Creative hoarding – the cluttered mind of the writer

I have sorely neglected this website since October for several reasons, my primary excuse being that I finally moved house in November.  Not only have I been very pressed for time but my creative juices ran dry and I have felt bereft of inspiration of any kind.  Such is the soul-destroying nature of the English housing market and conveyancing process!

The sheer amount of physical stuff we had to move between old dwelling and new made me think about hoarding.  We’ve all seen the extreme hoarding shows on TV and interestingly I actually know a couple of hoarders who are unable to use whole rooms in their homes due to clutter, one of whom has to walk sideways through the mountains of piled up papers and magazines in his flat’s usable rooms.   Hoarding has deep emotional roots and I can highly recommend the wonderful and insightful book by Lisa Jewell, The House We Grew Up In, which takes a painful look at the effect of hoarding on a whole family.

But as writers, do we emotionally hoard?  Are our minds as cluttered as the hoarder’s home where nothing is thrown away in case it can somehow be used in a future piece or novel?  Although I like my physical house to be organised and ordered and very clean and tidy — and my husband leans towards minimalism — I fear that rather than the tastefully furnished spacious and modern loft apartment, my brain actually resembles a very overstuffed and sprawling ramshackle house where broken items are not discarded in case they can be mended one day and each room is piled from floor to ceiling with possessions the owner couldn’t quite bring herself to throw out.   Snippets of overheard conversations, things I’ve read, characters in films: they are all whirring round my brain ready to be used some time in the future.

Is this the sign of a creative mind: chaotic and bursting full with ideas, some only embryonic, some reasonably well-developed, never resting, always alert?   Is it good for a writer to see the value of something old that can be dusted off and restored for future use?  I have tried mindfulness – see previous blog – but I just cannot get on with it as random thoughts and ideas pop into my brain when I am trying to concentrate on something else.   The same is true for meditation: emptying my mind proves impossible.  Although isn’t writing the ultimate mindfulness activity?

I try to write ideas down in notebooks so they are not lost and in the hope that by transferring them onto physical paper, it will free up brain space to let in other things.  I even tried to have a break from writing while I was moving and couldn’t face the blank page, but the need to force those words out could not be shifted.  I have heard it said that as a writer you write because you simply have to.

So surely emotional  minimalism is  anathema to the writer:  we need our cupboards to be stuffed full of colour and chaos.

 

Writing – the ultimate mindfulness activity?

Unless you’ve been living in a cave with absolutely no internet access, you’ll have noticed that everyone is talking about mindfulness.  Living in and appreciating the moment seems a simple concept but in this busy and technology driven era, multi-tasking is such second nature that it takes real effort to retrain our brains to be in the here and now.  (As I type this I also have one eye on Midsomer Murders, am fussing the dog and trying to drink a smoothie to get up to my five a day).

Adult colouring books, themselves a form of mindfulness –  or ‘art therapy’ as it is also called – have topped the Amazon bestseller list for months now.  I’m a huge fan although I do my colouring while watching the telly so I’m not sure if that counts!

A friend is even taking a degree in mindfulness and she loves it. It’s not just psychobabble: living in the here and now and really appreciating everything we are experiencing with all our five senses has enormous health benefits.  I decided to give it a try a few months ago to counteract all the stress of trying to move house.

As a Type A personality, I find concentrating on one thing impossible.  My mind is forever racing with a never ending to-do list, imaginary scenarios about what might or might not happen and then flashing back to the past  So giving mindfulness a go and trying to lose myself in the moment is proving very challenging.  Like most skills, it takes practice.

It might just be I’ve already found my mindfulness activity.  We all have a ‘flow’activity where time becomes suspended and we are totally lost and absorbed in our own world. For some it is a sport, gardening or baking: for me, it is writing.  Once I stop my displacement/distraction activities and cease making excuses as to why I can’t write, and actually put bum to seat and fingers to keyboard, hours can go by as I become lost in the world of words I have created.  This new world becomes my reality, a reality rich and bright in detail with wonderful three-dimensional characters.  If the real world intrudes (the phone ringing, the dog wanting to be let out) I’m always jolted back to reality with a shock, rather like waking suddenly from a vivid dream.

If your passion is writing then you will know exactly what I mean.   But everyone should have a ‘flow’ activity where they can switch off from the distractions of the life and really appreciate the moment.  And I can highly recommend the colouring books!

Is this the best time of year to write?

I’ve always loved September.  Calm is restored everywhere as the kids go back to school (and I don’t even have them!)  Traditionally we take our summer holiday the first week of September and it’s the perfect time of year: the weather is still hot in Europe, but it’s much quieter. For the punctuation enthusiast that I am, it is the perfect full stop after the summer.

There’s also that ‘back to school’ or new term feeling to September.   I always want a new pencil case and a fresh and stylish working wardrobe.  In the legal profession where my day job is based, the courts creak to life again ready for some serious work before Christmas.  Everyone is back from foreign climes and raring to go.

And what of writing?  When the nights start to draw in in the UK, it is the perfect time to take up writing projects again after all the distractions of the summer.  Cold autumn evenings are made for settling down at my laptop with a hot drink, and the dog by my side for company.

But frustratingly, I had a hopeless case of writers’ block over the summer months.  I was full of plans for the long recess (finish that novel, get that article submitted …) but what with so much else going on in my life (moving, or still trying to, dog needing continuous treatment at the vet …) I found myself less and less motivated and when I did open a blank page ready to start writing, horror of horrors … nothing happened.

So what should we do when we are blocked?  Some say writing is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.  Others find stepping away allows the creativity to flow again.   Not being a fan of the gym, I chose the latter .  I had a small hiatus during which I read a lot instead and did countless craft projects which has long been my displacement activity. Now I’m back with a vengeance – I hope – and looking forward to some good projects in the pipeline, including the annual Festival of Romantic Fiction, run by a writer friend and always attended by some very famous, talented and inspirational novelists.

I also return to my long commute into London which, although one of the worst parts of my life, gives me a couple of uninterrupted hours a day on the train to write and therefore makes use of otherwise wasted time.

Although I know that the best way to write is just to sit down and do it regardless of season, personal life, chores at home et cetera, et cetera, I’m using the change in the season as my own ‘back to school’ for writing motivation.  Here’s hoping it works …

You Are What You Read: True or False?

As writers, we should read and read and read; everyone knows that. To be a writer you must first be a reader.  Reading and writing are Siamese twins. I could go on.  But is it OK to read light-hearted and frothy stuff or even what some would class as (ahem) downright trash?   On some days on my train commute I give silent thanks for the anonymity of my Kindle.  Nobody knows I’m not reading War and Peace when instead I’m gripped by a Penncy Vincenzi family saga!

After recently finishing the latest offering in Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, I felt like I’d scoffed a huge box of chocolates: a bit nauseous and not particularly well-nourished, but it was huge fun while it lasted.  I am also a devotee of real life story ‘my sister had a baby with our brother’ type magazines.  At the other end of the scale, wading through a very worthy tome can feel as nutritious as one of those healthy vegetable juices I whizz up in my Nutribullet (other brands are available): hard going, tasteless but oh, boy, do you feel virtuous afterwards!

Jackie Collins, Martina Cole, Take a Break magazine: I devour them all. Jackie Collins can definitely work a great plot and while her novels are of questionable intellectual merit, her sales figures (and bank balance) speak volumes.  I also love a gripping thriller, a biography and am a sucker for a self-help manual.   The Fifty Shades genre isn’t for me but I can’t bear reading snobbery and I take my hat off to those authors who make their living from erotic fiction.

The genre of chick lit is a tricky one.  Very much maligned by some as trashy, I would strongly disagree.  Romantic fiction is written and read by highly intelligent and accomplished women from all walks of life. It is great escapism, like a fizzy glass of champagne.  And who, apart from Gwyneth Paltrow, can exist on a macrobiotic diet with none of life’s pleasures such as wine or chocolate?  Give me the latest Catherine Alliott over a heavyweight economic read any day. Likewise, John Grisham and Kathy Reichs are superb authors: bleak and depressing Scandi Noir just doesn’t cut it for me.

Books can change your life.  The final nail in the coffin of motherhood for me was the brilliant “We Need To Talk About Kevin”.  Owen Jones’ “Chavs” changed my entire thinking about society and the class system and challenged everything I thought I knew.  Christopher Hitchens’ superbly scathing expose of Mother Theresa was a gripping read.  But Rowan Coleman, bestselling chick lit author, had me crying with her ‘The Memory Book’, a touching story about a woman facing early onset Alzheimer’s.  So who says chick lit is fluffy and meaningless?

Sometimes I worry about reading too much froth but I love it. It is escapism and as a member of Mensa and with numerous educational and work qualifications under my belt I don’t feel the need to prove myself by ploughing through heavyweight political stuff or some of the drier of the classics.  If that’s what you love, then I say go for it, but it’s not for me. I love Shakespeare, John Donne, TS Eliot and I’m currently reading Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which has long been on my to-read list.  But I’m interleaving this with the latest Val McDermid.

So read widely and read what the hell you like and remember: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure!

A Room With A View: where do you write?

Room With A View

Room With A View

Who wouldn’t feel inspired to write with this as a view?  I took this photo at Noel Coward’s estate, Firefly, in Jamaica.  This was the view from his writing room.  (He also had a large private income as well which can’t have hindered his writing in any way!)

So where do you write?  Where inspires you to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard?  Bestselling author Marian Keyes claims she writes in bed wearing her pyjamas.  Roald Dahl created his magical stories in an armchair in his beloved garden shed which was his writing hideaway.  Carrie Bradshaw penned her column whilst gazing out of the window of her New York apartment.  A friend wrote her first historical romance novels whilst on her commute to her day job, and now frantically writes at the kitchen table once the children are in bed.

I write on the train too, at home at the dining table, in the garden and I love writing on holiday – for me, sunlounger writing is fabulous.  When I’m relaxed and in holiday mood, the creativity just flows. However, attempts to go on writing retreats have failed dismally as I am too easily distracted.  On a writing retreat in Nice I shopped, did the museums and Old Town – and wrote not a single word.  I had more success in September 2009 when I holed up at Champneys for a weekend and produced the first three chapters of my novel – which has sadly remained a work in progress.

I guess it’s an individual thing and once again, the secret to writing success is just sitting down and doing it, wherever that is: under the duvet, at the kitchen table, on the 7.59 to London or in a study with breathtaking Caribbean views.   We are hoping to move shortly and I am going to have a room just dedicated to my writing and crafts. However, I still need to put my bum on the chair and write and not spend too much time decorating the room!

Ghostwriting – yes or no?

For the past few months I have been proud to guest write for the great Phileas Dogg website – it’s all about travelling with your dog in the UK and is written for dogs – by dogs.  I guess you could call it a form of ghostwriting.  I have to really get into the character of the narrating dog (they are, incidentally, all dogs I know well!) and decide what sort of personality that dog would have were it telling the story.  There’s the cheeky terrier cross from Essex, the aloof and beautiful Tibetan Terrier show dog and the patient German Shepherd from Northern Ireland in charge of a home with 12 cats.  It’s a great opportunity to combine my two passions – writing and dogs.

I have actually met one of the great contemporary ghostwriters through a friend.  A very modest guy, he is responsible for writing many of the official bestselling biographies on footballers, TV personalities, oligarchs and celebrities on the bookshelves today. The chances are, you’ll have read some of his work, yet you will have never heard of him and unlike his famous subjects, you will certainly never recognise him in the street.  He’s in the process of writing the biography of an incredibly famous pop star at the moment, but although I’m dying to tell, confidentiality means I can’t breathe a word!

Many writers turn up their nose at ghostwriting. It is definitely not a place for the inflated ego. There is no recognition and little glory: you won’t even be acknowledged for the hard graft that you put into that bestselling celebrity biography that is at number two in the charts. Ghostwriters are the unsung heroes of the writing world, shadowy figures that lurk in the background and take none of the credit for their work.  A friend ghostwrites a celebrity column in a women’s magazine. The celeb in question can barely string a sentence together.  So why do it?

Ghostwriting takes immense skill.  It needs a very special type of writer to get under the skin of a famous person and make them open up about all the intimate and painful details of their lives. You will need to completely gain their trust, before you tell the world their story: in building a close rapport with your subject, you will become their confidante. For those interested in human nature and the psychology of fame, unrestricted access to the private lives of the super famous and wealthy can be fascinating.  Of course, confidentiality agreements are always signed so the chances are you can never breathe a word of the really mind-blowing stuff!

Celebrity ghostwriting is, on the whole, very well paid. (The dogs I write for sadly aren’t able to keep me in the manner to which I am accustomed; it’s a labour of love.  But it does combine two of my favourite ways to spend my time!) Writing for the rich and famous is excellent bread and butter work which pays the bills and in the writing world, that is an opportunity not to be missed. In my day job I’m a legal proofreader, which enables me to spend the rest of my time pursuing my writing until such time when my writing pays for itself.  I read somewhere on Twitter that the average writer’s salary is £11,000, so another form of steady income is needed for those of us without a trust fund or wealthy partner.  As well as being lucrative, ghostwriting can also be very interesting, good for your writing portfolio and although you will likely not be acknowledged, your work may be read by millions.

Jane Wenham-Jones’ excellent Wanna Be A Writer series examines ghostwriting and its pros and cons.  My advice would be to consider it as an option. The ghostwriter I know is, as I write, likely sitting on a private jet with the pop star, or by the pool at his Caribbean home as they work on the book.  Like writing a column, ghostwriting is an avenue every writer would do well to explore.

http://www.phileasdogg.com

The Woman Who Stole My Life (or the writer’s inspiration)

IMAG0153Inspiration for my writing can spring from the weirdest of places and as a writer, you need to constantly be asking ‘what if?’

Over Christmas I ordered a personalised iPad cover.  That’s the one on the left. Instead, the one on the right arrived  – for the wrong Rebecca.   A simple mix-up, but I was immediately intrigued (after recoiling at the unforgiveable spelling of karaoke!)  Who exactly was this Other Rebecca? It felt a bit like I’d stolen her life.  What if we were to swap lives?  Gin and fish are two things I loathe and my karaoke days died along with my job as a holiday rep.  What about the mysterious Mr Webster?  Is he a partner, a man worshipped from afar or even a dog?  Is there a story there? The Other Rebecca would doubtless hate my life too. Presumably she was sent my iPad cover in error: dogs, tea, Coronation Street, writing … (it really is as boring as it looks and she probably thought: bloody hell, at least my life isn’t as bad as hers is!) We are both creative but what brand is her creativity?  Does she knit or paint or is she just creative with the truth?

There was definitely enough material here for a short story and possibly a novel. The idea of life-swap isn’t a new one but the idea of stepping into someone else’s ready made life always fascinates.  What if I tracked Other Rebecca down?  Is she really a gin-soaked, fish-eating box set fanatic extrovert?  Would we be friends or would the hackles rise on sight?  And I do really want to know who Mr Webster is. Eventually the correct iPad case was sent but the mystery lived on in my imagination.

There are so many elements of everyday life that can light of touchpaper of a writer’s inspiration.  Overheard conversations, newspaper articles, chance meetings, something on the TV.  Life is a very rich seam to be mined.  On my dreadful commute to the Day Job I often scrutinise the weary faces of my fellow travellers and wonder about their lives, hopes, regrets and secrets.  And the Day Job itself is a great source of material, soon to be a book if I can finally make 2015 the year I turn my work in progress into a physical novel rather than a rough draft.  Watch this space!

 

 

A Very Belated Happy New Year …

… even though it’s way too late now for new year greetings, but apologies for the delay in posting: I’ve been on my annual holiday. January is always much easier welcomed in with a bit of sunshine and as it’s my birthday on New Year’s Day the new year always brings the promise of fresh starts, a bit like opening a brand new notebook and anticipating the endless possibilities on each blank page. (Like many writers, I love stationery and regularly need a Paperchase fix).

Everyone’s resolutions are nearly all broken by now.  I always begin January with the same writerly resolutions: finish my book, a work in progress since 2009; pitch more articles; and care less what others think.   It was so easy to make plans from my sunbed and feel inspired and fired up, but back in the January gloom with jetlag and a mountain of laundry to do, feeling broke and depressed (and having to return to the Day Job) it’s a real struggle to recapture that optimism.

Quiet determination and sticking power are the key.  It’s a bit like exercise: writing needs to be done every day until it becomes a habit, to keep those writing muscles honed and the brain lean.  Little but often is the secret.  A friend wrote her book on her daily commute and as I have previously commented, successful writers use the magic formula of “bum on seat, fingers on keyboard” every single working day.    Similar to weight loss, there’s no quick fix, just discipline.  Knowing all this doesn’t make it any easier though, especially as my personal resolutions also involve diet and exercise!

Wish me luck as I embark upon 2015 and I wish you all a happy and productive 2015!

We all love a compliment …. don’t we?

At a Christmas party earlier this week my appearance was complimented very enthusiastically by two male acquaintances.  It transpired that one had been in the pub since lunchtime and I know the other is sight impaired.   Did this make the compliments any lesser?  “I’d take it anyway” said a friend when I told her.   In fact, earlier this year I had a small piece published in Reader’s Digest about a similar thing which happened to me years ago at a funeral. I remember a colleague of mine being distraught after her favourite skirt was admired by a woman with very bad fashion sense.  When is a compliment not a compliment?  Or could it be that some people are useless at being praised?

As a nation we are completely rubbish with accepting compliments: it’s just not British at all.  I’ve found women of my generation in particular have been raised to be self-deprecating and modest: “Oh, this old thing, I’ve had it years”.  Being thought to be conceited is horrifying. Not so with others.  The best show of blatant immodesty I have come across was in my ex, raised by an adoring Turkish mother. After we split up he sent me a photo (this was twenty years ago before technology) of himself, with these wonderful words inscribed on the back: “Look how lovely I am.  Look what big mistake you make.”  I’ve kept it for when I need a laugh.  Part of me though would just love to have one-fifth of his self-belief.

But what about having our writing complimented?  I’m thrilled when someone has enjoyed something I have written, probably because, like most writers, I put my heart and soul into my work; it is my biggest passion.    (Apologies to my husband and the dog).  Who was it who once said “Writing is easy.  You just sit at a typewriter and open a vein”?  Very true. Nothing lifts the sensitive writer’s spirits more than being told how great your latest blog or article is.  Even the biggest bestselling novelist loves a compliment, be it a tweet, a great review or seeing someone on a beach or train enjoying their novel.  I’ve never once waved away a compliment about my writing, enquired if the complimentor is under the influence of alcohol or insisted that it was “rubbish, really”.  I try to be gracious and modest whilst saving the little dance of victory for later.

To end on a lighthearted note, the muddling of the words “complimentary” and “complementary” always tickles me. I quite expect a shelf of books labelled “complimentary medicine” to spring forth and admire my new dress.  (Oh, this old thing? I just threw it on!”)

Merry Christmas to all my readers!

 

 

The Curse of Twitter

Last week at the Day Job,  I heard a new announcement being made in court.  Following the usual warning to switch off all mobile devices just before proceedings commenced, a rider was added: “Twitter is strictly forbidden in court”. Indeed, whilst recently working in Singapore I observed a notice was attached to every courtroom door banning the use of social media sites.

Twitter in particular is a very powerful and potentially dangerous tool which should come with a “Warning – Highly Flammable’ label.  I am a fairly recent tweeter, having previously declared I would “never, never, never, never” sign up, a bit in the emphatic style of the late Reverend Paisley.  (From what I remember he backed down too, but I don’t do politics on my blog so that’s another story)  But sadly, Twitter is a necessary evil for anyone trying to promote a business, and for writers it is invaluable when building an author platform, a fact I quickly learned from reading Catherine Ryan Howard’s book ‘Self Printed’.  All my favourite writers are out there on Twitter.  It’s what you have to do. Writing can be a lonely old business and being connected up to others in the same predicament provides a great feeling of solidarity when up against a deadline, hopelessly blocked or dealing with family who think you should get a ‘proper’ job.

Accurately described by a friend of a friend as ‘shouting in the dark’, Twitter has a dark side as well as being a great place to reunite lost dogs with owners, promote your latest book or just look at pictures of  adorable puppies. When I was at school, bullying took place in the playground; today there is the whole evil world of the troll.  Also, good news spreads like lightning, as does bad.   I will never forget the awful story a friend relayed of a colleague learning of her depressed husband’s suicide via a careless social media site remark; by the time the police knocked on the door to impart the news, it had been all over the internet.   Not illegal in an way of course, but for that lady and her family absolutely devastating.

Twitter is hopelessly addictive.  The fabulous Grace Dent’s book,  ‘How To Leave Twitter’, sums it up perfectly and introduced me to such delightful vocabulary as ‘twunking’ and being pursued by an ‘angry twitchfork mob’.  Neither has happened to me personally yet, the latter probably as I can’t get over my near phobia of the hated hashtag.

Having said all that, I enjoy anything that limits the public to a small and succinct amount of words rather than a long, rambling soliloquy.  I like being in touch with my two main groups of Twitter friends, writers and dog lovers. Particularly writers who have dogs, surely the best people in the world.

I’m over on @RRidgwayWriter just in case you want to tweet me.