This is the start of my two weeks of peace. The children are on holiday with their grandparents, I have finished most of the admin work relating to taxes and property letting, so I finally have the space and time to write.
If I don’t write 2000 words a day or so over the next couple of weeks (that is entirely feasible and realistic), I have no one to blame but myself.
Of course there are minor quibbles that are remarkably good at barging in, demanding attention and turning themselves into distracting obstacles: heatwave, headaches, a never-ending list of urgent admin tasks (because not everyone is on holiday in summer), book reviews to be written… Not to mention those underlying doubts about plot, characters, style, has it all been done before.
I will put those quibbles in their place, though, be ruthless and focus on my writing. Or else I risk proving to myself that I am all mouth, all excuses and no depth at all. I don’t want to start despising myself.
After all, if I wanted to lead a life of ‘dolce far niente’, I would come back as a cat!
‘Ever Yours’ is a one-volume selection of Van Gogh’s letters (drawn from the six-volume original published by the Van Gogh Museum back in 2009), translated from Dutch and French by a bevy of translators. The letters are accompanied by a general introduction, historic family photographs, and reproductions of 87 actual pages of letters that contain sketches by Van Gogh. It’s not just art lovers who will find the book inspiring. Van Gogh struggled with a sense of purpose, depression, loneliness, making a living and with his own belief in art all his life, and was unremittingly frank about his struggles in his letters to his brother Theo. This will have important lessons (or warnings or resonance) for all creative people. There are some comments in the introduction which show this volume is far from ‘hero-worship': ‘He was almost always convinced he was right, and this made him quite tiresome.’ But his work ethic and the breadth of his interest in art, literature and other people, his enthusiasm for always learning something new are all astounding.
This is a book to treasure and turn to again and again. Like with Virginia Woolf’s diaries, there will always be a gem to discover, a crumb of encouragement, something to keep you going even in the darkest days, although neither Vincent nor Virginia could find that for themselves.
I have a definite belief as regards art… which also means that I know what I want to get in my own work, and that I’ll try to get it even if I go under in the attempt.
For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone… it is a succession of little things that are brought together.
So often, in the past as well, a visit to a bookshop has cheered me up and reminded me that there are good things in the world.
Life is but short and time passes quickly. If one is competent in one things and understands one thing well, one gains at the same time insight into and knowledge of many other things into the bargain. It’s sometimes good to go about much in the world and to be among people… but he who actually goes quietly about his work, alone, preferring to have but very few friends, goes the most safely … in the world.
Like everyone else, I have need of relationships of friendship or affection or trusting companionship, and am not like a street pump or a lamp post, whether of stone or iron, so that I can’t do without them without perceiving and emptiness and feeling their lack…
It is often impossible for men to do anything, prisoners in I don’t know what kind of horrible, horrible, very horrible cage… You may not always be able to say what it is that confines, that immures, that seems to bury, and yet you feel I know not what bars, I know not what gates – walls… And the prison is sometimes called Prejudice, misunderstanding, fatal ignorance… mistrust…
I shall love her so long
That in the end she’ll love me too.
The more she disappears, the more she appears.
You will understand what I tell you, that to work and be an artist one needs love. At least someone who strives for feeling in his work must first feel and live with his heart.
…sometimes I grew so impatient that I trampled on my charcoal and was wholly and utterly discouraged. And yet, a while later I sent you drawings made with chalk and charcoal… all the same I had taken a step forward. Now I’m going through a similar period of struggle and despondency, of patience and impatience, of hope and desolation. But I must plod on and anyway, after a while I’ll understand more about making watercolours. If it were that easy, one wouldn’t take any pleasure in it.
I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat. Ah, I must manage to do a figure with a few strokes. That will keep me busy all winter.
However, paintings come off better if one takes care of oneself and keeps well. But for you, for your work, for your whole life as well, you mustn’t have too many worries.
… I wouldn’t wish for a martyr’s career in any circumstances. For I’ve always sought something other than the heroism I don’t have, which I certainly admire in others but which, I repeat, I do not believe to be my duty or my ideal… Every day I take the remedy that the incomparable Dickens prescribes against suicide. It consists of a glass of wine, a piece of bread and cheese and a pipe of tobacco… I try not to forget completely how to jest, I try to avoid everything that might relate to heroism and martyrdom, in short I try not to take lugubrious things lugubriously.
Just over a month ago I took part in a meeting with agents and editors organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. We had to submit the 15 first pages of our completed novel and a synopsis for individual consultations. I had been sick and tired of Novel No. 1 for months by now and was raring to get going on Novel No. 2, but I dutifully sent out No. 1. But I had somehow never quite cottoned on to what a synopsis is supposed to be: a chronological description of everything that happens in the book, including giving away the ending. So, instead, what I sent was this:
‘Beyond the Woods’ by Marina Sofia
‘You think Eastern Europe is still part of Europe… but it’s an entirely different world. None of your rules or your notions of right and wrong apply here.’
Matt Johnson is content with his life: he has a promising scientific career ahead of him in London and a glamorous Romanian girlfriend, Cristina, whom he intends to marry as soon as she secures a divorce from her estranged husband back home. But suddenly his world collapses. On her trip home to see her parents, Cristina has a fatal car crash. Her friend, Eli, doesn’t believe it was an accident – she suspects that Cristina’s husband, Luca, now a rising star in Romanian politics, killed her. Matt is disinclined to believe conspiracy theories, but agrees to join Eli in Bucharest and figure out what happened.
As the mismatched pair trace Cristina’s last steps and conversations, Matt finds out things about his girlfriend’s past that he hadn’t known or wanted to believe before. Enlisting the help of a sympathetic local policeman, Matt and Eli begin a game of cat and mouse with Luca, who thwarts their efforts to find proof at every turn.
This is not just a simple whodunit. 1990s Romania is a society on the brink of collapse after the fall of Communism, where uncertainty is rife and no one seems able or willing to give straight answers in a murder investigation. How can you ever hope to uncover the truth or punish the perpetrators in such a place?
The comments I received were that it sounds like a good hook, but it’s not technically a synopsis. However, I now feel free to share it with you, because I have moved on to Novel No. 2 for the foreseeable future. How does it strike you? Would you want to read more? And what has your experience been with synopses?
Warning: this post is incredibly loud and extremely personal. Viewers of a more generalist or nervous disposition should skip ahead to the next book review.
I heard that, with small exceptions, the Oscars ceremony on Sunday night was overly long and dull. I was never planning to watch it and was only mildly interested in the winners. [I have only seen 2-3 of the films across all nominated categories, most of them on airplanes, such is my social life]. But I struggled downstairs with a terrible migraine, so got to see live reactions on Twitter to the music, the surprise awards, the speeches.
Ah, the speeches! Some of them were political, rebellious, personal, memorable… good for them. Typical acceptance speeches, of course, are all about gratitude, acknowledgement and thanks to collaborators and supporters. ‘I thank my parents, my spouse, my children, my dog…’
What to do, however, if those nearest and dearest are not at all supportive? I’ve written about it before. I’ve written a poem about it from the point of view of the supportive (and hitherto neglected) spouse. I’m not going to repeat myself. I don’t want to whine. I’ll just share with you a collection of anecdotes. Some of them are personal, some of them have been told to me by others. I suspect there is a glint of universality in most of them.
I really, really want to become a writer. All my teachers tell me I have talent. — What a waste of your intellectual capacities! You could do so many other things. Do that as a hobby, once you have got a good job under your belt, such as medicine or economics.
I did get to study what I was passionate about: languages and then anthropology. I even briefly got to work as an academic, but … it’s not like social sciences are real sciences, right? Surely an academic job in real science takes precedence. Why don’t you find a nice portable job, that you can take with you wherever you have to go to follow your husband?
This consultancy job is taking off, and you may be paid three times as much as your spouse, but it’s not really conducive to family life, is it? If you want to raise happy children, shouldn’t you find something more part-time, more flexible, even if it’s lower paid?
Oh, come off it, being a trailing spouse isn’t that bad, is it? So you had to quit your job, but just look at your lifestyle in what is considered one of the most livable cities in the world! You can meet your lady friends for coffee and lunch, you can go to the gym, or, better still, explore the lovely nature surrounding you. You’ve got time on your hands, such a luxury! Lonely – psha! You can Skype your friends and family anytime. Anyone would envy you!
What do you mean, you want to start your own business? But who is going to handle all the organisational things this family needs? After all, you’re the only one who can speak the language…
What do you mean, you want to cut back on your work to focus on your writing? Writing will never pay the bills. If you’re not the next J K Rowling, you might as well not bother. Focus on your real job – just don’t travel so much with it. I can’t handle the kids all day – there’s very little time to do anything while they are in school.
OK, sure, honey, I’m supportive. When are you going to finish that book? Why are you wasting time on poetry? What have you been doing all day, why are you so tired? When are you going to get your book contract? Why should I go to the parents’ evening instead of you, so you can write – haven’t you had enough time during the day?
This past weekend I had good news. After years of unseen labour and cold showers, I had very positive and personalised feedback about my writing from editors and agents at a conference organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. They encouraged me to keep going, to finish my second novel as quickly as possible and to send it to them. Yes, I know there’s a long, hard road still ahead of me, that there are no guarantees. But it’s that first step, and so much better than I had ever allowed myself to hope for.
I come home in a disbelieving, golden haze, basking in their warm words. I open the door very nearly breathless, eager to celebrate with my loved ones, bring out the bugles, roll out the red carpet, open the champagne. Instead, I don’t even get the question: ‘So, how did it go?’
I’m realistic about the attention span and degree of empathy of little boys. In my exuberance, I pour out my joy regardless… but soon get bogged down in dinner questions, homework completed, cooking, setting the table and preparing schoolbags for the first day back after the holidays. I get to hear about levels completed on Super Mario Galaxy during my absence, while the older ‘child’ barely raises his head from his phone to listen to my anecdotes about the day. I expect to be brought down to earth by family commitments and daily life – but not necessarily a ball and chain weighing me down just as I am soaring.
Finally, at supper, I open a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé that I’ve been keeping for special occasions and say, ‘Here’s to me!’ as we clinked our glasses.
‘Oh,’ replies my supportive spouse, ‘Why you?’
This is whom I’m going to mention in my acceptance speech:
Typical! It’s been a never-ending saga to put the finishing touches to Novel No. 1, for reasons too numerous and humiliating to mention, including but not limited to: lost keys, lost cheque books, parents’ evenings, family meltdown, holidays, work, homework, worrying about work, worrying about taxes…
I’ve been working (or should that be NOT working) on it for so long that I am now bored with it. And don’t all writers at conferences tell you that the first novel is best hidden in your bottom drawer, that it’s an exercise rather than a real publishing possibility?
So, for the past few days I’ve been toying with the idea for another novel. Still murder and mayhem, of course, still noirish in feel, just a completely different story, setting, characters. I’m at the mulling stage, but this much I know: it will be set among the expat community in a place like Geneva and will involve adultery, danger and of course a death or two. Perhaps a mild case of satire, too. I have to put to good use all those wonderfully surreal conversations I sometimes overhear outside schools or in cafés, don’t I?
After all, if I get this one really presentable, I can always go back to the previous one and slash my way through that jungle. What do you think of abandoning one project to move onto something new? My Puritanical workaholic ethic is telling me that is wrong, but at what point do I decide I am flogging a dead horse?
I’ve been pushing myself to submit more this year, particularly poetry (since I write so much of it anyway). I’ve submitted to ten literary journals or competitions this half year (which is a big improvement to the 5 I did for all of 2013).
And here’s what’s happened with these ten:
1 rejection with a very encouraging message
1 poem longlisted for the Fish Poetry Prize
1 acceptance (two out of the three poems I sent) – I am sure I will crow about it once they are published!
1 still waiting to hear
One good thing about this process is that I am starting to take rejections much more stoically. The first one back in March or so was like salt and pepper being rubbed into an open wound and knocked me out for 2 days (going on two weeks). The latest one arrived tonight and I just shrugged it off and said blithely to my husband: ‘Oh, look, darling, another rejection!’
Another discovery is that there is no such thing as a good or bad poem (well, other than the obviously dire ones, which I hope mine aren’t). It’s all a matter of personal taste, timing, fit with the journal’s philosophy etc. The poem that was rejected by one journal was the one that was longlisted by judge Ruth Padel. One of the poems that has now been accepted had been rejected elsewhere.
So the moral of the story is that the obvious sayings are still the best: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, tweak and try again!’