Tomorrow I’ll use post-its in coloured gradations,
fill spreadsheets and schedules, submit with method.
Each sapling of wisdom, each stray pun I will corral
till the gravity of the day after arrives with a thud.
But maybe not just yet. I will be off to Geneva this coming weekend for the Meet the Agent event which I helped organise, then delivering some training to a UN organisation (my freelance work still seems very much in demand, even if no one wants my talents on a more permanent basis), also wrangling with the French tax office, who still don’t seem to have understood the messages I’ve been sending since August 2016. If I ever do finish my WIP, it will be dedicated to them for their ‘contribution’.
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.
When I thought about the different effect that prose and poetry have on me, and how I feel about writing both, it surprised me to discover that I used the pronouns ‘she’ for prose and ‘he’ for poetry. At this moment in real life, I seek out female companionship, which I find more nurturing, but in writing I seem to find a home in poetry when I am unable to write prose. I wonder what Jung would make of that?
Prose taunts and haunts me – she blows hot and cold. Sometimes I love her to bits, sometimes I feel close to strangling her. I can never approach her unprepared. She requires, nay, she demands a lot of love and attention; I often don’t have the time to give her all that she deserves. Then she neglects me, slams the door in my face, throws a tantrum. I spend weeks, even months, trying to woo her back, but there is no sign of life from her capricious majesty.
She is also the mistress of comparisons. She has no qualms about telling me that her other suitors are better, tidier, more organised, more romantic, more dashing, more, more, more…
I have tried to flirt with her younger sister, Short Story, or her niece, Flash Fiction, but it’s Prose the Novel whom I love best. She knows it, I know it. No amount of success with the others would ever make up for the loss of her.
Poetry is my refuge when Prose refuses to cooperate.
When I cannot find the words, Poetry takes over like an old chum. Knows me best, understands the unspoken, the wildest metaphors and similes. I say a carrot is like a star and Poetry smiles in his gentle, light-filled way and only ever replies: ‘Why not?’
Poetry is the one who soothes my nightmares, unknots the wrinkles on my face and in my mind. He encourages me to discover myself, and if I don’t come back with answers… well, so what? He’ll still be there for me.
Karen and Jack’s house in Provence may be a little corner of paradise, but I wasn’t just going to laze around in a night-gown and listen to harp music all day. I had tremendous plans going there: I was going to finish my novel and send it to my mentor for structural edits. But that was based on the flawed assumption I made back in early June that I would have spent a total of 5 weeks on the novel by now. Needless to say, that did not happen between July and October. I wrote precisely zero words since mid-June.
Having all the time in the world and inspiring landscape galore was not immediately productive, however. I wrote about 1500 words and rewrote a full outline of the novel, filling up any plot holes, but no more than that. Now, I could choose to focus on what I did not achieve, but for once I will focus on the positive.
Lulled to sleep in the evening and woken up in the morning by poetry (Karen has a whole room full of poetry books – 4 bookcases full!), it’s to be expected that I succumbed to my old passion. I read 13 books of poetry during those five days, so it was like bathing in sunlight. Of course, you know what it’s like with poetry collections, you don’t read them cover to cover, you find the poems that really resonate with you.
Here are some which I would love to share with you, all by women poets (although I also read William Stafford and Peter Meinke, I spontaneously picked up women this time):
Let’s start a conversation. Ask me where I’m from.
Where is home, really home. Where my parents were born.
What to do if I sound more like you than you do.
Every word an exhalation, a driving out. (Vahni Capildeo)
I keep finding you in ways I didn’t know I noticed, or knew.
Every road, every sea,
every beach by every sea,
keeps lining up with what you loved.
Here’s a line of silent palm trees.
It’s as if you answered the phone.
(Naomi Shihab Nye)
I caution you as I was never cautioned:
you will never let go, you will never be satiated.
You will be damaged and scarred, you will continue to hunger.
Your body will age, you will continue to need.
You will want the earth, then more of the earth –
Sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not respond.
It is encompassing, it will not minister.
Meaning, it will feed you, it will ravish you,
it will not keep you alive. (Louise Gluck)
I, like a river,
Have been turned aside by this harsh age.
I am a substitute. My life has flowed
Into another channel
And I do not recognise my shores.
O, how many fine sights I have missed,
How many curtains have risen without me
And fallen too…
And how many poems I have not written
Whose secret chorus swirls around my head
And possibly one day
Will stifle me… (Anna Akhmatova)
This poem is dangerous; it should not be left
Within the reach of children, or even of adults
Who might swallow it whole, with possibly
Undesirable side-effects. If you come across
An unattended, unidentified poem
In a public place, do not attempt to tackle it
Yourself. Send it (preferably in a sealed container)
To the nearest centre of learning, where it will be rendered
Harmless by experts. Even the simplest poem
May destroy your immunity to human emotions.
All poems must carry a Government warning. Words
Can seriously affect your heart. (Elma Mitchell)
The result of this electrolyte bath of poetry? I wrote 25 new poems of my own. All requiring a lot of work still, but more than I’ve written in the 6 months January-June 2016. I will make sure I always have at least one book of poetry on the go at any moment in time.
Of course we all dream of relaxing and creative holidays in beautiful landscapes, so it won’t come as a surprise to hear that the 5 1/2 days I spent in Provence were simply fabulous! The weather was mostly cloudy, there was even some rain, so I only had 1.5 days of sunshine, but I didn’t care. This was paradise.
You won’t fully appreciate just how much those days away from family and work meant to me, until you hear of the weeks preceding it. Of course, the usual insomnia, anxieties great and small, travelling for work with tiring, woefully unprepared workshops (not only on my part), tense moments with my parents who had come to look after the children while I was away, meticulous forward planning but still not enough time to do all the laundry. It all culminated on 21/22, when I had the following timetable:
06:00 CET: get up extra early to get to the training venue to change some slides and check in online (as the friend I was staying with was having some internet issues)
09:00 – 16:30 CET – ‘stand and deliver’ all day
16:30 – 17:00 CET – polite small talk and feedback with client
17:00-17:30 CET- rush to the airport
17:30 – 20:30 CET – discover the flight is delayed and there are additional security checks in force for UK destinations, while the 90 minutes free Wifi at Geneva airport expires and doesn’t allow me to access my mobile boarding pass at the gate
23:00-01:30 GMT – unpack one suitcase and pack two (for myself and the children), leave the house reasonably tidy for some friends who would be staying there over the holiday week, print out boarding passes for everybody, make sure my parents have packed everything, driving instructions to the Provence, telephone numbers for all of my children’s friends, confirmation for rental car, save chapters of my novel on a USB stick etc. etc. etc.
01:30-05:15 GMT – disturbed sleep on armchair-bed in study, with a restless cat trying to rest on my legs and waking up with a wonky shoulder
5:15-7:15 GMT – make sure everyone eats, gets dressed, leaves behind keys they don’t need, takes with them medicines and keys they do need, don’t forget their mobiles or cuddly toys, take everybody to the airport, leave car at long-term car park, make sure my parents find the way to Terminal 4 while we get through security in time at our terminal
7:15 GMT – 12:00 CET – another flight, another delay, but arrived safely in Geneva, where I hand the boys over to their Dad, and get my rental vehicle
13:30 – 19:30 CET – drive down to Provence, but have to avoid the Swiss motorway (no vignette, you see), then take a wrong turn and end up going the long way round, adding at least an hour to my journey
19:30 – 20:30 CET – the final portion of the journey was in complete darkness, along narrow country lanes with ditches on either side, trying to find a tiny ‘hameau’ while avoiding the beguiling road signs for Roussillon
FINALLY make it to my friends’ house and have a glass of wine to celebrate before collapsing in bed and sleeping for 12 hours straight
My friends, Jack and Karen McDermott, are American, but used to live in Geneva. They retired to the south of France four years ago and bought an amazing farmhouse in the Luberon, which they have lovingly renovated.Karen is an artist (painter, ceramicist, photographer), as well as a poet, so you can imagine all the lovely little touches that have gone into both interior and exterior decoration.
Three years ago, Karen and Jack opened up their wonderfully cosy, welcoming house to writers and artists who need some quiet time to rest, refocus and create. So far, all their guests have come through personal recommendations, so you can be sure that you will feel very much at home. Prices vary according to room size and season, but each room has its own quirky décor and, more importantly, all contain a desk for writing and good reading lights. A family after my own heart, who knows just what a bookworm needs. Oh, and did I mention that the house is full of books?
Outdoors is just as enticing, pure balm to the wounded or exhausted spirit.
Of course, the vineyards of Provence are all around (and Karen and Jack have the perfect wine cellar for it), as are lavender fields and olive trees. The delightful ochre cliffs of Roussillon, the picture-perfect hilltop village of Gordes and Menerbes of Peter Mayle fame are a short drive away, while Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Chateauneuf du Pape and Manosque (home of Occitane en Provence cosmetics) all make for perfect day-trips.
But I was there to work, not gallivant about. There was a small amount of gallivanting involved though, as you shall discover in another post. But, for now…
It’s not the move (or, to use corporate terminology, the international relocation). It’s not the scrabbling around trying to find the financial paperwork for discussion at mediation services (and realising you are about 4 years out of date with everything and your pension is worth nothing). It’s not even the lack of internet or frenetic preparation for school, while trying not to show your older son that you are anxious about his lack of confirmed school place.
It’s not even when all of your devices conspire to let you down all at once. Unrepairable. Making you buy new ones or inherit other people’s used ones and resetting everything all at once, on a new system, on a new service provider, in a new language and keyboard. Verification after verification. Forgotten passwords. I could have handled a single phone or a laptop or a tablet, but all three at once! Then discovering you have invested in the wrong new tablet, which does not support Netgalley documents, so more than half of all your ebooks have disappeared.
Let’s add a little bit of extra seasoning to that, shall we?
It’s discovering that your younger son has been a little too eager to construct his Ikea furniture and has done it the wrong way (and now those screws can’t be taken out without causing damage). It’s finding that your walls are not receptive to ordinary nails, but require power tools so you can’t hang anything up. It’s having your parents (mercifully at a distance) blaming you for other people’s unhappiness (past, present and future) but pshawing and downplaying your own. It’s waking up every morning with backache and worrying if you will be strong enough to guide the children through the heart-breaking months to follow. It’s searching for jobs online and realising that the ones you like don’t pay enough for you to live on, while the ones you don’t like require you to travel excessively and/or make people redundant. (Think George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’) It’s having your soon-to-be ex-husband coming to visit for a long weekend and being laid up in bed with a bad back for the entire time (when I was hoping he could help me bring some things down from the loft).
In short, it’s waking up to cumulative and repetitive reality.
Luckily, I’ve now found another old tablet (long may it last!) and have solved my Netgalley problem, so at least I can have my daily dose of reading escapism.
On Monday, school starts. And hopefully, so will my writing. Now we’re cooking!
I doubt anyone will even notice I am gone during the next few weeks, but just in case you are not away on holiday or if you have a bit of time on your hands, break the safety glass and get your hands on some of my favourite older posts.