What a wonderful day we had! Nine members of our Royal Borough Writers group committed to a full day of writing in the attic room at The Old Court in Windsor, all while raising money for the mental health charity Mind.
No conflicting commitments, no distractions, just setting goals for the morning and the afternoon, receiving stickers if we achieved those goals (we all did) and 50 minute writing spurts followed by a 10 minute break to replenish your drinks at the bar downstairs. We kept that up from 10:30 until 18:30 and it was the happiest I’ve been in many, many months.
While I cannot claim quite as many words as some of the other members of the group (6500 in one case, 10 pages of film script, 3 short stories etc.), I did manage to write about 2500 words, edit several poems and completely rewrite one as a ballad. Our total tally was probably over 25,000 words and a total of nearly £800 raised, so something to be proud of.
Thank you so much to all of you who donated so generously to us in cash and via the JustGiving page! In addition to raising funds for Mind, you also reminded me of just how much I love writing. A great way to kickstart my passion for it once more, and a handy reminder that I should stop putting it last, after I do all the tedious urgent chores.
I’m not quite sure what to call this post, because it is about far more than just reading (although reading plays a huge part). It’s also about writing, translating, attending literary events and far more. So let me just put the extremely broad label of ‘culture’ on it.
If you’ve read some of my posts about the #EU27Project, you will know what will keep me busy until end of March 2019. I have most of the books already sitting and waiting on my bookshelves (a couple maybe from the library, although our library does not do very well on anything foreign that is not a Scandi-thriller). Nevertheless, any tips for Cyprus and Luxembourg would still be gratefully received.
I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with the Paris Commune (perhaps because of its close association with Montmartre (where it started) and Belleville (where it ended), my favourite parts of Paris. So when Emma from Book Around the Corner reviewed a book about this topic (in no flattering terms) and suggested that Zola’s La Débâcle (The Debacle) would provide a better background to it. So Emma and I have decided to read Zola ‘together’ in May 2019 – and you are very welcome to join in if you like. I also have other historical and fictional accounts of the Commune that I want to read that month, so May will my revolutionary month.
There are two rendezvous that I never miss ever since I discovered them: Women in Translation Month in August and #GermanLitMonth in November, so I hope to take part in those this year as well. I also want to read and review critically at least one book of poetry a month – because that helps me rethink my own poetry.
Last but not least, I have to make a serious indent in the books I already own. The stacks my shelves, assorted pieces of furniture, floor are toppling over, while my Kindle hides hundreds of impulse buys. I may not read them all, but I need to triage, discard or read and not buy any new books. Of course, I’ll still visit the library on occasion.
Other than that, I will rely more on reading by whim and happenstance. I’m cutting right down on my reviewing commitments. Although I’ll be very sorry to say goodbye to my long-term association (more than 6 years!) with the wonderful Crime Fiction Lover site, I want to follow in the footsteps of its previous reviewers who became writers, such as Luca Veste and Eva Dolan. And the only way to do that is to hoard my precious time more tightly to my chest!
Although my association with Asymptote Journal of literature in translation and its Book Club has been shorter (a year and a half), I am equally sad to cut my ties with a literary venture whose emphasis on quality (of both literature and translation) is second to none. I will hopefully still serve as a point of contact to help organise events for the Book Club, but am no longer able to keep up the daily second shift until late at night.
I’ll be blogging and tweeting far less. I won’t feel as pressured to review every single book that I read (which was perfectly fine for the first 2-3 years of my blog, but then I started to feel guilty about it). I will work hard on finalising the poems (and perhaps swapping out some old ones with some new ones) for the chapbook I hope to send out soon. I may share some of my progress (or lack thereof) on my novel. I don’t have a daily word target, or even a daily routine, but I will make sure to keep in touch with my own work far more regularly throughout the week, rather than treating it as a welcome but very distant relative who visits once or twice a year.
I still have a few theatrical escapades planned, but am again practising some restraint. Tickets are very expensive (and reviewing takes time, although I might still do it occasionally, as you get to experience shows you might otherwise not have come across). I will see the ballet Manon with the peerless Alina Cojocaru in January (one of my favourite ballets, so dramatic, so sad). In February it will The War of the Worlds with my older son.
Can I just do a proud Mum shout-out here? It is so rewarding to take him to a film or play, as he really dissects it and examines it critically (without being annoyingly nitpicky). We saw Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap yesterday in London for his birthday and we had such fun actually talking all the way back (no messing about with phones) about the play, favourite films of 2018 (Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody scored highly with both of us) and reminiscing about his toddler days. I really enjoyed his company, which is not always the case with children and teenagers, even though you might love them to bits. And I don’t think it has much to do with the way I brought him up, since younger son is not all like this.
No holidays abroad with the children this year and indeed very few holidays at all, but I will treat myself to a trip to the south of France around Easter time (if the planes will still be flying without a hitch after Brexit) to stay once more with the friends in Luberon where I’ve previously been amazingly productive.
I’ve also decided to be extravagant and treat myself to one crime festival this year. After carefully examining dates and pennies, I opted for CrimeFest in Bristol 9-12 May, so do let me know if you are planning to attend, as it’s always fun to meet up with people you know so well online.
The final ‘treat’ will be a working holiday in July, i.e. going to a few university open days with my older son and taking in some of the sights in England along the way. It’s still a bit early to worry about university, but it gives us an excuse to meander and stay in some amazing locations, thanks to the Landmark Trust.
So those are my plans for 2019. Whatever your plans are, whether you make resolutions or not, I hope the year goes well for you, and that the pollution of world news and events does not impinge too much upon your daily lives.
Over the past few days, I’ve come across several items of received wisdom about authors and writing which made me cock my head to one side and wonder… I can’t claim to be an expert in publishing, but I’m an obsessive reader. So all I can do is give my slightly-keener-than-average reader opinion on writing myths which might be holding some potential writers back or causing publishers to underestimate the markets for a certain type of work.
Productivity is expected.
Gillian McAllister, a respected crime fiction author, asked recently on Twitter: ‘I’m thinking a lot about longevity of writing careers and those authors who have amazing staying power at the moment. And so here’s a question to you, readers of twitter: if you’ve stopped reading an author, why? And on the contrary, if you’ve stuck by an author, why?’
There were some excellent responses to this question (you can catch the thread on Twitter), but my honest reaction was that if they start producing at a rate of 1-2 books a year, I feel I cannot keep up anymore. I read between 120-150 books a year, but I also want to discover new authors, read widely, participate in challenges etc. So I’m far from waiting hungrily for the next book in the series. This has happened even with favourite authors such as Ian Rankin, Nicci French, Andrea Camilleri. I am always glad to see a new book by them and will usually add it quickly to my TBR pile (at least mentally), but I may leave them to dangle there for months or even years. I just don’t have the time to be quite so committed to a single author, and it’s getting worse with old age, unless I’m writing a dissertation (or feature article) on them. So perhaps less is more, contrary to what publishers seem to think. And may give the author a much-needed break to invent to replenish the well and invent new things.
Reliable vs. surprising.
I call it ‘comfort food reading’ – those days when you want to revert to an author whose stories you almost always like, because they follow a predictable pattern. But it doesn’t quite satisfy your hunger. Once you’ve wolfed down these books, not much of it stays in your mind. Formulaic can certainly wear thin after a while. I am changing and developing all the time (or I like to think I am) and the authors I enjoy most always seem to grow and develop as well. Perhaps not always in the same direction as me, but in ways which will surprise me. And one direction which we will always have in common: we are all getting older. Louise Penny understands this well, and I’m always willing to follow her blend of the expected (the village of Three Pines) and the unexpected (books that are more about art and grief and belief than about crime).
So please, publishers, allow your authors to experiment, play with genres, take a break from a series, even fail on occasion. Yes, the sales might go down a bit, but who knows, they might also gain the respect of new readers!
It’s tough out there for white male authors right now.
This is partly in reaction to the recent article in Quillette (a publication that seems to delight in stirring up controversy and boasts about its increased readership as a result of this article) in which a soon-to-be-published white male author complains just how difficult it is to be published right now if you are … you guessed it, white and male. He claims that political correctness, left-wing liberalism and diversity have gone too far, despite all the recent evidence to the contrary, demonstrating that publishing is still not as diverse as it could and should be. Both racism and inflated egos are at work here.
I’ve organised agent and editor meetings for writing groups and have seen first-hand the breathtaking self-confidence of the mediocre writer who does NOT agree with the agent’s opinion of their work. I’ve not seen many flaunting their sense of entitlement quite so blatantly and quoting from their own (clunky) work without any sense of irony. However, I’ve heard others moaning that all the literary prizes are going to the outsiders right now, that you don’t stand a chance if you’re mainstream (by which they mean white and male, in most cases). You know what? That is fine with me! After centuries of dominance by the same old, same old, don’t you think it’s time for others to shine? It’s not like their work is of inferior quality (yes, I know that’s what those complaints are getting at, but it’s simply not true).
The greatest dilemma of separation has to do with vocabulary.
‘Stop calling him “your husband” – he isn’t that anymore!’ chides my hairdresser.
‘Not-quite-ex-yet-officially doesn’t have a snappy ring to it, does it?’ complains a friend.
‘My children’s father is a bit of a mouthful…’, I admit quietly to myself.
‘Why don’t you use his first name?’ ask my work colleagues. That last one is easily answered: because the first name feels more intimate than giving him a quick label like ‘ex’ or ‘husband’. In front of my children I can call him ‘Baba’ (Greek for Dad), which is what they have called him all their lives. Nothing to do with me.
But what can I call this man with whom I spent 20+ years of my life?
Well, don’t laugh, but I think the best solution might be: WB. Not for Warner Brothers, or his initials. But for ‘Wet Blanket’. Hear me out: I am not being unnecessarily cruel or name-calling. I am simply describing the effect he has had on me for the last ten years or so, possibly longer.
All the things he had once claimed to love about me began to irritate him. How ‘educated’ and ‘cultured’ I was compared to him, how opinionated, how I could debate with him for hours about the state of the world, how vivacious and loud and full of laughter I was when out with friends, what a social butterfly at times, what a recluse at other times, my reading, my book acquisition, even my love of elephants no longer seemed lovable but annoying. I had to be corrected (often in public), put in my place, hidden away from work colleagues for fear of being an embarrassment. All my attributes which did not put him in first place (even ahead of the children) had to be complained about until I made efforts to change them. Meanwhile, woe betide I try to change anything about himself – ‘I never pretended to be anything I was not, you knew whom you married’.
Yes, more fool I! I thought people grew and developed all life long. I didn’t exactly want to change him, I had no illusions about some of his less stellar qualities, but I was the incurable optimist, hopeful that life, family, children and growing older would mature him and reduce some of that selfishness. After all, I was a self-centred teenager myself once and I’ve grown so much less selfish since having children.
So yes, I suppose we were each other’s mutual wet blankets. He dampened my enthusiasm, intellect and friendliness. Meanwhile, I acted as a wet blanket on his selfishness, becoming quite the nag. Whenever I accused him of it, he would reply: ‘Why don’t you become more selfish too? Stop saying you are doing so much for the family!’
Partly based on the thoughts I had while reviewing Meena Kandasamy yesterday and partly because I work things out emotionally so much better when I fictionalise things in writing, I intend to embark upon a series of vignettes, poems, flash fiction, rap battles and who knows what else, loosely assembled under the title ‘The WB Chronicles’. I also will attempt a longer (perhaps radio?) play based upon the Three Witches in Macbeth, except they will be three men having their midlife crises, meeting in the pub to complain about the unfairness in their lives.
When shall we three meet again?
To watch FA Cup Final or Champions’ League?
When we’re done with bathtime fatigue
And can be Monarchs of the Glen…
I haven’t quite figured out the details, but one could be whingeing about how his wife wants to take half his money after the divorce, another could be protesting at being accused of sexual harassment at work, and the third could be complaining about the expectations his much younger girlfriend has of him. Meanwhile, in the background, there could be some kind of Greek chorus bringing in alternative points of view (especially with the dryness of legal documents). It would be a comedy, because how are we to survive if we cannot laugh at the lemons in our lives!
This is a question I often get asked when I mention all my reading and writing ambitions, my children, my job, my commute.
Well, the first truth is, I don’t have time for it all. I am probably not getting my priorities right and not spending enough time on my creative writing. Hence the name of my blog. Ironically, this name was picked back in 2012 when I did have more time. The moral of the story is: never complain about not having enough time for something, because there is always room for less time.
The second truth is that I have changed my lifelong habits of pernickety tidiness and cleanliness and become a sloppy housekeeper. I couldn’t do this when the children were smaller, for fear of germs, but nowadays I am more relaxed about unironed clothes and untidy rooms. And if things get a little too desperate, they can always chip in.
The third truth is that a cuddly cat is a lot less demanding, affectionate and non-judgmental than a husband, so I making the most of my new-found freedom to enjoy my own hobbies.
These secrets aside, what does a typical day look like for me?
Wake up at 6:50, shower, dress, make up, breakfast, prepare lunch and snacks for kids, wake them, take out laundry or prepare PE kit. Leave house before 8, otherwise I get stuck in traffic and miss my train or cannot find a parking place. Come back just after 19:00, often stopping to get some milk etc on the way. Read and check email or Twitter on train on the way into work and back, despite having to change from train to Tube. Once home, I cook supper after washing a pot or two or three that have been sitting on the counter looking at me reproachfully for the past few days, dancing and singing along to my current favourite music (Janelle Monae and Hamilton musical still). I chat to the boys about their day, perhaps check their homework or ask them about tests, friends, film reviews, what they are reading, holiday plans or hot items of news. After supper, it’s Family TV time, we all sit down (including the cat) to watch 1-2 episodes of anime – that’s our unwinding and bonding time. Some anime leads to good discussions about general topics: for instance, the latest, Stein’s Gate, has lots of overlap with the current fears about ‘incel’ (involuntary celibates) and online loser communities and hikikomori type people.
I used to be the person who had to clean up everything in the kitchen, living room, do the laundry and ironing before sitting down to relax. But no more. Minimal clearing and wiping, laundry but ironing only about once a month.
Second shift starts when the boys have their shower: book reviews, blog posts, copywriting for Asymptote campaigns, any admin or more in-depth responses to email or booking cultural events. Another big change is that I seldom watch TV now – unless it’s Engrenages or The Bridge or other promising (usually foreign) crime series on BBC4 or Blue Planet or something like that. So I often go to bed soon after the boys, certainly no later than 22:00 – I don’t watch the news anymore, but read books instead, write a few lines of poetry, cuddle up with Zoe. I still occasionally wake up at 4 a.m. but am no longer plagued by chronic insomnia, so I just read for a bit and then sleep once more until the alarm rings.
Every fortnight, the children are with their father from Thursday night to Sunday evening, so I try to organise any going out on those three nights. I’m lucky to be working in central London, so it’s easy to find plenty of events to attend, some of them free. And I tend to meet friends for lunch during the week, thanks to my central location once again.
Of course some things fall by the wayside. I don’t watch whole box sets, because I never have the time beyond the first 1-2 episodes. I don’t get to play as much with the children as I used to, but they are probably at the age when they don’t want to spend too much time with me anyway. We do try to meet with friends once a month for Games Night or go at weekends to play table tennis etc. I have to learn to live with the constant sensation of being inadequate: as a mother, reviewer, writer, marketer, worker. I’ve completely neglected exercise and it’s only a matter of time before my body starts creaking.
The truth is, I have more energy and hope than I’ve had over the past 5 years at least. I no longer experience daily frustrations at home and I enjoy the people at work and the type of work I do professionally and in my spare time. I love Crime Fiction Lover and Asymptote and Shiny New Books and Necessary Fiction. At some point, I will have to focus more on my own writing. And I will. But it’s taken me a long time to surface from the bog. Let me enjoy it a little longer.
One week into my new job and daily commute into London and I can say two things with certainty: the job is really interesting and I will be surrounded by lovely people; and the railway service has deteriorated dramatically in the 15 years or so since I last had to commute regularly.
Perhaps a third certainty is that it will be difficult to not deplete my wallet when I have to pass by Waterstone’s Gower Street every day.
The reading time on my commute is a bonus, although it is not quite as long as I had envisaged. It is not uninterrupted time, as I have to change from train to Tube – and in the latter I am so squished, it is often impossible to find a bar to clutch on to and to take out a book. But even in the train, I have found myself using Wifi to check emails and Twitter rather than reading. If I were kind with myself, I would say it’s just to save time and not have to check on these things when I get home to my boys (and because I don’t check them during the day at work).
But the truth is somewhat more complex.
I wonder if all this frantic scrolling down the timeline for a joke, some wit, some precious gem of information is all about searching for something to fill a yearning abyss inside of me that I deny in my moments of strength and dare not measure in my moments of weakness.
Instead of abseiling down the abyss to explore further – too dangerous – or expressing its beautiful unknowability through poetry – too difficult, the chances of succeeding are too slender – I look away from it. I seek to distract myself, or look for someone else who might have expressed it for me. But I am far more likely to find that directly in books rather than mediated via social media. At its worst, I sometimes think Twitter is a lot of noise about art instead of that inner and outer quiet necessary for interacting with the art itself. [I almost said ‘communing with the art’, but that sounds terribly old-fashioned.]
What do you think? Do you feel that social media helps you avoid those complex, potentially unpleasant or dangerous thoughts?
Following on from yesterday’s review of Maggie Nelson, I thought I’d apply a similar list-making technique to give you an update of all that is happening in my life at the moment. A little self-indulgent, but you will be spared such things in the future, as I won’t have the time.
Jobless, homeless no more
A year since coming back to the UK, cocksure and blind, so confident that I would easily find a new permanent job in HR. So scratch, scrabble and scrape in the post-referendum landscape, with my gentle, constructivist Learning & Development topic, when all companies are looking for is Immigration and Payroll Specialists.
My heart was not in the job hunt, that’s true. Hip hip hurrah for my freelance life, being able to take my book deliveries directly from the postman, taking time off during the children’s holidays, working a few days per month and then having enough time to write. Hip flask to hand.
I know you are all green with envy by this point.
It was the perfect lifestyle, except for one thing. The bank. I couldn’t take the mortgage in my sole name with such an uncertain financial track record, with no idea when the next job would come in (and companies keep changing their minds or postponing or cancelling their training courses). So hip flask got thrown when the bailiffs come knocking at the door, or rather, my soon to be ex (STBX) threatening that I would have to sell the house and give him his share.
Now watch him parade around in a rented house that is too big for him, with his all-new furniture and all-new giant TV and Amazon Alexa the Echo, even-tempered slave girl, and expensive holidays, while moaning that he cannot afford child maintenance. Cue many sleepless nights. But a few pills and Talking Therapy sessions later, I’ve learnt to meditate and relax my muscles and turn a blind eye to the unavoidable. Still we pirouette around the financial pot, each side claiming greater overall contributions or greater need.
So I potter around on French property websites, remarking how easily I could get a maison de maitre property in Aquitaine for my share of the house sale minus mortgage, instead of reading the hundredth rejection email starting: ‘We value your application, however, on this occasion we will not be progressing you to the next stage. Other candidates more closely fitted our requirements. We would like to thank you for your interest and encourage you to sign up for job alerts to hear about future vacancies. Please fill in the survey below to tell us about your recruitment experience.’
Feeling too old, too past it (I would be the grandmother intern if I were to move into publishing – and I certainly couldn’t survive on those starter salaries!), diminished, unwanted, in the wrong field, regretting all my past choices. The ones that seemed the perfect fit were the ones that hurt the most. Especially when they claimed to like you and your lateral skills, that they weren’t discriminating on the basis of age, praised your achievements and qualifications. You almost believed them… until you see the dewy faces and minimalist experience of the people they did pick for the job.
If it’s that difficult for me, an able-bodied woman (White Other on census forms), with a few degrees from the UK as well as elsewhere, to find a job in publishing because of my age, can you imagine if I were POC or without a degree or disabled? Diversity in publishing indeed! Obviously, everyone above the age of 40 stops reading…
So it was back to the corporate treadmill, one I’d refused to run on for many years, one that I’d stopped believing in, but teenagers are more expensive than cats. They eat all the time and grow an inch per month.
Let no one tell you that you can follow your passion. My career and choices in life have been determined by geography, accident of birth, nationality, age, history, family situation etc. And many, many other people have had their choices far more severely curtailed!
Then I calculate how many more years I have to stay in a UK which has become strangely frightening and all too recognisable (from living in countries where political incorrectness reigns). Seven more years until my children leave the house to go to the university, ten until the younger one finishes university – although I suspect they may want to study abroad.
But avast, avast, stop preparing an escape route and stop hauling myself over the coals, for suddenly interviews materialised! Over the summer I was wanted for job interviews, even managed to convince some people that I didn’t mind being overqualified for the work I would be doing. (I really don’t, I just need to pay the bills and see my kids in real life rather than on Google Hangouts). Yes, all of them were short-term contracts or very, very part-time. All paying slightly less than the salary I had 18 years ago in full-time employment, back in the days when I had a small house and no children and a husband earning roughly the same as me.
About equality of pay. Since then, STBX’s salary has increased slowly but surely ever year, while I have had peaks and troughs. In 2003 I was on 2.5 times his salary, but since I had my (our) first son in 2003 it has gone into free fall. Never mind the fact that most of it went on childcare.
So I bide my time and try not to jump at the first desperate opportunity. The less promising ones offer me the job, while the certainties bail out. And I start to feel very foolish.
I took the bait. A permanent position in London, an interesting job (in HR, rather than publishing) in the university sector. It is not perfect, but it will keep me and the children off the streets. My friends are delighted for me, but I’m not quite ready to pop the champagne open. It’s not a new career doing something I feel passionate about. It’s not living the dream at this late stage in life. It’s more of the same, without the flexibility I’d grown used to in the past 8 years.
Still, reasons for celebrating! It means I can stop hearing my STBX scolding or pitying or alleging that I could earn much more than him if only I put my mind to it. ‘No one ever asked you to give up your career to follow me around. You could have got an au pair. All right, if you were worried about me having an affair with the au pair, you should have got a male au pair. What do you mean, there weren’t any of them in Geneva? But Pablo’s family had one? Oh, because he was Spanish and couldn’t find employment in Spain? Oh, and he left after 4 months all of a sudden when he did get a job in Madrid? Never mind, it just proves my point, that there are some men au pairs around. I think you didn’t want to work. You just wanted to sit at home with the cat and write and I’ve had to support you while you have written three novels.’ It means I can now start the formal divorce proceedings and wash that man right out of my hair.
One year on, the house is slowly but surely falling apart after 5 years of tenants and a year of my shoddy housekeeping. I was often too overwhelmed and depressed this past year to repair things or keep the house spick and span. Besides, why invest more love and hope in a house I was no longer sure I’d be able to keep? So a professional one-off cleaning is called for before I start work. With the result that I’ve been frantically scrubbing the place in preparation for this. To save my tattered reputation. Some people never learn.
Commuterland and superwoman
London has its pros and cons. The plus side: bookshops, being able to go to cultural events [‘You spend HOW much on books and entertainment?’ my horrified financial advisor said], meeting friends for lunch or drinks. Downside: 2 – 2.5 hour commute each day if the trains aren’t delayed and an annual season ticket somewhere in the region of £3500 per year. Leaving just before the children set off for school and getting back at 7 p.m., just in time to shout at them about their homework over dinner. Having to organise all the orthodontist, haircut, doctor etc. appointments for them on a Saturday or else take a day off. At least they don’t have any clubs or other extra-curricular activities (but oh, the guilt associated with that!). So many other single mothers do precisely that – and it’s worth it to hear my children say: ‘Does that mean we get to keep the house? Then go for it, Mama! We’ll cope.’ They crave a bit of stability and they are so much more loving and helpful now that I am more relaxed and happy without their father around.
Plus, I have the feeling they will relish no ‘Have you done your homework yet?’ mutters in the background every half an hour.
But I must write – how will I write?
If only I had the time to write, instead of travelling like a maniac around the globe! (2012-2013)
Now I have the time, but oh… If only I had the peace of mind to write instead of falling apart/ raging and ranting/ worrying about things/ jobhunting (2014-2017)
Now I have peace of mind but oh… I won’t have any time for writing or blogging or tweeting! (2017-2018)
And so I worry and give up before I even start. Run away rather than fight the impossible fight. There was only one situation where I chose to stand my ground and cling on for dear life. The wrong situation. I chose badly. I stayed way past the expiry date, the food rotted and now I’ll never get the smell out of that fridge.
Last Night of the Proms brought that home to me. That I worry about the things that might happen. But might not.
I could not watch it, because I no longer find the tub-thumping patriotism and Union Jack waving hilarious and endearing. But then I heard that they’d been handing out EU flags and the audience were waving those as well. How many times have I been pleasantly surprised by people’s reactions when I’ve been expecting the worst? Am I letting fear and prejudice cheat me out of opportunities?
Is the fear of not having time for writing paralysing me? Am I using the guilt over my reduced time with the children to distract me from the hard work that needs to go into writing? Am I content to remain on amateurish turf forevermore, every now and again hitting a lucky shot?
And so on ad nauseam. There is a time for writing, there is a time for ranting, there is a time for logistical acrobatics. Things will be imperfect at first – and may remain imperfect. There will be things I have to miss out on. Another year of not having something quite ready for submission. And yet… Sometimes the most impossible situations produce the best work. I refuse to feel guilty and I refuse to stop writing.
Plus, I can read and write during my commute, right?
If I make it through September, fold my pinnies, cool my forehead, don’t wait for gaps to be filled with leisure, no clemency left in any fibre. I will be a new woman, trying to do several new things at once, such as cycling to the station.
Yet not attempt too strenuous a life of many amputated beginnings and bird flutter under the skin until the very least October. For no respite, no holidays will follow for the new hireling.
If November doesn’t bring morose companionship on wet flagstones, where would my certainties drain like ink still damp on poor-quality paper?
And if you can’t wait until December to see if my sleight of hand produces a second draft or better poems, why, I’ve wasted my breath and months…
Some people never learn. Some people never know when to give up.
But, as Mary Oliver said, the world has need of dreamers as well as shoemakers.
After 20+ years spent in Great Britain, why oh why have I not visited Wales before? The combination of mountains and sea is exactly what my soul has been craving ever since I came to this island and a worthy substitute for my Genevois home which I miss with all my heart. This was enhanced, of course, by glorious weather and the serene setting of David Lloyd George’s house at Ty Newydd.
Trochi – Immersion
Reading, writing, listening, talking, eating, breathing, touching poetry as if it were the most important thing in the world. A protective glass bell for even the most fragile bloom to grow and blossom.
Diolch – Thank you
Under the gently challenging guidance of George Szirtes and Deryn Rees-Jones, who created a real feeling of community of like-minded people, who discuss your work rather than your personality or what they would have written instead. Profound admiration and respect to Polly, Jenny, Sophia, Jane, John, Antony, Dafydd, Christine, Simon, Vanessa, Margaret, Mary and Arji, who stretched my mind, made me laugh, made me cry and made me want to persevere. People who are serious about poetry, regardless of age and background, not ‘retired hobbyists’ (as implied in that controversial report). Not that there is anything wrong with opening up the world of poetry to hobbyists either…
Dechreuadau newydd – New Beginnings
To be honest, I was the most amateurish one there, the least experienced and the least ‘serious’ about poetry, too easily distracted by my other writing and blogging and reviews. It really brought home to me that you need to dedicate yourself seriously to poetry, to reading and writing it every day for years if you want to improve rather than just have a few happy accidents of phrasing.
Digon – Enough
The first few days I was panicking about not being productive enough: I had been hoping to repeat the feat of October in Provence of 35 new poems in 5 days. Particularly since at this particular point in time I could not really afford the fees (reasonable though they are, compared to other courses). It was almost as if I were measuring out spoonfuls of ground coffee and expecting a spectacular yield of nectar by the end. Then I learnt to relax: there are times of accumulation which are just as valuable as those productive times.
Syniadau Newydd – New Ideas
Ideas can come from anywhere, from following the course of a river through the woods, from blackberrying your way down the path to the sea, from watching a dog gambol on the beach to finding a rare volume of ecclesiastical history in the profound peace of Gladstone’s Library.
Anadlu – Breathe
How to keep the momentum going after this week out of time and space? I need to spend part of every day with poetry, not just turn to it when I am procrastinating on my novel or when I have an odd moment of inspiration. I need to practise and improve my craft, which means finding a writing group dedicated exclusively to poetry, although the more generic local one is a good source of inspiration in other respects. If I cannot find one geographically, perhaps I need to organise an online critiquing group.
Llyfrau – Books
One can never have too many books. They are the most beautiful decoration to a room and they bring endless delight and inspiration to yourself and to others.
Gwartheg – Cows
Do not attempt to outrun a field of Welsh cows, who are nothing like as blasé about intruders as their Swiss cousins.
I have recently read three very different crime novels, which left me intrigued, delighted and frustrated (in that order). They also made me wonder if the publisher’s pressure to produce a book a year forces writers to compromise on quality at times. Because I would rather wait two-three years if it means a more thoughtful, original piece of work is produced, rather than a cut and paste job with stock situations, cardboard characters and clichés ahoy.
This refers of course to the book which disappointed me, which used all the possible tricks to turn a rather ordinary, overdone story into something suspenseful: an unnecessary dual timeline solely designed to increase suspense, but feeling unnatural and irritating; withholding of vital information to create plot twists; an utterly pointless final twist with little bearing on the story; an annoying, whining main character whose behaviour is exaggerated and lacks credibility. Yet there were certain sharp observations throughout the book which made me think the author had talent, but had hurriedly scribbled down a half-baked domestic noir story to satisfy the current appetite for that sub-genre and the publisher’s demands.
The book which intrigued me was Andrée A. Michaud’s Bondrée (Boundary, in English, translated by Donald Winkler). Michaud is Québécois and this novel is very precisely set in time and place: a summer community on the US/Canadian border of Lake Boundary during the summer of 1967. Life seems idyllic: barbecues sizzling, children playing on the beach, families relaxing at weekends, even if the men have to go back to the city to work during the week. Radios are playing ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, and two teenage girls are flaunting their gorgeous tanned bodies and long curls to confuse and delight the male population of the little holiday enclave. Zaza Mulligan and Sissy Morgan are precocious and slightly too forward. In a year or two they would be destined to become bitches, so the gossip goes, but this is their summer of glory, with a third girl Frenchie Lamar trying to keep up with them, but not quite succeeding to emulate their charisma. Meanwhile, twelve-year old French speaker Andrée is entranced by these American teenagers, the sweets they share with her because they think she is cute. She tries to repeat the words they say ‘Littoldolle’ or ‘chiz’ or ‘foc’ (which her mother tries to avoid explaining to her by discussing seals – in French ‘phoques’ – instead). She is the main narrator, but it is not really a child’s voice, but a scene remembered from the distant past. We also catch glimpses of the story from other points of view.
Then Zaza is found dead, her limbs torn apart in an old bear trap overgrown with vegetation. An unfortunate accident, so everyone thinks, and the holiday-makers band together to search for all remaining animal traps which a strange old hermit called Pierre Landry had set up around the area before he died. But when Sissy suffers a similar fate and her beautiful red hair is cut off, the community has to acknowledge the horrible truth:
A killer was on the loose in the shadow of our cottages, one who had made a zombie out of Bob, and etched into my father’s face lines that hadn’t been there before, outward signs of a kind of stupor, as if he’d received a blow from a baseball bat on the back of his head. And that’s exactly what had happened in the clearing, where a dozen men, along with him, had been blindsided by a mysterious weapon.
Stan Michaud is the American policeman who has to investigate the case, helped by Brian Larue, a bilingual single dad vacationing there, who helps with the translating. The story is very slow-moving, perhaps too much so for avid mystery fans, but it is also a subtle coming-of-age story and a description of an Anglo-French community on the cusp of modernity yet stuck in a primeval forest full of ghosts. I was fully caught up in the utterly believable atmosphere, full of nuances and poetic language. The translation did occasionally feel clunky, so I may well look out for this in French. It won the Prix des lecteurs (Readers’ Prize) at the Quais du polar in Lyon this year.
Finally, the book which delighted me is the follow-up to Susie Steiner’s debut, which I reviewed recently. In Persons Unknown, Manon is back in Cambridgeshire, together with her unconventional family: her adopted son Fly, her sister Ellie and her young nephew Solly. She is sidelined somewhat, working on cold cases, but she hopes it gives Fly the opportunity to grow up in a more peaceful environment, where he won’t be treated as a criminal simply because of his race.
But then a man is stabbed to death outside a park near the railway station and the identity of the victim makes it impossible for Manon to ignore the case. Things go from bad to worse and she has to prove that her nearest and dearest cannot possibly have anything to do with this horror. Or could they? This seamless blend of personal and professional is Steiner’s great strength, the way in which she makes us question all of our easy assumptions about family, motherhood and love. Each character seems well-rounded, with real depth, especially Manon, who feels like a frazzled yet slightly more energetic version of ourselves. The target audience for this is the reader who enjoyed the more realistic portrayal of women detectives such as Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series (although I like this one more) or the feisty Sarah Lancashire character in Happy Valley.
Now you may say I am contradicting myself, since Persons Unknown has followed very swiftly on the tail of Missing, Presumed. However, it feels to me like this was a single, complex story that the author had already envisaged, and which she brought out in two installments. It all fits together very well, and there are hints that the third novel also builds on this story. For the sake of letting stories breathe and develop organically, however, I would ask publishers to ease the calendar pressure and allow authors to take as long as they need to make their novels as good as they can.