End of year report

This academic year has been an odd one for me as I’ve ended up on a completely different path to the one I started on. I’ve also discovered myself a little bit more in the process, so it all worked out well eventually.

On the writing front, I certainly feel like I’ve been putting the effort in since Christmas. Back in September, my plan had been to keep my writing in the background, almost as a hobby, while I studied for my Psychology MSc (secretly hoping that somehow I’d either do well in a writing competition or have a literary agent show some interest so I’d get to do my writing full-time instead of just on the side).

I’m relieved that I managed to see the light as far as the Psychology Masters is concerned. I enjoy the subject a lot and I’ve acquired a fair bit of knowledge over the years, but I’m missing the passion I really ought to have to excel at it. I know I’ve made the right decision choosing to do a Creative Writing MA – and I’m still amazed I had the courage to apply for it in the first place.

So, the year: I started out not really knowing where to turn after finishing my Counselling Certificate and (finally) beginning to deal with some of the things that came up for me as a result of the course, stuff that I never even knew was there to discover. Months later and I’m still noticing the benefits. I’ve found my voice and truth in amongst the confusion and I’m sure my writing will help me with that too. My next challenge will be finding a way to get my words ‘out there’ and then eventually stepping away from memoir completely and finding a narrative that’s separate from my past. Hopefully a new project will help with that.

I’ve enjoyed my daily writing routine this year. At the moment, my Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays look like this:

5.30 Coffee & writing for half an hour or so until I hear the kids messing around upstairs. Then it’s getting the boys dressed, breakfasted, spellings with my 6 year old, teethbrushing, and lastly shoes on, bookbags ready and in the car.

9.00 Coffee and emails, submissions (if any), and keeping in touch with any writer friends, catching up with my writing group etc, then finally  – writing, if there’s any time left over.

10.30 Pilates, coffee, and reading (currently ‘Solutions for Writers’ by Sol Stein)

12.00 Lunch & coffee, listen to music

12.30 Writing

I finish at 2pm for the school run.

Sometimes I’m able to do some reading or writing in the evenings after the kids are in bed, but I don’t do this as often as I used to now that I’m able to focus more on my writing. Lately, I’m finding that I actually get a bit of spare time to watch TV (Coronation Street, Have I Got News For You, University Challenge, Masterchef, Who Do You Think You Are?) and do a spot of genealogy – my favourite pastime besides writing.

Next year, when my youngest son starts his 15 hours a week at nursery, I’ll have 5 mornings a week to keep up with my course, read and write. I do worry that it won’t be enough time, but he’ll also be going to a childminder once a week for a session, so I should get one day where I get a longer stretch of time. I guess I’m worried that the other students will be so much further along in their writing careers than I am, and I don’t want to fall behind.

I’m so excited about the MA that I can’t even think about the difficulties I may have earning a living once the course finishes. At the moment, I’m just brimming with ideas. I hope to use my memoir as my main project for my course, but I also plan to edit a novel and continue with another first draft that’s a bit of a melting pot at the moment.

I’m still uncertain where this blog will take me, but maybe I’ll get some ideas and feedback when I start the course and meet other writers. At the moment, it appears to be like a holding place for all my plans. It helps me chart what I need to go and allows me to experiment occasionally with ideas. I know I should probably develop these a bit and think more about my audience, and when I get back to it after the school holidays, I hope to be able to give it a bit more time.

Write as if no one’s watching

Mark Twain once said, “Sing like no one’s listening, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching, and live like its heaven on earth.” I’ve always loved this quote, but I wonder how many of us actually live in the moment and follow our hearts instead of wondering how silly we look? I know I’m guilty of holding back because I fear scrutiny and/or judgement, and I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve gone long periods in my life without writing (and singing and loving and dancing…).

Now, I’m one of the most self-conscious people you could ever meet – and with that in mind, it’s a wonder I ever began writing in the first place. It occurred to me the other week that this is one of the reasons many people remain stuck and find it difficult to express themselves in various forms.

When I first started studying psychology, I learned about something called the ‘spotlight effect’, which is that feeling that everybody is watching you – a bit like if you enter a large room full of people and it all goes silent, or if you drop a tray of plates or glasses in a busy canteen. For me, it manifests itself during activities such as singing or dancing (which I rarely do – at least not in company), or more likely – in the middle of a conversation in the school playground. Before I’ve got into the swing of things, I’ll suddenly catch sight of myself, worry that everybody is watching me and assume I look or sound silly. So I stop.

In some areas of my life, this has proved a useful trait. For example, in my case, my self-consciousness is related to my self-awareness – and because of this, there’s no part of my psyche or conscience that I don’t feel comfortable exploring, so no stone is left unturned. This was particularly useful when I was doing my counselling training, and in turn has benefitted my writing hugely.

However, self-consciousness has also been the worst enemy of my writing, and I’m sure that many other writers can relate to this.

The act of putting pen to paper is in theory very simple. Most of us do it in some form every day. We also tell stories to our friends, family and work colleagues every day, and we read books. And lots and lots of people have that secret (or not-so-secret) desire to write a book. So, assuming a person has that desire, along with the time and an idea they’d like to explore, why aren’t more of us making that start in the first place?

I think it’s partly because of that ‘spotlight effect’, that feeling like we’re being watched – or even worse – judged.

For years I didn’t write because I thought I had to be some kind of genius, that if my story didn’t drip off the pen naturally, then I probably wasn’t good enough – and my desire to write wasn’t enough to pin my future career hopes on, so I looked at studying a more practical subject at university and tried to forget about writing, even as a hobby (I didn’t view writing as a suitable activity for a hobby – it wasn’t like painting or baking or playing a sport or learning a language – therefore the very few pieces I wrote I kept secret).

Added to that, I loved writing diaries and stories based on real events – trying to capture happier times, or to understand more difficult ones, so it became doubly important to protect my precious stories by keeping them to myself, even if they stayed in my head – they expressed a part of me that was more ‘real’ than anything else in my life.

These days, I am much better, and I’ve learned to not care if anybody’s watching or judging my writing (and for the record, they aren’t, they really aren’t – at least not until you’re ready for anybody to critique your work anyway), but it wasn’t easy. There was always that image of the critical reader sitting on my shoulder scrutinising my small efforts and dishing out negative comments – it was the collective voice of everybody who’d ever put me down and not believed in me.

My solution was to turn it on its head. My inner critic made me angry, and I channelled that anger into determination to write what I wanted to write – and I’d carry on writing until all the negative thoughts were gone. I was literally fighting the bullies on the page. And because there are always negative thoughts to conquer, it’s meant that bar the odd spell, I’ve carried on writing.

Learning to ignore that voice is a real challenge for both new and experienced writers – but it’s particularly acute when you first set out. Even today, I can clearly remember the fear of emptying all my hopes and dreams on the page and discovering I wasn’t the writer I hoped I was in my soul, that I was just kidding myself all along – and that’s why I never wrote for years.

I can live with never singing or dancing again, but the thought of never being a writer – and worse, somebody calling me out on it – that was the one thing that I feared finding out. And so I never wrote. It’s a viscious cycle.

I’m lucky I broke through the fear. And fear was all it was. It took a lot of courage, and I had to use every ounce of my determination and focus to do it – but the good news is that once you’ve found a way to deal with your inner critic watching and judging, it’s another tool in your kit to use – just be aware of new tactics that your inner critic might employ to derail you, and be ready and armed.

Feel the fear and write anyway.

(As I know it’s not that simple – here’s a link to another blog post I wrote about starting to write: https://lifeandtimesofamemoirwriter.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/starting-to-write/)

New adventures in writing

I’ve been very quiet on here lately, and this is partly because I’ve had to make some decisions to make – about my career and my writing.

When I started my blog I had so many ideas – I thought I’d post at least twice a week about all sorts of things. But, aside from the excuse of being busy with the kids, the real reason for my infrequent posts is that I’ve had a bad case of blogging stage fright – and that coupled with the uncertainty of where my eventual career was headed has meant that I haven’t really taken the reins and blogged with conviction.

Part of the reason is that I’ve never really decided exactly what I want my blog to be about. My original plan was to write a blog about my writing journey, set goals for myself and experiment with ideas, and possibly write about some of the issues I’ve had to deal with through my memoir writing and the inspirations and issues behind them. But then, I’ve hesitated a few times when it’s looked like I might be doing other things in my life, like training to be a Counsellor, or doing a Psychology conversion course, and wondered whether I ought take the blog in a slightly different direction.

The short version of the last few months is that I was set to start a Psychology MSc in January 2017 (slightly later than I’d planned because the course I’d originally applied to do had its BPS accreditation withdrawn just as I’d begun it, back in October last year). As it got nearer to the course starting, I began to question whether it was actually the right thing to do. I kept thinking back nostalgically to last year and how much I’d enjoyed doing my PG Counselling Certificate, and in the end I made the decision to withdraw from the Psychology to apply to do a part-time PG Counselling Diploma instead. So I looked into volunteering to support my application, and started re-reading Carl Rogers.

Then, around Christmastime, I had a breakthrough with my writing when I began the first draft of a new novel and I didn’t give up halfway through. It made me realise that what I really want to do with my life is write full-time – and at the same time, I want to learn everything I can about the craft.

The resulting surge in commitment and confidence meant that in the New Year, after I attended the interview for the Counselling Diploma and didn’t feel it had gone very well, I finally felt able to put it to my partner and family that maybe I should do an MA in Creative Writing instead. So I bit the bullet and applied to Lancaster University’s distance learning Creative Writing MA, and a few weeks ago I was accepted onto the programme. It was a strange couple of days, because it turned out that I’d also made it onto the Counselling course too, and I was in the tricky (but enviable) position of having to choose between the two. I know I’d have enjoyed the Counselling, and would have put all my resources into it, but ultimately, I also know I’ve made the right decision choosing my writing.

I’m really looking forward to spending two years working on my memoir, learning lots about myself as a writer, reader and editor, and connecting with other passionate writers too. I now have permission to spend long hours doing the one thing I love most in the world, and I still keep pinching myself to check I’m not dreaming.

As for the blog, it’s still a work in progress, I still have blogging stage fright, but hopefully I’ll find plenty to write about in the coming months and years.

Fiction writing 101: the fluffy pink cloud of early sobriety (and writing first drafts)

When I was in early sobriety, I heard people talking about a ‘fluffy pink cloud’. It’s that high that recovering alcoholics get when they’ve put down the bottle and life appears to be falling back into place again – you feel excited about waking up in the morning, and full of hope for the days and weeks ahead (or at least not as full of fear as before). Not everybody goes through this, but I did. It started when I was a few weeks sober, and carried on for a good few months. In that time, I felt alive again. I sang songs in my head as I waited for the bus to to to work, and I looked forward to the weekends where I would drink tea instead of vodka and chat with fellow recovering alcoholics, safe in the knowledge that I had found my tribe. Life was safe again, and I relished every moment, absorbing the goodness and joy in the world around me.

There is also a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous: this too shall pass.

And pass it did. The fluffy pink cloud doesn’t last forever, and it can be a double-edged sword. Whilst it is there, it can help you stay sober, to stay away from the booze one day at a time, but there will come a time when it starts to disperse and everyday life just becomes everyday life, in all its grey, tedious and worrisome glory. And that is when the real work of staying sober begins.

But fluffy pink clouds exist everywhere; they are not exclusive to recovering alcoholics (although I do wonder whether there is something inherent deep in many of our personalities that makes us more prone to them than most).

in my life, I experience many fluffy pink clouds, but the biggest and most glorious of all of them is that high I get when I am writing something I love, something I didn’t realise I was capable of. I had it for months when I was writing the first draft of my memoir. I expect I wouldn’t have written it if I hadn’t experienced that high. It’s like a kind of higher power that helps you to believe in yourself, that helps you to plough on and get the job done when the harsh realities of the publishing world and a lack of belief quite frankly would have had you give up at the first hurdle. Fluffy pink clouds are the magic that gets you to the other side without giving up.

And when you’ve got so far, you’re less likely to give up (and that’s the point you need to prop your dreams up with the scaffolding of determination and editing tools).

I’m floating on a fluffy pink cloud at the moment. For years, I thought I couldn’t write fiction. I thought that maybe I just didn’t have the right imagination. Because despite the characters and stories I told myself in my head, they all just seemed to fall apart whenever I tried to get them down on the page. Somehow all the stories I started went the same way. It was almost as if I was trying too hard. So I gave up, and resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t write fiction. No problem, I told myself. I’ll just stick to non-fiction. I mean, I’ve written a memoir. Maybe I could write another? But when I went back to the memoir drawing board, I just kept going over the same old stories again. All roads led back to stories I’d already written.

Now, I guess this is an issue for a lot of writers. You have something you want to say, and you just keep finding different ways to say it. A lot of writers have themes they keep on going back to. So, I had to find out what the things were I wanted to say, and then it would be easy, right?

Sort of. It still took me many, many attempts to get anywhere with fiction though. I wanted to write about addiction, about teenagers, about sex, about families, and I also wanted to write a damn good comedy. And I was attempting to write about all of these things in one book. It just wasn’t going to happen – too much pressure. And I was still trying to write for myself, which was fine for the memoir (to an extent), but what I really needed to do was to branch out and think about audience more.

As soon as I took myself out of the equation, I started to think more objectively about story structure and character arcs, and it was through my reading about the Snowflake method, and authors such as K. M. Weiland and Roz Morris, that I finally had a breakthrough. One night before I went to sleep, I thought out a very sketchy plot involving teenagers, female friendships, absent families and issues surrounding sexual consent. It wasn’t a comedy (alas, I shall come back to The Library Letters when I’ve finished), but I had a few characters I thought I could try to mould. It was perfect. I began writing a brief synopsis and plot the next day, and to my amazement, it didn’t sound trite, like every other attempt I’d ever made at writing fiction.

The plot’s evolved slightly since then, but my passion for the book is still as strong as ever. I’m up to 12,888 words now, and somehow I know this time it’s different. It might be the fluffy pink cloud talking, but I don’t care. It’s helped me to break through the barrier.

I expect the fluffy pink cloud will go pop when I get to around twenty or thirty thousand words (see Emma Darwin’s blog post about the twenty thousand word doldrums here), but for now I’m just enjoying the ride.

image

 

New year, new goals

For various reasons, I didn’t write very much last year at all. At the beginning of the year I was busy with university work, and I got out of the habit of setting my laptop up except to write an essay. When I had a couple of rejections, I went through a spell of wondering whether my writing is up to scratch and berating myself for not being better at it, while not doing the one thing which is essential – Actual Writing.

That’s not to say I didn’t produce some decent work in 2016. I edited my memoir a bit, I wrote a handful of short stories, and I started a new fiction project. But really, I think I spent most of the year pottering about, not doing a huge amount, and certainly not committing myself to finishing a project properly. All of it to avoid taking any risks, to avoid another rejection.

Well. Here’s a thing for me to learn: rejection is essential for a writer. Not giving up is essential to a writer. Not worrying about what everybody else is doing or thinking is essential for a writer. But what a writer really needs to do above all else, and for better or worse, is to Just Write. (I think I may even have written a whole blog post about it earlier a few months ago?!)

And that’s where I’m starting this year. Here’s the plan which I Must Stick To:

1. Finish sending the memoir out to agents. I came to a standstill with this last year, because I was putting off getting to the end of the list and then being at a loss as to what to do. The reality is that I probably will get to the end of the list without finding an agent (although there’s always a small chance of success). So what do I need to do? Keep sending stuff out. I can’t stay at a standstill forever. Surely at some point I’ll come up with a plan? I need to deal with that possibility, not keep putting it off.

2. Look into the WoMentoring Project and pick out a writer/editor/agent who may be willing to help me with editing etc. Then apply.

3. I also think I need some more beta readers for the memoir, so if anybody reading this can help, or know anybody who might be interested, please let me know (obviously happy to return the favour).

4. Write a proper outline for The Library Letters. Now that I’ve finished reading the K.M. Weiland book, I know exactly what I need to do. However, because I started writing the novel before I had a detailed idea of the plot, it’s turned into a big editing job, which I really need to untangle before I start writing again. So, back to the drawing board with characters and plot for this.

5. On the plus side, reading the book on outlining has given me an idea for a YA novel. I’ve spent some time working on this over Christmas and I have a plot, some characters and an outline – and I’ve nearly finished writing the first chapter. I want to finish the first draft of this as soon as I can and then see what I’m left with.

6. Read, read, read. This is key to everything, I think. I must read more novels – both modern and classic, plus more books about creative writing. I will also start logging all my reading on goodreads.

So that’s that: my writing year in a nutshell. I have other plans too, like applying to do my Diploma in counselling again (but part-time, this time). I also want to gain some more experience for this by doing some volunteering, and I have an interview with my local Victim Support branch next week. And I really want to explore some other areas too – like spirituality. I want to get to grips with mindfulness properly this year (I know, I know, I said this last year too), because I’ve been reading some stuff by Thich Nhat Hanh which really resonates, and I want to find out more about Zen Buddhism.

I think 2017 is going to be a good year.

And here’s my rather ambitious reading pile!

image

Getting back to basics

When I first started writing, I had a plan. It wasn’t a particularly detailed plan, but there was a focus to it. My plan was to write as much as I could, while learning about the process of writing at the same time. In the beginning, this was relatively straightforward. The first books about writing that I read were more about tackling your inner editor and giving yourself permission to write – badly, if need be. I read Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg, and Anne Lamott, and I got words down on the paper. Then I branched out with my reading and started reading books about different types and genres of writing, and about techniques, and I practiced. It was all very amateur, but it gave me a purpose while I was on maternity leave and my bigger career and life plans were on hold.

Then life got busy again, and I had to scale back on my writing and reading. This year, I’ve had a couple of knocks to my confidence, and recently I’ve felt myself turning away from my writing to focus on more everyday things. The main issue has been that I’m at a bit of a crossroads with my writing, and my life in general. If I’m honest with myself, I’d love to be writing all the time, and make it the focus of my career. But sadly, it’s not an option for me. I need to train for a career that can help pay the bills, which is why I’ve chosen to go back to uni and do my psychology conversion course. Only now that it’s looming nearer to the start date and I’m quickly running out of all that lovely spare time I had (3 days a week to myself), I’m panicking slightly. I need to make sure I’ve got my writing time and inspiration in the bag before I start.

So I need to make a new plan for my writing life.

I need to put my memoir on the back burner for a few months (bar the odd submission to agents, because you never know…) and work on a new project. I can do nothing more with it at the moment. So from now on, the only memoir pieces I shall focus on will be shorter pieces for competitions and any other calls for submission that sound interesting.

I need to get back to the comic novel I started (The Library Letters) and really myself a chance with it. I got up to around 17,000 words, but it’s got so many plot gaps that I’m a bit stuck. I’m discovering that I’m not really as much of a pantser as I thought. I think I need to structure it more before starting writing again. So I’m going back to the books.

I’m going to start with a series by K. M. Weiland about outlining and structuring novels, and maybe even have a go at the workbooks. I will use this blog to chart about where I am with the project.

I also need to read more generally, which is another little project I am going to set for myself and I’m also going to use my blog to chart it. So, by the end of the year I will read ‘Reading Like a Writer’ by Francine Prose, and I will also try to finish two fairly easy classic novels that I started earlier in the year and didn’t finish: Northanger Abbey and Oliver Twist.

And I hope to be writing again very soon.

(P.S. I must also learn more about blogging and figure out how to make this blog look more professional. I’m so hopelessly non-technically minded that I just keep putting it off. But I shall figure it out!)

Stepping back

Life is starting to look up again. Sometimes it takes a timely reminder of how awful certain periods of my life actually were to see how far I’ve come, and to help me focus on what’s important in my present and future. I’m over my wobble from my last post, and also over the temptation to delete it. I’ve moved on. Sometimes you just need to get something out of your system. I’ll trust that my life is going in the right direction, and I can sleep soundly with the knowledge that I’m alright now, that I’m still alive and moving forward. I just need to remember The Desiderata by Max Ehrmann:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.

And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

***

As far as my writing is concerned, I’ll send off the story I was preparing for the Words and Women Prose competition 2017 and the slightly longer version of the same story for the Fish Publishing Short Memoir Competition 2017, and then I want to put the lid on that particular story for some time. If I can get one of them published somewhere, then I’ll know I had my voice heard and I’ll never need to face those demons again.

Lately I’ve been ignoring my full-length memoir, and I’m wondering whether I need to do something similar with that, i.e. enter shorter pieces into competitions. I know this isn’t going to be as simple as just saying I’m going to do it, because there are many other very good writers who are much better and practiced at this sort of thing than I am. I also realise I may be slightly doing myself a disservice if I do this, because once pieces are published then it’s tricky to do anything else with them (most competitions don’t like extracts), but I know how hard it is to get memoirs published these days, and I’m at the point of feeling like I need to do something productive, whatever that may be. I’ll keep subbing for now, but realistically I know I need to gain some more writing credentials before any agents will be interested in my work. Sometimes I think I need to go back to the drawing board and think hard of a unique angle to focus on, but in the meantime I probably need to get back to the novel I’ve been working on, while the non-fiction goes on quietly in the background.

Here’s where I am today: It’s half-term, and I’m tired from going out last night for the first time in a long time. Today I want to focus on my family, and Christmas coming up, and doing some reading before my Masters starts. My 2 year old is teething and grumpy, and my 5 year old is playing with Lego. And I’m here, with a jug of coffee just trying to keep everything ticking along. And the writing will happen – it always does, but maybe it doesn’t need to happen today. Today I am stepping back.