Tag Archives: writing

Excuses, excuses

 

ExcusesI always know it’s time to start writing a new post when I find myself scribbling random notes on whatever piece of paper happens to be at hand, making lists of potential topics, or jotting down thoughts and observations which might spark a blog post. Time to bite the bullet and get busy typing. I have not had a productive year I know. The dust devils have been blowing forlornly across my blog for some time now and the few followers I have, must surely have despaired of reading  any more of my wit and wisdom. But, here I am, older, wiser, rested and ready to dump my brain onto the page once more. I have a list of subject matter ideas as long as a gibbon’s arm but I thought I would return with a light-hearted look at the excuses I have employed for NOT writing. Actually I suspect that these very same excuses have been used by many people for NOT doing many other things but I didn’t say I would be original 😉

  1. Too many quality box sets / TV series. I mean seriously – have you not seen Breaking Bad? Game of Thrones? Sherlock? Line of Duty?? Horizon??? Even Springwatch???? Superb stuff. I get quite cross with intellectually snooty “Oh I don’t watch TV” people in the same way that I don’t trust “non-readers”. Good TV makes me think just as much as reading a good book does and is no more anti-social. I have enjoyed many a stimulating conversation with friends and family comparing opinions on a character’s motives, or guessing what will happen next…
  2. Too much time spent playing Candy Crush. What started out as a “this is a fun way to spend 5 minutes while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil” has led me to level 347 where I have been stuck for some time. It is an addiction that I cannot bring myself to give up. I know I should go cold turkey and just uninstall it but it’s so damned compulsive and oh the pretty colours…
  3. Too much time spent on Facebook. I’m not as fixated as some people I know (I am mFB logoore of a reader than a commentator) but I do like to see what everyone else is up to and to check out the articles from the pages/people I follow. It’s another one of those things that begins as a “I’ll just have a quick look” and then before you know it, a whole hour has disappeared.
  4. Emotional overload. Regular readers will know that I had a pretty grim time last winter when my manager very sadly took his own life. I have written about this before so won’t re-hash it here but the emotional aftermath has taken many months to recover from. Eventually I made the decision to leave not only the project I had been working on with him, but the company itself and I made a clean break two months ago to take up a new job elsewhere. Which in turn led to…
  5. …intellectual overload. I always forget how exhausting it is starting a new job. The effort to concentrate and learn new processes, methodologies, cultural norms, people’s names and who to call when your PC doesn’t work, is physically and mentally tiring. For 8 weeks my brain has been on full alert and it is only just beginning to relax and allow me headspace for other things.
  6. Uncharacteristically long periods of decent weather. I live in the north west of England and most of you will know what that means… it rains – a lot. If you are not British and are unaware that the north west is any wetter than the rest of England then let me tell you that in 1982 when I first came to Manchester as an undergraduate, it rained every single day for 48 days on the trot. I genuinely contemplated building an ark. Happily,  this year our spring and summer have been fair and warm. The rain we have had may have been torrential but it has lasted for only a relatively short time (less than a week goddammit!) and consequently I have been spending a lot of my spare time pottering in the garden or relaxing outside with a cold beer rather than glued to the sofa with my laptop.
  7. Domestic demands. You know the sort of tedious stuff that you have to do to maintain a steady supply of clean knickers, your plate replenished with fresh food, the rats out of the kitchen, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. There is a school of thought that a tidy house is the sign of a wasted life, but I cannot relax for long in a dirty, messy home. I am a martyr to my anally retentive personality and have to spend time cleaning and organising my home environment otherwise I develop a nervous tic and a bad temper. I’m not completely OCD about it and my home is far from pristine but I have an acceptable level of tidiness and order which causes me distress if not sustained.
  8. Family demands. Aside from actually having to talk to the immediate loved ones in the same house, maintaining happy relationships with an extended family means investing time too. There is always someone, somewhere feeling neglected and left out or passed over in favour of someone else. It’s a fine art trying to keep everyone happy, not unlike twizzling flat, round ceramic objects on long poles. Don’t get me wrong, I love them all dearly and don’t begrudge time spent with any of them, but inevitably it means that I have less time to myself.
  9. Social demands and maintaining enduring friendships. See the previous point. If my family think I don’t spend enough time with them they should talk to some of my friends…years can go by without so much as a phone call. Happily, my true friendships survive anyway and it is always a delight to catch up with people I may not have seen for eons and find that we slip immediately into easy banter and chatter as if a mere week had elapsed.
  10. Personal health and fitness. I am not naturally sporty so keeping fit and healthy is a bit of an effort but I do think it is time well spent, even if it means I have less of it to write in.
  11. Not a trait I like to admit to but if I am being brutally honest with myself then there are plenty of times when I just can’t be bothered to think that hard and I just want to put my feet up in front of The Big Bang Theory.
  12. Sometimes it’s not the lack of will but the lack of energy caused by points 4,5,7 8 and 9!
  13. Provide me with two equally tempting (or equally dreadful) choices and I’m liable to dither a very long time. Provide me with more than two and you could be waiting for hell to freeze over. When I said that I had a list of writing ideas as long as gibbon’s arm, the downside of that is that I have to make decisions – not one of my key strengths.
  14. This is slipping further down the list of excuses as I am less sensitive to criticism in my old age but I do still feel anxious writing a new piece. What if I make a complete arse of myself? What if it’s just self-indulgent waffle? I am getting better at saying “what the hell, just go for it anyway it’s worth the risk”, but long gaps between articles doesn’t increase confidence!candy crush

So there you have it. A whole litany of sad excuses for not writing. I am sure I could think of a few more if I thought a bit harder or longer but I want to get this thing out there so I can crack level 347 – oops sorry – crack on with the next post…

 

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The Pros and Cons of Navel Gazing

I think I am suffering a recurrence of that interesting and absorbing medical condition known as “omphaloskepsis” (Greek) or “umbilicum spectans” (Latin) which results, as ever, in a crick in the neck and a perceived excess of belly button fluff. Alternatively known as “navel gazing”, this is a common problem for many people and can strike at any time although I myself am most often affected by it in the cold, dark days of January.  Everywhere I turn I am being urged to adopt a “New Year, New You!” lifestyle, or to resolve to become a fitter, healthier, happier, kinder, tougher, more adventurous, more successful person and this annual bombardment always makes me a little introspective and self-critical.

January is when I most often look at myself and notice the flaws that I try to gloss over most of the time. I pick over old scabs and rattle the skeletons in the closet. I ponder my weaknesses and lack of self discipline. I sigh over past failed resolutions and wonder whether this will be the year that I finally, finally shed that extra stone, break the sub 60 minute 10k run, pluck up the courage to read “The Road” (I have an aversion to “misery lit”), write a novel, spend noticeably more time with my family, catch up with friends that I have not seen for years, find a job that ICalvin & Hobbes love and that pays me enough to sustain my current lifestyle etc, etc. These are all ambitions that I have held or resolutions that I have made and broken over time. The only New Year’s Resolution that I have ever kept was the one resolving NOT to make any more. I know, in my heart of hearts, that I am too lazy and weak-willed to stick to anything else.

I have read untold articles and features about how to make resolutions that stick and how to achieve your dreams/how to succeed in life. I also have enough self awareness and knowledge of psychology (in fact I have an honours degree in the subject) to know that part of the reason why I refuse to make New Year Resolutions is because of my fear of failure. I expect to fail so why bother trying? Yes I know that sounds pathetic and before you suggest it, yes I have read “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”. Quite an interesting read but as with all self-help books I generally come to the conclusion that self-awareness is all well and good but inspecting your navel for too long can actually be a self-defeating activity. It’s too easy to become depressed at (insert your own personal demon here – mine is “lack of drive and resolve”) if you poke around in your belly button fluff for any length of time.

Usually by the second week in January I become bored of the crick in my neck and of sighing in self-disgust and my natural cheeriness and optimism kicks back in. I stop beating myself up for lack of resolve and reflect upon my past achievements and my potential instead. 2013 was a year of small, personal triumphs which are probably insignificant to most people but of which I’m proud nonetheless; I edited two novels (for my friend, the writer Michael J Holley), proactively sought out and acquired a new day job (as I’d been so bored in my previous one), kept off the extra stone in weight I’d lost the year before, ran sub 30 minute 5k on more than one occasion and… I didn’t give up writing.

Unlike many other activities I’ve started on a whim and then set aside over the years, writing is something I feel compelled to continue. For me,  it is often a response to navel gazing and a head full of noise, bursting with words that I must see zipping across the page to describe some inner contemplation, reflection or emotion. Expressing my thoughts and feelings in black and white helps lift my navel gazingline of sight up from my sagging, middle-aged tummy and clears my head. I am painfully aware that this sometimes leads to random, unstructured streams of consciousness for you, dear reader, but I make no apologies as the therapy is better than any self-help book I’ve ever read and much more creative than examining lint. Ooh perhaps my 2014 resolution should be to waffle less in my writing? Now there’s a thought…

The Return of the Wandering Wordsmith

An editor's work is never done...

An editor’s work is never done…

If it were not for the seedy and sinister connotations that now come to mind when reminded of Gary Glitter, I would open this blog with a hearty rendition of “Hello! Hello! It’s good to be back, it’s good to be back!”. It has been far too long since I last wrote anything more exciting than a ‘Configuration Management Plan’. Don’t bother asking what one of those is because you will have yawned and lost the will to live before you get to the end of the first explanatory sentence. The point is… I AM back, writing stuff that interests me (if no-one else).  The enthusiasm and excitement I felt when I first plucked up the courage and confidence to articulate my random musings publicly (see “Baby Steps”) has returned with full gusto – huzzah!

In all honesty it never really went away but I have been somewhat distracted by a miscellany of real world stuff. Like starting a new job last February which, although was no more demanding of my time than my previous job, was a lot more demanding of my brain. For the first time in ages I was (and indeed I still am) enjoying the chance to think, use my initiative and interact with intelligent and committed people. Great news, but this leaves me pretty much exhausted and less than keen to spend any more time in front of a computer screen after the 8 or 9 hours in the office each day. However, I have not been entirely idle on the literary front, having spent the summer proof-reading and editing my friend Mike’s[i] second novel (coming soon to a large online bookshop near you). My editing speed is almost but not quite, as slow as my writing, so I am now going to take this opportunity to publicly apologise to the lovely Mr Holley…sorry mate. Hopefully I have made up for my tardiness by handing your baby back in a sleeker, sharper and  shinier condition.

Editing is fun if you are a slightly sad, anally retentive wordsmith like me. I do like WORDS and working out ways of stringing them together in a way that best suits the message being conveyed. That’s why I enjoy writing, even (heaven help me) rather boring technical documents for the day job. I find it deeply satisfying to re-shape a sentence to make it snappier, wittier or more accurate. Bizarrely,  I actually enjoying dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s and I like to tie up loose ends. So if you need someone to spot the plot holes, character discrepancies and timeline errors then I’m your gal. Just don’t ask me to do it quickly…

But now I am back to writing and I repeat, I am a slow writer. I mean really slow. Glaciers have carved fjords in the time it takes me to produce 500 words and I am in awe of those who knock out 3000 words a day as if it were the easiest thing in the world. The problem is not that I am uninspired or that I have writer’s block, on the contrary, I have a plethora of ideas and my inner voice never shuts up. I just spend too long trying out different ways of saying the same thing, agonizing over every word in an effort to articulate accurately what I am thinking and feeling. Sadly the inner voice which sounds so erudite, charming and witty in my head rarely survives the transfer to the written page, but hey-ho, I still enjoy trying 🙂 .

And whadyaknow? I’ve managed to churn out this brain dump (604 words and counting) in less than 3 hours, which is a Usain Bolt like performance for me. Something must be wrong and I’ll almost certainly re-read it again later and dismiss it as utter rubbish which needs completely re-writing… quick Trowers – publish and be damned!

P.S. Oops one week later and I’ve finally finished. Not a solid week working on it you understand, but a snatched 30 minutes here and there. Tinkering, polishing and looking for suitable images to use. Still, productivity is up on the last six months so I will publish my next post before I acquire too many more grey hairs I promise.


 

[i] Michael J Holley. His first novel “The Great Corporate Escape” is both funny and charming. And it was also edited by me.

Reflections on Writing “The Story of Henry the Third…etc”

critical reviewHaving received some very lovely feedback from friends for my second short story, I thought that, once again, I would share some of my thoughts and observations on the writing process I undertook. If you have not read “The Story of Henry the Third and the Midwinter Miracle in Manchester”  then click the link or scroll down to the previous post to read it first and avoid any spoilers.

When I decided to write a Christmas story, I knew that I wanted to include some of the traditional seasonal themes such as kindness, charity, the importance of family and love, renewed hope and a touch of magic. How to do this in an original and engaging way was more of a challenge…

The Inspiration

This was the easy bit. The setting was very much inspired by my own recent experience, working in the centre of Manchester again after 13 years in various out of town campuses. I was shocked to realise that there are still so many homeless people on the streets because my infrequent trips into town, during the period I worked elsewhere, were to the main shopping areas or busy bars, restaurants and theatres etc and not through the side streets and back alleys that I had used regularly as a daily commuter. As the weather became colder at the back end of November and early December, I pondered every morning on how the huddled bodies I saw in doorways coped in such cold conditions and who they were; what was their own story and history? I wanted to prompt the reader to think a little more about the human being behind the Big Issue.

The Characters

Debbie’s lifestyle, curiosity about people and her empathy are mine, so she was very easy to write. I hasten to add that my own family circumstances are quite different  (my Mum is alive and well thank you very much and I am a mother myself) but she basically speaks with my voice. In fact I’m wondering now if I should have written her in the first person…hmmm – that’s a future consideration.

I always imagined Henry the Third as looking and behaving like Eddie the whiskery Jack Russell in Frasier. eddieI wanted him to be friendly but not overly excitable, small so that he could be carried, loyal, protective and intelligent. Although he is of course crucial to the plot, he has no self awareness and is simply doing what dogs do, so there was no need to give him much depth of character. I’m still rather fond of him though.

 

Pam the dog lady was a little trickier to create. I wanted a homeless woman rather than a man, as I thought it would be easier to believe that Debbie would converse with a mysterious woman than a strange man. The resemblance to her Mum was included to make her even more approachable and attractive. Her letter at the end was deliberately written in a style to show that despite her lifestyle, she was intelligent, articulate and kind.

The peripheral male characters, Dad, Mark and Jon are, I admit, sparsely drawn but hopefully realistic enough to serve their purpose of moving the story along and/or the exposition of relevant past events.

The Plot

In my early musings about the plot I contemplated making Pam the long lost mother, returned to help the daughter she had abandoned.  But this seemed too bleak and emotionally complicated – forgiveness and redemption would be more difficult to dispense for someone who left  a young family, to live on the streets.  I also considered turning her into the mother’s ghost, but it would not have made sense to have had three life-saving events as both Dad and Mark would have recognised their wife/mother at the time of their own salvation.  This was also why Pam herself did not openly act as Guardian Angel and why I employed a succession of dogs to help save the Moffats. It seemed more believable that they would not have made a big deal of it at the time if individually they had thought that a dog had somehow stopped helped them.   And I liked the sound of “Henry the Third” as a name!

I hesitated for a long time as to whether to include Debbie’s childlessness in the story at all, but I wanted something else to make the dog lady mysterious and magical and to add a final little twist to the tail. It seemed like a good way to round off the story; Pam dies, somehow knowing that Henry the Third saved not only Debbie but her longed for  unborn child. It is almost like her parting Christmas gift.

I thoroughly enjoyed engineering this story and have been delighted with the emotional impact it has had on some of my readers. It’s the greatest compliment I could wish for. Not entirely sure what I’m going to write next but will endeavour to entertain you again.

Happy New Year!

P.S. If you are feeling generous or inspired then I recommend you make a donation to either of these two UK homeless charities.

http://www.crisis.org.uk/pages/support-us.html

or

http://england.shelter.org.uk/

 

Thoughts from an autumnal garden

Looking up through the canopy of my glorious silver birch. Nov 2012

Late on a perfect October afternoon and the first leaf raking of the autumn. Residual heat from the gradually sinking sun filters through the semi-naked branches of the ash, birch and laburnum to warm my bones. The damp, earthy smell of the fallen leaves rising from the lawn with every thrrrupp, thrrrupp of the plastic rake. The whole sensory experience that comes with gardening is a pleasure and I soak it up. I know that many people loathe chores like this and see gardening as a tedious extension of housework. There are times when I agree with them; when I’m in a rush, distracted by other worries or overwhelmed by the long list of chores that need to be done, then I find it hard to enjoy. But not on a day like this. I am making the most of the shimmering, golden light, the smell of mouldering leaves and the persistent calls of the gold finches perched on the rose arch.

As I gather the foliage into piles on the lawn it occurs to me that there are parallel reasons why I enjoy both gardening and writing. The first of which is “me time”.  I am a social animal and thoroughly enjoy the company of my family and friends but I am also perfectly content with my own solitude. Gardening gives me space and time to think, to sort through my mental jumble and nurture ideas just as I nurture seeds in my potting shed. Writing too, gives me “head space” and it is this time to think, about the world, my relationships and about myself, that I treasure. Some might call it navel gazing and my head certainly fills up with scrupulously examined belly-button fluff  at regular intervals, but I do believe that self-awareness should be part of everyone’s mental good health regime.

In both writing and gardening there is an element of cultivation which appeals to my nurturing nature. Germinating the seeds of an idea is as delicate a procedure as persuading your half hardy annuals to sprout in the potting shed. In the same way that over or under watering will cause your precious seedlings to wilt and die, over or under thinking an idea will prevent it from achieving its full potential. Often with garden hoe in hand,  I will have an idea and then spend a lot of time pondering how to develop it into something substantial enough to be worth writing about. Only for it to wither and die under close scrutiny. Occasionally, though a little gem will take root. “Confessions of a Tea Snob” was conceived whilst weeding the herbaceous borders, or to be precise, whilst sipping a drop of the brown stuff on a break from weeding the herbaceous borders. (Admiring the effects of your hard work in the garden over a mug of steaming tea is a must).

The mug was a gift from my son – smart boy.

Stretching the analogy still further, editing is the literary equivalent of weeding. Removing the unwanted dandelions, bindweed and brambles, whilst keeping ivy and alchemilla mollis under control is akin to stripping out the superfluous sentence, pruning the repeated adjectives and separating your mixed metaphors 😉

Since I wrote the above autumn has moved forward into November and there is now barely a leaf left on the trees in my garden. It is not looking at its best. Mud and decay dominate at this time of year, but I’m planning to get out there still, if the rain holds off. I have 3 dozen white tulip bulbs to plant before the hard frosts begin and the prospect of how stunning they will look next spring is enough to make me brave the damp and cold. Our resident Robin will no doubt be hopping around close by, in the hope that my trowel will turn over something wriggling or scuttling, and, if I time it right, I’ll be able to listen to the blackbird as dusk settles. How can it be a chore when there is so much to enjoy? Go grab a hoe or a trowel and get outside in the dirt. Listen to the birds, feel the soil under your fingernails and smell…autumn. It will help clear your head and free your imagination. Who knows what bright ideas you may come up with…

Baby Steps

So this is me; here, now, actually putting pen to paper and writing. In a cafe in the centre of Manchester with my tuna melt panini and chai latte. Feeling vaguely self-conscious in my geek-chic but secretly super-glued, off the shelf reading glasses from Waitrose. Here, with my A5 notebook and randomly selected corporate biro acquired from God knows which event, sometime in the foggy past of the “proper job”. Writing… me! Now, after thirty odd years of listening to the inner voice telling me “…you can’t do that, it’s too risky / too frivolous / too self-indulgent and you will FAIL”, I have finally found the courage to say “sod it” and to over-rule my personal Jiminy Cricket.

Ever since that “sod it” moment, I have been quietly fizzing with excitement, the sensation building inside the pit of my stomach and up through my chest. I have been thinking and planning and listing ideas. Jiminy hasn’t entirely gone away, I still keep asking myself time and again “what if you’re rubbish? what if no-one reads what you write, or worse still, hates it?”. But I know that I must have made the right decision because I keep coming back to the same answer…”I don’t care”.  Or at least “I don’t care enough to NOT try”. The overwhelming urge to vent my creativity is, somehow, finally stronger than my fear of failure. I need to do this, to see the words on the page, to share my thoughts and hopefully stir some sort of response from the people who choose to read it.

So this IS me; here, now, living the dream. Well not quite…the chai latte isn’t hot enough (as ever in this particular establishment), and the tuna melt has a peculiar and distinctly floral aroma, but hey…I’m writing! I may have to pinch myself. My initial excitement has not dissipated at all and I’m alive with ideas, pulsing, wired. If someone were to reach out and touch me at this precise moment I swear they would jolt with a static shock.

It’s wonderful, cathartic and yes, very, very self-indulgent. But the ideas keep coming and I’m scribbling furiously and I want to keep pouring the words onto the page, sorting through them and joining them together like an intricate jigsaw, creating an image that will reflect my state of mind. Or perhaps a thatched cottage in an English country garden.

So this is ME; here, now, rapidly developing RSI from scrawling by hand after a lifetime in front of a keyboard. Listing the ideas I want to share, to enthuse over, to rant about, to ponder and muse. This is me, finally, re-kindling the ambitions of 6 year old Lian, writing.

If you’re interested, I’ll keep you posted…