Feeling Grateful for Bookish People…

It’s events like these, Geneva Writers’ Group Meet the Agent and Publisher weekend , and people like these

wp_20170217_19_59_05_pro
From left to right: Jo Unwin, Joelle Delbourgo, Kathy Bijleveld, Karen Sullivan, Eric Ruben, Christine Breede-Schechter and Susan Tiberghien.

who make me happy to be alive and talking about books. I have tweeted some of the pearls of wisdom these guests have shared with us under #GWGlit, but my favourite insight – manifesto, almost – comes from Joelle Delbourgo: ‘We are not just sellers of books, we are purveyors of culture.’ Thoughtful words and diversity of points of view are more important than ever nowadays, so a huge thanks to these wonderful people who keep the passion and the flame alive.

And. of course, the backdrop couldn’t have been lovelier. The place I called home for 7 of the past ten years does not disappoint.

wp_20170219_14_56_30_pro

But there were some important lessons I learnt too as an organiser and writer:

  1. You have to be present yourself professionally as a writer, not just as a creative individual. That means respecting the publisher or agent’s time, following guidelines, meeting deadlines and keeping your appointments. It also means not changing your mind several times about what you are submitting and then expecting them to read the latest version overnight. It might mean not signing up for one-to-one feedback sessions in the first place if you think there is a chance you might not be able to attend, since there is a long waiting-list of participants who have been turned down because you took that place. I know life gets in the way at times, but would I dare to behave like that with my corporate clients? No. So why should I behave like that with literary people, just because I assume they are nicer and more forgiving on the whole?
  2. It isn’t easy to write a great first page, but it is far easier to write a great first page than to write a whole novel. And it really helps if you do have the whole novel to send to the agent when they get excited about your first page, otherwise the magic might be gone by the time you finally finish your manuscript… (this one reeks of bitter experience)
  3. We all secretly hope they will love our writing, recognise us for the geniuses which our families don’t think (or do think) we are, but in most cases there is still work to be done. Even if you get accepted by an agent or publisher, there is still work to be done. Don’t get so defensive that you refuse to listen to any advice or feedback that these busy, busy people are giving you with the best of intentions. Writing is a life-time job of learning and self-improvement. You have to be humble and willing to learn, even as we all admit that no single person has all the answers or God-given right to judge. We are unlikely to please all people all of the time, but when more than one person tells us we are over-writing or trying too hard to be literary, maybe we should listen.
  4. There is no point in complaining, sighing and fretting that it’s all about commercial interest nowadays. Of course it is, it always has been. Agents want to sell your oeuvre – otherwise they don’t make any money. The commissioning editor then needs to sell it to the marketing and finance team, the publisher then needs to sell it to the media and booksellers, the bookshops need to sell it to the readers. It is impossible to win literary prizes until you have jumped through a few of these hoops. You don’t have to write genre or sell hugely, but someone at some point in the process must have been ‘sold’ on your idea. Don’t make it too hard for them to pass on this vision – you are planting the seed of something which they and others can get excited about. We can have debates about just how diverse publishing is and how many mediocre books are getting published, while more worthy ones are sinking without a trace, but… that’s the game. Harsh but true: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, but don’t lament that cooking is all fast food these days. You can only change things from within.
Gratuitous shot of the Jura Mountains, just in case they were feeling neglected...
Gratuitous shot of the Jura Mountains, just in case they were feeling neglected…

Inviting the World In or Self-Care?

I’ve stupidly invited the outside world in.

From phys.org
From phys.org

I needed the distraction, I thought. I needed to being so self-centred and fascinated by my own navel, my petty little worries, my anxiety about the next few months.

People who refuse to engage with the reality around them, who retreat to their ivory towers, are despicable. Or so we thought back in the days just after the fall of Communism, when we were ashamed that there were so few dissident Romanian writers compared to those in Russia or Poland or Czechoslovakia.

So I opened up the doors and, instead of switching off the internet at night, I now check it during those long nights when I cannot sleep. I let the world in, with its mad melee of cacophonous sounds and barking, lies and ridicule, entrenched positions, animosity, rabid language and ugliness. I cannot unsee it now. And I am frightened. I feel like a small boat buffeted by shrieking winds and roaring waves, skin sliced open by hailstorms, head ready to rip open, a driftwood swollen to unnatural proportions.

I still function perfectly well on the outside: no one who has ever worked with me would believe I suffer from constant, if low-level, anxiety and depression. However, the toll of this ‘ability to muddle through’ is quite high at times and I wonder how much more of this constant assault on the senses (including common-sense) one can take. When you wake up daily to heated debates about crowd sizes, border walls, banning Muslims, the efficacy of torture, making Britain global again while keeping those nasty cockroaches like myself out… how long before you start accepting it as the inevitable status quo? How long before your health and mind starts to give up?

There is no doubting the impact it has had on my writing already. I struggle with prose, while the poetry I produce feels uncouth, full of sludge and invectives. My lack of productivity may not be a great loss to the world, but I wonder how many other artists and writers (far above my level) are struggling too.

For those who say that great literature was produced by dissidents, there is some truth in that. However, that usually happened during the periods of relative stability following the mass shifts, when the despair of ‘nothing will ever change for the better’ started to kick in. We will never quite know how many more fell into silence. As Akhmatova says:

And how many poems I have not written
Whose secret chorus swirls around my head
And possibly one day
Will stifle me…

I realised only recently that I gave up any form of creative writing during the other period of my life (from 1991-94 onwards), when I felt the same level of rootlessness, anxiety and despair at humanity. I blamed it on academic work, moving abroad, then joining the corporate huddled masses and the magic roundabout of marriage and children, but it all started before that, when I became distressed by the collapse of hope in a democracy that wouldn’t be equated with wild, rampant, cruel capitalism. My ‘escape’ back then was Cambridge and the friends I made there, and Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper.

But at the time, it was only one portion of the world that seemed to be going mad. Now the lunacy is engulfing the whole world. I stopped writing for 20 years then. I just hope it won’t be that long again now.

nocive

P. S. The examples of animal friendship and compassion in the current BBC documentary series ‘Spy in the Wild’ help a little, while simultaneously making me wonder if animals are not superior to humans.

This Will Be a Great Year of Writing… in a Week

2017 will be a great year for writing, I can feel it in my bones. I don’t just mean the rise of writing as political protest more generally, around the world, but for me personally. (Yes, forgive me, I am shallow and self-centred this time round.)

And this week has been a little microcosm of that.

wp_20161121_12_10_59_pro
It’s a long road ahead, but Voltaire is there to guide me… even at a distance.

First of all, as the title of my blog indicates, the greatest challenge I face as a writer is simply finding the bladidah time to write! So I joined the 5 day writing challenge on Prolifiko, a productivity coaching website aimed specifically at procrastinating writers such as myself. The idea being that by sticking to your resolutions for five days, and being held to account over them, you will develop new habits and will want to continue. My resolution has been a very simple one: to write for one hour a day 6 days a week (7 if I can manage it).

It may seem ridiculous that I cannot commit to writing more at this moment in time, when I am not working and while the children are in school from 8:30 to 15:30 every day. But I am also job hunting, doing some freelance work, reviewing, doing tax returns for two countries, doing housework, sorting out tricky financials and having discussions with solicitors etc. etc. By ‘writing’, I do not mean blogging or book reviews or HR articles or cover letters for job applications, but actual creative writing. Poetry, novel, short story.

So far, so good. I set my alarm for 12 noon and then scribble away blissfully for an hour. I find it works best if I have a combination of older work to edit and then allow myself to play around with ideas and words to bring out some fresh stuff. It certainly never feels like a chore, which confirms my impression that I would be the world’s happiest little writer, if only I didn’t have to do all the other boring bits in life.

Secondly, I’ve tried to apply for jobs I might actually enjoy (typically, those that have to do with books) rather than jobs that will merely pay the bills. Hopefully, I will eventually find one which meets both criteria, but in the meantime it has made the application process a little more fun. Organising a Meet the Agents/Publishers event for Geneva Writers Group in February is also highly energising and much more exciting than running workshops on workforce planning or business strategy.

Thirdly, I submitted a translation sample for a competition (German to English) and have also been in touch about translating crime fiction from Romanian into English. Fingers crossed! The next best thing after writing yourself is to be able to present other writers’ work to a new audience.

Fourth, I have three poems featured today on the literary site Clear Poetry (one I have always enjoyed reading and to which I had previously submitted unsuccessfully). The sound of my own voice makes me cringe a little, but there is audio of me reading the poems too, if you can bear to listen. The moral of the tale: if at first you get rejected, do submit again!

Fifth, I attended a fun-packed book launch  and talked to other writers about their writing process and publication journey, and it helped reset my energy and optimism buttons.

Sixth, I have decided to launch the #EU27Project for reading literature from all of the remaining countries of the EU. The response has been fantastic, and I would invite anyone to join in, whether you can read just one or two or all 27. It’s a project very dear to my heart. Call me a sentimental old idealist, but I was really hoping the European dream would come true. Now I see it in danger of going down in flames, it saddens me. I’ve never belonged to any country in particular, but I do belong to one continent: Europe.

To end on a hopeful note...
To end on a hopeful note…

 

 

Writing Plans – Past and Present

I had big writing plans for 2016, in spite of the changes that I knew were coming: the move to the UK, the separation, the job-hunting. I was going to finish my WIP and send it through to a mentor for feedback and structural edits. I was going to publish enough poems to be able to fill a collection and start sending it around to poetry publishers. Of course, I was going to continue blogging, both here and on the Geneva Writers’ Group blog, plus all the reviewing and contributing behind the scenes to dVerse Poets Pub and other sites.

Eh, well, no! None of that happened.

Picture credited to Gypsy Rose Lee, 1941: Women at Typewriter
Picture credited to Gypsy Rose Lee, 1941: Women at Typewriter

I struggled to put pen to paper with my novel: the subject matter just felt too close to certain things which I was experiencing, so I kept putting it off. I did make some progress on it during the wonderful writing retreat in Burgundy (about 10,000 words’ worth of progress), but after that it all got very quiet again. It now languishes at the mid-way mark, about 50,000 words or so. However, the screenwriting workshop I went on last Saturday, run by Resource Productions has given me a new appetite for tackling it. I don’t expect to turn it into a screenplay (I don’t know enough about film-making for that), but I can approach it in a new way, perhaps storyboarding, photography etc., so that I finally get the story out of me. Then at least I have some raw material to work with, instead of just having a jumble in my brain. I also discovered the scriptwriting software Final Draft, which may be helpful for structuring thought and writing for novels too (but it’s darn expensive).

I did send out some poems but not in any systematic way. Although a few were accepted, I still don’t have a decent enough bunch to fill a whole volume. I did send out a selection of about 20 for two separate chapbook competitions, but was unsuccessful in both of those. However, I did have a great spurt of poetry in October, when I visited my friends in Provence and some of those poems are amongst the best things I’ve written to date. I seem to have made a bit of a creative jump onto the next step in my progression, and I really hope this is permanent rather than just temporary.

As for reviewing and blogging, I’ve been rather lax with that, at least when it comes to other websites. I’ve cut down on my commitments to reviewing, the Geneva Writers’ Group (no more newsletters, only very occasional blogging), dVerse Poets Pub (no more hosting, only occasional visits). I don’t like doing this, mind. These were some of the most fun activities I was engaging in – but I felt I could not do them justice when they were constantly jostling with other dull but necessary aspects of my life.

This week, just before the Christmas holidays (during which I will take a break from everything but reading), I tried to finish off a couple of projects I wanted to send off in early January. Alas, my Microsoft Office documents seem to be having trouble opening up and saving. I also hear that Yahoo accounts have been compromised. Hurrah, more technological woe to sort out… it will be back to pen and notebooks or semaphore code and smoke signals for me.

semaphore_error-svg

 

 

 

Journey of a Poem: Part 2

At the beginning of October, I share the first draft of a poem which, in all fairness, was more of a rant. In the meantime, I’ve shared it with my beloved poetry mentor in Provence, Karen McDermott, and also read it out at my local writing group, so I’ve had some feedback and made some changes.

editing2

One major area of reader concern was that I need to make it clearer from the outset that there are two people involved in the poem: a couple quarrelling. The other suggestion was to include more ‘out’ words, like outshine, outrun, outdo. I took both of those onboard.

I also decided that one whole stanza, the one with the invalid in bed expecting to be waited upon hand and foot, didn’t work very well (although it was what triggered the furious poem initially). So that came out and I reworked some of the other ideas, extending them into stanzas of their own.  The passwords and apps in the first stanza became much more about a certain type of masculinity which uses technology as a weapon and rolls his eyes when women are not interested in constantly playing with gadgets. The scientific depth became more of a weapon of derision in its own ‘mansplaining’ stanza. The Facebook foxiness and offshore squirreling references became more obviously financial with the introduction of a game of Monopoly.

monopoly

So here’s the second/third draft. The fourth stanza is deliberately longer than the others, which are all composed of four lines. It’s the break in patterns which makes things interesting. As Laura Kasischke said during her masterclass: ‘If I were in the hands of a poet who obviously has no idea where line breaks occur, just chops up a piece of prose into shorter lines, then a break in pattern is random, but if it’s a poet you can trust then you can see it’s deliberate and it adds to the meaning.’ That longer stanza marks how endless the Christmas season can seem when you are trapped in the house with someone lacking empathy and determined to always be in the right.

Outwit with passwords
you outgun me
fat on apps, encrypted accounts,
grin at attempts to follow your technology

Outrun me in the gym
keep yourself trim
belly sucked in and crow superior
while flab won’t cease to haunt me

Facebook foxiness masks
offshore squirreling
in a Monopoly game where
you outdo my every move

Holiday season and you outfrown
my anxious hiccups
drowning out conversational gambits
with incontrovertible evidence
well-placed asides
oh that scientific depth

Outmother me, won’t you,
all laughter and mad tickling
masking the many hours of boredom
which you refused to partake

Soon you will outsource me
but still keep allure of long-distance parenting
Swiss chocolate vs. squished pies
drowned in bitter custard.

piecustard

I’ve not added much punctuation to the original, but am wondering if it might be more effective to have a large first letter for each stanza, especially if it’s all O, like in an illuminated medieval manuscript. Or is that too artificial? I’d have to change stanzas 3 and 4 to start with O, but can leave the last one as is, for more of a contrast and resolution.

Now for the most difficult thing: the title. I vaguely thought of ‘Outnumbered’, or ‘Outfoxed’, but other possibilities include ‘Outlier’ or ‘On the Way Out’ or ‘Getting Out’. But I am not sure that insisting on the repetition of ‘out’ in the title isn’t overkill. What do you think?

My 2016 in First Posts

After a disastrous previous year’s attempt to use the first sentence of the first post of every month to give me an overview of the year that had gone by, and a marginally more successful version in 2015 , my attempt for 2016 simply did not do justice to what has been a tumultuous year. Very different from what I  (or anyone else) expected. So I ‘cheated’ a bit and went on to second or third posts of the month, picking out more relevant sentences. A sort of ‘found poetry’ attempt, accompanied by ‘found photos’.

What struck me was how much I am obsessed by my failure to write this year. Once again.  I’m probably not the only one who felt overwhelmed and overtaken by worldwide and personal events, temporarily forgetting about the soothing power of writing. I’m certainly not the only one who turned to poetry rather than prose for solace and trying to understand myself and the people around me. But I feel guilty about that novel that still languishes unfinished in my notebooks and on my desktop. I know I need to be kind to myself when all the world around me is being smashed with a wrecking-ball, but… tick-tock! tick-tock! How much longer can I afford to not write?

wp_20160809_12_23_02_pro_li2016 is going to be a good year for you, for me, for the world more generally – 6 is my lucky number and I am willing it to be so. (Besides, the world and I are due a good one after the last few grim ones.)

Why did no one warn me that writing a synopsis is so difficult?

I ‘accidentally’ attended a poetry workshop run by the wonderful Naomi Shihab Nye and suddenly the words were gushing out of me, after a twenty-year absence from poetry, and nearly as many years of not really taking writing of any kind seriously enough.

I will risk boring you this week with no less than three posts about Quais du Polar in Lyon.

wp_20160816_11_28_23_proA little twitter conversation with the delightful Janet Emson (if you haven’t discovered her blog yet, it’s highly recommended, not just by me) had me uttering the words: ‘Dammit, Janet, I love you!’

I’m already suffering from homesickness before I’ve even left this region.

wp_20161027_12_09_08_proWhy would you ever not have a spiral staircase or a ladder if you have a large home library?

‘You do have a lot of books…’ sighed the removal men (and I don’t think it was wistfulness I detected in their voices).

It’s not the move (or, to use corporate terminology, the international relocation). It’s not the scrabbling around trying to find the financial paperwork…  It’s not even the lack of internet or … when your devices conspire to let you down all at once.

wp_20161020_08_02_22_proHenley Literary Festival is virtually on my doorstep, and it was the first literary event I attended, back in 2009. I met the dynamic and very accessible, friendly duo Nicci Gerrard and Sean French (better known as Nicci French) there, we discussed the Moomins and the Martin Beck series, and the rest is history. In other words, my passion for reading and writing was rekindled.

I was going to finish my novel and send it to my mentor for structural edits. But that was based on the flawed assumption I made back in early June that I would have spent a total of 5 weeks on the novel by now. Needless to say, that did not happen between July and October. I wrote precisely zero words since mid-June.

wp_20160909_14_38_35_pro

P. S. I know it’s a bit early to wrap up the year, but I anticipate an early end to this year’s blogging. From 17th December onwards, it will be all about off-line wrangling of thoughts, feelings and activities.

P.P.S. Word of warning: 7 is my unlucky number, so goodness knows what 2017 will be like…

Old Pal Poetry and Capricious Prose

When I thought about the different effect that prose and poetry have on me, and how I feel about writing both, it surprised me to discover that I used the pronouns ‘she’ for prose and ‘he’ for poetry. At this moment in real life, I seek out female companionship, which I find more nurturing, but in writing I seem to find a home in poetry when I am unable to write prose.  I wonder what Jung would make of that?

wp_20161023_09_00_20_pro

Prose taunts and haunts me – she blows hot and cold. Sometimes I love her to bits, sometimes I feel close to strangling her. I can never approach  her unprepared. She requires, nay, she demands a lot of love and attention; I often don’t have the time to give her all that she deserves. Then she neglects me, slams the door in my face, throws a tantrum. I spend weeks, even months, trying to woo her back, but there is no sign of life from her capricious majesty.

She is also the mistress of comparisons. She has no qualms about telling me that her other suitors are better, tidier, more organised, more romantic, more dashing, more, more, more…

I have tried to flirt with her younger sister, Short Story, or her niece, Flash Fiction, but it’s Prose the Novel whom I love best. She knows it, I know it. No amount of success with the others would ever make up for the loss of her.

Poetry is my refuge when Prose refuses to cooperate.

wp_20161122_12_52_02_pro

When I cannot find the words, Poetry takes over like an old chum. Knows me best, understands the unspoken, the wildest metaphors and similes. I say a carrot is like a star and Poetry smiles in his gentle, light-filled way and only ever replies: ‘Why not?’

Poetry is the one who soothes my nightmares, unknots the wrinkles on my face and in my mind. He encourages me to discover myself, and if I don’t come back with answers… well, so what? He’ll still be there for me.