Ten Years of Writing: Where Are We Now?

Ten years ago I started a new personal blog (as opposed to my professional one) and wrote a timid first post, in which I made a promise to myself.

This is where I can be myself, not a mother, not a daughter, not a wife, not a businesswoman.  And not a scribbler, but most definitely a writer.

Morita Rieko: Double-flowered camellia tree.

This was not the first time I resolved to be a writer. Aged six, I had decided age that I was going to win the Nobel Literature Prize for Romania, wrote plays for my friends and me to perform (I also directed, earning me the nickname ‘Bossyboots’), stories and novels, diaries, letters, and above all poetry. Throughout secondary school and university, I wrote and wrote, almost always in English, the strongest of my three childhood languages.

But then I started working, often four jobs at once to make ends meet (at first as a school teacher and secretary, later as a university lecturer, private tutor, copyeditor and translator), and my writing fell by the wayside. I went abroad for postgraduate studies, then got married, started working in a completely different and very demanding field, had children, moved jobs, moved countries, became self-employed and worked crazy hours after the children went to bed to establish my business. I was still dreaming of writing creatively at some point, but that point just receded further and further away. I went into creative hibernation for twenty years.

Then, in the autumn of 2011, we moved to Geneva for the second time. After all of the administrative hassle of renovating and renting out our house in the UK, packing and unpacking, settling the children in at school, doing lots and lots of French admin, I found myself stuck at home with nothing much to do. I had lost many of my clients because of my move abroad and had not yet established myself in the new environment. The time to pursue my writing dream was now or never, I felt, especially after I attended the conference of the Geneva Writers’ Group in early 2012.

I jumped in with both feet, set up a blog and a Twitter account, discovered the storytelling site of Cowbird (now an archive) and started writing something every day. I resolved to never allow life to get in the way of my love of writing again.

But life had other plans for me.

The last five years have been all about survival. With hindsight, I wish I had used the previous five years in Geneva mostly for writing, but I hated being dependant on a man for money. So I worked and travelled to exhaustion, put up with all sorts of corporate (and marital) humiliations, only to then watch that money flow into my husband’s pocket during our acrimonious, long-drawn-out divorce. Because I was travelling so much at the time, I felt guilty about neglecting the children, so tried to give them as many happy memories when we were together as I could. My writing once again came last. And guess what? They don’t remember all that much about the years when I was pretending to be happy and doing so much motherly stuff with them, neither the good nor the bad. I’ve often thought what an outstanding husband, father, career man and writer I could have been, with half the amount of effort I put into things because of my gender.

That’s why it doesn’t feel like I have much to show for the ten years of ‘taking writing seriously’. Other than 165K of tweets (and many lost hours), and over 1 million words of blogging. Enough to have written around eleven average novels, countless short stories or poems, but no book to show for any of that. I’ve seen other bloggers become judges for literary prizes, get invited to speak on radio or at literary festivals, interview famous authors. That is not the reason I started this blog, but it’s only human to feel an occasional pang of envy – or of failure – that all that work has not led to more visibility and has settled down to a pleasing but not astonishing number of 4000-5000 views per month. Many years of book reviewing and volunteering for various literary organisations have not led to any startling insights or superb industry contacts or even a job in publishing, even though I was prepared to take a drop in income so I could do the thing I love.

Yes, yes, I know that it’s too easy to focus on the things you have NOT done, so let me remind myself of the things I have achieved. I have 38 publications in print and online journals, although for about 3-4 years I didn’t submit a single thing. I have co-founded a publishing company Corylus Books which is trying, by hook or by crook, to introduce the English-speaking world to a greater variety of languages and countries in crime fiction. I have translated two crime novels (published) and am working on a third, a play and a poem (although I said I would never translate poetry), and am busy pitching other novels to publishers. When I have the time to do it for longer than frantic ten minute bursts, I enjoy the actual writing as much as when I was a child. I have finished the second draft of my first novel and the first draft of my second. Above all, it’s the quality not the quantity of blog readers that really matters. I have made many excellent literary friends via blogging and social media, but also in real life, and they are often the people I consult most nowadays.

All the time, in the background, that relentless tick-tock, the clock being run down. How much longer can I afford to ignore it? No wonder ‘tick, tick… BOOM!’ resonated with me – although it was quite funny to hear the Jonathan Larson character complain that he is nearly thirty and still hasn’t achieved anything. At thirty I was just establishing my career for the second time in a new country after my Ph.D.

It’s been ten years since I vowed to prioritise writing. I never thought I would still be so close to the starting line after ten years. As Tillie Olsen says in her hugely influential work Silences, do I really want to remain mute and let writing die over and over again in me?

Work interrupted, deferred, postponed, makes blockage — at best, lesser accomplishment. Unused capacities atrophy, cease to be. … The habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing is not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for writing to be first; habits of years — response to others, distractibility, responsibility for daily matters — mark you, become you.

Forgive the self-indulgenct and self-pitying tone of this post. Two years of Covid have brought the fragility and transience of our human lives to the forefront. Call it foolish or egotistic, I will never not be preoccupied with my legacy. I don’t mean my children – they are their own people, and I was never the kind who felt the biological urge to perpetuate my line. I may not have the talent or the single-mindedness to succeed. But when the camellia falls, what is left behind? A blog that will be archived in some corner of the internet? Half-finished projects? A scattering of publications in journals that disappear as quickly as they appear?

古井戸のくらきに落る椿哉
furuidono kurakini otsuru tsubakikana

an old well
into the darkness
falls a camellia

—Buson

How Do You Have Time for It All?

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.

Still: Time and Distractions

www.decoist.com
http://www.decoist.com

There was a reason I named my blog ‘Finding Time to Write’.  18 months on, and this is still the greatest challenge for me.

I am ashamed that this should be the case. ‘First World’, ‘middle class problem’ and ‘mountain out of a molehill’ are expressions that come to mind whenever I want to write about this, even in the privacy of my diary. I feel humbled by stories of true courage in the face of adversity, such as Amy Good’s account of writing with aphasia  or a poet’s moving account of writing while caring for her invalid husband. I haven’t quite figured out why I can spend hours genuinely sympathising with friends who struggle to balance career, family and creativity, but am so bitterly unforgiving with myself when I dare to voice the same concerns. With others it’s justified and I take their arguments at face value. With me, it’s petty little excuses.

I chide Ice Queen Me for requiring so much space (both physical and mental) to write.  I try to reason with Ritualistic Me that a notebook, a pen and a corner of a table should be all that is required for my writing happiness.  I quarrel with Harridan Mum that absolute silence is not enforceable, practical or necessary for inspiration. And I do daily grim, wordless battle with Ms. Procrastinator, serving her a steady diet of frogs to swallow first thing every morning, before challenging her to a sword-fight.

Yet the numbers speak for themselves.

August: month of no children, family, work or social obligations.

Second draft of novel completed, 21 blog posts posted, 27 books read, 12 book reviews completed, 12 new poems written, 2 poems edited and submitted to competition.

Children came back 10 days ago.

treehouse1
Tree House Lodge, Costa Rica.

Since then, I have done zero writing or editing on my novel, 0 poems written, 2 blog posts (both cheats: one a poem I had written earlier, the other a simple list of reading), and 1 book review which I had half-written previously.  And I finished one book (which I had started before their arrival).

I’ve started reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswicks journals and so much of what she says resonates with me:

Every so often I need OUT; something will throw me into total disproportion, and I have to get away from everybody – away from all of these people I love most in the world – in order to regain a sense of proportion.

It is almost frightening how content I was with the lonely life, how quickly I adapted to a day shaped around my writing, how nothing else seemed to matter. Yet, of course, now, when I clasp those bony knees and scraped elbows, making a bundle of them in my arms, trying to fit them still within my protective embrace… I know that something else does matter.  I don’t know if being a mother has changed me as a writer or improved my writing in any way. I fear not. It’s not just the spectre of time that is haunting me now, but also the Ghost of Courage Past. I seem less willing to venture out on that limb, with no thought of return. I need to find my way back. To them, my beloved millstones. Tell myself that old lie, which sometimes fails to comfort: that there is still plenty of time to progress, learn my craft, write and publish.

So perhaps I could have been a writer without being a mother, but I do know that I could not have been a mother without being a mother. Or without being a writer.

Global Reading Challenge 2013

Hello again, everyone, and thank you for not forgetting about me completely during my looooong absence, reinforced by lack of internet, laptop, place or time to call my own (writing time giving way to family time).

2013 is announcing itself as a very busy year professionally and personally, so finding the time to write will be even more of a challenge than usual. Yet, despite that, reading must and will happen.  And not just random reading – I do believe in challenging myself and going beyond my old comfort friends.  So I am signing up to the Global Reading Challenge as outlined by the avid reader and fantastic host Kerri of Mysteries in Paradise.

I am signing up for the Medium Challenge, which means reading two books from each of the continents, defined here as Africa, Asia, Australasia/Oceania, Europe, North America, South America and a Seventh Continent, which could be Antarctica, or an unfamiliar setting, such as the sea, space, a supernatural/paranormal world, history, the future etc. So fourteen books for the year – doesn’t sound like much, but when you add all the familiar reading, rereading, ARC for reviews and all that, it becomes a little less of a sure winner…

So that is my challenge, instead of New Year’s Resolutions.  What goals are you setting yourself, either for your reading or your writing?  Or personally? And what is your opinion of New Year resolutions?

How do you find time to write?

As you might have guessed from the title of this blog, finding time to write anything other than To Do lists and professional reports can be a bit of a personal challenge for me.  So, for a fun Friday activity, I thought I would compile a few of my favourite writing tips from well-known and respected writers.  Those who have ‘cracked’ the dilemma of ‘but I don’t have the time…’.  Here’s to hoping it will give me wings for the weekend, although most of them sound quite stern.

Work according to the program, not according to the mood! (Henry Miller)

Nobody’s making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine! (Margaret Atwood)

Write.  Put one word after another.  Find the right word, put it down. (Neil Gaiman)

Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom. (Jeanette Winterson)

Don’t keep waiting for the right moment or you’ll wait forever, but accept that there are some stages in life when it’s next to impossible to pull off a book. (Kate White)

The way to write a book is to actually write a book.  A pen is useful, typing is also good…. The first twelve years are the worst.  (Anne Enright)

It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. (Jonathan Franzen)

Here are three somewhat kinder ones:

Defend yourself.  Find out what keeps you happy, motivated and creative. (AL Kennedy)

Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organise your life accordingly. (Andrew Motion)

Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research. (Roddy Doyle)

Oh, that’s all right then…  No, hang on a minute!