Let the WB Chronicles Begin!

The greatest dilemma of separation has to do with vocabulary.

‘Stop calling him “your husband” – he isn’t that anymore!’ chides my hairdresser.

‘Not-quite-ex-yet-officially doesn’t have a snappy ring to it, does it?’ complains a friend.

‘My children’s father is a bit of a mouthful…’, I admit quietly to myself.

‘Why don’t you use his first name?’ ask my work colleagues. That last one is easily answered: because the first name feels more intimate than giving him a quick label like ‘ex’ or ‘husband’. In front of my children I can call him ‘Baba’ (Greek for Dad), which is what they have called him all their lives. Nothing to do with me.

But what can I call this man with whom I spent 20+ years of my life?

Well, don’t laugh, but I think the best solution might be: WB. Not for Warner Brothers, or his initials. But for ‘Wet Blanket’. Hear me out: I am not being unnecessarily cruel or name-calling. I am simply describing the effect he has had on me for the last ten years or so, possibly longer.

All the things he had once claimed to love about me began to irritate him. How ‘educated’ and ‘cultured’ I was compared to him, how opinionated, how I could debate with him for hours about the state of the world, how vivacious and loud and full of laughter I was when out with friends, what a social butterfly at times, what a recluse at other times, my reading, my book acquisition, even my love of elephants no longer seemed lovable but annoying. I had to be corrected (often in public), put in my place, hidden away from work colleagues for fear of being an embarrassment. All my attributes which did not put him in first place (even ahead of the children) had to be complained about until I made efforts to change them. Meanwhile, woe betide I try to change anything about himself – ‘I never pretended to be anything I was not, you knew whom you married’.

Yes, more fool I! I thought people grew and developed all life long. I didn’t exactly want to change him, I had no illusions about some of his less stellar qualities, but I was the incurable optimist, hopeful that life, family, children and growing older would mature him and reduce some of that selfishness. After all, I was a self-centred teenager myself once and I’ve grown so much less selfish since having children.

So yes, I suppose we were each other’s mutual wet blankets. He dampened my enthusiasm, intellect and friendliness. Meanwhile, I acted as a wet blanket on his selfishness, becoming quite the nag. Whenever I accused him of it, he would reply: ‘Why don’t you become more selfish too? Stop saying you are doing so much for the family!’

The Three Witches from the Orson Welles’ vision of Macbeth, which scared me to death when I was a child.

Partly based on the thoughts I had while reviewing Meena Kandasamy yesterday and partly because I work things out emotionally so much better when I fictionalise things in writing, I intend to embark upon a series of vignettes, poems, flash fiction, rap battles and who knows what else, loosely assembled under the title ‘The WB Chronicles’. I also will attempt a longer (perhaps radio?) play based upon the Three Witches in Macbeth, except they will be three men having their midlife crises, meeting in the pub to complain about the unfairness in their lives.

When shall we three meet again?
To watch FA Cup Final or Champions’ League?
When we’re done with bathtime fatigue
And can be Monarchs of the Glen…

I haven’t quite figured out the details, but one could be whingeing about how his wife wants to take half his money after the divorce, another could be protesting at being accused of sexual harassment at work, and the third could be complaining about the expectations his much younger girlfriend has of him. Meanwhile, in the background, there could be some kind of Greek chorus bringing in alternative points of view (especially with the dryness of legal documents). It would be a comedy, because how are we to survive if we cannot laugh at the lemons in our lives!

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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.

A Weekend with Kathleen Jamie

Such a pleasure and privilege to be back in Geneva this past weekend for a poetry workshop and masterclass with Kathleen Jamie, organised by the Geneva Writers Group!

I discovered Kathleen Jamie when I was reading Melissa Harrison and Amy Liptrot and wanted to know about more authors who wrote really thoughtful non-fiction about nature. Several of you, my dear readers and blogging friends, suggested Kathleen Jamie and I was captivated by her quiet yet very precise style. Then I discovered her poetry – and it became apparent to me why she was so observant of the world around her.

So, when I heard that Geneva Writers Group was inviting her over for a poetry masterclass, I was the first to apply. And it lived up to all of my expectations (as well as being a great opportunity to go back to my beloved mountains and lake, and see dear friends again).

In person, Kathleen Jamie is as quiet, modest, unshowy yet crystal-sharp as you would expect from her writing. The first day was for a large audience, so it was more of a classroom type environment (not her preferred way of working). However, we are a lively group, the very opposite of quiet, so we all joined in, even those who are not poets.

Nature poetry, Kathleen argued, is all about letting the animal or natural object be – it’s writing around nature rather than writing about it. It’s about the poet dumping the ego, the need to show off, the need to draw attention to oneself and one’s problems. I loved her wry humour: ‘Poets often go off on a silly flight of fancy but forget about the close, careful observation.’ Since this is exactly what I am aiming at now in my own poetry, to move from the confessional rant to a more measured, considered, slant approach, it was the right workshop at the right time.

We brought in an object from the natural world and tried to describe it in third person and in second person (relating to it) and observing the difference. We did close readings of nature poems with a whole range of approaches: from the very cool emotionally detached observation of a whale by Peter Reading to the personal commentary and use of a salmon as a metaphor in Ted Hughes, from the warm and intimate begging for forgiveness that Gillian Allnut addresses to a geranium to the awe-struck tribute to a cactus by James Wright.

The second day was a small group of ten and we sat and discussed the poems we had circulated beforehand. This was so valuable – Kathleen was tough but encouraging at the same time. She said it is not about editing or eliminating (even though she started folding the pages like origami to reduce the poems to the essential stanzas or lines), but rather about nurturing and bringing out the poem that is hiding sometimes inside our work. It’s like being a mother and helping the poems, like children, become what they want and need to be, rather than what we want them to become.

I learnt so much from listening to comments and reading everyone’s work. I’ll also be eternally grateful (and perhaps somewhat smug) that Kathleen liked the specific details and use of the senses in my poem. She also encouraged me to be brave about using foreign words, as she uses Scots in some of her poetry, while acknowledging that it can feel transgressive and fraught with the danger of being misunderstood.

Not Reading But Scrolling…

One week into my new job and daily commute into London and I can say two things with certainty: the job is really interesting and I will be surrounded by lovely people; and the railway service has deteriorated dramatically in the 15 years or so since I last had to commute regularly.

Perhaps a third certainty is that it will be difficult to not deplete my wallet when I have to pass by Waterstone’s Gower Street every day.

The reading time on my commute is a bonus, although it is not quite as long as I had envisaged. It is not uninterrupted time, as I have to change from train to Tube – and in the latter I am so squished, it is often impossible to find a bar to clutch on to and to take out a book. But even in the train, I have found myself using Wifi to check emails and Twitter rather than reading. If I were kind with myself, I would say it’s just to save time and not have to check on these things when I get home to my boys (and because I don’t check them during the day at work).

But the truth is somewhat more complex.

I wonder if all this frantic scrolling down the timeline for a joke, some wit, some precious gem of information is all about searching for something to fill a yearning abyss inside of me that I deny in my moments of strength and dare not measure in my moments of weakness.

Instead of abseiling down the abyss to explore further – too dangerous – or expressing its beautiful unknowability through poetry – too difficult, the chances of succeeding are too slender – I look away from it. I seek to distract myself, or look for someone else who might have expressed it for me. But I am far more likely to find that directly in books rather than mediated via social media. At its worst, I sometimes think Twitter is a lot of noise about art instead of that inner and outer quiet necessary for interacting with the art itself. [I almost said ‘communing with the art’, but that sounds terribly old-fashioned.]

What do you think? Do you feel that social media helps you avoid those complex, potentially unpleasant or dangerous thoughts?

Lessons in Welsh and Poetry from Ty Newydd

Croeso i Gymru – Welcome to Wales

After 20+ years spent in Great Britain, why oh why have I not visited Wales before? The combination of mountains and sea is exactly what my soul has been craving ever since I came to this island and a worthy substitute for my Genevois home which I miss with all my heart. This was enhanced, of course, by glorious weather and the serene setting of David Lloyd George’s house at Ty Newydd.

Trochi – Immersion

Reading, writing, listening, talking, eating, breathing, touching poetry as if it were the most important thing in the world. A protective glass bell for even the most fragile bloom to grow and blossom.

Diolch – Thank you

Under the gently challenging guidance of George Szirtes and Deryn Rees-Jones, who created a real feeling of community of like-minded people, who discuss your work rather than your personality or what they would have written instead. Profound admiration and respect to Polly, Jenny, Sophia, Jane, John, Antony, Dafydd, Christine, Simon, Vanessa, Margaret, Mary and Arji, who stretched my mind, made me laugh, made me cry and made me want to persevere. People who are serious about poetry, regardless of age and background, not ‘retired hobbyists’ (as implied in that controversial report). Not that there is anything wrong with opening up the world of poetry to hobbyists either…

Dechreuadau newydd – New Beginnings

To be honest, I was the most amateurish one there, the least experienced and the least ‘serious’ about poetry, too easily distracted by my other writing and blogging and reviews. It really brought home to me that you need to dedicate yourself seriously to poetry, to reading and writing it every day for years if you want to improve rather than just have a few happy accidents of phrasing.

Digon – Enough

The first few days I was panicking about not being productive enough: I had been hoping to repeat the feat of October in Provence of 35 new poems in 5 days. Particularly since at this particular point in time I could not really afford the fees (reasonable though they are, compared to other courses). It was almost as if I were measuring out spoonfuls of ground coffee and expecting a spectacular yield of nectar by the end. Then I learnt to relax: there are times of accumulation which are just as valuable as those productive times.

Syniadau Newydd – New Ideas

Ideas can come from anywhere, from following the course of a river through the woods, from blackberrying your way down the path to the sea, from watching a dog gambol on the beach to finding a rare volume of ecclesiastical history in the profound peace of Gladstone’s Library.

 

Anadlu – Breathe

How to keep the momentum going after this week out of time and space? I need to spend part of every day with poetry, not just turn to it when I am procrastinating on my novel or when I have an odd moment of inspiration. I need to practise and improve my craft, which means finding a writing group dedicated exclusively to poetry, although the more generic local one is a good source of inspiration in other respects. If I cannot find one geographically, perhaps I need to organise an online critiquing group.

Llyfrau – Books

One can never have too many books. They are the most beautiful decoration to a room and they bring endless delight and inspiration to yourself and to others.

 

 

 

Gwartheg – Cows

Do not attempt to outrun a field of Welsh cows, who are nothing like as blasé about intruders as their Swiss cousins.

Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – Craft Books

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

Like any good little writer-in-the-bud, I amassed a solid collection of ‘how to hone your writing craft’ books and dissected them, instead of actually sitting down and writing. Far from obscure, some of them have become classics and bestsellers in their own right: Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! for screenwriters and not only them; Natalie Goldberg’s poetic Writing Down the Bones; the energetic and legendary agent Carole Blake’s From Pitch to Publication and Stephen King’s memoir-interlaced-with-writing-advice On Writing. I love all of those, but here are some less well known ones which have inspired me just as much.

John Gardner: On Becoming a Novelist

This is, in some ways, the anti-craft book, because most of what Gardner talks about is the innate nature of a writer: the sensitivity and love for language, the observant eye, the storytelling intelligence and demonic compulsiveness. My eye-opening moment when I first read him was this passage:

A psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven. Some fatal childhood accident for which one feels responsible and can never fully forgive oneself; a sense that one never quite earned one’s parents’ love; shame about one’s origins… or embarrassment about one’s own physical appearance: all these are promising signs.

Perhaps I should add here that John’s younger brother Gilbert was killed in a freak farming accident as a child and that John himself was driving the tractor. But he never mentions that in the book.

Instead, he warns of the dangers of over-relying on writing courses and MFAs ‘The world has far more writing teachers than it needs’ and there is a danger that only certain kinds of writing are appreciated and emulated, so the whole experience becomes ‘workshoppy’. Yet he understands that each writer can become better through practice, through feedback and through faith in his or her own abilities.

Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or way, an alternative to ordinary ‘life in the world’. Its benefits are quasi-religious – a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand – and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.

Stanley Kunitz: The Wild Braid

In a series of conversations with poet Genine Lentine and adorned with gorgeous photos by Marnie Crawford Samuelson, the late great American poet muses about his garden and his poetry. A beautiful complex metaphor about creativity, this book deserves constant underlining. It was recommended to me by Naomi Shihab Nye, at the very first poetry workshop I ever attended.

In so many instances, the poem is muddied by too much explanation, too much exposure. What one is aiming for is the indication of an energy, or a spirit, below the surface, in the secret vaults of the self, that somehow withers under too much exposition or explanation. That’s why I’ve always believed that so much of the energy of the poems comes from the secrets it folds into what we would call, in a flower, its crown… The rose when it is just about ready to unfold is at its most beautiful.

Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit

This is more of a typical self-help book, but it’s not aimed at writers. Twyla Tharp is a dancer and choreographer, but her straight talking and variety of creative exercises are suitable for many different artistic disciplines. I’ve written about this book before, but here are some quotes which impress me every time:

A plan is like a scaffolding around a building. When you’re putting up the exterior shell, the scaffolding is vital. But once the shell is in place and you start work on the interior, the scaffolding disappears. That’s how I think of planning. It has to be sufficiently thoughtful and solid to get the work up and standing straight, but it cannot take over as you toil away on the interior guts of a piece. Transforming your ideas rarely goes according to plan.

And the next quotation is even more relevant to my procrastinating self:

I used to bask in the notion that all my obstacles to creative efficienty would vanish if only I had exactly the right resources: my own studio, my own dancers, my own theater, and enough money to pay the dancers all year long and to hire the best collaborators. But I’ve learned that the opposite is true: Limits are a secret blessing, and bounty can be a curse. I’ve been on enough big-budget film sets to appreciate the malignant influence of abundance and bloat.

 

 

 

Friday Fun: Studios and Studies

This summer, I’ve promised myself, I will get to finish the second draft of my novel. The outcome would, of course, be guaranteed if I had one of the creative spaces below at my disposal. If any wealthy patron of the arts is listening…

The Duke of Devonshire asleep in his library at Chatsworth, picture credit Christopher Simon.
Studio in Devon, from The Telegraph.
Studio in rural United States, from Lonny Magazine.
Little dream cottage on the Isle of Wight, from House of Turquoise.
Light-filled study – there might be a problem with glare on a computer screen though – designed by Michael Haverland.
Japanese study and library, from Flavorwire. No problem with screen glare here. Plus, room to make endless cups of tea.
Study in a porch, from New England Home. The decorative plates might hinder my writing prowess somewhat…