, but now is – what? I suppose that my goal is to cross out one more book on the huge ‘reading list’ of life. Another notch on the bedpost, so to speak.

And where does it get me, apart from the satisfaction of having finished something for a change? Virginia Woolf read for a living, making meticulous reading notes in a notebook which she kept at her side as she read, and then producing from her notes dazzling critical essays for publication in the literary magazines of the time. Her analysis of the Elizabethan poets, of Hardy and Galsworthy amongst others, all informed her manifesto of ‘stream of consciousness’ fiction, the Modernism that she, along with others like Joyce (whose ‘Ulysses’ manuscript she rejected for publication by the Hogarth press, while admitting ‘it has something’) shaped, and which makes possible the literary fiction we read today.

They say there is no new story, just the old ones rehashed time and again. We all write in the context of our peers and those who have gone before us. As women writers, we live in the post –‘A Room of One’s Own’ world, a world which Woolf helped to create. How can we not read, taking that into account?

Another reason why we must read is that if we don’t, we will forget why we are writing in the first place. If we lose sight of the pleasure of what it is to read a good story, then we will lose our own readers. Often writers are guilty of not respecting their readers, Sol Stein reminds us. We must never forget the pleasure of a good book, so that we know WHY we write in the first place.

The final reason we must read is the same reason young artists have for centuries sat before the works of the Great Masters and copied them. It is part of the apprenticeship of any craftsman to emulate those who are Masters of their craft. As writers, we read a book differently. We do not simply say, this is good, we ask, why is this good? And that is the best way to learn.

All this theorising does not clarify my own reading schedule for the coming weeks. There is my ‘work’ reading and my ‘pleasure’ reading. For work, I have embarked upon a programme of May Sarton’s ‘A House by the Sea’, followed by Joanne Harris’s ‘Holy Fools’ and Kate Morton’s ‘The House at Riverton’, and concluding with Jane Harris’s ‘The Observations’. These choices are all somewhat female and domestic in nature, not really what I write, but for quality I feel I shall learn from them. And for pleasure, by which I mean, the stuff I read before I go to sleep at night, I shall plough on with my re-reading of Terry Pratchett’s more recent books, because tthey make me laugh, and you need to go to bed happy.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Life is Changing

The world is turning upside-down for everyone, not just me. Every time I switch on the television or radio, there is more dire news from the money markets. Russia is turning hard line against the West, oil is running out and the polar ice caps are melting. My panic about having to move house seems pathetic by comparison. I am lucky to have a roof over my head at all.

And yet why is it that I am overwhelmed with fear when I think about our new home? We moved in last week, and in the 10 days or so since I have been a complete basket-case. In struggling to resolve the reason why, I have uncovered a traumatic childhood move from Nottingham to Portsmouth that I had always shrugged off as irrelevant. But now the three-year-old I was then, confused and afraid, has reasserted herself, and I am spending the majority of my time cooing over her, comforting her, soothing and cuddling her. How I wish she'd had what she needed all those years ago, so that I wouldn't have to be struggling with her tantrums and terrors in my 40s. But its too late to cry over spilt milk now. I have to mop up the mess thats left.

Our new home,though, is a surprise. It feels enormous compared with our old house. We can't have a conversation with one another by shouting down the stairs anymore, because the sound won't carry around the corners. We are now situated in the midst of a large agricultural and shooting estate, crammed full of wildlife. We go to bed at night to the hooting of owls, and wake to the rattle of pheasants. We cross a bridge to get home, and glimpse kingfishers, herons and otters. It is a whole new world.

But the real shock for me has come with the understanding that this move has so occupied me for the last nine months, almost, that I have forgotten who I am. I have lost touch with my writing, with my purpose in life. I have become the person who is moving, rather than the writer I was before. Now I need to change myself back. Now I need to rememberthe meaning of my existence. I need to devine my purpose over the screeching terrors of my former three-year-old self, and use it as a way to create the routine and permanency that will comfort and settle her. It feels like an impossible task at some moments. Her reedy little voice wails in my mind, 'What's the point? I hate it! I HATE IT!'

But somehow I must claim my life back. I must reimpose order. I must parent her, and myself. Its a tough job, but someone's got to do it...

Friday, 25 April 2008


Well, now I have it. A manuscript. ‘The Seventh’. My novel. Fully complete. Although on two pages per sheet it does feel like it has half the splendour that it should possess. But it is a thing, an object in its own right, instead of a series of icons on my laptop screen, or a set of ideas in my head.

Already I am picking it to pieces when I should be copy-editing. Finding all the things I think are wrong with it. Could I make it more deep, more subtle, more literary? But then it wouldn’t be what it was conceived as – fun. I conceived it as a gallop, a scream around a track on a Motoguzzi or in a Testarossa, something of a diversion, excitement for unexciting lives. Lying in bed last night, I went through all the Issues (note the capital) that I could or should raise in it. But that’s not the point. Yes, it is intended to make one think – to think about whether one would do the same as the hero does – but only that one thought. It is not meant to be an exploration of a prostitute’s existence in the current climate of AIDS and violence. Or an indictment of the Metropolitan Police. Or a metaphor for the subculture of immigration or religious fundamentalism in modern Britain. It’s about gangsta vampires and Glaswegian angels.

Part of this self doubt is engendered by having received my first rejection letter. Actually I am quite proud of it. At the beginning of the year I was too frozen with terror at the thought of putting my work ‘out there’ to imagine myself at this point. Now I feel like I have won the Purple Heart. I have been out there. I have got the scar to prove it, even if the scar is actually a single side of photocopied A4. So it’s fine.

But then, the doubts start creeping in. They read it, they claim, but they didn’t have a place for it. Does this mean it wasn’t good enough, not deep enough, not literary enough? Are the characters too superficial? Should I rewrite? What if no-one accepts it? What if there are too many books in this genre out there already? What if this entire series I have conceived will be a waste of time because it’s too late and too derivative?

On the other hand, my hero, Iain Banks, Gods bless him, wrote half a dozen novels before he got one accepted. This is the rule. I am only on my second – well, third actually, if you count the one I am writing now as a sequel. Chances are, that one will be a damn site better than ‘The Seventh’, just as ‘The Seventh’ is streets better than ‘Woad’, my first.

My rational brain therefore says, bollocks to the doubts, just get on with it. The truth is, I have to keep writing. To do anything else would be to cease existing. And as I practise, so I will improve. I may leave behind me a library full of unpublished novels, but who cares? I have already written two more than most people ever manage.

And so I will fiddle with my manuscript of ‘The Seventh’, dot the ‘I’s and cross the ‘t’s , and keep plugging away. I mean, if Dan Brown can get published, why shouldn’t I?

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Creativity Again

I've bought a book called 'The Creative License' by Danny Gregory, and I am using it to start to draw again. I used to draw all the time. I used to be a graphic artist, dammit! Somewhere along the line, I started writing and forgot to draw. Or got frustrated every time I did draw because what came out on the page didn't look like it did in my head. What I forgot is that when I drew as a child, when I was good at drawing, I was doing it every day. As with anything, you don't get good at it unless you practise. I practise my writing. Every day. So why not drawing too? Why not use the same techniques for fitting in a drawing exercise as I do for fitting in a writing exercise?

My father was an excellent artist. His work was delicate, beautiful, etched. But he never drew. I only have one drawing of his left, from a whole lifetime. I've often berated him for wasting his talent. But for the last 20 years I have been doing the same. Somehow, it got left behind.

I know that I am a writer, in the same way that I know I am female. Its something you are born with. But when I dream of what I want to be, often I want to be an artist as well. Artists fascinate me. I read about their lives. Frida Kahlo, Dora Carrington, Mark Rothko, Wassily Kandinsky, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Ben Nicholson, Patrick Heron, and of course, Picasso. My favorite artists. If I picture myself in my wildest dreams, I have a studio. I've always wanted to write a film about Vanessa Bell. I want to write a book about an artist who is dying in the midst of his coterie on a Greek island. One day, I will. Its a strong urge in me. I want to create beautiful things. So why not be a writer AND an artist?

With Gregory's hints, I am learning to draw again, but in a new way to the way I was taught at school, with definite lines, with commitment, without rubbing things out. By observing, deeply. By seeing what is there. There have been so many holidays where I have spent so much time fiddling with the camera, taking pictures, that I haven't actually looked at the beauty in front of me. Pat remarked to me how struck he was by the beauty of the sketches his friend Martin was making at Thiepval while they were away - Martin is an artist. Other people take pictures. He draws. That way, he sees. I take photos with the intention of copying them as drawings later, which I never do, so I never really see what I am looking at.

No more.

And surely, looking more closely, more mindfully, will feed my writing too.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Feeding the Brain

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity in the last few days. Last week, I spent all day and all evening writing, working on my novel. By the end of the day I had just had enough. I was sick of it. The next day, when I woke up, I felt like the half of an orange that has just come out of the juicer. Dried up. A husk. My brain felt completely empty, and I knew I had to stop writing, and feed my brain. I had to fill it up with juice again.

So I spent the afternoon at Norwich Castle, looking at their collection of paintings. Watercolours and oils by the members of the Norwich School, like John Crome, and John Sell Cotman, and also Edward Seago and Alfred Munnings. Then I went into the Timothy Coleman Gallery, where they had an exhibition of modern art. There was a wonderful Chagall. There was another painting, by a man whose name I have forgotten (but I will find out). He was an abstract expressionist whose work had been banned by the Nazis. So he had spent most of the 30s and 40s being persecuted, doing menial jobs, forbidden to paint. But he had painted, tiny little paintings of such enormous passion. What an incredible man.

At the weekend, I visited 2 National Trust properties, Oxburgh Hall and Blickling Hall. Their beauty and history inspired me. Even in the cold wind, their gardens fired me up. All those lovely carvings, portraits, inlaid cabinets, ornate plaster ceilings, silver-backed hairbrushes. I love such beautiful things. It made me realise that although I am a writer (in the same way I am female), what I dream of being is an artist. One day I hope to fulfil this dream.

Now my brain feels invigorated, juicy again. It was good to have a holiday from writing, to give the little grey cells a break. Now I feel lots more creative than I did. Inspired. Of course, physically I am a wreck, but I’ll get over that if I give myself permission to rest. The important thing is that the spirits are lifted.

A dear friend of mine has taken a career break and gone abroad to work on her novel. It’s an incredibly brave thing to do, but it has put her under a lot of pressure, because she can only afford a certain amount of time before she has to come back. Right now she is feeling all juiced out, just like I was. But she can’t afford the time to stop. I wonder about this. I hugely admire what she is doing, but I wonder if one can ‘force’ a novel in this way. Maybe writing is what we do in between the stuff of life, the washing up and the ironing. I have written some of my best stuff while waiting for potatoes to boil. Yes, we have to practise every day, or as close to that as we can. But doing it 18 hours a day, is that healthy, for us or for the work? It wore me out, I know that much. I think that our everyday lives, the stuff we all complain about in our writers group as getting in the way of our work, actually FEEDS it. But on the other hand, I am not able to work, so I don’t have the pressures that she does. Perhaps I am in an enviable position. All I know is that without putting fuel in, you can’t get energy out. We can use the minutiae of life as fuel. But sometimes we need to stop and feed ourselves a huge banoffee pie of National Trust property.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Latest News from Darkest East Anglia

Spring has finally come to Norfolk. Yesterday I spent the day basking in the sun at Hunstanton with a friend. Had my first ice cream of the season, something to really celebrate. Its about time! This time last week, we were knee deep in snow. We are now in British Summer Time (BST), which helps, although the clocks going forward has really messed up my biological clock, as usual. Still, the daffs are out, the delphiniums are coming up, the clematis has buds on it, and all is right with the world. Well, it would be if there wasn't a war on, and our landlord wasn't selling our house, neither of which, it seems, can be helped. Movement is happening on the latter count, at least, so watch this space.

In the meantime, I am launching into solid work on my new novel, 'The Eighth', as well as trying to get 'The Seventh' published, or at least to find an agent for it. Pat and I spent Sunday evening holed up in the Lord Nelson at Southwold, churning over ideas for our work, and trying to come up with a solution to my 'Terminator' problem for the 8th. A few interesting questions came up, my favorite of which is:

Do angels have appendixes?

Think about it....

Well, for tomorrow I am still 'confined to barracks', recovering from my trotting about in the sun, so hopefully I will feel better again after a rest, and be able to get down to planning the first draft properly.

Happy Spring, luv Bex