It’s been quite a while since I have had anything to report about my writing. There was an outburst of poetic creativity in October/November, followed by a more regular one hour a day minimum writing commitment for about 6 weeks in January/February. Then work, life, rejections and low mood got in the way and writing anything other than reviews or the occasional doggerel verse (aka poetry which is not worth submitting) became too much of an ask.
However, I firmly hope and believe that things are looking up now. I’ve found myself an accountability partner and we share writing ideas, progress, goals and rants on a daily or weekly basis. She is based in California and writes screenplays, but the time and genre difference works in our favour. Plus, we have known each other nearly all our lives, so we can be brutally honest with each other. We were at university together (she studied Mandarin, I studied Japanese) and our lives have moved, oddly enough, on parallel tracks ever since.
So here are some concrete achievements I can mention:
Geneva Writers’ Group literary journal Offshoots 14 will publish my poem To Love and to Cherish (Sept 2017)
Alexa, What Is One Plus One? is featured on Poetry Breakfast today 24 April, 2017
A Mother’s Advice will appear in The Dying Dahlia Review, 2 May, 2017
Two of my poems will appear in a dVerse Poets anthology. Although I’ve had to cut back on my involvement in that poetry community over the past year or so, I have learnt so much from its dedicated, inventive, talented and generous members.
My review of Katie Kitamura’s A Separation has appeared in Shiny New Books, which is one of my favourite go-to sites for reviews of a broad range of books.
I wrote a feature on crime fiction from the Celtic fringe which have a link to ancient myths and legends for Crime Fiction Lover.
So here is an entirely gratuitous celebration gif with one of my current footballing favourites, Antoine Griezmann (because his diminutive size and cute little face reminds me of my younger son).
Finally, my new resolution is to return to my first WIP. The second WIP had ground to a standstill when life started imitating art (all except the murders, one hopes) and it became too painful to carry on. The first novel has the first draft fully written and is temporarily entitled Beyond the Woods (a translation of Trans-Sylvania, which is where most of the action takes place – NOT a vampire novel, I hasten to add). So all (all?!?) I need to do is edit.
Inspiration or craft? Can writing be taught or is it an innate talent? Well, the answer to that may often be culturally determined. From what I saw at the Quais du Polar last week and, following a bit of debate about it on Twitter following this article announcing the demise of the British short story, it seems to me that French culture leans more to the ‘inspiration’ school of thought, while Anglo-Saxon culture believes more in the capacity to hone one’s writing talent. Hence the proliferation of MFA courses in the US or MA courses in the UK. Hence the different way of discussing the writing process and getting under the skin of the main female character (although Ron Rash seems to be more French than American in that respect).
As usual, I am somewhere on the fence on this topic. I believe no amount of tuition or feedback will turn a truly tone-deaf writer into a sterling one. But, on the other hand, I also believe even innate talent needs to be tamed: whether this is best done through courses or feedback groups or mentors or even self-study of other authors – whatever works for you. As long as you are aware that you can always learn something, that you can always do better. A musician or a dancer can become very competent if they put in hours and years of training – and so can a writer. They might not have the spark of genius that turns them into the next Mozart or Anna Pavlova, but they can run alongside many of their contemporaries. Sometimes stamina and resilience counts for more than that elusive inborn talent. (Another great recent debate has been around the failed novelist.)
Perhaps there is something else at work here other than definitions around the locus of talent.
In France (and Germany and probably quite a few other European countries), it is possible to make a living from writing alone: there is tax relief for writers (and other cultural contributors), book prices are fixed, writers are paid for festival appearances etc. Because the contract is directly between publisher and writer (literary agents are practically non-existent in France), authors achieve a larger proportion of the royalties. You cannot underestimate the freedom a modest income gives a writer to truly focus on their writing and perfect their craft. As most French writers do: they retreat to Provence or Dordogne in winter, when there are no tourists or book festivals to bother them, and work hard to produce a book in time for the rentrée littéraire, that publishing bonanza in autumn. Many of them produce something every year, or every second year, so they work as hard as their English counterparts (but often without the additional teaching obligations). There are some ateliers d’écriture in France, but these are either targeted at schoolchildren or else a kind of ‘writing circle’ organised by and for the local community, often heavily subsidised, without much expectation of future publication.
Meanwhile, costs of MFAs or their UK equivalent, MA in Creative Writing, are soaring, so it is difficult to justify them (to oneself and one’s family) if you do not have expectations of being published or at the very least working in the field. In the US in particular there is much discussion whether getting an MFA is ‘worth it’ or if it is a pyramid scheme designed to give employment to writers. Everyone dreams of being a writer, so a whole industry of publishing, editing, proofreading, coaching etc. has spawned alongside the official courses. Some of them valuable, some of them money-making schemes which prey upon the gullible.
However, things are beginning to change even in France. At the Quais du Polar in previous years there had always been a competition for best short story or dictation of a passage from a crime novel or reading out loud for young people. This year, for the first time, there were also writing courses for 12-15 year olds, plus workshops on self-publishing and Open Pitch sessions for adults.
In addition to this, the City of Paris has recently launched (with some fanfare) a writing school Les Mots which is specifically targeting innovation and publication, across all genres (from memoir to writing for children, poetry, theatre, graphic novels, blogging etc.). Authors, editors, literary critics will be helping budding writers to improve their manuscripts and some of the names on their list are truly impressive: Karim Miske, Jerome Ferrari, Antoine Laurain. The venue will also harbour a bookshop and a literary café. With a full price of 15 euros per hour (reductions available for students and the unemployed), it is clear that these workshops are deliberately designed to be accessible and inclusive. It remains to be seen how viable this price point really is and what success stories will emerge from this.
Jelena Volić (Serbia), Bogdan Teodorescu (Romania), Eugen Chirovici (Romania), Indrek Hargla (Estonia).
A bit of a clanger at the start of the session! Although the moderator said it was an attempt to escape the dominance of Anglo-Saxon and Western crime fiction, he then proceeded by saying that Volić had been born in Budapest, at which she retorted: ‘No, another capital city starting with B – Belgrade.’ I suppose that just goes to show the ignorance about ‘Eastern Europe’ which is still quite common in the West – but then again, the room was packed, standing room only at the back while I sprawled out on the floor, so perhaps there was genuine curiosity and willingness to find out more.
The reason I put ‘Eastern Europe’ in quotation marks is because all of the authors remarked that this is very much a malleable concept rather than a geographical reality. Nowadays it has become more popular to say Central Europe, but without necessarily meaning it. Meanwhile, it could be argued that Estonia is more Nordic in feel and has very little to do with the Balkanic fellow panellists. So you couldn’t help feeling that the panel had been cobbled together purely because ‘well, you are all from that part of the world somehow’, without much thought or care going into the process or any attempt to find common themes.
The books themselves didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the East, either. Chirovici said his book takes place in the US and is all about the power of memory to falsify our recollections, nothing to do with the history or politics of Romania, past or present. Meanwhile, Hargla said his whole intention was to offer escapism, which is why he had gone for mysteries set in medieval times (the 15th century being also one of the most protracted periods of peace in Estonia’s troubled history).
So it was down to just Volić and Teodorescu to state that their books are making a political statement. Volić has written a crime novel set around the time of Srebrenica, because she wanted to show how ordinary humans cope with individual tragedies at a time of mass tragedy. She co-writes with German author Christian Schünemann and her books are primarily intended for a Western audience, as she thinks the Serbs are all too aware of the subjects she is addressing. There are no easy answers in a book which unflinchingly examines a country’s guilt, and attempts to forget or deny the evil acts of the past.
Teodorescu refers not to Romania’s past but its present-day issues in his novel Spada, which is the story of serial killer who targets criminal gypsies. Through the ambivalent public, political and media reactions to this killer, the author demonstrates just how easy it is to normalise the language of hatred, to raise the spectre of the ‘Demon Other’ and to lose any vestige of kindness and civilised behaviour in a democratic, open society in which 95% of people would describe themselves as ‘tolerant’. The book was published in Romanian a few years ago, but seems very timely with Trump’s America, Brexit Britain and now France and Germany possibly veering down the same path.
Victor Del Arbol (Spain), Marc Fernandez (France/Spain), Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Poland), Qiu Xiaolong (China).
The panellists started off by joking: ‘Welcome to the most depressing topic of the whole conference’, but in fact it was also one of the most fascinating topics, enabling us to see how totalitarian regimes have commonalities regardless of political leanings or culture. The moderator claimed that perhaps there was a Zorro instinct in each one of them, to uncover oppression and injustice through their fiction. While the authors themselves made no such pretentious statements, it was clear that giving voice to forgotten stories, to the vanquished, to truths which had been buried by the wayside was important to them.
Del Arbol said that espousing or allowing just one single truth is dangerous, that is what kills. He also considers himself Catalan, Spanish and European all at once and does not see why this should be a contradiction. Miłoszewski said that all countries have something in their past that they are less proud of, and that they want to remember only the glory days, but the role of the artist is to offer an alternative to the ‘official’ interpretation of the past, to remember the shameful incidents as well. That’s what true patriotism means. Otherwise, nostalgia for the golden past without any shades is merely nationalism. Fernandez also pointed out the conundrum of the perpetual outsider: in France is considered the Spaniard, in Spain he is considered too French. Qiu described his father’s humiliation as a member of the bourgeoise for daring to own a small perfume factory during the Cultural Revolution – and openly admitted he resented his father at the time for blocking any future career he might have had. He also told us how he was forced into exile in the US and had to start writing in English. This is the sad truth of all-pervasive state interference: ‘People don’t make the choices themselves – they have them made for them.’ He brought all this reluctant collaboration and ambiguity into Inspector Chen’s character.
Books and People
And here is my book haul – reasonably modest this year, as I was travelling with hand luggage only. One in German: the Thomas Willmann I mentioned in the previous post, two French authors (Marcus Malte and the only one I was missing by Jean-Claude Izzo, Chourmo, which also happens to be my favourite), three translations into French (Victor Del Arbol, Bogdan Teodorescu and an absurdist Russian novel by Olga Slavnikova), Ron Rash and David Vann in English (although they are much more expensive in France, of course, but I was keen to have them signed) and finally another Romanian author, Bogdan Hrib, with his first book translated into English (he is also Teodorescu’s Romanian publisher and there may be some exciting collaborations forthcoming, fingers crossed).
I got to meet many delightful authors, but got a little bit starstruck and forgot to take pictures. Apologies to the charming Ragnar Jonasson and Lilja Sigurdardottir for not pestering them for pictures. I was more than a little awestruck by Victor Del Arbol and David Vann, and I never got to speak to Cay Rademacher and David Young, but I did manage to take some pictures of the truly international Johana Gustawsson, the always bright and funny Dominique Sylvain (I believe it’s the 4th time I see here either in Lyon or Geneva) and newcomer – all the way from Australia – Jane Harper.
I was also lucky enough to receive an invitation to the preview of the first episode of the new (6th) series of Engrenages (better known as Spiral in the UK). I had already heard the main writer Anne Landois discuss her work in Lyon a couple of years ago, but this time she was joined by the producer at Canal+ and the actors playing the police officers Tintin and Gilou, as well as Judge Roban (the two women actors had other commitments). The series has been going strong for 12 years now, and the actors (plus or minus a few high-profile losses) have been together for pretty much the whole time and have become a tight-knit family. Anne said that she was constantly inspired by the actors to develop characters even farther, while the actors said they really felt they were part of something special, an emphasis on the personal lives of their characters as well as the investigation which is quite new to French TV.
Of course I cannot give anything away about the new series, otherwise they would have to kill me. Suffice it to say that the investigation will extend to the troubled Department 93 on the outskirts of Paris. Sadly, it is also Anne’s last season on the show, as it’s been a pretty full-time job for the past 10 years and she understandably wants to try something else. However, a new team of writers are already working on Season 7. Meanwhile, Season 6 will be out in September on French TV and hopefully soon afterwards on BBC4.
Back from Quais du Polar crime festival in Lyon and it was once again a wonderful experience, one that I would encourage all my crime fiction friends in the UK to consider. The total cost can work out cheaper than attending British crime festivals, even with a weaker pound: flights to Lyon are often cheaper than train tickets, hotels can be cheaper too, all the events are free, and you need to eat and drink in both places (plus the food in Lyon is usually of excellent quality).
So that’s my contribution to the Lyon Tourist Board. I was very lucky to attend the festival with a book-blogging friend in Lyon, Emma from Book Around the Corner, and her far more timely and excellent descriptions of each day at the Quais du Polar are here, here and here, so I am not sure I can add much more to that. But I did attend some different panels than Emma. Incidentally all the conferences available for replay on live.quaisdupolar.com (mostly in French, but also in English and Spanish, depending on what language the authors were using). I will try to include a link to each specific conference I am discussing.
Clare Mackintosh (UK) and Jenny Rogneby (Sweden) both worked with the police before turning their hand to crime fiction, so they had interesting things to say about the capacity of women to be perpetrators of crime. The other writers on the panel (Andrée Michaud from Canada, Dominique Sylvain and Harold Cobert from France) agreed that they were all tired of seeing women in fiction exclusively as disempowered victims, being raped or murdered or tortured for entertainment purposes. Andrée said that kind of writing smacked of voyeurism and she isn’t sure it serves the purpose of the story. Clare wants to give a voice to the victims, and what happens off the page, what is implied, what we all fear is often scarier than a very graphic scene of actual violence. Jenny pointed out that there is still very often a double standard: that when women commit a crime, they are judged far more harshly, as if it’s more understandable or forgivable or to be expected when men commit a crime. Harold thought (based on the example of his own young son) that all of us are born with a capacity for violence – we all feel like killing certain annoying people, for instance – but we don’t act on it because we learn to put on a thin veneer of civilisation as we grow up. Dominique didn’t quite agree with that; she argued that it’s the survival instinct, when we feel attacked or cornered, which can make even the most placid of us react violently at times. She was fascinated with Clare’s account of drunken Friday nights in city centres in the UK, when women are often more aggressive and resort to physical violence even more readily than the men, and commented: ‘It’s interesting that you don’t see that kind of female behaviour in fiction: you see the manipulative/psychological type of feminine violence.’ Indeed!
A journey from East to West and North to South of Europe: Arnaldur Indriđason (Iceland), Victor del Arbol (Spain), Andriy Kokotukha (Ukraine), Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Poland), Olivier Truc (France, but writing about the Reindeer Police in the Arctic Circle).
This was one of those panels where it was very difficult to find a common subject, other than stating that crime fiction is a wonderful way to discover new countries and cultures and that we should enjoy our European diversity without ever taking it for granted. Each author shared a little bit about their specific countries and their experience of ‘occupation’ or ‘oppression’. The most poignant account was of course from the Ukraine, where the ‘Maidan’ (street) movement was not just revolutionary but also a cultural initiative, and the protesters found refuge (and spiritual nourishment) in the Cultural Centre and Library. Yes, even Iceland has known occupation: it only became independent in 1944 and until 2006 had a US military base which practically doubled the population of Reykjavik overnight. They also expressed concern about the recent resurgence of nationalist rhetoric. As Del Arbol said: ‘I thought I was writing about the past – dictatorship, not being able to listen to other points of view, the blaming of others, hatred – but I can see we are in danger of it happening all over again.’
Three male writers – David Young (UK), Ron Rash (US), Caryl Ferey (France) – who have powerful female protagonists in many of their books. Why do they choose to write about women – in either first or third person (and they all agreed that it was much more intimate and difficult to do the first person)? What was fascinating here was the difference in approach: Rash and Ferey talked very much about inspiration, almost divine dictation straight from the source of the story. David Young had a much more down-to-earth, craftsman-like approach.
RR: It’s not that I choose to write women: the story and the characters choose me. When I tried to write one particular story from a man’s perspective, it was as if I was switched onto the wrong frequency, so I had to switch to a woman’s voice and then it all became clear. Besides, women in American fiction often only have power within the family, so I wanted to go beyond the stereotypical. Plus I am such a boring person, I want to write about much more interesting people than myself. Perhaps some other writers – naming no names – should consider doing that too. And I love the challenge of writing about something or someone that I know less – we are all essentially trying to describe what it means to be alive in the world, to be human. After a while, you start to hear the voice so clearly, it’s like being possessed in some ways.
CF: Two women together in a scene are always far more interesting than two men: with two men in a scene in a crime novel, they usually end up fighting or shooting each other, with women it’s a lot more complex. I do admit falling in love with my female character, pathetic though it may sound. And my ideal of manhood is David Bowie, who is that perfect combination of male and female characteristics.
DY: I had a much more cynical reason for using a female heroine: I wanted to write a thriller set in GDR in the 1970s, but that kind of thing usually only appeals to male readers, so I wanted to draw in female readers by creating Karen Müller as the recurring main detective in the series. Plus, it is reflective of East German society at the time: over 90% of women were working, in all sorts of jobs, it was a far more egalitarian society in that respect. I was also lucky that my tutors at City University were women and gave me good feedback if they felt that I was straying too far from a woman’s perspective on things.
This was the first of two panels on Germany: viewed from the inside, by German authors Thomas Willmann, Sebastian Fitzek and Oliver Bottini. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the second session on Germany and Berlin seen from the outside by Maxime Gillio and Romain Slocombe (France), Philip Kerr and David Young (UK), but I will be listening to that recording.
Aside from the huge pleasure of hearing German once more, I also appreciated the opportunity to discover some new authors. I had only read Fitzek before, and his fast-paced psycho-thrillers are not necessarily my cup of tea, but I discovered that Bottini has a series featuring an alcoholic woman detective Louise Boni (makes a change from male alcoholics, I suppose). However, the one that captured my imagination was Willmann’s combination of Heimatroman (translated as: sentimental novel set in a traditional regional background) and Western, with a stranger coming to a snowbound village in the Alps, sounded very much like Dürrenmatt’s play about revenge ‘The Visit’ liberally sprinkled with Scandinoir moodiness. It has been filmed in Austria, directed by Andreas Prochaska. The German language trailer is at the end of this blog post.
What all three writers complained about was that German literature tends to be very earnest, full of educational zeal and purpose, so genre literature, whose sole purpose is entertainment, is regarded with suspicion and quite a bit of derision. Fitzek claimed that he doesn’t care what the critics say about him, or what drawer he gets stuck in, as long as he can tell the kind of story he enjoys reading himself. Bottini, however, was more enraged by the lack of consideration given to crime fiction, and said there are no big crime festivals in Germany which could compare to Quais du Polar or English festivals. In spite of all that, German ‘Krimi’ is remarkably healthy and diverse, and it engages with current affairs, examines social problems, provides a kind of X-ray of society.
Although I want to avoid this becoming a roman fleuve, I also want to avoid a massively long post, so I will write separately about the two political panels which I attended, plus the advance screening of the first episode of the new series of Spiral (Engrenages), as well as my book haul and personal encounters.
I don’t often post twice in a day, but am afraid by next week all this will feel sadly out of date. Do you know the children’s storytelling game of ‘Fortunately Unfortunately’ (or at least that’s the name we used in our house)? The first person starts off with a story and after a few sentences ends on a cliffhanger ‘but unfortunately then…’. The next person picks up the baton and carries on for a few more sentences, ending with ‘but fortunately then…’. And so on. One positive for every negative development in the storyline. That’s very much how it felt to me yesterday at the London Book Fair.
Fortunately, I was wearing sensible walking shoes, so I could face the acres of books, stands, events with standing room only, frantic searches for toilets and venues. I’d been advised by the brilliantly-organised Twitter friend Estelle to bring a back-pack and a tote, as well as my own snacks and drinks, so I was able to carry the heavy burden of cultural enlightenment. Unfortunately, I kept losing my map and so missed out on dozens of publishers I was interested in meeting.
Unfortunately, being a Book Fair novice, I did not make any formal appointments or arrangements beforehand to meet people, especially since I felt I did not want to waste anyone’s time. Fortunately, I got to informally see and hug people I knew from beforehand: Karen Sullivan from Orenda Books and Susan from the wonderful website and blog The Book Trail , literary agent Jo Unwin, author and translator Michelle Bailat Jones , Polish language translator Antonia Lloyd Jones.
Fortunately, as I found out at the conference on Translated Children’s Books, there are some great initiatives in place to make it easier for publishers to take the risk on translated fiction, of which Booktrust’s In Other Words, Reading the Way and Riveting Reads recommendations for school libraries, and the Hay Festival/Aarhus joint initiative of selecting 39 best European children and YA authors under the age of 40. Unfortunately, when I briefly spoke to writer, translator and cultural agitator Daniel Hahn, who has been involved in most of these initiatives, I realised that it was too late to champion the cause for Romanian literature, as the selections have already been made. Let’s hope that this is not just a one-off project, and there will be updates and potential to develop it further in the future. Although I would agree with Hahn that it would be nice to think that such initiatives will no longer be required in the future, because translation will have become mainstream.
Fortunately, I got a lot of information and reading suggestions for Malta, Latvia and Lithuania, which were missing on my #EU27Project list. I also found out about possible funding for translation projects from Romanian into English. Unfortunately, I managed to gather so many materials (see above), that the handle on my sturdy tote bag broke.
Unfortunately, the Careers Fair for jobs in publishing was extremely crowded and I felt like I was the donkey among sheep (good old Romanian saying, meaning I was the ‘biggest’, i.e. oldest, one there). Fortunately, the recruitment agencies did not seem to think I was a complete waste of space if I fancied a career change (possibly in academic publishing rather than mainstream fiction).
Fortunately, my day did not end there. I met a friend at the Wellcome Collection and then attended a poetry reading at the Bookmarks bookshop in Bloomsbury. The poets reading from their new collections were American poet Michael Waters , Roy Marshall (whom I knew from his wonderful blog) and Mihaela Moscaliuc, whose debut collection Father Dirt I had absolutely loved. Three very different kinds of poets, with a bouquet of poems at once sad and touching, funny and wry, thoughtful and provocative. I got all three books and look forward to reading them at leisure.
Unfortunately, the poetic evening had to come to an end with a mad dash for the train, crying children all the way home and some forgotten school uniforms to sort out for my sons. Fortunately, I have the memories…
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.
But there were some important lessons I learnt too as an organiser and writer:
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?
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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?